Yep, that image was shot with a camera a little bigger than your average point and shoot.
If you were to weigh all the stuff I carry while touring, you’d be surprised to note that my actual camping/clothing gear only weighs about 35 lbs. The rest of the 50lbs I carry is electronics. I’ve been slowly chipping away at the weight of the electronic gear by swapping out a lighter laptop, cutting down the number of cameras, etc., A big part of the weight has always been my DSLR. I’ve been experimenting the last few weeks with the Olympus EP3 and EPM1 and have been pleasantly surprised. They are small rangefinder sized cameras that use the micro 4/3rds system. While not having the same image quality as say a full frame DSLR, depending on your use and application, it may be all the camera you need.
In the video, I compare the EP3 and EPM1, two cameras on the opposite ends of the Olympus m43 systems. Interestingly, they use the same sensor so should produce the same image quality. The difference is in the body and handling. Watch the video and you might be surprised at the results. For full disclosure, I purchased the EP3 but was sent the EPM1 by Olympus as part of their PEN Ready project.
If you liked the video and want to get your own, consider buying from our Amazon affiliate store and we’ll get some coffee money. I’ve created a curated list of what I think would make the ideal travel camera kit.
Get the EP3 if:
-you want direct actress to features through buttons and dials
-plan to use manual focus lenses through adaptors (ie Leica, OM, Nikon, Canon FD, etc.,)
-the bigger and nicer LED screen is important to you
Get the EPM1 if:
-you’re on a budget
-if you can live with having to access the menu to change settings
-if you value weight over external controls
EDIT: A reader pointed out to me that you CAN access the focus magnification on the EPM1 by assigning it to the REC button. This didn’t dawn on me to do, because you lose the ability to shoot video with the button. That said, if you were doing JUST stills at the moment with a manual lens, then the REC button as a manual focus assist will work!
For more sample pictures of the EP3 and EPM1, check out this Flickr set where I shoot a cyclocross race with both cameras.
UPDATE: Just added a short video I shot from the same cross race in the Flickr group. Not too bad for the little PEN cameras.
UPDATE: Another video test. This time making coffee with the Hario Slim Mill : ).
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new 2012 calendar or some of the fun zombie apocalypse shirts we’re designing.)
One of the things I never really experienced growing up in Southern California was Fall. For a kid in Los Angeles, I pretty much only remember two seasons: hot summer and warm summer. Concepts like Fall and Spring completely eluded me, except for the fact that, around October, there would be an explosion of orange and yellow in the supermarket or mall. That’s what counts for seasons sometimes. It has been a nice treat to have a real fall in one place and witness the leaves change and the air get crisper every morning.
I dusted off my trusty Surly, the bike that took me through our first 15 months of touring. It needed some air and some minor adjustments but otherwise it was in perfect working condition. Hopping on the Surly after months of riding the Brompton was strange. The bike, at first, felt slow to steer and a little sluggish out of the gate, but after a few miles I remembered why we picked the LHTs in the first place. They are great bikes. Workhorses. The sort of bike I would recommend without reservation. Sure, there are fancier bikes out there with custom doodads, but for a solid and reliable touring bike that won’t break the bank, the LHT is tough to beat.
I’ve been riding up a hill that leads to some radio towers close to Laura’s mom’s house to get my climbing legs back. It’s a decent climb, not too steep, not too long, but enough to get the blood pumping. The roads here are great for cycling. They are small country roads with little traffic and beautiful scenery. The climb up to the radio tower has some twists and turns as it undulates to the top. The trees leaning over the road are changing color and provide pleasant distraction from the climb.
When you reach the crest of the hill there is a small parking lot and dirt roads going in either direction. These are completely closed to traffic and, when you ride, all you hear is the crackle of gravel beneath your tires and your own breathing. In a couple of minutes, you’re completely enveloped by trees and all those worrying voices in your head die down. This is beautiful. As long as there are places like this and as long as you can get to them, you will be alright.
