Soma Mini-Velo

Soma Mini-Velo
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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 approximately 12″-15″ shorter than a standard bike. They’re great for situations where a standard bike is too big but a full-on folding bike is not required. That’s an admittedly narrow niche, but nonetheless, over the past few years they’ve become quite popular in Japan and they’re gaining in popularity in other parts of Asia and Europe. Whether they’ll catch on here in the U.S. is yet to be seen.

Soma Mini-Velo
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The Soma Mini-Velo pictured here was introduced earlier this year. It fits the mold of other mini velos with 20″ (406mm) wheels, a near-normal riding positon, road/touring components, and no fold. Like other Soma frames, the Mini-Velo is constructed of Tange chromoly. The components are a mix of Shimano Tiagra, Sugino, IRD, and others, cherry-picked from Soma’s product line (see the full build specs below).

Soma Mini-Velo
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The Soma Mini-Velo is only available in three sizes up to 55cm. Even the largest size is too small for me, so Michael has been riding our loaner over the past few months. Her regular rides are a Rivendell Betty Foy and a Brompton M3L, so I was interested to get her impressions of this unusual bike that sort of splits the difference between the two.

Soma Mini-Velo
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Michael was initially skeptical when I built up the Mini-Velo. She had reservations regarding fit, comfort, and pedal clearance. Fortunately, after the first ride her concerns were pretty much allayed. She was pleasantly surprised that it fits and rides almost like a full-sized bike. And even though the Mini-Velo has slightly less pedal clearance than her other bikes, pedal strike never materialized as an issue. The one thing she would change is the handlebar height; she’s accustomed to upright bars with a grip position at least a few centimeters above the saddle. If this was her bike, she’d swap out the stock stem for a Nitto DirtDrop.

Soma Mini-Velo
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Michael really enjoyed the Mini-Velo’s responsiveness. She used words like “zippy”, “quick”, “light”, and “nimble” to describe its ride qualities. She feels it pretty much splits the difference between her two usual rides, being slightly smoother and more forgiving than her Brompton, while being more responsive, but less comfortable than her Rivendell.

Soma Mini-Velo
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At 23.5 lbs. the stock Mini-Velo is significantly lighter than our full-sized bikes outfitted with racks, fenders, etc. Numerous times, Michael commented on how easy it was to throw the little bike over her shoulder or toss into the back of our car. It’s not as compact as a folder, but it’s nearly as easy to throw around. Of course, adding fenders, racks, and a kickstand—all items we feel are necessary for the bikes we use for daily transportation—would add 5+ lbs., making it nearly as heavy as our full-sized bikes and heavier than our Bromptons.

Soma Mini-Velo
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The mini velo platform is not going to be for everyone. At least on paper, its occupies an extremely narrow niche: “Compact bike with 20″ wheels that isn’t a folder.” Taken strictly at face value that seems like a non-starter for most people. What surprised me though, was how much Michael enjoyed the little Soma. Time and again she mentioned how much fun it is and how easy it is to park and carry in tight quarters. Something she said probably sums it up best: “People need to give the Mini-Velo a try before making a judgement based upon how it looks – it’s a lot of fun while being surprisingly easy to live with.”

Soma Mini-Velo
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Specifications

  • Frame: Tange CrMo steel
  • Crank: Sugino RD 53-39t
  • Shifters: Micro-Shift bar end
  • Derailleurs: Shimano Tiagra
  • Hubs: Shimano Taigra (32H)
  • Cassette: Shimano Tiagra HG-50 11-25 9-spd
  • Tires: Kenda Kwest 20 x 1-1/8″
  • Headset: Tange-Seiki RDC 1″ threaded
  • Brakes: IRD Cafam Cantilever
  • Saddle: Cardiff Cornwall (the Selle An-Atomica saddle shown in the photos is Michael’s personal saddle)
  • Stem: Kalloy quill
  • Sizes: 48cm, 53cm, 55cm
  • Weight: 23.5 lbs.
  • Price: $1,195

Soma Fabrications

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

Soma Mini-Velo
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Soma Mini-Velo
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30 Responses to “Soma Mini-Velo”

  • Mark says:

    After reading this review, I wish Soma made _smaller_ sizes. This could easily be slightly shrunk to make a great kids bike (for say a 10 or 12 year old). The small wheel size would facilitate kid sized designs without the problems of bigger wheels.

