My Brompton in 2015

Most people think of the Brompton as being unsuitable as a long-distance bicycle.  However, Brompton owners the world over would disagree: certainly for touring, the Brompton is a superb machine, because it is so inherently compatible with all modes of additional transport: you just fold it up and throw it into the boot of a car or taxi, or in the overhead storage on a train, or the luggage rack of a bus or coach.

Audax, however, is different in that it does have a time-limit, and you aren't allowed to use any other form of transport during the event itself.  Getting to the start is significantly easier, though!

When I'm out riding long-distance on my Brompton, I get asked several questions over:

  • Why?
  • Is it a standard Brompton?
  • Are there any custom parts on it?
  • Is it hard to ride?
  • How many gears does it have?
  • Does it still fold?
  • Is it comfortable?
  • Are you mad?!

If I was in the position of asking questions, these would probably be the questions I would ask.

Why?

In many ways, this is both easy and hard to answer.  The easy answer is that when I found audax at the end of 2012, the Brompton was my only bike.  The answer gets a little harder when I admit that my wife wanted to buy me a full-size bike for Christmas that year, but I refused: once I had started the season on the Brompton (audax seasons are October to September) then I churlishly wanted to complete it on the B: probably a bit silly, but I fancied the challenge.  And a little notoriety in the audax community isn't such a bad thing.

Is it a standard Brompton?

In the way of these things: yes, it's a standard build.  And no, it's a custom build.  Um …

My Brompton is now quite old: the basic bike is an S6L model from 2008, serviced and repaired many times to keep it on the road.  What 'S6L' means is:

  • 'S' — it's the straight handlebar, which gives a lower, sportier position on the bike over the traditional 'M' bar.  The S-type has become extremely popular since its introduction by the company back in 2007.
  • '6' — it's the six-speed: the SRAM 3-speed hub-gear paired with the two-speed, Brompton-custom derailleur.
  • 'L' — lacking the rack: the rack weighs nearly 1kg and I had no use for it at a time (and still don't, really).

In addition, I selected the following factory-fit options:

  • The Easy-Wheels option:  which replaces the usual plastic rollers with much larger, rubber-tyred wheels that you can use to roll the part-folded bike around shopping centres and stations and the like.
  • The +8% option:  the standard bike comes with a 50-tooth chainring (there's only a single chainring on a Brompton); with the +8% option the bike is delivered with a 54-tooth chainring, for which you need bigger thighs!
  • Luggage block:  with this item bolted to the front of the bike it's possible to drop any of the range of Brompton-compatible luggage onto the bike in literally one second!  It's great.  I commuted for several years with the S-type bag on the front, containing jeans and a shirt wink

This all against a black paint job: I like bikes that hide rather than stand out.

Are there any custom parts on it?

Since owning the bike, I've made a few necessary adjustments to it.  It has taken several years of trying different things to determine what works and what doesn't for me — other people may have different requirements from their bike and equipment.  My modifications can be roughly grouped into comfort, lighting, gears, and everything else.

I'll probably write these up in their own individual posts at some point, so other Brompton owners can see how I've done it.

Comfort mods

  • Bar ends:  I've fitted bar ends to the straight bars to give myself multiple hand positions, because the alternative is bruising nerves in my hands and suffering from numb, tingly fingers — this is a problem for all cyclists on all bike-types on long-distance rides.  Bar ends help mitigate this on the Brompton.
  • Sports pedals:  I removed the foldable pedals and fitted clipless ones instead: Shimano mountain-bike SPD pedals.  I've ridden SPDs since 1995 and absolutely love them; I fitted them to the Brompton within a week of delivery.  And using mountain-bike pedals means mountain-bike shoes: the difference between MTB shoes and road shoes is that you can actually walk in MTB shoes!
  • Leather saddle:  I fitted a Brooks B17 Imperial saddle: the B17 is the classic audax saddle, because the leather becomes fitted over time and is very comfortable and nowhere near as painful as a plastic racing saddle; remember that we may be sitting on it for many days on end.  The Imperial version of the B17 has a hole in the middle to reduce pressure on the perineum; the alternative — and believe me when I say that this is from experience! — is a worrying period of erectile dysfunction after a long ride, and so my wife made me change to a holey saddle …facepalm

Lighting mods

  • Dynamo hub:  I fitted the optional, but very standard Shimano dynamo hub front wheel by Brompton.
  • Dynamo lights:  I fitted a Busch & Müller Luxos IQ2 U dynamo-driven front lamp paired with a B&M Topline Stop Light rear light and reflector: the standard Brompton lights are okay, but the B&M IQ2 U light is a brilliantly bright and well-shaped beam and I can ride at speed in the dark, which is invaluable when I'm out in the middle of Wales on a night ride, as there is literally zero street lighting.  It also provides USB-charging on the bike, making it ideal for audax rides, which may take a couple of days, so charging GPS units and phones is really important!
  • Battery lights:  I usually have a battery-powered front light at handlebar height, and a battery rear light at saddle height (which is also a UK-legal rear reflector) to augment the dynamo lights, which are quite close to the ground — I want to be properly seen. I often have a third, blinky rear light halfway between the other two to make sure that nobody has any excuses as to whether they saw me or not!

