[Having owned three now, this article should be read with the presumption that I’m a big fan of Brompton folding bicycles. In other words, consider it more of a general overview of Bromptons written by a devotee, rather than an unbiased, technical road test of a specific model. —ed.]
The Benefits of Folding Bicycles
Folding bicycles offer many advantages to commuters, tourists, and anyone who needs a bike for transportation, but has limited space for storage.
In many cases, bike racks on buses and trains are available only on a first-come, first-served basis. This leaves owners of full-sized bikes vulnerable to being bumped off of transit in the event a rack is full. Folding bikes solve this issue by being allowed inside many buses and trains. When hidden by a slip cover, a tiny folded bike like the Brompton is no bigger than a small suitcase, and even if regulations state otherwise, they can often be brought on-board and stored in a luggage area.
Small folding bikes are often exempt from building regulations that bar regular bikes from entering. In addition, they open up a variety of storage possibilities at the workplace, while also eliminating the security issues associated with storing bikes outside. A folded Brompton is small enough to fit under a desk in even a tiny cubicle.
Multi-modal touring is an appealing option for those who either have physical limitations or time constraints. With a small folding bike, a person can cover a portion of their tour by train, plane, or bus, then use their folding bike for exploration at various destinations along the way. We’re very interested in the idea of taking a train across the country with our pair of Bromptons, stopping along the way to explore the sights in various locations.
If limited storage space at home is an issue, folding bikes are a great way to make the best use of the space that is available. Compact folding bikes like the Brompton are small enough to be stored under a desk or even inside a cupboard. And for those who are sensitive about the visual effect of having a bicycle stored in their living space, a small folder with a slip cover makes an unobtrusive package that disappears into a corner or cubbyhole.
Brompton Company Background
The story of Brompton is the quintessential tale of the inventor/entrepreneur who had a vision, brought it to reality through a long process of experimentation and prototyping, and eventually brought a mature product to market in a very successful way.
Brompton’s owner, designer, and current Technical Director, Andrew Ritchie, first had the idea of developing a better folding bike in 1975 after seeing a Bickerton. From that initial spark, it took 13 years of prototyping and fund raising to reach the point of full production in 1988. The Brompton as we know it has been in continuous production since then. Throughout, the company has remained under private ownership, and production has remained in-house in West London, UK.
Today, Brompton has a cult following unlike practically any other bike brand — folding or otherwise. Brompton clubs exist all over the world, and numerous online communities have sprouted up around the brand. The so-called “Brompton World Championship” — a somewhat tongue-in-cheek annual race with entrants dressing in business attire and riding Bromptons — has become wildly popular, with 750 participants this year.
The Brompton Fold
Any discussion about a Brompton starts and stops with the fold, which is arguably the best among all folding bikes. The parallel, three-part fold places the wheels side-by-side, with all of the vulnerable parts protected between the wheels. The overall folded dimensions are 22.2” x 21.5” x 10.6”. That’s a small package for any folder, particularly for one that rides so well. But, even more important is the clean outline of the folded package. The size and shape are not unlike a small suitcase, with the nose of the saddle cleverly serving as a carry handle. With a slip cover over the top, the folded Brompton is so compact and smooth that it can be carried into almost any venue without raising an eyebrow — most people won’t even realize it’s a bike.
The Brompton fold is a three-step process, as follows:
- Start by flipping the quick release located under the seat clamp and lifting the back of the bike to swing the rear wheel forward under the frame. Cleverly, in this position the bike is designed to stand on its own. Brompton owners often use this partially folded position to “park” their bikes.
- Next, release the hinge on the main frame and swing the frame back on itself, locking it into position.
- Finally, release the hinge at the base of the stem/riser, fold the bars, and lower the saddle. The bars snap into place, and the seatpost locks the entire package for carrying.
The entire process takes 10-20 seconds and becomes second nature in a very short time.
Cleverly, the Brompton has a pair of tiny wheels strategically placed at the top of the rear triangle for turning the bike into a rolling cart. When the rear triangle is folded underneath, the small wheels swing around to face the ground. With the handlebars unfolded, the bike can be rolled along on these wheels, much like an airline luggage cart.
