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Due to go up to Aberdeen for a week, I went into King's Cross Station to get the ticket sorted out. Wanted to take the bike as well. Trying to get a ticket with a place for the bike was impossible. Exhasperated at my lack of progress I walked along the road and bought a folding bike.
I had already looked into the possibility of buying a folding bicycle, so I knew which I was after - well, I had narrowed it down to two possibilities. The Birdy Blue and the Airnimal Chameleon. I checked out the two and after a trial I walked out of the shop with an Airnimal
Most folding bikes are designed using the small 20" wheel. This allows a small folded package, but compromises handling. There are just a few folders which use larger wheels, the Airnimal and a couple of Dahon bikes being the best known. The advantage of the larger 24" which these bikes use is that you get handling which is more like full-size road bikes, but usually they have a larger, more unwieldy, folded package. The Airnimal though folds small enough to fit in a mid-sized suitcase. With any folding bike you have to make a sacrifice somewhere; with the Airnimal it is folding speed. The Brompton folds very quickly into a small package, but has all the disadvantages of a small-wheeled bicycle. The Dahon has large-wheel handling and folds quickly, but it doesn't fold very small. With the Airnimal you get the large-wheel handling and a small(ish) package, but it takes time to fold. There are different levels of fold. There's a simple snap-lock above the suspension block which allows the frame to fold in half. For the stage one fold, remove the saddle and seat post and fold the seat tube forwards. Remove the wheels. Fold the frame in half. Couple of minutes and it's done. Neat enough for me to store the bike under my desk in work. For the stage two fold, you also have to remove the handlebars and forks, and also the rear derailleur and the pedals. This allows the bike to fold small enough to fit in a suitcase. However to get the bike down to this size you need a couple of tools and a bit of time.
I have modified the Airnimal from the original specs. The first change which I make to any bike is to fit clipless pedals, In this case I fitted Look PP356. Next was to swap the drop handlebars for Profile Design Airwing Lo-Profile bars. Shortly after I added Profile Design Century Aero-Bars.
The future plans are to fit Vector Aero wheelsand upgrade the groupset from the current Shimano 105 to my preferred Campag gruppo, probably the Centaur.
The Chameleon handles very well for a folding bike. Ride is very close to a standard road bike. There is a rear elstomer suspension, which helps to soak up some road buzz, though this is not its primary function - the elastomer is there to protect the two aluminium surfaces at the hinge. However as with any suspension system, this does soak up some of the effort you put into pedalling. It's necessary to have this suspension though, and the elastomer is the most efficient for this particular application.
Handling is good with very responsive steering, though the dissenters might describe this as 'lively'. The smaller wheels give a very good acceleration, thanks to less rotating mass (see tyres). There is some problem with the cranks though, again a component problem, rather than a design flaw. The bottom bracket is Shimano's octalink splined crank, which I always describe as Shimano's self-loosening crank. The crank will gradually work itself loose, and I have to stop about every twenty kilometres, or after every hard climb, to re-tighten the crank bolts. Rather annoying, but I will be replacing the crankset with Campagnolo Mirage soon.
Tyres are another problem, as the 24" (520) tyres are available only from a few manufacturers. The supplied tyres were by Kendo, and were reasonably effective. Looking for a little extra speed and acceleration I went for the narrower (and consequently slightly lighter) 25-520 Panaracer Technova Tyres. These are without doubt, the worst tyres I have ever put on a bike. Very poor puncture-resistance, and poor grip. In the dry, their handling is twitchy. In the wet grip is no-existent, and it's very easy to slide out on even the gentlest of cornering. I have consigned the Technovas to the bits bucket, and have gone back to using the Kendos.
Shifting is crisp, with Shimano 105 mechs at front and rear. Shifters were changed from 105 STI to Ultegra. This was not because of any problems with the 105s, but because I just don't like Indexed systems, always prefering friction shifting. Gearing is fair, but in the year I have had it, I have never used the granny ring (the smallest ring on the front). Even on the flat, I often run out of gears at the top though. The limitation here is small wheel size, which reduces the gear development. The frame arrangement and the fitting of the braze-on for the front mech limits the size of the biggest chain ring you can fit. Currently I have a 53 tooth as my largest ring but would really like another three teeth, but this can't be fitted. Having said that, the gear ratios as supplied are perfect for touring.
The Frame Fracture:
Cycling home from work a fortnight ago I'd had someone sitting on my back wheel for about two miles. Whoever it was wouldn't take their turn on the front and I was getting more than a little pissed off at this. There's a long hill and as I was getting close to the top, I decided that this was the point to lose the wheel-sucker. I got up out of the saddle and sprinted up the last 50m of the hill. Well, I just got the power on and the chain-side pedal just folded under me. I came to a grinding halt, got off and checked the bike over. Big crack had opened up right around the BB shell. Rode home very slowly and gingerly, not putting any pressure on the crank.
The vulnerabilities of aluminium as a bicycle frame material have long been argued over, and like the holy war between Shimano and Campagnolo, the Steel vs Aluminium is unlikely to be settled anytime soon. It may be light, but it isn't nearly as strong as Steel. I had never really had any fixed views, but now I am firmly in the Steel camp. Now that's not a criticism of Airnimal - for such a bike you need the light weight of an aluminium frame. For any future bikes, I'll be sticking with Steel.
Update: 30/08/2003: Emailed the shop from which I bought the Airnimal. Twice. Bikefix in London are great when you're buying a bike, and parting with your hard-earned. But if something goes wrong with something you've bought from them, then they are absolute $h!te at rectifying the problemA year and a half later, I am still waiting for a reply.
After waiting a fortnight, I emailed the manufacturer, and had a reply within twelve hours. "Send back the frame and we'll repair / replace." Thank you Airnimal. Top customer service. The only slight difference is the frame colour - the new frame is a drop-dead-gorgeous black.
When the new frame came back from Airnimal, it was delivered to me at work. I had cycled in to work that day on the SMGT. This was a Friday, and I wanted to put the bike together over the weekend, but how to get it home? Simple solution - after all, this is a folder. Would it fold small enough to go inside the rear fairing of the StreetMachine? Of course it would. In fact, the whole bike, minus the wheels, fits into the fairing. Handlebars went in first, then the frame, the forks are to the left and the seatpost and saddle are to the right. This, of course, is before I rebuilt the bike, and each component could be inserted seperately. With all cables fixed and fitted, it would restrict how the components could be inserted into the fairing, so I'm not sure if I could do it now.