Custom gearing

  • Hill-climbing gears:  In 2013 I replaced the close-range SRAM gear-hub with Brompton BWR wide-range gear-hub — a revelation in the hills of Wales!  There are big jumps between the gears, though.
  • Gears for the flat:  And in 2015 I made the following big alteration to the bike: I took the innards out of the BWR and replaced them with the innards of a new, standard-ratio rear hub (with some swapping of other parts plus a new 15T sprocket), giving me a close-range 6-speed smile  There can't be too many of these around, as you start with two rear wheels and finish with just one.  You do get a spare rim and spokes for the shelf, though — Brompton rims last about 5-8,000km, so it will get used fairly soon.

Other additions

  • T-bar extension on the handlebar:  there isn't enough room on the handlebar to fit a GPS, speedo and extra front light, so I fitted an extension bar for those.
  • Pump:  I've removed the pump, which is usually mounted in the rear triangle.  I always carry CO2 for a quick inflate, as well as a compact pump in my bag.  Having destroyed several of the standard pumps when they came unclipped on rough surfaces, it's not worth the risk that I'll break it just before I need it.
  • Luggage:  I've hand built up my own Carradice front bag, which is custom, I've never seen it done by anyone else (but it probably has been);  this is worthy of an article of its own.  I also have a standard Carradice rear bag, with a Bagman to stop it swinging around too much.  And a Topeak tri-bag on the main-tube for sweets or peanuts or the like while I'm riding along.
  • GPS:  I've added a GPS — it's a few years old now, but it works as well as ever.  The GPS just clips onto a bracket on the T-bar.  However, I've also fitted the Wahoo ANT+ wheel and cadence sensor, so I get more accurate speed measurements as well as pedal-cadence measurements.  I wear a chest strap, too, so I can watch my heart-rate while I'm riding.
  • Speedo:  I've also fitted a separate wireless speedo to the bike as a backup in case the GPS dies — it did die once, 300km into a 600km event, but I just dropped back to the speedo and paper routesheet to complete the ride.
  • Black mudguards:  Because they go faster? … Actually, they just look smart, and I ruined the stock silver ones in a folding accident facepalm

The bike weighs about 14kg, which is significantly heavier than a stock Brompton — the saddle, lights and some baggage bits increase the weight.  The bags are nearly 6kg when full, and water a further 1.5kg, so it's somewhere around 22kg fully laden.  That sounds like a lot, but unless you're used to riding lightweight racing bikes, you don't really know the difference.

Is it hard to ride?

The answer to this is relative to your point of view.  Compared to a singlespeed or fixie then, no, it's not that hard.  Compared to a 7kg carbon racing bike with no luggage then yes, it's hard to ride: it's heavy, it doesn't have many gears to choose from, there's no dropped position out of the wind, the rolling resistance is huge, and it's very twitchy.

Regardless of how hard it is to ride, the important thing is that it really is fun: the twitchiness means you always feel in touch with the bike — racing bikes feel quite dull by comparison.  And it's a real conversation starter, even if that goes along the lines "are you mad?" …

And anyway, once you're on the bike you just have to keep turning the pedals.  You only really notice it's hard into a headwind and when climbing steep hills.

How many gears does it have?

Six.  Many folks think it's a single-speed or has three gears, but it's actually six.  They are close-range, from 46-inch to about 79-inch.  The other rear-wheel has the proper BWR ratios, which range from 34" to about 107", which is good for climbing 1-in-3 hills and then up to 80kph/50mph down the other side!

Does it still fold?

Yes it still folds: the only things that have to be moved are the t-bar on the handlebar and the mirror on the main tube, but they only have to be rotated out of the way rather than removed.  However, the left pedal doesn't fold, so it's not quite as small a folded package as a factory-delivered Brompton.

I wouldn't want to fold it every day, though: the baggage, USB cables, mirrors and other bits make it a bit of a faff to do quickly, so this is no longer 'commuter spec', but it does fold quickly enough to, say, take the Eurostar. 

I haven't had to fold it for a month or two now.

Is it comfortable?

Yes, it is surprisingly comfortable.  I spent last year (2014) on a full-size bike and hardly rode the Brompton at all, but when I leapt back onto it in October then it felt like putting on a favourite pair of slippers.

Are you mad?!

Possibly, although not as mad as people think. 

The Brompton is comfortable and practical.  It's not particularly quick, but the rides I undertake aren't based on speed but getting around within the time limit (which is fairly generous).

You must consider it in the context of what some (a very few) other people ride: fixed-wheel, trikes, Pashley shoppers, 110-year-old two-speeds, etc., and then it's clearly not as mad as all that.

Nick Wilkinson

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