Please note: There are two sections to this page; at the top is a review of my new Bike Friday, a 2006 Pocket Rocket Pro (photo). Next (click to jump) is my more complete story about how I was introduced to Bike Friday’s life-changing bicycles, with extensive comments about my 1994 Pocket Rocket, which served me faithfully all these years.
I'd also like to recommend you attend a PacTour Desert Camp, which takes place in March in Arizona and is always a lot of fun due to the large contingent of enthusiastic riders, awesome riding and great coaching. The event is run by legendary Race-Across-America champ Lon Haldeman, who knows more than most about selecting fantastic ride routes, preparing great grub and making cyclists happy, while keeping things affordable, too. (Click on campster Andrejs Ozolins’ photo on the right for a full view of a rest stop.)
Since 1994 when I got smart and ordered a Bike Friday Pocket Rocket, I’ve taken it on every vacation, and I tell everyone who’ll listen that this amazing machine makes every trip a great one. A recent vacation (to The Big Island) was extra special because it was the first with my new Bike Friday, a Pocket Rocket Pro. Here are my impressions.
Before the trip I rode most of my favorite local loops in Santa Cruz, California so that I could dial-in the bike’s fit, and ensure everything was right for me. Ingeniously, the bike arrives with an adjustable stem, which allows on-the-road experimenting to find the perfect handlebar height and reach. A pre-addressed/postage-paid Fed Ex box is supplied making returning the stem to Bike Friday easy and fast. From the fit stem they make your custom one and return it. And, with that in hand, I trimmed the cable housing, fine-tuned the brakes and derailleurs, and installed the new Selle San Marco seat I had ordered.
Naturally, I can’t help but compare the Pro to my old Rocket and one thing that stands out is that the new bike is equipped with Shimano’s elegant Ultegra 10-speed component group, including a stock crankset. My old Friday works like a champ, however, it was an 8-speed, which at the time required swapping to larger and different-model chainrings to get high enough gearing. Having the stock Ultegra crankset gives the bike a professional look, frees up a little space in the suitcase, and ensures I fully benefit from Shimano’s engineering. (FYI gearheads: I was riding a 56-tooth chainring with a 12-tooth cog for a 93-inch high gear; now I’m riding a 53-11, which results in a 96.)
In fact, about the only detail that’s different from a regular road bike is a small add-on on the rear-derailleur cable housing that ensures the STI lever moves enough cable to shift accurately across the 10-speed cassette. This is needed due to the longer cables and housing on the folding frame. Other than that, the bike is a full-Ultegra roadster right down to the hubs and quick releases, so there’s no question about reliability, and shifting and braking perfection.
Shimano’s Ultegra group has been out for some time and you’ve surely read how nice it is already so I won’'t go into that here except to say that it’s a beautiful, great-riding group, and it’s obvious why it’s so popular: all the function of Dura-Ace at a nicer price.
I will say that the Ultegra’s silver/grey parts look especially nice on my Pro’s rich metallic blue paint, which glistens in the sun like Bike Friday’s paintshop somehow put aluminum foil beneath the finish. And, it’s not just a stunning finish. Powder paint, which is applied via an electric charge, is extremely rugged, too, and perfect for a portable that’ll see plenty of baggage handlers with an attitude. (I haven’t found one yet that can remove the bike and put it back the way I had it.)
Luckily, on this trip the bike arrived unscathed. We’d never been to The Big Island before so I wasn’t sure about the riding there and was happy to find smooth, wide roads; slow, courteous traffic; plenty of climbs and descents; stunning scenery; and Hawaii’s pristine air. I ride around 5:30 a.m., an hour when in most places the roads are deserted. I was surprised to have lots of company every morning, runners and walkers and even beach-goers already swimming and boogie boarding.
Typically, it takes me a few miles to feel at home on small wheels, yet on the Pro I rolled out of the Kona Magic Sands Hotel’s parking lot feeling rock steady. I’ve compared the wheelbases of the old and new Fridays and the Pro’s is slightly longer. The Pro also has a different fork than my regular Rocket. I don’t know if they’ve tweaked other aspects of the frame geometry or tubing, yet this bike is really stable, which is especially noticeable (and appreciated) descending at speed.
Not that I’ve ever had a problem with my old bike, but this one is stabler whether I’m just cruising along, really flying (so far I’ve been over 40mph and had no trouble riding no-handed at that speed) or only idling around a scenic turnout taking in the view. It’s a wonderfully efficient ride, too, and the Pro lives up to its name accelerating and climbing with authority. You feel this with every pedal stroke, yet especially when you’re out of the saddle. And, this complements the stable feel making cornering perfectly natural and comfortable even on unfamiliar roads.
