Wednesday, December 8, 2010

A new (folding) ride

Sometimes it is about the bike.
I purchased a Dahon Mu back in April as a low cost folding bike to meet my occasional needs to travel by train and plane.  My goals were to spend under $500, have a gear range that could handle moderate hills, such as are found in Providence, RI.  The spur for this acquisition was jealousy of several of my colleagues at the National Bike Summit who had convenient transportation to and from their accommodations.  (And you know, walking 2 miles from the hotel to the halls of Congress in dress shoes HURTS).  Since I had some upcoming trips by train at the time planned and relatives short plane flights away, it seemed a logical investment.

There weren't many bikes that fit the criteria I had set out, particularly the price range, ruled out Brompton and Bike Friday folders.  Between what looked to be a bad gear range for Breezer Zip models and mixed reviews from prior owners, I decided to avoid these as well.  This left several options from Dahon, wheel size being the next significant one.  It seemed to me that that 20" wheels were more desirable leaving a limited set of models.  It was tempting to upgrade the price range to get a model with 24 gears, full racks -- essentially a folding touring/commuter -- but for what was expected to be an occasional use bike, it didn't make sense to over buy.  In the end, the Mu P8 had the right price tag and seemed to be the right platform.  Ordered online and shipped direct via, the 2008 model arrived well packed and mostly assembled.

I road it a little bit in April, getting used to the handling, shifting and making sure nothing was obviously amis before taking it on it's first train journey and loaded trip.  In those early rides, I quickly found it to be very capable bicycle, easily usable as someone's only commuter or general purpose bicycle.  Aside form general riding around for errand and commutes, a friend invited me along on what we've taken to calling Eric's Raids.  These usually include a bit of off-road exploration of abandoned rail lines, overpasses and interesting means of reaching those bits.  This ride is what cemented this bike in my mind as a good alternative to my Breezer Liberty for utility riding.  The photo above came from one of these raid rides while we took a break before trying the next bit of deep gravel.

Loaded for Travel in Richmond, VA.
The following month, I attached a gym bag to the rear rack and rode around Richmond, VA.  With the approximately 20 pound of luggage, exploring and climbing the hills of this city in the river valleys and then taking the 30 mile trip to Pocahontas State park for some cabin camping and education.  While there, I had the opportunity to try to keep up with some seriously fast road riders in hilly terrain and must say that again, the bike performed admirably.  I had considered taking panniers for this trip, but wasn't sure that I could fit everything I needed into 2 rear panniers and couldn't really fit even small panniers onto the rear rack.  This is probably the most significant issue I've found with the bike and the next item to be replaced.  I've seen a folding rack from Bike Friday that looked promising if it will fit the mount points of this frame.

And in the ultimate test of confidence, it got to be my primary ride for about 4 weeks when I foolish hopped a pothole and damaged the rim for the rear wheel of the Liberty.  Between vacations, product line changes and discontinuations, it took me that long to get a new rear wheel for the commuter.  I got plenty of practice curling a single pannier around the back of the rack.  If a ride were particular bouncy, the pannier could actually curl in and start rubbing on the wheel.

Overall, I'd recommend this bike.  At 20 pounds, and its folding ability, coupled with the folding pedals or upgraded to MKS quick-release pedals, this bike is perfect for rail commuters where full size bikes are prohibited, or even on Amtrak trips.

I did have to make some adjustments for the bike since it has a much more upright position and the handling can be a bit twitchy.  Initially I was uncomfortable getting out of the saddle to climb hills, but after a month of commuting, I was standing almost exclusively for short climbs.  Road feel is pretty good at 50psi on the stock Schwalbe 20x1.5" tires, but large cracks, sticks and such definitely transfer their vibration into the handle bar and saddle more than on my road bikes.  On the upside, with the responsive handling, doding such obstacles is quite easy, even at the last moment.

Even with 8 speeds, the gearing offers a good range in terms of gear inches low 30s to 90s.  I did find that I could spin it out easily on downhills or flats with tailwinds, but never encountered a hill that I couldn't climb with the lowest gear.

Just before I got my Liberty back on the road, I noticed that what I thought was chain noise coming from the chain watcher is actually being caused by a slightly bent chainring.  It is entirely possible the bike came with this problem and I didn't notice until too late.  A very good reason to heed the advice given on all of the materials to have the bike checked over by a mechanic before using it.

Nit Picks:
 - cable braze-on on right chain stay might catch on someone's heel if they have large feet (personal shoe, US 9.5/10) (caught a sandal edge on it once, but a tendency to ride heels somewhat out due to #2), presumably present for other drive-train options, but should be elsewhere.
 - Large feet with wide soled shoes (Teva sandals) feel like they're rubbing the chainstays.
 - Rear rack is small and curved at the rear, positioning a pannier far enough back to be out of the foot path requires a standard sized pannier to be forced curled around the back.
 - Locking up properly (awkward to get a cable lock through the bottom-bracket supports and both wheels, no rear triangle, easiest lockup seems to be to fold the bike up and catch both wheels from one side and the BB support triangle on the other.)
 - Grip Shift 8-speed, sometimes sluggish to shift, good sized grips and solid-click prevent accidental shifts.
 - Lots of chain noise rubbing on the chain watcher in lowest 3 gears.

Usage so far
Since purchase in late April total mileage comes in at around 500 miles, I don't think I've had a reason to ride it since late August, though I expect to take it to VA in December.
  9 miles of commuting most days for over a month (when the weather wasn't wet - no fenders yet)
 60 miles loaded with a duffle of clothing and gear for a 4 days of hotel and cabin camping
 45 miles mixed on- and off-road exploring abandoned rail lines (deep, loose gravel; dirt; weeds; debris)

For another review of a different Dahon folder versus a Strida, check out Katie Mattison's article "The Tale Of Two Folding Bikes" at Commute By Bike.