(Note: I put a shorter version of this on the Xootr thread but thought others might be interested as well. I am eager to hear critiques and what you might have done differently.)
My 13-mile one-way commute is a bit two-faced. Half of it is brutal plowing through the cracked/potholed streets of downtown Boston, which would call for a mountain bike. The other half is on glass-smooth suburban streets, which would indicate a roadie. And you never know when it might rain...or rain so hard you have to take the train home. So you need a bike that is 1) fast 2) comfortable 3) foldable 4) rainproof 5) capable of carrying stuff 6) lit up at night 7) impervious to pothole damage.
I bought the frame (and fork, for you purists) from Xootr and build it up from scratch. It has drop bars with Tiagra STI brifters, a mirror mounted on the left and a bell on the right. The cockpit also has an AirZound horn (115 db for getting attention!), a Garmin GPS mount, and a blindingly bright MagicShine headlight .(I'm sometimes mistaken for a car with one headlight.) Mated to the headlight is a taillight of the same make, plus a Superflash blinkie on the cargo bag, which is seatpost-mounted to be in the slipstream unlike a side-mounted pannier. "Campus" pedals accept cleats on one side for speed and are flat on the other for riding around town in work clothes/shoes.
Previously I had built up the bike like that but had not thought about the rain or potholes. I had a (Brooks) leather saddle on it, which can become deformed when rained on (such as when you need to jump off the road and dash into a convenience store during a nasty downpour). I had rim brakes back and front, which was not acceptable in the rain. Moreover, the sidepull brakes would only accommodate 451mm rims, and the 451 tire selection is dreadful...not much wide, and nothing with studs for ice. (Why wide? Narrower tires take more of a thump from a bump, and it's worse with the smaller wheels you need for a folder.) Also, the thin rims kept getting knocked out of alignment by potholes, and I even broke a couple of spokes on particularly nasty bumps. Bent rims + rim brakes + rain = accident waiting to happen.
No more! The new "shoes" are a pair of handbuilt wheels by Harris Cyclery (possibly the planet's greatest bike shop, though I didn't know it when we lived 1000' from there in West Newton). The rims are 20"/406mm Sun Rhyno Lite, which are sometimes used for BMX stunt riders and are thought to be semi-indestructible. Stephen Phillips, who is trying to break the round-the-world cycling record, runs Rhyno Lite rims on his bike.
In the back this is laced to a Shimano Capreo hub, which uses a teensy 9-tooth cog to generate higher gearing for small wheels. (Otherwise you end up spinning out on the descents.) Standard V-Brake with Travel Agents (yes, they work fine) to work with the short-throw levers and of course, KoolStop salmon pads. In the front, the rim is laced to a Sturmey-Archer 70mm drum brake. I'd had bad experiences with the Shimano drum brake on my Soho, but Sturmey-Archer is a breed apart. Stops great. I had wanted the 90mm but the tech at Harris just shook his head - he was right; it would have been overkill. I thought of getting one in the back as well, but that would mean a standard cassette with a huge "pie plate" chainring up front to get the same gearing. A little annoyed that the Sturmey doesn't support a quick-release skewer, but then again it's theft-deterrent and I just have to carry a small 15mm cone wrench.
As far as tires were concerned, I had a pair of Schwalbe Marathons that I really loved...at least for the smooth, suburban portion of the ride. Once I got into the city, running those at full-ish pressure meant about four miles of fairly constant pounding on my spine. So, despite my distaste for the name as a Bostonian, I picked up a pair of the Schwalbe "Big Apple" balloon tires, which are are full two inches (50mm) wide. They fit fine up front, but I had to pull the wheel back a centimeter in the rear dropout to stop them from rubbing on the chainstays. To make sure the wheel wouldn't shift in the dropout, I replaced the quick-release skewer with a bolt.
the Big Apples do not disappoint. They are wide enough that you can run them well below max pressure, and they soak up the road vibration and minor bumps like a good carbon frame (Xootr is aluminum, though fork is steel). For the really nasty bumps, though, you need more and that's where the Thudbuster seat post comes in. If you can't see it in the picture it's that black parallelogram sitting just beneath the saddle. When the bike hits a bump that halts your forward motion, your body wants to keep going. That's what the parallelogram does - flexes to keep you moving and then catches the bike up with you. Hence, you hear but don't feel the bump. Hard to describe how cool this is, but it works great. Now I can plow through torn-up sidewalks and such without worrying about reinjuring my cervical discs.
The final touch, a "shoe" of sorts, is the saddle. I was a big fan of the Brooks until the local bike store convinced me to try the Specialized Romin Expert. At first I pooh-poohed it when they said "Team Saxo Bank uses it." Pffft. But it is amazing. Comfy and with a solid platform for generating power, not flexy like the Brooks. I'd still consider a leather saddle for a really long trip, but this works great now. Took me all of 2 hours to sell the Brooks to an enthusiast.
Best part is that the only non-black-or-silver item on the bike is its name: "swift" in yellow. What about the salmon-colored brake pads in back? I painted them. I even replaced the water bottle because my other one had red decals.
If this all seems a bit much, keep in mind that I spend a couple hours a day on this bike, and it saves me a couple hundred dollars a month in gas, parking, and MBTA fares. Maybe more now that regular gas is $4/gallon. Now to your bike-geek questions:
Q: Drum brakes not disc brakes???
A: I looked into the possibility of a disc brake, but it requires a tab on the fork. I would have had to have a tab welded on and then repainted the fork, which could cost hundreds of dollars. The drum brake just needs something to hold its arm stable against the fork, which was a $3 hose clip from Pep Boys. I kid you not.
Q: Why not an internally-geared hub or a belt drive?
A: I used to commute on a bike with an IGH and belt drive. It's a great bike in theory, but in practice I hated it. The hub was noisy, and if anything went wrong I had no idea how to fix it. Changing a flat was a nightmare, in part because of having to deal with the belt...which also needed tension adjustment now and then. The one thing I do miss is being able to shift while stopped, but it's a reasonable tradeoff vs. not being able to fix things when they break. Oh, and the 8-speed Shimano hub had terrible spacing - I always wanted to be in between 5th and 6th gear.
Q: But a Rohloff hub would solve all of that!
A: Maybe so. But it would also double the cost of the bike.
Q: You can't really believe this is as fast as a road bike, can you?
A: Not quite, but reasonably close. With all the gear and the heavy-duty rims it simply isn't as light as my road bike, so truth be told I may ride the road bike on days when 1) I absolutely positively know it won't rain 2) the temperature will be fairly constant, so I don't need to lug around cold-weather gear 3) I don't need to carry anything else either. But this will be the workhorse, and I've damaged my road bike rim on potholes & so am not eager to repeat that.
Plus, I feel just a little bit safer on the folder. It is unusual, so people notice it. Those manical motorists who for some reason resent the "spandex" crowd don't lump you in with them when you're on a bike with BMX-size wheels. And it's way more fun when you blow past people on full sized bikes
Q: For that money, why not a Bike Friday?
A: Fair question. All told, this cost about $2k plus a lot of trial and error. (Probably 1800 without the accessories.) BF has some drop-bar bikes for around $2k, but I think you have to spend extra for the heavy-rider option (which I would need), plus I can't see a combo with drum/discs and drop bars (Pocket Lama has discs but no drops; Pocket Rocket has drops but no discs). And I think the favor 451 rims except on the off-road models, and as noted above I insisted on 406. Maybe they could have built me a custom bike, but I can't help but think that could have doubled the price.