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Bike Review - Airnimal Chameleon
 
By Mark Sharon
Date: 6/16/2008
Bike Review - Airnimal Chameleon
 

For riders lured by exotic challenges in foreign places the issue of making sure your steed gets to the destination in one piece and without costing an arm and leg in excess baggage is a high priority. Ideally the bike you take with you should "disappear" and look like normal luggage, yet still ride like a full-size bike. In this two part article DP takes the versatile Airnimal Chameleon for a spin to see how it does exactly that job.

Part 1: The Bike

Airnimal Complete

Photo © Mark Sharon 2008

From training camps in Majorca, Arizona and Cyprus, to races in The Dolomites, South Africa and Wales the world is your oyster when it comes to biking. Just as skiers and surfers have long globe-trotted to find the best back-bowl or the “Big Kahuna” so are bikers seeking out the mythical col which combines strength zapping effort with a great view and even better café at the top.

With international travel though comes the issue of logistics. With most other sports, like skiing, windsurfing, or diving, there is the realistic option to hire your equipment at your destination, and if you are into horse-riding or yachting then arguably you have no other option but to rent. In cycling though you have to be a lot more particular. A 100 mile cyclosportif on a hired bike is a recipe for misery, and we cyclists are a picky lot for good reason. A centimetre out on the frame combined with an over-long crank and stem can lead to all manner of bio-mechanical problems.

The only option is to take your own bike with you wherever you go – but then you run into the issue that regular public transport, be it a Boeing 747 or a Paris metro train, was not designed to take a bike that, well, looks like a bike. Add to that a cash register mentality prevalent amongst virtually all transport companies, particularly the airlines, and travelling with a bike can be a pain in the proverbial and the wallet.

Of course you can pack a full-size bike into a bike bag, hand over a lot of dollars, pounds or euros for excess baggage, take a few valium and wait to see what state it’s in at the other end. What you really need then is a bike that effectively “disappears”. So you know where we are going with this – folding bikes.

Folding bikes have always been popular amongst the commuting set – but there is a big difference between whizzing through city traffic and “grimping” up a col in the Pyrenees and coming back down again. Don’t get us wrong, we love the Bromptons, Dahons and Mezzos, even if they remind us of our mothers’ shopping bike, but when our target is that lake on the other side of a 2000 meter pass we want to be astride something with the ride feel of a full-size race bike, but retains the benefit of a folder’s compact form – step forward the Airnimal Chameleon.

Based near Cambridge in the UK, Airnimal bikes are designed by Managing Director Richard Loke, who sold the first Airnimal in 1999. Its nearest competitor, according to an Airnimal spokesman is Bike Friday in the US, though Dahon might have something to argue about on that front.

An obvious difference between an Airnimal Chameleon and its competition are its 24" ISO 520 wheels, versus 20” on most of the others. Airnimal claim this bigger size can actually be a real alternative to 700c handling – “wheel-see” about that in our road test piece. Another main difference is the nature of the folding.

Let’s be upfront: the Chameleon is a genuine folder, and it can be made to “disappear” into normal looking luggage, but it is not a folder like a Brompton or Moulton, which really are designed for the gent on the 8.02 to Waterloo who needs something that can go from rideable to something looking like it was crushed in a car-compactor within 30 secs, and back again even quicker. The Chameleon is an altogether different beast – its destination lies far further away than the end of the commuting line – unless that’s the one that ends at the foot of Mount Fuji.

Frame

We had quite a few spare parts lying about the workshop, plus we had a particular groupset in mind, so we asked Airnimal to supply just the frame, forks and wheels and we would build the rest. The Chameleon comes in three colours, a matt black, gun-metal grey and a yellow (see frame detail picture). We opted for the matt black which, coupled with carbon forks, looks even sexier in real-life than we thought it would – did we say that a folding bike was sexy?

The frame, which naked looks like a shoulder-fired missile launcher is made of aerospace grade 7005 aluminium. It has two fold points. The first is the seat tower which pivots forward after releasing a quick release lever. The second is at a pivot point a few centimetres above the bottom bracket held in place with a small but sturdy flexi-clip.

