Big Bike, Little Wheels

Soma Mini Velo
What’s Wrong With This Picture?

Nope, I’m not messing around with Photoshop again—you’re looking at a real bike with funny proportions and tiny wheels called a “Mini Velo”.

Mini Velos are otherwise full-sized bicycles with 20″ wheels and road-ish components and ergonomics. They look a bit like folders, but they don’t fold. They’re light and responsive with a ride that falls somewhere between a “normal” bike and a folder (think Moulton or Bike Friday, but without the linkage).

Measured outside to outside, a Mini Velo is nearly 15″ shorter than a standard bike. This has made them wildly popular in urban Japan where storage space is at a premium (they’re gaining in popularity in other parts of Asia and Europe too). They’re great for any situation where a standard bike is just too big.

That’s a Soma Mini Velo pictured above. Even though it looks so small, the 53cm frame fits Michael surprisingly well (she’s 5’8″). The illusion is striking. She’s only ridden it a short time, but her initial impression is that it’s fun, comfortable, and quick. She thinks it would be ideal for anyone who lives in a small apartment but isn’t interested in a folding bike.

We’ll have more on the Soma Mini Velo over the next couple of months.

More at Soma

Disclosure: Soma is a sponsor of this website and provided the Mini Velo for evaluation.

29 Responses to “Big Bike, Little Wheels”

  • David Bolles says:

    I don’t quite get it. Maybe it’s a cost issue?
    “For places where a standard bike is too big” like a “small apartment”
    The person doesn’t want a bike that folds(?) and takes up even less space than this bike?

    I don’t see these being around long. Has this company put any effort in to folding bikes?

    I don’t have a folding bike though I am a fan. I don’t need one. However, I see that sort of bike being a no brainer for city dwellers, people with limited space, etc…

    This sort of ride, to me, simply is a new stab at the minimalistic market. a small joke.

  • Alan says:

    David,

    You know I love folders, but they are somewhat complex, they can be heavy for their size, they can be expensive for their build quality, and many designs make compromises in ride quality in exchange for foldability and compactness. Mini velos provide an alternative for those who don’t really need a fold, but can use a more compact bike than a full-sized 700c road bike.

    It’ll be interesting to see if mini velos catch on here. Like I mentioned, they’re tremendously popular in some parts of the world, so who knows, they could become popular here too. I, for one, am always glad to see new alternatives that attempt to meet specific needs and solve problems for transpo riders.

    Alan

  • Caroline says:

    Velouria at Lovely Bicycle! reviewed something like this (http://lovelybike.blogspot.com/2010/12/decide-2-ride-boogie-small-wheeled-non.html), only the look was IMO much less classic than the Soma that Michael will be testing. Interesting! I live in a small space, but I have a walk in closet, so that serves as effective full-size bike storage.

  • jdmitch says:

    @Alan,

    Yeah the minivelos seem to be less expensive than folders while being better performing. Quite an interesting niche, maybe a large niche.

    Like a gateway drug…

  • Crosius says:

    An additional possibility: An upright bike like this could have wheels I could swap with my recumbent. I can’t do that with a more conventional upright.

    I do like the responsive (some would say “twitchy”) steering of the small wheels on my folding bike, so maybe if that’s the sort of ride-quality you like, this bike makes sense.

    Small tires are generally less expensive than their larger equivalents – although they are not in stock at LBS as often.

    Moulton has always advocated (and sometimes won races with) small wheels, maybe they’re on to something.

  • Ira Kinro says:

    I am so excited about this. I was close to special ordering one from Europe. It looks like I’ll wait a bit and see what I can find more locally. The shorter wheelbase will be a big plus on light rail. Folders are great, but I don’t need the bike to fit in a grocery bag, so I don’t really want the additional cost and weight of a folder. Also, San Diego (where I am) is very urban and amazingly hilly. Those small diameter wheels look like they have hardly any rotational inertia i.e. fantastic for stop-and-go city riding and for hill climbing.

    I’d swap out some components though. balloon tires, mustache bars, N360 hub. Also, add fenders, rack, bell, lights.

  • voyage says:

    Hey, Alan Barnard, thanks for posting this! As a dyed-in-the-Spandex road biker, it was a bit of a transition for me to buy a Specialized Sirrus Comp Disc (a fine commuter bike, btw) in 2005 for commutes and this year I graduated to a Cannondale Hooligan 8 for my short commute and little get arounds. After doing the usual upgrades (grips to Ergons, saddle to Specialized Body Geometry, bolt-on seat post rack) about all that’s left is to replace is the cassette with a Shimano HG and the der with Alivio. I am happy with the bike (even the 42T ring, no big deal as I ride on level ground, and even the Kenda Kwest tires) and the concept, and no, I don’t live in an apartment. I have no idea whether small bikes can go beyond cult status in USA, I am happy with mine in terms of function and passable form (we get a lot of interest, always curious and positive).

