Michael de Jong was riding through the mountains surrounding Caracas on a folding bike that fits into a carry-on suitcase. Day 2 of a week-long Venezuelan tour was going smoothly -- until he lost control on a steep slope, fell and hurt his shoulder. The thirtysomething Canadian wound up in a nearby village, where the inebriated residents claimed the only cure for his injury was to drink plenty of rum. He made it to the capital the next day -- with a slight hangover -- where he tended to his injury.
But this 2002 tumble hasn't stopping the hotel owner from taking his folding bicycle on business and pleasure trips around the world. "People in the developing world are puzzled to see [travellers from the developed world]riding bikes," de Jong says, explaining that wealthy tourists are expected to drive cars. "Locals open up more quickly when you're riding a bike."
Forging friendships isn't the only reason to tote these compact cycles. Sales have surged in recent years as travellers have joined city dwellers in embracing this convenient, stylish and economical form of transportation.
De Jong -- who organizes races such as the annual Tour d'Afrique, an 11,000-kilometre ride across Africa -- embarked on a slightly less adventurous outing when I joined him this past summer on the tourist trail from Toronto's Union Station to the Casa Loma historic site four kilometres away. He rode his custom-built foldable (worth several thousand dollars), and fared better than I did on my $200 T-Bike (a brand that made its debut in Canada this fall).
While the T-Bike did unfold well -- and soldiered on stoically between lanes of midmorning traffic -- it was heavy, the steering was twitchy and it was difficult to handle on hills. The tiny seat, meanwhile, would be uncomfortable on long trips. I would like to say we completed our journey, but in truth we went about halfway and finished our ride with cappuccinos at a café. It was no tour across a continent -- which suited me just fine.
Lynette Chaing, on the other hand, has cycled around more than a dozen countries on her folding bicycle -- Peru, Costa Rica and Denmark, to name a few -- and documents her adventures at http://www.galfromdownunder.com. The 40-year-old spokeswoman for Oregon-based Bike Friday says her two cycles -- the Pocket Rocket Pro Petite and Tourlite Crusoe -- provide independence from rental cars, taxis and buses in foreign cities. And during wet weather, she can stick her "two-wheeled wonder" in a trunk or bag, and store it in even the tiniest hotel room. The bikes' small size also helps them avoid air-travel surcharges levied on their full-size counterparts.
Chaing adds that the small frames, low horizontal bars and light weights makes the bikes easier for petite women and the elderly to handle. And they can be customized to suit the needs of disabled riders (by adding hand cranks for paraplegic cyclists, for example).
Bike Friday, one of the higher-end folding bicycle makers, sells more than 200 bikes a month, a number that has doubled over the past five years, Chaing says. She attributes the jump in sales to higher-quality frame materials, such as titanium and aluminum, and more stylish designs. Though the better bikes can cost thousands of dollars, "people will pay for something that will suit their needs. We're filling a niche: the travel bicycle," she says.
Indeed, Bike Friday's website actively encourages globetrotters to pack their foldables, with a travel forum and a "yak" e-mail service for travellers to share tips.
Los Angeles-based Dahon sells more folding bikes -- 300,000 worldwide last year -- than all other manufacturers combined, says marketing manager Stephen Cuomo. In the United States, he adds, sales have jumped by 50 per cent since last year.
"There's almost a fashion trend toward folding bikes," he said. "It's similar to the iPod phenomenon -- the use of smaller, compact personal-use-type items. And I think the overall concept of folding bikes and the look of them has become a fashion trend, especially in New York. We're selling a lot of bikes there."
High gasoline prices, as well as taxes on car use in places like London, have also boosted sales, Cuomo says.
The demand for folding bikes is growing in urban areas where locals and tourists rely on "multi-modal" transportation, such as buses and subways, to get around, he says. And the bikes are so compact that they can be smuggled onto even the most bike-unfriendly transit systems and into hostels.
Dahon also supports folding-bike travel with an on-line forum, as well as a gallery made up of photos contributed by riders in such far-flung destinations as Barcelona, Greece's Peloponnese region, and even Gatineau Park near Ottawa.
Several folding-bike clubs, meanwhile, provide tips on worldwide travel, including the Chicagoland Folding Bike Society and The Folding Society, based in England.
Foldables have been widely available for about a decade, Michael de Jong explains, but have grown in popularity partly because higher-quality brands are hitting the market. England's Brompton Bicycle, for example, is now selling bikes that weigh about 10 kilograms for between $1,300 and $3,000.
Bike Friday's offerings range from commuter bikes priced at around $1,000 to folding recumbents costing as much as $8,000. The investment is worthwhile for serious bicycle travellers, Chaing says, as the company's products are one of the few folding bikes designed for long-distance tours. "Most [folding bikes]are designed for going a couple of miles. Ours are specifically designed as a high-end form of bike," she says.
De Jong, meanwhile, is still relying on his foldable to navigate both the wilds and the concrete jungle. His most recent exploit involved a 1,600-kilometre trip across South America. Eschewing pavement, he took his bike across sandy beaches, and when he encountered a river, he folded up his bike, deployed a nifty Feathercraft folding kayak, and paddled across.
BIKE FRIDAY NEW WORLD TOURIST
Weight: About 11 kilograms, depending on configuration.
List price: From $1,170.
The skinny: This U.S. company custom-builds bikes to customers' specifications -- long-legged cyclists can order extra-long seat posts, for example, and riders can choose horizontal or drop handlebars. The bike folds into an optional suitcase.
DAHON HELIOS SL
Weight: 7.6 kilograms.
List price: About $1,060
The skinny: The Helios SL, made of aluminium alloy, claims to be "the lightest production folding bike on the planet." Its folded form, left, is 28-by-56-by-81 centimetres in size, small enough to fit into a roomy suitcase.
Contact: http://www.dahon.com; 1-800-236-2953.
The skinny: British firm Brompton focuses on higher-end bikes, and their cheapest model shares a clever design that gives it the longest wheelbase on the market -- for a comfortable, stable ride -- and makes it very easy to fold.
Contact: bromptonbicycle.co.uk; 514-633-8113 (in Montreal).
Weight: 14.8 kilograms.
Skinny: This economical alternative -- available through a wholesaler in Canada -- is a cruising-style foldable with a five-speed indexed gear system and single-shock suspension.
Contact: 1-800-916-6820; http://www.goods-2-go.com.
Chicagoland Folding Bike Society: http://www.geocities.com/rjmatter.
The Folding Society: foldsoc.co.uk.
Feathercraft Folding Kayaks: Vancouver; http://www.feathercraft.com; 604-681-8437.