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Commuting by Bicycle and Public Transport

20th Jun 2007, 22:18:54

By James Stocks

Parking the car at work is becoming more and more difficult because the council is digging up a number of car parking spaces in order to widen the ring road. I decided to investigate whether it is feasible to use public transport for my commute.

There is a train every hour, but I live over a mile from the station. There's also a quarter of a mile to cover when I reach the station at the other end. Walking this distance would waste valuable time and taxis are costly. The solution? I bought a Brompton.

Brompton M6L

My Brompton gets me from my house to the train station in less than 5 minutes. Between the station and work takes 2 minutes or less. I estimate that this saves me 1 hour per day opposed to walking. All this, and I am not very fit!

My total journey time door-to-door is now about 1 hour, whereas it used to take 45 minutes by car. The extra time I spend on the train is offset by the fact that I can do something useful like read the paper or catch up on email.

Update, 24th August 2007: The experiment has been a failure, but not due to any fault with the bike.

The train leg of the journey is becoming increasingly exasperating. Unscientifically, I estimate that one in ten journeys are subject to some sort of delay ranging from lateness to complete cancellation of all trains servicing my route to work. I have been so late on a few occasions that I have had to work at the weekend to make up the time. I am very fortunate to have an understanding employer.

On all occasions, Central Trains have been less than forthcoming with information about the nature of the delay and when service is likely to resume. I am of the opinion that they might be a bit crap.

The government at both a national and local level is finding ever larger sticks to beat us with in order to get us out of our cars, but is just not serious about providing a modern properly integrated rail system.

If your job depends on your punctuality, don't ever consider using the train.

The basic Brompton, the C-type costs £395.00, but this lacks many essential features such as mudguards and folding pedals. It is equipped with inferior raleigh record tyres. I opted for the M-type, which features mudguards and 'mustache' bars for a more upright riding position. As well as having superior tyres, rated to 100PSI, the M is available with lights, luggage racks and some other build-to-order options. My M6L ended up costing £554.00.

So, what's it like to ride?

My main frame of reference is my Marin Larkspur, an aluminium framed road-biased hybrid with 700c wheels. The Brompton's small 16" wheels make for a unique experience. I don't normally like suspension on a bicycle, but the rear suspension on the Brompton is essential, given the tendency for the wheels to sink deep into potholes and ruts. On the other hand, the small dimensions make for very sensitive steering and a highly manoeverable bicycle. I can turn at high speed with confidence, often negotiating roundabouts and other road obstacles faster than most cars.

Brompton Suspension

The Brompton can be ridden off the tarmac, coping fine with compacted gravel, but it is certainly not an all terrain bike. Attempts to ride the bicycle on patches of loose gravel have left me looking a bit silly, nearly sinking up to the bottom bracket!

The rear wheel does not lock into place when the bike is unfolded, which at first makes the bike a little difficult to manoevre in tight spaces, since you can't just lift the rear of the bike by the saddle. Surprisingly, this doesn't affect the bike at all whist riding, even going up and down kerbs. It seems like a necessary compromise, since adding a catch or clamp would make (un)folding the bike slower. It is also very convenient to stand the bike with just the rear wheel folded under:

Half folded Brompton

If it really bothers you, tie the triangle to the seat post with a zip tie!

I was concerned that the small selection of gears might make riding the Brompton unpleasant compared to my 24-speed marin. However, the gear ratios are well chosen and if anything, my fitness levels have improved to compensate. The three hub gears are a boon in traffic, since it is possible to select another whilst stationary - no more being caught out by last second traffic light changes.

The M6L 6-speed model I chose is also equipped with a 2-speed derailleur, which spends most of its time in high gear. That's not to say it isn't a useful option, the low gear is a godsend for steep inclines or protracted climbs on a hot day. For commuting, the idea is not to arrive at the office drenched in sweat. I find that the highest gear is just about sufficient for descending hills at speed, reaching 30 MPH or so.

