Folding bikes are often perceived to be slower than a road or mountain bike due to the smaller wheels, fewer gears and upright position of the rider (resulting in more wind resistance).
With that said, however, you shouldn’t be deceived by the folding bike design when it comes to speed…
Most folding bikes with 16 inch – 20 inch wheels can average speeds of around 10mph – 12mph depending on the rider’s fitness level and ability to generate speed. A more experienced cyclist can push these boundaries and average speeds of 14mph – 16mph over a short commute (<60 minutes). In an elite level cyclist (club level) you could expect them to reach highs of 16mph – 20mph quite easily but this wouldn’t be sustainable over a long distance.
Folding bikes might seem like a novelty item that a young college student will use on their way to a coffee shop but don’t be fooled by any stereotypes.
Folding bikes are typically designed to provide speed and maneuverability in city environments (particularly over short commutes) and can often match the speeds of the larger road bikes.
Folding Bike Speed Limit
Speed limits for cyclists will vary from state to state depending on the local bylaws of the area: In general, the laws that apply to cars and motor vehicles will apply to a bicycle. Therefore, the speed limit for a folding bike will be the speed limit for the current area in which you are riding.
If a particular stretch of road has a speed limit of 30mph then this will apply to a cyclist just as it would any motorized vehicle.
A study conducted by cycling weekly using Strava data shows that the average speed for a road cyclist is 24.35km/h which converts to 15mph. These average speeds factor in a range of cycling abilities and bikes used so it’s fair to say that the majority of people do not actually have the ability to ride close to any speed limit, particularly when commuting.
As you can see by these figures, it’s unlikely that you will be able to reach the speeds of your area’s designated speed limit (especially on a folding bike) and therefore your main focus should be on following the rules of the road.
Are Folding Bikes Slower?
By their very design, folding bikes are often considered to be slower than a standard road bike. Folding bikes are designed for convenience, portability and short to moderate urban commutes, so the speed is not something that they are intended to be known for.
The main opinion that people have regarding folding bikes is that the smaller wheels (typically between 16 inches – 20 inches) are the main reason why they tend to be slower than road bikes. This is actually a flawed opinion, especially when you consider that the majority of folding bikes are used in urban terrains.
Smaller wheels actually allow for quicker acceleration (ideal in a city with frequent traffic lights) and lose less speed due to wind resistance. In a large city, a folding bike with smaller wheels will actually allow the rider to travel at a faster speed due to quicker acceleration, responsive handling and increased maneuverability.
Being able to travel at speeds of 10mph – 16mph for the average commuter will mean that the speed of a folding bike will not have much influence over your journey time and they will certainly not be much slower than a standard road bike. In fact, in big city environments, we’d recommend a folding bike as a faster option!
Factors Influencing Folding Bike Speed
If you are still not convinced that folding bikes are not slower than road bikes and are concerned about the speed you can travel on a folding bike, then there are a few factors that you can take into consideration when purchasing a new folding bike (or by making modifications to your current bike).
- Frame weight – a heavier frame will often result in a reduced speed when it comes to a bike which is why you’ll find that the lightest and fastest bikes are often made from a super-light carbon fiber material.
- Tire pressure – this is the key area that you need to focus on when riding a folding bike. With smaller wheels, the air pressure of the tire needs to be kept high in order to reduce the surface contact time of the tire with the road in order to reduce rolling resistance. When riding with a lower tire pressure you’ll notice that folding bikes become much more sluggish and difficult to ride and therefore a harder tire will allow for a quicker and smoother ride.
- Tire size – as mentioned earlier, a smaller wheel size will certainly influence speed but not necessarily in a negative way. Smaller wheels allow for faster acceleration over a short distance and are also better for riding in areas with more inclined hills. If 16 inches is too small then consider upgrading to a 20-inch wheel (better for longer commutes).
- Range of gears – a 21-speed bike can easily handle more terrain choices than a single gear folding bike. Fortunately, folding bikes have come a long way in terms of design and performance over the years, the Verge X10, for example, boasts a 10-speed gear cassette.
As you can see, the range of factors that influence the speed of a folding bike are all easily measurable and also easily customizable. The speed of a folding bike is not necessarily the key selling point but if you are concerned about the speed then look to either purchase or modify your current bike using the factors mentioned above as a reference point.
Take Home Message
For the average cyclist, your speed on a folding bike will not vary too much from your speed using a standard road bike and in fact, folding bikes are likely to be the quicker option in most urban terrains.
Therefore, if you are considering getting a folding bike but are deterred by the opinion that they are ‘slower’ then you should note that these opinions are often not based on much substance. Sure, a folding bike will take a week or two to get used to but once you are comfortable with the model, you’ll easily be able to cycle at the general average speed.