I’ve always told people that Bike Fridays ride just as good as your regular favorite bicycle, and that you can do all the same things on it, too. This holds true for the Pro, only more so. If you’re looking for the ultimate portable flyer, this is it.
Bike Friday Pocket Rocket
In 1990, I set a short-term goal of riding every day and a long-term goal of cycling daily for ten consecutive years. Each ride had to be a real ride, which to me means getting suited up and putting in at least an hour of fitness-pace miles. I’d heard of a runner named Ron Hill who actually ran twice a day for over twenty years, so I knew it was possible. Yet, I figured it would be tougher to bike every day because it requires a place to ride, a proper bicycle and getting prepared to ride; quite a process compared to simply slipping on your shorts and Nikes
None of these hurdles seemed insurmountable, but my job worried me. I had to travel regularly; sometimes even to Europe; and I wasn’t sure how I could continue riding in such unpredictable circumstances. I’d already experienced the hassle of traveling with a bicycle packed in a cardboard box and in a bike case. Because of its size, the airlines charged me $75 or more per flight ($150 for a round trip), which I could not charge to my expense account. Worse, they abused the bike boxes and cases by jamming them in the plane next to other oversize luggage that would bash into the box. Even carefully packed, a lightweight bicycle can get damaged abused like that.
To prevent these problems, I tried shipping my bike via UPS. This is less expensive than the airlines’ fees, but I worried that my bike would be lost or damaged. And, I was never positive it would arrive in time. Of course, I also had to have a safe place to ship it to.
Ed to the rescue
Fortunately, there was an alternative; a new invention. Ed Pavelka, another editor at Bicycling Magazine, had recently purchased a nifty folding bicycle called a Bike Friday Pocket Rocket. He was raving about it. The trick with this bike is that it folds so small that it fits into a traditional suitcase, meaning it travels for free with the other standard-size luggage (no more abuse from crates of auto parts, etc.). But, the other special part is that, a kit is available that turns the suitcase into a trailer allowing you to ride away from the airport towing your gear!
The more I talked to Ed, the more I was convinced that the bike he’d found would be just the ticket for someone about to commit to riding every day. I called up Bike Friday and spoke to the owners and inventors, Hans and Alan Scholtz, and ordered a bike. I knew I was in the right hands because they requested complete body measurements and specifications so that they could build the perfect bike for me. I wanted a lightweight road racer that would perform as well as my traditional bikes. They said I’d have it in two and a half weeks.
Exactly seventeen days later, the bike arrived, packed in its suitcase. It’s so small (22 x 29 x 10 inches), you can’t believe a bike is inside. And, it’s a solid suitcase, built of plastic with wheels on one end and handles on the top and end for easy carrying and pulling. Three latches and a built-in combination lock secure the lid.
It took about thirty minutes to build the bike for the first time. Gloves were included in the tool kit so you can keep your hands clean while building and packing. There are several innovations that allow the bike to fit in such a small suitcase: 20-inch wheels, a frame that folds in half, a swan-like stem and a clever set of drop handlebars that are split in half to neatly tuck into the suitcase (a sleeve in the center reinforces the handlebars for strength where they’re cut). With just a little practice, I was able to pack the bike in 15 minutes and get it road ready in the same amount of time.
I knew it would ride great because Ed is a first-rate roadie and he wouldn’t tolerate a lousy bike. Also, Ed requires a truly custom frame. He says, “I’m 6 foot 4 (76 inches) but have only a 34-inch inseam.” If Bike Friday could build a frame that Ed could train on, it ought to be easy for them to make one for an average-size guy like me (6 feet tall with a 34-inch inseam). And, sure enough, right out of its case, my fire-engine-red Pocket Rocket was wonderful. The little wheels accelerated beautifully and offered excellent handling. The fit was spot on. And even the gearing felt exactly like my regular road bike.
One of the problems with some bicycles that use small-diameter wheels is a rough ride. Little wheels are more likely to find the bottoms of ruts and holes in the road jarring you on surfaces that would feel smooth on your traditional bike. Alex Moulton solved this problem with front and rear suspension. Hans and Alan’s solution is an ingenious frame design with an unsupported tall seat tube and stem. These flex slightly while you ride, eliminating jolts and keeping the ride as comfortable, if not more comfy, than other thoroughbred machines.
Ed had mentioned that the weirdest phenomenon about the bike was its appearance. If you look down, you expect a strange ride because of the PR’s funny looks. But, as soon as you concentrate on the road, you forget all about the bike’s unique design because it feels exactly like your favorite bikes. Even standing to climb a steep hill, sprinting, descending at top speed and hammering a huge gear — the ride feels spot on.
