Letter from America – Who Buys Those Folders?

Folding Bikes in the USAThe story of folding bicycles in the USA is unusual. In the UK and Europe, folders are everywhere.They appear every working day on buses and trains during commuting hours, and are seen tucked away in offices and other workplaces in all major cities.They are, as our saying goes, ‘as common as crabgrass’.

Not true in the USA. Folders are seldom seen on American buses and trains. Almost every American bus now has a rack on its front which will carry two cumbersomes, and full-size bikes are allowed on most trains whenever they do not inconvenience other passengers. A visitor from the UK could ride an American bus or train for months without ever seeing a folder in use during commuter hours or any other time.

Folding bicycles do sell here.Well-stocked bike shops will carry at least a couple of models, usually Dahons, and they are also sold by catalogue retailers like L. L. Bean & Co. So where are they?

Welcome to the world of recreational vehicles (RVs). All over the USA, these vehicles lumber along American highways and streets.They come in all sizes and types, from small collapsible trailer-campers which cost the average worker a month’s wages, to luxurious behemoths as large as an intercity bus which cost more than the average house.

These RVs, at least the larger ones, are considered one of the common pests of America’s roads and suburbs.There are millions of them and they are everywhere.They block streets, clog driveways, create road hazards on freeways, and are driven and loved by millions of Americans.

Some are trailers which are designed to be towed by standard cars and trucks. Most, especially the larger ones, are built on truck or bus frames and are fully self-powered and self-contained. A whole industry has developed to support these vehicles.There are literally thousands of campgrounds for them. Some are publicly owned, but most are privately operated.They can welcome either a few or a few hundred of the RVs.The largest RV campgrounds operate like small towns, and one can stop there for a night or a month or longer.

It is in these campgrounds that folding bicycles are so useful.The traveller with a trailer can hook it up to water, gas and electricity sources, and then use the towing car or truck for local transportation. But the owner of a self-propelled RV needs a compact and dependable personal vehicle for use around the campground and for trips to nearby shops, etc.The folding bike has become such a natural part of RV life that some dealers supply a free bike with every purchase.

Most of these RVs are kept at home and used for weekend or vacation trips, but there is a new species of RV owners who have no home.These are the ‘full-timers’ who have sold their homes and live in their RVs all year long.They have their own clubs, such as the Good Sam Club (www.goodsamclub.com), Escapees (www.escapees.com), and Loners On Wheels (www.lonersonwheels.com).

The RVers are the modern American nomads.The clubs can provide insurance, travel information, mail forwarding, medical referrals and anything else that the club member might need and be willing to pay for.The full-timers also have a magazine (www.workamper.com) that matches RVers with part-time jobs so that they can show some income during their travels.The usual agreement is an exchange of a free campsite (with all amenities provided) in return for perhaps 16 hours of work per week. Some arrangements pay an hourly wage in addition to the free facilities, and others do not.The RVers make their own agreements with the employers, and many follow an annual circuit and return to the same jobs year after year.

There are also many volunteer opportunities in our National Parks and National Forests.The government provides campsites in return for a few hours of volunteer work each week and all the beautiful scenery one can absorb. Thousands of RVers take advantage of these opportunities every year.

It would be wrong to give the impression that these ‘full-timers’ are people who have nothing better to do than to rumble around going from nowhere in general to nowhere in particular. Many RVers are highly skilled in a particular field and need to relocate from project to project. Here in Southern California we often see RVs in use on movie and TV locations in a variety of support activities.The most luxurious ones are used by actors as homes in less salubrious locations.

There are millions of RVs on the road, and not all of them are vacation toys.They perform many useful functions and provide travelling homes for thousands of workers. Kay Peterson described it best in her book, Home is Where You Park it.

When I take my Brompton L5 for an early morning ride through the local neighbourhoods, I usually count 10-15 large RVs per hour, and at least as many smaller ones. I have no idea how many folding bikes are hiding in those vehicles, but I do know that the RVers are probably the largest group of folder buyers in the USA. So don’t despair if you visit the USA and do not see folders where you expect to see them.There are many thousands at large, but one has to look inside the RVs to find them. As the old- time salesmen used to say, ‘Ya gotta know the territory’.