The bewildering array of folding bikes made by the half dozen brands we carry can be overwhelming when you try to compare their widely varying attributes. Tire widths, gear ratios, number of cogs, top tube length--the number are endless, and can be intimidating to sort out for someone trying to zero in on the perfect folding bike for their needs. One number that comes up in comparing folding bike is that of wheel diameter. Most of the bicycles in our shop sport 20" wheels, and this is more or less the "standard" size for a folding bike. However a wide range of sizes is represented, from Brompton's 16" wheels, to the 24" wheels that certain unique Dahon and Tern models utilize, all the way up to the full-sized 26" and 700c wheels used on Montague folding bikes.
So what's the difference between all these options? What's right for you? What does it all mean? Is there any point to this life we lead? Let's try to answer some of these questions, if not all.
Let's start small. Very small. The 16" wheels found on Brompton folding bikes and the Dahon Curve D3 are some of the smallest in the shop, and as a result, these are some of the most maneuverable bikes around. The small wheels means making quick turns is exceedingly easy, and their small profile shaves significant weight from the bike as a whole. Of course, the number one reason these bike sport the diminutive wheels is that they allow the bikes to fold as compactly as possible. The Brompton in particular is entirely engineered around folding to a footprint just larger than that of one of its wheels.
There are some downsides to wheels this little. Most significantly, their smaller circumference means cracks and bumps in the road are felt more readily, and because they need to rotate more times in order to cover the same distance as a larger wheel, their tires will wear down a little bit quicker. Of course, folding bike engineers realize this, and have taken steps to counteract the shortcomings. On the Brompton, for example, a small spring in the rear hinge smooths out much of the turbulence that is often associated with 16" wheels, and Kevlar-lined tires ensure that the rubber on these compact beauties will enjoy a long and full life.
By and large (so to speak), the most prevalent wheel diameter found on folding bikes is 20". While most people find that it takes a little bit of getting used to, 20" wheels are stable enough to feel comfortable for the average biker within the first few rides. However, their relatively small size still allows them superior agility, making these bike extremely fun to ride while dodging through traffic.
A happy medium between size and performance, bikes with 20" wheels can fold to a remarkably compact silhouette, but can still be kitted out to be incredible racing machines. Take, for example, Dahon's 30 Year Anniversary Carbon Racer, which is equipped with top-shelf components like Shimano Dura Ace and SRAM Red. It's 20" wheels are outfitted with custom racing tires that ensure this bike truly combines the practicality of a folding bike with high performance.
On the other hand, bikes like the Dahon Jetstream demonstrate that 20" wheels are not out of place on a full-suspension adventure bike. Whatever kind of biking you do, you will be able to find a 20" folding bike to fit your needs. This is truly the most versatile wheel size.
Though most of our customers get used to the different feel of the 16" and 20" wheels, some cannot quite acclimate to these overly-agile folding bikes. Thus, both Tern and Dahon offer some select models that roll on rarer 24" wheels. These bikes tend to roll on larger, plush tires, and utilize either cruiser-styled or commuter-type frames.
Because of the larger wheel diameters, these bike certainly do not fold to the same compact size as their little cousins, but are still compact enough to be based around the same folding designs. The best thing about going with the 24" bikes is that they ride pretty much as smoothly as a full-sized bike. In fact, the Tern Eclipse S11i probably rolls more smoothly than the majority of all full sized bikes out there, as it is equipped with extremely high-end parts. For those looking for the ultimate combination of comfort and portability, 24" wheels are the way to go.
And then of course there are the full-sized folding bikes, most readily represented at NYCeWheels by Montague, who manufactures bikes with this wheel size exclusively. Whereas all the smaller bikes are designed to fold quickly and easily to aid in hopping a quick subway, riding a train, or even flying, folding bikes with full 700c wheels are made to break down less frequently--perhaps for overnight storage in the closet, or for stowing in the trunk of a car on a road trip. In order to accommodate the luxurious wheel size, you need to remove these bikes' front wheel in order to fold it down to its most compact form.
Nothing beats the smooth ride quality of a full-sized wheel, which can glide over crags and potholes with ease. For many, the quirky look of some of the smaller-wheeled bikes is a non-starter, so full-sized folders may be the only option for aesthetic reasons as well.
It is worth noting that between, the Dahon Espresso folding bike, Tern Joe series, and the Montague Paratrooper and Swissbike lines, there are also many folding bikes with 26" wheels. These are also considered full-sized bikes, as 26" is the traditional wheel size for most mountain bikes. Following that heritage, folding bikes with 26" wheels will often have knobbier tires and be more ready to tackle non-paved roads. Anyone seeking adventure and a smooth ride need look no further than a 26" bike like the Montague Paratrooper Pro.