This is Practical Biking, not Practical Folding Biking, so I’ve resisted the temptation to ramble on about my delightfully practical Brompton folding bike, but Velouria over at Lovely Bicycle wrote an homage to the Brompton a while back, and she’d only taken a quick jaunt. (More recently, she gave a Brompton a two-day test ride.) Alan, over at EcoVelo, also has waxed enthusiastic about Bromptons, and his enticing photos will have you searching for the nearest Brompton dealer. It’s long past time for me to weigh in with my own experiences.
I bought a Brompton because I wanted to start driving less. I’m the poster child for urban carlessness—I don’t have kids to ferry all over creation, I’m in reasonably good shape, I like to bike and walk, I don’t need to drive for my job, I live in a city with a good bus system, I can read on the bus without getting queasy, the buses all have bike racks—and yet I was frittering away 10,000 miles, hundreds of hours, and buckets of money each year behind the wheel of a car. A combination of bike and bus could get me anywhere in town, but I was afraid of getting stuck: eventually I’d encounter a bus with a full bike rack just when I could least afford to be late. What then?
Enter the Brompton. I’d first noticed folding bikes (also known as “folders”) during a trip to China. Back home again, I researched folders and looked into whether I could take one inside buses in the Seattle area. (Yes.) Time and again, I ran across favorable mentions of Bromptons even in reviews of other folders, and the short list of dealers in the U.S. at the time (now much longer) included one in Seattle. After a couple of test rides at Folding Bikes West, I asked Eric to order one for me. Ever since it arrived, the Brompton has been my ride of choice.
Right: Seeing folks on folders all over China, like this pair in Shanghai, started me thinking about whether a folder could be useful back home. (They’re not riding a Brompton.)
Why do I love my Brompton? Let me count the ways.
- A Brompton rides much like a full-sized bike
- Gearing compensates for the smaller wheels
- Folding and unfolding a Brompton is quick and easy
- You can take a Brompton nearly anywhere
- A folded Brompton takes up very little space
- A Brompton doesn’t weigh much
- You can roll a Brompton around even when it’s folded
- You can carry oodles of stuff on a Brompton
- You can take a Brompton onto buses, subways, light rail, and Amtrak
- You can fly with a Brompton easily and inexpensively
- Brushing against a folded Brompton won’t get you greasy
- Traveling with a Brompton can be less trouble than traveling with a car
- You can use a Brompton as a shopping cart
- Riding a Brompton is just plain fun
For many years, I rode an old Schwinn Le Tour touring bike. After I got the Brompton, I expected that I’d switch between the two depending on whether I needed the convenience of foldability. However, the ride and the convenience of the Brompton made the Le Tour superfluous, so I moved it to the attic, where it resides to this day.
The 16″ wheels make a Brompton more sprightly at low speeds and more skittish at high speeds on rough surfaces, but as long as the road is in reasonably good shape, I can happily ride at 30 miles an hour/48 kilometers an hour or more on a downhill. You have to be more attentive to potholes, road debris, and other obstacles because, for example, a 16″ wheel will drop further into a pothole than a 26″ or 27″ wheel will. If you’re accustomed to the feel of a heavy, stable mountain bike or commuting bike, the ride of a Brompton might startle you at first. I spent a week on a heavily loaded mountain bike in September of 2010, and when I got home and hopped on the Brompton, the difference in the ride was like swapping a moving van for a Miata.
The relative positions of seat, pedals, and handlebars on a Brompton are similar to those positions on the Le Tour, so the Brompton doesn’t feel small. If anything, I had to stretch out a little more than I was accustomed to, so I added an adapter that allowed me to mount the seat a smidge further forward (see the arrow in the picture at right), and I tilted the handlebars a wee bit toward me. Neither of these changes affected my ability to fold the bike.
Inexplicably, some bikers are weirded out by what they perceive as the nerd factor of a bike with 16″ wheels, which I never considered until Alan did a survey. In my own experience, people have far more often admired its convenience (and cuteness) than they’ve sniffed at its appearance. Methinks the sniffers, and those who worry about the sniffers, just need more imagination.
