Folding bikes date back all the way to the 1860s and have played an interesting role in the history of cycling. The portability of folding bikes has been a huge benefit in modern life, where convenience and space-saving are key.
For many people though, there has been a nagging doubt about folding bike durability. Unfounded or not, there have been stories of folding bikes breaking in half. So, does the helpful ability to fold away come with an increased risk of having your bike literally fall apart?
Do Folding Bikes Break in Half?
It’s important to note that every bike has a breaking point. This is true for regular bikes as it is folding bikes, and whether the bike is made of aluminum, carbon or even steel. Every metal has its limits for tolerance to stress and every frame can break in certain conditions. For folding bikes though, the question is, “do folding bikes break more easily than non-folding bikes?”
There is some truth that folding bikes have broken in half. Having a frame that collapses back on itself as many designs do, creates an obvious issue. Some basic physics tells us that applying a joint will weaken an object.
Both the folding joint and the hinge have often been the weakest part of folding bikes. Even when it comes to reputable brands, this is often still the case. The additional welding required also causes further weak points. As the more joints you have, the more points of failure there are.
I actually decided to look into just how many of these folding bikes do break. I found several recalls, some even from popular brands:
|Dahon and REI Novara Folding Bicycles (11,500 units)||The hinge on the handlepost can crack||May 12, 2009|
|Tikit Folding Bicycles (3,800 units)||The Tikit bike’s handlebar stem can break||November 14, 2012|
|Tern folding bicycles (175 units)||The bike’s frame can crack at the hinge on the top tube||June 27, 2013|
|Jetty Express 2 and the Port Runner 2 (4,600)||The bicycle’s frame can break||January 30, 2014|
|Origin8 folding bicycles (1,600 units)||The frame on the folding bicycles can break||December 30, 2015|
|UltraX and Ultra1 Folding Bicycles (150 units)||The bike’s frame can break||February 26, 2018|
We can see that it’s not only the frame that can break, but also parts related to the handlebar. However, to think of folding bikes as fragile or novelty bikes would be a mistake. In fact, this may be a golden period for folding bikes. There are bikes on the market now that are designed to actually separate.
The typical rider, however, will benefit most from the development from established brands such as Brompton, Dahon, and Tern. These brands are at the forefront of folding bike design and invest heavily in research and development. Looking at how technology combines with hand workmanship in Brompton’s factory, gives you an understanding of the level of design and testing that is now common with folding bikes.
How Riding Affects Durability
How folding bikes are ridden also effects durability. Most models come with a recommended maximum weight for a rider and guidelines. For example, most folding bikes aren’t meant to be ridden on heavy trails or used the way a BMX bike might be. While folding frames generally hold up well, they can break if they are constantly abused.
The majority of folding bikes are at their best when used for commuting and touring. With cracks and fractures developing over time, heavy impact can cause the frame to come away at the hinge in extreme circumstances. Thankfully, this happens less as designed have improved.
There have been riders who have purposely pushed their folding bikes to their limits just to see how far they can really go. One rider would ride their 2008 Dahon Jetstream XP folding bike on numerous trails around the country. These trails were long, technical and steep. Eventually, the folding bike broke in half after 7000 miles of abuse!
What About Cracks and Fractures?
Not many folding bikes break in half outright. Instead, they will develop cracks or fractures in the hinge first. Cracks can develop in any frame but occur more often with folding bikes around the hinge.
Naturally, the concern is that a fracture could turn into a complete break at any time. But how serious are cracks? Should you keep riding with a craked bike frame?
It’s a difficult choice for riders. Some will tolerate a fracture in steel more than aluminum, as it will often show some clues when it’s about to give way completely.
The position of the frame crack is also important. While frames are designed in different shapes, any area where there is particular stress and no other support needs careful examination. Over-tightening of frame levers, rust, overly-hard riding, or manufacturing defects can all have an impact on frame fractures. If you’re concerned at all the crack, taking it into the store is often the best first step.
It’s not a bad idea to inspect your bike every so often for cracks, especially if you do ride them hard. A lot of bikes come with a warranty and any issue with the frame should be covered.
For bikes that aren’t under warranty, there is a choice of whether you should continue to ride it. Some people will carry on for months and even years with a crack that remains stable and doesn’t develop.
Cheap vs Quality Folding Bikes
It will come as no surprise that the most durable and well-designed folding bikes come with a heftier price tag. The research and development, design innovation, and crafted parts all come with a price.
In general, cheaper bikes are less robust. If you’re buying a bike from the supermarket, it most likely won’t have been designed as well. There is still a place for low-cost folding bikes, but they might not last as long as higher-end models.
It worth considering that companies who have focused on developing folding bikes for years are still focusing on improving durability. Low-cost quick turn over bikes will come with limitations. That being said, if you do your research, there there are still very good low-cost folding bikes that will last for years.
Frame Material Matters
Frame material is an important choice when looking for folding bikes. Generally, aluminum is lighter and more expensive for bike frames. Steel, on the other hand, is heavier, cheaper and more robust.
Where aluminum is brittle and fails quickly, steel bends and is more reliable. This has led to some debate over which material is best. You can find different manufactures often choosing one metal and sticking with it.
Popular Folding Bikes
There are some bikes that fit within a reasonable budget that are still better quality than lower-pried bikes.
The EuroMini ZiZZO Via (discontinued) is a light bike at 27 lbs. To keep the weight down, it uses an aluminum frame, but there is a support bar underneath. This adds additional support and makes the bike look well proportioned. Although it is light and compact, some riders use it on light trails. Some slipping has been reported on the handlebars which may need a solution, but this is a well-specified bike that ticks a lot of boxes.
Schwinn has a well-established history of quality bikes and their Loop Folding Bike is another good option. Like the Zizzo, it has 20” wheels and is seven-speed, which is a nice size and spec for moving around the city.
The bike weighs 33 lbs but has an attached rear carry rack. If you’re commuting or want to carry some gear, this is particularly useful. The bike fits into the trunk of a car easily. This bike doesn’t lock into place once folded, so you might want to grab some bungee cords or velcro straps.
Both bikes are reasonably priced and have everything you would expect from a folding bike. They’re easily transportable and super convenient. In terms of durability, they are up to the task of what folding bikes were designed for.
There are also plenty of other more expensive models, such as Dahon, Brompton, and Tern. While many of these are excellent bikes, few of them would hold up to something like serious mountain biking.
The last decade has pushed folding bikes forward. They aren’t the toughest bikes for sale, but the durability has improved. As long as you do a little research to avoid the very worst of the bunch, folding bikes are generally robust enough to be fit for their purpose. It’s true that they don’t hold up well compared to mountain bikes or BMXs, but the fact they are even compared to them shows that progress has definitely been made.