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Brompton: The Sex Pistols of Folding Bikes

by Ted Johnson

Brompton: The Sex Pistols of Folding BikesBrompton is the Rolex watch of folding bikes; the VW Beetle of folding bikes; the McDonald’s hamburger of folding bikes; the Marlborough cigarette of folding bikes…

What I mean is, Brompton is the iconic folding bike. And it deserves to be.

Brompton Fold

The Brompton Fold | Image: Wikipedia

In articles about the Brompton bike, the word timeless comes up often. But I doubt that the word was used at any time during the first several years of production and sales.

The reality, I suspect, is that Brompton has taken a goofy looking bike and made it iconic. By which I mean, it no longer looks goofy to us; it looks timeless; it looks like the folding bike to have.

To paraphrase a recent and obnoxious iPhone campaign, Yup, if you don’t have a Brompton, well, you don’t have a Brompton.

The success of Brompton, however, is not due solely to good marketing. Andrew Ritchie’s design really is ingenious and elegant. It’s been tweaked over the years, but Brompton has found no cause for any fundamental design changes. The bike rides well, and folds into a very light and compact package.

The folding bicycle is among a few innovations that have transformed the way people use and think about bikes.

Brompton belongs in the pantheon of companies that took a cycling innovation out of novelty status and made it part of mainstream cycling.

In a way (and I say this grudgingly) the Brompton is the iPhone of folding bikes. Just as Apple did not invent the smart phone, Ritchie did not invent the folding bike. But Brompton, like Apple, raised the bar, and expanded the cultural appeal of what had been a product for nerds and eccentrics.

Brompton in Washington DC

In the parked position, Washington DC

And like other iconic brands such as Apple, a community/cult has developed around the bike. I imagine it’s nearly impossible for two Brompton owners to pass each other without exchanging a knowing wave–or more likely, a secret signal.

Other companies have tried to make folding bikes look cool or modern, with sometimes ridiculous results.

For example, Strida tries pathetically to strike at the heart of Brompton. Their site explicitly tells consumers about their bike’s “real cool appearance” and then claims their bike is “the only folding bike in the industry that doesn’t make you look like a ‘granola type.’”

Strida: Your name calling only betrays how desperately envious you are. The cult of Brompton has thicker skin–and better bikes–than that.

Strida LT

The Strida LT | Image: Strida

The Web is full of gushing reviews of the Brompton bike. In side-by-side comparisons to other folding bikes, Brompton almost always wins.

In a previous post, I wrote about overcoming ten years of coveting a Brompton bike. Now I need to write my own review. But what can I say that hasn’t been said?

The bike I tested was not ideal for me. But almost none of my complaints couldn’t be overcome by a custom build–and your credit card number.

Brompton Handlebars

S, M, and P-Type handlebars | Photo: Brompton

This bike had the S-type handlebars–which are straight. I probably would prefer the P-type handlebars which would allow me to be either upright or hunched over, depending on my mood.

I found the six-speed configuration a bit fiddly. It combines a three-speed Sturmey Archer internal hub with a two-speed derailleur. That’s two shift levers for only six gears. I think I could live with the simplicity of just the three-speed hub.

Brompton Bike with O-Bag

The O-Bag by Ortlieb

The rear mudguard has a roller wheel on it, so the bike can be pulled like a cart when folded. It was kind of tippy, so I’d probably prefer the “R-Bike” mudguard integrated with a rear rack, plus Eazy Wheels for a more stable combination of four rollers on the ground.

At my height (5′ 10″ on a good day), I don’t need the telescopic seat post. The standard seatpost will do fine.

The black O-Bag (made by Ortlieb) was a tight squeeze for my 17-inch laptop, so I’d probably go with a simple folding basket and wear my laptop in a backpack like always.

DIMPA Storage Case from Ikea

Ikea's DIMPA Storage Case | Photo: Ikea

I don’t think I’d get a Brompton travel case. Brompton’s rep, Ed Rae told me about the DIMPA storage case available for $4 from Ikea. (Ed suspects the DIMPA was designed by a Brompton owner). I just saved you a bunch of money.

All of that comes to about $1,500.00.

What? A little pricey? Do you want me to have an icon or don’t you? At least I didn’t choose the titanium frame.

Well, I still have my Dahon. Maybe it’s a poor man’s Brompton.

But you can’t say poor man’s Brompton without saying Brompton.

And that’s my point. Brompton, more than any other folding bike company, has defined and transformed cultural ideas about what bikes can do.

The iconic band The Sex Pistols didn’t invent Punk. And they really only released one studio album. But when Never Mind the Bollocks… was released in 1977 their contemporaries looked at the high bar The Pistols had set, and they asked, “What are we going to do now?”