Right: A key to the clutter on my seatpost. From the top:
- Brompton offers a Brooks saddle, but this isn’t it. I like the additional comfort afforded by the springs on a Brooks B67.
- At arrow: The Brompton saddle pin adapter lets you adjust the seat further forward or further back than you could by sliding it fore and aft on the seat rails alone.
- The quick-release clamp secures the top part of a two-part, telescoping seatpost. At 5’10”, I was a smidge too tall for the standard seatpost, which proved to be a stroke of luck. Bromptonauts on the BromptonTalk group on Yahoo occasionally ask how to determine how high to raise the seatpost when unfolding the bike. When I bought the bike, I raised the bottom (longer) part of the two-part post all the way, set the top part to a comfortable height, and then forgot about it. Now I raise and lower only the bottom part. (Access to BromptonTalk requires a free Yahoo membership.)
- A Planet Bike blinky buttlight. The Planet Bike products I’ve used (several blinky buttlights and a floor pump) have been of high quality, and Planet Bike gives 25% of their profits to bike advocacy, so I’m glad to give them my business.
- The stub for the Xootr CrossRack. With the two-part seatpost, I can easily flip this around to the back when I want to use the rack and still point the seat forward. See You can carry oodles of stuff on a Brompton.
The smaller wheels on a Brompton don’t mean you have to pedal faster. The default gearing is comparable to the top (harder) half of the gears on my mountain bike. I ride a lot of hills, so I got the six-speed model, and David at Folding Bikes West replaced the bottom bracket and crankset with a Schlumpf Mountain Drive for me, which gave me six additional gears below (easier than) the default gears. With this combination, the range of gears is much like that on my mountain bike, except in 12 well-spaced gears, in two groups of six, instead of in 27 gears, many of which are nearly duplicates of one another.
Right: You shift the Schlumpf Mountain Drive by tapping a button in the bottom bracket with your heel. Tap it with your right heel, as I am in this picture, and you shift into the lowest (easiest) gears. Tap it on the left side, and you shift into the highest (hardest) gears.
I briefly tried the Schlumpf with the newer Brompton Wide Range (BWR) internally geared hub and didn’t think much of that combination. You still have two groups of six gears, but there’s some overlap between the high end of the low gears and the low end of the high gears, so you’re reduced to eight or nine different gears. With so few gears over such a wide range, the jump from one gear to the next is huge, and I often had trouble finding a comfortable gear. I soon gave up and swapped for a rear wheel with a standard-range internally geared hub.
A second opinion from one of my biking gods: I stopped into Clever Cycles in Portland shortly after I wrote this piece and talked with Todd, who biked part way down the Pacific coast on a Brompton with a BWR hub. He said that only for about 10 minutes of the entire trip did he wish for gearing that was more closely spaced. We theorized that my frustration with the BWR was that I was trading back and forth between the BWR and another Brompton with a standard hub, so I never really got accustomed to the BWR.
I’ve never timed myself, but it certainly takes me no more than 20 seconds to fold or unfold the bike, and I’ve made no effort to improve my speed.
Once the bike is folded, it mostly stays that way, which is not true of all folders. If you jog a folded Brompton much, you can spring the handlebars loose from the clamp that holds them in place. For the rare occasions when I want to be sure the handlebars won’t start flopping around, I keep a foot or so of two-sided velcro (available at a fabric store near you) wrapped around the frame and use it to secure the handlebars to the front wheel.
The small size of a folded Brompton means that you can take it almost anywhere and not have to worry about leaving it outside to get wet or stolen. I’ve never tried to take it into Canlis, but I’ve checked it at the coat check at the Seattle Art Museum; have confirmed that the coat check at Benaroya Hall (home of the Seattle Symphony) will take it if ever I need them to; have taken it into innumerable grocery stores, department stores, hardware stores, bike shops, chocolatiers, and assorted other retail establishments; and have parked it next to me (and out of the way) in many a restaurant, pub, bakery, dessert shop, and coffee shop. Often I’ll end up talking about the Brompton with the folks at the next table, and more than once someone has walked out with me to watch me unfold it.
