The Folding Society

Discovering Brompton

By James Langdon

I have been an L3 owner for only about 4 months, buying the bike to coincide with new work arrangements. I've worked from home as a freelance graphic designer for over 6 months now, and my work involves frequent trips to printers, clients and other suppliers that are very costly and time consuming by bus. The trip into Birmingham from Smethwick can take anything up to an hour during busy times and once there several errands across town could take another hour or more on foot.

I first encountered folding bikes whilst on holiday in San Francisco, and upon returning I began using the internet to research them to see if they might be the answer to my transport problems. Through The Folding Society website I discovered Brompton and after a test ride at Harborne Cycle Surgery I decided to order an L3.

The bike has been an absolute revelation, making a real difference to my day to day life and work. Using the New Mainline towpath I can be in the centre of Birmingham in 20 minutes at any time of day, and across the city in less than 10 minutes from one appointment to another. Of course as well as getting me about quickly the bike provides exercise and stimulation for the body which is the perfect foil for time spent at a computer screen. And there is the satisfaction and independence that cycling brings, and the chance to see the city afresh. In these last months, whilst experimenting with routes on the towpaths and back-streets I have seen some amazing parts of the city which I was previously unfamiliar with.

My only practical concern has been the weight. With very intense use, carrying the bike by my side from meeting to meeting is a shoulder-straining task. After about 6 weeks my confidence in riding meant I was using it more and more and I began to feel that the weight factor alone was stopping me from fully realising the potential of the bike to meet my needs. Seeing the new range announced I was very excited but initially disappointed that I had purchased the L3 just as the lightweight bikes were being introduced. I hesitantly began to justify to myself the expense of another bike. It is a considerable amount of money, and not having a steady income I had to take the decision very seriously. I am not a car owner, however, and having just completed one of my first major commissions as a freelancer I let the excitement at what a light bike could mean get the better of me.

Specifying the bike

Looking at Brompton's new range I was pleased to see the ALC option and set about considering exactly how to shed as much weight as possible and researching online other users' modifications and custom-builds. I decided to configure the new bike purely on the basis of its main intended use - fair weather mostly flat commuting. This logic made the first few decisions for me - all the titanium, the S bars and an E specification without mudguards.

The gearing was the other area that required some consideration. My canal routes are by their nature largely flat. In this context the L3 is ridden almost exclusively in gears 2 & 3, and my approach to the short to medium climbs I encounter around town is to stay in high gear and ride out of the saddle. I was very interested by Steve Parry's single speed SP and another Japanese single speed that I found at (but does it fold?). With this in mind, and having researched the relative ratios using AtoB magazine issue 47 I felt confident enough to specify the single speed gearing, reasoning that the 2 speed would only get me a lower gear rather than a lower and a higher, and this would be lower than 2nd on the L3 and as such far less useful for me.

First impressions of the bike

There was a wait of over 5 weeks for the bike (3-4 weeks was estimated at the time of the order), apparently due to problems with Customs. When the phone call finally came I was bursting with excitement about riding the new machine.

I had anticipated that the weight saving would be major, around 2.5 - 3kg from my L3, and as described above it was when carrying the bike that I hoped to feel the difference. When first lifting the folded bike from the box I must admit I was a little disappointed: the initial feel was not as different as I'd hoped. I think my expectations were a little too high. Of course a sub-9kg bike is still basically a heavy object to hold in one hand.

On the day that the bike arrived it was raining constantly, so there was only chance for a brief spin back from the bike shop. The timing was perfect though: I was to be in London the next day, travelling by train and planning to take the L3. With a reasonable forecast and just one appointment I thought I would take the new bike along, forget the tube and spend the day on a tour of some of London's contemporary art galleries, catching up with friends and familiarising myself with the new bike.

That evening I performed a few minor modifications, including swapping the Brompton saddle. I have a Selle Italia SLR which I had been planning to use for its light weight but having fitted it and taken a ride around the block I immediately fitted the Brooks Ti from my L3. It may be a little heavier but is far better suited to the Brompton riding position.

