After Ironman Korea last year I decided to do Ironman Switzerland in Zurich this year. I changed my countries at the World Bank to the South Caucasus countries at the beginning of the year and I realized that there would be no way that I could take my regular triathlon bike (a Cervelo P3 with Head H3 wheels–the sexiest bike around) since I would be moving around so much. This proved to be prescient as my trip before the race is: Washington-Munich-Yerevan-Paris-Baku-Beijing-Wuhan-Beijing-Munich-Frankfurt-Baku-Tbilisi-Zurich. Whew. It is tiring just to write about it. I therefore decided that I needed to get a folding bike and do something I’ve never seen before: a triathlon on a folding bike.
I did a lot of research on the Internet with regard to folding bicycles and found that there were basically two groups: (i) cheap and nasty; or, (ii) nice and expensive. The former are bikes like the Dahon which are, at their best, meant for commuters. They usually fold across the top/down tube of the bike and so have limited rigidity. Quite unsuitable to a competitive cyclist who can generate a fair amount of power. Even a duffer like me puts out over 400 watts for short intervals.
Having eliminated the Dahon type bikes I had a good look at the better equipped bikes, such as the highly rated bikes from Bike Friday. They have a mind-numbing array of bikes with different designs and options, with very good reviews and high end equipment. When I worked out the type of bike that would suit me best the cost came to well over US$ 2,500. This was outside of my price comfort zone–especially as I was not convinced that the bike would be feasible. I already had at home bikes for triathlon, road racing, mountain biking, fixed gear biking as well as road and mountain bikes in New Zealand, and bikes in China and Canada. No wonder people think that my basement looks like a bike shop.
The Reach Road
I then found a new bike called a ‘Reach Road’. It had the high quality shifters and other components that I was looking for. Most importantly, the manufacturer claimed that the geometry was designed to replicate a road bike. That was key because I didn’t want to have something that was radically different to my current bikes. When I told the manufacturer that I was thinking of doing an Ironman triathlon on it they discounted it from their regular price of $1,500 to price which was within my ‘comfort zone’ for another bike. I could even brag that I was being sponsored to race on this bike 🙂
Let me go straight to the advantages of a folding bike: it fits into your suitcase. The photo below shows the Reach in a standard 31” suitcase ($50 from Maceys). The case also contains: helmet, cycling shoes, nutrition supplies for one month, tools, spare tire, two spare tubes, spare spokes, my triathlon wet suit and towel—all weighing in at 19 kg. Not only is this much more manageable to move around than a regular bike case (my triathlon case would not fit in a small taxi in China), but airlines do not charge the $70+ for each sector.
The Reach comes well configured from the manufacturer with Shimano components, including STI shifters. I only made two changes: (i) the pedals were replaced with Speedplay Zero’s which I use on my road and triathlon bikes, and (ii) the tires were replaced with better ones Swalbe. I added a Profile Design clamp on aerobar to the handlebars, as well as a seat mounted water bottle holder. That is the only place to put them. Note: Because of the diameter of the seat tube you need one which fits under the seat, as opposed to around the seat tube.
The specifications are below:
- Frame: Built of AL7005 T6 aluminum, rigid front triangle and rear swing arm with Rear Shock
- Front Fork: Built of AL7005 T6 aluminum, trailing link suspension.
- Tires/Tubes: Primo Comet 20”x1-1/8” (26-451) skin wall 110psi. French valves
- Rims: Alex R-390 451×13 24 holes, with machined sidewall and safety line
- Hubs: Shimano Capreo hubs
- Crankset: FSA Gossamer Mega Exo, 53t/39t, AL7075 CNC rings, 170mm cranks
- Chain: Shimano HG53 super narrow chains
- Cassette: Shimano Capreo 9 speed 9-26t
- Front Derailleur: Shimano Tiagra brazed on type
- Rear Derailleur: Shimano Tiagra SS direct attachment
- Shifters: Shimano ST-4500 integrated
- Saddle: Velo VL-1044
- Pedals: VP-197 one piece alloy forged
- Handlebars: Zoom drop racing bar, 400mm wide, 26mm dia
- Extension stem: Kalloy AS-004 100 extension, 7 degree raise
- Stem: Pacific QR
- Brakes: Shimano A550-57 dual pivot caliper brake.
The setup of the bike was straight forward and not too complicated if you have worked on bikes before. I was very pleased to see that I was able to replicate my Trek 5200 road racing bike setup (seat height, front-back offset, etc.) with no difficulty at all. The manufacturer had been right when he said this was one of the Reach Road’s strengths. The bike came with a full set of documentation–all the original Shimano component sheets. It even included some nice extras like small vials of red and white paint for touching up the chips. A nice touch.