My employer provides secure bike parking in the basement of our building and, with office space at a premium, forbids parking full-sized bikes anywhere else in the building, but I’m allowed to take the Brompton to my office and park it next to my desk.
Unlike a full-sized bike, you can squeeze a folded Brompton into any number of out-of-the-way places. My house is a good deal smaller than average (under 900 square feet/84 square meters), and bookcases take up quite a bit of the available wall space, so space for parking bikes is at a premium. Among the many benefits of a Brompton is the ease with which you can find an out-of-the-way corner in which to hide it away. Alas, you can’t get a Brompton in paisley or in wood grain, so it may clash with the adjacent furniture.
Straight from the factory, and with all of the heaviest options available, my Brompton weighed around 27 or 28 pounds (12.3 to 12.7 kilograms). If you skip the rear rack and some other optional bits and pieces, and if you get a couple of (very expensive) titanium parts, you can get it down to the low 20s (around 10 kilograms). For most folks, 27 or 28 pounds is a carryable weight for short distances, for example, to lift it onto a bus or into the trunk of a car.
If you need to move a Brompton further than you want to carry it and you can’t unfold it (because, for example, you’re somewhere that doesn’t allow bikes), you can roll it around on two, three, or four itsy-bitsy wheels that are attached to the frame, the rear fender, and/or the rear rack, depending on which options you choose. I wanted a rear rack, so I got four wheels. The factory wheels rolled well, but when they started to come apart (too much grocery shopping), I replaced them with larger and more durable Razor scooter wheels.
The larger wheels have the additional advantage of getting the bike a little further off the ground, which allows you to install the Ergon ergonomic handlebar grips that have the longer bar ends. (You can install the Ergon grips with shorter bar ends without changing the wheels on the rack.) On long rides, the bar ends give you another hand position, so you can change your grip from time to time.
Digression alert: You can’t use the Ergon grips on the Brompton P-type handlebar, which moustaches out from the stem to shoulder width or so, turns up for six or eight inches, and then turns back toward the middle. Think rectangular donut with a bite taken out of the top. I tried the P-type bar for about a year and finally replaced it with the M-type. The M-type bar is a little wider and maybe a tad taller, and the hand positions aren’t quite as far forward, so you ride more upright, which I prefer. I also never used the lower position on the P-type bars because it took my hands too far from the brakes.
Above right: My friend Tim, who had never rolled a Brompton around like this, quickly caught on. You only need to lift it as Tim is when you’re turning a corner.
Another mystery solved: I got an email from the North American agent for Brompton shortly after I posted this piece, and he explained why Brompton installs wheels that are squooshier than my Razor scooter wheels:
We see people putting larger/thicker roller wheels on the bike, which arguably makes for a better roll. But we intentionally design the rollers smallish and a bit fragile! The idea is exactly like crumple zones on a car, or a modern bike helmet. If you drop your folded bike or it falls a distance (or it’s bashed in shipment) there’s a likelihood it could land crooked; on just one roller. If the wheel is massive/solid it transfers the impact into the little arm on the rear frame. These can bend or even break with significant impact. A little wheel that gives first and absorbs impact is more likely to protect the frame itself from damage. So there’s a method to our madness 😉
I carry too much stuff wherever I go on a bike: a few tools, a spare tube, a pump, something to read, a foldup nylon duffel bag in case I somehow end up with even more stuff, rain gear if the weather’s looking dodgy, maybe a sweater, a water bottle or two, sometimes a camera, occasionally a change of clothes. With the Le Tour, I always rode with at least one pannier hooked to the rear rack, so one of my concerns when I was first looking at the Brompton was how I’d haul everything on a bike that is too small for panniers.