When I feel like I’ve been refreshed, I turn and ride down the hill, letting the brakes go as long as I dare. The Surly is solid beneath me and my eyes start to tear up from the air rushing by. It is still mostly country out here, but the vestiges of human activity and busyness appear.
Before too long, I too am in the thick of it again, sitting behind a computer doing the things we do to keep our trip going. As the colors change from green to orange, we know that a wet grey winter will follow and our hopes are to be in New Zealand soon.
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new 2012 calendar or some of the fun zombie apocalypse shirts we’re designing.)
We just finished laying out our new calendar with our favorite images from our Big Adventure Small Wheels trip! It’s crazy to think that this is our third calendar! Every year we have the tall order of searching through literally thousands of images to find twelve that will make our calendar. It’s a mix of color and B&W images that we hope capture the nature of our trip. It makes a unique gift (don’t think there is another calendar out there that shows people touring on Bromptons!) for your bike touring buddies and readers of the site. As always, calendar sales help us continue our journey. We’re running an early-bird special for the month of October and are offering them at a 10% discount.
Order yours today and help us get to New Zealand!
As you know, I’ve been on a quest to minimize our electronics even further. On our first trip, I was lugging around a DSLR, lightstand, tripod, strobes, etc., Since then, I’ve drastically cut down the load, but we’ve also started to incorporate more video on the site. For our latest Brompton trip, we’ve been using a small Canon HD solid state camcorder which we bought used on EBay. It has worked out pretty well so far, but I want to to cut down even more.
I’ve been watching the Micro 4/3 camera systems for some time but hesitated on pulling the trigger. However, I feel that the system is now getting close to maturity. There are some great lenses out for the system and the size is just right or travel. Interestingly, the Olympus PEN cameras also do video and I’ve been toying around with the idea of just carrying two PENs on our next adventure to shoot both stills and video. I’ll do a more indepth review later, but I just wanted to post a quick video experiment with the E-PM1 that Olympus sent me as part of their Pen Ready project. So far, so good! If you’re interested in what I’m carrying or want to purchase a camera and help support our site, check out our Amazon store with the list of camera gear I’m trying out.
Just a quick video about some of the small things we carry while on tour. I shot it mostly to test out the capabilities of the Olympus EP3 as a video camera. So far, so good. It has its limitations and quirks that I’m trying to work around. I also wanted to mention our Amazon store again. We have an affiliate program set up so if you order something through the store, we’ll get a tiny percentage back. It’s not a lot, but every bit helps to keep us on the road. So if you’re looking for touring gear, flip through our store and consider ordering something through there.
It has almost been three years since we first left Long Beach, CA to travel by bicycle. When we left, there was a lot of excitement about bicycling in Long Beach. The grassroots bike advocacy group I was part of was working hard doing bike valet throughout the city, giving monthly bicycle safety classes and attempting to get their non-profit status. There was excitement over the newly painted and controversial green-striped sharrow lane on 2nd Street, a high traffic commercial district. There was buzz over plans of a separated cycletrack in downtown. Long Beach was being touted as a shiny example of a bike friendly city in Southern California. Things were looking up. So it was with great interest when we visited Long Beach again this past week. We were excited to see how things have developed since we left. Was it finally living up to the big audacious goal that was hanging at the entrance of city hall?
After a series of trains to get from the San Fernando Valley to Long Beach, our first stop was the new and supposedly permanent (this is its third location in a decade) location of BikeStation. Our friend Travis was there and gave us a tour. The structure is stunning with a ramp for members to wheel their bikes from the first floor to the 2nd floor members area. Hopefully, this will be its final location.
