Old 08-11-06, 01:15 PM
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Review of Downtube Mini with internal hub

Initial Impressions

Iíve had a chance to ride the Mini a bit more. I maybe have 25 miles on it so far. I am not going to repeat many of the things that I said regarding Downtube (DT) in general. Suffice to say the quality of DT has grown by leaps and bounds. If you were to take off the DT labels off the Mini you would not think of this as a Downtube. This is both a good and bad thing. Good because the quality is that good. Bad because you think of how DT was when they first started; great price but sort of industrial looking.

Well the Mini continues on in some ways where the VIIIH left off. It still has the very good Sturmey Archer 8 speed internal hub and same twistgrip shifter. Brakes look very similar and that is about where the similarities end. The Mini is of course smaller. It might actually be smaller than a Brompton. Iíll have photos soon of them side by side so you can see for yourself. If the Mini is in fact smaller then it will mostly be due to the smaller wheels; ERTO 305 vs. 349.

Fit and Finish

Fit and finish are definitely still upscale. Bike has very nice paint. The electric neon lime color is pretty cool. I do wish the bike came with touch-up paint. You will NEVER match this color if you scratch it without it. I will be padding contact points were it folds.

What About the Merc or Brompton?

One of the first questions many of you will want to know is how does it stack up against a Brompton or a Merc? Me too! I am not going to address that just yet. Donít skip to the end of the review either because it wonít be there. :-)

I think it is important to understand the differences between this and the VIIIH in more detail. It is definitely smaller. Seat is different and unsuspended. FYI Ė mine has a plastic nose piece on the underside that has a few sharp edges so watch it if you grip it by the nose of the seat. I will file or trim mine down a bit. Handlebars are different and so is the handlebar stem. This may be the first one without a height adjustable handlebar stem.

If you need handlebar adjustability you can use what Dahon does; Syntace System. What you do get in place is a very beefy looking stem similar to what is on some of the Dahons but the locking mechanism (on DT) seems better and less flimsy than Dahon. Dahon has a plastic piece in their lock that if it breaks you or out of luck. Definitely a design flaw on the Dahons.

Compared to DT VIIIH

Instead of the cool all metal folding pedals on the VIIIH we have the typical DT kick-and-go pedals. The bottom bracket seems lower than on other models so you might want to watch pedal strikes. I did actually scrape my foot. I do have big feet (euro 47) but not gigantic. I would just watch it will cornering and pedaling the first few times.

There is no rack, rear fender or kickstand like the VIIIH has. Finally grips other than the cursed foam ones I hate so much. Those things are miserable when they get wet. So while we have better grips they arenít real high end either but I personally like them better. Note to Yan Ė donít have them trim the right grip so much. I always have to rest my hand on the shifter whether I want to or not. Because of this issue I will be swapping out the grips. The right grip itself is too narrow for my hand and holding the shifter all the time is uncomfortable to me since I donít need to shift that often on flat ground.

One of my main complaints about the VIIIH was the gearing. Yan has said he will change the gearing on it for next year. Well on the Mini the rear wheel size makes the gearing almost perfect for me. I did need to do a quick adjustment on the cable to get it right. Now I appreciate this hub even more than I did on the VIIIH. Shifter effort is less than on my VIIIH but still higher than my Nexus. Gears are about spot on for the Mini. If you need a lower gear than 1st on this bike you would probably be on a hill so steep you would wheelie over backward if you pedal. Gear spacing is about perfect for me but of course your mileage may vary. Top gear is still tall enough to pedal over 20mph if you want but not insanely tall like the VIIIH.

Ride and Drive

So how does it ride? Very well! High speed stability is much better than I imagined it would. However if you are transitioning off a full-size bike donít try fast speeds until you get used to it a bit. It isnít twitchy but 16Ē (305) donít take a lot of effort to change their direction. Rear suspension definitely took the edge off bumps. I imagine it would work better for someone lighter than me but even I could feel the difference it made.

Adding to the bikes nimble feeling is its light weight. The bike is VERY light feeling when you pick it up. It will be going on the scale later. Official weight listed on the box was 12kg for shipping including the box. This makes the Mini a pretty light weight folder.

Tires are typically DT. They are a few steps up above ďrim protectorsĒ but I would never replace them with the same ones when they wear out. When I have a few spare $$$ Iíll upgrade the tires on this and VIIIH and keep the stock ones for if I ever sell them. Ditching the stock tires would also save off some weight too.

Compared to Brompton/Merc

I am sure many of you are still itching for the Brompton Merc comparo. Is it a potential alternative to either of these yes but with qualifications. The brakes are vastly better on the DT vs. the Brompton (any flavor) or the standard Merc brakes. The Merc GT6 still has some of the best brakes on any folder I have ever ridden. The 8spd SA hub is better as well than what comes on the others except for the Merc GT6. I would say it is a tie as on the GT6 I can more easily play with my gearing. For most people though the SA 8 speed is a better choice.

One area where the Brompton and Merc are clearly better is in the more stretched out riding position. I would not want to ride the Mini 20 miles. I could do it but I wouldnít want to. On the Merc or Brompton it is not an issue for me. If you are smaller in stature (5í9Ē) or less you could still be pretty comfy on a longer ride.

