A report on a re-acquaintance with a Birdy Red, September 2001
readers, or those who have referred to the various test reports in
these web pages, will know that I have had mixed feelings about
the Birdy. When it was launched, I had doubts about the tyre size,
in particular the availability of good road tyres, the
arrangements for luggage carrying, and the use of aluminium for
the frame. On the other hand, the positioning between the Brompton
and Bike Friday sections of the market, with good foldability (if
not to Brompton standards), and good riding position and full
suspension, were very appealing. I finally bought one, the Red
model, just after the Third Folder Forum in May 1998, and I have
described my experiences in various test and ride reports on these
pages and in Folding Society News.
In practice, I found that it performed much as I had expected. Partly due to the frame material, I found it rather rattly - the chief culprit being the Diacompe V brakes; the original small rear carrier gave limited luggage capacity - heel clearance made the fitting of even the smallest panniers difficult; the first high-pressure tyres had a relatively short life, and were not up to the highest standards in terms of rolling resistance on the road. Later tyres - both the current Birdy high pressure tyre and the Vredestein, did little to improve rolling resistance, and although the suspension rear carrier offered a little more luggage capacity, it did not inspire confidence - it is fixed via the seat pillar clamp bolt and a length of wire, which offers little lateral stability and looks to place a strain on the clamp. On my one short tour with it, I used a rear saddlebag, but found that not only did this severely limit what I could take with me, but it also seemed to affect the handling - the extra weight, not very securely fixed laterally, mounted high up giving a sensation of the tail wagging the dog. The under-frame small bag is usefully sized, but awkward to get at, and with anything other than minimum contents, it gets in the way of folding. However, the ride provided by the suspension was excellent, folding was reasonably convenient (though having to put it in top gear, and the flip under of the front wheel, were rather awkward) and compact. I found the ride and handling seemed particularly suited to canal towpaths, bridleways etc, where the suspension was particularly welcome, and the sluggish tyres were no hindrance, or even an advantage. Despite the annoyances, I rode more miles on the Birdy during the time I had it than I rode on any other single bike at the time, and covered more distance on it than I had previously ridden on any other bike during a similar period. In the end, frustration with the rolling resistance of the tyres, and the availability of other bikes which better met my needs at the time, resulted in me selling it early in 2000.
Since I sold the Birdy, there have been a number of occasions when I have regretted it, especially as of late I seem to have reduced my riding distance, and made more use of the train combined with the bike for the longer rides - rather than riding the while way from home. The ride qualities of the Birdy, combined with a more compact and slightly easier fold than, say, the Bike Friday or Airnimal, are more in keeping with this sort of use, and it offers a better ride, due to the suspension and riding position, than a Brompton - even an SP version. In addition, a number of improvements have reportedly been made since I had my machine. The end result has been that I decided recently to get another Birdy - despite having resolved to reduce, rather than increase, the number of bicycles in my stable. I first enquired as to whether the person who bought my previous Birdy still wanted it, but as he did, and anyway I was interested in the changes which may have been made since I bought mine, I decided I would get a new one. Once again I went for the Red - the hub gear of the Green does not appeal due to the weight, gear range and spacing, and energy losses; the Blue suffers the same additional weight and complexity - arguably the worst of both hub and derailleur worlds, though with an excellent gear range and the ability to do some gear changing when stationary; the Black, which replaces the Elox, seems vastly over priced and offers just one more gear than the Red, and a small weight reduction from the use of better components - some of which I would change anyway (pedals, saddle). Any forthcoming titanium version was likely to be too expensive, and the weight reduction insufficient to justify it. So early in September I made the trek to Bath to buy one. The two Reds on display both had the optional mudguards, small rack and dynamo lighting system fitted. Although I wanted the rack and mudguards, the dynamo was definitely not required, and I was able to arrange to have this removed. A Flite Titanium saddle, front rack and under frame bag completed the additional fittings. I wanted to try the new Schwalbe tyres, or failing these, the Vredestein San Marinos which I had previously, but unfortunately he dealer had neither in stock, nor did they have a spare inner tube (I settled for a 16 inch instead), nor a suitable Sigma computer (needed to fit the box-section forks) nor Shimano 323/324 pedals - fortunately I had taken some pedals with me.
Without an older Birdy alongside to make comparisons it is difficult to be certain about the detail changes since my previous one, but these are the points which I believe I have identified:
8 gears instead of 7 - I had modified my earlier Red to a 9-speed, with a 34 bottom sprocket, so I now have less gears than previously, and less good quality ones. However, they perform well enough, and the small increase from 28 (the original 7-speed standard) to 30 for the largest sprocket is an improvement, though for me the bike is still over-geared - see later comments.
