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Folding bikes have many features, but none are more significant than the wheel size.
The most common wheel sizes in foldable bikes are 16″, 20″, and 24″.
Which of these should you go for?
Where you ride a folding bike and why you ride one will tell you which wheel size is best for you. Your riding style also plays a part.
This article gives you all the pros and cons of 16 vs 20 vs 24″ wheels for folding bikes.
TL;DR: To summarize the content of this article, we’ve drawn up a comparison table.
16-Inch Folding Bikes
A 16” folding bike is a folding bike with 16′ wheels. It’s usually the wheel diameter that you’ll see in product titles for folding bikes. You may also find foldable bikes with even smaller wheels (e.g., 12″ or 14″), but these are far less common.
Brompton is the only manufacturer we know of that uses 16″ wheels as standard. Other manufacturers like Dahon make occasional models with this size of wheel, also. Generally, they use bigger wheels.
16-Inch Wheel Folding Bikes – What We Like
The greatest and most obvious benefit of a 16″ wheel is that it allows a smaller folded size. You can see this in the Brompton range. Brompton bikes fold smaller than almost any other bikes on the market. And that’s partly due to the uniform use of 16″ wheels.
Because of the compact size mentioned, a folding bike with 16″ wheels is more portable. Of course, other factors affect this, like the bike’s weight or whether it is rollable when folded.
It’s noticeable that 16″ Brompton bikes aren’t the lightest on the market. But they are amongst the most maneuverable. That’s because they usually include roller wheels, so you don’t have to carry them.
Smaller bike wheels are stronger. A lesser diameter and shorter spokes make for stocky, robust wheels. This is not a huge benefit but might be useful if you’re pushing the bike’s max capacity.
Other aspects of wheel building affect the wheel’s strength. The number, gauge, and lacing pattern of spokes also contribute. A double-wall 16-inch wheel rim should be near indestructible under normal recommended use.
We’ve mentioned the portability and compact size of a 16″ folding bike. One of the benefits these qualities bring is the ability to put the folded bike into a suitcase. You can then check the suitcase in as standard luggage on a flight.
Being able to fit a bike into a standard-sized suitcase avoids airline handling fees. A 16″ bike is the only foldable bike that gets you this benefit.
Small 16″ folding bikes will also often fit into a plane’s overhead storage cabin. This is something you should check before flying. It avoids any worry about potential damage or loss.
A kind of bittersweet benefit of a 16″ folding bike is the responsive steering. This size of wheel will feel different from any other you may have experienced on an adult bike.
At first, the steering may feel over-responsive and make you feel unstable. You may dislike it. Even so, you will soon get used to the way the bike handles and feels.
One benefit of responsive steering comes when you’re riding in heavy traffic. The ability to make agile (not dangerous) alterations to steering is useful.
Other elements of a bike’s design also affect its responsiveness and stability. A long wheelbase, relaxed head tube angle, or a broad handlebar width all make a bike feel stable, as examples.
Video: 16” Brompton Handling Characteristics
16-Inch Wheel Folding Bikes – What We Don’t Like
The biggest downside of a bike with small wheels is the lower ride quality. Obstacles like pebbles, stones, or potholes are best avoided on such a bike.
A greater “angle of attack” makes smaller wheels less comfortable on rough surfaces. In simple terms, a smaller wheel hits obstacles at a sharper angle than bigger wheels. And that means less comfort.
Brompton (the 16-inch bike leader) is aware of the jarring effect smaller wheels can cause. Hence, they add a suspension block to the rear of their bikes, where vibrations and bumps will be most felt.
This lower ride quality makes a 16″ folding bike less versatile. You’d need to be a bit fussier about the riding surfaces you choose. Going off-road becomes unwise unless the tire is wide.
A 16” folding bike without any suspension needs good riding surfaces.
You may not like the sharp steering of a 16″ folding bike. This is more likely if you’re an inexperienced cyclist. A bike with bigger wheels will help you feel more stable.
