26 June 2006
Airnimal Rhino and Cycling in the Algarve
Warning: This post is only of interest to those who are interested in bike riding in Portugal and/or folding bikes.
We've had our Airnimal Black Rhinos for about 16 months now. We had been looking for many years for the "ultimate" touring bike that could also be easily taken around the World (by car, plane, train, etc). While I have been very pleased with my Brompton L6 (and wish I'd got something like that earlier), it is very much a commuter bike. Most other touring folding bikes we saw (Bike Friday, Birdy, Dahon, etc.) seemed to be compromises in one or two departments.
When we set eyes on the Airnimal Rhinos however, we could see immediately that, despite the small (20") wheels, these were real bikes. We tried them out at the same time as a Bike Friday and a Birdy, and it was obvious which one we would choose. Airnimal make a range of folding bikes for different requirements and different price points. The Rhinos are aimed at riders who want foldability but also off-road levels of performance.
While neither of us consider ourselves mountain-bikers, we are frequently faced with different terrains on touring rides, and so such a bike seemed a good solution to us back then - fitted with slimmer and slicker tyres for better touring performance. The Rhino is unique (as far as we know) in being a folding bike that is also a full front and rear suspension bike - using standard components. This had not been a requirement for us - in fact we had not been convinced about the need for any type of suspension. But having now experienced the value from modern light suspension systems that can also be easily turned on and off, I am especially pleased we went this route.
It is partly the suspension that allows the Rhino to offer such a great riding experience next to its peers - even in normal road situations, as small-wheeled bikes seem to behave and ride better with even just a bit of suspension. The fact that the Rhino is British-designed (though not manufactured completely here) seemed to be icing on the cake. We've had a good level of personal service from the people at Airnimal, so that has again been a benefit.
We were actually keen to have our bikes with the Rohloff 14-speed hub gearing system, and talked to Airnimal about this possibility. While they would have been prepared to do this, we felt that we might suffer from being guinea pigs, and opted for the traditional Shimano Deore XT 27 speed solution. Ironically, newer Black Rhinos are equipped as standard with the Rohloff, and we may consider retrofitting some day. But interestingly, while I feel the 27 speed Shimano doesn't offer as much as I would like at the top end and I haven't got the adjustment right yet (though that is because of my lack of skill in that regard), our trip to Portugal showed why the traditional gearing might be better if you intend to fly with your bikes. Our Black Rhinos come in around 12.5Kg with saddle etc, and in the hard Delsey suitcase, it's pretty close to 20Kg. That happens to be the weight limit on many airlines for European flights. Add even a few bike extras (such as tools - more about that later) and you're pushing it a bit. Ours' clocked in around 21Kg and Easyjet were fine with that. My suspicion is that another 1 or 2Kg though would have triggered excess baggage costs. It also means, you've got to ensure your other (carry-on) baggage is VERY light. Fortunately, we're now experts at that!
One reason we exceeded the 20Kg on the way out is that we put our tennis rackets in the cases too. On the way back we chose to dice with security and carry them on. Perversely we had no problems with the rackets, but an allen key, a set of bicycle tools (primarily allen keys), and a bicycle chain were confiscated from us by officious Portuguese security (forcing a pain-in-the-arse visit back to Easyjet, and the submission of the smallest ever oversize luggage item in a thick plastic bag!). UK security had no problems with such items on the outbound flight. And nobody worried about pedals, etc which we also had with us. I mention all this in relation to our decision on Black Rhinos and the Shimano system. The (cheaper) White Rhino bikes (but still Black in actual colour!) are heavier, and use of the Rohloff vs Shimano also adds 1Kg to the weight. So, those wishing to fly within Europe with their folding bikes should beware the exact specification of the model of Rhino they choose.
We have folded the Rhinos many times to fit in the back of the car. This first-level fold is very easy requiring just removal of the front wheel, removal of the seatpost/saddle and undoing two quick-release levers on the frame (one to link the suspension, the other for the seatpost). The rear of the bike then pivots and the front forks fit over the rear wheel. It can be done in just a couple of minutes. The bike then fits into a soft carrier bag which can be carried over the shoulder. The size of the pack is considerably bigger than the Brompton, but fine for most purposes.
