This review is targeted at those of you who are looking for a good folder at a great price and want an internal hub instead of a derailleur. Even if you are considering a derailleur equipped bike I suggest you read the review to get a better idea of the current state of Downtube bikes. Some of you may not be familiar with the Downtube bikes at all. If you havenít had a chance to see them in person Iíd highly recommend checking them out. I wonít bore you with the details of the how the company got started or their philosophy. I will tell you what my experience with them has been and give a review of one of their latest models the VIIIH (internal hub). Iíll abbreviate Downtube as DT as a convenience.
Just for the record I have no financial stake in DT. I am not being paid to write this review by DT. I am not receiving any sort of remuneration of any kind; no free product, nothing! I was not asked by anyone to write this and I do it of my own free will just to help inform others who might be considering buying a DT and specifically the VIIIH model with the internal Sturmey Archer 8psd hub.
As some of you may know I am an early adopter of the DT line of bikes. I bought 2 DT FS (fully suspended) models about a year ago. I bought them off eBay at a price to low to believe but not as cheap as some purchased them. My rationale was to buy a decent bike for my children that would grow as they would grow. I had done the dime store, Walmart, Target route where I would buy a bike from them and maybe get a year out of it before it was dead.
Each year it was like buying a new pair of shoes and honestly it got expensive. I didnít want to buy them a piece of garbage bicycle that they wouldnít enjoy yet I could see throwing away a few hundred dollars each year just to have them grow out of it next year. The folding bikes seemed like a perfect option since I had such good luck with mine in general. Problem for me was I didnít want to spend $1000 on a very high quality one yet I didnít want one that would fall apart in a few hundred miles either. As we all know Tonka toy trucks are indestructible until you give them to a small boy. You could drive over the little Tonka toy with your car and it would survive but give it to a child and he can break it in hours.
My First Downtubes
So I knew I needed to buy something decent that would stand up to the rigors of very active children. You know the type, the ones that view every curb as a jump. Every hole in the road is an opportunity to bunny hop the bike over it and so on. I did a lot of investigating and it led me to buying my two initial DTs.
I bought them and a week later they arrived. My boxes had some shipping damage. Gears wouldnít shift properly and it appeared there were issues with the derailleur hangar brackets. I called up Yan and he said no problem and promptly shipped me out a replacement. Seems UPS was a little over zealous with shipping some of the bikes and mine were still able to be ridden but the indexing was off and it hunted between gears.
General impression was that while DT advertised it somewhat as comparable to a Dahon costing about $900 it didnít compare that favorably. In some areas it did compare favorable as I had less frame flex when riding it than when I rode an expensive Dahon. In general it performed well, had decent spec parts and was better than most mid-range ($500 Dahons) but not up to the level of their upper end stuff. Considering I paid less than half of the price of a mid-range Dahon and got a decent bike bag and full suspension it was a screaming deal for me.
Since that initial purchase about a year ago Iíve had more time to think about the DTs in general. I really admired that they used very standard sized parts and nothing really one-off or proprietary. My concern was what would happen if the company went out of business and I had an orphaned bike with non-standard part. Iíd have something I could repair if it broke.
Well to date nothing has broke except one of the little ting bells. Not really a surprise as my son managed to kill 2 of these on his Trek bike in about a week so when the DT failed it didnít shock me. To date nothing else has broken. The only issue I have is that in cold weather (below freezing) the crank is stiffer than other bikes I have. It takes a few miles to warm up so whatever grease or lube was used doesnít flow well at low temps. For most of you this wonít be an issue. Since I donít ride it a huge amount in cold temps it is an inconvenience. If I rode it more I would honestly replace it as it bugs me but it isnít a serious issue. It is more of a psychological one in that I think in the cold it is sucking up my energy and it does for a few minutes until it warms up a bit.
Downtube VIIIH Initial Impressions
Fast forward to the current purchase and the arrival of the VIIIH. The bike arrived with what appeared to be a better box. Lesson learned from the evil treatment of the UPS drivers! No offense UPS but over the last year Iíve had a lot of issues with the treatment of my packages. Thankfully the last month they seemed to have gotten better. I opened up the box and I was actually shocked at how nice the bike looked. Pictures on the DT website to NOT do this bike justice.
