Most of my cycling is done on surfaced roads, but I do make a certain amount of use of bridleways, disused railways converted to cycle tracks and canal towpaths in my travels. As a means of getting from A to B, these routes avoid traffic, but they almost always take longer (due to reduced speed), and although the scenery is sometimes good, often the view is actually more restricted than on a road, and the need to pay close attention to the path for obstacles means there may even be less to see than on the road. Ive no great desire to deliberately plough through thick mud and jump over obstacles at high speed on the bike.
For such limited off-road cycling, the small wheeled folders and Moultons I own are fine during the months when such tracks are not very muddy (I hesitate to describe these as the summer months for obvious reasons). However, during the winter months, when the condition of the paths is not so good, with ruts and thick mud on at least some of them, cycling becomes less easy. As we are now into that season, I thought some observations on experience with some of the main makes of folders under these condition would be relevant.
Please note that in this report Im concentrating on off-road riding you should refer to previous reports for a more general assessment of these folders and separables. The current report is also based entirely on my own experience and views of using my own bikes. You may care to add this page to your Favourites list and come back to it in a few days or weeks time, as I hope to update it to include some more observations on these and other bikes, after some modifications have been made.
A report appeared in issue 9 of A to B magazine on the Bike Friday Pocket Llama, Land Rover APB and Birdy Blue as this report was being loaded on to the web, but did not reach me until after this report was written and was first posted. The addendum at the end of this report contains additional comments gleaned from there - please see pages 16-21 of Issue 9 of A to B magazine for their excellent and very complete report on these three bikes.
I own a Brompton (T5), Birdy (Red), Bike Friday (New World Tourist and Pocket Rocket), Moultons (Stowaway, AM7 and APB in 3 x7 form). All these have been used off-road in the way described above, most of the testing being done on a railway path between Dudley and Himley and on canal towpath between Tipton and Smethwick. Neither of these has much in the way of hills, but both get muddy and involve some fairly rought surfaces the canal towpath includes short stretches under bridges which are cobbled, but with every third row of cobbles raised, and a stretch where every 10 feet or so there is a raised row of bricks, just over an inch high.
First Ill make a few general points about riding on these surfaces using small wheelers, then comment on the performance of each of these machines, and then try to draw some conclusions.
All my bikes are fitted with narrow high pressure tyres: well, in the case of the AM Moulton there is no choice, as there arent any other tyres to fit the standard 17" wheels used by these machines. The Birdy has the high pressure 18" Birdy tyres fitted, with some tread, but the other bikes all have relatively smooth tyres City Jets on the New World Tourist and APB, IRC on the Pocket Rocket, Primo on the Brompton, and the original Dunlops (yes, really!) on the Stowaway. For the muddy conditions on these tracks at present none of these tyres are ideal, but of course a change to knobbly tyres not only involves buying and fitting the tyres, but also degrades significantly the performance on the road.
None of the small wheeled folders are at their best on the narrow high-pressure tyres in muddy conditions traction is limited, and the rider has to be prepared for unexpected sliding about worrying on narrow tow paths! The APB was originally fitted with wider and much more knobbly tyres, and these certainly gripped better and gave more stability in muddy conditions. The New World Tourist also originally had wider, though not very heavily treaded, low-pressure tyres, but these were only marginally better than the current City Jets in muddy conditions.
For winter riding on occasions when I expected to make any use of these sort of muddy surfaces, I would be inclined to fit the bike (or one of them in my case) with more suitable tyres. Arguably the fact that all the bikes were equally unsuitably shod means that relative comparisons between them remain valid, but of course some of the bikes do not have any more suitable tyres available, while others are much better served by a wide choice of off-road tyres.
Ive been riding small wheeled bicycles since 1964, and since then something like 90% of my riding (number of journeys and distance travelled) has been on small wheels, so I think it is obvious that I like them. However, I dont have many doubts that for off-road riding in particularly rough conditions, in sand, or in mud, bigger wheels do perform better than smaller ones if they are fitted with similar tyres. Of course, as Ive already mentioned, I dont do a lot of off-road riding, and in the dryer months I find the small wheelers with high pressure tyres cope perfectly well with the towpaths, cycle ways and bridleways. Even with substantial tyres fitted, though, smaller wheels dont seem as satisfactory on the worst surfaces.
I've also been riding fully suspended bikes since 1964, although I do have a tourer and the Bike Fridays which are not suspended at all. For riding on the road the suspension does give a smoother ride, particularly with small wheels, but on most road surfaces I find the unsprung bikes which I own perform well, and I'm quite willing to forgo the suspension on my Mercian or the Pocket Rocket, both of which are a joy to ride on the road. Off-road the picture is rather different, and particularly on the rougher surfaces the lack of suspension makes itself felt. On the Smethwick-Tipton towpath, on the cobbled and brick sections, unsuspended bikes are agonisingly painful, and indeed I usually choose to push them. So even for my limited off-road use, I regard suspension as bing necessary for enjoyable, comfortable riding.
