The Folding Society

A conventional, non folding, large wheeled bike (Thorn Audax) on the route of a Brevet Populaire, 3 July 1999

This ride was carried out as part of a series of 100km rides which were done for pleasure, but also to compare different folding and separable cycles.


A study of the route of the Double Severn BP ride to be held on 11 July showed that it was quite hilly, involving two descents to and ascents from the River Severn, and venturing in to the Clee Hills and onto Wenlock Edge. Before choosing which folding/separable bike to use for that ride, I therefore decided to carry out a recce the previous weekend. This seemed an ideal opportunity to use a conventional, non-folding, bike with 700c wheels to establish a basis for comparison with the folders being used for the other rides.

Choice of bike

My own stable has only a limited number of conventional bikes, so I was fortunate that I was able to get hold of a conventional machine specifically intended for Audax rides on which to do the recce - a Thorn Audax. The main features of the bike worthy of note for this comparison ride are that it has a lightweight frame in a variety of Reynolds tubes, 24-speed Shimano indexed gears ranging from about 25 to 105 inches (down-tube mounted changers), dropped bars, Shimano RX100 dual pivot brakes and 28mm Panaracer Pasela tyres. Mudguards are of course fitted (a requirement for most Audax events) and there are mountings for front and rear racks, so although intended for Audax and fast day rides, this is not a racing machine, and it could be used for light touring.


As with ost of the bikes I have been using for these rides, I found choice of suitable luggage for this ride something of a problem. Fitting a pannier rack and attaching bag to this seemed an overkill, and was adding too much weight, while the disadvantages of a bar bag (impeding hand movement on the bars and affecting stability) have been touched on before. Saddle bags tend to get in the way when strapped to the seat pillar, and most are quite heavy. They work better if a rack is fitted, or a special bag uplift, but these add significantly to the weight. I was helped on this occasion by fine weather and a good forecast, so at least I did not need to take additional clothing - in fact the worry was that it would be uncomfortably hot. I finally chose a very old Pakit wedge bag, with a capacity of about 4 litres. This would hold fairly easily all that I needed, and did not get in the way of the legs, though the method of attachment to the saddle results in it bending up on itself and hanging rather awkwardly. Although no longer available, a modern equivalent looks to be the Carradice Prima, though I don't know whether this too has the attachment problem.

The Thorn was well equipped with 3 set of bottle cage mountings, although I only used one. Unfortunately most of the folding and separable bikes used for the other test have been/will be less well equipped - Brompton and Birdy have none, the Moulton AM7 has one, but the Bike Fridays are also more generously equipped with three.

Getting to the start point

The Double Severn starts from Wall Heath, which I had estimated to be about 3 miles from where I live, so riding to and from the start point was quite feasible - indeed there was really no other method of getting there, whatever bike was used, so a folder would have been no advantage. The actual route involved climbing up from where I live in Dudley and then descending to Wall Heath, and the distance proved to be nearer 5 miles, which boded ill for the return after the event. The ride presented no problems, and as mentioned before, there was no practical alternative available regardless of the portability of the bike chosen (there probably are some buses, but these would involve multiple changes, and would be far more trouble than they would be worth for this distance).

The ride

The weather was fine and warm on the day of he recce, a Saturday rather than the Sunday of the real BP event. I chose to start at exactly the same time as for the real event, which served to show that the distance to the start was rather greater than I had thought, and that I should start 10 minutes earlier. As it was, I arrived at the start at 9.00 and commenced the recce ride immediately.

Although I was only recceing the ride, I intended to ride in the same style as on the real event, in particular achieving an average of 15-30 kph for the whole ride. Because the ride was expected to be fairly hilly, and the weather was quite hot, with a slight head wind at the start, I rode at a steady pace - not that I am inclined to go tearing off whatever the conditions. The unfamiliarity of the bike was also a reason for starting fairly gently, and indeed in the first few miles 3 stops were made to make minor adjustments to saddle height and handlebar angle - on a long ride any discomfort from an inappropriate riding position can become a real problem. By the end of the ride I was to conclude that I should probably have raised the bars another half to one inch.

The first stop on the official ride was designated as being at Ditton Priors, after 40km. Before that, though, there was a steady gentle ascent towards the Severn, followed by a short, steep descent at Arley to cross the river by a footbridge. There were also a couple of rather discouraging short steep descents and ascents in between. After crossing the river, the ascent on the other side, by the Severn Valley Railway's station had to be undertaken, to the background accompaniment of people playing soldiers and firing off guns (blanks I hope) very noisily. This ascent was fairly testing, and I made some use of the 25 inch bottom gear - I think I could have got up in the next gear without too much trouble, but I was anxious to conserve my energy for later in the day.

