Biking on a Brompton: One Reporter’s View

October 1, 2008, 11:06 am

Source: NYTimes

The collapsible Brompton bicycle. (Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

The collapsible Brompton bicycle. (Photo: Librado Romero/The New York Times)

It’s funny how falling in love can change our perception of beauty.

I used to think the protruding seat post and humpbacked tube characteristic of the Brompton, a brand of folding bicycle, were supremely ugly. Now I can spend inordinate amounts of time contemplating the genius of its design.

Brompton, a British brand, makes one-size-fits-all folding bikes. Once you have the knack, a rider can tuck in the back wheel, fold the midsection, flip down the handlebars and left pedal, and lower the seat – all in about 20 seconds.

Suddenly I’ve started to notice people on folding bikes everywhere in Brussels. We trade knowing smiles when our paths cross. When we meet, we talk in self-congratulatory tones about how we lead more convenient and environmentally sound lives without having to deal with the hassle of bike thieves. We also are quick to remind any skeptics that folding bikes still go pretty fast for an item with such small wheels.

The world produced an estimated 130 million bicycles in 2007, more than twice the 52 million cars produced, and bicycle production has been increasing in each of the last six years, according to the Earth Policy Institute.

So does that mean there’s a bike boom underway, driven by a passion for greenery? Not necessarily.

Much of that recent growth has been driven by the rise in electric, or e-bike, production, which has doubled since 2004, the Earth Policy Institute reports. Some of these electric models need to be pedaled to start, before an engine kicks in, but they are essentially motor-driven.

Indeed, pure pedal power isn’t practical for everyone, and it seems unlikely to take hold everywhere.

Better living through technology. (Photo: Brompton)

Better living through technology. (Photo: Brompton)

In some hot climates, the physical exertion required of even a short cycle ride makes riding to work very hard work. In these places, for white-collar jobs at least, there would need to be showers and lockers at the office. As for very cold climates, it’s elementary that bikes don’t work so well on ice or in snow.

Besides, in many developing countries, where cars and motorbikes are a sign of social and economic advancement, riding bicycles – let alone riding an expensive folding model – just isn’t cool. Instead, it could be taken as a sign that you’re down on your luck.

I paid 846 euros for my Brompton, which seems pretty steep. And while I have to admit that it’s one of the best buys I’ve ever made, commuting to work in supposedly bike-friendly northern Europe isn’t quite as easy as you might think.

The weather can be appallingly damp. And unlike next door in towns in the Netherlands, Brussels does not appear to have what I would call a fully integrated system of reliably safe and dedicated bicycling routes. The lanes I use need repainting and many of them need repairs. Other lanes just peter out, and I have to improvise.

In Brussels, cyclists also have to dodge drivers who compulsively race yellow lights and display poor lane discipline. And for riders of bikes with small wheels (and that includes most folding models) some of the cobblestone streets in Brussels are impassable.

Still, it all becomes worth it in moments like this one: I put my folding bike through the X-ray machine at the European Parliament the other day, and then marched it into a formal lunch with a French government minister. It was so small that neither the security guards nor the dining room attendants batted an eyelid.

As for hauling around a chunky U-lock, those days appear over.