Practical Town Bike Reviews; the Brompton M2L

Our occasional series of practical town bike reviews continues.  Most recently we reviewed the Moulton TSR2, today it's the turn of that other British small-wheel bike manufacturer; Brompton.

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The purpose of these reviews is to point out great and good bicycles available; I am convinced that so many would-be London cyclists are sold such a pup when they visit certain High Street bicycle stores that it puts them off cycling for ever, so here we're putting the spot light on bikes that will make you fall in love with riding in the city forever.

Brompton have been around a lot longer than you might think - the original patent for the distinctive 'curved arch' top tube design was registered in 1979 by designer Andrew Ritchie, and from small beginnings in a bedroom workshop, the company is now the largest British manufacturer of bicycles.  There are countless combinations of components that the discerning Brompton owner can chose from, but the frame design stays essentially the same.

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It's in the city that the Brompton feels most at home; I don't believe there is a comparable bike on the market that folds as small, and indeed as comfortably, which allows you to ease from being a cyclist to a bus rider in seconds, or to stow your means of transport under your desk where it is safe (try doing that with your car!)  When I first received the lovely deep claret Brompton I rode for this review it took me a few efforts - and one bruised thumb - to really get to grips with the folding and unfolding mechanism.  It's a bit like learning to tie your shoe laces for the first time, or one of those infuriating little metal puzzles you get in Christmas crackers - seemingly impossible and fiddly the first time you do it, but before long you are flicking your bike up and down with the most deft slight of hands.

The model I test rode was an M2L - 'M' stands for the distinctive (and extremely popular) M-shaped handlebars which offer a very upright riding position for such a small bike and good control of the machine as you're whizzing along to work or the shops.  The '2' is for the 2-speed derailleur which came with this model (and what an ingenious thing, the folding derailleur is!) whilst L refers to the kind of back rack fitted.  Where this bike trumps its competitors is the sheer volume of combinations a customer can choose from when buying their bike; you can get 2-speed derailleurs, 3-speed hub gears, hub dynamos with attached lights, rear racks, telescopic seat posts, or even all-titanium componentry if weight is your thing.  The possibilities are endless!  And there's a paint box of colour choices too.  Indeed, if you can't decide on one colour, why not go for a multi-coloured one?  The choice is yours... 

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I'm used to cruising around town on a big upright Dutch bike, so riding the Brompton was a mildly 'fish out of water' experience for me.  I was astonished at how light, nippy and responsive the bike felt, but terrified at the sensation of the rear wheel which flaps like a tail fin when you really put in some effort.  In the same breath the bike veritably hops, skips and jumps around potholes, tight corners and over bumps in the road - it feels incredibly responsive.  Whilst the rear triangle and suspension block makes for a comfortable ride, you'll feel every vibration in the road through the handlebars which can be quite disconcerting at first.  2 gears were more than enough for cruising around town, but if I was to buy one for myself I'd probably go for a 3-speed hub dynamo to keep the gears internal and protected.
Likewise, it takes some time to build up trust in a bike frame which essentially has been snapped in two by design and then held together with some slightly rudimentary looking steel clips.  At first I felt incredibly exposed riding around on such a small bike, but its responsiveness, speed and performance soon showed me that technology outweighs first impressions and I had nothing to be worried about.  I've seen people racing these bikes like mad men at the Smithfield Nocturne (and often winning), and if it's good enough for them it's good enough for me and my decidedly more meagre requirements.

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There are a few inherent problems with the design; although you can choose from flat top, M shaped or 'S' handlebars, you can't adjust the height of the handlebars themselves.  And if you are exceptionally tall, I'm not sure if this is the bike for you, although a heavier telescopic seat post is available.
A bike which combines speed and comfort is a rare thing indeed; even rarer is a bike you can unfold from a tiny package in a matter of seconds, which has only got 16" wheels, and yet which keeps up with the big boys on any London road.  Even with just the well-spaced 2-speed derailleur gears the Brompton cruises along briskly; put a bit of kick in to your pedal and the wind races through your hair.  If there was anything I found most astonishing about the bike (and there is certainly plenty to admire in its design) it was this; the fact you can go from carrying a small folded frame with you to riding at speed in the streets in a few moments is nothing short of an engineering marvel.

And the best thing about the Brompton is undoubtedly the inherent flexibility in choosing a bike which can fit in the smallest of apartments safely, or which even lets the office junior with the small corner desk have room for a bike (without having to wait for an executive parking space to become available!)  Going to the opera?  Check your bike in at the cloakroom.  Live too far away to ride all the way home?  Take your bike on the train, on the bus, or even in the overhead locker on an aeroplane, and become a multi-mode rider.

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And for those of you who need to carry more than just yourselves around, Brompton sell a whole array of bespoke luggage to go with their bikes which wouldn't look out of place in any board room.  Choices, choices, choices!  When I started to look in to all the different ways you can set these bikes up I felt positively spoilt.  And you can get some models on the Government Ride To Work scheme.  Would I buy one?  You bet I would...  Why?  Because despite all their engineering largesse, their eminent practicability and indeed their relative comfort, these bikes are FUN!  When was the last time someone said that about a Ford Focus?  Why settle for the mediocre when you can own a truly astonishing machine which fits in to your life, as opposed to the other way around?

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Brompton have an extensive network of world wide dealers and are available to order via good quality local bike shops, for further information and specifications check out their website.

This review is formed of my own feelings and opinions; I have not received cash or favours from the bike designer or their associates in return for this review.

Are you a practical town bike designer? Get in touch via the ‘About Me’ section if you’d like me to test your ride!

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21 comments:

John the Monkey said...

