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Vagabond Journey

My Experience Traveling On A Folding Bicycle

Why a folding bicycle is the ultimate vagabonding machine.

The wheels of a bicycle and the human mind perhaps rotate to the same beat. Mental and physical stimulation is perhaps the lure that keeps people moving forward. The human mind can handle many things, but boredom is not one of them. I don’t know of anybody who has ever gotten bored while riding a bicycle. The pace of a bicycle and the pace of thought flow in tandem: internal dialogue, impressions, memories, and wheels spin together in unison.

The bicycle is the perfect travel machine. It is fast enough to cover long distances, slow enough to really experience the journey, light enough to carry, and versatile enough to go just about anywhere.

But buses, trains, subways, and taxis are pretty cool too.

Dahon folding bicycle

Dahon folding bicycle

In point, when moving through this world each form of transportation has it’s place. I want to be able to have access to whatever form of transportation I feel would be best in whatever situation I find myself in. I want to be able to smoothly transition from a bicycle to a train to a bus and back to a bicycle.

The problem here is that if you commit to riding a bicycle it is a . . . commitment. It is often a hassle (of varying degrees), not possible, or an additional expense to take other forms of transportation with a big ol’ bicycle as luggage.

My biggest qualm about long distance bicycle travel was always that I felt tied to my bike, that I automatically forfeited the option of easily jumping on a bus, a train, or hitchhike when I got the urge to get somewhere a little quicker — or even when I just wanted to mix up the travel routine a little.

Then I began experimenting with folding bicycles around a year and a half ago.

Problem solved.

It folds up and can be easily carried

It folds up and can be easily carried

The folding bike that I began using was made by Dahon. I don’t know the model or make, but it has 20″ wheels and, beyond the knobby tires, is more or less a standard Chinese folding bike. I paid around $150 for it.

I’ve since ridden this bicycle all over China: Inner Mongolia, Henan, Heilongjiang, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Jiangsu, Anhui.

When I felt like riding between places, I rode; when I felt like taking a bus or train, I folded the bicycle up, stowed it like luggage, and rode. The versatility this type of bicycle gave me was unparalleled by any other independently operated travel vehicle I’ve ever used.

I would have to say that the folding bicycle comes close to being the ultimate vagabonding machine. Many travelers have rode these bikes on far more extensive journeys than my own:

Heinz Stucke, the German guy who’s been riding a bicycle for the past 52 years through every country in the world now uses a folding bicycle. If the world’s most traveled bicyclist is using this kind of bike, they must offer some pretty big advantages.

In the words of The man who wanted to see it all, Heinz Stucke:

In June, 2004, I acquired a Folding Bike 7-Speed Pocket Lama. I needed a folding bike that could be put in small planes or ships, to reach remote territories. Till then, I have been able to travel with my bike (train, ships,…) for no extra cost, but around 2004, airlines started charging for bikes and the day that I was asked to pay 500 pounds in London to put my bicycle on a plane, I thought: ” It is enough, I have to find a solution.”

In September 2009, Brompton, the English bicycle company, gave me one of its folding bicycles, an M6R six-speed Brompton. I want to set the record for travelling to the most places in the world and, and hope to obtain the Guinness World Record, which will certify me as the first person who has been in all the countries of the world. Undoubtedly, thanks to this bicycle that I can fold totally and guard discreetly in any small place, I hope I will be able to reach the most remote and inaccessible places.

Besides versatility and portability, there is another advantage of using some types of folding bicycles:

The cross bar sits down low in the frame, and you can stack your gear on top of it (watch the video below).

I discovered this almost by accident when I was doing an 80km dirge through Yangtze River factory-landia some time back. I was over 5 hours into this ride, had broken one pedal clean off and the other was screwed up. It wasn’t going well and I wasn’t in the mood for having my backpack pulling on the muscles in my back, emitting a continuous hum of low-level pain. In almost a fury, I flung the pack off my back, wrapped it’s straps around the handle bars (which, on a folding bicycle is a simple T-shaped contraption) and tied it on.

It worked. The bottom of the bag sat on the frame and the straps over the handlebars held it there.

Folding bicycle stored on a train

Folding bicycle stored on a train

This immediately became my default manner of hauling gear with this bike: no panniers, no gear rack, I just pile up my baggage on the frame between my legs and tie it there. This puts the weight of my gear on the bicycle between the two wheels, which keeps everything balanced — which has stark performance advantages.

