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Brompton S Type 2L 2010

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Tested by Tarquin Cooper

Review

Folding bikes have surged in popularity in recent years as more and more of us cycle to work. For those who have to combine their ride with a journey by train, there is often no alternative to a folding bike since so few train operators have space for regular bikes. The manufacturers bill the British-made Brompton as the 'ultimate transport solution' the best weapon to beat congestion in town, while its foldability means you have total flexibility. You can cycle about but if the heavens unfold, you can always retreat onto public transport - not that you will. Being able to store it inside, whether under your desk or in a cloakroom not only means an end to wet saddles but also to worries that someone's trying to nick it. Sadly this doesn't apply if you leave it in a pub or restaurant.

All this is true, up to a point, of all folding cycles. But where the Brompton really scores highly is as a complete package - it's an engineering masterpiece. First developed by the engineer Andrew Ritchie 30 years ago, it has undergone several transformations but its genius is the way the rear wheel folds neatly underneath to create a stand. This is great for those times when you're just nipping into a shop and want to leave the bike standing up. 

When it comes to foldability the Brompton has no peers. Just raise the seat-post, unfold the frame, tighten two nuts and lift the bike to release the rear wheel and you're off. Once you've got the hang of it, it's possible to fold and unfold in around 30 seconds - to see a video of how it's done click here. (The record is under 10 seconds!)

Of course this does come at a price and there are many who baulk at the cost. But the manufacturers retort that it's an investment that will pay for itself. It also comes with a five year warranty. 

It is the small inconspicuous touches that impress. In the folding position the chain is protected by the handlebars so you won't get your work clothes covered in chain oil when carrying it. However, care still needs to be taken if you're lifting it onto a luggage rack as the chain is exposed at the rear and well-placed to ruin a shirt. The seat conveniently turns into a handle, complete with finger holds on its underside. You're not going to walk any great distance with it, the length of a railway platform at most, but it's still a useful, comfortable carrying feature as although it's light for a bike it still weighs 10.7kg. 

Another clever innovation is its luggage-carrying capability, making the Brompton a surprisingly good choice as a tourer, especially as it's so easy to take on a plane. The Brompton can take the load of a donkey, with 20-25litres up front and 16litres on a rear rack. The manufacturers state that rider and luggage weight should not exceed 110kg and 20kg respectively. However, although not recommended, I managed to exceed this without trouble giving a lift to a friend riding pillion behind me. In fact, the rollers doubled up as excellent foot-holds.

On its front, it features a catch that you just drop Brompton's messenger style bag onto with one effortless click. It doesn't make for aerodynamic riding and when you're up against a head-wind it can raise the work load for your legs. However it's a small compromise for not having to carry anything on your back and risk either sweat marks or ruffling ironed clothing, the bane of a commuter's life.  

But the real question, is how does it ride? Many traditionalists will assume that there will be an inevitable loss of performance when one swaps a real bike for a piddly thing with small 16" wheels, as bike snobs see it. Watching the surprised looks on their faces as you speed away at the lights is one of the most satisfying aspects of riding a Brompton. Small wheels do not make a slow bike, a point proved in 1986 when a small-wheeled Moulton broke the cycling world speed record. In fact, thanks to a lower inertia and a reduced wind resistance, they're also better at accelerating than larger wheels. At the recent Brompton World Championships, the winner's average speed around the 13km course was just under 40kph. When I cycled 20km across London, battling the worst that the metropolis can throw, it took me 1 hour 15 minutes.

Small wheels do have their disadvantages. Going over a pot-hole can be a hair-raising experience and in the wet they are more prone to losing traction and care needs to be taken while cornering. But the Brompton has an unlikely weapon up its sleeve to deal with uneven road surfaces - suspension. It's not something your downhill racer would recognise, but a large rubber block sits between the main and rear frame which does actually cushion the ride well. 

Bromptons come with four gear combinations: the single speeder, the two-speed derailleur, three-speed hub and a six speed hub and derailleur combo. Unless you encounter serious hills the two-speed SL2 is the perfect set-up for urban riding. The lower gear is perfect for setting off and gentle gradients and a flick of the handle-bar mounted shifter takes you to the higher gear. The chain alignment is almost perfect, meaning gear-changing is clean and efficient. 

If you've just stepped off a road or mountain bike, there's no doubt that the feel of a Brompton will be strange at first. But persist and you'll discover a bike that's not only hugely practical and portable but great fun to ride. And because you've always got it with you, you will use it that much more, increasing your independence and freedom.

At a glance

Verdict Brompton is the flagship of folding bikes and the S2L is the lightest, simplest and cheapest in their range. With two gears and lower, sporty S-type handlebars, it does the job you expect of an about-town folder.
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