The fiendishly clever Brompton bicycle

There are folding bicycles.

Then there is the folding bicycle that will fit in the overhead bin on an airliner. 

Those who witness for the first time the origami trick that is a Brompton being deployed or un-deployed invariably exclaim in astonishment. An ancient Navajo gentleman on a sidewalk in Flagstaff, regal in several pounds of silver and turquoise jewelry, stopped to watch me like I was some street magician as I collapsed my new Brompton to carry it into a shop. The process, which I’ve not yet mastered, took me perhaps 20 seconds. When I finished and picked up the bike by its saddle/handle, he looked at me for a minute, then, in that deadpan Navajo drawl, pronounced, “Well, you can’t do that with a horse.”

The Brompton is the brainchild of Andrew Ritchie, who could also be described as a pioneer of crowd funding. With the downturn of the cycling boom in the late 1970s, he could find no commercial backing for his folding bicycle concept, so he pursuaded 30 people to pay him retail for a bike that did not yet exist, with the understanding that if the company were successful, he would refund their investment, leaving each with a free bike. Every backer was paid back in full, and Brompton is now the largest manufacturer of bicycles (of any type) in England. 

Notice I wrote in England, because every Brompton is still built in the factory in West London. The frames are brazed by hand by specialists trained in house for up to 18 months, and each of whom stamps his or her initials on the finished product. CNC milling machines produce other bespoke parts, and final assembly creates one of what the company claims is up to four million permutations, depending on gearing (one, two, three, or six speeds are available), handlebar choice, color (144 combinations), and innumerable rack and luggage options up to and including a pukka canvas-and-leather front satchel by Chapman—also hand made in England.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

The Brompton next to an "ordinary" (and excellent) folding bicycle, the Montague. The front wheel on the Montague must be removed before folding. The Brompton's wheels fold with it and enclose the drivetrain to prevent you getting dirty while carrying it.

While I’ve known about the company for years, we finally found the justification to spring for one on our last trip to Australia. Town-bound for several days while the Land Cruiser was being serviced, we needed exercise. Roseann runs but I can’t. We needed to shop for incidentals, and the town was large enough to require a rental car. Both issues would be eliminated with a bicycle small enough to store inside or on the roof of the Troopy. So once back in Sydney we visited the excellent, quirky Omafiets bicycle shop. One look at the folded Bromptons displayed in nooks on shelves was enough to nearly convince us; watching one of the employees—herself a Brompton owner—perform the origami trick in about ten seconds further convinced us, and a short ride was the clincher. (Watch here for a genuine pro Brompton folder.)

There was just one complication: After riding the Brompton around a bit, Roseann mused, “Hmm . . . maybe we need two?” It made perfect sense—with two we could bop around towns without wielding the bulky Troopy through traffic, and a pair would still easily ride on the roof in the compact, bespoke hard cases available for them. We decided to leave the green example we bought in Sydney with friends, and buy another back in the U.S. so I’d have time to play with it before shipping it with us on the next trip to Oz. Thus, from the folding specialists PortaPedal Bike in Tempe, Arizona, we picked up the second, this one in the total-Brompton-geek “Raw Lacquer” finish that leaves the brass brazing visible on the frame. 

So what’s it like to ride with those small 16-inch wheels? My friend Bruce summed it up perfectly: “Just like the difference between a motorcycle and a scooter.” Those who point out the “compromises” in the Brompton’s handling—which can be described as either “responsive” or “twitchy,” depending on your attitude, are missing the point. The Brompton is essentially a different genus of bicycle. Complaining about its characteristics would be like complaining because a non-folding bicycle (or any other folding bike of which I’m aware) wouldn’t fit in that overhead locker. 

In fact, it’s a blast to pedal. The riding position is no different from a standard bicycle; people do long-distance touring on these things. The same physics that make the steering so quick—low rotational inertia—also make acceleration zippy. As a result of both you can really scoot around in tight quarters. The high-pressure tires don’t absorb much impact, and given their diameter you need to be cautious to cross railroad and trolley trackes at a right angle, but the rear suspension block helps make the ride surprisingly comfortable. The only limitation in my experience so far is dirt roads and trails that aren’t very well-packed. You’ll sink. This is an urban machine.

The front rack mount accepts all sorts of bags, from small Ortlieb handlebar bags to satchels large enough for grocery shopping. And, cunningly, when half-folded the Brompton becomes its own shopping cart, with the front bag mounted and the bike riding on the small wheels of the rear rack. Aftermarket companies sell larger versions of these wheels to make this even easier.

Ah, the accessories. The international Brompton community can fairly be described as “enthusiastic,” from the universe of custom carbon-fiber and titanium parts to replace the standard items, to the famous Brompton World Championship: a race held in the UK during which all entrants must conform to a strict dress code (think bow ties, tuxedos, period military garb . . .). The lightweight parts have the practical benefit of reducing the already reasonable weight of the Brompton for ease of handling and carrying. Some are affordable and whittle away minutely at the total, or you can go insane and order such things as a complete carbon-fiber front clip and stem for around $1700, instantly doubling the price of the bike and knocking off a whole pound.

I’m leery of the term “lifestyle,” yet there is a sort of captivating aura around a bicycle you can pedal to a cafe, then fold up and carry inside. Every time I take my raw-lacquered Brompton out I feel like I should really be dressed in knickers, a black turtleneck, and a beret. For all its undeniable practicality, its the fun of a Brompton that makes it worth every cent.

And then there's all that hay and oats you don't have to buy.

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

The Brompton next to a modest 31-inch-tall BFG

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

Among many aftermarket options is this excellent, wheeled hard case.

And what's this in the top tube?

And what's this in the top tube?

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches. 

A clever, rattle-free (optional) tool kit held in with a magnet. It includes tire levers and patches.