As riding for transportation gains popularity here and abroad, more commuters are turning to folding bikes to get where they need to go. There are a variety of folding-bike options, but few companies have done more to make the bikes look cooler than London-based Brompton. I tested one of its folding bikes for an outing in Washington D.C., to see how convenient a foldy made getting around town (and because they looked really fun).
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To understand folding bikes you first have to ask: Why fold a bike at all? At first, to me it seemed like more of a party trick than an actual function. But when I had to stay mobile in the city, where traffic can be infuriating and finding a parking space is rarely convenient, having comfortable transportation that I could tuck away safely in a hotel or meeting room made a huge difference in the time, cost, and efficiency of travel.
Folded, a Brompton is about the size of a large stuffed backpack—so it fits nicely under a desk or next to you on, say, a bus seat. This function is especially important for those who use multiple modes of transportation to get around (bike to train, for example). Although the bike I rode weighed about 25 pounds, when folded it felt fairly heavy to lug around. You can use the wheels attached to the rear triangle to push the bike around like a roller-bag— but varied surfaces or stairs can make this challenging. These are definitely things worth considering if there’s a lots of un-bikable distance on your route.
About the brand:
When it comes to setup, a folded bike can seem like an intimidating bundle of wheels and tubes. But Brompton’s instructions are clear, helpful, and so easy to follow that I had it ready to ride quicker than I had expected. Every step feels fool-proof—and some are weirdly satisfying, like flinging the back wheel into place. With a little practice I whittled my setup time down to a few minutes.
The Brompton I tested was a great example of the brand’s aesthetic, painted in a rich matte orange that turned heads as I rode. Bromptons are among the more expensive folding-bike options, but can be customized with some neat features, colors, and components. This year, the company is also offering more refined handlebar shapes, improved shifter location and grips, and a variety of saddle widths for comfort. Mine came with a pump attached to the frame and Cateye integrated USB-chargeable lights, both of which I’d recommend. The steel model I tested was 1kg heavier than the Titanium model below, but also significantly cheaper at $1,695. (You can explore all the options on brompton.com.)
Like most folding bikes, Bromptons have small 16-inch wheels and a single bar for a frame rather than a traditional triangle. The seatpost and handlebars extend what looks like an absurd distance from the wheels to create a natural-feeling riding position, but the low center of gravity means you don’t feel as top-heavy or tippy as you might expect.
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The smaller wheels and steep head angle create a slight a sensation of oversteering—your input will turn a 16-inch wheel much faster than 29-inch one—and the front tire’ smaller contact point can feel a bit like an axis until you get used to it. But after riding just a few blocks I found myself popping over little bumps and even attempting skids (old habits).
Which brings me to another important observation: Zipping through gridlocked traffic may always be a little unnerving, but this nimble folding bike made it so enjoyable that I found it hard not to smile. There’s just something about the Brompton’s playful look and impressive functionality that make it totally endearing. Sure, the goal it accomplishes (getting to work, or anyplace else) is a utilitarian one, but that doesn’t mean you can’t feel like a little kid and enjoy some fresh air along the way.
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