By Robert MacPherson
London - In the dog-eat-dog world of cutting-edge bicycle design, the A-Bike wants to be the Jack Russell terrier - small, cute as a button, but as tough as they come.
Conceived in Britain, built in Malaysia and sold via the Internet, it's the latest - and potentially one of the most successful - ideas to come out of the mind of prolific inventor Sir Clive Sinclair.
No bigger than a piece of carry-on luggage when folded, it opens up in just 10 seconds into an A-frame bicycle -- hence its name -- ready for use as an urban get-around vehicle.
It weighs a mere 5,6kg, thanks to its aluminum and polymer frame, telescopic internal brake cables, an enclosed dual chain drive and 15cm wheels seemingly pinched off a baby buggy.
Purists may sniff, and some did at the A-Bike's official launch in London on Wednesday. But Sinclair makes no excuses for what he calls the first radical rethink of bicycle design in 120 years.
"I went right back to the past," he told reporters at the Design Museum alongside the River Thames as prototype A-Bikes were put through their paces against the backdrop of Tower Bridge.
"The A-Bike is about half the weight and three times smaller" than the lightest and smallest conventional folding bikes now on the market, he said. "Never in the history of bikes has there been anything like such a feat."
Sinclair is famous in his native Britain for a host of inventions, from the world's first truly portable pocket calculator in 1972 to the pocket television in 1977 and, in 1980, the Sinclair ZX80, one of the world's first home computers.
Other inventions have fared less well in sales terms, notably the C5 one-seat battery-powered tricycle, unveiled in 1985 to heaps of ridicule. Only 17 000 were sold - enough only to make them cult objects amongst eBay collectors.
Mayhem UK, the A-Bike's distributor in Britain and the rest of Europe, predicts that Sinclair's new design will sell as many as 25 000 units in the coming 12 months.
It's priced at £199,99 (about R2 650) plus delivery, and currently available only on the Internet (www.a-bike.co.uk), though Mayhem hopes to have it in airport duty-free shops as well.
Unlike its main rival, the British-built Brompton folding bicycle, hailed as the "smallest, cleverest fold" in a recent Business Week magazine survey, the A-Bike is assembled in Malaysia, at a "commercially sensitive" site.
Distribution in Asia and the United States has been licensed to a Hong Kong firm, Zata.
Test-ridden by a reporter, the A-Bike certainly can zip along, its plastic pedals are as smooth as silk.
But its tiny wheels render it less stable than conventional bikes - ruling out tight turns and slalom runs through traffic jams.
There's also no place to put baggage, though chief design engineer Alex Kalogroulis said a handlebar-mounted pannier is in the pipeline.
And while the A-Bike should hold up to the rigours of inner-city cycling, its instructions are rather emphatic in stating the obvious - that this sure ain't no mountain bike.
"No wheelies! No stunt riding! Do not cycle into potholes!" they exclaim. Or as Kalogroulis acknowledged: "If you go into a deep hole, then yes, you'll have a problem."