    Anyway,

    Get your cult on at “Cannondale Hooligan is on Facebook”

    at:

    http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=146088275355&v=info

    I considered Melons that fold, Melons that don’t fold at:

    http://www.melonbicycles.com/Departments/Folding-Bikes/Coming-Models.aspx

    but didn’t need or want to deal with a folder and their non-folders aren’t there yet.

    In the research I found this: “Small Wheels for Adult Bicycles” at:

    http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~hadland/page15.html

    which will upset some people, but at least we get some history and nice old photographs.

  • David Bolles says:

    Alan,

    Great points on the folders there. Heavy for the size, pricey etc.
    I can definitely see the positive things the mini velo has to offer. I could imagine it being a lot of fun. Quick, responsive……

    Still, my gut response is that in enough time they’ll be on clearance. Some folks will have them and enjoy them. People will put up photos and say “remember when this was hot?!”
    Then in twenty years they’ll come back and kids in tight space age pants will buy them :)

  • Velouria says:

    As noted by others, I believe there is some demand for compact-sized bikes without the complexity of folding. Most cyclists I know who own folders and use them as their primary bikes don’t actually use the folding feature anyway, but just keep them unfolded. I’d be very curious to try the Soma.

    Alan – Is there toe overlap?

  • Jason Brune says:

    I’ve alway been a huge fan of 20 inch wheels. Smaller wheels are stronger. I can see a market for this bike in urban areas. I have a folder for my primary ride and rearly use the fold. I like the nimble handling, low position of my grocery panniers, and ease of getting it in and out my place. Add a couple of S&S couplers and it would a be great world travel bike too.

  • Steve C says:

    a couple of questions:

    how do they go with toe/front wheel interference, and

    what about pedal clearance when cornering?

  • Joseph Eisenberg says:

    Full-size, single-speed bikes with 20″ wheels are very popular among young adults here in Long Beach. I see people riding them all over town. They call them BMX bikes.

    Well, I know that a BMX doesn’t have the gearing or geometry or even the sensible seat height of a mini-velo, but clearly people are already using 20″ non-folding bikes around here.

  • Alan says:

    Toe overlap is not an issue – the little wheel takes care of that. Pedal clearance is on the low side, approximately 1/2″ less than my other bikes. I wouldn’t call it a serious issue, but it’s worth being aware of the first time you jump on the bike.

    Alan

  • Enrique Cruz says:

    Dahon’s Midtown Mini series of folding bikes are essentially mini velos. You get the top-tube/down-tube frame and 20″ wheels. My Hammerhead 7.0 (a non-folding iteration) rides more like a bigger bike than my folding Vitesse. Very light and nimble. Love the ride!

  • Seamus King says:

    Dahon did this before with folding bike, Smooth Hound….

    http://www.dahon.com/bikes/2011/smooth-hound

  • voyage says:

    Toe overlap is absolutely not an issue mainly because of small wheel size but also the frame geometry that drives rake and trail. Even with 175 crank arms I would have to put the very back of my heel on the very front of the pedal to get toe overlap. But who rides that way? Since the pedals are pinned and I wear lugged-sole trail running shoes it’s unlikely to happen, even in rain.

    Similarly with pedal strike to pavement. I would have to be misusing the bike to make that happen or in a very crazy accident in which case things are much more complicated and not necessarily the bike’s fault.

    Folks and perhaps manufacturers need to get the BMX culture thing out of their heads when considering small commute/util bikes.

  • Terry Scott says:

    Hmmm, 15 inches shorter than a standard bike – will they fit into the bike rack on a city bus?

    -Terry

  • Terry Scott says:

    How mini is a mini velo? Does this one qualify:
    http://velomobiling.blogspot.com/2011/04/april-3.html

  • Alan says:

    Terry,

    Sportworks, a rack manufacturer who supplies bus bike racks for many municipalities, says their racks work with 20″ wheels and most bikes with wheelbases less than 44″.

    http://www.sportworks.com/bus-racks/products/datasheets.aspx

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    I don’t know if that qualifies as a mini velo, but it definitely won’t fit a bus bike rack… ;-)

  • David Coldiron says:

    My prediction: The mini-velo is here to stay. Smaller wheels are inherently stronger, accelerate quicker, and allow for a (15″!) shorter overall bike. As an urban commute bike, these are all advantages. Wheels won’t need truing as often, easier to take off when the light turns green, and easier to maneuver on BART, VTA Light Rail, etc. I agree with Velouria…most who get around on folders don’t fold them anyway, but the small wheels make them practical. A lighter, simpler, less expensive rigid frame is a brilliant solution. I only wish the SOMA came in larger sizes. I like a 56 top tube.