As I mentioned earlier, one of my big concerns about a folding bike was the fact that they tend to be less stable than regular bikes. Not the Reach. The design is very ingenious. There is a rigid triangle frame and the bike folds via a pivot point just above the bottom bracket. A quick release skewer attached to the shock releases the entire rear wheel and frame which swings forward. With the front wheel removed, it is quite compact. Even more if you remove the handlebars and seat using the quick release bolts.
Riding the Reach Road
The key question is how does it ride: surprisingly well. It is a little bit more ‘skittish’ than a regular bike, due I suspect to the 20″ wheels, and this is amplified when you are down in the aero position. However, most people would not notice it. The biggest thing you notice is that it is such a head turner: it elicits comments wherever you go.
As a triathlete I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of the seat. Even when using the aerobars it is comfortable to ride on: usually these are among the first things I replace when I get a new bike due to the impact on certain key parts of the male anatomy.
The only gripe that I have is with the gearing, but that is an artifact of having 20” wheels. The cluster goes from 9-26 which is a huge range. This leads to a discontinuity in the middle gears where it is difficult to find the ‘comfortable’ gear to be in under some conditions, however, I don’t know how to get around it since the 9 is required when going downhill and the 26 when going up. It’s something which you somewhat get used to, and compared to the advantages a minor bother.
In summary, if you close your eyes you wouldn’t know that you are on a folding bike.
My first triathlon with the Reach Road was the 2008 Columbia triathlon in Columbia Maryland which I’ve written about elsewhere. This was to be my first test of the bike ‘in anger’. A hilly course, as shown by the elevation profile below, I had raced the same course a few years earlier so it would give me a comparison with the same course on my road bike.
The photo below was taken by my wife Lis and shows the bike kitted out for triathlon with the aero bars, etc. To the right you can see a regular sized wheel which shows just how tiny the 20″ wheels are in comparison.
As would be expected, the bike turned quite a few heads. Joseph from my running club complained afterwards that it was embarrassing to him when I passed on my funny looking bike. Several people asked during the ride what it was.
Although the bike is a few kg heavier than my Trek, I did not find it noticeably unresponsive on the hills, as evidenced by my passing more people there than passed me. I finished the race with an average speed of 19.2 mph, compared to 19.6 mph the last time. Given that I have been battling injuries all year and was more fit before, the race showed that one is not materially worse off with the Reach Road than a ‘real’ triathlon bike. Of course if I was in competition to win that would be another story.
A week after Columbia I found myself with a 15 hour layover in Munich before my flight to Armenia. So out came the bike and within one hour of checking into the hotel I was out for a ride on the Istar River Trail. This is about 12 km from the airport and took me into Munich. What a great way to spend a few hours. The trail was thought forest with the river on my left and very tranquil.
This is the beauty of a folding bike: it opens up new opportunities for exploring and meeting people. For example, I met up with a fellow cyclist who had taught at Georgetown university in Washington for time. It was great to have some company and he told me about the local area and things to see. He led me through the ‘English Gardens’ into Munich proper.
Germany is such a civilized place with cycling facilities everywhere. Being a Sunday lots of people were out, particularly families cycling together. I got lost quite a few times in Munich, but managed to find the river again and continue heading south. I decided to turn around after about 35 miles since I didn’t want to run the risk of ‘bonking’ due to jet lag and struggling to make it back to my hotel!
I rode home along the other bank of the river and by now it was early afternoon so was quite busy. It is great to see how such a resource is used by so many people. I managed to make the hotel without any difficulties and within 30 minutes my bike was stripped down and packed back into its case. I could get used to this. A week later I was cycling in Armenia – but that is another story.
So now that I’ve been riding the Reach Road for some six weeks, have one race and some travels with it, what are my overall observations? In summary, the advantages of the bike far outweigh its disadvantages.
The bike has excellent components and is very well engineered. Except for the gearing issue I mentioned earlier, and the fact it is a bit heavier than my regular road bike, I do not notice any substantial difference in performance. My 19.2 mph in the Columbia triathlon was very close to my previous time. The bike fits into a suitcase and can be assembled/disassembled in about 30 minutes. Having it with you opens many opportunities.
To paraphrase Humphrey Bogart at the end of the film ‘Casablanca’, I can see that this is the start of a very special fiendship.