Clown Cycle or Commuters' Dream? Fold-Up Bike Test

Roadies ignored me, commuters gave me confused and shaming looks. Bike shop guys chuckled, and (to top it off) a lady in a minivan stopped, rolled the window down, and asked, “That’s a folding bike, right? Looks comfortable!” In a single ride, my cycling street cred had drained faster than air from a double rim pinch flat.

This was my first ride aboard the Tern Eclipse S11i, a folding bicycle that costs $2,300. It is at the high end of the Tern line, yet it simply performs the basic needs of any bike — to propel a person from where they are to where they want to be. The trick is that once you get to a destination, you can flip a few levers, and whammo!, the bike folds into a cube-shape mass of metal, plastic and rubber, taking up less space and made easy to tote. Going from bike to “cube” is remarkably fast and easy. Well done, Tern.

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Riding a Tern fold-up bike

In truth, I don’t get the whole genre of folding bikes. I live in a city, but with an office space that has room to spare and a full-size garage at home, a bicycle that folds into a small cube is not something I can benefit from. But for some, a standard bike is just too bulky for their space allowance. Those dependent on public transit can find themselves hindered by a normal bicycle design as well. Air travel is easier and cheaper with a bike that folds small. And there’s no better theft deterrent than bringing your bike inside with you via elevator up to your apartment.

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Fancy Folder: Tern Eclipse S11i

Among the “folders” in this genre, the Tern S11i is top-shelf in several respects. Tern takes great pride in the design of its frame. The chassis is solid, no doubt. I hopped curbs, wheelie’d, and even threw the bike into a massive emergency (unintentional!) power-slide during my test period and felt no unwanted movement from the frame. It rides like a non-folding bike, which is likely the best compliment I can give it.

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Collapsed and ready to stow away

Some folding bikes have tiny wheels. This Tern has 24-inch wheels, which are nearly normal size for adults (mountain bike tires are often 26 inches for comparison). The larger diameter wheels are less twitchy to pilot, more comfortable on bumpy roads, more stable at speed, and they look a lot less “circus bear” then their tiny-hooped competitors.

Component selection is pretty nice on the Tern Eclipse S11i. I’m a big fan of Shimano’s 11-speed Alfine internal-shifting hub for commuter bikes, and on a folding bike like this it makes even more sense. A slick adjustable stem allows postures from upright to bent-over and almost aggressive. Disc brakes, cork Ergon locking handle grips, a built-in power generator and lights, rack and tie-downs, fenders, and more make the Tern as decked out as you can find.

Tern’s aluminum frame, besides being stiff, is the best looking folding frame I have seen. I didn’t say I liked the look of the bike overall, but for a folder it is handsome. Smooth, sanded welds, a polished finish and sharply detailed paint help establish this bike as the Cadillac of the folding world. With an eye on details and a solid, durable build, in its class, this Tern is the best I’ve seen.

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Made for the city

Roll up your sleeves once the ride is over, because hauling this thing around in folded form is no easy task. At 35 pounds, this bike is a chore to carry very far. Parts selection was built for utility, not going fast.

Priced at $2,300, the Eclipse S11i is a lot of money for a bike. With that kind of coin I can be saddled on at least a mid-level race bike. A company spokesman touted the Eclipse S11i “rides like a $2,300 bike should.” High claims if you ask me, but if a folder fits your need, this Tern looks to be one of the best out there. For smaller budgets, Tern sells models as low as $600. And while it may not build your street cred, the solution a bike like this brings to urbanites looking to save space and move easier with a ride in tow may just be worth the trade.

T.C. Worley is a contributing editor.

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