I bought a Birdy Red in mid June 1998, and have covered about 150 miles on it in the 4 weeks (up to the end of July 1998)since then [updates to this report will appear at the end of this page]. I already had a fairly extensive stable of folding and demountable bikes – a Moulton Stowaway (bought in 1964), Moulton AM7 (1984), Brompton T5 (1990), a much-modified Moulton APB12 (1992) and a Bike Friday New World Tourist (1996). I also owned a Bickerton for several years in the late 1980’s. Of these, the AM7 is easily my favourite for sheer pleasure of cycling, and is a very versatile load carrier. Splitting it to put in the boot of a car is about 1 minute’s work, and it fits easily into the boot of a car no bigger than a Metro, without lowering the rear seat. However, it is not public transport friendly in that it does not fold, and the work involved in bagging it is laborious, and will take 5-10 minutes; nor is the resultant package (2 bags) very easy to carry or stow on a train. So, as one who has disposed of a car, I really need true folders, though I wouldn’t part with the AM.
In terms of folding, the Brompton does everything I could ask for, although perhaps some reduction in weight would be useful when it comes to lifting it. Luggage carrying on the Brompton is also beyond reproach, with very rapid fitting and removal of bags which can carry a large amount. The drawbacks are riding quality (I don’t much like the very upright riding position, and the short saddle to handlebar distance, on longer rides) and I find the S-A 5 speed hub has rather large gaps between the gears for my elderly knees (the gear range is not such a concern, though a slightly wider spread would not be unwelcome). I’ve ridden 60 miles on a Brompton during a day, and suffered no ill effects (others have of course done much higher mileages), but I can’t honestly say I really enjoy riding the Brompton, apart from taking pleasure in the fact that a bike that folds so brilliantly is also very capable of being ridden for long distances.
The Bike Friday really is a very good high performance bicycle, and while not quite the equal of the Moulton AM, it rides superbly. By fitting racks, quite a lot of luggage can be carried when the need arises, though not with the everyday convenience and easy removal of the Brompton. Folding, however, was a disappointment. Yes, you can fold it in under 30 seconds, just as you can in fact split a Moulton in 7 seconds – but this doesn’t represent the true time in a normal situation. If you add the time to remove any luggage, unwrap the carry bag, fold the bike, fit it into the carry bag, and zip up the bag, I reckon you need to allow 3 minutes, and you will probably get dirty in the process. It’s OK for local trains where we don’t have to fold anyway, or at the start and end of a tour, or the occasional day out, but not something I want to do regularly. For air travel, of course, the Friday has a special position with its case and trailer, or in the case of the Air Friday and Air Glide, the ability to pack into carry-on luggage. In these cases time to pack is less important. But I’ve never taken a bike on a plane, and have no immediate plans to do so. I’ve looked into ways of improving the portability of the Friday on trains, and I think I have now found a better solution than the standard Bike Friday bag. It is one of the splendid A to B covers, which I can drop over the bike in under 10 seconds. The cover is light and packs into a small space so that I can carry it all the time (the Bike Friday bag is big enough when folded to need a carrier fitted to be able to transport it!). The cover doesn’t provide the potential protection of the Bike Friday bag, but it’s much more suitable for use on trains. Furthermore, it’s easier to carry the bike by putting a hand through the top of the cover and holding the frame or wheel than it is to carry the Bike Friday bag by its handles.
The Birdy was bought as filling the gap between the Brompton and the Friday (before I had improved the portability of the latter). The idea was to have something that folds better than a Friday, although not quite as well as a Brompton, but which rides better than a Brompton (though not as well as a Friday or Moulton). The design and marketing of the Birdy certainly suggest that this is the position in the market it is aimed at, and the significant increase in the number of Birdys at this year’s Folder Forum suggests that there are quite a lot of people looking for such a bike. I have to say that I had considerable misgivings about a number of aspects of the Birdy before I bought it, in particular the use of an aluminium frame, limited luggage carrying and the unusual wheel size, with limited choice of tyres, and those of dubious quality. I chose a Red because I wanted a simple, light machine – for longer rides I have other bikes to choose from. In the rather limited time I’ve had the bike it has generally fulfilled my expectations – good and bad. My experiences are summarised here.
The Birdy certainly folds much more readily than the Bike Friday did originally, although now I have the A to B cover for the Friday the margin is not so great. It’s also easier to carry the Birdy in a folded state, although again the new cover has reduced the gap somewhat. The Friday is however still a serious embarrassment on a train in terms of size – it won’t fit in most of the luggage spaces provided, so the Birdy clearly beats it in this respect. Compared with the Brompton it is no contest – the Brompton wins hands down. It is just so easy to fold the Brompton, the result is so compact and easy to carry, you would very rarely need to cover it, and the A to B cover is so small, light and compact. Because the Brompton is so easy to fold, you don’t normally need to carry it far, you can wheel it instead, so the lighter weight of the Birdy is not as much of a benefit when folded compared with the Brompton. The Brompton is the only folding bike which owners fold even when they don’t need to.
