Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Bike Friday Pocket Llama Review - With Rohloff Hub Option

Safety Concerns ***Updated 6/01/2011

It's been 2.5 years since I picked up my Pocket Llama from the
Bike Friday factory in Eugene, OR. Since then I've used it to cross the Rockies, Andes, and Alps on fully loaded cycling tours.  I've received enough email w/ questions regarding my thoughts about BF folding bikes that I've decided to post a's what I think about it.

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*note* This post is meant to be an objective review of the Bike Friday Llama for people considering a folding bike for touring and general travel purposes--or bike geeks.  Stories and trip reports about my experience while pedaling the BF Llama can be found here:

Sweet Passes Adventure Cycling Magazine Feature - A ride through Switzerland and Italy
Colorado High Country - Top Ten Tours - For Adventure Cycling Magazine
Birds and the Beers Tour - A personal blog on touring from Seattle to Jackson Hole


Bike Friday Compact Folding System w/ Flying
I've saved significant $ on over-sized baggage fees with the BF w/ compared to standard touring bikes packed in full sized cardboard bike boxes.  However, this value proposition has recently lost some strength due to the extra baggage fees most airlines are charging--this bike, when packed/folded is effectively the same thing as an extra piece of checked luggage.

When flying to a destination, I consider three packing options with the Llama--1) pack in BF Samsonite suitcase/trailer, store suitcase at my arrival point and use panniers  2) tow suitcase behind w/ BF custom trailer mounts (which is no longer an option for me...but more on that later) and 3) if my trip is lengthy and/or I'm not circling back to my original departure point, then I make my own small cardboard box w/ strap system, ditch it at my arrival point and re-build a new one before my departure.  I always check the maximum airline baggage dimensions for checked bags, print it out and present it to the clerk so they don't try to charge me for an over-sized checked item.

From Gregg Bleakney's Blog on Bicycle Touring, Cycling, Travel, and Adventure Photography
Before - BF Llama and gear sort en route to an assignment in Europe

From Gregg Bleakney's Blog on Bicycle Touring, Cycling, Travel, and Adventure Photography
After - Gear and BF Llama packed and ready to fly

Bike Friday Compact Folding System on Trains, Boats, and Automobiles
In France, I was allowed to store the bike under my seat on the TGV (nice to have bike in sight and not worry about theft) and did not have to pay extra fees associated with full size bike transport on trains in some parts of Europe (Switzerland). While commuting in urban settings, I often bike to meet friends for dinner, at a pub etc.  I can easily avoid a Bike n' Beer situation by folding the Llama and throwing it in the trunk of a buddy's car or taxi--no need to rely on car bike racks. I've never had an issue bringing the Llama on a ferry.

From Gregg Bleakney's Blog on Bicycle Touring, Cycling, Travel, and Adventure Photography
Folded Llama on the TGV

My Pocket Llama was built to match a 64cm 700c sized Rivendell Rambouillet and weighs a bit more than a mid-size BF.  When packed with custom trailer mounts and wheels, packing kit, racks, fenders, and other accesories in the Samsonite case it runs around 21 kilos.  Some airlines have tried to ding me for excess weight at anything over 20 kilos.

Folding Time
I can fold the Llama in just a few minutes to stow in a car trunk, bus or train. It takes me about 30 minutes to breakdown and pack the bike properly (padding the frame carefully) for flight transport--longer to reassemble when I'm running racks and fenders.

From Idaho and Wyoming
Llama fully loaded, 4 panniers, handlebar bag and trailer near Sun Valley Idaho


Overall Ride Thoughts and Safety Concerns ***Updated 6/01/2011
The Llama is nimble, it accelerates quickly and corners well. At high speeds it's stable with or without a load. Mine is configured with flat handlebars and bar-ends.  I've only tested it with 20 x 1.75 Schwalbe Marathon Plus Tires (Schwalbe has sponsored my trips in the past).  They can be ridden @ 45 - 70 PSI and ride nicely throughout this range.  I've never had a flat w/ them on any of my tours.

As an urban commuter this bike is an absolute blast. The low top tub makes it super-easy...sometimes mount and dismount.  Because of its odd size, nobody seems to mind when I wheel it into a business lobby or bike on the sidewalk.

As a fully designated touring bike, the Llama is solid but not perfect.  The # 1 thing I consider when deciding if I'm going to use my Llama on a tour is the trade-off between the convenience of the folding system and the overall ride capability/feel when compared to a 700c/29er or 26 inch design. My comparison is based on experience with Co-Motion's Americano (photo) and other Touring Bikes, Salsa'a Fargo, Trek's 520, Velotraum, Tout Terrain, Rivendell's Rambouillet (discontinued and replaced with A. Homer Hilsen), Bruce Gordon's Rock and Road Tour EX and several different 26" MTB's paired with B.O.B. trailers (photo).

