Is that a folder?

"Is that a folder?" is a question I got used to being asked riding the Airnimal "Joey" around London. I'd like to think they ask because they don't think folding cycles go as fast as I ride, but perhaps it's because the bike doesn't look like you'd expect a folding bike to look.

 

gear

I'd looked at folding bikes every few years, and even ridden some of them a few miles here and there. I'd always had no hesitation in walking away though. Why would I want to ride a "shopper" bike with tiny fat wheels, a big fat saddle, sit-up-and beg bars and a three-speed hub gear? I wouldn't have minded, but most of the bikes I looked at didn't even fold particularly well. I can transport any of my road bikes easily with the flick of a couple of levers: I'd expect a folder to be at least as transportable, and they weren't.

Once upon a time British Rail provided a nice guard's van for carrying bikes, but now things have been improved beyond recognition, so they actively prevent you carrying bikes on trains between Cambridge and London, unless you work very odd hours indeed. Folding bikes, however, are allowed at any time. If you think that's stupid, British Rail is now called "One", so clearly idiocy is one of their things. I digress.

Security alerts on the tube persuaded me to take another look at folding bikes for the London commute.

 

alternatives

birdy and joey

Joey on the right, Birdy on the left. The Joey doesn't fold as small,
but look at the size of those lovely wheels!

Amongst the couple of dozen bikes in my garage is a two-year old Brompton. I dragged it out, figured out how to unfold it, pumped up the tyres, and put a few flat Cambridgeshire miles on it. It's a dog.

Bromptons weigh more than your average Brit. The gears are a joke, the running gear looks like something out of the early seventies, and did I say they're dogs? I tried to set mine up for cycling, as opposed to wobbling gently along a footpath, but it wouldn't have any of it. I can roller-blade faster than I can ride one of these, and I'm pretty sure I can lick one on a skate board too. These are simply no good for riding.

I had a look on the web and found a few more manufacturers of folding bikes. Looking at their sales pitches, they didn't seem to be aimed at cyclists. I mean people who know where to put their feet on the pedals and don't cycle on pavements. They seemed like "excercise machines" - things people bought on a whim and probably didn't use.

I needed a real bike.

airnimal

london

check out those slicks

Eventually I found some bikes made by a Cambridge company, around the corner from where I live, which were built with a different philosophy. It looked like the company might actually be run by cyclists, which is a radical idea for a Bike company.

Airnimal started off making a race bike which you could get on an Airbus. Obviously you can get a standard race bike on an Airbus, so their pitch had to be that this beast would ride as well as your standard bike, but be easier to transport. That's the Chameleon, and I didn't ride one because they're not designed to be folded up twice a day, every day. There's no point in looking at stuff which doesn't solve the problem. In any case the Chameleon has a plastic damper in the middle of it, which looks suspiciously like suspension to me. It's against my religion to use suspension on the road: I've done the slick rock trail and the Whistler bike park, so I know what suspension's for, and the road isn't it. I want my road bikes to be slop-free.

Fortunately for me Airnimal introduced another model a few months ago - the "Joey". My days watching Skippy suggest that "Joey" might have something to do with small kangaroos. Fortunately the bike isn't like a kangaroo. It's got wheels which are a bit smaller than MTB wheels (520 x 25), but these babies are narrow with lovely skinny high-pressure slicks on them. The frame's missing a cross-bar, but the down tube is hugely oversized to compensate, and there's a little triangle somewhere down near the bottom bracket. The handlebars are flat; running gear is a mixture of Shimano and SRAM stuff. Unlike live kangaroos, Joeys are blue.

I lurked outside my local dealer until no real cyclists were in sight, then ducked in guiltily to ask about the machine. To my embarrassment they suggested I took one for a spin. Two minutes later I cycled back to the shop and handed over my cash. This is a real bike even though it looks a bit like a shopper.

I didn't really like the idea of the bike's flat bars, but I was persuaded to try the machine as designed before I set about reconfiguring it. The stock gearing isn't really good for Cambridge / London use though: you could climb mountains with that bottom cog and we don't have any. I got that swapped for some close-ratio cogs. Sensibly the bike comes without pedals; I stuck some basic Shimano SPD things on there.

first week

riding

joey

waterloo bridge at 18:00 on a Tuesday

Initial impressions were that it's fast, but it rides differently from a road bike and that takes a bit of getting used to. Cornering hard feels weird at first; perhaps it's the upright riding position, or the size of the wheels, or the lack of a cross bar. Dropping the bars (see below) helped a bit. I haven't put a pedal down yet as I'm trying to be careful until I get the hang of the thing.

The lack of a cross bar really is weird. You don't think about it, but when you stop at lights it's quite common to lean the cross-bar against yourself. Well try that with the Joey and there's nothing there, so a slightly different approach is required.

Otherwise, it rides like a bike. You can honk, stamp on the pedals, throw it about a bit: it all works. I've slid the back end a few times: Parliament Square in a rain storm can be quite sporting as the hounds of hell bear down on you. The shimano "V-brake" things work fine, although the levers seem to be designed for people with longer fingers than mine.

As it rides like a bike, there's not a lot I can say about riding it which you don't already know.