Brompton's dealer network is worth a mention too, I think. Parts are readily sourced (as is the expertise to service the bike, if you don't fancy it yourself) even for older models.

The fold is unbeatable, and I love that one can park the bike by simply flipping the rear wheel under. The luggage carrier works superbly too - it's well worth asking for the block to be fitted, even if you don't buy the luggage immediately.

(I also love the Claret colour of your test model).

WestfieldWanderer said...

Whilst I'd hesitate to suggest that the Brommie is the only bicycle you'll ever need, it is certainly true that if one only was able to keep just one bicycle, the Brommie would be the one. Or two. http://flic.kr/p/9S8JfS Or three. http://flic.kr/p/9TsUvp

ibikelondon said...

Powerful words, gents, sounds as though you are both big fans! I must admit I was very wary of the bike at first, I wans't sure if I was going to like it at all, but the bike totally won me over.

@John the claret colour is pretty cool, non?

chrisrust said...

And you can buy all the parts you need parts to maintain, repair or upgrade pretty well any Brompton made in the history of the company. Most other bikes are out of date within 3 years, including those other folders that use so-called "industry standard" parts.
ps. don't forget the unique Brompton "wide range" 6-speed gears which will cope with most conditions apart from extremely steep hills.

I Bike Madrid said...

Hi there Mark. following your last tweet. I've been with my brompton since I think a couple of years already. It has been from my point of view the best related in performance, style, folding and maintenance (low). I don't know if it's the distance between wheels that makes it so nice to pedal or other, although as mentioned, I do recommend to people the Brompton. I agree with you as well on the part of tall people maybe would be worst for them to ride a brommie even with the telescope seat. Since I'm only 1,73m it's perfect for me.
Regards from Madrid.
Tiago

Mark Chillingworth said...

There is only one drawback to the Brompton, thieves like them too. Otherwise one of the most rewarding bicycles you will ever own and ride. Totally reliable, my 6 speeder is nearly 3, never been touched and used daily.

Alex Hilton said...

I commute daily on my orange M3L and it works perfectly. It is currently sat under my desk as you mentioned too!
Last winter (mid-december, remember the snow) I took her on a 26 mile ride throught the Gloucestershire countryside from Gloucester to Ross-On-Wye, and she worked a treat - no problems with the gears (all 3!)- and got me there is good time!

Couldn't recommend Brompton more highly.

John the Monkey said...

Whilst we're talking downsides - the loop of cable at the front brake collects water, and WILL FREEZE in cold weather. (eek!)

Also, like anybike with a low to the ground drivetrain, they get very dirty, very quickly - arguably it's less of a problem for the Brompton as it's not got a full derailleur gear setup for you to worry about. However, a gunked up 2 or 6 speed won't shift nicely, ime.

ibikelondon said...

It certainly seems as though Brompton inspires real loyalty and love in those who have purchased their bikes. I bet most bike manufacturers would give their hens teeth to attract such praise from their customers.

Many want it, but few achieve it. The comments of genuine owners of Bromptons, above, are the best recommendation you could wish for.

ian... said...

Nice article Mark.

One thing that would bother me with the tiny wheels is the lack if front suspension ala Moulton, if you're batting along at speed and can't avoid a bump in the road - you touched on vibration through the handlebars in the write-up.

The couple of Brommie riders I've met didn't have an issue with it though.

Mike said...

You mention that Brompton is the "other" small wheel bike manufacturer.

They might not have teeny-tiny wheels, but you're missing Airnimal bikes from you list. Their commuter model (the Joey range) is an excellent piece of kit.

I think you should review one of those next, if you can get your hands on one.

ian... said...

Have a look at this - Bromptons @ 39mins - Made in Britain: Episode 1 - http://bbc.in/kJ88BW

Steve_Barker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Steve_Barker said...

We have a Brompton and an Airframe. Both are great. When you can chuck them both in the car and go you wonder why anyone bothers with big wheels? Take the Airframe on the train to work, just sit it on the luggage rack - no need to worry about the 4 bike maximum (East Midland Trains).

ibikelondon said...

@ian.. I saw that on TV - I particularly liked the BMX stunt team putting the Bromptons through their paces. It was great to see the inside of the factory and how it all works, good stuff!

Chandra said...

Hi there,
Thanks for the nice write-up. I have to admit that I love my Brompton!

Peace :)

Mark S3 said...

Nice review, Mark - I had my 3 year old M3 stolen in April, and (after a fight with the insurance co.) replaced it with an S3.
You're spot-on re. vibration - Bromptons don't like the cobbled backstreets of East London, and the only secret there is to ride as fast as possible - it might not make the vibration any smoother, but the discomfort is over faster...
Cheers
Mark S3 (the artist formerly known as 'Yellow Brompton')

Ali B said...

Love my Brompton and don't have any problems as a 6' 3" rider (I've got the telescopic seat post)

The main thing I love about it is how it revolutionised my biking life. When meeting friends for a meal or drink, I hop on the bike to the station, hop on the train, cycle the last bit and fold it up by my table. No stress, no fuss, no need to dress up in cycle gear, no worries of getting it stolen.

Günther Miklitz said...

I am riding my Brompton bike for leisure and pleasure, mainly in Germany. I have taken it along on trips to London, Paris, Lille and Nancy and it has been of great pleasure value to me. At first I had to learn that intuition is not enough to handle the folding procedure, you need a good understanding and some practise.
My blog:
Guenther Miklitz, Bonn

Günther Miklitz said...

My blog: http://www.foldingbike-brompton.blogspot.com

Olaf Storbeck said...

Very nice review with one minor flaw: The Brompton you rode - or the brompton shown on the pictures - was a M2L-X - the light weight version of the bike.
Cheers
Olaf