The Epic Commute & The Tale Of Two Folding Bikes

Katie Mattison lives in Nyack, New York. Follow her on Twitter @kweenkmatt or for snarky commuting comments, @SnarkyTrainGirl

I’m a young working professional from the suburbs trying to make it in the big city. I’ve lived in the NYC metro area since 1996, and I’m currently revisiting my passion for cycling that began as a little girl when I used to ride my pink Huffy to the library. In addition to my city commute, I also enjoy cycling locally along the Hudson River in my town of Nyack, NY and surrounding areas.

I have tried two different kinds of folding bikes since I started biking to the office. The first of the folding bikes is a Strida, and the second (and current) bike is a Dahon. Here are their stories.

The distance from where I live in the Hudson Valley to where I work in lower Manhattan is about 35 miles. I can get there in a multitude of ways, ranging from driving my car, to taking a bus to the Port Authority on 41st St., or a combination of mass transit modes: bus to a train to the subway, or the bus to the train to a ferryboat. Ironically enough it takes about the same amount of time to get there, regardless of how I travel – almost always two hours door to door.

Strida Folding BikeThe best way is to take a folding bike and ride from Midtown down to the Battery. This involves bringing a folding bike onto the bus that takes me across the Hudson River to the train. The train takes me to midtown Manhattan, and I can ride from there to my office. The only kind of bike that is allowed on the bus or train during rush hour is a folding bike; the railroad has specific rules regarding bikes on trains. It’s roughly six miles to my office via the East River Greenway.

I started commuting by bike when I found the Strida in the attic of my house. I happened to be up there with my landlady, and it sat abandoned in a corner covered in dust and pigeon feathers. I brought it down, cleaned it up, and put on new grips and fenders. Riding in NYC seemed to be downright frightening, and I wasn’t sure I was brave enough. But I tried anyway; it worked out to be both scary and fun.

The Strida I found up in the attic is a Strida2, the second iteration of the line that was first manufactured in 1997. It has 16″ wheels, a greaseless Kevlar drive belt, and drum brakes. What I like best about this bike is the speed, compactness, and way that it folds. It’s pretty skinny compared to other folding bikes. You can easily wheel it around when folded, and it’s very easy to get on and off the bus and train. The bike can be folded in about 30 seconds when you get the hang of it. It weighs about 26 lbs. and a little more if I have the rack bag on with my lunch inside. What’s not so great is that it’s a single-speed and has a narrow saddle. You can change out the saddle, of course. It mounts in a very unconventional way, but is easy enough to adjust. The handlebars are flat and narrow, not unlike some of the fixies you see in Brooklyn. They fold inward, as do the pedals, so that you can wheel it down the aisle of the bus without hitting anyone.

Riding the Strida is unique. Because of the nature of the frame design, there is no turning fork; the whole front end of the bike turns. There’s a little sticker on the frame that warns not to do any stunts or wheelies. I can only imagine that a botched landing would be pretty painful. The A-frame never bothered me because it feels like I’m riding a horse. Even though the chainring is oversized, it takes a bit of effort to get any speed out of it, maybe a little like a BMX-style bike. While some new models have gears, I have yet to see a geared unit on the road.

Dahon Folding BikeIt didn’t take long for me to outgrow the Strida. My second folding bike has a somewhat less exciting story.

I bought a Dahon Vitesse D7HG about three months after I started commuting by bike. It was secondhand from one of my co-workers. The ride up and down to my office was just too much effort with the Strida. The Dahon has seven speeds, an internal gear hub, and 20″ wheels. What a difference gears make! The trip became about 10-15 minutes shorter. This opened up a whole realm of possibilities, including earlier trains home.

The Dahon is a much better ride. It feels more like a full-sized bicycle than the Strida does, and the saddle is more comfortable. There is a great deal more adjustability than the Strida in the seat and handlebar height. In fact, the seat post doubles as a pump. There is a chain guard that tries to help your pants from getting greasy, and while it adds a little weight, the bike I have is fitted with a rack and fenders.

Dahon Folding Bike - foldedThe downside to the Dahon is that the way it folds isn’t as convenient for portaging on the bus and train. It fits down the bus aisle, but I can’t wheel it; it must be carried. If there are people overflowing their seats on the bus, I have to excuse myself as I brush past them, which almost always results in dirty looks. The Dahon feels a little heavier than the Strida, even though that difference is pretty marginal – maybe a pound or two. Because it isn’t as narrow and doesn’t wheel well when folded, it’s a little more awkward.

The Bottom Line:

Both the Strida and the Dahon are well-constructed, fun-to-ride folding bikes. Each has some advantages over the other. The Strida may be better suited for folks who have a shorter distance to ride and need to bring it on a bus or a subway. The Dahon is less easy to bring on mass transit, but is better suited for longer rides.

