One Month of Loaded Touring on the Bromptons, or ‘No, it’s not a Bike Friday’
I walked out of the supermarket the other day, pushing my folded and grocery-laden Brompton in front of me. Wheeling it around on the casters, I maneuvered it around the soda machine and the shopping cart return. As I started to put on my helmet and unfold the bike, I heard a now-familiar sound behind me, “Whoa… Is that a bike? That’s the craziest thing I’ve ever seen.”
Riding a Brompton is an invitation to repetitively answer this one question, and to continually blow people’s minds. There’s a moment, when we’re rolling the folded Bromptons through a store or a restaurant, when it’ll click in the head of an onlooker that this funny contraption is actually a bicycle. The tilted head and squinty expression (that betray the confusion and desperate attempt to understand what they’re seeing) fade into a look of awe and amazement. I can honestly say that I love this moment.
Of course, that mind-blowing moment isn’t always followed by a meaningful connection. Sometimes, we get to endure the inane comments and heckling of folks who’ve decided that we must be some sort of fantastic freaks for riding these circus contraptions. Or we have to hand over the bike to some random stranger who absolutely has to pick it up to see how much it weighs (hint: Bromptons are made of metal, just like most other bikes). And then there’s the automatic assumption that they’re Bike Fridays (which is a little maddening – not because we have anything against Bike Fridays, we just wish they hadn’t cornered the US folding bike market).
These random frustrations aside, after a month of traveling on the Bromptons, we’re pretty much pleased as pie. And if you’ve been wondering if they’ve actually lived up to our hopes and expectations, read on.
The first thing we can say about loaded touring on the Bromptons is that we are continually impressed with how well they handle the stress and strain that we heap on them. We are constantly asked about touring on the small wheels and if it makes life more difficult or sluggish – and we can honestly respond in the negative, because they’ve proved themselves to be much more rugged than we imagined.
We’ve lost track of how many mountain passes we’ve climbed up and over. But we haven’t lost track of how many of those we were able to pedal every inch – all of them. We may only have six gears, but it turns out that they’re the right six. Sure, there are times when we wish that we had another gear in the in-between, but we knew about this limitation when we chose the Bromptons, so we’ve learned to work with what we have.
The load capacity is, obviously, much less than our Surlys. In theory, we were thrilled by the need to lighten our load. In practice, we’re still thrilled that we can’t load them up any heavier – and, in fact, we’re continually wishing that we could cull our gear even further.
Rigging the backpack to the back of the saddle has turned out to be a brilliant way to carry gear. Because of the small wheels, the weight of the backpack is low to the ground, keeping the center of gravity low. The backpacks hold a fair amount of stuff, in a streamlined fashion, without getting in the way of our pedal strokes or posture on the saddle. Which all adds up to us hardly noticing that there’s that much weight on the back (except when I load my backpack with food!). Plus, the ability to break everything down into just three pieces (bike, front bag, backpack) has been invaluable for the transit connections we’ve made.
In all, we estimate that we’re each carrying about 50 pounds of gear on the bikes. Like I said, we wish that we could lighten this load a bit – but mainly because we’re just tired of schlepping around a world of stuff, not because we don’t think the Bromptons can handle it. That said, though, 50 pounds of gear is probably at the upper limit of what a Brompton can appropriately handle.
One of the biggest downsides to riding the Bromptons is having to be more careful about road surfaces. They handle fine on smooth gravel or dirt (including most fire roads), but we have to be really cautious of bumps and a washboard surface. We have certainly pushed the Bromptons beyond what might seem prudent (including riding through a 4-mile stretch of highway yesterday that had been torn up to third world conditions), and they have performed admirably so far. But the small wheels don’t roll over obstacles as well as larger wheels do, so vigilance is key. The same goes for railroad crossings!
Oh, and did we mention that it’s really hard to change a tire on a small wheel?!
We both firmly believe that there is no such thing as a perfect bicycle, for touring or anything. What works for us may not work for someone else. After a month on the road, we feel like the Bromptons fit our style of touring really well – which is a slow, meandering style. We like the challenge of being minimalist, and we have no need to be super fast. We like to roll into a town and explore for a few days – and the folding nature of the Bromptons means that they translate beautifully into a city bike. As we look forward to, hopefully, heading overseas in the near future, we’re convinced that the Bromptons are about as perfect (for us) as we could hope to find.