The upright riding position seems to make standard bike shorts slide down... I'll have to get a bib.

folding

It has to be done twice a day, and you don't want to take too long about it if you're in the middle of a King's Cross stampede. The main joint is a pivot right below the bottom bracket. To fold the bike the process is:

joey waiting at the platform, like we all do...

joey waits for the 07:15
note the bike rests on the two frame points plus the rear wheel

  1. Release v-brake. As there's no QR on the brakes, you need to leave the front one as loose as you can get away with so it's easy to unhook the cable.
  2. Dump the front wheel. This is difficult the first time you do it as you have to file off the "lawyer lugs" which prevent the quick-release actually quick-releasing. Anyway, dump the front wheel. This can give you dirty fingers as you've got to handle the rim or the tyre. Don't let it roll away.
  3. Flick a QR by the seat post to release the back wheel section. Lift the bike up by the saddle and swing the back wheel under the bottom bracket until you can drop the front fork onto it. It's easier than it sounds and you can't do it wrongly. At this point the bike will rest on the front wheel and a couple of frame bosses. The paint on those bosses isn't destined for a long life. The Brompton has plastic bushes here, which don't look pretty, but then rust's not too cool either.
  4. Drop the seat post, again via a QR. This has the effect of locking the hinged section. There are a couple of ways you can do this depending on if you have the seat pin extended, or the tube in which it sits extended. Working on the principle that as the outer tube is larger diameter it'll be stiffer, I move that up and down. If you're in a rush or if the British Rail guys aren't watching you can stop now and the job's done.
  5. Finally there's a QR on the bottom of the handlebars. You can flip this and either spin the bars through ninety degrees, or take the whole stem and bar assembly off and chuck it onto the rest of the bike. If you're turning the bars, then go ninety degrees clockwise as the cables like it best that way.

Reassembly is the reverse process.

The tricky bits on reassembly are lining up the bars with the front wheel, and lining up the saddle with the bike. It would be nice to have a click stop here somewhere, so you could set it straight quickly. I marked the saddle line with a bit of duct tape, but I still haven't figured out how to line the handlebars up other than by eye.

The whole point about this is that the bike folds enough to fit on the train, which is all that's necessary. Sure, what's left is bigger than some other folding bikes, but that's because it's got adult-sized wheels. Using this makes me wonder what precisely those other bikes are designed for, because making them smaller than necessary sacrifices ride for no gain.

It takes longer to assemble/ disassemble a Joey than a Brompton, but not by much. You'll see Brompton people just flipping the back wheel and riding away... well that's because they already fiddled with all the other bits and pieces whilst they were on the train. It's easy to do the same thing with the Airnimal: if it's not busy I'll set up as the train slows and then just wheel my bike completely assembled straight out of the train door. If it's busy I have to do the assembly on the platform, and it takes all of about 30 seconds. If the Brompton chaps were smart enough to sit at the right end of the train then they might just wheel past me there, but it's marginal.

tweaks/ irritations

joey

room for one on One?

joey

headset and stem detail
note QR lever and top of
stem awaiting the hacksaw

The default bars are flat, and they make for a slightly upright riding position. That can make cornering excessively exciting and would presumably cause trouble in wind. You can move the bars up and down on the stem, but you then have to hacksaw the protruding bit of stem off. I set mine as low as they would go, and after a few days I chopped the excess stem off. Then I reversed the stem so it' drops instead of rises. I'm still thinking that some other bars may be necessary to get the riding position further down and forward, but I'm tweaking this a bit at a time.

I didn't look too closely at the rear mech, but it looks like a "Mount Everest" capable tractor-engine mountain-bike machine to me. Translation: it's got a big long arm so it can cope with dinner plate gears, such as favoured by mountain bike owners here in Cambridge. No, we don't have any mountains, but we've got the bicycles ready just in case any turn up. I think I'll get me something small and svelte to replace it when the transmission's worn out.

The cables look like they may take a beating with all the folding. Examining the various machines in the shop I'd guess that these are still undergoing some development. Hopefully before my warranty runs out they'll have found the best rig for the bike. I tweaked my cable runs with some tie-wraps, and all seems well now.

And of course as above, those "lawyer lugs" have to go before the thing's safe to ride. I guess the sort of bike a lawyer would be happy with wouldn't be rideable at all.

You can speed up the "alignment" process for handlebars and seat with some strategically placed tape markers. Perhaps there should be some built-in marks or even click stops, so you don't have to worry about getting everything straight when you reassemble the bike.

summary

I heard that most folding bikes are never actually folded. After riding a few of them I thought that this might well be because they are never actually ridden. The Joey's different - it's a bike which rides well, and which you can get on the train. It's a brilliant machine, and something which should have been built years ago.

Oh yes, after a week's practice I could assemble the Airnimal faster than the Brompton guys, although to be fair they may not know I'm racing...

King's Cross, 18:00

the way home's somewhere through that lot

long term update

The Kenda Koncept tyres are ok, but the rubber's kind of soft. The back one lasted about 3 months of commuting before being tread-free and somewhat exciting in the wet. I swapped those for some Panaracer Technova jobbies, which take about 30 lbs more pressure and are rather fast. Another advantage of these beasties is that although nominally the same width (25mm), they're thinner when run at 125lbs/sq inch (what quaint old fashioned units), so you can get the front wheel in and out without releasing the front brake at all.

Tubes initially were slightly hard to get hold of. They are obtainable, but generally only from the dealers who sell the bikes, and they have supply problems sometimes. I keep some spare tubes and covers ready for when I need them.

Eventually I sawed off the ends of the handlebars - they were just too wide for traffic and the arms-akimbo stance doesn't work for me at all. I'd still like a more forward/ down riding position, but bar-ends aren't for me (they're arms-akimbo again). I may try some other bars, but all that may add weight and complexity. Really I'd like some sort of one-piece track-bars. Perhaps I'll tweak all that stuff when it's time to replace the transmission.

I still get asked about the machine every few days. Often at traffic lights in the middle of some horrendous London racetrack. I try to explain as much as I can, but when the light turns green either you pedal or they'll run you down.