The Brompton’s not a new bike. It’s not even new to me. But it is the best folding bike around, and it will change how you travel long distances, too. I’ve had mine ever since I recovered enough from a broken leg (busted playing bike polo) to hobble up to the local bike shop and order one. That was a few years ago, and since then the bike has come with me to three different continents, traveling on planes, trains, trams, automobiles and buses.
You can even ride it to the airport and pack it up when you get there.
The Brompton is a folding bike that collapses into a bundle so small you can tuck it under a restaurant table. But it rides like a regular bike, with the wheels, saddle and handlebar all around the same distances apart as they’d be on a normal bike. Wrapped in its overpriced official cover, I’ve taken mine into movie theaters, traveled on long-distance coaches that don’t allow bikes, and kept it in the hallways of even the tiniest of Barcelona apartments.
The key to this is the fold, seen here in GIF form:
Most folding bikes put a hinge in the main tube, or top-tube (or “crossbar,” in British English) and have done with it. I have a friend (Pedro) with a Dahon folder that looks like Jaws from the James Bond movies next to my Brompton’s Dolly. The Brompton’s fold, though, is an amazing thing – you’ve probably already been hypnotized by that GIF, right?
The four-stage fold is possible thanks to ingeniously placed joints in the frame and handlebar stem, plus a chain tensioner that lets the rear triangle swing forward and under. Most folders keep the chain-line intact, resulting in a bigger package, whereas the Brompton folds the chain like a game of cat’s cradle, letting it crunch up even smaller. To finish the fold, the seat slides down and locks everything into place. You can even lift the folded bike up by the seat and carry it (not far though – a approximately 12-kilogram lump of steel isn’t so easy to lug).
The clever fold has some other great side effects. First, the bike stands up by itself when folded. And thanks to two little rollers on the rear triangle that swing underneath when folded, you can roll the bike along for short distances. I replaced these wheels with skateboard wheels and bearings for better rolling, and with the addition of some front luggage (more on this in a second) you can even take the bike into a supermarket and use it as a shopping cart.
The fold also puts the chain in the middle of the package, keeping dirt away from white linen tablecloths and protecting the delicate drive train from over-enthusiastic airport baggage handlers.
But the very best part of the fold is the speed. Pedro’s Dahon folds quicker thanks to its quick-release levers, but the Brompton can go from bike to bundle in 10 seconds – easily. I can roll it onto the metro platform as the train rolls in and fold it while passengers switch places, then jump on with time to spare.
One note, before we leave this section. I long wondered why the Brompton doesn’t use quick-release levers like other folding bikes. Instead, it uses machine bolts with plastic T-bars on the tops to secure the folding parts. Then I thought about failures. If a bolt comes undone, you get lots of warning as things start to wobble. If a quick-release lever fails, you go from closed to fully open in one move, undoubtedly when negotiating a busy road junction. I’ll stick with the (easily replaceable) and lightweight bolts.
I have the model M Brompton, with a honey-colored Brooks B17 leather saddle, an extra-length seat post and regular riser handlebars (there’s a flat-bar version, called the model S, and a dorky double-decker concoction, the model P). I’ve also switched up the brake levers (for Dia-Compe Gold Fingers) and some other parts, including the tires (the Schwalbe marathons haven’t punctured once since I bought the bike).
I’m 6 feet 2 inches tall or so, but the Brompton is still comfortable enough for all-day riding. You can even tour on it, and I’ve done plenty of that, although not with the bike fully loaded. This is thanks to the long wheelbase, which puts those 16-inch wheels out at the same place you’d find the wheels on a full-size bike. The handlebar, too, is up where you’d expect. Between this and the gearing, and the passive suspension caused by the frame design and the little rubber block between the rear triangle and the main frame, you get a bike that rides all day long.
That’s not to say it’s much like riding a road bike. Those little wheels don’t like cobblestone streets, and they are small enough to sink without a trace into some of the bigger New York City potholes. But the advantage is that the bike is dead nippy. That is, it’s nimble and sprightly, and can be zigzagged right through standing traffic or meandering pedestrians with equal ease.
The little wheels are also strong. Mine have taken a beating and are still as true as the day they were laced.
One last word on small wheels. Lots of folks ask me if I have to pedal faster than I would on an ordinary bike. Of course I don’t. The gearing is set so it rides just like any other three-speed. And three gears are plenty. I’ve almost made it over the top of the steepest hills in San Francisco without getting off the bike. Almost. I had to give up and walk the final block when the bike came to a stop and wouldn’t move another inch, even while I had all my weight on one pedal. The six-speed variant wouldn’t have changed that, but it would add extra weight and complexity.
The Brompton really shines when you travel. It’s great to be able to hop on a train to Berlin from where I live in Leipzig and not have to pay the €5 bike fee, but it’s even better to ride to the airport, fold up the bike and pack it, check it and then reverse the process at the other end. It’s not always practical to ride to and from an airport, but you’d sometimes be surprised. It might seem like the only way to arrive there is by freeway or through an industrial no man’s land, but often you’ll find a small town or village near the airport, which means smaller, easier, bike-friendlier roads.
McCarran International Airport in Las Vegas is pretty much in the city center, and although I’ve always been too exhausted to ride when I get there, it’s a simple scoot up and around the runways to arrive at the north end of the Strip, and – contrary to what you might think – the Las Vegas Strip is perfect for cyclists. The city seems to have almost no cyclists, so when some tall skinny guy on an orange Brompton turns up, he gets waves and thumbs-up signs. Even from taxi drivers.