This is one of those features you can paint in a good or bad light. Responsive steering is less of an asset in a bike you’re unlikely to ride at high speed. In a 700c road bike, the benefit is more pronounced.
You might prefer a bike without such lively steering. That’s true even if you get used to riding it. Cyclists differ in their sensitivity to certain bike features.
20-Inch Folding Bikes
Far more common than either 16″ or 24″ folding bikes are 20″ folding bikes. This is especially the case once you move away from the iconic 16″ Bromptons.
Many bike wheels have a metric diameter as well as an imperial one. Sometimes, more than one metric diameter applies to a single size in inches. Thus, you can get 406 mm or 451 mm 20-inch wheel rims. The 406 size is more common among folded bikes.
A 20” folding bike is a good each-way choice. It betters the worse points of 16” and 24” bikes. Equally, it’s not as good in some respects.
20-Inch Wheel Folding Bikes – What We Like
There is a vast choice of 20″ folding bikes on the market. Because of this, there is also a great variation in cost. If you’re on a low budget, you’re more likely to find the folding bike you need if it has 20″ wheels.
Manufacturers like Tern, Dahon, Schwinn, and Zizzo make many 20″ foldable models. Countless other brands are available. Bike Friday makes 20″ folding bikepacking bikes.
More choice in bikes also means more choice in bike materials. Whereas Bromptons are steel bikes, on the whole, many 20″ folding bikes are aluminum. This keeps the frame lightweight, even if the bike has some heavy parts. Some 20″ bikes are lighter than standard Brompton models.
Aside from a wider choice of bikes, there is also a wider choice of 20” tires. And with that choice often comes greater versatility, as you find a tire that suits your needs. There may be variations in speed, grip, comfort, or puncture resistance.
All else being equal, a 20″ folding bike will provide a better ride quality than a 16″ bike. That’s because the wheels will hit obstacles at a lesser angle. They roll over things with a little more ease.
Aside from suspension and wheel size, another feature that can smooth a ride is a steel or carbon fork. These often feature on aluminum bikes. The seatpost size and materials also make a difference.
Compact Folded Size
Though a 20″ folding bike does not fold as small as a well-designed 16″ bike, it should still be compact when folded. You can carry it onto a train during an intermodal commute with ease. It will take up minimal space in most cars.
The width of a folded 20″ bike varies with tire size. Whereas many 16″ folding bikes are suitable for road use only, a 20″ folding bike may have wider tires. If the bike allows for some off-road riding, it’s likely to have a stouter folded size.
A 20” bike will still have lively handling versus one with bigger wheels. It won’t feel quite as sensitive as a 16” bike. So, you might say it’s a better choice for inexperienced cyclists.
Stability on a folded bike is also affected by the rigidity of folding parts like the handlebar post. Prolific 20” folding bike makers like Dahon use patented tech to create a sturdy machine. There’s no worrisome wobbling if you choose well.
20-Inch Wheel Folding Bikes – What We Don’t Like
Less Versatile Size
One drawback with a 20″ folding bike is that it’s harder to fit into a suitcase. It’s possible with some models, though you also have the weight to consider. You won’t fit one into a plane’s overhead baggage compartment.
You might prefer a 16″ bike for storage on a boat, in a small car, or in a small studio apartment. In those instances, an extra 3000-4000 cubic inches could make the folded size too big.
If you’re commuting on packed trains, the smaller size of a 16″ folded bike might help. The same applies to buses. Ditto if you’re storing it under your desk at work.
Many people aren’t going to have these tight-space issues, of course, so a 20″ folding bike would be fine.
Video: Fitting a 20” Zizzo Bike Into A Suitcase
Still A Bumpy Ride
Bikes with small wheels are less comfortable on bumpy roads or trails than those with big wheels. This is a price you pay for riding a bike that folds into a small parcel. What you can do is look for features that offset this.
