Full disclosure: I visited Tern, the folding bike manufacturer, in Taiwan last year as part of a tour of the nation’s bike industry. I got in touch later to see if I could test their touring model for its obvious relevance here. Tern loaned me the bike described here for a few months in order that I could do so.
Over the years I’ve become a lot less of a fundamentalist about this thing called cycle touring. And one principle I cut loose a while back was that these journeys should be conducted entirely by pedal power — the ‘cycle every inch’ mentality. There are many reasons your might want to combine cycling with trains, buses, hitching and the like. Perhaps time is limited. Perhaps there’s an itinerary to keep to. Perhaps particular regions are more interesting than others. Whatever.
The problem is that every break from riding involves detatching panniers, unthreading pedals, removing wheels, getting covered in filth, arguing with drivers and conductors, nicking cardboard boxes from behind bike shops, and other such delights. The more developed the country, incidentally, the greater the fuss.
So what if it were possible to eliminate all this and happily skip around a continent, hopping on and off any kind of transport while simultaneously enjoying all that’s wonderful about cycle touring?
It’s been at the back of my mind for years, but I hadn’t experienced it until I got my hands on Tern Bicycles’ Link P24h.
Folding bikes have been around for decades, of course. Today’s Brompton is simply the current generation. But they were never really built for touring. Tiny little wheels make every crack and pothole feel like a trench. They’re twitchy. The handlebars flex. Gear ratios are fine on the flats, but try pottering up a steep country lane with a pair of panniers and a tent on the back. They simply don’t deliver quality of ride you’ll get from the most popular touring bikes.
What’s interesting about Tern’s bike is that, while acknowledging that every folding bike is a series of compromises, it was nevertheless built to be a tourer. It has the bigger 20-inch wheels, proper luggage racks, wide gearing, fenders and bottle cages, touring components, and plenty of other thoughtful inclusions.
But I wanted to see if the bike was as good in reality as it was on paper. So I took one around the UK with my storytelling events, seeing new cities, and getting as much touring done in between as possible.
Because of the scattered locations and dates of the events, I needed to hook into the public transport network regularly. This would have been as good as impossible with a full-size touring bike, what with the state of the rail system we’re blessed with in the UK (don’t get me started).
But, crucially, the Link P24h fitted the British rail operators’ definition of a folding bike (which is at least one thing they seem able to agree on). So no ‘cycle reservations’ to make. No cramped bicycle compartments to occupy. No travel bans on peak-time trains to work around. Nothing to think about at all, in fact, except for what British train passengers usually think about (in between asking themselves if a one-way second-class off-peak ticket across a small island nation should ever really cost over £200).
And when it came to taking a ferry over to the Isle of Arran for some wild-bivvying on a day off between gigs? Oh, hello there, foot passenger; that’ll just be a fiver…
Although I hadn’t considered it before, I also really liked the fact that I could carry the bike inside with me on the couple of occasions I was unceremoniously stuck in a hotel room for the night. If you’re regularly Couchsurfing or hostelling on a tour, this is an extremely convenient plus-point.
And, if you’re wondering it it fits inside a tent, here’s pictorial evidence of a time I took the Link 24H to bed:
(That’s the awning of a 1-man tent. Panniers, too.)
Riding the bike, obviously, is as important a consideration as carting it around. And I live in Cumbria, which features some of the most challenging road riding in England. The country’s steepest paved road is at the top of my neighbouring valley. (It’s a 32% grade. For comparison, San Francisco’s steepest is 34%.)
This is where compact folding bikes commonly suffer. Tiny 16″ wheels get you from A to B, but there’s a reason full-size wheels are almost twice the diameter: comfort and rolling ease. Engineering compromises mean narrow gear ratios in comparison with full-size bikes, which is OK in London, but not in Cumbria or Scotland or the Alps and with 20kg of luggage on board. And shorter wheelbases often mean problems with heel clearance when bigger panniers are involved.
So Tern’s designers got clever. First, they took a tried and tested (important) 3-speed Sturmey Archer rear hub and stuck an 8-speed cassette and derailleur on top of it, resulting in a 24-speed bike with a single front chainring. Then they fitted 20″ wheels instead of diddly 16″ ones (and you can feel the difference). They designed and fitted a rear rack, the KLICKfix bracket for any compatible basket or bar-bag you might wish to use., specifically for putting full-size panniers on a folding bike, without your heels getting in the way and without affecting the fold. Finally, they added a front rack for small panniers and a
Basically, they built a tourer.
And so I pottered happily up and down the Lakeland lanes between Oxenholme and home-sweet-holme in comfort, with boxes of books and DVDs as well as my usual touring and camping gear, and without once climbing out of the saddle to push, nor breaking more of a sweat than I wanted to. Even light off-road was met with confidence-inspiring capability.
