Sunday, April 21, 2013

Brompton bike in Sydney - my initial review

I am a man of simple tastes and pleasures. I do not lust after a flash car, a big house or electronic gizmos. However, there is one new addition to my handful of precious things. Joining my old Leicas, my Peerless watch and my Trinovid binoculars, is a Brompton bike. As with my Leica fan-dom, I started off admiring these things from afar. I noticed a few people riding them in London and thought I would like to try one. And as with Leicas, Brompton bikes are a relatively expensive but durable cult object. If you don't know about them, the Bromptons are basically a British designed and built folding bike. The genius is in the folding mechanism that allows them to shrink small and flat enough to be carried on a train or even on to a bus, without any sticking-out bits. A lot of people ride them in London but I've only seen one or two in Sydney. I've been wanting to get one for a while, but my recent penurious state in the UK ruled out the possibility during most of my recent sojourn there. I had been thinking of getting one just before I left the UK to return to Sydney (as I finally got some money coming in) but by the time I got on to Ebay and Gumtree to look for one I just didn't have enough time before departure to bid for one and organise a pick up. Most of them were for sale in far off places like London or Norfolk. And the going rate for a decent second hand one seemed to be about six hundred quid. To buy a basic model new is about nine hundred quid. So when I saw one for sale for $800 on the Sydney Gumtree site under 'folding bikes' I was on the phone immediately and dashing round to Oxford St to have a peek the same day.

The guy I bought it from was a bit vague, and I was a bit suspicious - rightly so. It turned out that the bike was knackered - the rear mudguard had been squashed down with great force so that it had jammed the rear wheel. But by this time I had 'gear-acquisition-syndrome (GAS) in full and was determined not to let the opportunity of owning a Brompton pass me by. I offered him the full price and he accepted. So there I was, dragging a broken Brompton back to Seven Hills.
I was dying to ride the thing, and stayed up until after midnight taking off the rear wheel and swearing a lot with various tools trying to bend the mudguard back - but I just could not budge it. Whatever had pushed it down had done so with great force. I felt very frustrated, but the problem was fixed the next day for a mere $25 by the great guys at Blackman's Bikes in Parramatta. Then a couple of other faults showed up. The steering column was very loose and wobbly - a problem fixed 'gratis' by the guys at Cheeky Transport in Newtown, who are the local Brompton agents. I also soon got a flat rear tyre, which meant taking off the rear wheel all over again and patching the innertube. After three days of fixes, the bike was reassembled and ready to go.
I headed off on my usual 'weekend circuit' around the Eastern Suburbs starting at Redfern, down via Cleveland St and Crown St to Kings Cross (stopping for a coffee and prosciutto at San Siro, seen below in a pic I took a bout five years ago).

Stanley St, Surrey Hills

From the Cross I meandered over the hills to Double Bay and Rose Bay on a sunny Sunday afternoon. And I very soon discovered that the 2-speed Brompton does not 'do' hills. The gearing is so high that it is extremely hard to pedal up anything more than a slight incline. I found my self standing on the pedals and swaying the bike from side to side like a Tour de France rider going up  the Alps switchbacks when I was on even the most basic of hills. The small wheels help a little, but basically it means get off and push up anything like Heartbreak Hill in Vaucluse. This Brompton is obviously only designed for riding on the flat streets of London. I asked the guys at Cheeky Transport about changing the gearing and they said I could gain some 'ease' by switching to a smaller diameter pedalling crank wheel, which would improve things by about 20%. I think I will have to do this - having a bike that can't do hills is a pain.

The Brompton is a fairly pleasant ride, but as some other Australian rider pointed out, it's nothing special - a bit like a 1970s Chopper. It's fun and easy to get on/off, and the small size means you can easily slip between cars in traffic queues or drag the bike off the road and onto the pavement. It is otherwise nippy and agile, but a very sensitive/unstable ride. I would be wary of doing hand signals because the steering feels like it would go out of control if you take one hand off the handlebars  - especially going downhill at speed. A few other little niggles also soon made themselves known. One is that my right trouser leg and shoe kept catching on the protruding castor, often while I was in full flow, with potentially dangerous/embarrassing results. The other is that the chain always seems to get caught on some other protruding clip when unfolding the bike, resulting in me having to re-thread it and getting oil over my fingers. A set of wet wipes seems to be a useful part of the inventory for this Brompton. The other slight problem is that the saddle keeps working loose and slipping down/sideways, but that may be fixed just by tightening a screw.
On the whole, I'm quite pleased with the Brompton - it's fun and portable and obviously it's very different. It draws a lots of comments from the general public - especially when people see me folding/unfolding it. I'm surprised by how many Sydney people are unfamiliar with folding bikes and their 'small wheels'. It's a real conversation starter. However, if I had the money and was able to order a new Brompton, I would go for one with six gears (or at least three) and with the 'M' handlebars rather than the simple 'T' ones. The Brompton doesn't ride as well as my previous folder, a Dahon, which had good gears. I won't be doing any long distance trips on the Brompton. But that Dahon didn't last very long and literally fell to bits after about three years - it also didn't not fold up as well or as compactly as the Brompton.
So I will stick with the Brompton for now, especially for public transport. I'll see how I go with the lower gears.

To finish my day I ended up at Carrarra and then Shark Beach. It was a wonderful sunny Sunday afternoon in autumn and the weather seemed especially wonderful after the relentless bitter cold I've  experienced for the last six months in Yorkshire. I lazed around the beach for a while, eating a cornetto at the kiosk and just gazing out at the beautiful harbour. The shark nets were up and I mused on how it didn't seem that long ago that my kids were climbing all over them. Now they are teenagers and would not be interested in such 'childish' antics. I also lamented the rearranged interior of the kiosk - now a dull takeaway rather than the beautiful old sit down cafe with its flowers in the window.
Flowers at the Nielsen Park kiosk cafe
Ah well, time and progress ... I'd brought my Bessa R2 along with the 35mm Summicron, but only took one snap. As with so many Sydney places, I have taken too many pictures already of Nielsen Park.


Tom said...

Hi Michael, great website. I was looking through the web trying to find out info on Bromptons and stumbled across your site. I have just acquired a raw laquer M6L and have taken it out a couple of times. My aim is to do what you're doing and get about sydney abit more and take the bike with me practising photography. I have set up a site which has to do with bikes and photography. I am still very much an amateur photographer but have had a few days out here and there taking some snaps of our beautiful city. Looks like you are not that far from me either. I'm in Kings Langley. This is my site. I haven't updated it for awhile but am planning to add more photography stuff.

Great site, keep on blogging!


Michael Woodhead said...

Thanks Tom. Yes i use the Brompton quite a bit to get around with my camera - but have to get the gears modified so I can manage the hills better! Now moving to Chatswood, so will have the north shore to explore next.