Folding Bikes: Why buy a Brompton?
Posted on 15 March 2016
What is Brompton? A medieval guild? A cult of engineers? The Platonic form of the folding bicycle? What it really is is a product of profound stubbornness and remarkable ingenuity. Whether for it's for the commuter train or subway, a backpacking trip, your boat or private jet this is the only folding bike that does the minimum a folding bike and does each of these things to the maximum. Allow us to explain.
We meet a lot of people who want a folding bike. They usually have one main reason for buying one, and that's the bikes storeability, which is to say the bike in its folded size. But, there are other equally important aspects, and if you miss them you risk major buyers-regret. Buyers-regret doesn't happen with Brompton. What happens instead is something closer to religious ecstasy.
The 3 Criteria of a Good Folding Bike
To help break it down, there are three main minimum things a folding bike must do if you like spending your money wisely:
1) It must ride well. Rideability
2) It must fold well. Foldability
3) It must transport well. Transportability
And, Brompton is the only company that offers all three. You can see it above in the video demonstrated by Andrew Ritchie, the eccentric man behind one of the world's most eccentric bikes.
Engineering ContradictionsThe reason other companies can't offer all three of these minimum features is because there is a very large engineering problem involved in making a folding bike ride well and fold small. Like its competitors, Brompton uses a small wheel. Small wheels have many assets, they accelerate faster than big wheels (which is great in the stop-and-go of a city) and if Dr. Alex Moulton is correct, they are just as fast as large wheels if you factor in tire and spoke flex, aerodynamics, and contact patch.
But, small wheels are twitchy, very twitchy. The only way one can make a small-wheeled bike behave is to increase the overall length of the bike - what we call the wheelbase- and Brompton has the same wheelbase as most regular sized bikes. Ride a competitors folding bike and after an hour your arms will feel sore from steering the bike in a straight line. They have, in other words, very poor rideability. And, since bikes are always more fun to ride than fold, what's the point of buying a bike that folds well but rides poorly?
This raises a problem that no competitor of Brompton has yet figured out. If a bike is to unfold to a long wheelbase then it unfolds big, and if a bike tends to unfold big then it will also fold big, and that effects its transportability and its eventual storability. So, most companies work on a compromise. They make a bike that unfolds big enough, and folds up small enough. Not Brompton. It folds to the smallest folding bike on the market and unfolds to the largest and best-riding. And, they make it easy. Beat that!
The final problem is that even if you can design a bike that unfolds big and folds small, you still need a bike that doesn't take a PhD to fold or unfold. We've only found one company that has successfully built a bike that competes with Brompton on transportability and rideability, and that was Mezzo (also out of England). We carried it until we realized that it sucks when it comes to foldability. At Curbside we've tried selling most big brands. Here is what we've discovered:
|Dahon & Tern||Moderate||Good||Moderate||
|Bike Friday Tikit||Moderate||Excellent||Good||2/3|
One note: we estimate that Dahon makes about half of the worlds folding bikes, so if you don't see a brand here - and its sold in North America - its most likely a Dahon in disguise.
To design a bike like Brompton requires an obsession that rises above mere commodification. We're not even sure if a bike like this fits in a capitalist system. Brompton operates more like a medieval guild. To design a bike that as rideable, foldable and transportable as Brompton requires a rabbit-hole of commitments and principles that very few companies could ever emerge from. For instance, here are some of the reasons a Brompton works so well:
1. Brompton realized very early that every part of the bike needs to contribute to the bikes rideability, foldability, and transportability. That meant having to produce their own parts. A Brompton has 1,200 proprietary parts - most of which are made in the same small London factory as their bikes. In a world where a Dell computer is a convergence of many parts flown from around the world at the exact right time, a Brompton is a beautiful exercise in vertical production.
2. Frames are brazed, not welded. Welding means using steel to bond steel, or aluminum to bond aluminum. This requires extremely high heat, which causes warping at the joints. Warping causes the wheels to track differently, and that's unacceptable on any bike, let alone a small-wheeled bike. Brazing by all accounts is a "dark art," taught only in a master/apprentice set-up. Whereas in China a welder is ready-to-go in two weeks, Brompton uses an 18 month training course before anyone is even let near a frame.
Mass customization, low employee turnover, and a bike that breaks all the rules of brilliance. You've probably guessed by now that Brompton is a bit eccentric. Rumour has it that the original owner takes a cold shower every day except for his birthday and Christmas Day. Rumour has it that the whole company runs on cash. Brompton isn't a commodity, its a mythology.
Want to know what makes Brompton even weirder? They don't believe in mass production. There is no standardized model. So, if you're shopping at Curbside every bike you see is our ever-shifting response to interpreting our customers needs (we think we've done a pretty good job). If you disagree with our spec (or just want something different) then Brompton makes every effort to accommodate that. About 30% of the 150 bikes we sell a year are custom, or what Brompton calls Bespoke. To design a bike as clever as Brompton and then be able to deliver it in under six weeks is a feat of logistics and remarkably difficult economies of scale.