Chameleon Frame

Photo © Mark Sharon 2008

The combination of aluminium and compactness means the frame has the potential to be quite stiff and unyielding. To mitigate the resulting jarring the designers have incorporated a massive cylinder of elastomer damping which sits between the rear triangle and the “crossbar”. We haven’t explored whether this can be swapped out if necessary to cater for riders of differing weights.

There is a single pair of bottle-cage bosses on the back of the seat-tube, while the rear drop-out is replaceable. A set of bosses on what would be the seat-stay on a regular bike allow the attachment of a rack or similar.

The forks are supplied with a Cane Creek headset which is designed to allow the forks to be removed frequently. The steerer tube is alloy which will last longer than carbon given the number of times the forks are removed – four times a trip perhaps? Airnimal also recommend using an alloy seat post for the same reason.

Depending on your choice of components you can make a Chameleon a very expensive bike but it’s also worth bearing in mind that this is still a travelling bike so the emphasis has to be on high quality components that work after being disassembled and reassembled hundreds of times, and can withstand being banged up in a suitcase with the rest of your smelly kit.

Hubs are special case in point. Over say 100 miles a Chameleon’s wheels rotate 12.5% more often than a full size wheel. On a long descent there is correspondingly 12.5% more friction-based heat build-up. Having said that, most hubs nowadays will outlast any number of miles we are capable of putting in.

Groupset

Having unpacked the frame we started mulling over what group-set to put on it. Our initial preference was to use a Campagnolo Chorus compact, but at that moment SRAM supplied us with the OCT version of their Rival groupset. It arrived almost simultaneous with Alberto Contador winning the Giro on a SRAM equipped bike so our interest was doubly peeked.

Photo © Mark Sharon 2008

The Rival is the budget-conscious version of SRAM’s Force groupset. The main difference between the two groupsets lies in the use of less-exotic materials, i.e. more alloy and steel – less carbon fibre and titanium. Otherwise its DoubleTap gear-shifting technology is the same. We’ll talk about how the gear-shifting works in practice during the road test.

Photo © Mark Sharon 2008

ADVICE: Here is a word of advice to those of you who are retro-fitting SRAM onto existing wheels. As you would expect, given SRAM’s background in mountain-biking, its main rival is Shimano. Hence, SRAM has made sure its OpenGilde cassette fits straight on a Shimano freehub without modification. Unhappily, due to an earlier plan to use Campagnolo the rear wheel arrived spec’d out with a Campagnolo Centaur hub. Ooops! Ordinarily Kev, our wunder-mechanic, would have just rebuilt the wheel around a Shimano hub, but he was out of time, and so were we. We were departing for France in just 72 hours.

However, all was not lost. According to Kev the solution was simply to swap over the free-hub for one with a Shimano spline pattern designed to go on a Campy hub – simple, yeah, right! Next stop London’s famous Condor Cycles where we explained the problem to boss Grant Young. To our eternal shock Grant by-passed sucking his teeth like so many in British bike shops are apt to do and conjured up just such a free-hub.  And it worked a treat. It would be great if SRAM supplied such freehubs themselves but they don’t, perhaps because in the US the Campy market is so small, or perhaps because Campy owners are generally too brand-loyal to change.

Other Components

The rest of the components comprised: Ritchey ProLogic bars and stem; Selle Italia Max Flite saddle; Elite Ciussi side access bottle cage and Camelbak Podium Bottle, Topeak saddle bag, toolkit and pump.

Having built the bike, and given it a couple of laps around the block, the next job was to immediately dismantle it again for transport. Kev knew this was coming, but still disappeared back into the workshop muttering.

FOLDING

The Chameleon has three levels of fold.

Level 1 is designed to get the bike into a car or train and can be done in those 30 seconds, but it does involve removing both the seat post and front wheel. For protection, or as required by many train companies, the bike can be zipped up in a dedicated shoulder bag in a further 60 seconds. The bike is still quite bulky compared with its more commuting-specific cousins.

