Words: Matt Lamy
In last month’s CA we mentioned French bike brand B’Twin’s new ‘one-second folding bike’, the Tilt. Now we’ve been lucky enough to ride one in person and speak to one of the main men behind the project — B’Twin’s Tilt brand manager Jean-Philippe Rode. Jean-Philippe says what he and the team at B’Twin wanted to achieve was very simple — they wanted to make the fastest and most straightforward folding bike on the planet.
>> Read more: The best folding bikes buying guide
“In French, ‘j’ai tilté’ [to tilt] is an idiomatic expression that means: ‘I get it now’. We got that ‘tilt’ when we understood that, although there were pretty good folding bikes on the market, none of them were addressing the issues that many people were facing when commuting on a folding bike,” Jean-Philippe says.
“We dreamt of a bike that would be compact, but clean — grease or oil- free — easy to fold and carry, that could roll folded, would be fun to ride, enhanced by a gorgeous design with an accessible price. That’s what we wanted to achieve.
“With Pierre-Louis Bassetti [Tilt’s designer] and Benjamin Poullet [Tilt’s engineer] we thought about creating a new kind of folding bike. Since a small-wheeled bike is eye-catching, we wanted the design to be of value for the rider — a modern vision of urban mobility — that will be part of one’s life on a daily basis.
“As a longtime skateboarder, I’ve also tried to bring an ‘out of the box’ point of view to urban mobility. On the other hand, Pierre-Louis was inspired by the BMX and pinball imagery of his teenage years. It was all about connecting the dots.”
A dream come true
Did they achieve what they wanted? Jean-Philippe says so. “Two years ago when we started to work on the Tilt project, we made what we call a ‘monster’: a rough prototype that illustrates the main benefit of the bike. With the monster, I made a 10-second video to explain that we wanted to create a folding bike that lets you go from cyclist to pedestrian in one second. Two years later, we can do that with the Tilt. The dream came true.
“In fact, my favourite part of the Tilt is definitely the frame hinge. It’s the heart of the bike. It’s gorgeous, technical, and so simple in some ways. It’s composed of two pieces of forged aluminium with high-precision CNC machining. I love the way it looks when the bike is unfolded, but also when it’s neatly folded.
“Of course, there are still a few points to improve. For instance, the Tilt isn’t the most compact and lightweight bike on the market. But it’s as compact as most 20-inch folding bikes, much easier to transport because it can be wheeled along while folded, and it’s the only 20in folding bike that can carry a rider up to 120kg [18st 12lb]. That says a lot about the quality of the components. As you can imagine, we’ve a few new ideas as well, but I can’t talk about them now.”
At the moment, the Tilt line-up features three different specifications: the Tilt 5 (£329) which comes with a normal chain drive and three-speed hub gear; the Tilt 7 (£399) which comes with a belt-drive and exclusive automatic two-speed SRAM hub; and the Tilt 9 (£599), another belter married to a seven-speed hub gear, which also comes with a rack and Shimano dynamo lighting system.
“Each Tilt is designed to meet different needs and expectations,” Jean-Philippe says. “The Tilt 5 is probably the most versatile. Three speeds are usually enough to get around most cities — first gear to climb up the hill, second to cruise on top of it and the third to bomb down it.
“Tilt 7 and 9 are more segmented. We see the Tilt 9 as a fully equipped city bike that can fold easily. On the other side, Tilt 7 is the wild one and my favourite. It’s got only two gears that shift automatically at 19kph [12mph]. It’s easy, maintenance-free, and perfect for flat cities.
“That two-speed automatic gear is a real breakthrough and a beautiful example of co-development with SRAM. They came up with the easy-to-use, low-maintenance hub that we were looking for, but we asked them for a special function: a declutchable hub. On a bike, when you make it roll backwards, the crankset turns backwards. As a result, when your bike is folded and you make it roll backwards, the left pedal will turn and block on the front wheel. So we asked SRAM to design a system that would work like the neutral gear of a car, by declutching the crankset when you go backward. This hub is on the Tilt 7.”
If that cooperation was relatively easy, other areas of design had their own particular hurdles.
“The biggest challenge we had was the folding stem system. I wanted the stem to be really stiff and safe. By safe, I mean that it will never, ever open while riding and that the security will set automatically when you unfold the stem, you don’t need to take care of it. There’s a price to pay to achieve that: you need to use both hands to fold the stem.
