The biggest question I get about folding bicycles like the Bike Friday New World Tourist is, “If the wheels are smaller than a regular bicycle, does that mean the bicycle goes slower or that you have to pedal it more in order to go as fast as a full-sized bicycle?”
The truth is, no, Bike Fridays and similar folding bike models are capable of going just as fast as your full-size bicycle (up to a limit).
The Bike Friday website explains it best:
It’s all in the gearing. A single turn of the pedals on a Bike Friday will cover the same ground as that of a regular wheeled bike — the small wheel just turns a little more. The gears on a Bike Friday are configured to match the ratios of a regular bike.
They continue by saying:
Small wheels climb better due to a smaller diameter that needs to be rotated.
Small wheels accelerate faster for the same reason.
Small wheels are more responsive — they turn and steer more easily — the feel is rather like having ‘power steering’ on your car.
Small wheels, having a lower surface area, have lower wind resistance in headwinds.
When riding in a group, small wheels enable you to get closer together and draft better.
The design of a Bike Friday allows a smaller and and lighter overall package than a regular bike, and smallness and lightness are factors in going fast.
While there is almost no difference between the speed at which a folding bicycle and a full-sized bicycle are capable of going, there is a point at which full-size bicycles become more efficient:
Tests have shown that up to 16 mph, the small wheel is more efficient than a big wheel. Between 16 and 33 mph there is little difference. Over 33 mph the gyroscopic effect of the big wheel makes it more effective. Most folks do not go over 33 mph.
I can verify that what Bike Friday is saying about the speed of their bicycles is true. I have traveled with the Bike Friday New World Tourist for more than four years and covered thousands of miles on the bicycle, and I go just as fast on the New World Tourist as I do on any of my other touring bicycles. If there is any difference in the speed of the bicycle compared to my full-size touring bicycles, it isn’t something I can noticeably feel.
The only area where the Bike Friday and similar 20 inch wheeled bicycles fail to perform as well as full-sized bicycles is in traversing over large objects in the road, such as cracks, rocks and curbs. It is here that the larger wheels excel, due to the fact that their large circumference allows them to easily roll over certain obstacles in the road. Small wheels, however, have a harder time rolling over these same sized objects due to the fact that the circumference on folding bicycle wheels are so much smaller, and the proportions between the small wheels and the object that is being crossed over, is that much greater.
Watch the video above and you will see a few samples of how the Bike Friday New World Tourist performs at speed, in sharp turns, and going up and down a curb.