Test riding Brompton bicycles in Oak Park, Illinois

Brompton SL2 outside Element Cyclesport in Oak Park, Illinois. The front bag attaches to a mounting block on the head tube. It doesn't turn with the handlebars and front wheel.

Brompton SL2 outside Element Cyclesport in Oak Park, Illinois. The front bag attaches to a mounting block on the head tube. It doesn’t affect steering because it doesn’t turn with the handlebars.

I started writing 16incheswestofpeoria after I bought my Bike Friday tikit. Sixteen-inch wheels are pretty unusual; I thought I might find something to pass along to readers. Surprisingly, not so much.

Yes, the tikit is a bit odd compared to the typical offerings of central Illinois bike shops, but the oddness is pretty much limited to its appearance. It’s a bit quicker steering than a bike with larger wheels but the brakes and derailleur work the same way. In three years, I’ve covered the tikit’s construction in Eugene, Oregon, and the replacement under warranty of the folding riser. That’s about it, though I have to add it’s the first bicycle I’ve transported in the passenger seat of a Mazda Miata.

With a lot less personal experience, I could say the same about the Brompton folding bicycle made in London. Sixteen-inch wheels, yep, a little strange. But as far as the mission is concerned, it’s the same: get on and pedal. The last time I rode a Brompton, several years ago at Calhoun Cyclery in Minneapolis, it had a shorter wheelbase. That machine was definitely optimized for the fold, not so much the ride.

Brompton M6R. Note the telescoping seatpost, a necessity for taller riders, and the pump fitted to the seatstay.

Brompton M6R. Note the telescoping seatpost, a necessity for taller riders, and the pump fitted to the seatstay.

Today, the Brompton’s wheels are a bit farther apart, which increases stability, and many of the parts, including rims (double-walled), cranks (bolt-on chainring) and brakes (dual pivot), have been upgraded.

This past weekend, I rode two Bromptons from Element Cyclesport in Oak Park, Illinois. A blue SL2–the designation indicates straight bars, fenders and two-speed drivetrain–and the store’s Brompton Demonstrator, which is a white MR6–rise bars, rear rack, six-speed–with a Demonstrator decal.

The SL2 was parked in the folded position when I first saw it. It’s been a while since I handled a Brompton. I couldn’t remember the first step to unfolding it. But I’m okay with staring vacantly until the answer pops into mind.

You have to raise the seatpost. Ah, yes: the bicycle unfurls. Now, it’s just a matter of flipping the rear end of the bike into place, tightening a couple of twiddly knobs and you’re off to the races. Well, not the races, unless you were in Washington, D.C. recently, but definitely the neighborhood.

Thoughts based on two admittedly short, flat test rides: the 2-speed derailleur is a sweet shifting unit. That’s the benefit of having only two cogs: flick the shifter to one cog or the other; no finesse necessary.

The six speed is just as nice a setup. The same derailleur used with the SL2 is combined with Brompton’s BWR internal 3-speed hub, a Sturmey-Archer variant. Intellectually, I know the BWR adds a bit of weight and probably some internal resistance, but I didn’t notice either issue on the flats, and I’m going to guess that the lower gear ratios of the 6-speed more than make up for the weight when it comes time to climb hills.

Handlebars? The flat bar  of the SL2 is tempting. It’s a very clean look, but the sit-up-and-beg position of the M-style handlebars (or H-style, they could have been the tallest handlebars Brompton offers) on the 6-speed Brompton is a great match for city riding–and my personal flexibility. I’m not faster with one bar than the other, so as far as I’m concerned, there’s no downside to taller bars.

I really liked the rear rack. With the bike half folded, the rack makes a dandy kickstand. Fully folded, you roll the bike on the small parking wheels.

I really liked the rear rack. With the bike half folded, the rack makes a dandy kickstand. Fully folded, the bike rolls on four small parking wheels.

What surprised me? I really like the rear rack on the Demonstrator. It makes for a great kickstand when the bike is half folded. Or maybe I should say I don’t like not having the rack. Without it, you have three parking wheels, two behind the seat and one on the fender, which isn’t really a stable parking solution, more of a pointed reminder that you should have bought the rack and picked up that all-important fourth parking wheel.