I opted for the dual pivot caliper brakes front and rear. Once adjusted properly, the brakes pull very evenly, are silent and are effective even when the bike is heavily loaded. The brake pads supplied with the bike work OK in the wet, the wheel rims appear to dry much faster when braking due to the small diameter of the rims.

Dual pivot caliper brake

The standard saddle is made from lightweight foam rubber and seems quite durable and practical, but it does become uncomfortable after a while. There are several alternative saddles available or there is an adapter to fit any standard saddle. A fi'zi:k saddle may well be my next purchase, since it looks like more of a racing saddle.

Update, 24th August 2007: The padding is starting to peel from the saddle, starting from the point. I don't expect it will last much longer, but at least I can buy a more comfortable one.

I am 1.7m (5'7") tall and I find I need to have the seat as high as it will go in order to achieve a proper riding position. I like to sit high, but even so, If you are much taller than me, you'll probably need the telescopic seat post option.

It is possible to order several kinds of luggage racks and panniers for the Brompton, but these aren't much good for commuting, since they have to be taken off when the bike is folded. I just carry everything I need in a rucksack, but if the Brompton was your only bike, panniers might be useful for touring.

The Brompton folds and unfolds pretty fast, I can do it in about 20 seconds now that I've had practice. When folded, it fits into gaps between seats quite easily. I have transported my Brompton by train and bus without too much difficulty, though it does become a little awkward if it is very crowded.

The folded bike is small enough to fit under my desk at the office, so I don't have to risk locking the bike up somewhere unattended.

Folded Brompton M6L Folded Brompton M6L

Carrying the folded bicycle is not the easiest thing to do, as it seems to double in weight for every 20 metres I walk. Although slightly cumbersome, the whole thing weighs 11.5kg, which really doesn't present a problem for most people. If you have more than a few hundred metres to cover, it really is much easier to simply unfold the bike and ride or push it. If I could have afforded to do so, I would have specified one of the superlight Bromptons with titanium parts, since this brings down the weight to 9kg depending on options.

Because it looks so unique, the bike does draw some attention when in public. People are usually quite friendly and want to know what it is. Often another passenger will stop me to ask questions, almost always the same things; what is the weight of the bicycle, what does it cost, is it comfortable to ride? Some people just feel the need to tell me that I have a folding bicycle, incase I may have forgotten. I don't really mind talking to people, but if I am in a hurry or feeling impatient, I try to work in the cost of the bike, since that seems to terminate casual interest.

While riding the bicycle, chavs sometimes yell at me, but I find this easy to ignore. If someone remarks that my bicycle is "stupid", I inform them that in this case, it has much in common with their face. I always make sure that the bike is moving fast in this situation. The advantage of this is that I suspect the Brompton is not a target for theft, since these simpletons have no idea that it is so valuable.

The bicycle has only let me down once so far and this was due to my own stupidity. I was cycling to work in torrential rain following a bus. I was too close to the bus and accidentally followed it into some deep floodwater. Mud, grit and water got into the rear hub, requiring me to repack the bearings and gears with lithium grease the following day. Later on the same journey, I got a large piece of glass embedded in the front tyre, meaning I had to take the bus the rest of the way.

I learned the hard way that the tyres (size: 16" x 1 3/8") and tubes are completely non standard so it's well worth carrying spares incase your tyre or tube is damaged beyond repair. Generally, only cycle shops that stock Bromton bikes have the spare rubber. To avoid repeat punctures, I've replaced the standard tyres with the Brompton kevlar reinforced green label tyres. No more punctures so far and they seem to be just as free running as the standard tyres.

On the whole, I'm really pleased with my Brompton and I recommend it if you need a highly portable folding bike. Brompton maintain a list of dealers who stock their bikes, so take a test ride on one.

Update, 24th August 2007: The pedals are somewhat slick in wet conditions and as a result of almost slipping off the bike a couple of times, I have ditched the standard pedals in favour of some clipless ones. I really don't miss the folding pedal at all and the bike feels much better balanced.

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