The silver paint was very nice. New emblem up front on the headset. New metal pedal. MUCH better handlebars. If the last DT I owned was version 1.1 we have now leapfrogged to version 4.1 in the span of 1 year. I couldnít believe the bike came from the same company. My initial thought was we have a serious player on our hands. This bike wonít just appeal to the cost conscious but I were a bike shop I wouldnít be ashamed to park this next to a Swift, Brompton or higher-end Dahon. It really has improved that much. Even being a bike geek I was still pretty impressed.
Since it was to be birthday gift for one of my kids I knew I should test ride it to make sure there were no issues. Bike setup like the old one but everything felt ďbetterĒ in a tough to quantify way. This isnít to say the old one was bad but in some areas its price was obvious in other ways youíd believe it was much more expensive.
What It Comes With
It is well equipped. It has front suspension fork. It has a nice seat with some internal suspension. It has a rear rack. Improved chain over the last model and appears to be better than most folders. It has metal folding pedals. It has a good kickstand. Height adjustable handlebars. Adjustable front bars with bar ends. Safety catches dual mode (better than Dahons) on all folding parts. Lastly it has the main reason I bought this model; Sturmey Archer 8spd internal hub with twistgrip shifter.
The Good and Great
All this doesnít mean anything if the bike doesnít perform well as a bike. So how does it ride? In general I was very impressed. I know this is going to seem almost like heresy to some of you but my initial impression is it felt a lot like my Swift. No joke. Maybe it was the internal hub and how I had the bars setup but it really did feel very much like my Swift. I looked down a couple times just to make sure.
Of course initial impressions may change so I rode it for a few miles. I realized the front fork is probably best if you are under 200lbs. Iím not but it still helped. The brakes squeaked a bit so I made a mental note to check the toe-in when I got back from my ride. Gear changes were very positive and a wide range to the hub. Downshifts are not as easy to execute as my Nexus 8 spd internal hub but much better than the SA 3speeds on a Brompton. By the end of my ride the break squeal went away as the pads bedded in. Just a quick not on braking performance; I would rate it as good to very good.
All in all I kept making comparisons against my Swift. Donít get me wrong, I am not saying its better than my Swift because its not. However it finally invites comparison and stacks up pretty well.
Compared to many other folder this new DT makes no excuses. It doesnít need to. It has improved that much. Seat is better. Tires are better. Fit and finish is better. In every area I could see and feel the bike is better. While this may seem overly gushy it truly is improved that much. At its price point nothing I've ridden offers the value this bike does. So if life is bowl of cherries, where are the pits?
The Not So Good
So whatís not to like? A few things but so far they (to me). First off while there is a rear fender it is sort of short and could stand to be longer unless you have something on the rear rack. If we have a rear fender why not a front one too? Donít I need a front if I have a rear? Still hate the sponge grips but easily swapped. The bike I think is geared too high. I definitely was wanting a lower first gear and I think I would have a pretty low cadence at 20 mph. I donít need an 8th gear where I can still be pedaling at 30 mph and helping move the bike forward. Honestly on mine the shifting effort seems high. That may improve as it breaks-in. Cable routing isnít an issue. Iíll try lubing the cable as well. It wasnít a major issue for me but my son with sweaty hands had a very hard time turning it. Most adults wonít have much of an issue but Iíd rate the force needed as about 50% more than my Nexus.
I am a BIG fan of internal hubs on commuter bikes and folder; less muss and fuss and generally less mess. I love being able to shift at a stop. This is a major plus if you have a child who will ride your bike or someone less experienced with derailleurs. Even though I have a lot of miles ridden I still like internal hubs. Their efficiency is much improved over what they were. They tend to be very quiet and long lasting. Nothing really sticking out to get busted off or collect dirt. For me this is one of the big pluses when you are running a small wheel; no derailleur bits hanging low to collect dirt and debris.
