The Nerd Factor

AB on a Brommie

I get the feeling that one of the main reasons folding bikes aren’t more popular among urban bike commuters is the fact that they look different than “normal” bicycles (I’ve actually had people comment that they look like “those little bicycles bears ride in the circus”… LOL). After figuring out how incredibly useful they are for city riding and multi-modal commuting, I no longer see them as “weird” or “nerdy” at all. In fact, when I see a person on a nice folder, my gut reaction is one of admiration for the wise and enlightened choice they’ve made.

I’m not saying folding bikes are the end all, but they’re certainly powerful tools that would probably be much more widely used if they didn’t so strongly go against the grain of what we intuitively think of as “bike”. I suspect this is the same reason recumbents have never gained in popularity past their measly 0.5% of market share.

What about you? Assuming you had the need for one, would you feel self-conscious riding a folding bike? Does the look of tiny wheels turn you off or would you feel comfortable riding a bike with 16″ wheels? (I’m talking purely self-image here, not practical reasons related to bike design.)

Would you feel self-conscious riding a folding bike with 16" wheels?

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50 Responses to “The Nerd Factor”

  • dukiebiddle says:

    I disagree with this. All bikes are dorky. If cyclists were put off by dorkiness we’d be driving and walking. I just think that cyclists, at least in the U.S., have to either lack self-consciousness to be completely delusional. Most everyone out there thinks we look like freaks already.

  • Larry Guevara says:

    I’m already a recumbent BikeSnobNYC designated “Contraption Captain,” so riding little wheels cannot further damage my reputation. I am interested in trying a Xootr Swift, but that has 20″ wheels.

  • Archergal says:

    If a folding bike was useful and COMFORTABLE, I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t give a fig for what I looked like on it.

  • Kent Peterson says:

    I’ve totally gotten past the self-consciousness of riding my folder and now it’s pretty much my main bike. It still gets me involved in lots of conversations, however. Todd Fahrner of Clever Cycles summed it up best when he said “folding bikes are almost as effective as dogs at breaking social ice.”

  • Rick Houston says:

    I remember the feeling of how awkward I felt when riding the Tikit for the first time; I’m a fairly large guy (6’4″, 250#–I believe I mentioned to Alan about feeling like the aforementioned bear after riding his Brommie last year), and there were some real concerns about the quickness of the steering, the comfort of the cockpit, and–believe it or not–the difficulty of pulling away from a stop smoothly because of the small wheels.

    Within a day or two, those concerns left completely, and now it’s been replaced by a feeling like I’m in on a secret that few people have, not unlike owning an Apple in the early days: you get the best of both worlds with these bikes, where I can ride along a bike trail for 20-30 miles with no issues regarding performance or comfort, or ride to work where the bike can be easily collapsed to alleviate spacial concerns as the need arises. Also, I love the looks I get at the grocery store when I fold the bike and put it inside the shopping cart to go in!

    Is there a nerd factor? Absolutely, because owning a Swiss Army knife on wheels is both practical AND cool–which is as nerdy as it gets!

  • David says:

    My main concern about riding a bike with 16” wheels is with how well they would perform on my town’s cruddy streets. Also, since I’m a bit of a Clydesdale, I probably would look like that bear in the circus you mentioned.

  • Erik Kugler says:

    Not if it’s a Brompton.

  • Aaron says:

    I’ve been riding a Breezer folder with 20\ wheels as my daily commuter for a while now. It definitely gets lots of comments (mostly very positive, some skeptical; the skeptical comments are usually from other cyclists). I’m building a full sized bike that I’m planning on using as my main ride, and now, if anything, I wish my folder was even smaller (16\ wheels) so it could really serve a different niche.

  • G.E. says:

    My husband purchased a used folding bicycle for me at Christmas time. He had perfectly good intentions in doing so (though I hadn’t asked or even hinted that I would want such a bike), I appreciated very much that he thought of me and my love of bicycles too, and to make matters worse, I could understood why he’d think it would be a nice option for me. However, I felt ridiculous on it. I kept asking, \Why can’t I just ride my normal size bicycles?\ I can definitely see the usefulness of such a bike, and don’t think they are \dorky\ generally speaking, but I felt absolutely ludicrous riding it. I see others on them and think it looks completely normal, but I get on it and feel, as you stated so perfectly, a circus bear on a bike. Perhaps it’s my size? I’m not entirely sure, but I was very pleased when he graciously stated that he wouldn’t be hurt if I sold the ride to fund another bike project, and, someone else is actually getting great use out of it.

