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May 29, 2017

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Fold-up bicycles enjoying a resurgence in Europe

BREMEN, Germany -- The idea of a collapsible bicycle used to evoke horror, with a dash of bemusement at the weird way the bikes were made so they could fold in the middle, and then some bad memories on top. After all, the ride was at best, rickety.

After a brief heyday, folding bicycles largely disappeared — mercifully, say some. But they are having a revival of sorts in some European metropolises because they are a convenient mode of transport.

Admittedly today's models bear little similarity to their predecessors. At the same time, they have yet to achieve the popularity of the first collapsible bicycles.

"The original collapsible bikes had a market share of 35 percent in 1975," says Carsten Schabacher of the General German Bicycle Club (ADFC). Sales numbers for the new models are much lower — a situation that could soon change, according to many biking experts.

"In Germany, 99.9 percent of people had never heard of fold-up bikes," says Henning Voss, who operates his own company, Firma Voss, in northern Germany. He imports Brompton folding bicycles from England. Interest in these new bicycles is growing fastest in large European cities. "In London alone 7,000 Brompton bikes were sold this year."

In these conurbations a bicycle is not just an economical method of getting from A to B. These vehicles are used by "young, urban people" to "close mobility gaps." In other words, people are using them to cover the short distance from the train station to the workplace.

"Today's collapsible bicycles have little in common with their predecessors," says Siegfried Neuberger of ZIV, the German Bicycle Industry Association. "Today, these kinds of bikes aren't a compromise, but a combination."

That means anyone who wants to fold up their bike doesn't have to make do with a rickety bicycle. Folding technology has also become better over the years.

Nowadays, there are countless brands and models to choose from, including Brompton, Moulton, Riese, Mueller and Bike Friday. Bike folding concepts are just as numerous.

"Some manufacturers place the emphasis on a person being able to fold the bike up quickly," says Schabacher. Those bikes can be broken down in a few seconds, and unfolded just as quickly, a boon for commuters who want to get into a train quickly. They're also good for dashing up a flight of stairs.

Other manufacturers focus on compactness. The ideal folded bicycle is supposed to be about the size of a children's bicycle. That's important for customers who don't have much storage space or for people who want to keep the bicycle nearby at work or on a commuter train. Schabacher points out that German trains that don't allow bicycles in passenger compartments make exceptions for folding versions.

Bicycles also need no longer fold in the middle, like the original models. Today, there are many ways to make a bicycle compact. Some even fold up so they can be wheeled about like a suitcase.

A test by a German bicycle magazine showed that a high quality folding bicycle can provide just as good a ride as a top-line two-wheeler. True, collapsible bicycles tend to have smaller diameter wheels, measuring in at 16 to 20 inches, but the handicap is compensated for by other benefits.

The small wheels do however represent another drawback. While standard sized wheels can simply bypass a pothole, the smaller ones often fall in and even get stuck so bikers are advised to give holes in the tarmac a wide berth.

Potential buyers should think carefully about what they expect from a fold-up bicycle, namely whether their chief interest is in something that folds up small or in having a bicycle for long or short stretches. A test ride is a must.

Also, check your bank account before making a commitment. A collapsible bicycle is not a simple piece of machinery and this is reflected in the prices. A relatively simple model sells for about 500 euros (US$754). Higher-end models can cost up to 3,000 euros and beyond.

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