The Folding Society

Using folders for longer rides

The Airnimal Chameleon on the Catherine de Barnes 111Km, 4 July 2004

This is the fifth of a series of tests of folding and separable cycles on longer rides in 2004 - see the introductory page for more background information.


There has been rather a gap between the last of these rides I did and this one, due both to a (non-cycling) holiday in Scotland and an absence of suitable events to take part in. The start point was on the outskirts of Solihull, not far from the NEC, covering some of the same general area as the Heart of England ride I did last, but with a different route. Had the ride been on a Saturday rather than a Sunday, I would have been able to get to the start and finish by train, but unfortunately I had to use the car as there were no trains available to get me to the start for 9:30am.

Planning and preparation

After the slightly disappointing experience of the last ride, I decided to use a bike which should, on paper, be idea for this sort of event - the Airnimal Chameleon. I've owned one before in the past, and very much enjoyed it - you will find both a special interest section and some test reports elsewhere on our web pages. I only disposed of that Airnimal because I felt at the time that I had too many bikes of that general character, and I needed to rationalise the collection; I chose to keep the New Series Moulton as my fast road bike, but when that was stolen, it left rather a gap. The Airnimal I had previously was a fairly early example, so it was interesting to be able to try one of the latest models. In fact, there aren't really any very obvious changes in the basic design. 

The Airnimal Chameleon is probably more usually seen, in the flesh and in pictures, with low dropped bars, but as this picture shows, it works perfectly well with flat bars and a much more upright riding position. Appearance is a subjective topic, but I think it looks quite smart, although I think that black looks better with the red colour, and the polished stem, brake levers etc detract a little.

The Airnimal comes in two basic frame sizes, differing only in length (I think). Naturally the short one was more appropriate to me. Other variations in size to suit individual riders are catered for by different seatpost lengths, stem heights and extensions, and this means that an Airnimal can be configured to suit almost anyone. The model I used for this ride was described as being based on Shimano 105 components, although the brakes were actually Ultegra, the rear gear mech was labelled Deore and the front mech was Tiagra! This is quite a sporting bike: although it is also available in various other configurations, it is primarily a fast road bike which can be folded, the folding being a bonus rather than the most important feature of the bike. As the literature makes clear, it does not pretend to be a compact folder for commuting, and its strengths lie in other areas. With a triple chain ring (52, 42, 30), 11-34 Shimano Megarange rear cluster (on my bike) and 24 inch (520) wheels, it has a fairly high top gear for a bike with wheels smaller than the conventional road bike, but can also offer some really low ratios. In this particular configuration, the overall range is 19.9 inches to 106.4 inches. The wheels are not so obviously smaller than standard size than is the case with most folders - they are substantially larger diameter than the common 20 inch 406 wheel. The size may be rather unusual, but in fact the range of tyres available is quite good, and in particular there are several narrow, high pressure high performance tyres available in this size. My bike was fitted with the standard Kena Koncept - 1 inch wide, 90psi and, as I know from the earlier Airnimal I had, a good road performer. There is a slightly wider Panaracer available which might be more suitable for touring, or winter riding on roads, and the semi-knobbly Specialized Spanky givce an option some off-road riding. The other tyres available are all more in the Kenda/Panaracer mode - good for fast road riding.

The bike arrived shortly after my holiday in Scotland, so there was not a great deal of time to set it up and ride it before this event. Probably most Airnimals are supplied with dropped bars (my previous one was), and I did seriously consider this, but in the end I chose to go with flat bars, bar-end extensions and quite a tall stem - with age I find the more upright riding position more comfortable for the back and, more particularly, the neck. On the subject of comfort, the Airnimal has rear suspension, based on the usual arrangement of an elastomer in compression - I opted for the softest of the elastomers, which is still quite firm for someone of my weight. At the front there is no suspension, but the standard carbon fibre forks give some resilience, and of course the larger diameter of the wheels compared with most folders helps significantly as well. I didn't try the standard saddle supplied with the bike, fitting instead a Brooks B17 titanium instead - I find them slightly hard initially, and so loosen the tensioning screw a fraction, as well as treating them with Proofhide.

I fitted mudguards as soon as the bike arrived - these had been ordered with the bike, but weren't actually fitted. After a considerable time fiddling to fit them, I can understand why Airnimal prefer not to do it themselves! One gets the definite impression that these mudguards are actually intended for 700C wheels, as they don't follow the curve of the tyre very well, and the stays are too long. It is also not all that clear where the front of the rear mudguard should be mounted - I hope I picked the right place (no bolt was supplied for fixing it here, but I found a suitable one in my collection in bits and pieces. The bike is painted (or perhaps powder coated) after the mudguard mounting (and other) holes are tapped, so fitting the screws requires some care to avoid cross-threading.