Avid brakes instead of Dia Compe. These are much smoother and more progressive in action - the very light action of the Dia Compes made it all too easy to lock a wheel. Even better, they do not rattle in the way that the Dia Compes did (I replaced the Dia Compes on the previous bike with Shimano - the Avids seem just as good as those were).
Low-rider rack mountings on the front forks. These allow the mounting of a folding front rack which will take standard small/universal front panniers.
To my eye, it looks as though the rims have a slightly larger braking surface.
Again, it is my impression that the small struts from the main rear fork assembly to the pivot point are more substantial.
A more substantial covering is provided for right rear fork to protect it from chain damage when folding.
A video, in German, is provided to show how to fold and unfold the bike.
Documentation is now provided in English.
My first ride back from Bath to Bristol to catch the train, and then along the canal towpath from Birmingham to Tipton, gave me a good chance to assess some of the changes. I had a single front pannier fitted, which gave me rather unbalanced steering, but the effect of this uneven loading was less than I had expected, and later rides with more even loading showed that the effect of the front load on the handling is minimal. The ride, with a soft (yellow) rear elastomer, was slightly harder than I remembered, but still very comfortable. Minor rattles, especially from the brakes, seem to have been largely eliminated, though there are still some more major ones which occur when larger irregularities in the road surface are encountered. The gears performed well, and were quite adequate for this flat ride.
Since then the Birdy has had plenty of use, including general commuting and local rides, longer local rides, the Welsh Trains Ride and a trip to Scotland with a larger load - the latter two excursions are described in more detail elsewhere - use the links above to access them. The changes to the design since I bought my previous Birdy may be quite minor, but to my mind they represent a significant improvement. On the positive side:
The full suspension ride remains excellent, and especially good on rougher surfaces like towpaths and bridleways; the ability to obtain three grades of elastomer to suit different rider weights and ridings styles is an excellent point.
2. Folding may not be to Brompton standards in terms of ease and compactness, but it is generally not bad, and better than most other machines. The front wheel flips under slightly more easily on the new machine than its predecessor, but I still find it slightly awkward, partly because I am rather short.
Weight is reasonable, though equipping it with mudguards, racks etc narrows the apparently large advantage that it seems to have on paper over a Brompton.
The additional eight gear now fitted on the Red is a useful improvement, and the current brakes perform better and eliminate the rattles present on my earlier version.
It is certainly my impression that putting a load at the back now has less effect on handling - I think that the rear end is now much stiffer, possibly due to the use of more substantial mounting struts from the rear fork to suspension point.
The low rider front rack gives a really worthwhile improvement in luggage capacity, and with evenly distributed loads each side, has minimal effect on the handling.
On the negative side:
The standard Birdy tyres should have long life and good puncture resistance, and they perform well on towpaths etc (though not on wet grass), but they have high rolling resistance on the road. I would prefer the Vredestein San Marino, or perhaps the new Schwalbe (not yet tested).
For me, the overall gearing is too high. Unfortunately it is not an easy matter to overcome this by fitting a smaller chainring, as the chain retention system (a post on the frame and two plastic side plates on the chainring) would need replacing, which requires some engineering. It is a great pity that riese & muller do not offer a low gearing option - say a 50 tooth ring with the necessary modified chain retention components. Older, weaker, tourist in hilly country or simply one who likes a high pedalling cadence - I think you would all welcome this option. It would reduce the gear range of the Red from 32-86 to 28-80, and would also of course be suitable for the other models.
My reacquaintance with the Birdy is proving most enjoyable, and I think it has matured into an even better machine than it was originally. I think that the positive attitude taken by r&m in tackling some of the weaker features is most encouraging - a culture of 'continuous improvement' is crucial to success, but unfortunately not present in many companies. Although heavy loading with large rear panniers, as on more conventional bikes, is not appropriate, smaller loads carried distributed along the bike give almost as much luggage capacity, and help to ensure that the handling is not seriously affected - my preference is small front panniers, under frame bag, saddlebag on a Carradice SQR mounting, and a small roll of clothes etc bungeed onto the small rear carrier. A low-gear option is still needed, and I'm still not happy with the rolling resistance of the Birdy tyres on the road, but perhaps the Schwalbes, when I have had a chance to try them, will prove to solve this.
For commuting and shorter rides the Brompton still sets the standard, but at least at present, while the Brompton is only available with 3 gears (we expect some solution to this soon), the Birdy offers serious competition, although at a higher price, for those whose folder is needed not just for commuting, but longer rides as well. The recent changes are all useful improvements, and the front carriers make it a much more effective light/medium tourer than before.
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Last updated: 3 October 2001