  • Alan says:

    Mark,

    My shortest “kid” is 5’9″ so I didn’t even think of that – great idea.

    Alan

  • Pete says:

    Seems to be a solution in search of a problem, except for that extremely narrow niche you define.
    As for kid’s bikes, most are terrible. It would be great if some good builders/designers brought their talents to bear on the problem. Sasha White does nice ones: http://bikeportland.org/2011/02/26/a-bike-for-kids-from-sacha-white-of-vanilla-bicycles-48741

  • Erik Sandblom says:

    I have a Brompton and I feel small wheels are underrated, and good tyres are also underrated. The small wheels are light, strong and zippy. The ride is harsher, but most ordinary bikes I see on the street are also harsh because the tyres aren’t very nice. Use nice tyres on a small-wheel bike and it will be zippy without being harsh.

    I used to use the cheapest tyres the local bike shop would sell on my ordinary utility bike, and when I once got Schwalbe Marathons (a quality tyre) I was amazed. They gave a smoother ride and were faster, both at the same time! I’ve now got Kenda 42-622, not sure of the model, but I like them even more. They have soft sidewalls which give low friction and a smooth ride (probably more subject to blowouts with the soft sidewalls though, compared to Marathons).

    I’m told non-folding minibikes are popular in Japan. It could be just fashion, but I’m also told there is a lot of sidewalk cycling there, so maybe they appreciate a lighter and more nimble bike. That might be nice in other situations too.

    Thanks for the review and lovely pictures. I spotted the minivelo a few months ago and was curious. It might be fun if you could try one of the competing Dahon models and see what you think.

  • Alan says:

    Erik,

    I too like small wheels. Coming from a background in recumbents, odd configurations and wheel sizes just don’t seem like a big deal to me. Like so many things, each wheel size offers advantages and disadvantages. Small wheels are light, quick, and strong, though they don’t roll over rough roads and debris as well as larger wheels. They also don’t hold their momentum as well. They are amazing in the city though, in situations where quickness and snappy acceleration are advantageous.

    Alan

  • jnyyz says:

    Nothing wrong with small wheels. The shorter overall length lets the bike fit in spaces where a regular bike won’t.
    http://jnyyz.wordpress.com/2011/05/28/folding-bike-superpower/

    As far as the SOMA as a pseudo kid’s bike, I think that a kids bike really needs low standover. For a while, I was thinking about importing an islabike.
    http://www.islabikes.co.uk/

    Fortunately, there are some companies that have started making higher quality, lighter kids road bikes, such as Opus and Louis Garneau (signature series).

    for 20″, the Opus Nix has alloy wheels and frame, and no suspension fork.
    http://www.opusbike.com/en/bikes_8_15-73-nix.html

    for 24″ we really like our Opus Rambler
    http://jnyyz.wordpress.com/2011/06/20/opus-rambler-24-wheel-kids-bike/

    One downside to the Opus bikes is the lack of a quill stem. I see that there is a quill stem on the Vanilla, but it’s a bit out of my price range. Plus with the length of the waiting list, I’d not be sure what size to order.

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  • Pete says:

    OK, half-kidding about the Vanilla! One nice thing about it is that Sasha says it’s adjustable over a range of about 5 years – coincidentally about as long as the wait list.
    It’s a shame the Isla is not available on this side of the “pond” and the Opus doesn’t seem to have any US dealers. I guess it’s still a lot easier to drive to Canada than drive to England ;-p
    Seems likes there’s a business opportunity for someone who wants to add practical, sensible kid’s bike to their shop catering to commuters and utility cyclists.