From there the ride continued towards Cleobury Mortimer, before cutting across country to Cleobury North and Ditton Priors, continuing a generally gradual descent after the initial steep pull up from Arley. In these test reports I am concentrating on the cycling and the cycles, but I really must add that this was a very attractive route, almost entirely on country lanes, with little traffic and absolutely wonderful views. I'm quite familiar with is area, so I tend to take it for granted, but this was certainly the most attractive of the BP tests rides I have done so far from the point of view of scenery.

At Ditton Priors there was of course no control point on this recce, and it appeared it was being set up in a car park. However, almost immediately opposite was a small but well stocked mini supermarket, and I took the opportunity to buy snacks and a bottle of flavoured water. In most conditions I find I need to drink very little while cycling, but this in some ways make very hot days like this a particular problem, because it's easy to forget to drink more. As is often the case in these, I didn't drink enough early on and this took its toll later.

After a 15 minute break at Ditton Priors, I resumed my ride, with more glorious vies as I generally descended for the next few miles before beginning to ascend again onto Wenlock Edge. No sooner, it seemed, had I got up onto the Edge before I was descending again into Much Wenlock. As this was a Saturday, the town was quite busy, and I did not spot the Control Point, but as I was only recceing the route this did not matter, and in view of the traffic and shoppers there did not seem much point in going back to look for it. Some pleasant B roads followed, undulating fairly gently, as the route headed over to Broseley, and then a steepish descent to Coaport where the Severn was recrossed via the elderly bridge (only one vehicle allowed on the bridge at a time). Now came the stretch which I had been dreading - the steep ascent out of Coalport. This was probably no worse than the one at Arley, but this one I was familiar with, while the Arley one had been new to me. Again bottom gear was engaged, and by this stage of the journey I was glad of it, though again I might have managed with a slightly higher gear if there had been no other choice. From here the route was becoming very familiar, as it was into lanes I use almost every week. At this stage, although the country was beautiful and the weather fine, I was becoming a little bored with following a prescribed route just for the sake of it, and the ride into Cosford and Albrighton did not appeal particularly, so I decided that as I had done about 70% of the official route I would go my own way from then on - after all, this was a pleasure ride recceing the route, so there was no reason not to enjoy myself, and nothing to be gained by religeously following the route of the official ride the following weekend. By doing this I could also avoid the tedious ascent from Wall heat to Dudley on busy roads at the end. My alternative route was actually scarcely any shorter, but was more interesting, and involved a few miles on a towpath into Wolverhampton, where, in true folder spirit I boarded a train for a 5 mile journey to Tipton before cycling the final mile and a half back to Dudley - yes, the local trains have no restrictions on cycles, so this presented no problems even with a conventional large wheeled non-folding bike.

At the end of the ride I felt quite tired, although not exhausted, after covering 76 fairly hilly miles on quite a hot day. Despite the towpath excursion, my average speed was still well within the limits set for the official ride.


This was a most enjoyable route from the point of view of the quiet roads and the superb countryside, although the heat and the hills made it fairly tiring. As this is a different ride from any I had yet done in this series of tests, it is not easy to make definitive comparisons regarding the performance of the conventional bike used on this occasion with the folders. I think it is fair to say that the excellent range of gears of this conventional bike made the ride easier - most folders and separables tend to have more limited gearing options due to the combination of wheel size and folding processes. The dual pivot brakes on 700c wheels were also both very progressive and powerful, avoiding the viciousness of many V-brakes and excessive effort of callipers as usually found on folders and separables. Small wheels also tend to mean less choice of tyres than in this standard 700c size, and the 28mm Panaracer Paselas were very free running on the roads, although a bit twitchy where dirt had been washed onto the roads by very heavy overnight rain. They also handled the towpath quite well. Although this bike had no suspension, the larger wheels made it quite comfortable, and although not quite up to Moulton or Birdy standards, ride comfort was quite satisfactory. Choosing a suitable method of carrying luggage was again a problem, though the old Pakit bag was reasonably satisfactory, though if I had needed to carry more clothing due to different weather conditions, I would have needed something larger.

The Thorn is certainly a good bike for this type of ride, which after all it was designed for. From the riding point of view it outperformed the Rocket and Birdy used on the previous tests, although in the case of the Rocket the difference is really quite small and related manly to the more limited gearing and rather harsh ride. Of course in portability terms the Thorn does not have the advantages of the folders (although it is worth remembering that St John Street Cycles, who make the Thorn, can supply it with S&S couplings which, at a rather high price, allow the bike to separated).

At this time I still have not completed my test program, but the indications are that for these longer and faster rides suitable conventional bikes do have the edge in performance, as one would expect. However, the margin is quite small when compared with the highest performance folders like Bike Fridays. From the portability point of view, the folders and separables easily beat a conventional bike, although to keep this in perspective it should be noted that the conventional bike was actually taken on a train without any problems during this test report.

And on that vexed question of whether big wheels are better than small, I think the answer is that we do have a disadvantage with smaller wheels, but this is largely due to the limitations of choice/availability of components - gears and tyres in particular - that the unusual wheel size imposes, not the wheel size itself.

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Last updated: 11 July 1999