Areas for Improvement
So what would I change on it? First Iíd toss the stock grips but my son likes them. Iíd add a front fender and a longer rear one. Seat was surprisingly comfy. I might find a lighter weight one though. Iíd think about different tires when the stock ones wore out. They too are an upgrade from the old bike. Last ones I tossed almost instantly. They really sucked a lot of my energy. New ones seem much better in that department. If there were some way to adjust the front fork, Iíd set it up for my weight. I donít know if you can and I havenít investigated this yet. I think the gearshift is a little stiff. Iíll lube the cable and if that doesnít help Iíll upgrade the cable and housing.
One aspect of the VIIIH I will change immediately is the gearing. Those of you with hills may want to consider lowering the gearing. Iíd definitely consider adding about 3 teeth to the rear sprocket. There also seems to be a big jump from 1st to 2nd gear and then 7th to 8th. I rather like it but with the ultra-tall gearing it is a pain. I do like that gears 2-7 are in effect close ratio. Then you have the much lower (relatively) 1st gear and then the much taller (relatively) 8th. The reason I like that is I have closer ratios around the range I use the most and I have a bail-out gear on the bottom and one tall one for down hills. If I play a bit with the gearing I think I can have a very usable range of gears. Iíll run the calculations when I count the sprocket teeth.
Functional Improvements Over Old DT
In general this bike is MUCH better than my last model. I think the Sturmey Archer 8spd internal hub is a great addition to this bike. It really transform the bike in so many ways. The bike has so much more curb appeal than before you canít really appreciate until you see it in person. The improvements arenít just bling, they are functional improvement and improvements in the quality of the components. I think that this model, the VIIIH, represents arguably the best value in their lineup. There is a reason Yan is selling these as quickly as he gets them.
Right as I was finishing up this review I did the math on the gear inches for the gearing and it confirmed my suspicions. This bike is geared SUPER tall. It has a GI range of 39-119. This is probably too tall for most people. I sent an email to Yan regarding this and he says he will make changes in the next batch to come. In the meantime you can easily use standard size front chainring to re-gear if you want. As I mentioned the middle gears are nice and tightly spaced with a granny 1st and overdrive 8th. Here are how the actual numbers breakdown. You can see that the top and bottom gears are about a 30% gap up or down and the middle gears are about 13% change.
Gear GI Change
8 118.9 28.2 %
7 92.8 13.3 %
6 81.9 12.9 %
5 72.5 13.4 %
4 63.9 13.1 %
3 56.5 13.3 %
2 49.9 28.0 %
Who Should Consider This Bike?
If you multi-mode commute like biking and then taking a bus or train this probably won't be a great choice and neither would most Dahons or other 20" wheeled folders. If you are looking for the ultimate small folder this is NOT it. You'll still need to look at a Merc or a Brompton. If you want something that you can fit in the trunk of your car but not have to carry around from bus to train and back then this is definitely worth considering. If you are looking for a low maintenance folder that is pretty versatile and well constructed then you might want to consider it. If you don't have a lot of money to spend and you want a lot of bike for the money, then this should be on your list of candidates as well.
Based on my experience I would definitely recommend this bike. It offers a lot of value at a great price. If you are on the fence about buying a current DT bike, go directly to their website and order one. Sure the website could be improved but like their bikes it has improved too (just not as fast). If the other models (derailleurs) have improved as much as this one you are going to be very pleased with your purchase. Quite honestly even though I liked my old DT FSís theyíll be going on eBay pretty soon. One plus though of the older models over the newer ones is their super strong wheels. If you are a big guy (like I used to be) then this is the model you want. The new wheels are lighter and less strong but no more so than the average folder. So if you weigh in the 260+ range like I used to then buy the older model. It is truly one of the few folders Iíve seen that will easily support you and you wonít sack out the suspension.
It is obvious Yan has spent a lot of time doing what any wise business would do and improve their product. He has listened to all of our feedback and incorporated many of our suggestions. He has really figured out the way to give you very good bike at a great price. No damning the product with faint praise; no excuses given, none needed. This is not ďa good bike for the priceĒ it is simply a good bike at a great price! I am sure I speak for many others, such as Anna and Woof who also have bought this model, when I say thanks Yan! Keep the improvements coming.
I'll post photos when I have a chance to take them and upload them. I'll update this thread as the bike accumulates a few more miles.