I'd love to claim that the Llama feels/rides as well as a quality built, standard-sized touring bike--but I just can't.  If someone asked me what my pick would be for a long-distance, multi-month tour from Alaska to Mexico, the Llama would not be the first choice.  Simply put, 20 inch wheels do not roll like their bigger cousins.  This is especially apparent on rough roads.  During a Colorado backcountry tour, I was forced to abandon cycling on gravely/rutted/steep sections while others with 26 inch touring bikes could continue. The main problem was with the front wheel--it came out from under me a number of times and was especially tough to control on downhills. It also got hung up in deeper ruts and knocked off track by larger pieces of gravel/small rocks.  During this trip. the bike was loaded with a low-rider front bar bag and light-weight panniers on the front and rear.

However, if I was was cycling down the U.S. Pacific Coast (photo) or heading to Europe with a mostly paved route plan AND wanted the option to connect the dots over bland sections via bus, plane or train, I'd definitely use my BF.

Initially, the slight flex from the extra-long front steering tube was a bit awkward but I'm used to it now and it's never been a big issue.  Safety wise, if BF steering tubes were snapping due to flex, I'm sure that the Web would be swarming with reports. But something that does concern me regarding safety is accelerated friction/heat buildup b/c of the pairing of rim breaks on 20 inch wheels during fully-loaded steep downhill conditions. I've had a sketchy blowout w/ heading down Grand Teton pass due to the rim overheating.  The bike was overloaded with both a trailer packed with camera gear and full camping kit in two large rear panniers and two small front panniers.  My body weight is 190lbs.  This is the only time I've experienced a blowout on the Llama but I'm very careful and take frequent pit stops to cool the rims on downhills now.

Safety Update 2011***
In late 2010 I used the Pocket Llama to scout the Adventure Cycling Association's new Sierra Cascades route from Canada to Mexico.  This route traverses demanding terrain that exposed  the Pocket Llama's technical limitations when riding fully loaded in big terrain.  The problem: small rims. Extreme climbing/descending routes like the SC do not mix well while pedaling the Llama fully loaded.  To be specific, the Sierra Cascades spirals over massive passes, often gaining and losing thousands of feet in a single day.  There are several sections of the route (in the Sierra south of Yosemite) with a gain/loss profile that matches or exceeds the California Death Ride (13,000+ thousand gain/loss in less than 200 miles).

I've already written about a blow-out caused by excessive heat build-up while descending Grand Teton Pass Pass in 2008--passes of this grade were so common along the Sierra Cascades that I had to make carefully timed "cool off stops" to avoid tube blowouts.  But on the Sierra Cascades section north of Lake Tahoe, I experienced an extension of this problem: the first of three blown-out rims.  It seems that with this accelerated heat build-up (associated with a 20 inch rim), sidewall degradation is accelerated too (this problem becomes even worse in wet conditions).  When a rim cracks on the rear, the bike is effectively useless because the exposed rim material rubs or snags the rear brake.  And because the Pocket Llama's rear brake cannot be released during riding (catches on the crank), it must be completely removed to continue--leaving the bike with front-only brakes until a repair can be made.  On flat terrain this is not a huge issue, however, when descending massive passes in remote sections of the Sierra it was an ongoing concern. On two occasions (after rim blow out), I hitchhiked to the nearest town with a bike shop.  I also walked down a pass in a rainstorm rather than run the risk of cycling under cracked rear rim/front-break only conditions.  I called Bike Friday and they sent me two sets of new rims along the trip.  They also acknowledged the drawbacks of smaller rims under load and extreme terrain.

Sierra Cascades Cracked Rim A

The Llama fully-loade during the Sierra Cascades journey. 
Sierra Cascades Cracked Rim B 
Friendly Mechanic Dialing in Rim # 3
From Gregg Bleakney's Blog on Bicycle Touring, Cycling, Travel, and Adventure Photography
Don Thomas, the Dirty Doctor, and the Pocket Llama on top of a pass in Colorado

Performance with 4-Pannier System and Front Bar Bag
This is when the BF Pocket Llama truly shines. With 4 balanced panniers mounted on standard BF racks, its center of gravity is extremely low. This was a big surprise for me. On smooth roads the Llama feels just as stable as any standard sized touring bike I've been on.  However, I typically pack heavy camera equipment in a Ortlieb handlebar bag and that system does not balance the front-end out well--it's just too heavy, too high, and feels unstable perched on top of a flexing, extra-long front steering tube.  Bob Freeman from Elliot Bay Bicycles proposed a nice fix--bring the center of gravity down over the front wheel by using a custom mount for the handlebar bag--an extra stem with cut mini-tube clamped to the low-end of the steering tube.  This set-up works like a charm.

From Stage 2 - Oregon
Four bag pannier set-up in the Oregon desert

Performance with Bike Friday Custom Samsonite Suitcase Trailer
I really fell in love with this idea on paper.  But the practical reality, after a testing it on a tour from Seattle to Jackson, Wyoming, was that the trailer system performed below my expectations.  The crux are the 2-mini-wheels used to support the trailer and the flexing "connect to frame" clamp hose.

The trailer comes with Schwalbe Big Apple Tires--initially, they are extremely difficult to remove from the plastic rim for roadside flat repairs. On dirty roads, they offer poor flat protection.  I like to tour as simply as possible--and with the BF/trailer I have 4 wheels in two size configurations to worry about flatting, tearing, and carrying tubes/spares for.