  • Alan says:

    Pete,

    That Vanilla is incredible. One issue with nice kid’s bikes is that, at least in my experience, kids tend to beat the heck out of their bikes. They also tend to be less than diligent when it comes to locking them up. I have to wonder how long it would take for an enterprising thief to take advantage…

    Alan

  • Colin Bryant says:

    Wow, is that ever a long stem!
    I ride a 20/26″ recumbent. I’ve mostly resolved the 20″ ride issue by using a wide (1.5) good quality(Schwalbe Marathon) front tire. I mostly ride in the city and find both acceleration and handling better than any of my prior 700/700 and 26/26 safety bicycles.

  • kfg says:

    “on paper, its occupies an extremely narrow niche: “Compact bike with 20″ wheels that isn’t a folder.” ”

    Actually . . . The “mini velo” is the ultimate development of the rando bike as per Velocio. Velocio is considered the spiritual father of bicycle randonneuring. He is the inventor, in 1889, of the “Riv shift” and is thus also considered the father of derailleur shifting. He is also the reason you can buy tires named “Grand Bois” today, because climbing the Col du Grand Bois was his before breakfast “constitutional” until his death (hit by a car while walking his bicycle across the road) in his late 70′s.

    In those later years he also advocated step through frames and even “ape hanger” handlebars, claiming they increased usability and comfort while detracting nothing from the performance of a long distance tourer.

    If you wish to make a “mini velo” more comfortable, set it up right as per Velocio’s recommendations for the type. As wheel diameter goes down, tire diameter must go up. It’s simply a matter of maintaining air volume. It’s the air volume of tire that determines its spring rate. Put 2.125′s on it.

    “. . .seems like a non-starter for most people.”

    Yes, Velocio found that to be true even back in the day. His response was that that only proved that most cyclists were sheep.

  • arevee says:

    Nice concept. But I wonder how diffiucult it would be to outfit with normal looking fenders, racks, frame pump, etc.

    Having owned a Brompton, I found the 16″ wheels too small for me. The bike didn’t roll well (perhaps because of SON dynohub), had plenty of pedal strike and the rear mini wheels used for pushing the bike around a) weren’t very good for pushing the bike around and b) frequently snagged on the top of my shoe when the pedal was towards the rear of the bike. It has a great fold and might be OK for some if the commute is well < 10 miles. Yes, I know some have chronicled long trips from Oregon to CA by Brompton. No way I'd care to repeat that as long as I have a nice, big comfortable bike to ride . . . Sam Hillborne comes to mind.

  • arevee says:

    p.s. – normal looking, non-plastic (SKS) fenders.

  • rob says:

    I firmly believe that bmx bikes are the best choice for 90% of kids. Try to make your kid into a roadie, and he’ll either resent you or become the object of ridicule. (Possibly both.)

    But, for those of you who must try, I submit this vintage option (no, I’m not the seller):
    http://cgi.ebay.com/ws/eBayISAPI.dll?ViewItem&item=120743729949+&clk_rvr_id=245907974409

    regards.

  • rob says:

    PS- your kid may end up being a roadie anyway; just don’t force it before his/her time. (Yes, bmx bikes are great for girls as well as boys.) The soma minibike looks cool, even if it’s not my cup o’ joe.

  • Velouria says:

    This is not a bad looking bike, would be curious to give it a try.

    Does Michael’s assessment mean she finds the Brompton to be a harsh ride?

  • Ira Kinro says:

    Are there any pictures of her riding it? That would help to convey more about comfort, feel, geometry. Also, how fat of a tire can you fit in there? with and without fenders? 1 1/8 is pretty narrow for somebody my size. Otherwise, I like it. I agree that small wheels are under-rated. They’re great for stop-and-go, hills longer than a few blocks, and tight maneuvers.

  • Alan says:

    Velouria,

    Michael said she wouldn’t describe the Brompton’s ride as harsh, though the Soma is smoother. I agree with her, I wouldn’t describe the Brompton’s ride as harsh either. On the other hand, she said her fixie with its 23mm high pressure tires definitely qualifies…

    Alan

  • Alan says:

    Hey Ira,

    Without having the actual tires and fenders in hand it’s impossible to say for sure, but eyeballing it I’d say 32mm max with fenders, and around 37mm without. Pretty good clearance, in other words.

    I don’t currently have any good photos of her on the bike. If I capture some later this week, I’ll follow-up and post them here in the comments.

