Brompton Review: Ugly Duckling to Design Icon

The first time I saw someone riding a Brompton back in the 90s I have to say that I thought it was a joke. It was the antithesis of the skinny steel road bikes that I loved. Tiny wheels, silly handlebars and an upright riding position went against all the aesthetics I thought I knew and loved.

But, while this eccentric looking folding bike has pretty much stayed the same since its invention in 1986, it’s no longer laughed at. In fact it’s become a design icon and no more so than in the Far East where a love for British design and innovation knows no bounds.

  Marginal gains at the London Nocturne

Marginal gains at the London Nocturne

But I‘d still never ridden one other than taking a work colleague’s pride and joy for a spin around the car park. And everyone I spoke to who had one was absolutely fanatical about the bike, the brand, its looks. Well, Brompton very kindly offered me the chance to borrow one and find out what the fuss is all about.

Having been given a tour of the factory which was impressive in itself, my guide, Nick, presented me with a no frills grey and blue one with M type handlebars that looked like it had been lent out quite a few times. Okay, so it wasn’t the fancy chrome version that had caught my eye earlier, but it was still the real thing.

Before you ride it the first step is obviously to learn how to fold and unfold the thing. It’s easy if you follow the five steps in the right order but I have to confess that, being somewhat cack-handed and hopeless at sequencing anything, it took me a bit of practice. Arriving for a meeting at a café one day, I was the subject of much amusement as I struggled for a full five minutes in the street.

  Can I have the shiny one please?

Can I have the shiny one please?

However, several embarrassing incidents later, I found that I was a dab hand and would nonchalantly assemble or disassemble it in a matter of seconds. In fact I dare say I became slightly smug about it and began to take a hitherto unfound geeky interest in its design and workings.

There’s something incredibly Heath Robinson about its whole make-up. You can almost see inventor Andrew Ritchie’s brain at work as he added, adapted and refined his design. I just love those chunky bolts that hold it together. Simple and effective!

I even worked out a way of keeping the handlebars up so I could drag it along its rollers that are neatly attached to the mudguard. You may need to do this from time to time, because while the Brompton folds up neatly, there’s no getting away from the fact that it weighs a fair bit. Living on the fourth floor without a lift I found it easier to carry it in its assembled rather than in its folded form.

  Not a Tory voter

Not a Tory voter

So what about riding it? It’s a bit of a funny and wobbly feeling to begin with, but after a few pedal strokes at a decent speed you soon get a hang of its handling. It’s at slow speeds that it’s shaky, but get a bit of momentum and it you find you’ve got a stupid grin plastered all over your face.

I’d probably prefer to have flat bars which, not only look better, but give a less upright riding position. But it’s certainly comfortable and you can manouevre it through tiny gaps and tight turns in and around the traffic.

My version had three gears in a Sturmey Archer hub that have a high or low setting, so that’s six in total I guess. The lowest gear was great for negotiating the Brighton hills with ease and the top gear had me just about keeping up with MAMILs in the bike lane on the flat. There’s something pretty satisfying about gliding long at 20 mph when you’re wearing normal clothes on a fold up bike while everyone else is clipping in and out of pedals at the lights in their sweaty lycra.

Former racing cyclist David Millar recently told us how he and Ned Boulting always take a pair of Bromptons with them as they trawl around the country for their Tour de France commentary on ITV4. It gives them the chance to get some riding in without attaching road bikes to the roof of the car and they’ve climbed and descended mountains and explored towns and cities in a way they could never do otherwise.

  Millar and Boulting get some serious cycling at the Tour on their Bromptons

Millar and Boulting get some serious cycling at the Tour on their Bromptons

In their everyday clothes, serious cyclists laugh at this pair on their silly folding bikes, and openly ridicule them, not knowing that the tall one is a former wearer of the hallowed yellow jersey! Boulting told us that they once misjudged the distance to their commentary position and he had to draft behind Millar who went into his full Time Trial Tuck as they desperately sought to get there on time. That I would love to have seen!

In fact this wouldn’t be the first time that Millar has had to employ his racing skills on a Brompton. Last July saw him compete in the Brompton World Championships in central London with the likes of former British TT champion, Michael Hutchinson, or Dr Hutch as he’s known. And there was some thrilling racing on the tight criterium circuit of the Rapha Nocturne recently.

  The winner of the folding bike race at this year's Rapha Nocturne

The winner of the folding bike race at this year's Rapha Nocturne

So, yes, it is possible to go quite fast on a Brompton, but it’s the practicality of the bike that really got me. No longer having to apologise for hefting in a full size bike into a narrow hallway when arriving at friend’s house was a revelation. Taking it on the train induced even higher levels of smugness as everyone else descended down to the smelly and crowded tube at Victoria while I headed for the fresh spring air. And popping into town for a coffee no longer requires having to rummage around for a bike lock or looking for somewhere to park.

Having had a few weeks with it, I think I may be evolving into one of those Brompton geeks, preaching its virtues and proselytizing its genius. And like many a religious convert who becomes even more fastidious about The Word than those born into it, I too have begun to preach with excessive fanaticsm. I apologise. But, what a bike! Everyone must have one!