Into the fold: A fling with Brompton


One Sunday back in March, a group of friends and I were wrapping up brunch at Thai Temple in Berkeley when my friend Samuel unfolded, seemingly from nowhere, a Brompton M6R bike. He’d brought it along in the trunk of someone’s car and was going to use it to visit other friends in the area that afternoon. I was totally amazed. I’d known about these bikes, but I’d always kind of dismissed them. Seeing it in person close up was different. It seemed like a magical pocket bike – there when you need it, gone when you don’t.

Not too long after, Sharlene and I started our hunt for an apartment in SF. It was proving pretty hard to find an apartment with a garage for my commute out to Burlingame, and so I started thinking about bikes and BART and that Brompton folding bike. After a couple years of living in Peninsula suburbia, I was ready for a lifestyle change. I envisioned biking to BART, folding up to merge into the crowds, and then unfolding on the other side in order to bike the last couple miles to the office. Or pedaling to the grocery store, or the library, or brunch with friends, then folding up and bringing the bike into all these establishments. If I had to street park the car some distance away from our apartment, no problem – I could just pull the Brompton out of the trunk, unfold, and pedal home. It seemed like the ticket to a new kind of enlightened urban living.

In April, I found myself in London for work. On one of my free days, I made the pilgrimage to the Brompton Junction store at Covent Garden. There, I learned the fold for myself, and I test rode a couple of the bikes. London traffic patterns were completely foreign to me, but I managed to keep making left turns to spin laps around the block. The bike felt nimble and quick as I dodged cars and filtered through crowds and sped past red telephone boxes. A complete stranger offered her help when she saw me trying to figure out how to fold the bike on the sidewalk. “I’ve got one myself,” she said. “They’re brilliant bikes.” I was totally sold.

I test rode this bike in London.
Brompton #18 of the initial batch of 400, on display in the Brompton Junction store.

That evening, I clicked around the Brompton website looking at the different models. Then I noticed that my preferred model had gone out of stock. Slightly panicked, I started to assess my options. We were still really struggling to find an apartment with parking, and the apartment hunt was beginning to feel draining. It seemed highly likely that I would need the Brompton, and I didn’t want to chance the stock continuing to dwindle until there were no good options left.

So there in the hotel room in London, I pulled the trigger on my second choice Brompton – a C-Line Black Edition Explore in Turkish Green with the Medium handlebars. After tax, it came out to $2,018.82.

The following week, back in the Bay Area, we made a breakthrough in our apartment hunt. We found one that sparked joy and had a reasonably-sized garage and was in a great location. We applied as quickly as we could, crossed our fingers, got approved, and signed the lease.

Joining the Fold

In early May, the Brompton arrived on our porch in a suitcase-sized sturdy cardboard box. I carefully unpacked it, unfolded it, and demonstrated the fold to anyone who would watch. The first ride was along neighborhood streets to go jogging at the local school track. It was a beautiful day, and I enjoyed sitting upright, savoring the evening and listening to the soft ticking from the bike’s rear hub. A few days later, we took the Brompton to bike at the Golden Gate Bridge. It was perfect for the task, squeezing into the car along with two normal bikes and all three of us.

Left: At the Palace of Fine Arts. Right: Transporting one Brompton, two normal bikes, and three people.

I found a few more opportunities to use the bike: On the July 4th long weekend, we went camping in South Lake Tahoe. My friend Jen borrowed it; it fit tidily in the car, and she put over 20 (!) miles on it, pedaling to Nevada and back. I took it to explore around the city one Sunday afternoon, cruising down Market Street and then along the water, stopping to take pictures of the skyline and gape at wing foilers in the Bay. And just last week, my car got a flat tire and ended up staying overnight in Redwood City. It was the perfect opportunity to take the Brompton the next morning on BART to work, and then on Caltrain to pick up the car after work.

Unpacking Learnings

So over these couple months, what have I learned?

There are lots of pluses. The Brompton is a fun, friendly ride. You sit upright and enjoy the scenery as you pedal. Nobody expects you to go fast on a Brompton, and so you’re free to really noodle around and savor the day. But the bike is faster than it looks. It’s fun to draft super close (thanks, tiny wheels) and keep up with friends on road bikes, or pass tourists climbing hills.

Also, the bike looks sweet with a honey Brooks saddle. And it’s fun to demo the fold to people.

But there are also some things that aren’t quite how I imagined them to be.

I think the biggest problem is that I don’t use the bike anywhere near as much as I expected. Since we found a garage, I drive to work most days. From a practical perspective, it’s surprisingly hard to argue with driving. My commute each way by car is just 25 minutes, vs. about an hour by bike and BART. Even at high Bay Area electricity prices, the cost to charge the car each night is less than the BART fare. (After accounting for maintenance and other expenses, it’s probably a wash.) And in the car, there’s no COVID exposure.

I love public transit and I really want to support it. Sometimes driving gets dreary, and it’s nice to change it up and take a train and share space with people and feel like I’m a part of something bigger. But when I wake up late and need to catch a meeting, or just want to start my workday ASAP, it’s hard to rationalize the extra long commute.

Even worse, in my experience taking the bike on BART and Caltrain, there hasn’t actually been a real need to fold up. Ridership just isn’t anywhere near pre-pandemic levels, and seems unlikely to fully return. During my trips, the bike areas on the trains were mostly empty, with plenty of space to park a full-sized bike and even sit next to it. I felt silly for having folded up the Brompton, there was so much space available.

In addition, the bike when folded is a bit too big to fit between rows of seats on the train, so putting the bike in the bike areas is easier than fitting it in the passenger areas.

I also discovered that there is an unfortunate corollary to the benefit of being able to fold and take the bike into buildings: A $2,000 folding bike is one that you must carry with you everywhere. I realized that I wouldn’t ever feel comfortable leaving it locked up on the street – it’s just too nice. It turns out that there are many scenarios when it’s more convenient to lock your bike up somewhere and come back for it later, but those were all out of the question with the Brompton. And lugging it around folded isn’t exactly effortless.

My main use case for folding the bike has just been to fit it in the car along with other stuff. Which is fine, but not life-changing.

There are things I could try to improve some of these points. Buying a bag for the proprietary front luggage block might open up more shopping use cases. Larger rolling wheels (or a rear rack) would make it easier to roll around when folded, as would a mod so the bike stays folded together when the seatpost is partially up. But it’s all starting to feel like throwing good money after bad, a solution in search of a problem.

Rather than thinking about all the places I could take the bike, I keep thinking about all the things I could do with $2,000.

So… that’s it, I guess. I’ve got a Craigslist post up to sell the Brompton. I’ve moved the Brooks saddle back onto my old Miyata road bike, which will be assuming city bike duty after I install some anti-theft wheel skewers. I might also throw a rack or basket onto the Miyata, and then it’ll be more useful than the Brompton was, at a fraction of the cost.

I still think that Bromptons are really nifty and cool bikes, and I’m glad that I had a chance to own one. I hope the next owner gets a ton of use out of it. For me, I think it just wasn’t quite the right bike at the right time in my life.