Although the bike comes with a saddle, no pedals are supplied, this being left to the personal choice of the owner. I don't have any quarrel with this as I think it is quite sensible, though the logic for saying that pedals are bound to be personal choice, but that it is worth supplying a saddle, for which the same argument must surely apply, rather escapes me.

Once these bits had been fitted, it just remained to fit a Carradice SQR block on the seatpost, adjust the handlebar and saddle height, fir a computer and map  holder mount, and the bike was ready for use.

Prior to the event my testing was limited to one ride of about 70Km and a couple of  spins around the block. On the basis of this, I decided to lower the bars a fraction before the bike went into the car for the journey to this event - a decision which was to have unforeseen and unfortunate consequences due to my incompetence, as we shall see later.

The Airnimal website shows a picture of  one of the bikes in the back of a Smart, but it is rather a small picture, so details are not clear. I asked Richard Loke of Airnimal about how well the bike fitted in the Smart, and he thought it might be necessary to remove the back wheel to get it in. Actually this was not necessary. The basic first fold of the Airnimal involves removing the front wheel, turning the handlebars and forks through 180 degrees, unclipping the catch on the rear triangle and swinging the rear triangle under the bike, so that the back wheel goes into the space vacated by the front wheel (turning the bars/forks around means the mudguard is not in the way). The seat post can then be removed and the seat tube folds down. Positioning the forks around the rear derailleur mech is slightly awkward, but other wise it is not a complex process, though one has a separate front wheel to carry, and of course in poor weather the removal and carriage of the front wheel can be a messy business. The folded bike does not latch together in any way, but is not difficult to lift and put in the car.  Before putting the bike in the car, I folded right down the luggage compartment separator - with that out of the way, the Airnimal fitted very easily in every dimension, with only the handlebars being a bit of a problem. I opted to move the passenger seat right forward, and very slightly incline the back, which solved the problem. However, the design of the bike also allows for removing the stem, or just removing the bars from the stem (the stem is one in which the bars are secured by a plate with two fixing bolts, so the entire bar assembly can be removed very easily to make the bike more compact for transport, or of course to allow fitting of a different stem if required, without having to take everything off one end of the bars.

The Airnimal passed the Smart test without any trouble - only the handlebars made for a tight fit, although these can be removed fairly easily if required.

A soft bag is available for carrying the bike in the first-fold form - I didn't use it on this occasion. There are also various other options for compressing the bike into a smaller form, particularly for travel by air. I've never explored these - it's nice to have the option available, but getting the bike down to this size is a much more time-consuming and complex process, and you have to get it and the luggage to the airport in the first place, and then work out what to do with the luggage at the other end when the bike is unpacked.

I had a rear carrier available for the bike, but for this ride I chose instead to use the Carradice SQR Trax bag - an ideal size, easily fitted and removed, but with the slight drawback of all Carradice bags - superbly made, but rather heavy. The Trax version of this bag is about 4 ounces lighter than the prototype of the Touring version of the bag I have used in the past. For touring the rear carrier is very substantial, and I successfully used the Airnimal in this mode, with a saddlebag as well, on one of my Scottish trips (train, not car, assisted) some years ago. If you need front panniers as well, there is no means of fixing them to the usual carbon fibre front forks, but alternative aluminium forks are available which allow fitting of panniers, and probably make fitting the front mudguard easier as well (P-clips need to be clamped around the end of the forks for this purpose with the CF forks). I haven't tried the aluminium forks, but experience would lead me to suspect they would give a rather harsh ride, so unless the luggage capacity is really needed, the CF forks seem much better - lighter and more resilient. Some good 531 (or whatever it is now) front forks would be a nice option for touring.

With lots of space still left in the back of the car, putting cycling shoes, clothing options etc in was no problem at all, and in fact the rear view was less impeded by the bike than I had feared (always a problem with luggage in the back of the Smart, due to the rather high floor which results from having the engine at the back.  The weather forecast suggested sunshine and showers, so my choice of clothing for the ride was left flexible as I set off to drive to the start.