The basic Brompton design was developed the same year, in the same country, and bike makers are still asking the same question.

Brompton and Dahon

Does this bike make my Dahon look fat?

 

 
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16 Responses to “Brompton: The Sex Pistols of Folding Bikes”

  1. matt says:

    for short rides around town and multimodal commuting, absolutely. but for longer-distance commuting and taking it with you on a plane, I’ll keep my Xootr Swift

  2. We’re about to do a cross-country tour on Bromptons! They’re really amazing bikes and can be used for so much more than just short trips!

    We just took them on their first overnight bike tour with a local group here in Portland.

    http://pathlesspedaled.com/2011/03/for-the-first-time-again/

    We think they excel in multi-modal travel (even planes!). Our account here:

    http://pathlesspedaled.com/2011/03/this-bike-is-not-a-bike/

    I’ve ridden quite a few folding bikes over the years from a Bike Friday NWT to a Dahon TR and while they are excellent bikes in their own right but they always seemed more like packable bikes. I found that I was locking my outside often. If you’ve ever folded a NWT you know what I mean. There’s a lot of jumble of parts and some velcro to hold it all together.

    The Brompton is the first folding bike we’ve had where we don’t carry locks anymore because we always bring it inside with us!

    We’re really excited to see what the Brompton is capable of. You can see our touring configuration here:

    http://pathlesspedaled.com/2011/03/touring-bromptons/

    The rack adds LOTS of stability. We can fold the bike and wheel our touring load (front T-bag and Carradice) around airports and train stations.

    Russ

  3. todd says:

    nothing wrong with the swift, but brompton’s good only for short trips? http://clevercycles.com/2010/11/26/down-the-pacific-coast-by-brompton/ . and you can get a swift on a plane? http://www.flickr.com/photos/cleverchimp/3953943294/in/set-72157622596145551/

  4. matt says:

    I’m sure the Brompton is a great bike. Glad you are happy with it!

    I don’t own a one but am told it has a more flexy ride than the Swift, which is virtually indistingushable in my experience in ride and geometry from a regular hybrid. For my 13-mile commute through downtown Boston it is only a couple minutes slower than my road bike (Spec Roubaix).

    I’d be quite surprised if an airline let you put a folded bike in an overhead compartment – maybe inside a bag. The Swift packs in a hardshell suitcase and is checked as luggage (<50#, so no extra charge). I'd rather do that than play the hope-they-don't-figure-out-it's-a-bike game detailed at one of the links. Mileage varies…

    For me it's a moot point anyway since I'm too heavy to ride a Brompton :-) The Swift carries me and my gear with aplomb.

    I'd never fold it for use on a a bus, but the fold is nice and thin for propping up on the side of a train.

  5. @Matt haven’t ridden a Swift, but I did recently do a 15 month bike tour on a Surly LHT. I wouldn’t say the Brompton rides exactly the same, but it is does feel surprisingly normal.

    I will say that there are a few specs that vastly improve the ride. First, the suspension block. We’ve been riding with the standard block for a few weeks and recently swapped it for the firm. It makes a stark difference in the ride. It’s not as bouncy and the power transfer feels loads more efficient. Second, a lot of people don’t get a chance to test ride it with a load in the front. This also makes a noticeable difference in feel. It dampens the steering and greatly stabilizes the ride. I can ride no handed on a Brompton with a front load, but cannot when there is nothing in the front.

    As for flying, I’ve checked it sans hardcase as well as gate checked it successfully. Admittedly, there is some anxiety that you must suffer to do so, but it is a great to pick up your bike, unfold it and ride away without dealing with a large suitcase to portage to your hotel.

    I hate to sound like one of the cultish people mentioned in the article (though I know I hopelessly am), but it is quite a remarkable bike that has changed how we travel and how we vacation. It is not an untruth to say it is more “portable mobility device” than just a bicycle. To me, it feels like the closest thing to a portable jet pack in this day and age!

  6. Al says:

    My Brompton is the last of 4 folders I have owned. IMHO for multi modal transportation there is currently no better bike. It’s compact and can be carried with one hand. Also, once folded it stays folded and requires no straps to keep it together. The major drawbacks are the price, though if you commute daily on it it will usually pay for itslef in a year or so. The other is that it is relatively heavy to carry for more than a couple blocks. But since it folds and unfolds so easily there rarely is a reason why you would carry it for that long.