A first adventure

This was quite an intense introduction for the new bike. Having ridden to and from New Street Station along my normal towpath route and perhaps 20 or 30 miles around London, my impressions of it are now pretty well formed. I rode from Euston to The Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, then on to Camden Arts Centre, The Photographers' Gallery in Covent Garden and across the river to Tate Modern before returning to Euston amongst much commuter traffic in the evening. The Serpentine and The Photographers' Gallery wouldn't allow me to leave the bike at their front desks so I also did a fair amount of carrying.

The performance of the bike has really exceeded all of my expectations. In specifying the single gear I was anticipating that I would compromise a little of the flat speed of the L3. As soon as I had ridden the new bike to the station in the morning I realised that I would easily be able to make up for this with the overall stiffness and responsiveness of the bike to effort. The ratio is perfect and top speed doesn't feel restrictive at all in the context of the kind of city travel that I do. Whilst riding amongst traffic I found that if I needed a momentary acceleration to pass a stopping bus, a tuck and a short burst of intense pedalling produced incredible results even from a fairly quick basic speed. I should mention that I ride Schwalbe Marathons as they really reward effort on the towpaths, so I imagine that the results I experienced on the streets of London would only be enhanced by the Stelvios that Brompton are offering on the lightweight bikes.

The ride of the titanium in combination with the narrow straight bars is much more directional and the rigid structure of the bike responds to effort more cleanly. The titanium feels absorbent but also very taut and strong. Because of this (and the absence of mudguards, which I realise wouldn't be a satisfactory option for many users) the bike takes bumps in the road much more smoothly. Riding over cobbles on the L3 tends to create rattling noise and a bumpy ride, but on the single speed it is smoother and sounds somehow more reassuring. The lower handlebars also give a far better position for riding out of the saddle: on the hills I feel much more aerodynamically tucked into position than I do on the L3. I feel it is also worth mentioning that these bars look much better in the flesh than in photographs. When reproduced they seem to look a little like tubing off-cuts, but in reality they have a subtle contour that gives them more bulk in the centre where they are mounted. The grips are also an improvement on the standard L3 ones.

My only gripe would be that amongst these vastly improved components the chainset really does stand out . In my research I noted the effect Steve Parry's addition of a Shimano chainset was described as having on his single speed, but it seems a shame to have to invalidate the Brompton warranty just to get the best from their own developments to the bike. To me it feels odd that such a critical component is not offered with optional improvements on the ALC menu. I will definitely consider an upgrade in the future as finances allow.

Of course, I must mention carrying the bike, which was after all the reason for seeking a lightweight machine in the first place. The only thing I can say is I barely noticed it. On escalators I just picked the unfolded bike up and rested the saddle on my shoulder unsupported (which I would never do with the L3), whilst in galleries I folded and carried it at my side (the absence of mudguards makes it much easier to get a good grip around the main frame which helps enormously). A few days later I picked up the L3 to move it into the cellar for temporary storage and was amazed at the weight difference going back from carrying the single speed. As I mention above the new bike is still a heavy object, but I feel satisfied that the weight savings Brompton have made are very meaningful in that they allow me to have exactly what I wanted - a bike that it is truly easy to have with me at all times. 

Final thought

I hope that these improvements will help Brompton to expand their market in the way they aspire to. I was interested to read AtoB's comments about the "iPod generation" in issue 47, and the general concern seems to be that there may not be a new generation of enthusiasts emerging to continue the development of folding bike culture, or more broadly speaking, a culture of alternatives to car-based transport. I hope this won't turn out to be true. Whilst perhaps not quite a member of the generation AtoB refers to, I am under 30 and very interested in design and the environment. I have used an iPod for years and I think that what has made that particular design concept so successful is its remarkable convenience and its desirability. The fact that it has had such a massive impact on reducing the resources used in the distribution of music appears almost incidental. In that sense the appeal of the folding bike is very similar from my point of view, and to me the new developments in design that Brompton are introducing can only make the bikes more and more appealing.

Many of my friends and work colleagues are completely fascinated by my bike. I don't yet think I have actually convinced any of them to think seriously about riding one themselves, but I am working on it!

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Copyright (C)2005 James Langdon
Last updated: 13 July 2005