Once at the start, the bike came out of the car easily, and was ready to ride in a very short while. Unfolding (and, for that matter, folding) of the rear is made easier than many folders in which the rear triangle folds under, as the Airnimal has an integral rear triangle, with the bottom bracket bearing in the same triangle as the rear forks, so the  is no question of the chain coming adrift with a change in tension as it is folded and unfolded. It was at this point that I realised that although I had fitted the map holder bracket to the stem, I had forgotten the map holder, which would make navigation less convenient, although at least it would eliminate the irritating noises that this otherwise useful device generates, and which I have commented on in some of the other ride reports. I had also omitted to put a pen into the new bag - information controls require data to be entered onto the Brevet card, so a pen is useful, otherwise you have to remember the information until you get to a control where a pen is available.

The fitting of the SQR bag on the seat tube (or any sort of bag attached to the seat post or saddle) creates a problem with the Airnimal: the bike only has one set of bottle bosses, and they are on the seat tube (about the only place available), so that fitting a bag of this sort makes it impossible to mount a bottle cage there. I was able to fit a pump in this location, but that left nowhere for the bottle. I tried clipping a cage onto the upright of the handlebar stem the day before the ride, but was unconvinced about whether this might impede leg movement when turning, and on arrival at the start I decided to take it off again, which left me a bit rushed, and with no opportunity to actually ride before the event started - a mistake I would rue later.

The ride

At 9:30, the time of the start, the weather was looking good, so I decided that shorts would be quite adequate and more comfortable, and so I dispensed with the track suit bottoms I was wearing over them. A light Karrimor Vail (?) jacket was retained though, as I suspected I would be a bit cool if it was at all windy. This is not a waterproof, so I also had a more waterproof jacket (but uncomfortable to ride in as it does not breathe) in the bag in case of emergencies. The bag was fairly empty otherwise - tools, two spare tubes, a lock and the water bottle (nowhere else to put it). There should have been a couple of cheese rolls for lunch as well, but that was something else I forgot (definitely NOT one of my better days - I should have concentrated on the event, rather than  working on the computer until just before before setting off).

As soon as we set off, I had a major concern with a serious rattle - in fact calling it a rattle is something of an understatement. The noise was coming from the front of the bike, and I stopped very briefly, but could see no obvious explanation, and I was reluctant to lose contact with the rest of the riders, as staying with them, at least for a while, would save me some navigation, and also provide a tow. Unusually for one of these rides, almost the entire group stayed together for something like 17Km, riding at what I found a very comfortable speed - fairly quickly, but no problem to keep up, and indeed at times I could have gone a fraction faster. Of course, the elimination of the need to navigate was a huge advantage, and being at the back of the group meant that I was getting a good tow. At about 17KM the group was split, simply because it was rather large, and was something of an obstruction to other traffic. I stayed with the second group, which would be continuing at the same pace, rather than speeding up.

The rattle was getting no better, and in fact around 25Km it got worse - unfortunately there were no stops of more than a few seconds at a road junction t, so there was no time to investigate further without losing the tow and the navigators. However, as a result of the noise, I was by now getting strange looks from the other riders, and I decided I would have to stop to investigate - I already had a suspicion as to what the noise was, and if I was correct, it needed fixing. Considerately, the whole group stopped for me, but at my urging, as I was pretty sure this was going to be a long job, they carried on. As I feared, what had happened was that when I adjusted the stem height just before the ride, I had evidently not tightened the securing bolt sufficiently, and the journey in the car had loosened it. Probably at the start of the ride the bolt and expander nut were just rattling around, but by now the nut had come off completely. The stem is actually a fairly tight fit in the top of the steerer tube, and the clamp used to secure the headset serves to make it tighter still, so there was no obvious looseness of the bars, and steering was not being affected, but the stem was not as firmly fixed as it should be. Removal of the stem alone obviously 0did not provide enough clearance to shake the expander nut out, so I ended up having the forks completely out of the bike - the design of the headset and fixing meant that only a standard allen key was needed. Unfortunately the headset came apart in the process, and, to cut a long story short, I had one heck of a job working out how to get it back together again! Incidentally, I'd like to thank all the passing cyclists who enquired if I needed help (most had nothing to do with the ride I was on), and especially the chap who helped me grapple with the forks and finally get it back together in the end. All this was entirely my fault, and absolutely nothing to do with the bike - in fact, with a different bike and headset I would probably have been unable to effect a repair of this kind by the roadside, without more specialised tools, so the bike design actually helped me solve a problem of my own making.

