My interest in cycling began on a trip to Europe. No, it was not the day I spent sitting outside a café in Paris sipping café au lait and watching the Tour de France riders swoop by. Instead it was while sitting outside a café in Florence sipping cappuccino (there was a lot of coffee drinking that trip), watching women commuting to work. They were cycling by in their fabulous outfits and their Prada pumps, and I decided that this was a sport I could get behind.
Citizen Bike launched just over a year and a half ago, selling foldables directly from its website with models starting at $179. "Our philosophy is affordability," says the company's president.
But biking in Europe turned out to be a whole lot easier than biking back in New York City, mostly because of the absence of storage space in my third-floor walk-up and a personal aesthetic sense that did not allow for a bike hung on the wall to count as art.
At last, a new crop of folding bicycles may be able to reunite me with my lost hobby. Considered toys or flimsy oddities just a decade ago, the latest generation of collapsibles--bikes that, thanks to a few strategic hinges and latches, can pretzel themselves down to the size of a suitcase--combines hipness and high function, not to mention the ability to fit easily into a closet. "I won't ride a standard bike anymore," says Channell Wasson of Foldabikes who has been selling folders for more than 15 years, and riding them even longer. "We call them cumbersomes."
A folding bike unfolded is readily recognizable, with its low profile and characteristically small wheels. It's those wheels that account for the greatest savings in space, but they also cause the greatest resistance from some buyers--at least the ones who take their biking very seriously. A single spin of a big wheel, after all, takes you over a lot more terrain than a single spin of a little one.
For the casual or commuting city rider to whom the bikes are pitched, however, small wheels are a plus, delivering a lower center of gravity and a stabler ride. What's more, the low profile means it's easier to hop on and off or to balance at stoplights, and the light weight makes accelerating easier. Finally, even the cleverest urban thief won't be able to pinch your ride if you can just fold it up and take it inside when you reach your destination.
All these advantages are making the bikes a hot product overseas. In Japan and Europe, they're in evidence everywhere, not just as a concession to congested urban living but also a mark of eco-chic and serious style, one even featured in Vogue.
While collapsibles still make up less than 1% of the U.S. market, sales have more than tripled in the past three years, and they are moving from a cultish niche item to a legitimate product category. "The increase in popularity is almost a problem for my business," says Wasson, who sells and rides only the British-made Brompton, a hand-built brand that weighs as little as 24 lbs. and costs from $600 to $1,110, depending on the model.
Buyers looking for a brand that offers them more price options are flocking to the current leader, Dahon. The manufacturer offers dozens of models and styles, weighing from 23 lbs. to 31 lbs., and priced from $379 to $2,000. But other companies are jumping in. Citizen Bike launched just over a year and a half ago, selling foldables directly from its website at citizenbike.com with models starting at $179. "Our philosophy is affordability," says the company's president. Bike Friday, a folding-bike manufacturer since 1991, offers a more boutique product, with custom-made bikes beginning at $995 and averaging $1,500. The company sells not price but agility and convenience, an idea it captures with a motto that all the mini-bike makers might claim: "Performance that Packs."