  • Alan says:


    I think you really touched on something. A quick test ride in a parking lot is not really enough time to figure out if a folder will work for you. For anyone who is accustomed to riding full-sized wheels, there’s an adjustment period after which riding on smaller wheels becomes second nature. I’ve even found that after spending a day on my Brompton, my other bikes feel sluggish, heavy, and slow. I think much of what makes a bike seem “normal” is just a matter of what’s most familiar.


  • Alan says:


    I too like a wide separation between niches; I want my big bikes to be smooth, and I want my folders to be ultra-quick and tiny.


  • Jason says:

    I believe it also has to do with trends and marketing too. I think many riders pick their bicycles based on what they see their peers riding. And frankly a good quality folder is not commonly seen.

  • sonya says:

    My daily ride (for the last couple of years) is a tikit, so no embarrasment there.
    (The tikit is yellow, my front pannier is an ortleib front roller (yellow and black) & i’ve got a yellow helmet – we stand out just a little bit in that “ooh they match” kind of way)

    @David – the big handling difference (which actually helped my mountain biking) is you need to use your legs to absob some of the bounce/roughness and not your arse – its bumpier than a larger wheeled bike but not uncomfortably so. I’d probably describe it more as putting weight on the pedals and deweighting the seat. I go over timber boardwalks at 20km/hr, gravel etc. regularily and have no problems – the faster you go the more you “float” over the top. I wouldn’t want to do 20km of that though.
    With the tikit theres a noticable difference if there is a pannier or not on the front, or extra weight on the back.

    @Kent – agree with the random conversation factor. I get lots of “cool” comments when I fold & unfold on the train, outside shops etc

    @Alan – agree with adjustment period. This works both ways – trying to dismount a DF bike by using your folding bike technique can create problems for you.

  • Neil says:

    I live in Portland. I’d have to do a bit more to get weird looks than just ride a folding bike.

    I see quite a few folding bikes around town. They look pretty nifty.

  • Jamie says:

    I admit I felt silly on a tiny-wheeled folder when I tried it out. I also did not like the “feel” of the ride on it. So I bought this: (well, the 8-speed 2009 version.) It has 24″ wheels, is stylish and fun to ride. It is also as heavy as sin but since I don’t have to carry it around on my bike-to-BART commute, it works fine for my needs.

  • Cecily Walker says:

    Whatever the female version of a Clydesdale is, I’m it. I’d look ridiculous on a folding bike. I already look ridiculous enough on a dutch bike, but at least it looks somewhat statuesque compared to a folding bike.

    I am fascinated by them, though. And they most certainly make me smile.

  • Jay in Tel Aviv says:

    I have a folder (Dahon MuP8) which in my family is know as the tinker toy. I don’t really like it as a bike but it is very convenient for occasionally loading on the bus to Jerusalem or in my wife’s trunk if I meet her someplace. And it easily fits in the shed for storage. I very much prefer the 90’s steel hardtail MTB which is my regular ride.

  • Tim S says:

    Far from “nerdy”, they were all the rage when I was in Rome this past summer. I was honestly shocked at the number of people riding bikes that are probably considered novelties here in the States.

  • Eric Rogers says:

    Comparing folders to recumbents? Ugh. I tempted to remove this side from GReader :)

    Seriously, I have never had a negative comment about my Dahon. It’s definitely an icebreaker and I get 100% positive reactions. The only reason I ride it less than I would like is that I live in a very hilly city.

  • kfg says:

    I don’t take my self image from my bicycle (or my car, or my clothes, or. . .).

    To the extent that self image is involved, my bicycle reflects that which I am, but ultimately, it is just a tool. The right tool for the right job; and sometimes a folder is the right tool.

  • David says:

    I recently switched back to an upright from a recumbent for commuting in part due to wheel size. My recumbent had a 16″ front and 26″ rear. The 16″ was very harsh on my rough country roads and I didn’t like having to carry two sizes of tubes.
    I’ve come to consider bikes as tools. Use what works for what you need to do and gives you the most enjoyment.

  • Ladia skladaci kola says:

    Yes thats the only problem with folders and recumbents also, you almost never get unnoticed. So if you are a shy person its might not for you. You should enjoy greetings and question, especially on brompton.

