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Parker Snowe used to ride the train into town, then hoof it to his office. "But I got tired of walking 1 1/2 miles," he says. So a year ago the director of the Wharton School's international programs found the perfect solution: a folding bike. Now, Snowe, 48, pedals 2 1/2 miles from his home to the Media (Pa.) train station, folds the bike, and carries it onto the train. In Philadelphia he unfolds it, zips to work, and parks it in his office. "It's easy to carry, a lot of fun, and a great conversation piece, " he adds.
Once ridden only by hard-core enthusiasts, these typically small-wheeled, hinged bicycles are becoming more mainstream. Dahon, based in Duarte, Calif., dominates the market with more than a two-thirds share. It sold 285,000 bikes around the world last year, up 25% from 2004. And sales in the U.S. are expected to climb 50% this year. Why? More people are discovering how handy these contraptions are.
Vienna (Va.) bike shop owner John Brunow became a fan on September 11. With the Pentagon burning and roads gridlocked, he thought he might have to ride a tandem into D.C. to get his wife home from her job. That wasn't necessary, but he got her a folding bike to keep in her office just in case. He also began to stock them. Now, folders have become 25% of his business, though most buyers don't come in looking for them. One big group of customers: suburban moms. They put one in the trunk and take it for a ride while waiting for the kids to complete their activities.
When he was doing trade shows in Europe, Seattle-based David Black liked the convenience of the German-designed Birdy folder so much he signed on to become its U.S. distributor. Now, "I wouldn't be caught dead without it," he says. Folders are popular among airline pilots, RV and boat owners, and executives who don't want to miss any training days when they're on the road.
Even so, folding bicycles still meet with skepticism. Aren't they slow, rickety, and silly-looking, people ask. As a Washington-based bike commuter who rides 5,000 miles a year, I figured I'd be a good judge.
I couldn't test all the models available. There are scores of them in all price ranges. So I gathered four for an extended test. I rode them from home to BusinessWeek's offices in D.C. (a 20-mile round-trip), carried them into restaurants, stashed them in car trunks, brought them on the Metro, and used them on longer, hilly rides. I also tried Dahon's best-selling Speed D7 and a British Brompton.
The good news is how capable all of these bikes are. Their small wheels actually make the folders nimbler and quicker to accelerate than regular bikes -- just the thing for slipping through traffic. And I was surprised by how often onlookers said: "Cool bike!"
Each model did different things well. So choose carefully; pick the brand and model that suits you best. Here's my guide:SMALLEST, CLEVEREST FOLD The Brompton. This British bike compacts into an amazing 22-in. x 23-in. x 11-in. bundle, making it the easiest to put in a trunk or take on the train. "It's a bike when you want it and a parcel when you don't," says Mike McGettigan, owner of Trophy Bikes in Philadelphia. The roughly $900 P3L model I tested is ideal for short urban commutes and errands. But the 26-lb. bike has only three gears. (There are also two- and six-speed versions.) I wouldn't want it for a 50-mile jaunt.SMOOTHEST RIDE The Birdy. Its suspension smoothes out bumps, and when folded it's only a bit bigger than the Brompton. It weighs 25 lbs., and the bike is strong and stable. Cost: $1,250.MOST LIKE A "REAL" BIKE The Xootr Swift. With an aluminum frame, high-pressure tires, and a geometry similar to a full-size bike's, the 24-lb. Xootr requires no compromise in performance. It's the most stable and the easiest to ride no-hands, making it the best in this group for long, comfortable rides. Quick to fold and easy to carry, it's a good value at $679. The downside? When folded, it's more than twice the size of the Brompton.FASTEST The Dahon Speed Pro TT. I took a perverse pleasure in humbling Lance Armstrong wannabes with this flashy orange and black, 25-lb., $1,199 speedster. It has narrow tires, a racing saddle, and handlebars that allow a more aerodynamic position. But while it's a delight on smooth pavement, even a vibration-damping front hub didn't prevent the bike from jarring my bones on bumpy roads.BEST VALUE The Dahon Speed D7. At $330 and 27 lbs., it does all things fairly well, from urban errands to an occasional longer ride. And it comes with practical features such as fenders and a rack. You can also pay more to get an upgraded version, the 25-lb., $599 Dahon-built Breezer Zag8. It comes with more gears, better tires, and the most comfortable handlebar grips of the bunch.
Folding bicycles can be addictive. It was liberating to know I could hop on the Metro or hail a cab if the weather turned bad, or stop at a restaurant. "These things are so good," says Dr. Phil Fleming, an OB/GYN who likes folders so much he opened a store last year in Santa Fe, N.M., to sell them. "Why have anything else?" I wouldn't go that far. But I'm tempted to add a folder to my collection. By John Carey