  • Dave says:

    Whats wrong? Well I have two bikes (26incher and a 700C) from two unrelated sources with tires with that same tread pattern. Its interesting that they both have the tires mounted with the treads in reverse of what is shown in your picture.

  • RI Swamp Yankee says:

    The big draw to mini-velos is actually performance. They are very nimble, and quick to get up to speed, and have a small aero advantage. The downsides compared to larger wheels are that they have a very harsh ride (look at the circumference of the wheel as an inclined plane, or ramp, your bike goes up when you travel over a bump – big wheels have a longs, shallower ramp, smaller ones a steeper and shorter ramp.) and they don’t have as much momentum, so you need to work a little harder to keep it at a steady speed.

    All told, whenever they were permitted to compete with the 700c bikes, mini-velos like the Moutlon have more than held their own.

  • Pete says:

    Hey – that looks pretty much like my 26″ wheel 58cm LHT! Little did I know I was on the cutting edge of a new trend. :-p
    @RI Swamp Yankee – if they are properly designed, small wheel bikes can be set up to run big fat cushy tires, which helps mitigate some of the small wheel harshness.

  • Micheal Blue says:

    I really appreciate this design. Not only they can be more easily stored in a small(ish) apartment (such as mine), but they also can legally ride on the sidewalks in Toronto. That’s a big help when there is a traffic congestion or some other dangerous situation on the road.
    As an example, one of the dangerous situations is a strong cross-wind. When I ride through downtown Toronto, the tall buildings sometimes redirect and speed up the wind.
    Riding on a relatively narrow road with no bike line and having a sudden gust of wind push you into the traffic…

  • John Ferguson says:

    Well, I’ve been headed in the opposite direction for years. I had a ‘small wheel’ MTB and commuter years ago when most of the good solid rim choices were 26\ but now have fully converted to the largest wheels I can get (29\er MTB and 700c commuter) for two reasons: Ride quality and stability. Even on tight trails, the big wagon wheels on a 29\er seem to roll smoother and easier over obstacles and eliminate the need for extra suspension parts.

    There’s a reason that most road bikes even in small sizes have wheels larger than 26\ or 650B and it’s stability and comfort. I think the small wheel bikes are boneshakers even with the larger tires, and they’re overly twitchy as well. Geometry and tire choices can overcome these shortcomings to a certain degree, but in the end for me comfort and stability win out. If I had a space problem at work or home, I’d consider a folder but for me the small wheels are a big downer. To make a small wheel bike that doesn’t fold seems a bit preposterous.

  • Mike T says:

    My do-it-all ride for the past couple of years is a 20″ folder and I have to say that the 20″ wheels with 50mm Big Apples have served me very well in the deep urban setting (downtown Taipei rush-hour traffic). Sprinting red to red, shooting the gap between bus and taxi, dodging the dough-headed cagers, scooters, pedestrians, handcarts, garbage, potholes, puddles, stray dogs, doors, double-parked vehicles and rats (big ones); the small wheels have been quite sporting for the amped up stop-and-go challenge. I figure 24″ wheels are the ultimate urban wheel size, balancing agility with ride quality. The chubby tires allow for a good range of tuning in this respect. I can’t extend the love to 16″ wheels. I wouldn’t spend money on a set unless I really needed the fold size or my disposable income skyrocketed to allow “just because” bicycle purchases. I must confess that I’m looking forward to spending some time of full-size wheels this summer. I agree that they make ‘em that size for a reason.
    That said, having ridden a mini-velo, with moustache bars no less, I believe that they have their place in the city, and their niche in the market. They’re loads of fun, and, with better ergonomics and stiffness than most any folder, you can really unwind on them.
    Funny, in Taiwan, I had to fold my bike at least once or twice a day. Back in North America, it happens rarely. I notice that people here seem to view bikes with wheels < 26" with skepticism, as if anything smaller can't possibly provide anything but a sadly compromised ride. Plenty of riders elsewhere (the rest of the world?) know otherwise. It's nice to see things changing.

  • Buck says:

    Been a huge Mini Velo-head since I visited Tokyo almost 10 years ago. Great to see them finally making it stateside, and even better to see them finally represented on EcoVelo! Let the takeover begin!

  • Aloha Kid says:

    Cannondale Hooligan
    http://www.cannondale.com/bikes/recreation-urban/urban/hooligan

 
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