All this had taken at least 45 minutes (I should have timed it), so I was on my own by now, and getting a bit tight on time for reaching to the controls by the closing times (Brevet Popularires have to be done within a limited amount of time). I set off again as fast as I could, but without a navigator, and other riders to provide a tow, my progress was slower than before the halt. To compound the problem, the computer had stopped working, so following the distance instruction on the route sheet was more difficult - a couple of quick stops failed to get the computer working again, and I could not spare any more time, so as a substitute for distance information I had to convert the route sheet information into very rough times -which worked remarkably well.

The first control was reached with about 25 minutes to spare, but no time to support the cafe by stopping for refreshment, and I was immediately on my way again. This was the day of the Birmingham to Oxford ride, and some of our route coincided with it. However, at a few points I had to explain to concerned marshals for that event that I was deliberately not following their instructions, as I was not anything to do with them!

The riding conditions continued to be good - warm but not really hot, not too windy, and very little in the way of inclines, let alone real hills, and by the time I got to the second control, there were still some other riders there. I had time for a quick drink and a slice of cake, before continuing on my way for the last stage. This turned out to be the longest and hardest, with some much more serious hill climbing.  Up till now I had not used the smallest chain ring, but now it came into use several times, and I even needed both this AND the largest rear cog on one incline. I was definitely getting rather weary by now - the aggravation of sorting out the earlier problem, and the need to ride harder than normal immediately after, to try to regain some lost time, had taken their toll. Fortunately, apart from a short shower as I turned, appropriately, into Watery Lane the weather was still being kind - elsewhere I understand that people were having some thunder stomrs and torrential downpours.

Back at the finish, I was well inside the time allowed, though later than I had been expecting. A number of the people who had been riding with me when I had to stop kindly enquired if I had got round the whole course, and were pleased , if perhaps a bit surprised, to hear that I had indeed completed the event.  Refreshment from the barbecue was very welcome before I packed the bike away in the car and drove home.

Comments on the ride and the performance of The Airnimal

I could not sensibly have described this ride without referring to the problem I had with the expander bolt nut coming off, but that was entirely my fault, and in no way a reflection on the bike itself - indeed, with a different design of headset etc I could probably not have rectified my error by the roadside, and would have had to abandon the ride, or I might even still be there! Anyway, it is really irrelevant to comments on the bike, and I won't refer to it again.

The Airnimal is not primarily intended as a folder for rail-assisted commuting - though of course if your trains have no cycle restrictions requiring folding, it would perform admirably in that role. Having to remove the front wheel would be rather a pain if it is dirty, but otherwise the first fold is easy and quick, and although the bike does not latch together when folded, it is not difficult to handle, and the integrated rear triangle removes problems of chain tensioning and control when folding and unfolding. It went easily into the back of a Smart, so although not ultra compact, few car owners should have any problems transporting it. The more compact folds take longer, but nevertheless may be an attraction for air travellers.

The11-34 Megarange and triple chainring provides a huge range of gears. Really strong and fast riders might want a higher top gear (eg use a very big chain ring), but in my terms this was a very wide range of gears, with a wonderfully low bottom gear for major hills, and a top gear which is higher than on my other folders, and more than high enough for my requirements. The gear change was very smooth - it's possible though that with more folding, and with ingress of dirt and moisture, the long cable run would result in some deterioration in the gear change after extended use. Experience of the earlier Airnimal suggests this may be the case, and that you may need to replace the cables (inner and outer ) to the gears and rear brakes more frequently than on conventional bikes and most folders (though not nearly as bad in this respect as my Bike Friday New World Tourist). With flat bars, Rapidfire changers are fitted - my only criticism here is that the left hand one (for the front changer) has a very long lever travel, and this, combined with the need for quite a lot of force, makes it quite an effort when changing up on the front changer - not specifically an issue with this bike, but with all Rapidfire front changer systems I have tried. In cold weather, when my hands freeze up,  I have found with this type of system that I cannot operate it, and have to leave it with the middle ring selected. I did also find that the chain line, and the inability to alter the front changer position except by the full index step, meant that the range of rear gears I could use with any particular front ring was slightly restricted (eg, in top gear, avoid using the lowest 3 rear gears). Again, this is not particularly an issue associated with the Airnimal, but with the gear system - the Campag system which I had on one bike allowed for fine tuning the front derailleur as you rode, so that it could be moved slightly to avoid rubbing when the chain line was close to the limits.

The deep-drop Ultegra calliper brakes perform admirably, though coupled with levers on flat bars the lever travel is rather short. Nevertheless, they give excellent control, good feedback, and plenty of stopping power.