Those features include wider tires, suspension, or a compliant fork. Spring-loaded seatposts are possible. Of course, if the roads you ride are smooth and well-kept, you may not notice any discomfort.
A bike with 20” wheels doesn’t suffer from a jarring effect in the same way that a 12”, 14” or 16” folding bike might. But if it’s ride quality you want most of all, consider 24″ wheels or bigger.
24-Inch Folding Bikes
Rarer than either a 16″ or 20″ folding bike is the 24″ folding bike. You’ll need different priorities to want this bike size over the other two.
A respected creator of 24″ folding bikes is Canadian manufacturer Helix. The folded size of their bikes hardly exceeds the diameter of the wheel. Hence, they are more compact than many 20″ bikes when folded.
Helix makes 24″ folding bikes with titanium frames and first-rate components. That’s why they are lightweight as well as compact. They’re also expensive.
24-Inch Wheel Folding Bikes – What We Like
A 24″ folding bike is one to go for if you value comfort over a compact folded size. The larger wheel rolls over obstacles with more ease. That’s because any given obstacle is smaller relative to the size and arc of the wheel. The angle of attack is shallower.
When you buy a 24″ folding bike that’s also made of titanium (e.g., Helix bikes), you have scope for great comfort. That doesn’t mean smaller bikes are painful to ride. Part of the comfort equation comes down to the duration of your bike journeys.
If you often ride over rough or potholed roads, a 24″ folding bike has extra appeal. It’ll give you a smoother ride if all else is equal.
We’ve talked about how small wheels make steering more responsive. Many people find steering over-sensitive or twitchy on a bike with small wheels. A 24″ wheel is well on the way to being a regular wheel size. Thus, the steering feels less crazy.
Tall cyclists sometimes think they look silly on a bike with small wheels. In the real world, few people care what other people look like on a bike. It’s an unjustified concern. Even so, a bike with bigger wheels alleviates any image worries.
Because the wheels are taller, a 24″ folding bike does look more conventional in use. It doesn’t need the same length of seatpost or handlebar post, for instance. You don’t get a diamond frame, but the parts are a little less spindly.
Fewer Replacement Parts
Bigger wheels need fewer replacement parts than smaller ones. Why? Because they don’t revolve as many times to cover the same ground. Thus, you won’t need to change tires with quite the same frequency. Hub bearings wear a little less.
Cassettes get changed more often on bikes than chainrings because they are smaller. Any wheel (tire) or sprocket that is smaller than another is likely to wear faster. The brake tracks on smaller wheels will also wear faster.
Speed differences are negligible between 16″, 20″, and 24″ bikes. A thin 24″ tire at higher pressures will roll faster than a smaller, fatter tire on smooth surfaces. That much is true. Tire pressure and width as well as the surface quality are crucial factors.
A high-pressure 24mm tire on a rough surface is likely to be slower than a smaller, wider tire with a lower pressure. (Some compact folding bikes are suitable for light trails.) The types of tires available for a given wheel diameter make a difference.
The ability to ride over obstacles at speed is not only about wheel diameter, but it helps. If you scale the wheel sizes up, you can refer to a scientific study on 29er wheels versus 26″ wheels for speed. This test pertains to off-road MTB riding.
24-Inch Wheel Folding Bikes – What We Don’t Like
No matter how small a folded 24″ bike gets, it cannot compete with a folded 16″ bike like a Brompton for compactness. If you want the smallest possible size, you need a bike with a smaller wheel.
Regardless of size, a 24″ folded bike doesn’t have to be heavier than a bike with smaller wheels. That trait hinges on the materials used and the quality of components. Helix bikes illustrate this.
There is far less choice in 24″ folding bikes in comparison with the smaller sizes. Examples include Helix bikes, the Tern Node, and a handful of models sold by Walmart. You will find them if you search for them, but they’re not everywhere.
Video: Helix 24” Folding Bikes
Can You Get Bigger Folding Bikes?