The Brompton engineers took my silly ilk into account when they designed their luggage system. Bags that attach to the front of the bike come in several styles and sizes, the largest of which, at 31 liters, holds about three-quarters of the volume of a pair of the largest Ortlieb panniers (42 liters). (That’s not an endorsement of Ortlieb panniers, which I don’t much like. I mention them only because they’re a well-known brand of enormous panniers.) The Brompton bags clip securely into a sturdy bracket (the luggage block) that is bolted to the frame instead of being attached to the front fork or to the handlebars. This means that, when you turn, you aren’t swinging the weight of whatever is in the bag. If you’ve ever ridden with front panniers or with a handlebar bag, you know what a difference this makes when you’re carrying a heavy load.
|The luggage block from the front.||Inserting the bag into the luggage block (view from left rear).|
|The bag secured in the luggage block (view from left rear).||The bag from the front.|
Never one to be satisfied with three-quarters of a load, I added a seat-post pannier rack—the Xootr CrossRack—and an Arkel utility basket, which is really naught but a big (27 liters) grocery bag with a zipper top that attaches to a bike rack. Combined, the Brompton and Arkel bags let me carry the equivalent of about three big bags of groceries. Be forewarned that the Xootr rack has some quirks. The diameter of the clamp is smaller than the diameter of the Brompton seatpost, and the clamp is not padded, so you have to add a lot of padding of your own to prevent the clamp from denting the seatpost. I used part of a 4″x6″x3/32″ sheet of red rubber that I found in the plumbing section at my local Ace Hardware, and that has worked reasonably well.
I further expanded the range of stuff that I can haul around by getting another rack that I can attach to the seatpost. The Topeak MTX BeamRack is a substitute for a rear rack, after a fashion, although the recommended weight limit is a measely 20 pounds. The seat-post clamp is padded, and it’s just big enough to fit the Brompton seatpost. The Topeak bag that you can get for the BeamRack is so small that it’s marginally useful at best, but the rack itself has allowed me to haul assorted awkward stuff, including some trim that I bought at the lumber yard. (I had them cut it to the lengths that I needed so I wasn’t trying to secure 8′ lengths to a rack that’s less than 12″ long.)
The silver tubes on either side of the main tube are the neon lights of a Down Low Glow. A while back, I showed how to install a Down Low Glow on a Brompton.
The rear rack on the Brompton isn’t much use as a rear rack if you fold the bike very often, as I do. Brompton makes a bag for the rear rack, but it’s wide enough that the few times I used it, I constantly kicked it with my heels as I pedaled. That bag now keeps the Le Tour company in the attic.
Brompton tech support weighs in: I’ve traded a few emails with a nice chap in Brompton tech support who checked in after seeing this blog entry. He was concerned about the amount of weight that I’m hanging off of the seatpost in the picture of the Topeak Beam Rack above. Instead of trying to accurately paraphrase him, I’ll just quote him (with his permission):
This offset weight, particularly the rack with the lumber hanging on it, puts a lot of offset loading onto the seatpost clamping area of the mainframe. We have seen a small number of examples of the mainframe cracking in this area [11 since 1996, all discovered while raising or lowering the seatpost, he reported in a later email] when owners have done similar loading of the seat post at the top e.g. by attaching a trailer to a hitch mounted at the top of the post (we recommend attaching trailers on a rear axle hitch) where the load imposed at a radius of 500mm+ from the clamp can cause distortion of the seat sleeve and potentially cracking around the seat slide tube to mainframe tube joint.
He went on to say that the Arkel bag is fine as long as it’s resting on the rear rack. Sadly, it’s not, so he also discourages using the CrossRack/Arkel combination. (For pictures, see Traveling with a Brompton can be less trouble than traveling with a car and You can use a Brompton as a shopping cart.)
On the theory that weight firmly secured to the seatpost might somehow be different from weight hanging from a saddle, I asked what he thought of large saddle bags, and his response was in the same vein:
Any large saddle bag will inevitably result in a significant weight being loaded offset to the seatpost and adding a magnified bending force on the frame at the seatpost clamping area.
In short, if my frame breaks at the seatpost, I’ll have a tough time claiming ignorance.
Russ of Path Less Pedaled fame did a video about how he and Laura attach backpacks to their Bromptons in a way that Brompton tech support would approve of. Next time I need to carry a really big load, I’m following their lead.