The Brompton is easily the most foldable and most portable of the bikes considered here. Using it off road is rather like on road it is amazing just how well it rides, despite being so portable. My Brompton has had plenty of off-road use in dry conditions, and has performed perfectly satisfactorily. Inevitably, though, the small wheel do struggle more in very rough and muddy conditions than larger ones would. Despite their lack of tread, the Primo tyres perform surprisingly well, but naturally are no match for good, large knobblies. The Raleigh Record, with a more pronounced tread, is perhaps a better choice for this sort of riding, though it is not nearly as good on-road. As far as I know there is no tyre available in this size which is specifically intended for off-road use.
Mud: Traction and directional stability are not as good as the other bikes tested.
Rutted surfaces/raised bricks etc: The limited rear suspension and flex in the stem make these less uncomfortable then might be expected, but the small wheels do become trapped in longitudinal ruts more easily than large ones, and the effect of raise bricks etc is quite pronounced you are more likely to have to stop for these than with larger wheels.
Comfort: Better than you might expect, but not as good as some others.
Portability: The best
If you only have a Brompton, or are unexpectedly faced with muddy off-road riding while using it, it wont let you down, but its not the best machine for these conditions. Personally I would go out of my way to avoid these conditions when riding the Brompton.
The full suspension of the Birdy, with a reasonable amount of movement at the front and a choice of elastomer hardness at the back, gives a comfortable ride. The tyre choice is very limited, but the high pressure road tyres handle muddy off-road conditions reasonably well, and the knobblies should be better. The option of a conversion to the 16 inch wheels would seem to be a disadvantage for off-road use, though better (courtesy of the Primo tyre) on road. It was this consideration which led me to decide against changing to the 16 inch wheels on my Birdy. Steve Parrys modified Birdy with 20 inch wheels (with suitable tyres) would be an interesting machine to try in muddy conditions.
Mud: Fair performance for traction and stability on high pressure road tyres, should be better on the off-road tyres.
Rutted surfaces/raised bricks etc: The suspension handles these very well, though inevitably longitudinal ruts can be a problem with small wheels. Raised obstacles are handled very well, at least up to the size where the small wheels struggle to mount them.
Comfort: Very good.
Portability: Not as good as the Brompton, but reasonable.
The Birdy feels quite at home in these conditions, though the small wheels inevitably impose some limitations.
The Pocket Rocket is a fast road bike, and although it can be fitted with wider tyres (it uses the larger 451 version of the 20 inch wheel), and can be used off road, it isnt really intended for this. I used mine on an off-road section of a ride at CycleFest during 1998, and it coped with this on the very narrow IRC road tyres, though I felt very nervous on some sections with large, slippery stones (more so even than on a Primo-shod Brompton).
The New World Tourist with the more standard 406 version of the 20 inch wheel is more a contender for these conditions, though there is also a Pocket Llama version more specifically intended for off road use. With suitable tyres, and with their wide range of gears, these Bike Fridays can handle the conditions well, and the 20 inch wheels are less affected by ruts etc than smaller sizes. The unsuspended frames can be extremely uncomfortable on some rutted surfaces, though a suspended seat pillar and Softride sprung stem, which are standard on the Llama, should provide some insulation. The AirGlide model, with the beam suspended saddle should also be more comfortable, though personally I dont think the suspended seat post or the suspension beam are technically very elegant solutions. However, a very short ride on an AirGlide suggested it is more effective than I had anticipated.
Mud: Reasonable for traction and stability with suitable tyres.
Rutted surfaces/raised bricks etc: Without any form of suspension these are very uncomfortable. The sprung seatpost and Softride stem (standard on the Pocket Llama) should help (or the beam of the AirGlide model), but I have not tested these.
Comfort: I havent tested the suspension add ons, but without them the New World Tourist and Pocket Rocket are definitely uncomfortable. The AirGlide should be better, and the suspension seat pillar and Softride stem would be worth considering on other models (remember that they are standard on the Pocket Llama model), though they add weight.
Portablity: Not as quick and easy to fold and pack as the Brompton and Birdy, and the finished package is bulkier too.
Its not fair to draw firm conclusions without trying the suspended seat post, suspension stem and the AirGlide model, but certainly without these the Bike Friday is uncomfortable to ride off-road, even though otherwise it handles these conditions quite well.
The older Moultons are now over 25 years old, and it seems a pity to subject such machines to very rough handling. The ride is reasonable, but the 16 inch wheels and tyres impose the same performance constraints in muddy off-road conditions as they do on the Brompton. The suspension gives a reasonably comfortable ride, though there is limited travel at the rear.
The principal limitation on the AM series is the lack of tyre choice the standard tyre is fine in dry conditions of the kind described here, but in mud it is not such a good performer (though better than the 16 inch wheel/tyre combinations).
The APB is a more obvious contender here, and generally performs well with suitable tyres. The main drawbacks are the weight of the APB (at least 3 pounds more than the others) and limited portability (no problem for fitting in a car boot, but a significant limitation on public transport if folding and bagging is necessary).The ratings below refer to the APB.
Mud: Reasonable for traction and stability with suitable tyres.
Rutted surfaces/raised bricks etc: The wheels and suspension handle these quite well, though in the end the size of the wheels becomes a limiting factor.