The Birdy certainly scores over the Brompton here – the riding position is not cramped, and indeed some people find the standard Birdy bars give too long a reach and are too low. I’m very short, but with comparatively long arms, and the Birdy is almost perfect for me. By contrast the bars are much too high and too close for me on the Brompton. The Birdy suspension works well on normal road undulations and other road imperfections which do not have steep edges, and is also particularly effective on canal tow paths. But even quite minor pot holes create so much noise from the bike that they are to be avoided. Generally I find the squeaks, creaks etc of the Birdy disconcerting – not at all in the Bickerton league, and the bike feels very rigid, but if you are used to Bromptons, Bike Fridays, Moultons etc, these noises are a cause for concern. I attribute them at least partly to the aluminium frame – one of the several reasons why I’m not keen on it as a bicycle frame material. Apart from the noise, in smoothness of ride the Birdy is certainly better than the Brompton and Bike Friday. The handling generally feels more stable than the Brompton, but I have an impression that is can be less predictable. The Friday is MUCH better than either of the other bikes in terms of stability and general ride quality, despite the lack of suspension.
The Birdy Red gears are very close spaced, which makes it far easier to find the right gear than with the Brompton, and makes riding more effortless and makes for less strain on the knees. The down side of the closeness of the gears is that the overall range is a bit limited, and perhaps overall a bit on the high side. Fitting a smaller chainwheel is not an easy option, as the plastic chain guides would not then fit. My Bike Friday has the Sachs 3 x 7 system which gives both a wide overall range of gears and narrow spacing between them.
The brakes are very powerful on the Birdy, but too abrupt for my taste – I prefer something slightly heavier but more progressive. The standard Brompton brakes are definitely poor; I have not finished fitting the Alhongas on my Brompton yet, but a test ride of the A to B Brompton fitted with the Alhongas would suggest that although they make an improvement, the braking of the Brompton is still a weak area. Bike Fridays suffer from the long cable run to the back brakes. Until recently I have been very unhappy with the braking of my Bike Friday fitted with Dia Compe Big Dogs. Recent recabling of the rear brakes, and fitting of a rigid right angle cable guide from a V-brake, have transformed it, at least for the moment. Although still not as powerful as the Birdy, the more progressive performance inspires more confidence. Current Fridays are either fitted with V brakes (models with 406 wheels) or Shimano 105 dual pivots (models with 451 wheels). I would expect these to be better than the brakes on my Friday.
Wheels and tyres
The Primos now fitted on my Brompton (not standard equipment) are superb – probably the best of all in terms of rolling resistance, and they are reasonably puncture resistant and life is acceptable. I have Schwalbe City Jets on the Friday at present, but the choice is wide, and includes a 20 inch version of the Primo. The choice of tyres for Fridays fitted with 451 wheels (Pocket Rocket and Air Friday) is much more limited. The Birdy is the clear loser in this department – the unusual 18 inch wheels have a limited choice of tyres, and none of these are in the same league as the 16 inch Primos and many of the good 20 inch tyres available for Fridays. Oh for an 18 inch Primo!
Again the Birdy looses out here – two types of very small rear rack are available which will only readily take a very small bag. A small frame bag is available to fit below the cross bar, but it is very exposed to road dirt, small, and rather obstructs folding. Perhaps an old-fashioned saddle bag, particularly with quick-release uplift is the answer – if you have a saddle with loops, or fit loops. The Brompton is outstanding, with its easily fitted, large capacity front bag, and the option of fitting a small bag to the rear in the case of T models. The basic Bike Friday has no specific luggage carrying (apart from on some form of saddle bag), but there are mountings for front and rear carriers on most models, which means that conventional panniers, and/or a rack top bag, can be fitted.
I don’t think it is meaningful to say one of these bikes is better, or worse than the others – it is a case of horses for courses, and it depends what your priorities are in terms of folding, riding etc. The Birdy certainly rides better than the Brompton, and folds more easily, and into a smaller package, than the Bike Friday. But although I think that the market positioning in these terms is excellent, I think there are significant flaws, particularly the indifferent tyres (and lack of choice), limited luggage carrying, and the results of using an aluminium frame. I’d like to see Alex Moulton, Andrew Ritchie or Hanz Scholz design a bike for this section of the market – I think we would see something which is better engineered and better riding. In terms of improving the Birdy as it stands, I would certainly consider fitting 16 inch wheels and the superb Primo tyres (as described in an earlier issue of A to B), and I would also look at fitting an 8-speed derailleur system with slightly wider gear spacing giving a wider overall range. I’m watching the developments of the Birdy by Steve Parry, mentioned elsewhere, but my feeling at present is that there is a danger of spending a lot of money making changes which do not overcome some of the basic weaknesses, while possibly introducing other problems (apart from the damage to the wallet!).
Update after 500 miles on the Birdy
After 3 months and over 500 miles, my views of the Birdy have not changed much, although I have become more used to and tolerant of its foibles. I’ve managed to reduce the squeaks and rattles, although they have not yet been completely eliminated. I’ve now done several rides of over 50 miles, and the bike has performed well, though I still find the gears a bit high and the range of the gears rather limited; the tyres also don’t seem subjectively to roll as well as the Primos on the Brompton, the City Jets on the Bike Friday and the AM tyres on my Moulton AM7. I’m also concerned by the extent of wear on the rear tyre – I doubt whether I shall get more than 800 miles from it, and I’m a light rider who rides gently. Other owners seem to have experienced problems with tyre wear. I’ve managed to fit one small pannier on one side of the rear rack, but luggage capacity is still limited.