You can buy folding bikes with “normal” sized wheels, also. In particular, there are folding 26″ and 27.5″ MTBs and 700c road bikes. As far as we know, there is no folding 29er mountain bike. These bigger folding bikes come in various designs.
What’s The Point Of A Folding Full-Sized Bike?
Bikes that fold into a compact size have obvious uses. You can store them in tiny living spaces and even fit them into suitcases in some instances. You can carry them onto public transport.
Why would you want a folding bike that doesn’t fold so small?
A good reason for buying such a bike is so you can fit it with ease into a car trunk. If you can fold a 700c bike in half, you can fit it into a trunk without putting the rear seats down. And that means you can still carry rear-seat passengers.
As well, a full-sized bike that folds in half is far more convenient to store in the home. It takes up less wall space. An alternative solution would be to install a wall rack to get bikes off the floor. But a folding full-sized bike saves you the expense and effort.
Comfort & Speed
Aside from its foldability, comfort is the main attraction of a bigger folding bike. As alluded to several times in this article, bigger wheels roll over obstacles more easily. And that makes for a more comfortable ride.
This ability to roll over objects with more ease is a factor in rolling resistance. A larger wheel wastes less energy in some instances, all else being equal. But a smaller wheel accelerates quicker. Both benefits are small.
Who Makes Folding Full-Sized Bikes?
Folding “full-size” bikes aren’t common. You may find a few folding 26″ or 27.5″ MTBs on Amazon. These tend to be low budget, but they might suit your needs if you don’t mind a heavy bike.
Here are the other folding full-sized bike makers we’re aware of:
Montague makes a range of folding full-sized bikes with high-quality frames and components. Their “Paratrooper” range of MTBs is especially well known. This range includes 26″ and 27.5″ models.
Read more: Montague Paratrooper Pro review
Montague MTBs are all hardtails, whereas Amazon offerings tend to be full suspension. This helps to keep the weight of Montague bikes down, along with the aluminum frames. The parts are also better and lighter.
What you don’t get with Montague 700c road bikes is a conventional diamond frame. They look different.
Change Bikes is a Taiwanese company specializing in full-sized folding bikes and frames. They make road bikes, hybrid bikes, and MTBs.
You can buy Change folding bikes via Flatbike in the U.S. or Stances Bike (Flatbike UK) in the United Kingdom. There are other outlets in Taiwan and Hong Kong.
A notable thing about Change 700c road bikes is their conventional look. They have the classic diamond frame, so at first glance, they look like any other pavement bike.
Change Bikes make folding 27.5″ hardtail MTBs and tend to fit them with Shimano Deore groupsets. Again, they use aluminum frames, so they’re lighter than typical Amazon folding MTBs.
Fubi Folding Bikes
Fubi is a company currently in limbo after running into problems during the pandemic. It made single-speed or 3-speed folding road bikes with conventional diamond frames.
As an award-winning maker using a patented folding bike design, Fubi is worth watching. But you’ll struggle to find a Fubi folding bike even secondhand for now.
16 vs 20 vs 24-Inch Folding Bicycles – Which Is Best?
With the content of this article in mind, which size of folding bike is best? The answer is: it depends. Each size balances the opposing benefits of comfort and convenience. So, each size offers something different.
Bike design muddies the waters somewhat. A bike with suspension offsets some of the discomfort of small wheels. Bikes made of steel or titanium are more compliant as a rule than aluminum bikes. Hence, they are more comfortable.
The roads or surfaces you ride on might also influence your buying decision.
Some qualities are less important on a bike that you’ll never ride far. Unbeatable comfort and speed spring to mind. Whereas a need for the smallest or lightest possible bike is less likely to be movable.
One way to approach this is to buy a folding bike with the biggest wheels you can get away with. If the folded size isn’t critical, stock up on comfort instead. If you’re on a budget, more affordable folding bikes tend to have 20” wheels.
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