Originally published in New York Magazine July 28, 1997
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 be 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 stairway of a 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 and 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 ($800), 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 co-designer Jan Vander Tuin 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; Moulton 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 satin 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 bag 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 takes 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 the bike into its 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.
Originally published in A to B Magazine Feb/Mar 2001
Swift: New York urban chic
New York is a funny place. We only visited once and were warned, on pain of certain death, not to cycle within 50 miles of the city. When we eventually got off the train at New York's Grand Central Station, we couldn't understand what all the fuss was aout -- the roads are full of holes, but no busier, and certainly no more dangerous, than central London.
New York is actually quite a good place to cycle, or so A to B subscribers tell us, although as in most US cities, a folding bike culture is sadly lacking. Where folders do appear they seem to have evolved in their own peculiar way to suit this most individualistic city.
Take the Swift, for example. It's been around since 1996, and to all intents and purposes, it's a New York folder. Although co-designed by Jan vander Tuin of Human Powered Machines in Eugene - the west coast home of Bike Friday and numerous other bikey businesses - the Swift is the brainchild of New Yorker Peter Reich and New York is where it seems to sell best. In a neat bit of global empire building, Jan handles orders from the West and beyond across the Pacific, while Peter handles the eastern seaboard and the Atlantic, which means us. To British (and, no doubt, Japanese) eyes, the Swift folds into a very large package, but according to Peter:
Most of my customers are New Yorkers, and the thing the Swift folder excels at is quickly folding and unfolding to step on and off an elevator or into a packed subway car. Tucked next to you, the Swift remains tall enough to keep a hand on at all times, without carrying. Both wheels stay firmly on the ground and the seat post locks the fold, so it won't roll. It will fit through the NYC Transit revolving subway gates folded, and then unfold in a few seconds to be rolled to the stairs and carried up in its rideable form.
We have to point out that the Swift would be refused entry to cetral area stations on the London Underground, where a folded Brompton is treated with suspicion. But it's a satisfying concept- a no frills folder that gets somewhat smaller very quickly without stretching cables or brain cells and can be chucked behind your desk, ready for the journey home. Makes you feel terribly formal and British, just looking at it. But it's a neat, elegant machine and the version we've chosen (single speed, with titanium seat post) is very light. Is it a viable commuter bike?
Within a single pedal stroke you realise that this is a delightful bike to ride. It's one of those rare folding bike experiences- up with the Bike Friday Pocket Rocket and Steve Parry's single speed Brompton-where every ounce of pedal effort seems to be translated directly into movement. Very satisfying and very efficient.
Single speed bikes are not widely known for their breadth of pulling power and racy top speed, but the Swift's efficiency and single 62 inch gear give it a remarkable versatility. Without exception, everyone enjoyed riding the bike and found no difficulty in keeping up with multi-gear bikes in town. The Swift just asks you to stand out of the saddle and go for it, resulting in some really nippy acceleration. "Feels as though you're going somehwere," said Jane, which summed it up.
Although there's no adjustment other than the seat tube -- which takes the saddle as high as 42 inches -- we all found a comfortable position. The Shimano Deore V-brakes are extremely powerful, despite a force limiter. To us Brits raised and reared on groats, pounds and a front brake on the right handlebar, great care is required to avoid a tumble on muddy slopes. Muddy slopes? Well, it's the Global Warming you see. Somerset has become an extensive bog. And should anyone have failed to notice, the Swift does not have mudguards as standard, so in post-GW conditions, it's wet bums all around.
In the city -- clearly it's natural habitat -- the Swift must excel. We haven't actually seen a city for a while, thanks to Global Warming, the collapse of public transport, etc. etc. but we visualised our own little bit of Long Island in Castle Cary and were suitably impressed. The Swift glides away from the traffic lights on the Wincanton Road, winds its way through the awkward gap past the Co-op delivery van, and you can put it under your arm to run up the steps behind the Market House.
Strangely enough, considering that the bike feels so fast on climbs, and is equipped with 100psi Primo Comet tyres, it did rather badly on our standard roll-down tests. Very light bikes tend to do worse, because they have less assistance from gravity, but it's a tiny effect. It's more likely that the loss occurs as a result of running relatively small and hard tyres on a roughish road surface -- some Bike Fridays perform badly too, whereas stodgier beasts such as the suspended Moulton APB do better. We know from experience that some careful "tuning" of the tyre pressures to suit your weight improves things no end.
Like most custom-built machines, you can have almost anything you want. The bike starts life in six basic versions -- single-speed for $660, three-speed hub gear at $725, Shimano Nexus 4-speed $760, Nexus 7-speed $790, 8-speed derailleur for $825, and a SRAM 3x7 version for $890. Options include the titanium seat post at $95, mudguards, a canvas carry-bag, rack and those Primo tyres and tubes (a $30 option), which suit the bike very well. Weight can be anything from our dead precise 22 lb to a scale-bending 28 lb with all the bits and pieces. For all it's worth, we think the Swift works best relatively bare.
Weaknesses are few. The global shortage of decent single-speed hubs has forced Swift to fit a conventional derailleur hub with spacers in place of most of the cogs. It works fine, but leaves the rear spokes with that horrible multi-gear dishing -- now quite unnecessary [unless one would like the option of converting to a derailleur setup on the same wheel - ed]. A custom hub would make the rear end stronger, and probably lighter too. Another problem is with the titanium seat post. When fitting titanium, Peter reams the frame oversize to prevent binding. The result is seat clamps that have to be over-tightened to get a decent grip on the pillar. On the other hand, Peter claims the titanium tube is a whole 1.5 pounds lighter than steel. And 22 lb is about as light as bike get without buying in some clever technology. Folding
Folding is the sort of operation that even the most Neandrathal cycle courier can manage. More importantly, your average cyclist will be able to repeat the operation in the dark with freezing hands. Standing on the left, you release two clamps, allowing the seat post to be lifted up. The trick is to prevent the thing coming right out (we usually failed) then flipping the rear triangle under. OK, at 13.5 cubic feet, the result is probably the largest package we've seen, but the operation takes only 15 seconds -- 10 or less once you get into the swing of it -- and it's a lot smaller than a conventional bike.
Loosen the handlebar stem clamp, lift the stem slightly, and the bars can be twisted through 90 degrees, making a slightly smaller package. But size is only relative here -- it's still very, very large.
If the NYC Transit officials get a bit jobsworthy, the bike can be packed much smaller, but this takes time and can prove fiddly. In addition to the seatpost, you need to remove the front wheel (it's a quick-release type) and the bars (watch the cables) before tying it all together with the bungee provided and popping it in the bag. At 5.7 cubic feet and bagged, it's then London Underground friendly . . . probably.
Twenty-inch bikes are extremely common these days, and with the arrival of the Giant Halfway and upmarket Dahons, a relatively pricy bike like the Swift needs to offer something special to flourish. We think it does. Weight- in single-speed form, at least- is amongst the best you'll find. It's also an easy bike to fold and a great machine to ride. Against that, you have to balance a purchase cost ranging from $660 in the USA, or at least 650 pounds in Europe, and a rather challenging folded package.