I’ve long had an interest in getting a fold-up bike, usually spoilt by the need to spend silly money on racing bikes. Still I wanted to get a test review of a Brompton. It is the market leader for fold-up bikes. It came highly recommended by a few readers; some Brompton owners I know speak of their foldups in almost hushed reverent tones. There is great pride and loyalty amongst Brompton owners, somewhat reminiscent of a proud Pashley or Bianchi owner. Added to that, is the fact that, amazingly, it is a British manufacturing company – one of the few to survive the remorseless de-industrialisation and competition from cheap Taiwanese carbon fibre. I would be quite happy to buy British, but is the enthusiasm for Brompton’s worth the money? Will I be paying for an excellent bike, or will I be paying to be part of an expensive owners club? As an added complication, is buying a Brompton my only real shot at one day being a cycling World Champion?
My first port of call was the Brompton website. I learnt Brompton’s are based on the same base frames and equipment, but they offer you hundreds of different choices from colour to tyres and gear ratios. It reminded me of the Trek Project One bike builder (except with rather different choices, e.g. 1 v 2 speed gears, rather than Dura Ace v Ultegra)
By the way, those wheels above the rear wheel, make it easy for dragging a long the pavement in folded up position – a nice touch.
The ability to choose different options is definitely a good idea and makes buying a Brompton an enjoyable experience. You can choose the components that you need and want, but also helps make the bike feel more individual, more tailored for yourself. Like Trek Project One, you pick up from a local Brompton dealer.
There were two local dealers in Oxford, so I went to Walton Street Cycles, which had a few Brompton’s in stock for test rides. The first thing is that even the super light Brompton (9.3 kg) is still pretty hefty to lug up an Underground escalator. The idea of getting a foldup 3-4kgs heavier is not enticing.
Secondly, it does foldup pretty small. On this grounds, Brompton is the market leader. If you’re taking it into your office, a small foldup is a big plus.
Thirdly, I was amazed at how the skilled assistant was able to flick a few top tubes, seatposts and hey presto a box of squashed metals becomes a nifty foldup bicycle. I later tried and failed to emulate this 15 second pack-up, but I’m sure the process is easy to pick up. The good thing about foldup is that it is very simple with just 3 fairly solid places to tighten up. If you can take off a quick release front wheel, you probably should manage to deal with a Brompton.
It’s easy to foldup, honest.
The Test Ride
I’m all enthusiasm for foldups at the moment, but jumping on 16” wheels is still a shock. Compared to my usual bikes, it’s slow and twitchy – hard work to steer. Though this was not so much a comment on Brompton’s as small wheels and foldups in general. It takes a bit of getting used to, but once on the go, I was fairly confident in picking up a decent speed. The position is fairly upright and so I felt reasonably confident on the roads. If anything you feel slightly more vulnerability on a foldup, but this is mainly perspective. Foldups are slower than a standard bike, but once adapted to the riding style it felt reasonably agile. My model had 3 gears with a big range in between them. It is like a Sturmey Archer hub gear and is fine to use. On a commute, you don’t want to be frequently changing gears, so this was adequate
Firm Suspension v Suspension
I tried two models one with suspension, one without (firm suspension). Personally, I have a big preference for the greater rigidity and stiffness of the firm-suspension. Yes, it might be a bit more comfortable going over potholes and speed humps, but, when you are used to riding a 80gram saddle on a Time Trial bike, suspension on a fold-up seems overkill.
Frame. The steel frame is quite strong, light but also helps if you are looking for a more forgiving ride. Steel also adds to the durability of the bike.
To simplify the bike and the fold up part, Brompton have gone for the hub gear – think Sturmey Archer 3 speeds. I like the choice of gears because it gives you the option of choosing 1,2,3 or 6 speed.
- 1 Speed is the cheapest and lightest, but with the disadvantage of only having single speed.
- 2 Speed is £60 more and only a little more heavy.
- 6 speed offers the biggest choice of gears, but costs an extra £120 and is quite a bit more heavy.
Brompton argue that you don’t need a big choice of gears; what is important is the range of gears. For example, the 3 speed gives gears between range of 3.79m – 6.76m / 48” – 85”
On this count, I agree with Brompton. If I was buying I would be tempted by the 2 speed, as the 2 speeds would offer a big enough gear range for cities like London and Oxford. I would even be tempted by single speed to save £60, but I feel with a fold-up, a single speed would be harder to manage. I don’t fancy charging up a steep hill on a single speed Fold-up. (unless it was part of a Bromptons World Hill Climb Championship – now that would be a reason to buy a Brompton)
There are 4 types of handlebars. The S type look the neatest and are the lowest down. They are referred to as the Sporting version, though it’s still pretty upright by my standards. For those who really like a more upright, touring position with more manoeuvrability, you could consider the H Type of M type. I would have no hesitation on choosing lowest S Type. The P Type offer biggest choice of hand positions, but weigh an extra 350grams over standard handlebars.
For such an expensive bike, the caliper brakes are a limitation. But, personally, this would not stop me choosing the bike. The brakes stop me adequately. It’s not as if I’m going to be racing into corners on my commute around London. In a way a like the ‘retro’ brakes. I can kind of mend them myself (in theory).
The best thing about the Brompton is again the ability to choose. You can choose a range of colours from black to racing green. No one admits to buying a bike because they like the colour, but it is important. Apart from that, the bike looks pretty good, simple style.
There is a whole range of accessories you can add to your Brompton, you can upgrade to Brooks saddle, there are innumerable combinations of bags and panniers that can be attached. Again, they tend to be a bit more expensive than usual. Some accessories you would be wanting to add to your base model
- Mudguards – £50
- Pannier rack – £50
- Cover and saddle bag – £20
- Super Light version – £500 for a saving of around 1Kg.
- Non-standard lower gearing – £15
I would tend to avoid unnecessary expenses like lights, and just buy some separate clip on LEDs.
One upgrade to consider, which Walton Street Cycles offered would be to switch standard Kevlar belt protection for Swalbe Marathon Plus – resistant to tacks and pins.
Value for Money
The base price for a Brompton is £700, but it’s hard not to add that, ending up at £850 for a fairly basic setup. It’s the kind of money that could almost be getting you a full carbon fibre road bike. But, it doesn’t work to start making such comparisons.
As an irregular user of a foldup, I shall have to feel either particularly enthused or particularly rich. If a foldup was my main commute, I would want the best, and at the end of the day £800 is really cheap when you consider people spend £6,000 a year on petrol and / or rail ticket. But, the problem is cyclists tend to be tight. Why spend £800 when you can spend £500?
Will I Buy a Brompton?
Maybe. But, I will be testing the competition first, to see if I can spot the different between the two and whether I can justify that extra little bit of class.
This review was originally published on my old cycling blog. (2012)
- Brompton Cycles at Evans Cycles