Tern’s designers also brought in innovations from their Biologic arm, which focuses on components and accessories. There’s a dynamo in the front hub (though you’d never know it from the effect it has on the ride), and it powers a built-in front light and optionally a rechargeable power pack, the ReeCharge, that’ll keep anything USB-compatible powered up all day. That includes your GPS-enabled smartphone.
According to Tern, their newest hub (called the Joule 3) is comparable to the industry-leading Schmidt in terms of efficiency, but at a fraction of the price. A big claim, but it appears to be well-founded, as my Reecharge unit has remained fully charged despite plenty of GPS (and MP3) use.
So if you’re silly enough to be touring at night, or you’re on your way into a big city at the end of a day, you’ll be seen and your batteries will never run out. More cleverly, you can run your smartphone or GPS all day on pedal power too. For short tours with pre-planned routes, that makes a lot of sense. (Personally, I prefer to pedal-power a pair of speakers and an MP3 player so I can have a soundtrack to my ride, but each to their own.)
I’ve also been using Biologic’s Tour Bag, which is an Ortlieb-esque bar-bag with a bit more room that attaches to a KLICKfix adapter on the frame (not the bars). The result adds 10kg extra capacity without affecting the steering — in fact, it neatly counterbalances a pair of rear panniers. It also has small pockets lining its interior for organising things more neatly; something I always missed with the Ortlieb Ultimate 5.
Other things I like about this bike include a multi-tool built into one end of the handlebars for quick adjustments, a very capable specially-designed multi-tool for every common adjustment on the bike (invaluable, as some of the moving parts do need occasional tightening), ergonomic grips which are some of the most comfortable I’ve ever used, a generous three bottle-cage mounts on the modest frame, a seat-post with a fricken’ tyre pump hidden inside it (genius), a solid choice of V-brakes, proper fenders, and the perfect choice of touring tyres (Schwalbe Marathon Supreme).
Now I’ve had a bit of practice, I can fold and unfold it in about 15 seconds (a particularly big hit with the ladies, I can assure you). And I can take it into coffee shops, rather than always choosing the window seat and glancing sideways in paranoia every couple of minutes.
And I do like the fact that I can take my bike kayaking (or, to use the technical term, FoldBikeRafting), though it probably wasn’t designed with that in mind.
The bike isn’t perfect. For one thing, it simply isn’t as comfortable to ride on bumpier roads as a full-size tourer, because big wheels always roll nicer. The long steerer tube and handlebars flex a little, whereas full-size frames respond with precision. And you’ll probably want to replace the harsh saddle and slightly flimsy folding pedals with your own preferred ones. But none of this is a deal-breaker for the kind of short-to-medium-term touring I’m imagining this bike being used for. In fact, I was really surprised at how much I enjoyed riding it.
One thing I always arrange with manufacturers is to feedback on their stuff; partly to force myself to remain critical despite something being free or loaned, and partly because I prefer two-way relationships when working with companies on the commercial end of things. I want to help make Tern’s bike better, because I like riding good bikes and I assume lots of other people do too.
I was sent a 2012 model of the Link P24h, and after a month I wrote back to Tern about the type of kickstand, the rack size and position, the durability of the magnetic couplings when folded, suggested drop-bar or bar-end options, and raised some concerns about a slipping chain. I also mentioned conservativism amongst tourers when it came to new ideas such as the 3-speed/8-speed hub combo.
Tern’s CEO’s response was reassuring; many of the ideas were already incorporated for the (current) 2013 model of the Link P24h, and others were on the drawing board for next season. The rearis due to be upgraded again for stability under even heavier loads, bar-ends are on the way for a variety of hand positions, the kickstand will be replaced with one more effective under top-heavy loads, and the occasional chain-slipping (a perennial issue for many folders with short chainlines, apparently) is being tweaked. He also mentioned a secretive new folding touring offering for next year, which is a tiny bit exciting.
And so, in between events, I spent an unusually sunny February on the kind of off-the-cuff bike travel that it would be wonderful to spend a summer doing in, say, Europe, where there’s a very good case for picking a few areas to explore intimately rather than trying to blast across the continent in a single season.
I’m really impressed with the Tern team and their dedication to producing folding bikes for all niches, including touring. Given the raft of compromises inherent in any folding bike, I guess the acid test is whether I’d accept them and buy the P24h and its luggage options myself. Don’t get me wrong; if I wanted to cycle long-term across multiple continents, I’d stick with my Sutra. But if I was heading off for a few weeks exploring Europe, for example, and I wanted ultimate flexibility with where I went and how, I wouldn’t hesitate to ride off atop a Tern Link P24h.
(With my Brooks on it, of course.)