Keith Snyder
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On the Matrix

That's two of the guys at the bike shop who couldn't keep their eyes, hands, and butts off my new Dahon Matrix. That was yesterday afternoon.

Last night around 9:00, I wheeled it into a 7-Eleven on the Queens side of the Queensboro Bridge and rested it against the magazine racks while I found something I wanted to drink. While I was back at the drink refrigerators, the kid behind the counter came around and stared at it.

(The lady traffic cop back at the coffeepots stared at my crotch instead. Cycling tights have their advantages or drawbacks, depending on a combination of your marital status and your preferred marital status.)

And okay, I'll admit this: I've never cared one way or the other about the image my bicycle projected, but coming back from the refrigerators and seeing this thing looking tough and lean in city grit and rainwater... I was pretty impressed. To the point where I hate to ruin the lines by adding, say, a fender to prevent that stripe of mud up the back of my cycling jacket.

Just before that, I was at the apex of the Queensboro Bridge on my cool, mean, beautiful bike, looking at the lights on the East River. I'd taken it out with just a vague thought of ending up here. The vague thought took on momentum as I got into L.I.C., propelled somewhat by the fact that while holding Butchie in one arm and running around kicking a ball at the playground earlier in the day, my left leg collapsed. Not just weak: Gone. No muscle responding. In mid-kick, I sat on the pavement, boom. Butchie's cheekbone hit mine.

Butchie's a rollicking little Viking baby. He took a good bop in the face, and he's got a light bruise there now, but at the time he didn't have much reaction. Just sort of a "Why are we sitting, Daddy?" look. Not a peep, not a yelp, and no stunned moment followed by the floodgates opening.

So that's good, and he got kisses anyway. But hmm. I knew about the muscles that no longer work in my right leg. The left is new.

(Blog newbies: I have MS.)

So this particular test ride was more aptly named than it might have been.

I've never liked the idea of suspension, and the Matrix has it in the front. So I turned it off as soon as I picked up the bike. I like a stiffer ride because when you start pedaling from a stop, none of the energy is absorbed by the cushy parts in the front fork.

On the way home, though, I felt like making sure I'd tried every option, so I turned it back on. At first, I didn't like it, for exactly that reason. But after a few minutes, I realized I'd misunderstood why it exists. It doesn't cushion the ride; it cushions your hands!


The heels of my hands always take a pounding when I go more than a few miles. Shock from the tires (and my previous tires were high-pressure and rock-hard) is transmitted up the front fork and stem, through the handlebars, and directly into the heels of my hands, which don't take a lot of time to feel bruised. With the suspension, that's what gets cushioned. By chance, it was adjusted just right (even though my fans at the bike shop had been twisting the knob this way and that, just to hear it go click-click-click), just enough to take the edge off the potholes, ruts, and high driveways without sacrificing much road feel.

Suspension: Good!

I'd wondered whether the hinge that lets it fold in half would affect the feel of the ride. The answer is twofold. The first fold: No, it doesn't feel like a folding bike. It feels like a BIKE. No play, no lateral jiggle, nothing. It's rock-solid.

The second fold: Because of the way the frame had to be designed to accomodate the hinge, what they call a 19" frame really isn't. They've fudged that measurement by taking it from the top of the seat tube instead of the juncture where all the tubes come together. This is really a 16" frame with an extra little stub holding the seatpost. For that reason, this bike feels small between my knees.

That's the Matrix in front of my Trek hybrid, which I'll be selling soon. See how the distance from saddle top to lowered pedal is the same on both bikes? That's a function of my leg length.

The Trek has a 22.5" frame. The Matrix has what's supposedly a 19" frame. But see how the difference between the heights of the two top tubes is way more than 3.5 inches? This is not as big a bike as they want you to think.

Is this fatal? No, I don't think so. I think I can live with it. But calling this a 19" frame, and saying in your marketing materials that it's good for people up to 6'4"... that's pushing the bounds of reality. This is a bike sized ideally for somewhat shorter people than that, with an extra-long seatpost added to compensate. So it works, but it feels slightly low and small. Not lots. But slightly. (Also, I had to extend the post to its maximum position--that is, to the marking that shows the safety limit--in order to use this bike, and I'm 3" shorter than 6'4". Dahon's marketing department deserves a smack in the face.)

I'll get used to it, and I'll ride it to work and be happy that I can ride to work. But this brings me to my next point: I can't take this bike on my century ride in June. I'd come back crippled. It's too small, it's too top-heavy, the tires max out at 85 PSI and they're only 26", the handlebars are straight sticks, and even turned off, the front suspension has some smoosh in it. Also, it's not a bike you coast and roll on; this machine wants to be actively driven forward. My choice is to back out of the century (and do no other long-distance riding) or become one of those guys with two bikes.

Before this weekend, I'd have gone with backing out of the century. Not happily, but with resignation. But after having my leg collapse...