A good indicator of the health of bicycling in a city is its number of bicycle shops. To our surprise, two new bicycle shops have opened within the last four months. The Bike Connection is a new shop located on Long Beach Blvd. and Anaheim, a very unlikely place in Long Beach. With no infrastructure in sight and on one of the city’s main thoroughfares, it can be a challenging place for a cyclist to get to. However, it’s a bike shop in one of Long Beach’s under-served neighborhoods. Bike Connection carries some new cruiser and fixed gear bikes, but its specialty is used frames and repairs for local residents. There is a range of old cruiser bikes, English 3 speeds, and even a few touring bikes.
The other new bicycle shop is The Workshop, in the Bixby Knolls area of Long Beach. Again, it’s in an area with little bike infrastructure, but has a strong walking community. If a cyclist in Bixby Knolls needed a repair or wanted to buy a bike, they would have to drive many miles to the nearest bike shop – now they have access to a bike shop on their main street. We chatted a little with Graham Baden, the manager of the shop. Residents have been supportive, and he has been busy with repairs as people bring in bikes that have been collecting dust in their garages. The most rewarding part of the new business, he tells us, is seeing local residents riding bikes that he has repaired. Currently, they carry a selection of fixed gear bikes and skateboards, but has plans to carry more commuting bicycles and gear.
Bixby Knolls is also part of Long Beach’s Bicycle Friendly Business District program. We spoke with April Economides, the city consultant in charge of developing and implementing the program. Four distinct areas in Long Beach (Bixby Knolls, 4th Street, Little Cambodia, East Village) are participating. As participating districts, each one is given a cargo bike, as well as regular bicycles, to be used by the local business district to promote cycling within the district. Businesses are also encouraged to participate during Bike Saturdays and provide those who arrive by bike with some discounts on food and merchandise (we got a free cup of coffee at It’s A Grind in Bixby Knolls). We spoke to April about interacting with the businesses and some of the challenges she faced. She told us some business owners didn’t know or weren’t aware that many of their customers arrived by bike. They had the preconception that only people driving to a business district would spend money on goods and services. However, through lots of public outreach and direct interaction with business owners, she has been able to convert skeptical business owners. What is unique about the BFBD (Bicycle Friendly Business District) concept is that it phrases the potential economic impact of cycling in no uncertain terms. One of April’s long term goals is to develop a blueprint for other business districts to follow.
While it is too early to tell if the BFBD program is a success, it certainly has attracted lots of attention and will hopefully plant the seed in the heads of other bicycle advocates around the state and country to make alliances with business districts. One of the specific challenges in Long Beach is that, of the four districts, only two of them (East Village and 4th Street) are easily navigable by bike (and, even at that, the actual street of 4th is not the most pleasant to ride on!). The other districts are in areas which have very fast or busy traffic and no bike amenities. Which leads to another potential problem, how sustainable is the program? April hopes that the businesses will continue to build the bicycle friendly districts long after the funding for the grant has expired. Her hope is that it will be self-sustaining, and she has done her due diligence by engaging all stake-holders and getting them involved. Time will tell if they continue to be bicycle friendly districts in the future.
During our visit, we rode around and sampled all the infrastructure we could find. Long Beach has improved since we started riding bicycles and we did seem to notice more people on bikes. There are the green sharrows on 2nd Street and the much touted cycletrack through downtown. Neither are perfect, but they do seem to attract more riders. I will say, to our surprise, we STILL found many people riding on the sidewalk on 2nd Street and in the door zone despite the big green stripe.
I rode the cycletracks and found them to be an inviting experience. However, they are not without problems. There was a section where giant slippery steel plates were in the middle of the lane, creating a hazard for cyclists (which have apparently been there for months). There are also many points of potential turning conflict with the unprotected driveways, as well as how the paths themselves (while pleasant) end abruptly with no way-finding to connect to other bike friendly streets. Assuming that it is meant for less experienced cyclists, some instruction as to what to do after the path ends would be helpful.
