A Brompt reply

Imagine your bike. Now imagine your bike after being hit and run over by, say, a bus. You’ve just imagined a folded-up Brompton.

This line of thinking goes some way to explaining the odd looks I got as I carried a folding bike around Inverness last week. At the time, I just presumed the good folk of the Highland capital were stunned at the sight of someone using a form of pedal power other than a rusty Halfords Apollo mountain bike. But the more I reflect on it, the more it seems the people of Inverness genuinely believed I was walking around carrying the mangled wreckage of my bicycle under my arm. It would certainly explain why the barista in Starbucks was so nice to me. Poor chap probably thought I’d just had some kind of massive accident and was still in shock or denial.

I borrowed a Brompton folding bicycle last week to help on a couple of days where I had to run errands that traversed the surprisingly large geographical spread of Inverness. With Inverness not really being designed for lengthy travel on foot or rapid travel by bus, a folding bike would aid my progress and allow me to complete in a matter of hours tasks that would otherwise take all day – I thought.

The plan was simple. Put Brompton on bus. Ride from rural village to town by bus. Take Brompton off bus and assemble. Cycle around doing stuff. Fold up Brompton, get back on bus and go home. I hit the first snag before I’d even reached the bus, because this super-convenient, icon of good design folding bike turned out to be bloody heavy to carry. I had to stop and rest twice in the three hundred or so metres between my folks’ house and the bus stop, and I’m not the flimsiest or weakest of guys. And before you ask, three hundred meters is just too short a distance for which to warrant constructing and dismantling a bike.

Folded flat - not been hit by a bus

I hauled the folded bike onto the bus and slung it onto the luggage rack. Fully folded, the Brompton measures about 60cm by 60 cm by 30 cm – mightily impressive, but given the weight of the thing I wouldn’t want to store it anywhere high lest it came loose from its moorings and knocked an unsuspecting citizen unconscious. It sat in the luggage rack for the rest of the journey, undisturbed save for a few looks from concerned passengers who were trying to figure out if it was a new-fangled piece of technology or just a morbid bit of roadkill the driver was keeping for posterity.

In Inverness, I heaved the Brompton off the bus and dragged it over to a quiet corner of a car park for assembly. As the thing looked simple enough, I hadn’t bothered myself to do a dry run of putting it up then taking it down. In any case, three diagrams looking rather like disfigured Audi logos showed how to take the bike from fully folded to fully opened form. I opened the first fastener, pulled the seat up then closed it again. The handlebars came away smartly out of the plastic clip that held them to the frame, pivoted on a hinge into an upright position and were then locked in position with a natty metal clamp. How to get the wheels out though? The back wheel, in the storage position, rested on top of a metal platform that didn’t seem to be for moving. My question was answered a rather too quickly, however, when I lifted the half-erected bicycle for a better look. The back wheel, chain and gear assembly swung downwards and was now accelerating at my crotch region. I stepped swiftly to the side (a wise move given the weight of the thing) just in time to see a big magnetic bolt clunk into a rest behind the seat pole. The whole assembly rotated round, with the steel bars that previously allowed the bike to be stored on the ground now forming a luggage tray complete with elasticated ties.

An unfolded Brompton

With most of the bike now up and running, all that was left was to fold out the left pedal, pivot the front wheel assembly round on its hinge and tighten a clever clamp to hold it in place. I don’t need to say that the last thing to do is to turn the handlebars round so that the wheel is pointing the right way, because only a really stupid person would nearly come a cropper after forgetting to do that…

Bike up and helmet on, I set off to take on whatever the burghers of Inverness could throw at me. The unique construction of the Brompton gives it an interesting but very comfortable riding position, something akin to that of a sit-up-and-beg bicycle. The handlebars curve upwards before turning out, sitting level or perhaps higher than the seat. The tiny wheels give a reasonably smooth ride, with six different gears to aid progress on moderate inclines. Aside from the realization that the bike on which you are traveling looks utterly ludicrous and that every second passer-by will soil themselves with laughter as soon as you’re out of sight, riders of regular bikes may also find the distance down to the wheels and the lack of a top bar on the frame slightly disconcerting. It’s as if all of the important bits of the bike are way down at your ankles, and you’re stuck way out up top with only the seat and the handlebars for company. Funny, that, because that’s pretty much how the Brompton is when it’s set up.

Peeling off the road, through an alley, down to the river and across a bridge, I made swift progress on the Brompton. Its size made for easy movement between and round obstacles, although the fact I was way up top on my own made me a little uneasy riding over water – the bike’s appearance made its centre of gravity seem higher than it probably was, leaving me with the sensation that if the wheels were to come out from underneath, me and me alone would be pitched off into the River Ness, never to be seen again.

