Zen and the Art of Brompton Touring
If you told us three years ago that we would be touring on Bromptons, we would have thought you were mad. We had just outfitted our Surly Long Haul Truckers, perhaps the most ubiquitous touring bike of the last five years, designed and spec’d for the rigors of carrying weight up and over mountain passes. The Brompton, on the other hand, seemed to be designed to carry tweed wearing dilettantes between boardrooms and classrooms.
Oh how perceptions can change.
This post isn’t about how the Brompton is a better touring bike. It’s about how, after months of travel, we’ve learned how a bike as unlikely as the Brompton can be used for touring. Looking at the Brompton on paper, it appears to clearly be the “wrong” bike for self-supported travel. However, many of our long-time readers know, we have a fondness for those that do it the wrong way. The wheels are small, it’s not a triangulated frame, it doesn’t use panniers and it has only 6 gears. It goes against every bit of traditional bicycle touring dogma. According to conventional wisdom it should have exploded instantaneously into a big heap of bike parts after our first day of loaded riding. But of course, it didn’t.
Our travels have taught us that the most important muscle is your brain and far more important than gear is wisdom.
Less is More
You have a lot of time to think while you’re touring, especially about what it is you REALLY need. When we first set off, we had the uneasy feeling of going into The Great Unknown and wanted the most durable, bomb-proof bike that could carry 200lbs of equipment with as many gears as we could cram into it. And that’s exactly what we got. We were terribly unsure of what awaited us, so we over-packed and therefore needed a bike equally heavy and overbuilt to carry it all. It was a vicious cycle.
Months into our first trip, we had a fortuitous encounter that helped us begin to understand this impulse. Through the help of a reader, we ended up staying with Jeff Boatman of Carousel Design Works in Sonora, CA. He was combining ultra-light backpacking philosophies with off-road bicycle touring. Through an evening of conversation he elucidated some of the theories behind ultra-light camping. More than just being a weight-weenie, lightening your load was part of a holistic system – the lighter your load, the less wear you put on your equipment and body, and the further you can go for the same amount of energy. This point was illustrated to us just a few days prior, when my rear rim split in half from all the weight we were carrying.
As we neared the end of our first big adventure, we were tired. We were tired of carrying all the weight. We were also frustrated about how difficult it was to take your bike on transit. Many of the trains we took around the country were poorly equipped to take a regular bike, much less one with four panniers and a handlebar bag. We began to look for a better solution and that’s when we started seriously considering Bromptons.
We wondered if it could be done, if we could really travel self-supported on a folding bike that couldn’t even hold panniers. We would have to take the lessons we learned from Jeff and apply them. We had to pack smarter and not heavier, and give up some camp comforts to make traveling more comfortable. It required a complete rethink of what we carried. Without these insights, making the transition from LHT to Bromptons would have not been possible.
The next big hurdle was in figuring out how to carry stuff. The LHT is a beast in load-carrying capacity. It made it easy for us to just add “one more thing.” Of course, the extra shirt and the extra lens and extra something else adds up rather quickly. That is how we found ourselves touring with 4 panniers, a handlebar bag and a waterproof duffel which all added up to 170lbs (including the bike).
The Brompton does not give you the luxury of adding just “one more thing.” It has real and non-negotiable weight and space limitations before it gets unwieldy. While this would scare many off, we actually embraced this limitation. It answered the question of, “should I take this?” with a simple and firm, “No, you shouldn’t.”
The Brompton’s front Touring bag is ingenious and quite roomy at about 31L capacity. In comparison, a pair of Ortlieb Bike Packers has a 41L capacity. The Brompton front bag has the same capacity as 1 1/2 Ortliebs! One absolutely brilliant thing about the Touring bag is that it is supported by the frame and not the fork. When you steer, the weight is ALWAYS centered. What this means is that you don’t have to ever worry about balancing a left and right pannier. On our LHTs, we always had to pack the front panniers within a few pounds of each other, or it would affect the steering adversely.
The real challenge was carrying camping gear and food needed for fully supported touring. With the LHT, the solution was simple. Panniers and a duffel. With the Brompton, there was no such readily available solution. We flirted with using a Carradice, but because of our tent and our bulkier down bags, we needed more room than that. A few days before we were to actually leave, we switched to backpacks (Laura’s has a 38L capacity, mine is 50L) and figured out a way to mount them with a dowel and some leather toe-straps. At best, it was a hack. However, much to our surprise it was actually a very elegant and workable system. It worked well for transit connections and it allowed us to carry our camping gear. We pack the heavy stuff on the bottom of the bag, so a lot of the weight stays low to the ground. The rack supports most of the weight and the dowel is there to just hold the bag upright. For all its odd looks, it handles really well. Again, there wasn’t the issue of left/right balance since everything was always centered!
In terms of capacity, the combination of a 31L front bag and 50L backpack gives you the same volume as 4 Ortlieb Bike Packers. I would say that this is the outer limit of how you should pack. We try not to load more than 30lbs on the front and rear bag so as not to over stress the frame and components.
So how does it ride? Perhaps the most common reaction we get when people hop on our bikes to try them out is that it feels “surprisingly normal.” Our setup LOOKS a lot stranger than it actually rides. With the weight on the front and back, the bike feels well grounded and stable. After riding them exclusively for the last few months, when we hop on a “normal” size bike, those feel strange to us. It really is a matter of adapting to how it feels.
The longest ride we’ve done on the loaded Bromptons is about 70 miles, which as it turns out, is close to our longest day on the Surly LHTs. Our typical touring distance is about 50 miles a day and we have no problem riding that with the Bromptons.
