I found my worst bike on the side of the road in a pile of hard rubbish, its back wheel locked to its down tube with a cheap lock. It had clearly spent a while outside: its chain was rusted into corrugated valleys and peaks, and the tyres were flat, tube valves pointing off at a 45º angle. But the frame looked alright, and in a bored mid-pandemic funk I decided to carry it home and restore it. As much to keep my hands and head busy as anything else.
In the afternoon sun that day, a year or two back, I hacked the lock off and set to work. There wasn’t enough degreaser in the world to work the chain loose, so that went into the bin. The cassette wasn’t looking much better. I didn’t really need a folding bike, but with vague ideas of giving it away or train/bike/office-commuting on it once life went back to a normal that never returned, I set about restoring it as cheaply as possible. I took a gamble on $20 of parts from AliExpress, and when they arrived a few weeks later spent an hour or two giving everything an overhaul.
When I’d finished tinkering, I took a moment to assess what I had in front of me: 20” wheels, V-brakes, a chromoly frame, a cheerful orange paint job. I’d heard of Dahon before, although I’m not a folding bike aficionado, and felt comfortable enough with the quality of their mechanisms to trust that it wouldn’t develop a fatal flop beneath me. I pumped the tyres up, confirmed the gears and brakes worked, and set off for a maiden voyage down the street.
For a bike with tiny wheels and a tiny frame with a full half metre of seatpost sticking out, its ride felt surprisingly … normal. Well, that’s not the word, exactly – it felt really twitchy and a little harsh, but it was not anywhere near as conspicuously horrible as I’d expected it to be either. And most of all, it was fun: it popped a wheelie with the lightest spurt, turned on a dime, rode in a way that suggested that some sentient part in the steel agreed that it was a bit silly but was perfectly OK leaning into it.
The first couple of outings on my silly little folding bike were similarly revelatory. On one, I threw it in the boot of the car for a family outing, split off from them for a work meeting and dinner the next suburb over, and rode to the train station afterwards to get home. In the fading twilight gliding along the bike lanes of the inner city, I spun that big chainring and those little wheels and for as long as I did, everything felt right in the world.
There was an important lesson buried in that ride, one that challenged what I think a lot of people think they know about riding. I appreciate nice bikes, and have a garage full of much nicer ones than a Dahon Launch 2000 that I found on the side of the road and spent the bare minimum on getting into a rideable condition. But you don’t need a nice bike to find the transcendence in cycling (although it can help). Sometimes, you just need a rideable one and that’s more than enough.
In the months since that night, my little folding bike has mostly hung in the garage waiting for its next outing. It also spends a bit of time down at my parents’ house – as a little runaround on school dropoffs when my dad rides next to my daughter, or as a spare for grocery runs when his other bike is out of action. It is, we agree, a twitchy and silly machine, but I think we’re both low-key happy to have it in our lives, even if – maybe because – it’s not a conventionally ‘good’ bike.
That doesn’t matter. Every so often I pull it down from its hook and head out on it anyway, just to remind myself of the beauty in the act, and the reflected glow it can give to the least glamorous tool.
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