Next, the double wheel system, though it's offset to the left of the bicycle, does not trail well on narrow roads and is especially unsuitable on roads with rumblestrips or narrow shoulders.  During my tour to Jackson Hole, I often had to make a tough decision--ride the shoulder while the right wheel of the trailer bounced over the rumblestrips, attempt to thread the rumblestrips with the right tire exposed to the dirty edge of the road, subjecting it to frequent flats, or move onto the main road, making myself vulnerable to traffic.  In scenario three, the left-side offset of the trailer becomes self-defeating as the trailer extends into the road further than the front left bar-end (my typical measure for threading tight spaces or traffic with panniers).

Another gripe--the single side hose clamp used to connect the trailer with the frame can bounce/bob at times.  This is more of a minor annoyance and may stem from the fact that my other trailer experience is with a B.O.B. Yak, which uses a ridged chromoly steel fork to mount w/ the rear axle.

On a positive note, the Samsonite suitcase is waterproof!

From Stage 2 - Oregon
Rumblestrips and narrow shoulders make the Samsonite trailer a poor option

Performance - Urban Commuter/Car Replacement 
I went car-free in 2005. My big surprise with the Llama is how it's become my go-to grocery getter, errand runner, anything around the city bike.  As I mentioned above, it's quick to break down and toss in the back of a friend's car or taxi after a night at the pub.  Also, because of its nimbleness and quick acceleration, it's just plain fun to ride in an urban setting.   The low top-tub is great for frequent mounting-dismounting.

Rolhoff Hub Option
I love Rolhoff hubs. I decided to go with the Rohloff on the Llama because I truly disdain tinkering with traditional shifting systems.  I wanted a simple, maintenance free solution and in that regard, the Rohloff has worked out perfectly. Yes, there is some buzzing that occurs in certain lower gears but I'm not bothered by it.  The Rohloff is great in an urban environment because it allows me to be really lazy shift while stopped at intersections etc.  There's been plenty written on Rohloffs so I'm not offering a review of the hub here. But I do want to point out that they system does work nicely on my BF.  Specifically, I've set the Llama up with a Rohloff EX gear box and chain tensioner.  If I were to do it again, I would take a hard look at some of the new internally geared hubs by Shimano and SRAM.

From Stage 1 - South Central Washington
Rolhoff hub on the Llama

The Final Final
I bought my Llama because I travel frequently and wanted to avoid the hassle and expense of bringing a full-sized bicycle on the road with me.  I also wanted something that could double as a solid touring bike.  I picked the Bike Friday Pocket Llama over its sister bike, The New World Tourist, because I'm a bigger guy and like to hit gravely back roads whenever possible. The Llama has a "heavy duty" frame build and accepts wider tires than the New Word Tourist.

I'm happy with my decision and have recommended the Llama to others with the following comments 1) on rough roads, the Llama does not perform as well as a quality built, standard-sized touring bike with similar-width tires 2) the Samsonite case works great as a packing solution, but I avoid using it as a trailer whenever possible 3) the Llama is a blast to ride around town and works nicely for smooth-surface tours when I want the option to connect the dots over bland sections via bus, plane or train--but in the end, if I was going to do something really big and one way, like my Ribbon Of Road tour, I'd leave the Friday at home.


My Bike Friday Pocket Llama Setup:
- BF Pocket Llama folding bike
- 20 inch SUN CR 18 rims
- 20 x 1.5-1.75 Schwalbe Marathon K Tires
- Bike Friday front and rear racks
- Ortlieb Panniers
- Custom, low rider Orlieb front bar camera case
- Thudbuster suspended seatpost
- Brooks B-16 saddle
- Rohloff SPEEDHUB 500/14 EX

Race car driver Patrick Whittet compares whips and review the Bike Friday Pocket Llama in the middle of the Oregon desert

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  1. Strange. You say you pick the Llama over the New World Tourist because of wider tires.  But you put the 1.75 inch wide tire you use is standard for the New World Tourist. I even managed to emergency fit 2'' wide Schwalbe Big Apple tires on my NWT, but the clearance is really minute, it is not a perfect solution.

    I expected you to put 2.0 or 2.3'' tires.

  2. M F - I have now used both the 2" and 1.75". I listed the review here with the smaller tire because BF only had 1.75" in stock to send me with the original bike build. I chose to keep running those tires until they wore out. The bulk of my Llama over NWT purchase decision was because of my size--BF suggested the Llama.

  3. Great article. I've got a BF Gnu and I am thinking of moving over to a Rohloff hub from the SRAM dual drive.

    I'm wondering what size chain ring and cog you run on the Llama?

  4. Thanks for the review. It was helpful in purchasing my llama. Question: which rear rack (folding/non-folding) did you go with? Im sure if i flip back and fort long enough from pictures i could figure it out but more importantly i wanted to know what you thought of the rack?

    1. Hi Chris,

      Apologize for the late-reply. I'm sure that you've already discovered that the folding BF rear rack is really great. I've never had an issue with mine--even with really heavy pannier loads.