If I had to choose between a C model Brompton and a Mini, Iíd take the Mini if my commute was under 6-7 miles each or if I had hills. The 8spd hub is what would really sway me. Iíd take the cost savings and buy better tires and a rear rack and fenders. If I had a longer commute Iíd start thinking more about the stretched out riding position. With stock tires they both arenít going to win any speed contests but are faster than you might think. Iíd like to see a Mini with 349 tires as I like the available tire choices there better most notably the Scorchers and the Bropton Greens. Both are VERY fast tires.

Stock seat is better on the Mini than the B or the Merc. You have a lot more seat options on the Mini (and the Merc) than the B unless you buy the special Pentaclip from B. Merc and Brompton luggage systems outclass what the Mini has to offer. I do plan to adapt the Brompton luggage system to one of my DTs.

Iíll be comparing folded size later in another post. Mini is a very small folding package. You do only have one choice of color whereas Merc has several and the C model Brommie only one. If you do go upscale in Brommie you have more color choices and the option of custom colors.

What NOT to Like

So what isnít there to like about it. Honestly there isnít much I donít like about it that can easily be fixed on your own. The Mini is, well...mini! All small bikes make some compromises and the Mini may not be for everyone. The handling is very responsive and please donít try and read between the lines or think that I am writing in code to describe an evil handling bike. I can easily ride it hands off though I donít encourage you to for liability reasons. Your weight and balance may be different than mine.

Keep in mind that this is a short bike that is relatively tall. What this means is you can more easily do wheelies if you have the seat up high and you are a big person. Regardless of your size Iíd recommend keeping your weight forward while climbing hills. I havenít had any issues but get a feel for the bike and then modify your riding style. Simple physics dictates that small, short-coupled bikes with a high center of gravity are easier to wheelie or do stoppies. So far Iíve done neither but going up short sidewalk ramps I could feel the front end get light. This is not a flaw of the Mini itself. If you donít like the laws of physics go complain to Sir Isaac Newton. Maybe he can ask someone to re-write them for you. Donít forget to have him send a memo to Einstein while he is at it.

So what else is there to not to like about the Mini? Like my VIIIH I had squeaky brakes when first riding. They have pretty much bedded and are quieter. Nothing has vibrated or fallen off yet. I do detect a few loose spokes in my rear wheel but none in the front. Shifter still is stiffer than what I would like or that I am used to. Grip on the right is too narrow.

What Would I Change

So what would I change if I had a chance to change things on the Mini? If I could back up in the design process Iíd have gone with ERTO 349 wheels as they would offer a faster and better ride with a lot more good tire choices. The small folded size might have been compromised a bit but I think it would have been worth it. Since I canít easily do that, here is what I will personally change on my Mini as time and finances permit:

Better tires
New grips
Some sort of mechanism to hold the folded package together better(an issue of most folders)
Add padding to the painted bits that touch each other (an issue of most folders)

FTR Factor (Fun to Ride)

The bike is a blast to ride. The fun factor is really high and donít ride it if you donít want to attract attention. I get a lot of smiles while riding it so I must look like a total dork on it. The Mini climbs hills very well. Itís so maneuverable that you can easily avoid inattentive pedestrians when they step out in front of you. Brakes are very easy to modulate and have excellent stopping power.

Considering the target market of the Mini it is a very good offering. I am really impressed with how much DT has improved their offerings. They are easily able to compete heads up with the folder companies.

Who Should Buy or Consider the Mini?

I would enthusiastically recommend this bike to anyone looking for a ultra-small compact folder. Even if you arenít looking for ultra-small it is still a very good bike. Maybe you donít care if it is really small folded or not but you want something very light weight. Mini fills the bill here too. In some ways they Mini and VIIIH are direct competitors. I think this is in large part due to the internal hub. If I had to pick just one of them I honestly donít know which I would pick.

The best analogy I can offer is like you have two sons or daughters and you could only keep one of them. You love them both and donít know how you could have just one of them after you have them both. Do you keep your cute baby face one that is always perky or do you go with the more athletic and intelligent one? You can better answer that question for yourself than I can. Fortunately I donít have to make that one myself. In reality I have sold off almost all my other bicycles and will keep just my Swift and the DT folders and possibly a Brommie/Merc hybrid.

The Mini would be an outstanding choice for a woman or a child. The physical dimensions of it mean even a child about 7 years old could ride it. It has a very low step-over height. The women who want to wear dresses could ride this if they wanted to and retain their modesty. It weighs so much less than the typical tanks they sell disguised as kids bikes. Your kids will definitely love the light weight.

Once you have an excuse to have one in the family (nudge, nudge, wink; I bought it for my wife/kids) that youíll find ways of enjoying it too. You will secretly take it out at night while the neighbors arenít looking and the kids are sleeping. You will drift back thinking about your first bike you rode when you were a kid. Then in the morning you will hop on it before anyone is awake and commute to your local rail or bus stop, hide in it in the bag it comes with and go to work.


So based on my current experience so far I think Downtube has another winner on their hands. I think in general if more people had a chance to ride a bike with a good internal hub like the DT has and I have on my Swift, fewer people would be buying derailleurs. If you havenít already ordered your Mini and were thinking about it, all I can ask is, what are you waiting for? Better get one now before they are all sold out. It may look cute but it is a surprisingly serious bike. It is definitely an alternative to the Brompton and Merc for the shorter commutes and could be used on longer ones if you are smaller in stature.

Pics to come soon. I'll update this thread as I accumulate more miles on it and once my children have a chance to really stress test it.
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