A couple of annoyances are that there is no way to secure the bike in the folded position - so it easily comes undone when not in the soft case. And, it is easy to catch the front forks on the rear wheel and derailleur which causes paint damage. We've solved the first problem with a velcro tie, and we're a bit more careful with what gear we leave it in to ensure the front forks fit better over the wheel (but still not perfect - especially with a speed sensor on the fork).
Until this trip, we'd never put the bikes in the suitcase, and I'd developed an irrational fear that it was going to be very difficult. In fact, it was not much harder than the first fold. In this case, both wheels come off (rear brake cable released), and the spindles are removed from each wheel. A little quick-release device holds the chain and derailleur in position. The pedals are also removed. The only other operation of note is to release the handlebar from the stem and turn it into fit. The bike comfortably and securely fits in the suitcase. A little padding helps - especially if you carry loose extras/tools.
I'd say that I could do each bike in under 10 minutes - both disassembly and reassembly - made easier with a second person on hand for a couple of the operations, but not vital. To ensure correct setup, it's best to allow a little longer. Also make sure you have some latex gloves as it can be a bit messy. The only tools required were two allen keys (one for pedals with good leverage, and one for handlebar). With the bikes in the suitcases, there was no need to disclose they were bikes, and no need to let the tyres down of course which saved some time at the other end. We certainly saved £20-30 per flight per person on luggage costs (bikes can usually be sent for about that much on most airlines). But our bikes also arrived safely at each destination. Previously, we've experienced bent derailleurs and other damage - even with extensive padding. I would also say that the packing and unpacking required for the Rhinos is less than we've had to do on standard bikes to send them by plane. The suitcases fitted into our small Hyundai hire car at the other end with just the rear seats folded.
We enjoyed 5 different rides while we were there from around 25 miles to 45 miles - unfortunately usually in the midday sun of about >35˚C. I've placed information on those rides in a separate post as they are generic for any rider. The Rhinos were superb in every case. We were able to climb up serious hills into and out of villages with the excellent gearing, as well as deal with some off-road trails climbing up to 500m (when we chose the wrong road!). The suspension came in very handy in this case in particular (as did GPS!). It also turned out very useful when dealing with some less than perfect roads as well as in the many towns with extensive cobbled streets and speed bumps (The front suspension can be damped immediately by reaching down and turning a "volume" knob. The rear suspension is usually left with damping on. A button press - slightly awkward while moving, but simple when stationary - is all that is required to undamp.
The bikes are very stable - even at speed. Our best experience was covering a 5 mile flat route down to the tip of the South West coast at >20mph with lots of wind assistance. On the way back we even had a 2-mile stretch where I was riding at about 30mph on the flat. Wonderful. The downside was doing the reverse - 8mph into a headwind for 5 miles! I do not feel that the bikes have much of a trade-off in top speed over a bigger wheeled bike. But they also offer faster acceleration from standing start and are slightly easier up steep hills due to lower rolling resistance.
The bikes got a huge amount of attention wherever we went with at least 3 people taking photographs of the bikes, and lots of questions from many people!
In conclusion, the bikes are just great - exactly what we had wanted for many years, but perhaps only recently possible with newer technologies. The folding is simple enough for most non-engineers, and the packing secure. More importantly, you have a bike with you that is your favourite best bike wherever you are - capable of riding most surfaces and conditions reliably. The few quibbles are generally mentioned above. Occasionally when standing on the pedals my knees get a bit close to the gear shifters on the handlebar, the gear adjustment isn't quite right yet (but should be ok), and I'd like a higher top gear for those flat-out wind-assisted moments! Also, we haven't quite worked out ideal placement for water bottles (I don't like the Camelbak style approach as I don't want some sweaty mess on my back during a ride).
Stay tuned for information on the rides including a few tips on riding in the Algarve (and about the dogs!). For the more nerdie amongst you, I'm also going to post on my GPS experience too!
(The photos here are of the bikes near a beach at Lagos, and with Sue standing next to them at Cape St Vincent - the most south-westerly - and windy - point in mainland Europe. The sign refers, we think, to the Portuguese equivalent of John O'Groats to Lands End. More photos of the rides will be over on the website).
Tags: Airnimal, Folding Bikes, Algarve, Cycling