We're the oldest and largest Brompton retailer in Canada, and that means we've made all the mistakes we need to call ourselves experienced. When we first started carrying Brompton we built as cheap as possible, but that was a huge mistake. Upgrading a Brompton after-sale is remarkable expensive. For years we put racks on all of the bikes thinking that people actually used them. And, for years we put Brompton's default tires on only to realize that they really aren't puncture proof enough for cities like Toronto.
While every year we bring in some custom bikes that include dynamo's, extra-light titanium bits, or Brooks saddles the bikes we regularly stock are either one speed or six speeds, and split across all handlebar models.
Whether you buy a Brompton through their custom Bespoke method or from our in-store selection, we always begin with the handlebar. Choosing a handlebar tells us two things about you. The first is how tall you are. The second is what you prefer your riding position to be. There are four bars, the flat "S" bar which has the lowest position, the "M" bar which offers a mid position, the "H" bar that offers the highest position, and the "P" bar which offers a multi-position "S" and "M" position all-in-one (great for touring).
For shorter people (5'0' to 5'4"), the flat "S" bar feels relatively upright, the "M" bar feels very upright and the "H" bar feels tall like a Dutch bike. For tall people (6'1" to 6'4") the "S" bar feels low like a triathlon bike, the "M" bar feels low and fast, and the "H" bar feels relatively upright. To the average height person the "S" bar feels low and fast, the "M" bar feels relatively upright, and the "H" bar feels very upright.
Once you know what position you want the next question is speeds. At Curbside we build all of our different S, M, H, or P models in a one speed or six speed option. The one speed is often sold to train commuters for whom the bike fulfills a major cost-saving, and who are also watching the budget. The six speed is for those who use the bike for commuting or pleasure, and want a bike that could handle anything anywhere. Brompton offers a two speed but we don't offer this because it offers very little gear range over the one speed. And, we don't offer a three speed because the six speed is just $100+ more and costs nearly $600+ to upgrade later. But again, if you want a two speed or three speed just let us know and we can order you one up. Easy!
Racks and Fenders
To keep the budget shopper happy we build our one speed with no rack or fenders, since these are easy to install as upgrades.
Brompton is a company run by engineers and that generally means they like things that fit together nicely. A rack does not fit anything nicely. It's usually a sloppy platform that you bungee cord stuff too. And, because the rack is what rests on the ground when a Brompton is folded, you are always removing your cargo everytime you want to fold. Brompton has nothing against their rack (like the bike, it is also made in their London plant) but they recommend using their front bags before considering a rack. Because the front bags don't steer with the bike they are remarkably stable. And, when you put the bike into towing position the front bag literally turns the Brompton into a shopping cart.
We do put a rack onto all of our "P" model bikes. This is because the multi-position bar usually indicates a cycle-tourist who is logging long miles. This cyclist is often carrying more stuff than the front bags can carry, and may also be carrying a travel bag that the bike goes into.
Finally, we also put a rack onto all of our black and white models. This is because Brompton charges a colour surcharge for their bikes that equals the price of the rack.
Toronto is a sharp city, literally - so we put the Schwalbe Marathon tires on our six speed bikes. Getting a flat tire with a Marathon tire is like getting struck by lightning or other acts of God. They're that good.
While Brompton offers dynamo lighting options on their bikes we only install these on stand-alone custom bikes that we carry for fun, and also on all white and black "P" models, since the cycle tourist is often in need of good lighting.
If you love the idea of a lightweight, comfortable bike, Brompton makes an extralight model that uses a titanium fork, titanium swingarm and other lightweight bits. This shaves about 3lbs off your bike. We usually reserve extralight orders to Bespoke customization but do carry some stand-alone models to keep things interesting.
If you live in hilly areas Brompton offers different gear reductions. This is as easy as changing the front chainring from a 50T to a 46T, which we can do in the shop in under 10 minutes. With an "S" bar, extralight frame, and Schwalbe Kojak tires (another option) a Brompton can be blisteringly fast. Every year we build a couple of standalone models that use these options and where we increase the front chainring to a 54T to keep things fast.
So, What's Stopping You?
Cost, probably - but we assure you a Brompton is totally worth it. We've taken our Brompton's on European tours on-and-off the rail, on gravel trails across Quebec and BC, we've taken them on-and-off Ontario commuter trains or Amtraks down to Los Angeles and NYC, we've taken them on our yearly flights to trade shows and holidays, we've coat-checked them at the Louvre', tucked them under tables in Copenhagen's cafes, and raced them at the first Brompton World Championships in Oxford, England.
There are things you own that work for one thing but often obfuscate the next thing you need to do. A Brompton tends to take every experience you're have and amplify it even more. Whether its stored in your office, put into shopping cart mode at the Whole Foods, or stowed away on a boat, airplane or car it's an investment-grade product with an impressive engineering story that works hard only to make life easier.