  • Sara Dokinchan says:

    I’ve been riding a 16′ wheeled fold up bike for 8 years now, and yes, I am still self conscious about it, but not enough to stop me. People definitely take an interest in it, whether I am riding it, or have it with me on the subway, but less and less as they seem to be getting more popular here.
    And more than the bear in the circus, I feel like the witch from the wizard of oz and get the tune stuck in my head constantly while riding.
    I think it’s largely whether it has been normalized where you ride it. I bought it in Japan and I would never feel self-conscious riding it there, because they are as popular as regular sized bicycles.
    Sometimes it’s fun though to be on the “weird” bike.

  • Garth says:

    There are a lot sillier looking contraptions out there. Like Segways.


  • Lisbeth says:

    Would I feel self-conscious?

    Given that I <3 my Brompton it completely depends on context:

    At the library or drug store receiving admiring comments and questions about the nifty mobility device I have? Absolutely not, that part is awesome.

    While riding past the local elementary school and having a bunch of kids point and laugh? Yes, absolutely. I don't like getting laughed at and pointing is even worse. But they are easy to avoid, don't ride past the school between 2 and 3:30 pm. Which is not really a hardship.

  • Mark says:

    I bought a folder for the sheer utility it provides since it gives me the option of taking it with me on the DC metro or on trips to CA. It is not the first bike I choose to ride on a daily basis, but I have no issues riding it when it is the best option. That said, I think it rides quite comfortably for about 6 or 7 miles, but I tend to start feeling cramped and uncomfortable for rides longer than that. I imagine that some of the more expensive folders (mine is an older Dahon Speed 7) are probably comfortable enough to ride much further, though.

  • Lovely Bicycle! says:

    To me, the folding/small wheel aspect of the bike in itself does not look weird. There are some fairly stylish and elegant ones out there.

  • Jay in Tel Aviv says:

    I should also mention that my folder fits in a suitcase for air travel. For this reason I have done a few short tours with it in the Netherlands and New England.

  • kfg says:

    @Garth – “. . .Segways.”

    OK, I have to admit that when I saw a city cop riding around on one of those things a few years ago I had to repress an urge to do something to get him to chase me, just so I could run just out of his reach until his battery ran down; then point and giggle.

  • Ryan says:

    For someone really concerned with the look of small wheel folders – you should check out Montague Bikes. They make folders with full size wheels and they don’t put any cuts or hinges in their frames. They still fold down though and I take mine on the train to and from work every day. They’re definitely the best looking folders out there.

  • Mark K. says:

    Alan, if you’re trying to escape from the circus, the bike betrays the rest of the disguise. ;-D

    Would I feel self-conscious? Heck no! Of course, I’d hop on my 6 year-old nephew’s BMX with training wheels, given the opportunity. It’s a BIKE, man, it’s all good

  • voyage says:

    This is the one I don’t understand:

    Don’t know whether it is nerd, weird, or dumb, or dangerous.

    Koga offers a lot of commuter/util bikes in Europe, btw.

  • bongobike says:

    I wouldn’t feel self-conscious, I would feel very UNCOMFORTABLE! Riding a bike with wheels that small and a wheelbase that short on city streets can only mean one thing: chattering teeth and a sore bum!!! ;-)

  • Fergie says:

    I guess I’d use a folder if I had to – don’t like how the small wheels affect the ride, though. The spinning wheels of a bicycle act as gyroscopes, stabilizing the bike at higher speeds. With little wheels comes less stability, so no not for me unless I really needed my bike to disappear for multi-modal commuting which thankfully for me isn’t the case.

  • CJM says:

    A bit nerdy from my perspective: There’s strength in numbers, so if more people rode folders in my area I’d feel less self-aware. Also, consider the context: I bike commute 7 miles (R/T) in in a suburban / small town urban area with a max car speed limit of 50mph/bike lane. portal to portal, bike goes from garage to bike locker, so not very practical. If I lived in a city and had a bus/train element to a bike commute and portal to portal was an apartment to office, a folder makes perfect sense.

  • Alan says:


    “Riding a bike with wheels that small and a wheelbase that short on city streets can only mean one thing: chattering teeth and a sore bum!!! ;-)”

    My experience on the Brompton doesn’t bear this out. What some folks may not realize is that the Brompton has rear suspension. It’s only a very small amount of travel, but it does a remarkable job of taking the edge off of rough roads. Have you seen this:

    It’s a great story. Todd actually traversed the Lost Coast on his Brompton – no easy feat on any bike.