There are slight momentum losses when going uphill and on the flats. You always have to be constantly inputting energy to keep it going, but for our riding style it’s not a big deal. Perhaps where the ride suffers most is going downhill. Not that it isn’t capable of descending at speed, you just have to be VERY aware of what you’re doing. Whereas on the LHT, we could descend in a relatively relaxed fashion, on the Bromptons we tend to be in a state of high alert while guiding the bike. The small wheels are just simply less forgiving of potholes, cracks, and cattle grates.
What may surprise most people is that we’re actually a little faster when touring on the Bromptons! Because of the weight and carrying limitations, we are much much lighter and cover distances faster than on our Surlys. When we first left with the Surly’s we were carrying 140lbs of gear. By the end of the trip, we had whittled it down to 90lbs of gear. In comparison, our Bromptons and our gear weigh about 80lbs TOTAL! We could literally strap our Brompton and all our gear to a Surly and be LIGHTER than what we weighed at the end of our last trip!
One of the big rules of bike touring dogma is to use standard parts. The Brompton handily breaks this rule. Nearly everything is proprietary. However, the parts that are most likely to need replacing (with the exception of tubes and tires) can be found in most bike shops. Consumables like cables and cable housing are the same (though they must be cut to the precise length and routed in a precise way), chains are nothing exotic, as are the break pads. The tires and tubes are hard to find so we carry 3 spare tubes each and a spare tire.
The chain tensioner is a fairly simple mechanism without a lot of moving parts to break. And if we did, we have made arrangements with Clever Cycles to send spares. This is an important point to be made – if you’re planning a long tour with your Brompton, it’s a good idea to develop a relationship with a dealer (we really like Clever Cycles) to help you in the event of catastrophic breakage. Chances are it won’t happen, but it’s good to have someone to go to in a moment’s notice that can help and send you parts.
The only thing that has failed so far was a tire. Laura’s Schwalbe Marathon actually blew out. The tire separated from the wire bead and caused a flat. We had everything we needed to solve the problem so it was just a minor inconvenience. Clever Cycles sent us another spare tire that we later intercepted in Bozeman, MT.
The other component which raises the most concern with new users are the shifters. They feel plasticky with a tendency to rattle and are incongruous with the high quality feel of everything else on the bike. I asked the folks at Clever Cycles about the durability of the shifter and they assured us that though they felt a flimsy, they haven’t seen any broken shifters come in. Despite their strange looks and cheap feel, they have performed without incident. In fact, the entire drivetrain has been problem-free so far.
Flexiness is another big concern of new users. By the looks of it, one would assume that it rides like a wet noodle. While it isn’t as stiff as our Surlys, neither is it as bouncy as it looks. Most people that hop on one, usually get the unfortunate misfortune of riding a Brompton with a “standard” block which makes it ride like a see-saw. With a firm block, the bike is considerably stiffer and more efficient feeling. It doesn’t ride like a rigid race bike, but for the style of touring we do it performs well.
With the Bromptons, we do most of our climbs in the saddle. Although we do climb out of the saddle on occasion to stretch our legs or on particularly steep pitches, we generally avoid overly spirited climbing that involves a lot of throwing the bikes to and fro.
All You Need is 6
One of our early concerns was gearing. After getting used to having a veritable plethora of gears to choose from on the Surlys, six seemed quite a bit stingy. Remarkably, the gearing has worked out well for us. With the wide-range 3-speed hub and reduced gearing option, the Brompton has about the same range as our Surly LHTs in the middle chainring – just fewer steps. I was pretty skeptical at first that this would be enough gears to go up and over mountains, so I tried out a double chainring modification. However, in 2000 miles I never once had to drop to the smaller ring. I recently removed the double and replaced it with the original 44t crank again.
Where the wide gaps seem to be the most annoying is in flat open country, where you’re moving at more or less the same speed for miles and miles. In that situation it can be more helpful to have more granularity in the gearing to better match your body’s preferred cadence. In practice, we’ve only had a few days of riding where this has been enough of an issue to bemoan about loudly. For the most part, the gearing has worked out surprisingly well.
While the wide gaps in gearing were startling at first, we’ve adapted. Ride something long enough and you’ll get accustomed to it and you’ll forget what you were so worried about in the first place.
As you’re probably beginning to notice, touring happily with a Brompton isn’t just about packing ultralight, it’s also about having the right attitude. If you work within its limitations, it can be one of the most versatile bicycles out there – capable of being a touring bike when you need it and a city bike when you don’t.
Your Personal Jetpack
The promise of Jetsonian travel has yet to be fulfilled in all its mid-century modern glory, but the Brompton comes close. With the Brompton, we’re never without some means of personal mobility. We can transition from self-supported bicycle touring to riding a Greyhound to an Amtrak train and back to a bicycle almost effortlessly. With the LHTs, we would always dread having to make a transit connection because it usually meant trying to find bike boxes and then dealing with people that really didn’t want your bike on board.
The Brompton has taken away a lot of the stress we used to have with multi-modal travel. We can now take the train or plane and not have to deal with waiting for public transit or resort to renting a car to get around. This is where the Brompton really shines and transcends beyond just being a bike. Trains, buses and planes are woefully inadequate in terms of integrating bicycles. Bikes are a burden and an after-thought. Until the system catches up, the Brompton is a great solution. It is the transportation equivalent of having your cake and eating it too; you have all the mobility and benefits of a bicycle, without the hassles of transporting a bicycle between transportation modes.
A few years ago, we would have never considered the Brompton as a viable bike for self-supported touring. It was just too weird-looking and under-geared. However, our travels have taught us that you can tour on practically any bike, given you work within its design parameters and have the right mindset. While probably not the best bike for every type of tour, it is definitely the best choice for our current mult-modal meanderings.
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