Comfort: Good; though the rear suspension travel is limited compared with conventional suspended mountain bikes, it is as good as the other small wheelers tested here, and it removes the worst of the pain when tackling raised bricks and the like.
Portability: The separating frame is quite well suited for carrying the bike in the boot of a car, but is much less satisfactory for use on public transport. Disassembly to the stage where the bike can be put in a bag takes several minutes.
Knobbly tyres make any bike handle better in mud, but of course they make its on-road performance worse. You have to balance priorities here, or possible have a choice of bikes and/or wheels and tyres which can be selected to best suit particular journeys.
All of the bikes can handle the limited off-road riding described here quite well when it is dry. In the winter months when the tracks are muddy and rutted, I would not use the 16 inch and 17 inch wheeled machines (Brompton, old Mouton and AM Moulton) from choice. Although it's possible to get through with these machines, the small wheels and the available tyres don't suit these conditions, and there won't be much pleasure in riding them. Suitably shod, the Pocket Rocket could cope, but other models in the Bike Friday range are much more suited to this type of use.
The two bikes with the 20 inch 406 format wheels offer much the best choice of tyres, and the larger wheels (compared with the 16 and 17 inch wheeled machines) give a better ride and are less easily deflected by ruts and other obstacles. Both the APB and the Bike Friday New World Tourist are robust machines, well able to withstand the rougher conditions. If no folding of the bike is needed (riding from home, or using trains on which there are no cycle restrictions), or if the bike is to be separated and put in the boot of a car, then the only thing to be said against the APB is its weight. The New World Tourist without the suspension seat pillar and Softride stem is much less comfortable in rough off-road conditions than the APB, but with these options, or choosing the Pocket Llama model, it should certainly be more of a match, and it scores heavily in terms of portability if you need to bag it for use on public transport.
From the test Ive done, I think I would settle on the Birdy as being the best of these small wheeled folders for winter use where limited muddy and rough off-road riding is involved. Id like to try it with the knobbly tyres, and if it was going to get much use in these conditions, then the Blue model, with the wider range of gears, and in particularly more low gears, would seem to be worth considering, even though I normally prefer the Red for its simplicity and lighter weight. The Birdy of course also scores well in the folding stakes second only to the Brompton in the machines Ive considered here. However, for more serious off-road use the Birdy feels less robust than the APB and Bike Friday, and the smaller wheels and much more limited choice of tyres would count against it, and the choice would have to be between the APB and Bike Friday.
If folding is a lower priority perhaps just to carry the bike in the back of a car then apart from the bikes mentioned already, a large-wheeled folder has considerable attractions for this type of use, apart from the fact that suspension is not usually available, resulting in a (possibly unacceptably )harsh ride. That eminent folder expert, Tony Hadland, has opted for the Rudge/Montague Bi-Frame large-wheeled folder for his off road riding. If these off-road rides dont require folding (eg riding from and to home, or using train services which do not impose any restrictions on cycles) then the best answer may be a conventional, large-wheeled, non-folding mountain bike, and keep the folder for those situations where folding is necessary. I am currently using a Marin full-suspension mountain bike (East Peak) in these situations, and it certainly handles the rough and muddy off-road conditions better than any of the small-wheeled folders, though the comparison is not entirely fair as it has 1.95 inch wide knobbly tyres, and the folders all have high pressure road tyres! The suspension, with its long travel, soaks up all the bumps and gives a better ride than any of the other bikes referred to here, and the wheels and tyres give excellent traction and stability. On the road the tyres are less efficient than the high pressure road tyres, but are not as inefficient as I feared. The weight of the Marin is about 1 pound more on the scales than the New World Tourist (the latter fitted at the time with a carrier and toolbag, so the real difference is probably at least 2 pounds), but strangely it feels lighter. This may be due to a more even weight distribution - the NWT is very tail heavy with the Sachs 3x7 gears. The suspension of the marin also requires much more routine service than the simple,effective and virtually maintenance free suspension of the Moultons and Birdy.
I hope to do some more tests in the near future on the folders using different tyres and some other modifications, so you may care to look again at this report in a few days or weeks time.
An article on the Bike Friday Pocket Llama, Land Rover APB and Birdy Blue appearred in issue 9 of A to B magazine, which reached me a couple of days after the above report was written and posted on the web (19th December 1998). The Llama was fitted with the suspension seat post, but no Softride stem: A to B report that it was OK on the road, but 'next to useless' off-road compared to 'proper' suspension. This suggests that my expectations of improvement in the ride of the Friday by fitting the suspension seat post mentioned in my report are over optimistic. They also found that the Birdy off-road tyres imposed quite a heavy penalty in terms of increased rolling resistance on road, 'but only compared back to back with other tyres. ... Off-road they were wonderful, and much better than the other tyres even in the most treacherous conditions. Very grippy.' Overall the Birdy was also rated best by A to B. The A to B report was written by Peter Henshaw, and I'm grateful to David Henshaw for some additional comments; the third rider in the A to B test was Rob Cope, who was the one who had the misfortune to take a tumble.
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Last updated: 24 December 1998