Joining the Cult of Brompton

I’ve owned a lot of bikes in my adulthood–nineteen at last count. Pretty much everything I got was used. Only two bikes were major new purchases, and “game changers” in their own way: The Surly Long Haul Trucker in 2008, then the Bantam custom in 2015. Now here’s another major new purchase to add to that list.

I’ve been intrigued by Brompton Bicycles for as long as I first heard of them, sometime in the mid-aughts. This British bicycle maker had been making folding bikes since the 80s, continuously refining the design. The big deal about Bromptons vs. pretty much all other folding bikes is compactness: It can fold into a small package, making it easy to bring along on multi-modal commutes or on airlines.1 The Brompton fold also keeps the drivetrain on the inside, so no worries about chain brushing on your (or someone else’s) clothes.

I borrowed Todd B’s Brompton in 2007 for a three-week Amtrak journey across the US. Before then if I wanted to bring a bike along, I had to box it for every segment of the trip, and not only did the train have to have a baggage car, but both the origin and destination stations had to have checked baggage service.2 Plus the fee and box was $15-25 per segment. That adds up. A Brompton? I fold it up and bring it on board as a carry-on, no extra fees required. While the ride quality was OK, the quick fold and ease of transport made me want one.

But Bromptons aren’t cheap, and I sometimes am. It’s not that I don’t feel it’s worth it, it’s just that I didn’t have the cash. And yes, custom bikes are usually even more than Bromptons, but I got a very, very, very good deal on mine. So I waited. In the interim, taking a bike on Amtrak has gotten easier, due to the system-wide roll-out of “roll-on” service. But it doesn’t work everywhere, not yet. If the stop doesn’t have baggage, you can’t get off with a bike. And flying with a full-size bike will forever be a pain in the arse.

In the intervening years, the idea of getting a Brompton has always been in the back of my mind. A few times I’ve been tempted by cheap folding bikes (like those made by Citizen) but never pulled the trigger. And I’ve also considered a Raleigh Twenty, a vintage (70s era) small-wheeled (20″) three speed. People like them and they look cool. Some of them fold, but it’s simply a clamp in the middle of the frame. It’ll allow you to fit it in the trunk of a car, but would not fit modern airline or Amtrak standards for folding bikes.

So, it’s been fourteen years since I first tested and was tempted by a Brompton. What made me get one now? Well, it’s because of the travel Emee and I have been and will keep on doing.

In September we flew to Boise for work stuff. And we did want to ride around a bit, but never got around to it. This was due to a few factors:

  • We like using bike share systems where they are available. While Boise had one, it’s been “temporarily suspended” since pandemic hit.
  • The hotel had free loaner bikes. But the choice was either full-sus mountain bike (overkill for city riding) or poorly-maintained, ill-fitting cruisers. We used the loaner cruisers one time we went to Long Beach and while it was fun to ride around for a bit, we definitely felt the discomfort after awhile. We didn’t want a repeat of that.
  • A couple shops had bike rentals, but we didn’t feel like going through the bother and paying a lot of $$ for a couple hours of use.

We’re heading down to Southern California in November for work stuff, and while we’re taking Amtrak back, we’re flying down. We’ll also be spending quite a bit of time down there (almost two weeks!) so we didn’t want to deal with bike share or rentals. So, why not get those Bromptons we’ve been talking about for ages?

The easy part was deciding we wanted Bromptons. The harder part was getting them. Brompton has quite the back log, and the go-to place in Portland for Bromptons, Clever Cycle, were out of stock with new shipments estimated to arrive in several months. We went to the internets. Also slim pickings. There’s a prominent Brompton dealer in the Midwest who had a couple in stock, but they didn’t “mail order” Bromptons. Ugh.

Then we found Bromptons in the most unlikely of places: REI. And the price was right, just $1600. Not only that, we can pick up in store (no shipping!) and then get dividend points. Sure, the Bromptons that they sell are the stripped-down models (no rack, no dynamo). But beggars can’t be choosers.

Getting accessories was also difficult. Clever had Carradice front bags, which we wanted, but didn’t have the racks. We had to order from a combo musical instrument and folding bike shop (banjos and Bromptons) in Tucson.

We picked up the bikes on Friday October 15. We didn’t do much with the bikes on the first day, mostly figuring out the fold (which is not intuitive, but gets easy after a few times) and taking them around the block for a spin. Saturday would be the big test. We had to run a few errands on the westside suburbs, so we brought the Bromptons in the van and headed to Tualatin Community Park. This park and adjoining greenspaces create a few mile corridor along the Tualatin River, all lined with paths. It would be an easy and mostly controlled place to have a test ride–no worrying about car traffic.

The ride was fun! It took a few minutes to get used the feel and handling of 16″ wheels and tall stem and seatpost, but after that it was natural. I wasn’t a big fan of the “three plus two” gearing on Todd B’s Brompton, a specially made Sturmey-Archer three speed wide ratio hub with two speed rear derailleur. There didn’t seem to be any discernable difference between the two derailleur gears. But the new models definitely have range, giving six evenly spaced gears. And riding Todd’s Brompton it always felt like the rear wheel was going to “tuck under” if I hit a bump. Not so with the new bike, as the rear triangle “locks” to frame vs. free float.

In the coming months, there’ll be more things we do to these bikes, especially after we ride them for a bit. I do want to get dynamo lighting, at least in front. One of the drawbacks about Bromptons is the proprietary nature of its components, but that’s a price worth paying for a bike like this.

After a decade and a half, I’ve finally gotten a Brompton. Thinking about the purchase, I realize how thoroughly urban it is. There’s the cliche of the “hip Brompton owner” who lives in a downtown loft in a throbbing city and does a lot of multimodal transit. I don’t think Emee or myself really fit that bill, but there’s definitely a certain appeal to a folding bike if you live in an urban area. I doubt I would have lusted after one if I lived in the sticks, unless I did a lot of flying. And speaking of flying, we’ll be heading down to SoCal by plane in November, Bromptons in tow. And even though we’ll take the train out the next time we go to Lake Pepin, bringing Bromptons will make logistics much easier. I’m thrilled for that.

Bromptons and Fall Color at Tualatin Community Park, 15 Oct 2021

1 Argue away!

2 Though on the Cascades (Eugene-Portland-Seattle-Vancouver BC) line I simply paid $5 and handed over to the baggage clerk, no box needed.

5 thoughts on “Joining the Cult of Brompton

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  1. You are right about the utility of a folding bike. I would own one if I lived and worked in a city with public transit. My experience with public transit commuting was that buses can only take a fixed amount of bikes. 3 in our area transit. However when light rail got close to my work I commuted for years on it and each car could take 4 bikes except the lead car which could only take two. That covered the bicycle commuters nicely and I enjoyed light rail transit for years. In my case I took a regular bike onto the train. However there were stairs in the ends of the cars and you had to carry your bike up them. Most people can manage that but it is limiting for people with disability’s. A small folding bicycle would solve a lot of the hauling up stairs or putting on the rack in front of the bus. It would also solve storage at home and at work. Parking a bike outside at home or work is an invitation for theft which these days will happen. But if you can take it in with you to your work station then that will solve theft issues. Bromptons are an elegant solution to a myriad of real world bicycle problems. Good choice.

  2. This is super exciting!! I love the elegance of folding bikes (at least in theory;) I’ve never had one, as you know, but I always think they seem super useful, for all the reasons you mention. I hope they end up being everything you want and more! 🙂

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