    Alan

  • Michael says:

    This is an interesting bike for me, good for commuting on a train or light rail. I can’t stand folders and their somewhat loose feel, not to mention their (usually) limited gearing range. I have a couple folders already, and absolutely deplore the shakiness in the folding parts. Feels on the brink of self-implosion every time you hit a bump, when anything not super securely fastened shifts a millimeter or two.

    This seems like an interesting tool for what I might be looking for, though It does need fenders at the minimum for a utility bike.

  • Max says:

    Another take on the ‘full size bike with 20″ wheels’ idea is of course the Moulton, in its current format. Using a step-over frame allows a single size to work for most riders. The longer wheelbase & forward placement of the saddle puts more of the rider’s weight on the front wheel, which should make the suspension work better. I’ve not ridden one of these, only a previous series AM7 many years ago…

    This is one of a family of bicycles designed for perfection (regardless of price), not for compromise. Alex Moulton started with 16″ wheels and gradually increased their size over the years – reaching the same size as that chosen by Velocio all those years ago.

    Max

  • Alan says:

    Max,

    I was fortunate enough to have a Pashley/Moulton on loan a few years ago. Cool bike:

    http://www.ecovelo.info/2008/06/09/pashley-moulton-tsr8-impressions/

    Alan

  • arevee says:

    Alan,

    Is there a good supply of non-plastic fenders in 20″?

    Have you tried mounting any racks on the bike. I’d be curious to hear comments or see a photo of the bike with extras mounted.

    The small size does seem like it would be handy for transit and parking. Long wheelbased cargo bikes can be a bit of a handful in some situations – like anytime one needs to park it in a standard bike parking area. Think Ford F350 in a ‘compact’ parking space.

  • Liz says:

    I’m sure it will fill a niche for some folks but for the price you can get a nice full-size cromoly bike with similar components. I’d much rather see bicycle makers concentrating on more affordable women’s specific bikes. Bike fit is an ongoing problem for women, who have more leg length and a shorter reach. I put on the average of $150 – $250 extra into each of my bikes to get a better fit. Only onet hat fits with no alteration – my 1989 Terry WSB.

  • jnyyz says:

    the only metal fenders that I’m aware of in 406 are Walds, and they are fairly heavy. I’ve seen metal fenders for small wheels on bikes kn Japan, and allegedly Honjo can make fenders in 406, but I’ve not been able to find anyone that sells them in Japan, let alone export them to North America.

  • Alan says:

    Arevee,

    As jnyyz said, I’ve never seen anything other than steel Walds and plastic fenders to fit 406 wheels. Can you imagine this bike with some tiny little hammered Honjos – that would be sweet.

    The braze-ons are all there for racks. We didn’t have an appropriate rack on hand so we didn’t pursue it this time. As you can see from the photo (http://www.ecovelo.info/images/rivendell-soma-1000.jpg), the rack needs to be shorter than normal. My first choice would be the Nitto R-15: http://www.thebikebiz.com/PhotoGallery.asp?ProductCode=COM%2DRACK%2DNITTI03 It looks to me as if it would work with its adjustable struts.

    Alan

  • voyage says:

    There is the rack issue with small bikes. I use a Transit bolt-on-the-seatpost rack which really isn’t all that bad (doesn’t sway or slide), especially compared to worthless clamp-on racks. Styles nicely with my small bike, would be ugly on the Soma. In any case, watch the weight with seatpost racks.

    Related, panniers are possible with small bikes but they have to small; you’ll get heel strike if you try normal panniers. Performance Bike used to sell small panniers, Nashbar stocks them occasionally. They are cheapo, good for a year or so.

    These bikes aren’t meant to be heavy haulers–not their niche.

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  • CHenry says:

    It is visually striking, in the way that unexpected things are, here, the disproportion of the frame, a traditional tall diamond with a level top tube, and the 20 in wheel (451s, I think.)

    I have no issue with the small wheel, but the design of that kind of bike has been done better for years by Moulton, with the added benefit of separable frames. This is a step backwards to my thinking, a short wheelbase but a tall, maybe too tall toptube.

 
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