Curious about the trailer kit, I assembled the cross pieces into a T shape, poked the three built-in bolts through the holes in the bottom of the suitcase, slipped on the two 10-inch pneumatic wheels and clicked the hitch onto the chainstay (it’s a spring-loaded connector from an air-compressor hose!). Riding with the trailer was impressive, too. It’s easy to pull, quiet and there’s no slack between the bike, hitch and trailer. One caveat is that the trailer kit does not completely fit into the suitcase with the bike; one wheel must be carried in your luggage, but that’s no big deal.
Take it everywhere
To date, I’ve thoroughly tested my Pocket Rocket. It’s been to Europe several times, many places stateside and it goes with me on every vacation.
It made it possible to ride from Schiphol Airport to my hotel and all around Amsterdam (the top of the suitcase is perfect for spreading out a map when you’re lost). It allowed me to join group training rides in New Hampshire and Pennsylvania.
It was my commuting machine (much cheaper than a rental car) in South Bend, Indiana, while attending a week-long clinic. And, it makes it possible to squeeze in rides during family vacations by biking to attractions while the family drives and then folding the Pocket Rocket and stuffing it in the trunk of the rental car.
Perhaps the bike’s most amazing trick is that there’s room in the suitcase (as long as you’re not carrying the trailer kit) to pack an indoor trainer (I use an older model called the Quickstand, that’s smaller than most), which means that if you’re traveling to a snowy destination, you can set the bike on a trainer and ride in your hotel room.
This also works if you’re in a traffic-choked city, where it’s too dangerous or smoggy to ride. Obviously, this feature is a big hit with a guy trying to ride his bicycle every single day.
Cycling’s greatest invention
For all these reasons, I feel that the Bike Friday is one of the greatest cycling innovations I’ve seen. And this is coming from a guy who’s been testing products professionally since 1983, and who, during an 8-year stint as Bicycling Magazine’s New Products Editor, evaluated a hundred or so bicycles and over 1,700 products.
I rode the first clipless pedals; tested one of the earliest prototype aero handlebars; reviewed aero cables and Shimano’s debut index shifters. I tested Biopace chainrings and automatic transmissions and twisting brake levers and STI and Ergopower shifting. I’ve ridden dozens of electric bicycles and flat-proof tires. I built three recumbents; rode a fully-faired Moulton, the fastest upright bike in the world, to 40 mph on a racetrack. And, of course, I witnessed the mountain-bike and suspension phenomenon firsthand. Yet, in my opinion, due to its ability to change your life by making quality cycling possible wherever you are, in my opinion the invention that stands head and shoulders above the rest is the Bike Friday.
In fact, after I bought my Bike Friday, every editor at Bicycling Magazine followed suit and we would never go anywhere without our amazing companions (Bike Friday is named after Robinson Crusoe’s sidekick, Friday). At the Interbike bicycle show each year, we would lead the morning rides, all seven of us on our mini-wheelers. And we introduced the bikes to many other riders and proved to them that these wonder bikes do everything regular racers can.
Fit for racing, too
That’s the hardest thing for some riders to believe. They see this weird machine and they can’t accept that it really works. You have to show them. I joined a group training ride once and the guys, unfamiliar with Bike Fridays, tried to drop me. Not a smart move. The bike’s miniature wheels allow drafting more closely than traditional ones, so I’m able to tuck in tight for great shelter.
The harder they pulled at the front to drop me, the more rest I got. When we reached the hills, I was breathing easy and had no trouble winning the climb. I’m a slow sprinter, but being able to draft so nicely, and feeling so strong from resting so much, I was able to contest the town-line finish. Afterwards, the guys couldn’t stop asking questions about the bike.
Ed and others have achieved more impressive results on their Pocket Rockets. Race Across America veteran Rob Templin placed in the grueling Mount Evans Hillclimb on his. And Ed says, “I have a long ride of 190 miles on my Pocket Rocket, a long week of 707 miles, and I once rode the 112-mile El Tour de Tucson on it in 5:05 (no drafting!). Nice bike.”
But, for me, the best thing is that my Pocket Rocket has helped me close in on my major goal of riding every day for ten years. Due to an accident in 1993, I had to start over again, so I’ve still got a ways to go. But, I’m getting closer every day and I could never have done it without my Pocket Rocket. Thank you Bike Friday! (Update: I am now working on year 18.)
Visit the Bike Friday website (they’re also known as Green Gear)
Read about the current Pocket Rocket Pro
Peruse Bike Friday’s blog