In point, one of the things that have always stuck in my craw about using conventional bicycles with panniers was that the rear of the bike was invariably way heavier than the front. Add to this the fact that most of my was also distributed on the back wheel and I’ve always been left with very unbalanced machines. One time in Iceland this lack of equitable weight distribution actually bent the rear rim.

But I have no worry about weight distribution on a folding bicycle, as the cross bar sits down so low that I can pile the gear on top of it. I’ve never had a need to do this yet, but I imagine that I could build some kind of detachable gear carrying shelf over this center area to increase it’s carrying capacity.

Besides versatility, portability, and gear carrying capabilities there is another advantage of the folding bicycle:

They are generally built so that you sit on them in a more vertical, upright manner — so you don’t have to ride them all hunched over, sitting on your inner-dick. I won’t go into the effects that riding a standard bicycle with a standard seat can have on this part of a dude’s body, but it’s something that you invariably start to think about at some point on a long bicycle journey.

When sitting on a folding bicycle, your back can be positioned at more of an upright, 90 degree angle to the cross bar, which allows you to sit back a little more with your weight on your tailbone — sparing your man tube.

For women? Well, I’m not so sure here, but I think the same principle may apply:

In women, Dr. Goldstein said, the same arteries and nerves engorge the clitoris during sexual intercourse. Women cyclists have not been studied as much, he added, but they probably suffer the same injuries.

Basically, this is a unisex phenomenon and the causes and effects are the same:

Because low handlebars force you to lean forward, increasing the tilt of your pelvis and putting more pressure on the genitals, it is a dangerous position to ride in, albeit more aerodynamic. Overall conclusion: Low handlebars “yield detrimental effects to the female pelvic floor,” but higher handlebars may increase the riders’ wind resistance and reduce their speed.

If you crush the stuff of your genitals for long periods of time that shit will start to falter. If you’re riding a bicycle over a long distance — i.e. the world — you’re going to be doing incredible amounts of time in the saddle. What you’re actually sitting on is worth consideration.

In point, folding bicycles tend to have handlebars that are positioned up higher relative to seat height than a standard bike, thus eliminating the need to hunch forward and crush your junk.

Though this upright position will impact performance.

Folding bicycle on a train

Folding bicycle on a train

Which brings me to one of the biggest questions concerning folding bicycles:

How do they perform?

I’ll be clear here: they don’t perform as well as standard road or mountain bike. First of all, folding bicycles are made to be compact, and they just don’t have the same amount of gears. It is my impression that the typical folding bicycle generally has a max of six or seven speeds. Beyond this, with the smaller size wheels the gear ratio just isn’t the same and you truly get less distance per pedal.

But this being said, the difference isn’t that observable. Really, these little bikes truly move, and after you’ve been riding one for a while the slight issue regarding performance seems irrelevant when weighed against the advantages.

In the end, I make the same distance per day on a folding bicycle as I’ve always had on a standard road or mountain bike. In all my bicycle travels, I’ve generally go between 60 and 100 kilometers per day. This is no different with the folding bicycle.

Add to this the fact that I’ve been using the folding bike as something to travel locally on after getting off a long distance train or bus rather than a machine I ride over thousands of kilometers, and performance truly becomes a scarcely pertinent issue.

The bicycle that I’ve been using has 20″ wheels. Folding bikes also come with 16″ wheels. I would like to test out one of the smaller varieties to see if they perform well enough, as this would noticeably decrease the size and weight of the machine, which would therefore increase portability.

I’m using a cheap-o Dahon folding bike that has a heavy duty frame and is probably about 50% heavier than it needs to be. This is clearly not the ultimate vagabonding machine. For years and years I’ve been looking for a travel vehicle that could win this title, and three competitors have risen: Brompton, BikeFriday, and Strida.

All three are manufacturers of high end folding bicycles, and all three have proved themselves worthy for long distance, around the world travel. The issue, of course, is that they’re all far to expensive for this traveling blogger.

Filed under: Bicycle Travel, Travel Gear, Travel Vehicles

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 87 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to Forbes, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3345 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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Wade Shepard is currently in: Prague, Czech RepublicMap