We did see many things that the city did right, like the placement of sharrows around town. We also noticed that the Passport bus, one of the most used buses in the city, finally had bicycle racks on them. There were also some numbered bicycle route signs to be found, spread sporadically through the city. However, from what I understand, there is still no city bike map that shows the numbered route system. We tried to diligently follow one and, when we weren’t getting lost, we were getting disappointed because many of the traffic sensors STILL did not recognize bicycles at intersections.
For Long Beach, the devil is in the details – or, rather, in the missing details. There is a cycletrack, but a portion of it has dangerous steel plates and no way-finding where they end. There are numbered routes, but the intersections don’t recognize bikes. There is infrastructure, but no education of drivers, cyclists or law enforcement. With the green sharrows, the cycletrack, and Bike Friendly Business Districts, Long Beach has achieved some good things and has pushed some boundaries for which it should be commended, but I believe it can do better. I also believe it can do better without having to always resort to high-profile, innovative infrastructure all the time. It’s sort of like attempting to do a 360 degree slam dunk from the free throw line before mastering the basic layup.
Take, for example, fixing traffic sensors so they recognize cyclists at lights, especially on signed bike routes. There is nothing more degrading than not being recognized by a lifeless unblinking machine – and it doesn’t take any special permits, millions of dollars of federal funding and hiring consulting firms to fix the problem. Another inexpensive way to foster a bike friendly city is to have a BPAC (Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory Committee), made up of all interested stake holders. By inviting those that want to be involved and truly listening to their wants and needs, it would eliminate the rancor and in-fighting that often develops when people feel unheard and unimportant. Furthermore, if there was a BPAC, there would be constant pressure to make incremental improvements and be accountable, rather than just a flurry of high profile projects every few years.
When we went back, I was a little heartbroken to hear that the Long Beach Cyclists, the grassroots bike advocacy group I had been a part of, had dissolved their board and was no longer active. Not that I can blame them. When I was with them, I constantly felt like we were between a rock and a hard place. We were always struggling to get our voices heard by the city. Slowly, I saw people who gave so much, so willingly, get angry, disenchanted, and then burn out.
Long Beach has made some great strides and has attracted a lot of attention with its high profile projects. Many cities have even begun to look to Long Beach as a leader in bicycle friendliness. I challenge the city to continue to work toward its goal to be the most bike friendly city in the country, by not just working on infrastructure projects, but also by giving cyclists a seat at the table when it comes to decision making. Being a bike-friendly city not only means having cycletracks, but also supporting and listening to the rich and diverse bicycling community. That’s a bike project has been overdue in Long Beach for a long time.
We’re pretty excited to be going to Interbike this year with the help of our friends from Nashville Bicycle Lounge! We’ll be keeping an eye out for new commuting and touring products so check the site for updates that week. If there’s anything specific you want us to cover, email us. We’ll also be hanging out at the Klean Kanteen booth trying to meet up with readers and other bloggers (details soon!).
We’d also love to relay to Brompton directly how our trip has changed your perception of their bike! If our adventure has inspired you to go on your own multi-modal trip or get a Brompton, let us know. If our trip made you consider incorporating Amtrak or other modes of transportation into your bike tour, let us know (we’re still compiling a document we want to send to Amtrak). Either email us, use our Connect page, or leave a comment below. We think that they’re great bikes capable of some great adventures and we’d love to see them develop their touring luggage line and reach out to the US market more.
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.
(Keep our adventures going and the site growing! If you’ve enjoyed our stories, videos and photos over the years, consider buying our ebook Panniers and Peanut Butter, or our new Brompton Touring Book, or some of the fun bike-themed t-shirts we’re designing, or buying your gear through our Amazon store.)
Playing a little catch-up on all the footage. In this episode we finally leave Oregon, but not before having to climb out of the Grand Ronde river valley up Rattlesnake Grade. Rattlesnake Grade is a 13 mile climb with 110 turns and is popular with motorcyclists. Despite it’s rather intimidating name, the riding itself was pleasant. You could hear traffic from a distance and it had good sight lines. (YouTube version)
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.