  • Drew says:

    Perhaps it IS just misplaced self-consciousness, but at 6’3″ with hilariously long legs (a 64cm frame is outstanding), I already feel borderline silly on a normal bicycle. With a wheel base that short, it seems like the proportions would start to out do the bounds of physics as well as aesthetics. Not to mention- the standard Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania street is riddled with potholes the size of a Brommie’s.

    All that considered, I would love an opportunity to try one out for a weekend trip to another city by train or plane! I get the feeling that that’s the way to travel.

  • Micheal Blue says:

    Sometimes I hear “cool bike” when I ride my 20″ Dahon. It’s also true that a rough road surface can rattle my bones pretty good – I can only imagine how much rattling it would be with 16″ wheels. (I do have a seatpost with suspension).
    When I test rode a folder the first time, basically immediately a big smile came to me. Much more fun to ride than a big bike.

  • grrlyrida says:

    I know a lot of people on this site love them, but they look like clown bikes. Every time I see one that circus music queues up in my head. I don’t find them attractive at all. Just need a red nose and big red shoes when riding one. And it helps to carry a little umbrella. (:

  • Jeff Crowe says:

    Clearly, not all folding bicycles carry the same potential for “autonerdaphobia”.

    Wheel size seems to be the major contributing factor and Bromptons have the additional challenge of that unconventional handlebar as well.

    Once you get into 20″ wheels and above there are some nice, agressive looking bikes out there – ones that you wouldn’t expect to see at the circus.

  • kanishka new england says:

    as mentioned before, in talking to other cyclists, they often have lots of preconceptions and myths in their head, and most are shocked that i ride a folder regularly. their first reaction usually is a facial expression like “that must be impractical, uncomfortable”. i feel like some sort of pioneer based on reactions, though i’m usually a late adopter of technology generally.

  • Cullen says:

    I’d only feel weird if hung out with circus clown cyclists who normally ride high wheel circus bikes…

  • Lee Trampleasure says:

    For me it’s a question of how many bikes can I afford (answer: one). I need a bike that I can use for commuting, grocery shopping, occasional local 30-70 mile rides, and multi-day tours. I don’t think a folder would work for that (nor do I think anyone’s claiming it would). So, while I might not worry about riding on a “funny looking bike,” a folder doesn’t fit my needs.

    Of course, if my subway commute were WITH the commute instead of reverse commute, I might have to figure out a way to afford a folder :-)

  • Bobbyjohn says:

    I love to ride my 6speed British Racing Green Brompton and dont care what people think….. Im a ‘Nerd’ and proud of it :-)

  • ‘Riding Is My Antidepressant’ (Roundup) | Commute by Bike says:

    […] of the nerd factor, EcoVelo wants to know whether you feel self-conscious riding a folding bike with 16″ […]

  • Micheal Blue says:

    @ Lee Trampleasure, yes, a folder would fit all those needs.
    A Bike Friday or a Dahon with 20″ wheels for sure. I know, I have one (Dahon). True, for larger shopping runs one would either need a backpack or a trailer, because the front and rear racks may not have enough space. I took my Dahon (Mu P24) out of the city for weekend joy-rides in the countryside several times. The longest one 50 miles (80 km). My Dahon has enough gearing to bomb along at over 33 km/h all day long, if the body can take it, and at the other end I can spin my way up a steep hill easier than I could on my mountain bike. I’ve read about people touring with 20″ folders.
    In fact, if one could only have one do-it-all bike, a folder with 20″ wheels is what I would recommend (I also have a full-size bike).

  • voyage says:


  • Evan says:

    The thing that puts me off folding bikes most of all is the Cult of Brompton. I feel like if I liked one, I’d be forced to become a folding bike evangelist and spend most of my time talking about how easy they are to fold, and unfold, and then demonstrate that to everyone.

  • voyage says:

    Hooligans don’t fold. Yet they are tiny cult. They even seem to get Photoshopped these days (but perhaps not, who knows?):

    from Thomas:

    a nice work.

  • Alan says:


    Small-wheeled, non-folding bikes are fairly popular in some parts of the world. It’ll be interesting to see if they gain in popularity here in the U.S. Just the existence of the Cannondale Hooligan makes me think it’s a possibility.


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