Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Folded, Spindled and Mutilated: My Foray Into Collapsible Bicycles

I've become a big fan of the multi-mode commute, using the combination of train and bicycle to get myself to far off points in Hunterdon County with minimal fuss and inconvenience. The rail line would often take me within a few miles of where I needed to go, and the bicycle would let cover those last couple miles with ease. Additionally, for the frequent occasions when a return train wasn't available, I could ride the rail out, then bike the 20-30 miles home pretty easily.
However, NJ Transit recently updated its policy to make it pretty difficult to bring a full-size bike on a train. Bicycles are only allowed on and off at high-level platforms, which includes exactly none of the stations I frequent. Now, I'm reasonably healthy and can walk or jog two or three miles from the station to my eventual destination, but for those late-night assignments I was faced with the choice of walking 20 miles home, hiring a cab or sleeping at the (outdoor) station until the 6 a.m. train.
Fortunately the rules still permit "collapsible bicycles" (and furthermore, collapsible - or folding bikes as they're more commonly called - are allowed on even during peak hours. Regular bikes are not). Unfortunately, I'm pretty much broke, and while there are some brilliantly designed folding commuter bikes out there, I can't afford a single one of them. Fortunately, I'm pretty handy at fixing up bicycles, so when the option to buy a used Raleigh Twenty came up, I jumped on it.
The bike, as I recieved it, was in pretty good shape, but needed a bit of work. There were some bearing and clamp issues, and while it was pretty rideable, a compulsive tinkerer like myself couldn't leave it at "pretty good".
Within five minutes of paying for it, I'd already customized it - I added a cupholder.

The primary concerns I had were the length of the seatpost (I'm 6'3", I needed a couple inches more to get proper pedal extension), the chromed steel rims which were heavy and provided very poor wet-weather braking, the headset which used a plastic bushing instead of top bearings and mismatched handlebars and stem.
The first step was to replace the stem and bars with some mountain bike parts I had lying around
I also swapped the saddle for a Rido that had been given to me by my friend Neil, and swapped out the front fender (which had a broken mount) for a carbon fiber recumbent fender from my buddy Dave's parts box

You better believe I kept the cup holder though (also donated by Neil)
I found a junker kids bike with 20" rims, which I pulled off and laced to the existing hubs. The front hub of the Raleigh has an unusual spacing (91mm rather than the now-common 100mm) and the rear hub was the three-speed unit, so I obviously wanted to hang onto that. Small wheels are pretty forgiving, and since I'm strapped for cash, I re-used the old spokes. They fit pretty well, but on the rear hub I they were juuuust a bit too long.
Mr. Dremel says "no problem."
By this point, the bike was working pretty well. I scavenged a new top headset cup from that donor kids bike, and used the fork crown race and some spacers to create a working upper headset bearing. I was still waiting for a new seatpost, which I'd ordered through Garden State Bicycle, so the bike was a bit short for me.
I did take it for some short rides, and even one train commute, where I could test out it's foldability

And finally the new seatpost (400mm) came in, which, with the addition of a stem riser made for a pretty comfortable ride.

Once I got all the componentry together, I took it for a leisurely shakedown ride on the D&R Towpath between my home in South Bound Brook and my friend's place in Highland Park, about an 8-mile total trip. I figured it would make for an interesting test of handling, because the canal path had been washed out during Hurricane Irene and is currently fairly rough and rocky. The Twenty behaved predictably, and was comfortable and stable to ride, if not as fast as my 700c-wheeled commuter bike. The folding mechanism on the Twenty is a bit different from the hinge on many modern folding bikes (Dahon etc), the frame is interrupted in the middle of the main tube by a pair of angled plates, which swivel around a thick bolt and are held in place by an L-bolt. The connection seems very strong and stiff, and, although the bike doesn't fold up nearly as compactly or as quickly as some of the modern folding bikes, it's quick enough and becomes a small enough bundle for a big guy like me to easily carry onto a train (and is, in fact, far smaller than some of the luggage I see folks carrying). Most importantly, though, from my perspective, is that because of the stiff folding joint and the slightly longer wheelbase, the bike rides more like a full-size city bike than many of the other small-wheel bikes I've tried.
The "Cracks of Doom" at Landing Lane Bridge in New Brunswick, I had to get off and walk the Twenty across, but I've had to walk everything except for an actual mountain bike across here. It's a good fishing spot though. 

Once I was confident the bike would handle some real riding, I took it on a freelance assignement. I took the train out to cover a municipal meeting, clipped on my Niterider headlight, and rode home through about 20 miles of mostly rural back roads. It's not the perfect do-everything bike, but after spending a good hour and a half on it, I can say it's a pretty good utility bike, and with it's small size, comfortable riding position and ability to fold might turn out to be a fantastic bike for travel that involves some leisurely sightseeing or even some day tours (that don't involve major hills). I can think of some definite modifications I'd want to make in the future, including better grips (possibly with bar ends for a secondary hand position), newer tires and some general overhauling, but for a modest investment in time and money, this is a great bike.