Last saturday, I purchased a Brompton M6L folding bicycle. It’s my first purchase of a bicycle since I was in middle school. In about 30 seconds, the bike folds down to be roughly the size of a small suitcase: this means I can take it with me during rush hour on the Metro, when regular-sized bikes are otherwise prohibited.
(image from bfold website)
I traveled to New York City to purchase the bike, from bfold, a small dealership that occupies a basement apartment near Union Square.1 They specialize in folding bicycles, and keep several dozen Bromptons in stock, along with a few other makes.
Although it’s always good to have a reason to take Amtrak up to New York City, I would have liked to have bought locally. One of the 20 or so nationwide Brompton dealers is around here, College Park Bicycles,2 and although their website suggests you “Come in for a test ride” of a Brompton, they don’t actually have any in stock,3 and they don’t know how long it would take to get one in.
Through online research, I was mostly convinced that I wanted a Brompton: they have the most compact and elegant folded form of any of the folding bicycles. Notably, when folded, the chain is in the middle of the package, between the wheels. The rear wheel assembly is hinged: when riding, it is held by compression against the main frame, but when the rider dismounts it’s easy to swing the rear wheel under the rest of the bike in order to park it.
(images from Brompton website).
But still, I wanted to actually see and feel one, and see the folding and unfolding, before the purchase. So off to bfold it was. The folks there–I think there are only two–are great. Talking with the shop owner on the phone, I got the impression that they are folding bicycle enthusiasts who decided to open a store, and not bicycle racers who work in a bike store that happens to sell folders. In the store, we talked about the available options, and they demonstrated the folding and unfolding maneuvers. Talk about elegant! In their hands, at least, the folding and unfolding were very fluid, giving the impression of a very well engineered and built machine.
The folks at College Park bicycles, who also sell Dahon and Bike Friday folders, did make a few valid criticisms of the Brompton: first, in order to achieve its folded state, it uses several custom-built, proprietary parts. If one of these parts needs replacement, it has to be obtained from Brompton, and if you’re not close to a Brompton dealer, this could mean your bike is out of commission for a while. And a number of these parts are made from plastic instead of metal. I consider myself handy enough to do my own bicycle maintenance, and with several US dealers willing to do mail order of replacement parts, this wasn’t a serious drawback for me.
At 27 pounds, my Brompton is best described as luggable. It’s easy enough to pick up and carry for short distances. It has six speeds, which it achieves through a combination of two-speed derailleur and three-speed Sturmey-Archer hub arranged in a half-step gearing pattern. That is, the ratio of the two derailleur gears is half that of the ratio between the steps on the hub, so that the full range of gears–from 40 to 86 gear inches–is covered evenly with no overlaps. I consider this another touch of elegant design.
By way of comparison, my other bike weighs in at 39 pounds, in its present configuration (with rack, fenders, toolkit, spare tube, pump and lock, but without lights). Both front and rear gears have been replaced several times over the years, such that the gearing pattern is more installed than designed, covering the range of 26 to 92 gear-inches with a theoretical 21 gears, some of which are unusable and some of which overlap. A comparison of gearing:
I’ll write in a future post about the way the Brompton changes my commute. I’d certainly recommend bfold, for anyone interested in a folding bicycle. If you want to seriously evaluate the various makes, and test ride them and so forth, it would be a good idea to call ahead and let them know what you’d like to do and when you’d like to come in: with only two staff and a growing interest in folding bicycles, the store can become quite hectic with only a handful of customers. I also think I should have purchased a model with a rear rack and EZ-wheels, which allows the folded bicycle to be rather easily wheeled about.
- Rents are high in Manhattan, of course, but with a wide variety of re-purposable spaces, such as the one bfold occupies, small entrepreneurs do have places to start. I don’t know if a similar business could make it in DC. [↩]
- which otherwise looks like a really cool bicycle shop [↩]
- I realize that small businesses can’t devote unlimited time to their websites, but I also think that lots of long-established businesses just don’t understand how much people like me depend on the web, and how irked we get when websites have misleading information. I much prefer to look at a store’s website than to look them up in the yellow pages and call, and I would guess that for routine questions like hours and products stocked, it takes less employee time to maintain the website than to repeatedly answer the phone. In fact, I hardly ever use the yellow pages anymore. [↩]