by Anne-Marie Borbely-Bartis
My career requires extensive travel. Whenever I'm scheduled to be in one place for more than two days (Boulder, Portland, San Diego, Santa Fe), I generally call ahead to have a rental bike waiting at my hotel. Here in D.C.
I have a Dahon for Metro commuting, and it works beautifully. But while traveling, I want something more substantial to head out for an early morning 20-mile ride. And the idea of bringing along a bike strong enough to carry my bags directly out of the airport is quite appealing, I admit.
So when the opportunity arose to rent a Birdy Suspension Folding Bike, combining the freedom of my own folder with the meatier aspects of full-sized bikes, I jumped at the chance. (Please note: I am neither young nor in particularly great shape. What I outline below is within the "comfortably possible" realm for any adult.)
Just think: instead of waiting in the cab line I'd unfold the Birdy, hook my garment bag onto the rack (I brought a cycling garment bag from http://www.twowheelgear.com for this very purpose), and take off--out of the airport, tooling down back roads to the palm tree-lined streets of Old Town Sacramento. Business travel designed in cycling heaven; I couldn't wait to try this.
I walked through the folding process at the shop, pleased to see how completely the Birdy broke down (front and rear wheels fold under/into the frame, seat and handlebar stem retract). For such a substantial bike, the folded product is remarkably easy to haul around. Wheels and handles on the carrying case made toting it around airports pretty straightforward. I never needed a porter's help moving it.
Before leaving on this trip I practiced folding and unfolding the bike at home, which proved to be vital once I arrived in Sacramento. This is not your light, one-snap-and you're-off Dahon. The reinforced aluminum frame has both front and rear suspension, and can carry a full load (something I definitely put to the test). Folding so much muscle is not as intuitive as a Dahon. I printed out the complete instructions from Birdy's website, grabbed my garment bag and laptop and headed for the airport.
Bike bags cannot be processed via curb check-in anymore, so the Birdy's wheels were a blessing as I marched across the length of Dulles International's concourse. Despite being just slightly larger than your typical 26-inch pullman, the bag was accepted as my second piece of luggage without a comment, in both Dulles and Sacramento airports. I paid no additional fees for an oversized bag. Airport personnel I encountered were all quite familiar with bike bags, they tagged it "fragile" and I retrieved it from Sacramento's baggage claim without a hitch.
Sacramento International Airport lies approximately 10 miles from the city proper, and SABA (Sacramento Area Bicycle Advocates, http://www.sacbike.org) members gave me excellent instructions for riding directly out of the airport to my hotel downtown, some fifteen flat miles away.
But two details interfered with my plan: (1) Sacramento was already 103 degrees when I stepped outside--heading to a high of 108--with virtually no shade between the airport and downtown, and (2) I didn't appreciate just how much the carrying case does NOT fold down to a manageable size, meaning, without a bungee cord to fix it onto the rear rack, I would ride 10 miles on a FULLY loaded folding bike in high-speed traffic one-handed, clutching the lumpy bag under one arm. This had Bad Idea written all over it, so I reluctantly hailed a cab.
Once at my hotel, however, I unfolded the Birdy and took off, enjoying one of the more bike-friendly cities in the U.S. Sacramento has miles of bike lanes in and around downtown, with a maze of one-way streets, making my first sightseeing ride relatively hassle-free. The Birdy handled extremely well and was surprisingly comfortable, thanks to all that suspension. It definitely has the greater heft of a full bike. I never felt wobbly, nor did I get that "this might fly apart at any minute" feeling sometimes encountered on older (pre-1990s) folding bikes.
I flew out to Sacramento a day early, specifically to ride along the American River Trail and attend to social engagements before work called me away again. So the next morning, on this first full day in town I rode almost 40 miles, and can make some fairly definitive statements about my experience with the Birdy:
The next morning I packed everything and, with a bungee cord purchased from one of the many excellent bike shops near downtown, fixed the carrying case on top the rear rack. And off I went, in a business skirt suit, nylons and heels, peddling 10 blocks to the California Energy Commission on a fully loaded Birdy. I must have looked a sight but the trip itself was actually easier than traveling by cab. The bike handled extremely well under load.
And here's where that folding practice comes in handy. I needed to get the bike plane-ready before the meeting began, and forgot one small but essential detail in the folding process. Without it--trust me on this one--you will appear to every passerby a modern Sisyphus, eternally folding and unfolding the frame, muttering "I know I did this before�" But even that has its charms. I chatted with some half dozen energy engineers who one-by-one stopped by to admire the bike--and try their hand at solving the puzzle. Eventually we did indeed get it back into its carrying case. Once you've mastered this process, as I learned later, you won't struggle with it again.
That evening I flew back to D.C., retrieved the Birdy and drove home. An excellent experience, I must say. If you enjoy exercising outdoors while traveling but don't have time for a full-sized bike and want something more substantial than a Dahon, I strongly recommend you check out this option of renting a Birdy. You'll enjoy the experience immensely--I promise.
Anne-Marie Borbely-Bartis is an energy policy advisor who works with both state and federal regulators.