Here’s the other thing about the rack–it eases the transition from unfolded to folded. When you release the rear end of the bike, via a lever near the seat post quick release, and lift, the seatstays, chainstays and wheel pivot around the bottom bracket, and the wheels at the back of the rack engage the ground first. It’s a smoother operation than my tikit, which needs a little foot action to avoid beating up the back fender.

Element Cyclesport occupies an attractive corner store front in Oak Park. Once I saw the location, I had to agree with the online commentator who bemoaned the store’s prior occupant. It is amazing that a realty company would reserve some of the town’s best real estate for itself. A bicycle shop is a much better use of the space. Especially a shop with smiling employees who greet customers right away.

With a half hour to spare, I only had time to review the Bromptons and buy a pair of gloves. But the shop is definitely worth another visit. If you go, consider combining your journey with a visit to the Frank Lloyd Wright house. It’s one to three minutes down Chicago Avenue, depending on whether you ride or walk.

Note: If you drive and want to make the same ridiculous mistake I did, try motoring during the week from Palos Heights to Oak Park along Harlem Avenue. If that doesn’t have you despairing of the sad state of the built environment and condemning the solipsistic ignorance of the phrase “America’s love affair with the car,” nothing will.

Post Note: Check out The Brompton Diaries’ coverage of the 2014 Brompton US Championship. The colorful owners are definitely fans of the brand.

About 16incheswestofpeoria

Former bicycle mechanic, current peruser of books, feeder of birds.
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9 Responses to Test riding Brompton bicycles in Oak Park, Illinois

  1. Great write-up on a wonderful bicycle — my Brompton is my only bike, and it does everything I want it to, and very well — not to mention that the engineering is a joy to see every time I take it out. Nothing beats that fold, but it’s also just a fun, terrific bit of transport, too.

    • Thanks for your note, though now you’ve got me wondering what you want your Brompton to do: fit in a car trunk? Take it into work? I’d love to know more about your only bike.

      Given that I’ve been intrigued by Brompton for three decades, you’d think I’d have one by now. Gotta focus on the goal. And build a bigger piggy bank.

      • Well, yes: it fits into my sub-compact car; lives in the coat closet (so easy to grab on the way out!), tucks under tables everywhere; rides Amtrak and suburban rail (also on subways in NYC and WDC).

        Also, I do this stuff on my Brompton: regularly ride 20-40 miles recreationally; shop and run errands; travel with it and the T bag; grocery shop using the B as a shopping cart; ride in my home suburban towns; regularly ride in Manhattan and on my suburban roads, and I’ve ridden three metric centuries on my B. (I’ve only had my B for about a year and a half, so it hasn’t been on a plane yet.)

        I’m the rare suburban Bromptonite, but that’s just it — this little guy does everything!

        (PS-Amortized over ten years, a Brompton costs coffee money . . .. Well worth the effort to build the bank!)

      • Wow. Did you take up cycling when you got the Brompton, or did you ride some other bicycle before the Brompton?

  2. I briefly — four or five months — rode a 65 pound pedal-assist tricycle before getting my Brompton. I was settling into middle age, shall we say, not well. Otherwise, I hadn’t ridden a bicycle for decades.

    The trike got me much stronger, and I realized I was going to have to replace it after a final 50 mile ride during which a fender fell off and so did the chain — many times. The trike had cured my balance problems, and it was beginning to dawn on me that maybe a huge lumbering trike was not going to be a lifetime solution for me. At that point I started to look at other options, and got my Brompton.

  3. By the way, the payoff in health — every possible aspect — has been huge. I pretty much factor that into my Brompton financial accounting, too. I’m healthier now than I’ve been in decades, and owe virtually all of that to my Brompton — the barrier to use is so low that I actually ride it.

  4. photogeek13 says:

    Excellent write up! I’ve been contemplating a folding bicycle, not for any particular reason other than the “n+1” standard for the number of bicycles a person should own. Besides, the wife unit might think it’s cute because it folds.

    • I’m a follower of the n+1 formula myself, slowed only by shattered piggy banks. However, adding a folding bike may actually add something new to your stable. In my case, adding a Bike Friday tikit gave me a bike that could ride alongside me in a Mazda Miata, which some might say is a case of cute times two.

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