The bicyle as an all-weather, basic vehicle

A few weeks ago Christopher Igleheart came to Boston from Portland, Maine. He traveled by bus - and by bicycle. In the Boston terminal he simply unpacked his bags, bolted together two halves of a bike (he can do it in seconds), and rode off to see his friends.

If taking a bike on a bus seems unusual, consider this: Mr. Igleheart takes his bike on trains, boats, and airplanes. He doesn't own a car and almost never takes a taxi. The combination of public transportation and what he sees as ''this remarkable little machine'' gets him wherever he wants to go. It handles snow well, he says, adding: ''If a car can handle it (the snow), the bike will too.''

Last year Mr. Igleheart flew to Los Angles and then pedaled up the coast to Santa Barbara directly from the airport luggage terminal.

The bike that accompanies Mr. Igleheart virtually wherever he goes is an AM7, the latest in a line of fold-away bicycles developed by British auto engineer and suspension specialist Dr. Alex Moulton.

Later on his West Coast trip the AM7 handled the winding, often steep streets of San Francisco with consummate ease, which, as Mr. Igleheart points out, is no big feat for a bike that crossed the Alps. Back in 1971, an Englishman, Colin Martin, rode an early model Moulton halfway around the world in a journey that took him from London to Sydney, Australia. More recently, another Englishman pedaled an AM7 3,100 miles across Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka.

The AM7 has even performed impressively on the race track, though Dr. Moulton designed it with large (for a bicycle) luggage-carrying capacity so it would be a practical form of transportation - for touring or for the visit to the supermarket. The vast majority of trips made in the world are five miles or less , a distance that a good bike and a moderate cyclist can handle with ease.

For the record, the AM7 has 17-inch wheels and seven gears. It weighs in at 24 pounds (a weight comparable to that of top-of-the-line recreational bikes made by Schwinn and other manufacturers). It's a unisex model (no separate men's and women's designs) and boasts, perhaps the smoothest man-powered ride on two wheels. ''Silky'' is the most apt description of the way the road feels beneath a Moulton.

Dr. Moulton built his reputation as a suspension specialist. He was prominent in contributing to the design breakthrough that made possible the small-wheeled auto of today. In his spare time, Dr. Moulton applied some of his special abilities to the bicycle. To get the comfort and rolling ability of a large-wheel bike, Dr. Moulton incorporated a spring-loaded suspension system. He also designed the fold-away so that the cyclist is seated in exactly the same position, in relation to the pedals and handlebars, as he would be on a full-sized bike.

A fold-away bike cannot readily incorporate the diamond frame of the conventional bike. So to get a rigid frame and still keep it light, Dr. Moulton built a double frame of lightweight Reynolds tubing, cross braced with a series of triangles (25 in all). The result is an exceptionally strong and rigid frame that allows virtually all the power exerted on the pedals to be transferred to the rear wheel.

Dr. Moulton first manufactured his bike in the '60s, then sold the design to Raleigh Cycles while he concentrated on his career in the auto industry. After several years Raleigh ceased manufacturing the Moulton. Now retired from auto design, Dr. Moulton heads Alex Moulton Bicycles Ltd. in Bradford on Avon, turning out the latest Alex Moultons, or AMs for short. Under terms of the original sale to Raleigh, the name Moulton, on its own, is no longer available.

The AM7 turned up in the United States recently, and I was given one to try out. The ride is, indeed, silky smooth, and the bike drew stares from pedestrians as I rode by. I suspect that at first glance they took it to be a child's bike with an adult aboard. But it would have been an illusion that was quickly dispelled when they noted how fast the bike was moving and the ease with which it climbed the hills.

Jon Gardner, a friend of mine who builds his own bikes whenever he feels the need to add another to his stable, was most impressed. ''It may look small,'' he says, but in performance ''it's as big as they come.'' He sees it as a bike for the serious city cyclist who hauls his bike up to a third-floor apartment every night, or for the suburban commuter who rides to the nearest train station, hops aboard, and then cycles to the office at the other end.

At around $900 the AM7 doesn't come cheap, but then, as hand-built bikes go, that's not particularly expensive either.

Readers wanting distribution information within the US can write to Alex Moulton Ltd., Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire BA15 1AH, United Kingdom, or to Chris Igleheart, Portland Bicycle Exchange, 396 Fore Street, Portland, Maine.

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