Here's a picture of us together. Photo by John Ladner
Article and Photos By Sarah Dandelles Unless Noted
You’ll have to excuse me if I seem out of sorts. It’s not the weather, or the 2016 effect. It’s that I’m coming out of an intense, month-long affair with a gorgeous Brit – a stylish, diminutive, fast-moving, practical one who stole my heart. We were inseparable, even through December’s snow, ice, holidays, and sub-zero wind chills. We stuck together and rode nearly every day; to work, play, errands, and yes, sometimes we just hung out at home.
Disclaimer: I’m a year-round bike rider; commuting, errands, social rides, everything. Until two weeks ago, I didn’t own a car. I ride upright and own five other bikes, all of them great for getting around the city. I’d tested a zippy red Brompton M6R for 24 hours last June through a demo day at Turin Bicycle Chicago, one of Chicago’s three Brompton dealers (along with Cosmic Bikes, and Comrade Cycles). Shortly after that thrilling 20-mile roundtrip afternoon romp, my boyfriend’s Tempest Blue Brompton H6R arrived at his door and he began amassing different Brompton accessories (he owns nine Brompton bags. Nine) - and truly geeking out. While I also enjoyed our Brompton day, I tend to be quite thrifty, and just wasn’t convinced that this hand-built in Britain design marvel was the practical bike I needed, but I jumped at the opportunity to test the bike for a longer stint last month. And I have changed my tune.
The box fit right under my Christmas tree. It was delivered the night before the first single-digit temps and a winter storm hit Chicago, and I had to wait a day for the roads to be cleared, reading online tips, and watching Brompton owners on YouTube videos to learn folding techniques, cleaning tips, and everything else. After that quiet day in my living room, the rest has been history. Getting the B-Romp, as I named it, out onto the road became a priority, and even in winter, this machine makes winter urban commuting fast, practical, and easy. It is serious fun to ride this funny-looking bike.
After a ride through snow and icy streets, it fits perfectly on a boot tray to drip.
First Things First
The price tag on her: $1944. This bike setup (and still an incomplete one at that, in my opinion – see luggage, below) is not cheap for a two-speed commuter. Yes, it’s a marvelous folding machine, and it is cool to look at. But stick with me and you’ll see what really won me over.
The starting price point for “just the bike” with two speeds is $1279. The extra $600+ comes from a few upgrades to the basic Brompton: This bike’s “raw lacquer” finish ($250 - why that is more expensive than powdercoat, I will never know, but it does look elegant…), battery-operated front and rear lights ($110), the Brooks B17 Special Ladies’ saddle ($105), fenders and mudguards ($80), a telescopic seat post ($60 - allowing the bike to fit taller riders), Schwalbe Marathon tires ($35), and the front luggage block ($25 - an adapter for the proprietary bag system). For more combinations (and a bike nerd’s wormhole), Brompton’s Bike Builder is really fun.
A Word on Weight, and Height
My test bike, with a steel frame, weighs 27.2 lbs. For me, rider of heavy steel bikes weighed down with panniers, cargo, and (sometimes multiple) Abus locks, this steel frame feels light and agile both on the street and while carrying it.
First trip - to the dentist
Brompton’s build options can be tailored to fit sizes and styles of different riders. With four handlebar options, and three seatpost height options, plus frame and component options that can mitigate overall weight, it’s very versatile and adaptable to many lifestyles and riding approaches.
As with any other type of bikes, with a Brompton, buyers do have to know what they want. As an established urban, all-weather, non-racing upright rider looking for everyday convenience and limited fuss, the H2L was a good fit to my needs and my style. Test-riding through knowledgeable local dealers, reading up on the bike, and Brompton owners knowing what they want and getting it - the semi-custom approach - is key to this bike’s continued and rising popularity since the 1980s.
Subtle holiday decor
WHAT I LOVED
I live in a 100-year-old, three-flat house on Chicago’s north side, on the second floor. I don’t have access to a garage, and my basement is scary and dank. Being able to easily lift this bike though a twisty wallpapered stairway to get in and out, and keep the bike inside where I can gaze upon see it is not only magical, but practical. I brought this bike with me to the dentist, to bars, to work every day, to meetings, classes, on trains, and on the bus. It’s ridiculously easy to manage without the crowding and cumbersome bulk that full-sized bikes can bring. Even more importantly, your investment is safe in an urban setting: When the bike comes inside with you for work, a movie, an all-day fundraising workshop, or afterwork drinks at the local watering hole, you know it’s not being scoped, vandalized, or stolen on Chicago’s mean streets, where locks are compromised daily. Because it is right next to you.
Brompton two-fer at the Huettenbar
And we’re talking a tiny fold-down size: 23" x 22.2" x 10.6." The Brompton fits anywhere.
The low step-over of a folder is not lost on this 40-something, prone to lower-back-issues rider. The H-bar setup offers Brompton’s most upright riding position (about 2.4 inches higher than their most popular “M” riser bar), and combined with the bike’s light carrying weight and ease of folding and unfolding (takes me about 17 seconds!), it is super comfortable.
Photo by Yasmeen Schuller
Two Speeds: Just Enough for the City
Unlike what I’ve read about the six-speed two-sided shifters (which I admit I would like to try again now that I’m used to the two-speed), the H2L thumb shifter changes so smoothly and effortlessly, not missing a beat. It’s a great ratio, and, though normally a dedicated high gear-rider no matter how many speeds are available to me, I find myself shifting at stoplight starts and for small climbs (there are only small climbs in Chicago). It’s that easy and effective. And two gears is all you need for city riding!
