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Just fold it

With options for everyone, folding bicycles are going mainstream

Sunday, July 09, 2006

PHILADELPHIA — Every weekday morning, chemist Neil Mold catches a trolley near his Bryn Mawr, Pa., apartment. After hopping off at suburban Gulph Mills, he unfolds his bike and cycles the last mile or so to the GlaxoSmithKline pharmaceutical plant where he works. In the evening, he rides 5 miles all the way home.

Mold is from Scotland, where he said most of his co-workers commuted by bicycle. He's on assignment for eight months here, where just one does.

Charles Fox

Fans of the folding cycle brought their gear to the Folder Fest in Philadelphia. Events included a fold-down race.

They're all curious, though.

He folds his Brompton — rear wheel up (like airplane landing gear), front wheel over (like closing a book), pedals in, seat and handlebars down — in 15 seconds. The result is slightly bigger than an airline carry-on and under 26 pounds.

And it rides fine, as more and more people are discovering.

Considered toys just a decade ago, folding bicycles now come in sleek road, racing and touring versions with multiple wheel sizes and gear ratios, even tandems.

Sales in the United States have more than tripled in the last three years, estimated Jay Townley, an industry consultant, whose report to the National Bicycle Dealers Association in mid-June says that folding bikes have risen above niche status to a full-fledged competitive category.

Folders (as the British call them) still make up less than 1 percent of bike sales in the United States.

The potential market?

"I think it's iPod-size," said Michael McGettigan, an owner of Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia, one of the biggest folding-bike dealers on the East Coast.

As a former columnist for an alternative weekly, McGettigan, 52, is a wordsmith and advocate, and his description is intentional.

The latest models combine design and performance in machines that are hip and useful, and appeal to young city dwellers. McGettigan says about half his folder customers use the bikes to commute, grocery shop and get around town.

"They leave you more room to live in, and they help you beat bike thieves," he said. "It really clicks with students."

Younger people typically spend $350 to $500 for what he considers entry-level folders — McGettigan won't carry the cheapest models, often sold for RVs and boats — while older buyers may spend up to several thousand dollars for touring and performance versions they can take overseas.

The oddest-looking feature on most of these bikes is their small wheels. But they are considered a plus.

"They're safer," said Joy Sabl, 40, who lives in Pittsburgh and drove to Philadelphia recently with her husband with two folders and another bike.

Small wheels mean a lower center of gravity (stability), less wind resistance (speed) and more agility. Because the bike is lower, it's easier to get off fast.

Stabl's latest purchase was a heavy Katakura Silk Porta Cycle, $170 on eBay. It was billed as a World War II Japanese parachute-trooper bike.

Her husband, Pieter Maris, 40, rode a Moulton to a Philadelphia waterfront park with the Porta Cycle on the back during McGettigan's Folder Fest weekend in June.

The fourth annual festival was a chance to take bikes up the block and on the train and compete in a high-speed "fold-down" in the park — ride 50 feet, fold; walk 50 feet carrying your bike, sit and cross your legs; unfold and ride 100 feet back.

Maris was declared the victor in 35 seconds, although several people — himself included — pointed out later that he had neglected to fully collapse the old Japanese bike's handlebars and seat.

Phillip Tam of New York fully folded a British-made Brompton, placing second at 39 seconds. Bromptons are known for their ease of folding.

Every manufacturer has developed its own way to fold, from hinged in the middle to wheels up or sideways. Only one, Dahon, offers a full line of folding bikes; it controls more than half the U.S. market.

Major bike-makers Giant and Trek recently brought folders here, a clear sign that the niche has expanded. Others sell slivers, although loyalty runs deep.

Al Gilens of suburban Gladwyne, Pa., is so enamored of his Bike Friday that he came to the Folder Fest as a volunteer rep for the Eugene, Ore.-based company.

Gilens was riding short distances on a regular road bike in 2000 when he heard a testimonial to this "ingenious" folding bike. He happened to be two months away from an Alaska kayaking trip, which would end two days before a Fairbanks-to-Anchorage fundraising ride. So he bought the bike and went.

In 2003, he rode the bike in the Tour des Trees — 610 miles in eight days through Eastern Canada — to celebrate his 70th birthday.

Gilens' green stance, if not his age, fits the folder culture.

Townley, the mainstream industry consultant, thinks that urban trends, driven partly by younger generations who insist on living, working and shopping close by, are "going to change the way people buy bicycles." Folders are an obvious choice.

At Trophy Bikes, which sold seven Bromptons (plus two other folders) the week after the festival, McGettigan made similar observations.

"Every morning," he said, "I see 10 folders go by."

Unable to resist, he added: "The Hummer's dead! Long live the Brompton!"

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