Ride and Handling
This was quite a contrast after using the Bike Friday New World Tourist on the last ride of this kind. The relatively large wheels (even with narrow high-pressure tyres), quite resilient carbon fibre front forks, and elastomer rear suspension gave a very reasonable ride for a bike of this kind.  It is certainly a fairly firm ride, but that is suited to a bike of this kind on this sort of event - you would not really expect Moulton levels of comfort. At the end of the ride I was moderately tired, but not suffering any sort of discomfort brought on by the ride, riding position or any other aspect of the bike.

The narrow high-pressure tyres no doubt contribute to quite quick and responsive steering - less twitchy than most folders with smaller wheels, but of course very different from a mountain bike with 26 inch wheels and big fat tyres (which would be horrible on the road). The bike felt very stable at all times, and slow climbs and fast descents were no more worrying in this respect than riding steadily on flat roads.

The one long ride I did before this on the bike had been slightly uncomfortable in terms of the brand new saddle (Brooks B17 titanium). Slightly relaxing the tension bolt before the ride was very beneficial - the saddle was extremely comfortable throughout, though sadly it picked up a few scratches as I struggled with the problem by the roadside.

This is an exhilarating bike to ride quickly and over longer distances. It is particularly well suited to this type of event. Especially while I was with the group at the beginning, it was an absolute joy to ride, and I hardly seemed to be expending any effort at all, and even later, when I had no tow, the bike bowled along very freely with remarkably little effort being demanded of the rider.

Other equipment
The SQR bag is an ideal size for this sort of ride - plenty of room for tools, wet weather gear, maps etc, but not too bulky. Like all Carradice bags, it is very well made and sturdy, but correspondingly heavy. It would probably last the remaining lifetime of someone half my age, so in this respect it is a bit of an overkill..

I really missed my map holder, which I forgot to take with me - I have now put it into the bag so that I am less likely to make the mistake another time. On the other hand, the absence of the rattles and other noises it creates were welcome.

I telephoned Airnimal a couple of days after the event, and they very kindly talked me through the assembly of the headset, so that I could confirm that I had got it back together again right. I had, which was encouraging, and I'd commend their support. As far as the computer problem goes, it seems that the particular Cateye Cordless 7 I have fitted is exceptionally critical regarding positioning of the sensor on the forks and the wheel magnet - get it anything less than perfect, and there is no signal. I have these computers on a couple of other bikes, where they normally don't seem as fussy, though I have had problems (as described in a previous report in this series) with the one on the Moulton fx8. Tests seem to indicate that distance of the computer from the sensor has nothing to do with it - it is magnet and sensor position that is rather critical.


This was a great ride, and the bike performed perfectly. The rider made a stupid mistake, which resulted in having to stop to make an adjustment, but that had nothing to do with the bike itself. The Airnimal is extremely well suited to this sort of event, but, as I know from owning one previously, it is quite a versatile machine, though not a compact folder for commuting in which folding is required on a daily basis. Of all the bikes I have used on Brevets, The Airnimal is the most suitable for me, and will be my preferred choice in future. That said, I have at least one other bike to be tested in these conditions, so expect either the next, or the subsequent, ride to be on a different machine!.

The event organisation was  excellent - there was a very friendly atmosphere and the whole group stopped initially when I had a problem. The route sheet was one of the best I have encountered - I didn't go off course at all, nor did I ever have any doubts about what was intended, this despite being in unfamiliar country and having a non-functioning computer for the crucial part of the ride. Many thanks to the organisers for doing such an excellent job.

Comments from Airnimal Designs

Richard Loke of Airnimal Designs has added the follwoing comments regarding some points in the report

1. Your commute/first fold comments are valid particularly the dirty wheel observation. However, do be aware that the first fold can be achieved in 30 seconds and the whole lot bagged in under 1 minute. Also that the rear wheel can be 'latched' with the cam on the front brake or the Velcro straps supplied with the first fold bag. Furthermore, we know of a number customers who integrate the Chameleon into their commute and at least one who bags his for tube travel daily after a >10mile commute. There are also a number who use the fold for storage each end of their commute.

2. We can pack the Chameleon into our larger Delsey case in 3 minutes without hurrying. Admittedly, we know what we are doing and that doesn't include any other luggage. FYI, I've attached the folding manual.

3. For front luggage, we're recommending and fitting the Carradice Limpet system. As you know it fits to the qick release so is both easy to remove and compact to pack. This is perfectly usable with the carbon fork. We also have a qr release system based on the wheel skewer (actually from Tubus) for the rear rack.

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Last updated: 8 July 2004