Fast maneuvering, and ...surprisingly fast ride
With the narrow handlebars and tiny wheels, steering is responsive (and can even feel too twitchy on the first couple of rides), but the quick maneuverability around potholes and between sideview mirrors becomes part of the bike’s pluses within just a few miles. Admittedly, at first I found myself legit worried about arm signaling lest I should lose control in intersections, but after a week or so, even that became easier. There’s pretty darn fast pickup from the low gear and 16” wheels, too.
Speed in riding is not a priority for me in the congested and seasonally bike-blind city streets, but I found with little effort, I got up to slightly higher speeds and kept an overall faster pace than my usual bikes on the Brompton, contrary to my initial bias and to popular beliefs regarding the wheel size. One thing to note is that it’s important to keep those tiny tires filled with air! I find myself topping them up every couple of days. Luckily a small frame pump comes standard with all Bromptons. How thoughtful!
WHAT I LEARNED
You will be asked about your Brompton. By everyone.
While testing the bike on bus, trains, and on all of my normal errands and work commutes, I found myself talking to people young, old, cyclists and folks who hadn’t been on a bike in years, and people from all backgrounds. Kids point and wave. Depending on your capacity for dealing with strangers (I am getting better at it), riding a Brompton may surpass getting a dog in terms of conversation starters.
Brompton at Interbike 2015, Photo by Yasmeen Schuller
Brompton’s Luggage System: Cray but effective.
Yes, you can ride a Brompton with a Po Campo bag slung over your shoulder (ahem) and/or a tiny handlebar bag on the front or saddle bag under you, but for full-on Brompton capacity without the rear rack, you’ll need to purchase a luggage “block” and Brompton’s proprietary – or some aftermarket – luggage. The Brompton system is based on a front block onto which its bag system depends. Admittedly, it seems strange at first to ride with front bags that don’t turn with the handlebars (the block attaches to the head tube, rather than the stem or front fork), and the bag I borrowed and tested, Brompton’s T Bag ($179), a huge, roll-top thing, only available in black, that can be loaded with groceries, Christmas presents (a boxed bike helmet plus a boxed pair of shoes, among many other things), actually worked a bit to mellow out the ride and the steering felt more stable when I used it. Brompton’s bags for the front block begin at $89 and go up to $425. Just another part of a big investment? Yes, but practical and, I think, necessary - as well as a way to further personalize your ride experience. The bags are supported by a removable frame, which can be used as a rack by itself and the luggage is a whole subset of aftermarket goods and hacks on the internet (pro tip: even the aftermarket bags are costly). I found one Brompton rider who created a modified rack to use regular panniers in front. You can buy the rack itself, solo, for about $40.
At art class with the Brompton T bag - which nicely fits large pieces of watercolor paper, my palette, and paints!
WHAT I’D CHANGE
Rolling the bike.
Supposedly, one can use her Brompton like a grocery cart. Just roll it with the handlebars up but the rest of the bike folded! Use the teeny rear wheels to wheel around effortlessly! In a word: no. I tried a shopping trip in UNIQLO and I felt the bike listing right the entire time, and twice it fell all the way over, nearly taking a fellow shopper and a stack of fleece-lined somethings down with it. Plus there is – dare I say – a cheap and somewhat loud hard plastic sound as the wheels roll on the hard floor surface. No good. But it seems I am not the only one to have trouble here. There are (surprise!) aftermarket wheels and parts that have been designed to deal with these issues. But the extendable mini axles with slightly larger, rubber-tired wheels that attach to either the rear rack or the rear fender on an L model (like this one) cost anywhere between $125 and $160. Hmph.
On the bus
After my Mag Mile experience, I didn’t do a lot of shopping with the bike in tow. In smaller, independent retailers in the neighborhood where I work, I was able to ask shop managers to let me leave the bike in its tiny folded form in a corner while I made my last-minute gift purchases, and that worked out. I did not attempt any holiday supermarket shopping as part of my Brompton test. I did ride with the T bag to my weekly watercolor painting classes, and that was fine, even carrying it, loaded, up three flights of stairs filled with supplies and big paper.
Speaking of Tea
I’ve installed a Portland Design Works cupholder on all five bikes I own, even on my Surly Cross-Check. I am serious about my black tea and having it within reach on all kinds of rides, but I especially want it handy on my morning commute. I am surprised – shocked! - that the land of my beloved Earl Grey with milk and sugar has created an astoundingly engineered, functionally fabulous upright bike without this very necessary option. One can only hope that someday very soon, this will be a part of the Bike Builder, or at least the next big aftermarket part on all of the Brompton forums. I mean, come on.
The bottom line for me is that this is the bike I found myself using more than any other, which, for the planet, for effortless and courteous urban multimode commuting, for the love of design, and for someone who even just bought a car, is a huge thing. There are times I am sure I would go for my five-speed or my cross bike or my upright large German frame - to stretch myself, my carrying capacity, or my ride out. But the Brompton is made to stick with its rider, and be a joyful expression of biking itself. From the enjoyable, customizable purchase process to the easy carry to each and every ride, it hits that mark squarely. I found it to be worth the investment for a city rider who will use it nearly daily. The Brompton is beautiful and is designed for real-life, everyday/every way use, and it’s a nimble and lively ride.
Now, if I can just get used to talking about it with strangers wherever I go…
About the Author:
Sarah Dandelles, a cycling advocate, editor and nonprofit director in Chicago, began commuting by bike in Chicago in 1999, went car-free in 2006, and rides a rotating stable of non-flashy bikes year-round (slowly and usually upright) for work and pleasure.
Note: Once Sarah reviewed the bike, she loved it so Brompton allowed her to purchase it at a discount.