Robert Hanks: The Cycling Column

The folding revolution that is gathering pace

Jonny Trunk, presenter of OST, the excellent film music show on London's Resonance FM, reckons I should devote a column to "the small-wheel revolution", his theory being that the small-wheeled bicycle is taking over.

It's certainly true that there has been a surge in the number of small-wheelers in the past couple of years, at least in our corner of London. The ubiquitous Brompton accounts for a large slice of the increase, but other folders - Dahon, Birdy, Mezzo - are popular; and we've had a flurry of ancient shoppers, like the Raleigh Twenty and Sixties-vintage Moultons. Trunk, on his nippy 40-something Moulton Mini, is in the thick of the trend.

Most people who buy small-wheel bikes - SWBs - are attracted, I'd guess, by the look of the thing, the upright riding position, and the fact that they take up rather less room than a racer. Devotees also argue, following Sir Alec Moulton, inventor of the Moulton bike, that a smaller wheel has inherent physical advantages. The softer and springier a wheel, the harder it is to ride.

Small wheels, with their shorter spokes, are naturally stiff. What's more, the area of the tyre that makes contact with the road is smaller - a circular patch of rubber rather than an ellipse - which reduces rolling resistance, one of the main things that slows a bike down if you stop pedalling. The aerodynamic profile is smaller, making for less drag; and the rotating mass of the wheels is much smaller. All these things together mean that you can accelerate faster on a SWB.

You have to have the right sort of wheels and tyres. Leafing through a 15-year-old copy of Richard's Bicycle Book, I find that in the brief section on SWBs the great Ballantine was almost violently dismissive of the nasty little things, with their horrid fat tyres and heavy frames making them a pig to move.

And as if that wasn't bad enough, try stopping one, what with the slippery steel rims and flimsy calliper brakes. His complaints weren't unfounded: historically, SWBs had fat, soft tyres to compensate for the stiffness of the wheels, and stop the ride becoming unbearably bumpy; and because their design was not as strong as the traditional diamond-frame, they tended to be made of thick steel tubing that weighed a ton.

But that was then. I don't think any of Richard's strictures apply to the SWBs currently on the market, and Moultons have always been above that sort of thing. Sir Alec's design philosophy is based on using high-pressure tyres for the handling and acceleration, and making up for it with rubber suspension. I had a quick go on Trunk's Moulton Mini, and was shocked at how soft and yielding it was.

Even the sloppy old Raleigh Twenty, which was guilty of every crime Richard complained about, can be souped into a groovy little monster with the addition of alloy wheels and maybe a suspension seat post. Sheldon Brown has led the way on this - see www.sheldonbrown.com/raleigh-twenty.html - but a Google of "Raleigh Twenty" will lead you to dozens of pictures of gorgeous customised bikes.

For me, this goes under the heading of Things I Wish I'd Known When I Was 10, and all my mates had Choppers or proper racers. My Raleigh Stowaway three-speed was a source of deep shame. Now, it would be the coolest ride in town.

Against all the advantages of the SWB, though, I'd have to put a couple of big disadvantages: on our potholed roads, the small wheels can be overwhelmed by cracks. And while they may accelerate well over short stretches, over any sort of distance a traditional road bike just feels more comfortable and secure. I plan to carry on living large.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

    £20000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This full service social media ...

    Recruitment Genius: Data Analyst - Online Marketing

    £24000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: We are 'Changemakers in retail'...

    Austen Lloyd: Senior Residential Conveyancer

    Very Competitive: Austen Lloyd: Senior Conveyancer - South West We are see...

    Austen Lloyd: Residential / Commercial Property Solicitor

    Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: DORSET MARKET TOWN - SENIOR PROPERTY SOLICITOR...

    Day In a Page

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there