Mini Road Test: Brompton

Jul 24th, 2019

I did not think I would like this bike. Sure, I thought it’d be fun and a little funny — certainly I’ve hosted some guests who were very curious to hop aboard and have a chukle. But I expected to find the Brompton a very clever (and expensive) novelty, sort of a two-wheeled party trick that’s too cute by half. But I’ll be darned, this little bike is good. Really good.

By now the Brompton faithful are dipping their quill pens to start an angry letter about what they’ve been trying to say all along. That’s fair. Even as we published a full-blown Road Test in 2017 from Adventure Cycling Tour Leader Sarah Burch, I read along shaking my head “Yep, uh huh, ok, I see your point … but no, not for me.” Truth is, though, I’d only taken Bromptons around the parking lot. For two minutes they are fun and a little funny. After that they become something a bit more.

First off, the folding sequence and size of these diminutive rigs is an engineering triumph. Full stop. One hundred percent of people who see the bike unfurl and then fold back up are impressed, as well they should be. While I won’t be winning any Brompton World Championships with my folding speed, transforming the bike from luggage to luggage hauler really is a cinch and even weirdly satisfying as the rear wheel swings out and clicks into place. The various mid-assembly positions for storage or transport are handy as well.

Once road-ready, though, those wheels start to look quite tiny indeed. My iteration featured the company’s touring setup, which amounts to six total speeds thanks to a three-speed Sturmey Archer internal gear hub and a two-speed cassette. The resulting gears cover a wide spread, but with enormous jumps. If you’re sensitive to cadence, this is not the ride for you. But the Brompton has other charms, like a dynamo front hub powering front and rear lights, a toolkit nested inside the main tube, fenders with generous mudflaps, and one of the most comfortable saddles I’ve ridden in years. Bromptons are highly customizable and company’s configurator gives a good idea of what’s available and what it costs.

The other distance riders might worry about is the one from head to toe — at 5’11” I found my ideal saddle height at the maxed seatpost extension. The cockpit was otherwise upright and comfortable, one might even say lightly suspended thanks to the expansive seatpost and long, thin handlebars. Thanks to this inherent flex, the Brompton is remarkably smooth despite its tiny 16in. wheels that could be easily swallowed up by any average pothole and armored-up Schwalbe Marathon tires in a skinny 1 ?in. width.

A rear rack (with tiny luggage wheels for rolling the bike when folded) option offers a pretty standard deck for gear, while up front Brompton’s “Front Carrier Block” allows for very intuitive mounting and quick releasing of compatible bags. I used the brand’s large T Bag, which swallows 31 liters of stuff and features thoughtful rider-facing bottle and storage pockets. Be warned that when stuffed, this bag obscures the front wheel and because it’s mounted to the frame and not the fork does not rotate around the steering axis. A heavy load can feel a bit unwieldy, but I quickly adjusted to the steering characteristics — adjusting to the visual input of the bag staying stationary while the bike turned, however, has proven more difficult.

Riding the Brompton generally felt quite like riding a regular bike, which may sound like damning with faint praise, but is rather remarkable considering the compromises you’d expect to find. One quirk I found was that because the drivetrain is so low to the ground, riding in foul weather gunked things up much more quickly than on a 700c-wheeled machine. 

As Sarah noted in her Road Test, long-distance touring with a Brompton can require a little creativity. The front-mounted bag can only hold so much and panniers aren’t an option when your axles are eight inches off the ground. But while I was chatting with some folks from the company during a spring expo when Brompton VP of marketing and retail Peter Yuskauskas pulled up a photo of his personal bike leaning against a power pole with a large external frame backpacking pack lashed to the rear rack. 

“That’s hilarious,” I said. These bikes really are funny.

“My wife and I flew to Cancun with the bikes as carry-ons and pedaled down the Yucatan for a week,” he said.

Oh. Turns out, the joke’s on me. 

So would I buy a Brompton (as spec’d this loaner was about 1,400 British Pounds)? If I lived in a city and commuted without easy storage, heck yes. But I’d also be a little tempted to hold out … at that same expo I demo’d Brompton’s new eBike, which might very well be the ultimate folding companion and is hands-down the most interesting bike I’ve ridden in 2019. 

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