OPTIMISING A CHEAP FOLDING BIKE
A well respected cycling book (1) says “Cheap folders are a nightmare: heavy, awkward to fold, and absolutely horrible to ride. More expensive ones, such as the Brompton, are excellent..........” This is sound advice and fine if you are happy to spend £900 on a Brompton. Even very second-hand they hold their value. I have other bikes so buying a folder for occasional use was not top of my priorities.
Folders tend to be assembled from inexpensive components to keep down overall cost because their frames are more costly to manufacture than fixed frames, involving more manufacturing operations. This means they can be greatly improved by changing some components. Folders are often sold by non-specialist outlets that are unable to properly prepare the bike for the customer, compounding their shortcomings.
The rigidity of the Brompton frame and flick of the wrist fold are hard to beat but if prepared to compromise, cheaper alternatives can be upgraded and performance optimised. Cycle components are easily changed and adjustment and lubrication attended to.
Seeing an Urbanlite in as-new condition for less than a quarter of its £209 internet new price it was worth experimenting, having a magnesium alloy frame. It weighs 9.5kgs (20.9lbs) with the steel kick stand removed. Nothing beats the speed and compactness of the Brompton fold but the Urbanlite’s I can live with.
Initial experience and preliminary fettling
As forewarned, the Urbanlite was horrid to ride. Every point of contact with the body needed attention but having a light alloy frame it was worth persevering with, especially for carrying on a boat given its corrosion resistance. The handlebar grips had uncomfortable ridges; the folding resin pedals flexed and had been poorly assembled. The grips were swiftly changed for the old ones off my hybrid. If you have not serviced pedals before, each has 26 tiny ball bearings, 13 in each race, easily lost. One side of each pedal gave a more rigid riding surface than the other. These I marked with white paint.
The bike was becoming more comfortable but the cam action saddle post pinch bolt was not up to my 14 stone. The saddle kept slipping down. This was rectified by roughening the alloy of the post with emery cloth to increase the friction grip. The Urbanlite saddle was unsprung. In the interim it was usable.
I fitted a front reflector, a rear one was supplied.
The kick stand was unnecessary. One leans a bike against a fixture to which it is locked. Removing it saves weight (323 grams, nearly 11 ½ oz) and gets rid of a projection.
The Urbanlite has six gears, having only one front chain ring. The smaller wheels of a folder reduce the gearing. The gears are Shimano. The derailleur “the rear mech” works well when properly adjusted and lubricated. The gears are indexed so turning the handle bar twist grip one click shifts positively to the next gear.
There are four adjustments on a rear mech, cable length, upper and lower limit stops and the angle of the jockey wheel carriage. The Haynes Bike Book (2) has a good section on adjusting them. This and the Park Tools Big Blue Book of Cycle Repair (3), come into their own when repairs are necessary. The Park Tools book identifies those necessary and their part numbers, enabling the right ones to be bought on the internet.
First outing on the boat
The bike’s first outing on the boat was to the Heugh anchorage Holy Island, Northumberland. Transfers by dinghy were not difficult with the weather cooperating but I had a line on the bike in case of accident.
The bike came with a non-waterproof zipped cover, helpful for keeping chain oil off other things and to protect the inflatable fabric and boat GRP from chain ring teeth.
Being single handed there is room below deck to stow the bike out of the way. Most bikes rust quickly if left exposed to the weather. If stowed on deck, covering with a small Bradshaw’s Monodex tarpaulin is the answer to the worst of the wet and sea salt but generous oiling and use of a maintenance spray on bare metal is sensible additional protection.
On Holy Island I rowed ashore, leaving the Avon out of sight and sun behind the Trinity House store below the old coastguard station. Cycling on the island one felt privileged on seeing the continuous stream of people heading into Lindisfarne village, knowing that one would return when the crowds were departing.
I rode the causeway, going up the steps into the tide refuge at the bridge over the Low, the channel that separates the island from the mainland. I also walked over the sand to the refuge on the Pilgrims’ Way, ascended by ladder. Both are good view points. One has much more freedom to stop on a bike, not needing a car parking space.
On the mainland I photographed the WWII tank landing obstacles. Riding in summer sunshine with scenic views, sea breeze and smell of the sea was quality cycling. However it did remind that the design is a compromise, ideally needing extra higher and lower gear ratios. For exploring, higher ratios are of little consequence as one is generally pottering along looking at ones surroundings. The small wheels help compensate for the limited low ratios.