I feel safer riding the Dahon on city streets and am more likely to ride around the city after work to other destinations on it than I would the Strida. I would often get stopped and asked about the Strida in the city at times when I’d rather not answer questions such as, “What is that?” and “Is that a real bike?” It is funny looking when compared to the standard frame shapes, and because of that it almost feels like a toy. Even though it’s a bigger pain to schlep, I’ll still continue to ride the Dahon to work.   It’s better suited to the kind of ride I have to the office.

If you commute to work using a folding bike, what make and model do you use? Please share some pros and cons about your folding bike in the comments.

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8 thoughts on “The Epic Commute & The Tale Of Two Folding Bikes”

  1. Ted Johnson says:

    Katie: I commuted in Washington DC with my Dahon Speed 7, combining bike, Metro, bus, and occasionally a taxi. I can hardly express how much this improved my carfree lifestyle–and continues to improve it, although I no longer live in DC.

    I had a rule of thumb: If it was more than a two-minute walk, unfold the bike and go.

    Very rarely I’d get a hostile comment on the Metro if the train was crowded. There were two station managers that were unfamiliar with the folder exception to the rush-hour rule. One checked into the rule, and admitted her mistake the next time I saw her. The other just wanted to wield authority over me, so I learned to take another Metro entrance.

    Here in Flagstaff, AZ, where I now live, it’s still my preferred commuter bike. I may even get studded tires for it for this winter.

  2. Spencer says:

    I am a graduate student, and prefer a folder due to limited space in the apartment and at the school. I ride a Brompton about 7 miles/day for my commute. I went with the Brompton for its tight fold and for its chain being on the inside of said fold. I’m outfitted with fenders and Schmidt dynamo lighting, 6 speeds, with a messenger-style bag attached to the carrier block out front.

    I love the opportunities this bike opens up for me. It makes riding the shorter trips that much easier, so I ride more. I have an iTchair (child seat), so I ride my daughter to school. It even fits inside my locker at school, so no worries about theft, either.

    Pros-super small fold, quick fold, lighting and fenders, gearing, adjustability, durability, customization, personality.

    Cons-Gear spacing is HUGE, even with the 6-speed (their highest offering). I’m rarely in a comfortable gear. Carrying it up & down stairs is a bit taxing. Replacement parts are mostly proprietary to Brompton.

    That’s my take! Nice post!

  3. matt says:

    I commute 13 miles each way into the heart of Boston on a Xootr Swift folder. Here’s a sample route from earlier this week –

    The Xootr Swift may not be as well known as some other folders, but it is an amazing machine. In my experience it is just as fast as a “regular” bike and quite sturdy, yet folds up to fit on the bus, subway, and commuter rail. I love to zoom past the spandex crowd on their road bikes and leave them wondering what happened. My road bike is a Specialized Roubaix, and it shaves off only a couple of minutes vs. the Xootr Swift.

    It comes with 8 gears, and I’ve installed a front derailleur that brings it to 16 with some nice granny gears for the hills. I’ve also mounted a Topeak rack on the rear so I can carry my laptop, lunch, and clothes for the day.

    Most highly recommended! I am planning to sell my commuter bike (Trek Soho) as I prefer to ride this just in case (like today) I need to take the train home & can bring the bike along.

    The negatives –
    1. it does not fold up as teensy as some other bikes, but at least in Boston all you need to do is show that your bike folds at all to get on public transportation.
    2. it does not roll when folded – at least I can’t get it to do that – so you have to carry it. luckily it’s quite light (22-24#).
    3. the fold involves removing the seat post, so you need to mark your proper insertion point. I hear that Bike Fridays don’t have this problem, but I also hear that Bike Fridays are considerably more expensive.
    4. Like any bike with small wheels, the steering is going to be a bit more responsive (some say “twitchy”) than a bigger bike. I feel less stable riding this bike with one hand, so I’m less likely to signal.

  4. Katie says:

    Funny how you mentioned hostile comments – most of the time, people don’t mind the bike. In the past two weeks, folks on the bus in particular have gotten very ticklish about the bike on the bus with a nasty comment here and there. Might be time to dial-back for the winter. (or move closer to work)

  5. Katie says:

    @Matt – that Xootr Swift looks pretty slick!

  6. Ted Johnson says:

    The hostile comments, as I said, were very rare. Most of the comments (like 95%) I received fell into two demographics:

    1) Those who asked how much the bike weighs.
    2) Those who asked how much the bike cost.

  7. chris mcnally says:

    Another option for you, since you only commute by bike from midtown to the battery and back every day, is to get an old yard sale bike, and leave it locked up in midtown every night.

    You need two good locks and you should take the front wheel with you. You have to remove lights and some people remove their seatpost or lock it down as well.

    I would use a kryptonite chain and Kryptonite U-lock. No thief is going to want to get both of those off for a lousy 50 dollar bicycle. The chain is heavy so you can leave it on the bike rack that you use instead of carrying it back and forth to the battery.

    Then no more snide comments on the bus. You could probably use your folder if you feel ok about leaving it in the rain overnight, which is not good for a bike.

  8. pedalshift says:

    I just bought that same Dahon, and I love it. I’m hoping to use it for some light touring on top of my usual in-city use.

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