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Fold Up Bicycle for Travel?

The biggest downside to long distance bicycle travel is that once you set out on a bike you are committed to riding a bike. Sometimes possible to put a bike on a train or bus, but it’s always a hassle that is often not worth doing — especially when you’re in places where you have [...]

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The biggest downside to long distance bicycle travel is that once you set out on a bike you are committed to riding a bike. Sometimes possible to put a bike on a train or bus, but it’s always a hassle that is often not worth doing — especially when you’re in places where you have to pay extra to cart a bike on public transport.

I am looking for the Ultimate Vagabonding Machine. I want a self-powered vehicle that I can fold up, stuff into a rucksack, and carry if I choose to hike up a mountain, that I can store in the overhead bin on buses and trains, that I can pack easily into a car if I decide to hitchhike, that I can take into my hotel rooms and shove into a corner. I want to be able to jump off a bus or train, fold out my vagabonding machine, and go without bothering with taxis or city buses. I want the best of both worlds: a bicycle that I can travel on when I wish and fold up and carry when I don’t.

One possible solution is a fold-up bicycle.

These weird looking little bikes look silly, but they are incredibly common commuter vehicles in East Asia. They are everywhere in Japan, and the same goes for China. Many people use these miniature bicycles as their main means of transportation, and the reasons why are clear: they do the job, they are versatile, and they are small enough to be taken just about anywhere.

Backpack bicycle

This is what I want to do

I want one of these fold-out bicycles for long distance travel, a usage they are not really intended for. To be honest, I know these bikes perform well in urban areas but I have no idea how they will handle out in the countryside on 10 hour long dirges. The fact that some of these fold-up bikes are five speeds hint to me that it could be possible to use them for vagabonding, but I know that I will not know the answer to this question until I try it.

The biggest problem with using a fold-up bike as a vagabonding solution is that the wheels on them are incredibly small — typically under 20 inches. This means a heck of a lot more pedaling to get to where I want to go. Another issue is that I can only shake my head when I think about how well they will perform on inclines when going up hills and through mountains. I’m not hopeful that these little beast will do very well on a 30 degree slope going uphill.

On the upside these bike are super light weight and if the going gets too tough I can always just fold it up, stick out my thumb, and hitch a ride. These bikes allow for transportation alternatives, and this is something I want when moving through a country. Vagabond travel is anything but a race, so speed and efficiency mean virtually nothing to me. What I want is the freedom of having my own means of self-propelled transportation with the option of cashing it in for the speed and comfort of a train, bus, or car.

Fold-up bicycles in China

I’m looking into testing out a fold-up bicycle while in China. A decent one sells for around $250. I could land one for half this price, but cheap in this country is all too often cheap. The biggest problem here is that I’m broke, so it looks like I’ll continue on my walking trips through China until I can come up with the excess cash to up my transportation methods a notch or two.

Filed under: Bicycle Travel, China

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3632 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York

14 comments… add one

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  • Jack July 24, 2012, 7:50 am

    I got my wife a 20 inch fold up bike before she got pregnant but she isn’t riding so I have taken to riding it around the city and even a little outside the city. It’s a Gogobike folding bike and cost me a little less than $200. I am a big guy and I overload it, but there hasn’t been any problem with it so far with riding it.

    It’s light enough(10 kilos) to take it up and down 6 flights of stairs without difficulty. I wouldn’t like trekking it up a mountain, but it’d be doable. The one about it’s weight I like it is how it feels riding it. It feels light, snappy and quick.

    About the more pedaling because of smaller wheels: Folding bikes are geared differently and the gearing compensates for the smaller wheels so that there isn’t more pedaling. I’ve noticed that the top speed on them doesn’t seem as high as a full size bike though.

    About inclines on a folding bike: At my weight, uphill can feel tough and I go into the granny gears. I believe that with a steep enough of a hill, I’d be walking up with my bike, but I’d probably be doing the same on a full size.

    Comfortability: A folding bike gives you a sitting position and for me, it’s a more leisurely and comfortable position.

    Gear Capacity: Arguably, you can stick more gear on a folding bike than you can a full size bike. A small guy like you could take all your gear on it without putting as much weight on it as I put on mine. If you need an excuse to get one other than a perfect vagabond vehicle then think of this: Visit a bike ship and think of how you could use it for a luggage cart.

    I’m so impressed with my wife’s bike that I’ll pick one up in the spring for me.

