You know what they say about Men with small wheels…

You know what they say about Men with small wheels…
Photo by Tim Hole

One minute they’re a bike. The next they are an unwieldy bit of hand luggage. Bit like tranformers innit?

Foldies used to be a really niche bit of the market but have hit the mainstream in a big way. They used to be SO crap; my mum had one that was heavier than a car and wasn’t much smaller even when folded up. They have come a long way since then though and my VERY unscientific straw poll, taken this morning, led me to believe that, of London’s rush-hour commuters, roughly a third of them are on fold-ups (though I do cycle through Westminster and The City which seems to be the land of the foldie).

There’s no way I could see myself becoming a fold-up rider if it hadn’t been for the bike pool scheme that we have (pioneered by our Associate-Director of Public Health Chris Lovitt . There are 7 Bromptons in our Public Health department (Brian, Brutus, Balminder, Blanche…you get the idea) and we have a wealth of accessories from trailers, to bags, to bells. I was already riding my beloved 80s racer (Goldie) to work and wasn’t too worried about these quirky looking bikes until a logistical hoo-har meant the Brompton brigade was called upon.

Those small wheels made my first few metres a bit twitchy on the turn, especially after being used to Goldie, but I got used to this quickly and over the following few days the behemoth of benefits became apparent :

SECURITY: Bikes in cities get knicked. I’ve already written about what you can do to best lock your steed up here but the ability to fold your wheels up and keep them with you has to be the best form of security. I really like folding my bike up in the pub next to me and not exercising my thievery-related paranoia.

STORAGE: I live on a boat. Space is of a premium. Bish-bash-bosh, folded bike goes under the table. It is safer here too; there have been a couple of bike ‘clearances’ at the pier.

COMFORT: The thicker tyres and INGENIUS suspension built into this particular brand of foldie mean that it’s a lot more comfortable than a racer. The suspension doesn’t have a lot of ‘travel’ – it is a very small elastomer (i.e. not a spring) block that cushions the rear triangle which has to move anyway to fold up (oooh a rare bit of technical chat from me). It makes a big difference for those of us not used to having suspension. I have to admit I thought I had a slow puncture because I wasn’t used to the give when going over pot-holes!) For foldies with proper suspension then type BIRDIE BIKES into a search engine of your choice. They’re nuts.

RIDING POSITION: I often get asked ‘don’t they feel a bit weird to ride?’ whilst the interrogator gazes at those small wheels and low frame however the riding position is very similar to a town bike. This upright position, compared to that of a racer, is desirable if riding in the city as it improves your visibility, which is important when Dave the white van man is busy shouting on his phone and not looking where you might be. On a racer your arse is up in the air you are constantly in a state of looking up (with your head down low or ‘eating tarmac’ as I’ve heard it described) and, more importantly, it is harder to look around behind you.
I also find the town bike more relaxing and I’m (slightly) less on edge as I brave the London rush hour traffic. Its less easy to look hard on a foldie so I find myself shouting less at people who are trying to kill me.

PUBLIC TRANSPORT COMPATABILITY (read FINANCE and ALCOHOL): The ability to fold it up and get on a train or bus at whatever time* is a massive advantage because it opens up many more journeys to riding, at least part of the way. It is because of this reason that a foldie can pay for itself quicker than another bike. Also the fact that it allows you to fold it up and go to the pub and not worry about the ride home (unless you drink so much and stop caring) is a pretty major boon for a chap like me. However it is worth noting it removes the excuse ‘I cant come to the pub with you and drink because I’m riding my bike home and has nothing to do with the fact that you are intrinsically boring.’
From my experience most pubs and clubs will allow you to put it in the cloakroom…except O’Neils on Gerard Street:

“No bikes”

“Are you sure I’m not allowed it in there – I can take it on a bus”

“This aint a bus”

“Thanks for pointing out that this pub is not a bus. Surely this pub has more space than a bus though?”

“No bikes”

(* bikes are not allowed on most trains at peak hours in UK)

You know what they say about Men with small wheels… - Tim with his foldie
Tim with his foldie

BROMPTONS: Brompton are a cool little company. Andrew Ritchie is a man-in-a-shed type of designer that Britain used to specialise in. They are a British success story: They are London’s biggest transport manufacturer, produce 22,000 bikes a year and export 70% of these. They really work and the fact that I have been known to get mine folded up in under 15 seconds reflects a really sound design (sorry – this sort of geekery is common amongst Brompton riders). It is also worth noting that Bromptons do seem to inspire a lot of love and loyality. How else could you explain the Brompton World Championships ( link to this http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brompton_World_Championship)

Downsides?

Well the Brompton I’m on the moment is very heavy, but I think its an old and heavy design. The afforemention Chris Lovitt has a featherlite sporty version but this costs a lot more.

Bromptons are expensive – the standard model is approaching £800 – however its worth bearing in mind that they pay for themselves quicker. The competitors are significantly cheaper: The Dahon range starts at £250 and Decathlon even do one for £100 (I dread to think…). The competitors would certainly say you are paying for the brand. Brompton loyalists say you pay more because they work.

The low down position means that everything is near the ground. I believe this means that the chain gets a lot more city muck in it but the hub gears mean that there are a lot less sensitive stuff is exposed. However the hub gears mean that the chain has to work less hard and the gears are all hidden away and not getting worn down by road dust and dirt.

And they are slower. In the city this makes little difference and the gearing on my 3 speed is clearly designed for the stop/start riding of the city and as a result I often blitz many lycra-clad racers off the lights for the first 50m, which lets face it, is the distance to the next set of lights normally. You certainly can do long distances on them and due to me mistakenly taking the wrong lock key home I ended up having to ride it from London to Chelmsford and I did this fine. It took a little longer but it was pleasant experience.

Foldies are very, very practical for getting around. You won’t get that free spirited feeling as your legs churn up the countryside and you work the bike side to side on a Sunday morning, but for those of us who ride everyday in the city, foldies are a winner.

SAD NEWS: Alex Moulton died this weekend. He really typified the great British engineer who saw a problem and built a machine to deal with it. With typical vision (lacked by Raleigh…) he pioneered the small wheeled collapsible bike. For the full obituary please look here

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