“It took a long time to get the right parameters. I crashed really hard with the first prototype on a ride to the New York Bike Century last year. But after loads of modifications and improvements, we made it.
“Our lab engineers even created some one-of-a kind torture test robots to make sure that the stem is built to last. So I have been riding that stem for a solid 20 kilometres a day for a year now and so far, so good.”
Virtual Damper comfort system
“In my functional specifications I asked how we could enhance comfort without heavy suspension,” Jean-Philippe says. “Our engineers told me that a specific shape of the chainstay tubes could allow for extra flexibility and comfort. So, after some digital calculations, they came up with the perfect balance between flexibility and strength. The Virtual Damper shape is 22.5 per cent more flexible vertically than regular tubes and offers more comfort.”
‘Easyclamp’ seat clamp
“Easyclamp is our patented seat clamp that requires little strength to lock and works vertically. The shape of the seatpost isn’t round so you don’t have to worry about the circular adjustment. Then, the laser marking on the post makes it easy to set the saddle at your perfect height. Lastly, the seatpost is thief-proof.”
‘Pop-Up’ folding system
“A lot of people who tried folding bikes told me that they’re not easy to fold at all. In fact, they avoid folding as much as they can,” Jean-Philippe says. “The Pop-Up system is our patented frame and stem hinges, including the trigger lever located under the saddle. This lever easily opens the frame hinge. Thanks to this system you really can unfold the whole bike in one second. There are no extra levers to tighten either. It’s easy, fast, and extremely safe.”
‘Lightin’ built-in lights
“One day a customer sent me an email to complain about her clip-on lights on a folding bike that got stolen while she was out shopping,” Jean-Philippe says. “I told her she should have taken the lights off with her. Her answer was so simple and obvious. She replied that, when she parks her car, she doesn’t take the lights off with her. So we decided to have built-in, secured lights instead.”
‘Fold ‘n’ Roll’ system
“A folding bike is never light enough if you have to carry it,” Jean-Philippe says. “Of course, we can reduce the weight with a carbon-fibre frame, but that affects the price. Think about a suitcase. In the past, you had to carry it. Now, every suitcase can be wheeled along. The Fold ‘n’ Roll geometry of the Tilt is designed to make it roll on its wheels when folded. Instead of using magnets to lock the folded frame, its hinge has a lock position. This is far more efficient.”
‘Cleanride’ chainguard system
“No one wants to get oil on their trousers while riding, so with Cleanride the chain line sits inside the frame to reduce contact and potential stains,” Jean-Philippe says. “On Tilt 7 and 9, we also developed a belt drive which is really light, durable and grease free.”
Urban transport game changer
CA’s in-house folding bike aficionado Derri Dunn gives the Tilt her considered thoughts…
The mission to create the perfect folding bike is hampered by a dichotomy: there’s an inevitable compromise between creating the smallest-folding and the best-riding cycle. What’s most interesting about B’Twin’s Tilt is it isn’t striving to be the smallest folding (good thing too as it’s bulky), or particularly striving for an excellent ride. It’s gone off on a creative tangent by trying instead to be the most practical to use.
The big USP is how fast this thing folds — the idea is you can just yank a handle and swing it in half to leap on a train. There are some truly amazing ideas on the Tilt — not least because I can’t believe no one else has thought of them before, like an oval seatpost and seat tube. So it’s just not possible to get your saddle at the wrong angle when you unfold in a rush. Breathtakingly simple, but it’s the first time I’ve seen it.
This low-end model is comfortable enough, with a practical SRAM hub gear and gripshift. Comfort is limited by the rather tall handlebar height which isn’t adjustable — it’s an awkward riding position for shorter riders and unweights the front which makes handling a touch unstable, particularly with only one hand on the bar.
Thankfully, there are certainly no major issues with the ride, though, which too often can be the case with the smaller wheelbase and wheels of many folding bikes.
The Tilt isn’t light and the boast of being able to wheel the thing is a massive selling point — carrying folders is horrible, as is wheeling them while stooping. The principle of wheeling it using the saddle as a handle is great — but it comes with a catch. Or rather, a catch that doesn’t work. The little plastic clip to hold the stem when folded is tricky to engage and patently not strong enough. Wheel the Tilt about erratically and the whole package will spring apart.
Fix this minor flaw and B’Twin is truly on to possibly the most practical multi-transport city folder out there at the moment — at a truly awesome price.