Good Bikes Now Come In Small Packages

Traveling on a bicycle is great fun. Traveling with a bicycle is a great big headache. Lugging it on a car means roof racks, bird droppings, and spattered bugs. If your plans include flying, you haul the two-wheeler to the airport, struggle to disassemble it in the terminal, pack the pieces in a cardboard box, and pay at least an extra $45 each way for the pleasure. Hardly a way to begin a cycling adventure.

A better idea might be to bring along one of the new generation of portable bikes. Using lightweight materials and high-tech components, they're designed to fold into compact units that easily fit in a car's trunk. Some have hard-shell travel cases that most airlines will accept as no-charge baggage.

A folding bike is a good choice even for the nontraveler. When living space is tight--especially in an apartment--being able to stow a bicycle under a bed or in a closet keeps it from becoming part of the decor.

RIGID FRAME. Folding bikes have actually been around for a long time but have not been considered serious riding machines because of their small wheels and wobbly frames and because of the limited number of dealerships for sales and service. Many cyclists complained that the portable models simply didn't look or ride like "real" bikes.

Montague Corp. in Cambridge, Mass. (617 491-7200) is one bike builder that's out to change that perception. It sells a full line mf folding city, mountain, and tandem bicycles, priced from $459 to $1,995. Each uses a "chromoly" steel alloy frame, designed with two concentric seat tubes that provide a pivot point for the bike's front half, including the handlebars and front-wheel-fork assembly, to be unlocked and folded against the rear half of the bike. The design doesn't affect the mechanics of the brakes, gears, or drive chain. When you're ready to ride, swing the front fork into position, lock the quick-release levers, pop on the front wheel, and off you go.

Montague's Biframe Model 949 mountain bike ($699) comes with lightweight components, including a slick-shifting Shimano Alivio 21-speed gear set. It delivers a smooth ride, tight handling, and good balance. The frame is surprisingly rigid considering that it folds. The bike is both heavier, at 30 pounds, and pricier than competitive fixed-frame models. On an afternoon of biking on asphalt, dirt, and some serious trails in New Jersey's South Mountain Reservation, the 949 proved to be a quick and capable machine.

Montague bikes use conventional, high-quality components and standard 26-inch wheels, so parts and service should not be a problem even if you're on a vacation far from home. Montague also custom builds a folding mountain bike for BMW, which is sold through that carmaker's dealer network.

For the cyclist who wants full suspension in a super-lightweight, custom-built road or mountain bike, consider Alex Moulton bicycles. These top-end models roll on 20-inch wheels, are priced from $1,299, and are distributed by Angletech in Woodland Park, Colo. (800 793-3038).

Another made-to-measure folder that uses the midsize 20-inch wheel is the Bike Friday. The distributor, Green Gear Cycling in Eugene, Ore., (800 777-0258) builds three different bike types--touring, mountain, and road racing. Each bicycle is offered with a clever travel suitcase that becomes a rolling trailer for your personal gear after the bike is assembled and ready to ride. The line starts at $995, with the trailers a $300 option.

REAR SUSPENSION. Another choice is the Brompton, a more traditional British folding bike. It uses smaller 16-inch wheels and three- or five-speed gearing. The cycle features rear suspension, chrome fenders, and luggage racks. The lightweight bike is best suited for street riding and sells for $740. Contact Linear Manufacturing, the U.S. distributor in Guttenberg, Iowa, (319 252-1637).

As more people choose two wheels for their daily commutes, recreation, and exercise, they should know that a bike can now offer a good ride in a portable design. The incredible folding bike is also guaranteed to turn heads when you take it out of a case, put it together, and ride it away.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.