Folding bikes by their very nature are designed for commuters in urban terrains. The key selling point is usually the fact that they are very portable, quick to accelerate and easy to maneuver in high traffic areas and are more suitable for short and quick rides.
Brompton (a market leader in folding bikes) themselves define a folding bike’s main purpose as:
“If the main function of your bike is getting around the city, a folding bike could really be the best choice.”
Folding bikes can be good for long rides, particularly if your bike has a range of gear speeds to better handle more hill type terrain that you’ll experience outside of an urban landscape. A folding bike with 20-inch wheels and a minimum 6-speed gear shift (preferably 10-speed) will have no problem maintaining speed over a long ride of 2-3 hours.
Many people will think of a long ride in a touring or competitive cycling aspect, in which case most folding bikes certainly wouldn’t be suitable (though not impossible) to use. For the average cyclist, however, there are many more factors that you want to take into consideration when looking at a folding bike’s suitability for long rides.
Are Folding Bikes Good for Long Rides?
A long ride can have many definitions so when considering whether a folding bike is good for long rides you need to look at both cases in isolation.
Firstly, a long ride could be interpreted as the amount of time that you spend riding the bike or the distance covered. This can be in the form of a long commute into a city or a long cycle in a scenic area. In these instances, then yes, a road bike with larger wheels would likely be a better option.
This is because a larger wheel of 26+ inches will be much easier to keep the momentum going once you reach top speed. Smaller wheels are great for accelerating and being fast over a short distance but the further the distance, the more suited a large wheel is (though this will also depend on a rider’s level of fitness.
With that being said, a 20-inch wheel on a folding bike will more than cater for longer journeys and while it might not be the ‘optimal’ wheel size, it will certainly get the job done with minimal effort. The only thing you need to ensure is that your tire air pressure is always high when using a wheel that is 20 inches or less to reduce rolling resistance.
The second definition of a long ride, however, can be one in which your journey could involve multiple forms of a commute (e.g. needing to use a bus, train, boat, or even plane) to reach your end destination.
In this case, a folding bike will, of course, be the better option due to their portability and @bromptonmafia frequently show themselves making use of hand luggage compartments on planes to cater to a long journey.
Therefore, when looking at whether a folding bike is good for long rides, we’ll need to consider a few of the following factors because in some instances a folding bike will actually offer more advantages for long rides:
Advantages of Folding Bikes on Long Rides
While folding bikes are clearly designed for urban environments meaning that a standard road bike will typically have more advantages on long rides, there are certainly some advantages that make folding bikes well suited to long rides as well.
The portability of a folding bike is the standout advantage for a long ride. If the purpose of your ride is a long commute (cross-state or traveling from rural to urban) then the option to fold up your bike and make use of public transport is without a doubt a key advantage.
Being able to fold up your bike and jump into a taxi is underrated and often ignored when considering a long-distance ride. Many think that a long ride means you strictly need to cycle for the entire duration but with improved infrastructure, you can cover much greater distances using a hybrid approach to travel.
They are also great for hikers and campers who are going to travel long distances and need the option of a portable bike. A folding bike also gives you the option to walk when in un-rideable terrain, something that a larger bike will not be able to offer.
Most folding bikes (particularly the more high-end models) will be made from lighter materials which make them ideal for longer journeys.
It’s likely that you’ll need to spend a significant period of time on long journeys not only riding the bike but also carrying it. This can be through or around obstacles and difficult terrain or when using any form of transport alongside your bike.
In these instances, it is almost essential that you have a bike light enough to carry around with ease, which is what makes a folding bike great for long rides.
Disadvantages of Folding Bikes on Long Rides
As you may already be expecting, there are quite a few disadvantages when using a folding bike on long rides (they are designed for short commutes in urban terrain after all!).
Off-Road Usability and Terrain
Most folding bikes do not offer the features needed for off-road or rough terrain use. The tires in particular on folding bikes are designed for smooth, paved roads in a city and not the gravel and pothole-filled roads that are typical in long distance off-road terrain.
The suspension (or lack off) is a particular issue with folding bikes. On smooth and flat surfaces, you’ll have no issue but as soon as you come across roads with multiple holes and bumpy terrain then the smaller wheels and lack of suspension will prove to be particularly frustrating.
Gear Speed and Wheel Size
A major drawback of most folding bikes is the limited gear range and smaller wheel size, both of which are not ideal for riding long distances which may involve steep uphill climbs or frequent downhill descents.
Both of these scenarios are likely to be common on a long ride and if you don’t have a large range of gears (not usually common in most folding bikes) then the uphill sections will be particularly tiring, especially when combined with smaller wheels.
The downhill sections are also likely to be challenging on a folding bike as the RPM is much quicker with smaller wheels making it much harder to control the handling and speed on most folding bikes during a downhill descent.
Finally, a lack of comfort is likely to be a major drawback on most folding bikes unless you have an upgraded and premium priced model. This is because most folding bikes do not have adequate (or any) suspension and when combined with smaller wheels you’ll find that any bump in the road will be felt by the rider.
On smooth terrain you’ll be fine but as soon as you go off-road or into rough terrain, you’ll find that folding bikes are not built to provide a comfortable ride on these terrains. Even with customization, it’s going to be difficult for a folding bike to provide comfort in these environments.
Take Home Message
If you are looking to do an occasional long ride then most folding bikes will get the job done, there are even some models that are particularly good for long rides due to their portability, light frame and advanced features (upgraded tires to provide suspension and a 10 – 30 speed cassette).
In most cases, however, we wouldn’t recommend that you have a folding bike as your number one option for long rides if they will be a frequent occurrence. A regular road bike will offer more advantages in rough terrain with frequent hills and climbs.