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    • Wade Shepard July 24, 2012, 7:57 pm

      This pretty much answers many of my concerns — especially about the gear ratio! Excellent. Thanks.

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  • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell July 24, 2012, 12:51 pm

    Could be the go … what’s the weight – really just 10kg? Am thinking about the need for a “vehicle” across the world. Would be nice to have this as an option within backpack

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    • Wade Shepard July 24, 2012, 7:55 pm

      Yes, I think if we could rig up a good harness/ backpack system to carrying these bikes they could be a go. Maybe a fold out bike world tour is in order? I’m sort of wondering now about how much maintenance they would need after being folded up/ folded out a hundred or so times.

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      • the candy trail ... | Michael Robert Powell July 29, 2012, 11:22 pm

        A world tour could be a laugh. If they break down, probably easy to get another posted out @ 10 kg, an easy parcel, or there’s always a return to hitching … a bus, train, etc.

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        • Wade Shepard July 30, 2012, 7:45 pm

          Right on! Seems like a lot of other people are already using these bikes for perpetual travel, including Heinz Stucke, the Germand guy who’s been traveling by bicycle for something like 46 years.

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  • Nick July 24, 2012, 4:48 pm

    You should look at Bike Friday.They are hand made in the USA and have been used on many R. T.W trips and expeditions. Probably the best there is.

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    • Wade Shepard July 24, 2012, 7:51 pm

      These Black Friday bikes look pretty cool, but I’m in China now and they are super expensive. Also, their root design is not that much different than the fold-up bikes in China. I actually think I can take many of the Black Friday adaptions and add them to a standard China fold-up myself. Thanks for sharing this.

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  • alf July 25, 2012, 2:09 am

    I lurk the internet constantly for transportation alternatives. What first brought me to Vagabond Journey months ago was your information on that, your articles on the bike you bought Czech Republic(?).

    In my train of thought I always end up discarding large bicycles because I would be unable to switch to other kind of transport easily. Kick scooters, rollerblades or skateboards would be unthinkable with a large backpack like mine. The folding bikes seem to be in that sweet spot in between.

    I have seen other travelers on Dahon bikes or others, but I still feel 20 inches are a bit cumbersome for the bus bay or under the seat in the train.

    16 inches seems right on portability for me, and people are touring around the world in it. The road gets too bumpy or inclined for your small tires? Get down and push/drag it like a cart, or climb the next bus, train or hitchhike.

    On 16 inches the options are fewer. I lean towards the Brompton, but they are expensive. A couple of travelers and bloggers dished about $2000 for theirs (they went for the top options, which for touring on that size of wheels on the long term, seems solid thinking, if you have that kind of money). http://pathlesspedaled.com/2011/07/one-month-of-loaded-touring/

    http://www.brompton.co.uk/journeys/item/?p=8853

    There is also this guy on a Strida (a fixed gear, solid wheels, weird looking even for a folding bike): http://savedbybikes.com/blog/tag/strida/

    So, it seems doable, the gearing issues seem minimal, the advantages are clear, but the price tag for a quality product is at least as high as on regular bikes. I am still on the fence, but I know I will regret not doing it earlier when I finally buy me one. Maybe I will start with a cheap one, and see how long it lasts.

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    • Wade Shepard July 25, 2012, 4:39 am

      Yes, I think this is a right on perspective. I’m going to try the cheap $200 or so Chinese models to test it out, take some notes, then I’ll return to the USA for a while and meet with some bicycle makers that I know and finally make the Ultimate Vagabonding Machine. Any input from your research and experience with fold-out bicycles would be much appreciated. Feel free to contact me via email. Thanks for these tips in the comments.

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  • G-Man July 25, 2012, 5:55 am

    It’s worth trying out a ‘blag’ on this, surely?
    It’s gotta be worth firing off a few emails to the marketing departments of all the major brands to see if they will donate or sponsor their brand of bike to you in return for a testing and/or review?
    Just a thought….

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    • Wade Shepard July 26, 2012, 4:43 am

      Sure, I could probably get something arranged. Will try it. Thanks.

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  • James November 12, 2012, 1:03 am

    If i haven’t misread anything. FYI, 20 inches do not need more pedalling. It’s the same as normal 24 inches.

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    • Wade Shepard November 12, 2012, 7:04 am

      Sort of true. It’s about the gear ratio, and the mini-folding bikes are calibrated pretty well. But, as they’re usually 5 or 6 speeds, don’t have the same amount of high gears as most mountain or road bikes do.

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