In my eight years on college campuses—first as a student and then as the girlfriend of a grad student—my cheap beater bike was stolen four times. Once, the wheels were gone. Another time, the seat. Twice, it just vanished into the ether, leaving only a busted U-lock and broken dreams in its wake.
Even if the bike itself cost only 50 or a hundred bucks, the inconvenience was annoying. I still remember standing at a bus station with my bike frame in hand, reading routes and schedules, and seething at the indignity. All that stress and hassle—not to mention the cost of replacing bikes and locks—could have all been avoided with a small, affordable folding bike that I could tuck under my desk. A bike just like the Tern Link A7.
Lady in Red
Founded in 2012 by ex-employees of the folding-bike giant Dahon, Tern makes folding bikes that emphasize convenience, comfort, and portability. The Link A7 is its latest entry-level bike, featuring a lightweight aluminum frame. My tester model came in an eye-catching deep crimson.
Folding and unfolding the bike might seem daunting at first, but it’s easy to get the hang of it. Tern estimates the folding time at 10 seconds, which seems … optimistic. When I timed myself, it usually took from 45 seconds to 1 minute, which still isn’t very long.
Tern gives you an easy-to-read manual and has posted how-to videos online. When I messed up, it was usually because I’d forgotten a step or thought I could take a shortcut. Any time you think you’ll save from not lowering the handlebars all the way or rotating the seat, you will spend puzzling over why the final locking clasp just Does. Not. Close. If you’re racing into class or work with minutes to spare, you’ll want that time back.
Folded, the Tern is slightly larger than a premium folding bike, like a Brompton. It’s 28.7 inches tall and 31.5 inches long, compared to the Brompton's 23-inch height. But it still fits neatly under the desk in my home office or by the shoe rack in my entryway. I found it pretty easy to hoist its 26.6 pounds under my arm while carrying my backpack.
Its tiny wheels produce something like a trompe l’oeil effect. “Are you riding a BMX bike?” my spouse asked, when I pulled up in front of my house.
In fact, I measured its wheelbase at 990 millimeters, which makes it comparable in terms of length and stability to a road bike. It just looks a lot smaller than it is, which has other beneficial side effects. Every time I popped into a coffee shop or store in my neighborhood, no one objected when I left it standing on its kickstand in the corner.
As befits an entry-level bike, my tester model was pretty stripped-down. But it does have eyelets to attach a rear rack or fenders, if you feel the need to gussy it up.
When I picked up the bike, the retailer remarked that despite its affordable price, the Link A7 rides like a much more expensive bike. Certainly it is longer, and more stable, than you might expect from a bike that can fit under your desk.
The bike has quick-release clamps so you can adjust the seat height, the handlebar stem height, and the angle of the ergonomic handlebars. I was able to fit it easily to my 5' 2" frame, and Tern notes that it can fit people who are up to 6' 3". I did, however, end up leaning quite a bit more forward than I usually prefer in a commuter bike.
I tested the bike mostly by tooling around my neighborhood and taking it to run errands. It was incredibly light and maneuverable—almost too maneuverable. If you’ve never ridden anything with 20-inch wheels before, turns will feel pretty weird and abrupt when compared to an average adult-sized bicycle.
Although the bike is intended for urban commuting, I did take it on grass, gravel, dirt, and trails behind my house to test it on hills. I found shifting between seven speeds to be adequate for climbing short hills of around 15 to 20 degrees.
Wide wheels and a low center of gravity also kept the bike relatively stable, although its weird geometry threw me off when I tried to hop curbs. I did slide out on gravel, but that was probably my fault, not the bike’s.
The Link A7 has a few interesting features that I came to appreciate. For example, it has seven speeds that you switch with a cool twisting Shimano shifter on the right handlebar. It also has a chain guard on the front gear to keep the chain from slipping off.
Given the option, though, I would've preferred sacrificing these features in favor of replacing the Link A7's rim brakes with disc brakes, which are a lot more effective in the rain.
Bikes are, by far, the most energy-efficient way to cover ground, but, four stolen bikes later, I switched to skateboarding. It was easier to bring a skateboard on a commuter train or stick it under a patio table. Even in a bike-friendly city like Portland, I constantly had to deal with annoyances that made cycling a pain.
Once, I met a friend at a bar and had to walk for a block or two before I could find an empty spot on a bike rack. When I got back, he kindly asked if I’d decided to lock my bike up in Antarctica, or Sweden. Very funny.
For too long, I’d dismissed folding bikes as a dorky gimmick. But having tried one, I'm sold. You may occasionally find yourself pedaling like a crazy clown, but for a week, the Tern Link A7 allowed me to bypass many of the inconveniences that I associate with #bikelife. Can’t find a space on the bike rack? Bring the bike to your table! Can’t find the key to your bike lock? Forget it, just bring the bike into the store with you!
As with all of Tern’s folding bicycles, you can also travel with it. It would be perfect for a multimodal commute where you have to ride a train and then walk or bike to work. You can also pick from a variety of carrying cases and boxes if you want to fly with it to another city, rather than spending a fortune on Ubers or renting one of those horrible, terrible, no-good electric scooters.
And unlike any other bike I’ve ridden, it was easy to stick the Link A7 in someone's car if they offered me a ride home at the end of a long day. Sometimes, the best part of riding a bike is when you realize you don’t have to ride it anymore.