I've got MS. I don't know how much longer I'll be walking upright. If I want a nice road bike I can't afford and have nowhere to put, I'm getting a nice road bike I can't afford and have nowhere to put. So unless the big exacerbation mows me down in the next two months, our apartment will have a new hallway blockage sometime before June.

Bottom line about the Matrix: I like it. I'm keeping it.

I've got other issues, though, and here they are, for those who find this by googling the bike they're thinking of buying:

  • Paint shouldn't abrade after one day of ownership and 12 miles of cycling. The cables are too long and stupidly run, so they rub against the stem front where the logo is. See?

  • The shifting SUCKED. This was adjusted during my second visit to the bike shop today, and seems all right now. I'm willing to give the bike shop partial blame for not taking sufficient care when they unboxed it, but it should ship in better repair than this.

  • The disc brakes... Well, they're not as immediate as V-brakes. They make sense for mountain biking, where your main concern is that they work in all conditions, but for an urban commando bike (which is what this is clearly designed to be), they seem dumb. When a taxicab door flings open, I need to stop NOW, not half a second from now. I had the bike shop tighten the controls so the braking begins a little sooner, but I'd still prefer V-brakes with KoolStop pads.

  • The disc brakes... they're noisy. It's embarrassing to fly down a bridge on your cool commando bike, feather the brakes, and hear SQUEEEEEE..EEEE.EE.EEEEE.EE.....(pause while rider releases brakes, then retries)EEEEEEE.EEEEEEEEEEEEEEE. The bike shop says there's probably some material in there that will wear off, but it's still annoying.

  • The saddle looks just as mean as the rest of the bike--and it is. I can't sit on it today--not just "it hurts," but "I can't." Now, I'm an experienced cyclist, and I know that partly, this is because I haven't been on the bike in a while, and it always takes three days to break your butt back in. But partly, it's also that this is one mean seat. It's small, and it's hard.

    I get that it looks extremely el coolo, but I'm bruised down to the bone. I may have to sacrifice those great lines and put my old saddle on this thing. If I were 5'4" and wiry, with a small, hard pair of buns, maybe it would be fine. But I'm not--and this is supposed to be an urban street machine, not a racing bike. I'm not saying big and cushy would be a good idea--but a little bigger and a little flexier would be.

  • Grip shifters... WTF!? Is there anything more annoying in city riding than a grip shifter? I don't even know how many times I shifted accidentally last night, on top of which, it's impossible to shift and brake at the same time (this is necessary in urban cycling, because you have lots of stops, and while you're approaching one of those stops, you want to get into a good gear for your upcoming relaunch), on top of which, if your chain or gearing is a little out of alignment, you're stuck with the click-click-click detents in the shifter. You can't nudge it to compensate, so you have to put up with rattle-clink-rattle-clink until you can get to the bike shop.

    I'll be replacing them with Rapid-Fires or whatever else I find that's better, assuming it doesn't interfere with the folding feature.

  • It folds in half easily; and once you twist the handlebars 90°, they end up in line with the folded bike. But you have to loosen two bolts with a bike wrench to move the handlebars. The absence of some kind of handlebar quick-release is ridiculous, since the whole point of buying a folding bike with a quick latch is, you know...folding it quickly.

  • The absence of folding pedals (available on other models) is also a head-scratcher. It doesn't matter much to my specific situation, but I don't get why they're not standard on this model.

  • Dahon seems to have some quality-assurance issues. In addition to the poorly-adjusted shifters, stupid-length cables, stupid cable runs that abraded my paint, and squeaky brakes, there was a bad link in the chain that caused clunks each time it encountered a cog. The bike shop found and replaced it, but that was my third visit, and on a new $600 bike--which I know isn't top-end, but it's pricey enough to expect some QA--I shouldn't have to deal with this kind of trivial sloppiness.

    (Oh yeah, and they left the red slipcover out of my "El Bolso" carry bag, which has arm holes not quite big enough to let me sling it easily over a shoulder. The bike shop is calling them about the slipcover tomorrow. Another QA issue. They'll ask about touchup paint for the abraded stem finish at the same time.)

  • Documentation is weak. You get a multipurpose manual that applies to all their full-sized bikes, but it doesn't tell you about the specialized components on this one. Nothing about the suspension fork. Nothing about the seatpost pump. Nothing much about maintenance. Nothing much, really, besides how to fold and unfold it.

Those are the negatives I found in my first day on this model. On the plus side:

  • The folding works.

  • It looks great.

  • It feels solid on the road.

  • Great choice of tires.

  • The BioLogic PostPump is way cool.

So that's my 2007 Dahon Matrix folding bicycle review. Tomorrow I plan to carry it onto the subway in the morning, store it under my desk all day, and ride it home at night.

Here's a link:

The 2007 Dahon Matrix

3/26/07: I may not be as clear about frame measurements as I should be. Here's a web page about it.

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