In Seattle, if I need to get somewhere faster than I can bike there but I want the bike for later, I take it inside the bus or onto Link light rail. On articulated buses (extra-long buses with a hinge in the middle), there’s an ideal space for the Brompton between seats in the area where the bus folds. On regular city buses, I sit near the front, in the seats that face the middle, and put the bike between my legs and parallel to the seat.
Right: The bike sticks out into the aisle a little, but not as far as my legs do when I’m sitting next to it instead of taking pictures.
I’ve also taken the Brompton onto public transit in other cities, including:
- Portland’s MAX light rail
- the Bay Area’s Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART)
- Monterey-Salinas Transit
- Chicago’s L
- the Vancouver, BC SkyTrain
On some subway and light-rail systems, including BART, you can’t take a full-sized bike on the train during rush hour, but you can take a folding bike.
When I’m traveling by Amtrak, I take the Brompton on board with me and stash it in the luggage rack at the end of the car. I checked it a few times, but checking it in on one end of my journey and getting it back on the other end takes almost as much time as checking luggage with the airlines.
If you want to check something with the airlines and not pay an oversize charge, the sum of the length, width, and height of the object must be less than 62″. For a Brompton, the sum of those dimensions is 56″, which makes it the only folding bike with 16″ or larger wheels that qualifies as standard checkable luggage. This means you pay the fee for checking a regular bag but not the outrageous fee that most airlines now charge for checking a full-sized bike.
You can fit a Brompton into a few models of hard-sided suitcases, but I don’t recommend it because then you have to figure out what to do with the suitcase when you reach your destination. Brompton makes a soft-sided travel bag that has wheels and a handle, so you can roll the bag around with the bike inside. When the bag is empty, you can fold it up enough to strap it to the rear rack (assuming your Brompton has a rear rack). In the debates I’ve seen in the BromptonTalk group on Yahoo, many Bromptonauts prefer the soft-sided Brompton travel bag to a hard-sided suitcase because, the logic goes, baggage handlers are less inclined to treat soft-sided luggage roughly or to put it on the bottom of a tall pile of bags. The Bromptonauts encourage padding the bike just in case, though. (Chris Rust, one of the frequent contributors to BromptonTalk, has written in detail about how he flies with a Brompton.)
I’ve flown a couple of round trips with the Brompton, and both times I slipped it into the Brompton travel bag, locked the bag with a TSA-approved lock, and checked it as regular luggage. TSA inspectors don’t always know what to make of it; twice I’ve opened the travel bag to find a notice inside about the importance of preventing terrorism, meaning they’d opened the bag for a peek when they couldn’t decipher the contents from an x-ray.
Oops: As I was taking the pictures for this piece, I discovered that the combination of Ergon handlebar grips and Razor scooter wheels make my Brompton just enough bigger that it no longer fits in the Brompton travel bag.
Todd at Clever Cycles takes his Brompton through security and gate-checks it as you would a stroller or a wheel chair. Inspired by Todd, I took my Brompton to SeaTac Airport for a one-way flight to San Diego on Southwest. (I rode Amtrak back to Seattle.) I planned to gate-check the bike, but I had another bag to check, so I had to go to the ticket counter anyway. When the Southwest agent saw the bike, she called over a supervisor, who explained that if I gate-checked the Brompton, it’d still end up in the baggage hold and would come out at baggage claim, not at the gate. He offered to send it, for no charge, with the special luggage, including oversized trunks and the upright bass that Matt Weiner was taking to Wyoming for a gig with the Blue 4 Trio.
In many cases, you can get your bike to and from the airport either by riding it or by taking it on public transit. For example:
- In Seattle, Link light rail takes you right to the airport.
- BART takes you right to the San Francisco airport. (In the comments, Nigel notes that most of the time you have to change trains to get to the San Francisco airport.) When flying into or out of Oakland, a bus with generous luggage racks takes you between BART and the airport.
- In Washington, DC, Metrorail (the subway) takes you to National, as does the Mount Vernon Trail. The subway doesn’t go all the way to Dulles, but buses connect the subway to the airport.
- In Palm Springs, California, you can bike out of the airport and directly into a residential neighborhood.
For information on whether a given airport is readily accessible by bike, do an internet search on <city name> airport bicycle access.
