Product review: Brompton (titanium)
2017 Model Year Brompton Review
2-speed 'low' gearing; rack; titanium model; plumbed in dynamo lighting; upgraded tyres and Brooks saddle. Actual cost £1,750.
I've now had the Brompton for 8 months. It's been a mixed adventure. My summary thought is that it plugs a 'utility gap', but the gap it plugs needn't exist if, for example, we weren't addicted to cars and train companies continued to do what they always did in the past, offer carriage for normal bicycles. While I accept that 70% of Bromptons are exported to markets like Japan, and that it is in all respects a clever example of British ingenuity (it is that) I've also come to the conclusion that it is not a straight swap for a conventional bike, and that if like me you go into it thinking that it is, you may be a bit disappointed.
But first things first, what's it like?
1. 'Clever' at folding. Obs. It takes a while to get the hang of it and the video that Brompton put up needs more detail or breakaway diagrams, but when you see a seasoned pro do this at Paddington station, of a morning, you realise that it's just a matter of practise. I do believe this bike is king of the folders. A sovereign, all-powerful monarch.
2. Feels solid if you remember to tighten those different knobs. It is well-engineered and residual eBay values reflect that. It should last a very long time.
3. Rolls well enough if you upgrade to the supple Schwalbe Kojaks *recommended - it was my first upgrade within two days of picking the bike up from Warlands, Oxford. The Brompton kevlar tyres are sluggish and the optional Schwalbe Marathoners are bombproof but heavy and sluggish. You may want that reliability of course and I'd understand if you did.
4. Headset-mounted bag mechanism works very well, but the bags that go with it are pricey.
5. Brakes excellent. Really excellent.
6. A Brompton extends the orbit of cycling. It allowed me to turn up at an event in central France from Eurostar, with a tent, eluding the two less palatable alternatives of massive driving or massively expensive flying. There are very many equivalent examples ranging from getting into a cab when you've had a few drinks, to being able to put your bike in someone elses' car without a drama.
WHAT THEY DON'T TELL YOU: (*admittedly this is all unfair to Brompton if you come over to it as a dyed in the wool cyclist, but I did...)
1. You can't fit toe clips
2. The £320 lights are wonderful except that they're situated too low, below car mirror height. So that's a problem.
3. Un-folding and folding it is just a pain. All the time. I never really got used to it.
4. The very foldability makes it an easy target for thieves on trains, so you'll need a cafe lock. Go online and search this. Lots of people have had their Bromptons nicked.
5. Heavy to carry into buildings and shops - even the titanium model shown here, which only saves a pound in weight.
6. Embarrassing and stupid to carry it into offices and shops, and annoys everyone else.
7. It's existence has allowed train companies to shirk their responsibility to carry bicycles. Chiltern Railway announced that from January 8, 2018, bikes are now banned on most services unless they are fully folded. This is obviously not Brompton's fault, but it's a disaster for the broader issue of cycling and commuting. Not everyone can afford a Brompton. More to the point, not everyone wants one.
8. The luggage rack is recommended because it protects the rear mudguard, but the reason Brompton plug their own jewel-sized 'box bag' to sit on top of it is because putting a real bag on the rack results in heel interference on every turn of the cranks. this problem is a reminder that the bike is forced to compromise certain details of 'bicycle functionality' in order to be so clever at folding.
9. The whole Brompton Universe is it's own thing so you need a separate set of spanners, inner tubes, car valve pump, pump extender valve connector because the valves are too short an the spokes too close to get a good connection. This lot weighs 400g and jangles. If you get a puncture as you will (eventually) with the Kojaks, you'll need a YouTube demo to get the wheel on and off.
10. The idea that it won't get nicked because it's never on the street is dubious. A secure workplace is obviously better than the high street, everytime. But when my friend brought his into Pizza Express Marylebone Road (London, UK) we spent the whole meal anxiously craning our necks to check that it was still present under the coat rack. I thought to myself: what have we come to as a society when it's like THIS?
I'm not quite done...
11. It's very expensive in my eyes, when I look at the sort of machines you can buy for this budget.
12. In hindsight, the titanium rear triangle doesn't reduce weight enough to merit the extra cost.
13. My other upgrade was from Brompton's own saddle (which didn't suit - this is personal of course) to a Brooks. BUT...a thief twirled a hex key and made off with that lovely saddle in less than thirty minutes of daytime lock up. Warlands (Oxford) supply a special thief-proof bolt: you need this unless the bike will always be with you.
14. There are other ways of locking it that can result in part-theft of the bike: the only safe way to lock it is through the triangle bit by the crank set...
...but it's frequently difficult to do that unless you have a large D-lock, and where do you put that?
16. I opted for the 'low-geared' two-speed solution. Consider this carefully against your needs and usage. Single speed is brave; the hub gears add quite a bit of weight. This is the compromise that works for me, but I'd emphasise the virtue of the 'low gear' option. The 'normal' two speed ratios are a bit high in my view, once you add in a briefcase or laptop.
Obviously any Brompton scores 10/10 for being totally brilliant. I'd add that the dealer network (Warlands Oxford - shout out: amazing) is fabulous. Make sure you ride the different handlebars and spec it carefully to your needs before buying. Enjoy the process. Take your time. I totally recognise that if this is your only bike or you only use bikes a bit and they have to sit in a small flat, it ticks so many boxes. I think we all know this.
But...deep breath, if you're already used to cycling everywhere on normal bikes it's a big change of direction and a compromise and even a concession. It might be a British design icon, a clever contraption and an improbable commercial success, but I can't shake the thought that everything for which the Brompton was designed is a concession to a British society that by and large hates cyclists. If you put one into the boot of a car, I want to know why you're not riding instead. When I took it on Eurostar it was only because Eurostar hates bikes, and even then I had to put it in a ridiculous bag. When I arrive at a destination the idea of having to take the bike INSIDE because we have a society so riddled with bike thieves that it can't be locked up OUTSIDE, is, if you think about it, simply incredible. I hate the noddy small-wheel looks and will never come around to them. And I could get carried way and start ranting but I won't. It's there in the armoury for when all else fails. It's clever for its folding-ness rather than for its inherent virtue as a bicycle. I confirmed all this when I went back to the dealer the other day and asked a sneaky open question: what's the optimal range for riding a Brompton? Pause. 'Two to five miles.' OK I thought. That speaks volumes because my commute over a day is over 20 miles, and I am, once the lovely nippy feeling of the small wheels has worn off, more aware of the limitations of the Brompton compared to a 700c wheeled 'normal bike.' Don't count me a Bromptonaut. I'm not.