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Originally published in New York Magazine July 28, 1997

Bike Origami
Douglas Cooper

In New York, you don't so much own a bicycle as much as borrow it for a while from thieves. You may get a month of good use, perhaps a year, but sooner or later it will end up for sale beside some junkie's clothes on Astor Place. My zip code, 10014, is so notorious a target for bike thieves that in 1989, it helped persuade the Kryptonite lock company to withdraw its guarantee program from Manhattan for a time.

The perfect bike must been immune to the kleptocracy we live in. And the only guarantee against theft in this city is never letting the thing out of your sight. A lock in Manhattan is mere ornament; you want to take the bike with you wherever you go. Unfortunately, most bicycles are too large to carry into cafes or onto trains, or to haul up the narrow stair of a narrow six-story tenement.

A number of folding bicycles have found their way onto the market in recent years. The folder used to have an indifferent reputation, but engineers have quietly been refining the notion for decades, and certain designs have their followings among the cycling underground. One model, in particular, recently designed in New York with a frame handcrafted in Eugene, Oregon, may well be the perfect machine to thwart the thieves and potholes of New York City.

Peter Reich, the designer of the Swift Folder ($745), has a small shop in Brooklyn where he carefully assembles this ingenious vehicle. Pull the seat post out, and the Swift collapses in seconds, to a size perhaps half the length of a conventional mountain bike: small enough to fit into a closet. Take off the wheel and the bars-another couple of minutes' work-and the Swift fits into a bag that you can swing over your shoulder.

Reich is a gentle, bearded man who only occasionally betrays the fanaticism associated with bicycle guerrillas and mad scientists. While a student of industrial design at Pratt in the late seventies, Reich decided that he was going to improve upon the bicycle, one of the most efficient machines known to man.

Reich and his frame builder, Jan VanderTuin, went through seven prototypes until they got the Swift Folder right. The Swift marks a radical departure from the traditional folding-bike design: The seat post holds this hinging frame together. Folding the bike is a matter of opening two quick-releases; no tools are necessary. The assembled frame is particularly rigid, unusual for a folder and a quality prized in performance bikes.

The folding bike has a glorious tradition. The first was designed for English paratroopers in World War II. (Soldiers would attach separate parachutes to the bikes and toss them out first.) The most famous collapsible bike-not a true folder-is the Moulton, also British. Alex Moulton is an engineer who decided to disregard the conventional wisdom behind bicycle design: Wheels, for instance, are supposed to be big to cushion the ride; Multon made them tiny and added suspension. Worried that nobody would take sixteen-inch wheels seriously, Moulton entered his odd bicycle in races, and it did surprisingly well, claiming significant victories over standard racing bikes, including a still-standing world speed record for upright bikes.

In 1961, Moulton introduced many of the features still incorporated into highend folders-small wheels, two-part frames, and suspension. His bicycles are still available, if expensive: Count on paying upward of $1,800 for a recent factory-built model, and between $3,000 and $6,000 for one with a handmade frame. Scott Willet, who coaches New York University's triathlon team, used to race a Moulton. "It's a piece of art. But it doesn't pack up so easily", he says. The Moulton doesn't fold so much as come apart, if you have the tools and the patience.

More practical for New Yorkers is the Brompton ($795 and up), another English bicycle which folds into a package just slightly larger than a single wheel, so small that it is hard to believe that it contains 'in potentia' a full-sized bike. And it breaks down, without tools, in about fifteen seconds. The Brompton has a suspension in the rear, which allows the sixteen-inch wheels to offer a comfortable if somewhat soft ride. Both the Moulton and the Brompton suffer aesthetically; atop these bicycles, with their tiny wheels, any normal-size rider looks like a trained bear.

Peter Reich speaks in awed tones of the Brompton's foldability, but his own design improves considerably on the Brompton's performance. I spent the afternoon riding the Swift and the Brompton around Central Park, and though the Brompton is certainly well-engineered, it feels like a smaller, less substantial machine, whereas the Swift Folder has the shape and stiffness that I have learned to expect from a good mountain bike. Also, the Swift has twenty-inch wheels, the standard BMX size, so it doesn't appear ridiculous. With its glossy black finish and oversized tubing, it looks almost sexy.

To rival or better the Swift's exquisite feel, you have to invest in a much more expensive bicycle: perhaps green Gear Cycling's Bike Friday, also hand crafted in Eugene, Oregon (which has become a center for bicycle construction). Bike Friday custom builds the bicycle to match the geometry of your preferred nonfolding bike. The least expensive Bike Friday, the New world tourist ($995), is a bit peculiar-looking--it seems too small to carry a grown-up--but is a marvel of modern engineering.

The more expensive Fridays are even more impressive. One model, the pricey AirFriday ($1.898 and up), collapses into a bike small enough to store in an airplane's overhead bin and unfolds into a bike that won't disgrace you in a triathlon. In fact, Scott Willett has put aside his Moulton and made the AirFriday his personal racing bike. Even if you don't travel the world to race, you might still want to own an AirFriday for its fetish value: The saddle is perched at the tip of a cantilevered titanium beam.

Fridays are Thoroughbreds, and they have an odd ride. One shopkeeper, a fan of the product, described them as "squirrely", which is to say they're extremely responsive. But once you have picked up on the hair-trigger handling characteristics, they're lovely. The AirFriday gets some getting used to, as it can feel like you're sitting on a bouncing beam, but Willet insists that it encourages good cycling habits: You tend to use a "spinning" pedaling movement instead of simply pushing down with the ball of the foot.

The AirFriday doesn't fold quite as effortlessly as the Swift or the Brompton. You can accomplish a partial fold in a couple of minutes, but even a seasoned owner must take at least twenty minutes to get your bike into it custom made suitcase with a hex key. Bike Friday supplies a complete tool kit and velvet bags for the dismantled bits. It's not the ideal New York commute bike, but it's probably the perfect machine to take to Katmandu or purchase as a wedding gift for royalty.

Lots of car marques are finding their way onto bicycles these days, including BMW. The BMW folders are built by Montague, which also makes its own line of well-regarded folding bicycles. In fact, if you want full-sized wheels in a reasonably quick-folding machine, and don't mind that it won't get all that small, you might want to investigate the various Montagues. I tried both BMW models, the road bike ($700 and up) and the mountain bike $800 and up, with or without suspension), and found them solid, if uninspiring. The patented Montague folding mechanism is a bit clumsy; it requires removing a wheel, and breaking the bike down takes much longer than the Swift or the Brompton.

The Brompton can be heartily recommended for its ability to get tiny, and the Friday for its craftsmanship, but Peter Reich's Swift Folder seems the perfect compromise for this grueling town: a moderately priced bicycle that folds very quickly, gets pretty small, and most important, does all of this without a perceptible sacrifice in performance or aesthetics. Of all the bikes I tested, the Swift Folder feels the most like a premium road machine. I even prefer the Swift to my full-size Specialized Stumpjumper, a respected mountain bike adapted for city use.

Bicycle enthusiasts are fiercely partisan: When I studied architecture, I remember a prominent professor devoted most of a lecture to the design of his Moulton. I know of a woman who speaks of her Brompton the way most people recall a first lover. And one man sneered at my suggestion that some guy in Brooklyn was building a bike that rivaled his beloved Friday. Now that I have purchased the Swift demonstrator, I am increasingly intolerant of lesser vehicles--cars, for instance--and find myself boring strangers at stoplights with hyperbolic praise of the machine beneath me.

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