The Holy Island trip was enough to confirm that a folder has a place on my boat but comparison was only ever going to be unfavourable without upgrading the points of contact.
I sent off an internet order for Ergon GP1 grips (Large Gripshift), a Bodyfit unisex sprung saddle and MKS FD-7 alloy folding pedals. Ergon grips present a flared shaped surface for the hand to rest on and are made of a shock absorbing material. Twist grip gear shifts mean grips have to be shorter than when one has trigger operated gears, hence the Gripshift designation. These all arrived the next day and provided the transformation of ride I was after. The alloy pedals are more rigid and fold easily. The £68 cost meant a total outlay of around £120 for the bike, a pretty reasonable sum for a boat accessory of such utility.
Carriage of luggage I’m still working on, a wire basket has been bought. Normal side panniers are not suitable for a folder on account of the small wheel size. A rack top pannier may be added.
A folder is never going to ride as well as a rigid fixed frame bike with full size wheels and multiple chain rings but is a whole lot better than no bike at all. Optimising performance minimises the difference.
Urbanlite by the WWII tank obstacles Berwickshire
Urbanlite and Bridge over the Low Holy Island
Urbanlite by the refuge on the Pilgrims' Way
I normally ride on Schwalbe Marathon Tour Plus tyres. These have a tread layer called Smartguard that is virtually puncture proof. When the original fitments wear out they will be fitted. The cycle mechanic in Elevation Cycles, Linlithgow did the Annapurna trail on them 2,000miles without a puncture. Punctures can be such an inconvenience the cost of these tyres is well worth it.
If returning to cycling after some years, on today’s roads one needs to ride defensively, wear a reflective high visibility jacket or vest, a helmet, gloves and have elbows covered. Being seen is critically important. LED lights are incredibly efficient. Most have a flashing mode to highlight the cyclist’s presence, especially important on country roads.
Much traffic can be avoided using SUSTRANS National Cycle Route and SPOKES area maps.
Bikes have changed enormously in the last few decades. Weekly maintenance can be done with a few Allen keys, spanners and screw drivers but for more than that newer makes of bike tend to require their own proprietary tools. Again, this is where the Park Tools book is useful.
A chain cleaning machine is a labour saving innovation. It enables the chain to be cleaned on the bike using a detergent. Bike cleaning brushes are also available with long stiff bristles that will clean the sprockets.
If re-lubing bearings, any grease is better than no grease but I’m are talking optimising. Proprietary cycle grease is specially formulated for the application and so performs better than motor greases. I favour Crystal White Lightning. Similarly cycle chain oil will do a better job than motor oil, staying on the chain and picking up less dirt. I use Bikeline Wet Lube. Proprietary chain oil is of the right viscosity which together with wiping off excess helps keep it off wheel rims, avoiding brake squeal.
Advantages of a bike on the boat
Adding cycling to yacht cruising is fun, giving more extensive scope for exploring ashore. It is a perfect complement to the confines of a small boat. On canals, crew can go ahead of the boat to prepare locks and a bike serves as a wheelbarrow to get shopping, fuel and water back to the boat. A folder can be carried on Scottish Highlands and Islands buses but it has to have a cover. Bus companies wish to avoid passengers getting chain oil on clothes and luggage.
Sources of second-hand folding bikes
The Bike Station Edinburgh, Glasgow and Perth and Recyke - A - Bike, Stirling and Falkirk sometimes have second-hand folding bikes for sale. These are charities that take donated bikes refurbish and sell them. In the process they teach youngsters to be cycle mechanics. Other services are also provided including rider training, support from a qualified cycle mechanic and maintenance courses. Much of this is free, funded by Scottish Government’s Climate Challenge Fund.
1. The Complete Book of Cycling, Dan Joyce, Carlton Reid and Paul Vincent, Chancellor Press, 2000, ISBN 0 75370 282 7.
2. The Bike Book, Fred Milson, Hanes Publishing, 1995, ISBN 1 85960 119 7.
3. Big Blue Book of Cycle Repair, A Do-It-Yourself Bicycle Repair Guide From Park Tool, Calvin C. Jones, Second Edition 2008, published by The Park Tool Company, ISBN 978 0 976553 02 1.
17 February 2014