Bromptons are unusually quick and compact, though not at all unstable or uncomfortable. The 16” (349mm) wheels and compact frame make for a light and nimble feel. The steering is razor sharp, with small inputs at the handlebars being immediately transmitted to the road. It takes a brief time to adapt to the quick handling, but once the rider is acclimated, the Brompton becomes a formidable tool for zipping and weaving through dense, urban traffic.
Small wheels tend to provide a harsh ride. Brompton mitigates for this with a suspension block located where the main frame and rear triangle meet. The travel at the rear wheel is short and, unlike the long travel suspension on mountain bikes, is only intended to take the edge off of small obstacles. This small amount of rear wheel travel does a remarkable job of smoothing out imperfections in the road while helping the bike track straight over rough surfaces. The use of relatively high flotation tires run at reasonable pressures (I run Schwalbe Marathons on my M3L at 60psi) also does much to smooth out what might otherwise be a fairly harsh ride.
Bromptons are only available in one size and three handlebar styles, none of which can be adjusted for height. This results in a bike that will feel and fit differently depending upon a person’s physical stature. A Brompton will feel much like a “full-sized” bike to a small person who is accustomed to riding small frames. On the other hand, a Brompton may feel on the small side to a larger person (say, over 6’0”) who is accustomed to riding large frames. This is not necessarily an issue, and many people of all statures, including those well over 6’ tall, adapt to riding Bromptons successfully.
Folding bikes in general have a reputation for being only good for short rides in the city, but Bromptons have been widely used for long-distance touring. In fact, there are a number of people who have taken transcontinental trips on Bromptons, and I know of at least one couple who made a ‘round-the-world trip combining boat and train travel with their Bromptons. Just recently, Todd Fahrner, owner of Clever Cycles in Portland, took an unsupported tour down the California coast (from Portland to San Francisco) on his Brompton.
Bromptons are built like tanks. That doesn’t mean they’re unusually heavy; they’re not. But where it matters — namely the frame and hinges — they’re clearly designed to withstand many years of hard use. The main frame is built from brazed (not welded), high tensile steel. The over-sized main tube is stiff, and there’s no sign of flex that comes from either the frame or the hinges. The handlebar stem/riser — a weak area among many folders — is surprisingly stiff. The frame is on the verge of being overbuilt, but folders other than Bromptons are notorious for coming apart after a few years, so I feel the robust design is a fair trade for a small amount of added weight.
My M3L’s Sturmey Archer 3-speed internal gear hub performs quite well and compares favorably to modern hubs from Shimano and SRAM. Shifts are crisp and can be initiated while pedaling, coasting, or standing still. I really like the Brompton proprietary thumb shifter too; it’s easy to use and it stays in adjustment. The 3-speed is arguably the best among S-A’s offerings. The 5-speed S-A on my Pashley was clunky in comparison; it needed frequent adjustment and missed shifts were not uncommon. I’ve had zero issues with the 3-speed.
The Brompton M- and S-Type cockpits are not particularly ergonomically-friendly. As necessitated by the compact fold, the brake levers are on the short side, and the grips are thin and narrow. Ergons are a big improvement over the stock grips; if you go this route, be sure to check that they don’t interfere with the fold.
I find the new Brompton saddle to be more comfortable than previous incarnations. It also has a hand grip on the underside of the horn for carrying the bike when folded; clever!
I’ve owned three Bromptons and I’ve yet to have any issues with components or wheel builds. The Brompton-branded dual-pivot brakes are snappy and and plenty powerful. The Brompton-branded crank is attractive and plenty stiff. The chain tensioner keeps the chain taut when the bike is folded. The wheels are tough and require only occasional touch-up. The overall component mix is excellent, and the detailing, fit, and finish leave very little room for improvement (other than perhaps the hand grips mentioned above).
You may have noticed that each Brompton model number consists of two letters and a number. The first letter indicates handlebar style (S, M, P), the number indicates the number of gears (1,2,3,6), and the second letter indicates fender and rack packages (E, L, R). So in the case of our M3L test bike, we have a mid-rise handlebar (M), 3-speed drivetrain (3), and fenders (L).
Each Brompton is essentially “made-to-order”, with a wide variety of options available. There are three base models, the S-Type, M-Type, and P-Type. The S-Type is the sporty model with a lower flat bar; the M-Type (as shown here) is the classic Brompton with a mid-rise bar; and, the P-Type is the touring model with a trekking bar that provides multiple hand positions. Any of these models can be upgraded to the “super-light” package (indicated by an “X” after the model number) with a titanium fork, rear triangle, fender stays and pedal bolt; and, an alloy headset and seat post.