In Washington, DC, you can take a folding bike on the subway or inside a bus at any time of day, but you have to cover it up first. Bromptonauts in the UK report similar regulations on various modes of public transit. My guess is that transit managers are trying to protect other riders from greasy chains in cramped quarters. On some folding bikes, the chain and derailleur are exposed when the bike is folded. This isn’t true of a Brompton, as you can see in the photo at right. The chain, the gears, and the derailleur are all safely tucked in between the frame on one side and one of the wheels on the other side.
Brompton makes a lightweight nylon cover that you can toss over the bike and zip closed to satisfy the transit police. The bottom of the cover is open, so you can still roll the folded bike.
Right (bike-nerd alert): Fresh from the factory, the left pedal on a Brompton folds up and out of the way. It’s a pretty good pedal, but I wanted something that was easier to attach toe clips or Powergrip straps to, so I got a pair of MKS quick-release pedals. Then I spent a summer riding a mountain bike that had neither toe clips nor Powergrips, which I found much more convenient for all of the city riding I do. In the end, I got a pair of MKS Lambdas (also known as Grip Kings if you get them from Rivendell Bicycle Works), and swapped the spindles on the Lambdas with the spindles on the other pedals. Now my Lambdas are quick-release pedals. That’s what you see in this photo.
Especially in a big city, where parking can be expensive and hard to come by, traveling with a Brompton instead of a car can save you a lot of trouble and expense. You don’t have to pay the outlandish hotel rates for parking your car, you don’t have to wait for a valet to retrieve it when you want to go out, you don’t have to circle the block, then two blocks, then five, then ten blocks in search of a parking space at your destination, you don’t have to worry about whether the car will have been broken into when you return. You do have to learn how to travel lighter because you don’t have an immense car trunk in which to carry the kitchen sink, but most hotels have plumbing these days.
A couple of summers ago, I did a few days of spur-of-the-moment island hopping in the Gulf Islands, the islands between Vancouver, British Columbia and Vancouver Island. I had to be back in Seattle in under a week, so I didn’t have a lot of time to waste. Twice on my journey I rolled past long lines of cars that were waiting to get onto the next BC Ferry, or maybe the ferry after that. I bought a ticket as a walk-on passenger, which is much cheaper than taking a car, and was on my way hours before the folks at the tail end of the car line. On the ferry that had a passenger cabin, I was able to take the folded Brompton inside instead of leaving it on the car deck, and I wasn’t charged extra for traveling with a bike.
Above right: The Brompton and I are riding on the BC Ferry from Fulford Harbour on Salt Spring Island to Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. The bag on the front is the large Brompton touring pannier (now called the T bag), and the bag behind the seat is the Arkel utility basket. For more information, see You can carry oodles of stuff on a Brompton.
While I was first researching folding bikes, I ran across a photo of a Brompton being used as a grocery cart. Cute, sure, but probably not practical. Then I tried it, and now I go grocery shopping that way all the time. I fold the bike almost all the way, but I leave the handlebars up. The bike by itself is reasonably stable, but I have to be careful how I distribute my accumulated groceries so the bike doesn’t tip over and smash six perfectly good bottles of beer or an expensive bottle of olive oil.
In addition to the boundless pleasure I get from riding a Brompton, I have a marvelous time talking with folks about it. I’m not a salesman or a proselytizer—I’ve never asked anyone if I could show them my bike—but I can only guess how many conversations have started because folks asked me about the Brompton (as many as three or four in a day), how many times I’ve demonstrated the fold (hundreds, at least), or how many times I’ve heard someone, even kids, call out, “Cool bike!” as I ride down the street (a few, anyway). Sometimes when I’m sitting at a stop light, the driver in the car next to me rolls down the window to ask about my bike. When I get on the bus, the driver often looks at the bike and grins, and several have said, “I want your bike.” Of course, if you’re an introvert, all of this attention could be agony, but I want more people to ride bikes, and anything that makes someone more likely to ride more often—for example, the convenience of a folding bike—is something worth demonstrating and explaining.
My friends’ daughter, Siobhan, on my Brompton.