Level 2 folding is the one we were most interested in and involved fitting the bike into a suitcase for airline or other travel. Airnimal indicate that this can be done in around 180 seconds, but in practice there is a lot more to be done to get the case flight-ready. Folding in the case of a Chameleon can involves a fair degree of dismantling too, which in turn involves tools.

You also can’t use just any large suitcase. The wheels impose some quite strict size criteria and there are hardly any suitcases which can hold them, as an evening spent trawling the department stores of Oxford Street revealed only too well. Fortunately Airnimal supply a decent hard-sided case, though we also tracked down another suitably sized case supplied by a rival manufacturer. Looking at the bike sitting in its case like some baby dinosaur makes you wonder what came first for Airnimal: the bike or the suitcase.

Level 3 folding is the most extreme, and involves fitting the bike Houdini-style into a rucsac that meets the carry on dimensions of most major airlines. The indicative time for this is around 15 minutes, but handlebars/stem, forks, wheels and seatpost have to be removed. The rucsac doesn’t contain the wheels, however, and these need to be carried in a separate wheel bag. It’s worth having plenty of pipe insulation and some bubble-wrap to hand as the fork, seat post, bottle cage, and pedals have to be fitted in the same small space.

Tip: For the last two folds it’s also definitely good practice to keep a small tube of grease and some hand wipes with you. The other thing that would be useful would be some sort of soft cover to put over the forks to protect them from the various jolts that are bound to occur, and don’t forget some dropout spacers, such as ProGold Hubmaster’s. It’s also tempting to slip the headset spacers and rings back on the fork steerer – if you do then make sure something can stop them sliding back off again in transit.

Reassembling

Reassembling the Chameleon as we discovered was a cinch. Even from its most condensed state the job was relatively straight-forward. It’s not something to rush though and you must make sure to pay careful attention to tightening all the bolts. There are no prizes for face-planting a mile down the road when your handlebars come loose.

Chameleon Dismantled

Photo © Mark Sharon 2008

In the second part of this article we’ll be taking the Airnimal for a road-test, first to SW France for a cyclosportif and then back to London for the Smithfield Nocturne.

Credits:

Kevin Worster - Service & Maintenance www.cycledoctor.co.uk

Grant Young - Condor Cycles (London) www.condorcycles.com

Full specification:

Frame: Airnimal Chameleon

Fork: Airnimal carbon / cro-mo steerer

Headset: Cane Creek S3

Front brake: SRAM Rival

Rear brake: SRAM Rival

Levers: SRAM Rival DoubleTap

Front derailleur: SRAM Rival

Rear derailleur: SRAM Rival

Cassette: SRAM OG-1070 OpenGlide

Chain: SRAM PC-1070 PowerCrain

Crankset: SRAM Rival OCT Compact 50-34T

Bottom bracket: SRAM GXP Team BB

Front rim: Airnimal 32H

Rear rim: Airnimal 32H

Front hub: Campagnolo Centaur 08

Rear hub: Campagnolo Centaur 08 + Shimano replacement freehub

Front tyre: Schwalbe Stelvio Clincher

Rear tyre: Schwalbe Stelvio Clincher

Bars: Ritchey Pro Logic 44cm (c-c)

Stem: Ritchey Pro Logic 100mm

Tape/grip: n/k

Pedals: Campagnolo Record Profit

Seat post: “Something lying around”

Saddle: Selle Italia Max Flite

Bottle cage: Elite Ciussi side access bottle cage

Saddlebag –Topeak Aero Wedge

Toolkit – Topeak Alien XS

Computer: Garmin Edge 305

Total bike weight: 21lb (9.5kg)

Manufacturers’ Websites

www.airnimal.com

www.elite-it.com

www.campagnolo.com

www.canecreek.com

www.garmin.com

www.ritcheylogic.com

www.selleitalia.com

www.sram.com

www.topeak.com

Some other folding bikes manufacturers

Bike Friday - www.bikefriday.com

Birdy- www.birdybike.com

Brompton- www.brompton.co.uk

Dahon - www.dahon.com

Mezzo - www.mezzobikes.com

Ritchey Break-Away- www.ritcheylogic.com


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