All three models are available with either 1, 2, 3, or 6 speed drivetrains. The 1-speed is a standard single speed freewheel; the 2-speed is a proprietary Brompton-made 2-speed derailleur; the 3-speed is a variation on the classic Sturmey Archer 3-speed internal gear hub; and, the 6-speed is the 2-speed derailleur in combination with a wider range 3-speed Sturmey Archer IGH.
Fender and rack options include the Version E, Version L, and Version R. The Version E is the basic model sans fenders and rack; the Version L includes front and rear fenders; and the Version R includes the fenders plus a rear rack.
Various other options include: extended and telescoping seatposts for individuals with >33” inseams; choice of tires; choice of saddle (stock or Brooks B-17); battery or dynamo lighting systems; and, a variety of luggage options, which I’ll cover below.
The Brompton Front Carrier Block is a universal mount that accepts any bag in the Brompton line-up. The block is attached to the headtube, which places the weight on the frame, leaving the steering essentially unaffected.
NYCeWheels sent us a full range of Brompton bags to try out, from the simple Folding Basket, all the way up to the A Bag leather briefcase:
- The Folding Basket is a grocery-style pannier adapted to fit the FCB.
- The S-Bag is a small messenger-style bag with a 20-liter capacity designed to fit the lower handlebars and shorter stem on the S-Type bike (it also fits the other models). It’s constructed from water-resistant nylon and comes supplied with a waterproof rain cover and shoulder strap. This is a nice bag if you only carry a lunch and a few small items to work.
- The C-Bag is a full-sized messenger bag with a 25-liter capacity. It’s constructed from water-resistant nylon and comes supplied with a waterproof rain cover and shoulder strap. The C-Bag is a nice size for commuting, with enough room for a change of clothes, lunch, and even a small laptop. With the addition of a little padding, it also serves as a nice camera bag for a small DSLR outfit. This is my favorite bag from Brompton.
- The T-Bag is Brompton’s touring model. It’s their largest bag with a 31-liter capacity. It has a roll top and numerous pockets and pouches inside and out. It comes supplied with a rain cover. This is a big bag that’s perfect for touring or grocery hauling, but perhaps a little large for commuting.
- The A-Bag is Brompton’s leather executive briefcase. It’s a beautiful piece of work, but it’s a bit ostentatious (and pricey) for this humble commuter.
- The B-Bag is a carrying bag for the bike itself. It’s a heavy duty bag with casters, a carry handle, a shoulder strap, and 5mm padding all around. With the use of a pair of B-Bags, we’re able to drop both of our Bromptons in the cargo area of our tiny car without fear of damaging the bikes. A must-have if you plan to transport your Brompton in an automobile or airplane.
- The Slip Cover is a small cover that slips over the bike from the top. It makes it much easier to sneak the Bromptom into buildings and onto buses and trains without notice. It stores on the seat post when not in use.
When I think of a Brompton bicycle, I think “clever and refined”. From its unique fold, to its suspended rear triangle and “rolling cart” capabilities, this is a bike that’s oozing with intelligent details. The underlying design of the Brompton has changed very little over the years; the bugs and quirks have been almost completely worked out of this bike through a long process of testing and refinement. While there are other interesting folding bikes on the market that offer viable alternatives to the Brompton, in my view there’s yet to be another folder that brings together a clean, compact fold and excellent ride quality in such a compelling way.
- Frame & Fork: Steel
- Handlebars: M-Type
- Saddle: Brompton with moulded grip and hollow rails
- Seatpost: Brompton steel telescopic
- Pedals: Brompton folding/platform
- Brakes: Brompton dual-pivot caliper
- Shifter: Brompton
- Front Hub: Brompton standard
- Rear Hub: Sturmey Archer BSR 3-speed internal gear hub
- Rims: Alloy
- Tires: Schwalbe Marathon
- Folded dimensions: 22.2” x 21.5” x 10.6”
- Weight as shown: 25 lbs.
- Approximate price as shown: $1,424
The M3L discussed in this article was supplied by our sponsor, NYCeWheels. For more information about our reviews, read our review policy.