Even if you take your bike into town on the bus, or in the back of one of those friendly cabs, exploring a new city by bike is flat-out awesome. Especially as it’s your own bike, not some crappy rental. Find yourself in a bad area of town? Ride on out. Sick of relying on public transport, and never knowing where you really are in a city? Take your bike. You’ll get to know a place far better than you ever would as a walking tourist, or by taking motor transport around town.
Packing the bike
There are plenty of Internet forum threads dedicated to the puzzle of taking a Brompton on a plane, but this way works for me. I’ve flown from Spain to Germany and Israel and through the States (international and domestic), and the only damage has been a cracked fender (which may or may not have been a packing error on my part).
I bought a hard case but never used it, because the thing is an inch or two over the checked-luggage size limit for some airlines, and because where the hell do you put the thing when you arrive? I’m currently using Brompton’s own overpriced (like all its accessories) travel bag. It’s a padded, ballistic-nylon number shaped to take the folded bike, and with a couple wheels and a steel plate on the bottom. It weighs in at a few kilos, and is a bitch to carry when fully loaded, but it gets the job done.
In short: I remove the Brooks saddle from the bike (the rails on the saddle would bend if the whole case got dropped on its head) and cover the top of the seat post with a tennis ball (with a cross cut into one side to make a hole). Then I stuff precut lengths of pipe lagging between the fenders and the wheels, remove the two bolts that secure the frame when it’s in unfolded mode, and use Velcro straps to attach more foam lagging to anything that sticks out. Here are a couple photos, taken before my first trip to the United States with the bike. The setup hasn’t changed since.
Once I’ve added the foam, I use the bike cover I mentioned above as a first layer. This is more to protect the rest of the luggage than it is to protect the bike. I then load the bike into the Brompton case, shove in the front basket (more on that below) and add any heavy clothes. Usually I put in a spare pair of shoes, some jeans and maybe a winter jacket. I also pack anything I don’t want in my hand luggage, like the bike tools.
Then I zip up and check the bag. After a bit of practice, I can now get the bike packed in just 10 minutes, usually just outside the airport. I use two luggage straps around the outside of the bag, and I use these same straps to carry the rolled-up Brompton bag on the front of the bike on my way to and from the airport. Even if I’m not riding to the airport, I usually do the packing there, as it’s just so much easier to wheel the bike there than it is to carry an almost–20-kilo suitcase.
There are two official ways to add luggage to the Brompton. One is to buy a model with a rear luggage rack. The problem with this is that you can’t swing the rear triangle up and under with a bag strapped on there, and as folding the triangle is the way you stand a Brompton up without leaning it against anything, this isn’t ideal.
The best way is to spring for the front luggage block, which is an overpriced (do you see a pattern here?) piece of plastic that screws onto the front of the frame, on the headset. This block lets you clip all kinds of expensive bags into place, but the one you want is the cheapest and simplest. It’s the Folding Basket, an aluminum-tubed frame with a nylon bag and a handle. The handle can be used to lift the bag (obviously), but also to pull the bike along when it’s folded.
The front luggage system is as ingenious as the bike itself. Because the block is fixed to the frame and not to the handlebars or wheel, it doesn’t move when you steer. And because of those small wheels, the bag can sit down low, so its mass doesn’t affect the handling too much, even when fully loaded (it’s rated for up to around 20 kilos).
But the bag will also sit up on top of the folded bike. This lets you use it for grocery shopping (unfold and secure the handlebars to make a neat shopping cart), dragging the bike through the store and loading up your own basket. I use it for this all the time. It’s particularly rad when you roll out of the supermarket, unfold and ride off.
There are lots of other purpose-made bags, but I like this one because you can just toss any other bag in there. In fact, combined with some packing cubes, sometimes this bag is my luggage, no suitcase or backpack required.
The first problem with the Brompton is its price. The bikes are made in London, which jacks up the fixed costs. Given that many great bike brands have their stuff made in Taiwan, Brompton could surely get the same quality for less overseas. Not that the bike needs to be cheaper. It just needs better components. For a bike that starts at $1,250 in the United States, the components are an embarrassment.
The brakes, for example, use woolly feeling levers (later models than mine at least have metal brake levers), and side-pull calipers instead of more modern v-brakes. The plastic gear levers and cheapo pedals don’t feel like something that should come on a $1,250 bike.
Because of its design, the bike uses many non-standard parts. This makes it all the more inexplicable when outdated components are used. For instance, to attach anything but the standard Brompton saddle, you need to add the pentaclip, which is an old-fashioned adapter between the saddle’s rails and the seat post. Third-party seat posts like Brompification’s titanium seat post manage to incorporate a mount for standard saddles. What’s more, Brompification’s add-on is a two-bolt number that makes adjusting the angle of your seat dead easy.
I’m not saying the Brompton needs a big redesign, but neither does it need to stay mired in tradition. If the bike were made in Taiwan (and before you complain about quality, remember that all Apple’s exquisitely made hardware is outsourced), then your $1,250 could buy a lot more bike instead of just a great design marred with supermarket-quality components.
Something The Lady said to me sums the bike up best. She thought I was crazy to spend €1,200 on a folding bike. But a month or so back I heard her talking to a friend about it, and she said that I’ve gotten so much use out of it, it turned out to be a bargain.
I have a few bikes, and I sometimes wonder which one I’d keep if I could only keep one. My Surly Long Haul Trucker is fantastic, and the $50 beater I use when I want to lock the bike up in town and not worry about it is handy enough. But even though the Brompton is no tourer, and certainly no worry-free beater, it’s the bike I’d keep. It’s just so versatile: Apart from mountain biking and proper loaded touring, this little bike can do everything a big bike can do, plus a whole lot more besides.