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If you’re thinking of buying a folding bike, you might be wondering how fast you can ride one. Perhaps you’re used to cutting along quickly on a full-sized bike.
A bike commuter thinking of switching to a folding bike might want to work out how much extra time it’ll take to get to work.
In this article, we explore the subject of folding bike speed and what you can do, if anything, to make folding bikes faster.
How Fast Are Folding Bikes?
You can ride a folding bike at well over 20 mph on flat roads, and if you’re super-fit you might average 18 mph or more. For most riders, the average speed is likely to be a few mph less, but you can still make good progress.
Several factors affect the speed you can achieve on a folding bike.
Cadence (Pedaling Speed)
The top gear of a folding bike won’t offer the same resistance as that of many full-sized bikes. Therefore, you have to pedal quickly if you want to ride quickly.
A cadence of between 80-100 rpm is generally considered to be fast in cycling and is known as “spinning”. You’d need to spin the pedals of a folding bike at these kinds of speeds to reach and hold 18-20 mph on flat ground.
For some people, quick pedaling comes more naturally than it does for others. It takes reasonable aerobic fitness to do it. However, many strong cyclists prefer to push a harder gear and pedal slower for the same speed.
There is a limit to how fast you can pedal a bike before the speed looks ridiculous and you get close to “spinning out” (where your legs cannot keep up with pedal speed).
The gear selection on folding bikes varies a lot. Cheap bikes tend to have a freewheel at the rear with a 14t smallest sprocket. This is a “slower” gear than the smaller 11t sprocket found on more expensive bikes with cassettes.
Let’s say you are riding an 11t sprocket at the rear with a 90 rpm cadence. The same cadence with a bigger 14t sprocket will yield a slower speed.
The top gear of a folding bike, which largely defines its potential for speed, is also decided by the size of the chainring at the front. A 44t chainring would be slow or easy by folding-bike standards, whereas a 52t or 55t chainring is fast.
If you want to ride quickly on a folding bike, you need as few teeth as possible on the smallest sprocket at the rear and as many as possible on the front chainring.
You can increase a folding bike’s speed potential by installing a bigger chainring.
Video: A Folding Bike With Unusually Fast Gearing
Many folding bikes put you at an aerodynamic disadvantage because you sit upright as you ride. The bigger you are as a cyclist, and the more surface area you present to the wind, the more drag you create. That makes you slower.
Road bikes have an aerodynamic advantage over folding bikes because you’re usually leaning forward. Hence, you’re effectively smaller.
Folding bikes vary from one model to another in their aerodynamic nature. Sporty models with a low handlebar are faster than bikes with tall or swept-back handlebars.
Read more: Guide to folding handlebars
Wheel size makes some difference to speed. Bigger wheels roll over obstacles easier, so they’re a bit faster on rough pavement or trails.
Conversely, smaller wheels accelerate faster. A bike with small wheels will be efficient on smooth routes with a lot of stopping and starting.
Read more: 16 Vs 20 Vs 24 Inch folding bikes
Are Folding Bikes Slower Than Normal Bikes?
You can expect a folding bike to be a bit slower than some full-sized bikes owing mainly to lower top gears. The easy end of the range (i.e., the low gears) is likely to be closer to a regular bike than the top end.
If you want to ride a typical 20” folding bike much above 20 mph on flat roads, you have to pedal quickly at 90+ rpm. That’s because there isn’t enough resistance in the top gear to slow your pedaling down.
Riding a bike at a consistently high cadence takes a fair amount of aerobic fitness, even in low gears. In cycling, power is a measure of cadence x torque, so riding an “easy” gear quickly can demand as much power as riding a harder gear.
The size of the folding bike’s wheels affects gearing. A folding bike with bigger wheels has a “faster” set of gears than one with small wheels if the gear ratios are equal.
However, it’s important to separate theoretical speed from real-world speed. Cyclists can deliver a limited amount of power, which diminishes the importance of having nominally faster gears.
You have to be able to push big gears before they’re quicker. If all they do is slow your pedaling rate down, you’ll be riding at the same speed. Some folding bikes are geared for casual speeds, though, so quick riders will want to avoid these.
A folding bike with small wheels and a wide gear range usually has a top gear roughly akin to a 34t/11t gear on a 700c road bike. It will cover fewer gear inches and offer less resistance than a road bike on a bigger chainring (e.g., 50t).
The type of “normal” bike you compare a folding bike to makes a difference, of course.
To give you a rough idea of typical bike types and their average speeds over a few miles (typical rider fitness on flat pavement), we’ve drawn up a table:
|Bike Type||Speed (mph)||Speed (km/h)|
|Road bike||13 to 18||22.5 to 28.9|
|Hybrid bike||12 to 16||19.3 to 25.7|
|Folding bike||10 to 16||16 to 25.7|
|Mountain bike (on-road)||12 to 14||19.3 to 22.5|
|City bike (share scheme)||10 to 12||16 to 19.3|
|Cruiser||5 to 12||8 to 19.3|
This table is based on anecdotal evidence from multiple sources. Various factors like gearing, tires, and aerodynamic qualities have been considered.
The types of tires that are fitted affect speed, especially if you jump from a slow tire to a fast one. Fast tires have less puncture resistance. Knobby tires are slower on paved roads than slicks. The fastest tires on the market are made for road bikes.
A highly trained cyclist might exceed any of these speeds over distance. It’s easy to do so in short bursts. A strong tailwind will also help, though windy days always reduce your there-and-back average speed.
What About Folding E-Bikes, Are They Fast?
There is no reason to suppose that folding e-bikes are any slower than regular e-bikes. Indeed, over a short distance, they may be quicker if they have small wheels, as these accelerate faster than bigger wheels.
Read more: The fastest folding electric bikes
Depending on where you are in the world, the top speed of an e-bike is limited anyway by the law. It will be capped by the manufacturer accordingly. For instance, you couldn’t legally buy an e-bike with a top assisted speed of over 15.5 mph in EU countries.
Counting wheel revolutions is one way an e-bike gauges its speed. Thus, in theory, if you could install a larger wheel or input a smaller one into the bike’s settings, you’d boost the top speed. This would often be impossible and likely be illegal.
The stated maximum range of e-bikes is always at minimal pedal-assist levels or low power levels. If you ride the throttle (pure electric mode) as fast as possible, you’ll run low on battery quickly on many e-bikes. In the EU, this mode doesn’t exist.
If you want a fast average speed on a folding e-bike within legal limits, you need a bike with a high-capacity battery that will deliver the required power for longer. You can ride most e-bikes manually, but you’d be faster doing that on a regular folding bike.
Conclusion: Are Folding Bikes Fast Enough?
You’d have to conclude that folding bikes are fast enough for most purposes. If you ride a folding bike and try to race someone on a road bike, odds are you’ll lose. But you can easily ride at speeds that keep up with traffic and get you to work on time.
To maximize speed on a folding bike, look at gearing, aerodynamics, and tire choice.
Read more: Average bike speed for commuter cyclists