The Brompton sailed gracefully along the river – thankfully on a road with me still in the saddle, not floating downstream with my helmet bobbing alongside it, bubbles rising ominously to the surface. This folding bicycle compressed journeys previously taking almost an hour into a matter of minutes, but it wasn’t all plain sailing. Upon reaching what could at a stretch be described as a barely visible incline, I found myself rifling down through the gears, having to work hard to keep the 10p-sized wheels moving forwards. It was difficult to see the logic of how the gear selector levers worked. A press on either of the right or the left selectors would give a gear of apparently random ratio, sometimes higher, sometimes lower depending on the sequence in which the switches were flicked. I’d been told by the bike’s owner (my old man) that there were six gears, but there appeared to be a ‘high’ gear and a ‘low’ one with variations on each.

I proceeded best I could in what I termed Gear 3c, changing down to somewhere around 1b for a really steep hill on the way back at Ness Bank. It was here that a limitation of the Brompton became clear. Whilst the folding machine was fine for cruising around on the flat, it wasn’t really built for taking on the kind of persistent and regular inclines that are a feature of most Scottish towns. To make matters worse, getting out of the saddle and pumping has only limited effect when you’re turning wheels with the diameter of a Staedtler pencil. Hills, in short, take a lot of time and a lot of effort on a Brompton.

The flip-side of going up a nasty incline, on a circular journey at least, is that you get a big downhill section to hoon down later on. And so it was that, once I cycled through the green light and turned left onto Castle Street, I could hear the opening strings from Ride of the Valkyries kicking in in my head as the ludicrous-looking bicycle beneath me gathered speed and proceeded in the direction of Inverness Town House. Spotting a gap in the traffic I jinked right onto the pedestrianised High Street (which, before you ask, is a designated cycle route), the diners in McDonalds glancing up from their Egg McMuffins to see a small funny-looking man on an even smaller, funnier-looking bike leaning into the turn at a thirty-degree angle and threading his bizarre wheeled machine through the bollards.

Next to encounter and pass comment on the machine was a jakey, who in-between incomprehensible syllables managed to squeeze out the noun ‘bike’. He was clearly sharp and switched-on enough to realise that (a) I was not riding a normal bicycle, and (b) that the unusual nature of my bike was sufficient to warrant some kind of verbal response. The residual speed carried over from Castle Street Doppler-shifted his rantings as I freewheeled past, creating an sound kind of like ‘gngrye-bike-y-c-n-j..a…t’ before I disappeared out of earshot and he went on his way to verbally abuse a fellow vagrant.

In fact, the speed the bike carried, even after several obese shoppers that pushed Newtonian theories of momentum and inertia to their limits had been negotiated, was such that I was still going full steam by the time I approached the Eastgate centre. A tactical left-turn onto Inglis Street caused further chaos by startling a trio of birds of prey that were being displayed out of the back of a van, forcing a retreat into Costa to prevent my eyeballs from getting pecked out.

Buzzards placated, I emerged from the coffee house several minutes later with a large, steaming latte. This posed a problem. In my haste to escape the winged predators and find a reason to seek indoor refuge (disclaimer: the extent to which I upset the birds may have been over-stated here in the interests of dramatic effect), I had failed to consider the logistical challenge of taking a bike and a cup of coffee from the town centre to the bus station in time to catch the next bus home. Bromptons don’t have cupholders, something that may strike you as surprising given their urban streetfighting credientials. But what they do have is a very smooth and light ride, enabling me to steer one-handed whilst I kept my coffee upright with the other hand. I should make clear that I did this whilst proceeding along a wide, quiet pavement as opposed to the road.

The Mabon-Brompton-Costa assemblage tootled into the bus station just as people were starting to board. I counted twelve people in the queue before the bus left, each of whom would require approximately ten seconds to be processed by the driver. By the time the last person had bought their ticket, I had to have the bike folded back up and be ready to go with my wallet out. This was Brompton folding under pressure.

Having struggled to remember how the bike went back together the first few times I’d used it, I’d been getting quicker and quicker, but not until now had I had to pack the thing up in a hurry. First job was to fold the back wheel under. The magnetic clip wouldn’t come undone, bugger. I tried with more force, and still it wouldn’t come loose. At the third time of asking, a one-fingered tap on the underside was enough to send the wheel swinging down, mercifully/cleverly in a way that took it away from my fingers. Five people left in the queue. Next up, folding the front wheel alongside the rear wheel. To do this, the steering had to be turned in such a way that a near-invisible plastic rest was facing inwards so that it could hold onto a rearward section of the frame. With three goes I got it right and the wheels tucked alongside each other. Two people left in the queue. Handlebars unscrewed and folded down. Last person about to get on. Seat still to be pushed down and wallet stuck in jeans, it’s touch and go. Then salvation. Mother with pram appears wanting on the bus, pram needing folded and toddler restrained. Help with pram, pick up bike, take out ticket, put bike in luggage rack, job’s a good ‘un.

And so my folding bike adventure ended. It had gone well, so well in fact that I was seriously considering buying myself one of these very well-designed bits of kit – until I found out the price. Nigh-on £600. A Brompton is good, but for something that’s essentially limited to towns or flat places – so, in a nutshell, Holland – is it really worth that much? And remember it ain’t light to carry either. For what it’s worth, you could buy a lot of bus fares for that. Or a really good pair of walking shoes. Or, even, a normal bike.


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