  7. Why always to tell the people that a bike is good or not so good we have to compare with other bikes?
    Brompton had done and is doing a lot of work not only in the Folding Bike market but in the multimodal inteligent way of transportation.
    But we have to say that Strida,Dahon,Bike friday for ejample & the others are as good as Brompton.
    As a Commuter rider the most important thing is to inform people of how to transport with a bike in your daily basis & we are very lucky to find that now many Folding bikes are in the market for all types of customer taste.
    WE can find many people doing extraordinary thing with all types of foldingBikes. Myself I did a Tour of Spain with a Strida LT and other 10 Transports, but I see many adventures around the world with this type of bikes, if not see what people with a Bike friday does in the US, or in singapore with a Brompton.
    Don´t put a limit to your Dreams, the bikes don´t do.

  8. Paul says:

    I own a Tikit. I did a test ride/fold of a Brompton at the same time I made my purchase. Except for folded size and that whole icon thing, I had a really hard time seeing the appeal of of the Brompton. Two shifters for 6 gears? Fiddling with the seating position on each fold? Cheap looking proprietary parts?

    I don’t begrudge people liking their Bromptons, and you are right, that fold is really nicely compact for a bike this “normal” feeling. But please, stop acting like it beats all competition on all fronts. It has some pretty significant downsides that some of the competition has done an excellent job of addressing, while Brompton and it’s fans has done an excellent job of making excuses.

    I’m glad you like your Brompton for what you need. For what I need, my Tikit is better. I hope you can except that without trying to sell me on imaginary qualities I was clearly unable to see on my test ride.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      @Paul Who’s acting like the Brompton beats all competition on all fronts? Nobody here has written anything like that–at least not recently. (There are probably at least 1000 posts on CbB that I’ve never read, from before my involvement with the site.)

      Oh. Said acting, not writing. Are you stalking me?

      You are dead on when you say, for what you need vs. for what I need. In fact, you are anticipating a post that we will be publishing before too long.

  9. Paul says:

    Ok, ya got me, I didn’t read anything where anyone literally said the Brompton was better in all ways. However, the posts and attitudes of Brompton supporters very regularly glosses over the downsides of the Brompton, ignores the upsides of the competition, and plasters labels like “superior” without, well, any justification.

    Your article, though it seemed a bit reluctant to do so, appeared to fall into the same trap. You soft-pedaled the negatives and focused on the iconography. Lets face it, if the Strida would have had the exact same 6-speed gearing arrangement as the Brompton, you would have let them have it, especially when several competing folding bikes have simple shifting covering a much wider range. But it has only the most cursory hint of a negative in your article. Similarly, several other negatives are mentioned and neatly shunted aside. Why not just call a negative what it is, a negative?

    If this were a collectors item, I’d get your point about it being an icon, and I’d expect you to be kind to it’s deficiencies. But it’s not. The name Brompton may be old, but the bike your readers will buy is brand new, and it’s being reviewed on a site called “Commute by Bike.” I expect a practical review that takes into account the capabilities of similar bikes on the market. Instead I got the Sex Pistols. That’s exactly the kind of disconnect I felt when I rode the Brompton and had a lot to do with why I passed it by for the competitor.

    • Ted Johnson says:

      @Paul

      Just stay tuned. We have two folding bike reviews ahead–the Strida and the Bike Friday Tikit, and then we’ll follow up with general overview of folding bikes.

      The point of this article is that Brompton set a high bar, and catalyzed a lot of innovation in the industry.

      Personally, I think the Tikit rides much better than the Brompton. The ride is only one factor–albeit one of the most important factors.

      Take a look at my first Brompton post:
      http://www.commutebybike.com/2011/03/22/me-and-mrs-brompton/
      It may not satisfy you that we are being completely objective about Brompton bikes, but at least one Brompton fan was unhappy with it.

      Here’s a recent post that includes the Brompton and the Tikit, and two other folders:
      http://www.commutebybike.com/2011/05/12/flashy-folds-its-a-bike-not-a-party-trick/

      Thanks for reading and for your comments.

  10. Paul says:

    Thanks for the links. Even though I might have liked something a little different here, it’s clear that you care about the subject and have some healthy objectivity about it. I look forward to reading the future articles.

    Thanks,
    Paul

  11. simundo123 says:

    You obviously want a brompton, but bought the wrong one

  12. sam says:

    You’re right, it is an icon. Now if only it folded down smaller so it could fit into my pocket; that illustration practically begs for it.

    I used to have a Brompton (google ‘Sacred Folding Cow’), but eventually went the way of Dahon. Don’t have an iPhone. Try to avoid even looking at them, though like Jimmy Carter, I have known lust in my heart.

  13. Jake Agnew says:

    “For example, Strida tries pathetically to strike at the heart of Brompton.”

    Oh, pulease. These are bicycles not some childish silliness about which football team you support.

    Both of these are good bikes, and are devised to satisfy different needs and uses. Use whichever one suits your needs best.

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