If you’re in the market for a folding bike, you’ve probably heard ample about the Brompton.
It’s the most iconic folding bike on the market, and doesn’t need much of an introduction.
For context, I’ve ridden one daily for the better part of a year, in all conditions, both with and without luggage. This has been a great opportunity to find its quirks as well as its unexpected benefits.
Let’s get into it, starting with my top 5 reasons a Brompton may not be worth it, followed by 5 reasons why it’s a terrific option that you should strongly consider.
For those who prefer video, here’s the YouTube version, as well:
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5 Reasons You Might NOT Want A Brompton
They’re Expensive Bikes
The most basic Brompton set-up is a single-speed with no racks or fenders. It goes for US $1,250, give or take.
For a more practical 6-speed configuration, with fenders and perhaps a rack, you’re looking at closer to $1,600.
Dynamo lighting is a great idea for daily riders, and will add a few hundred dollars more. (The exact amount depends on the hub and lighting of choice, of course.)
You’ll probably want to upgrade the “contact points” to more comfortable options. That’s going to run something like $200 in addition, assuming a Brooks saddle and Ergon grips, and even more if you’re dissatisfied with the stock pedals.
All in all, that’s a pricey package. Dynamo lighting and contact points aren’t unique to the Brompton, but they’re still worth mentioning as valuable upgrades to factor into your budget.
So, if you’re not totally sure this whole folding bike business is for you, then consider a less expensive model to test the waters. Dahon has several solid value options, for instance, and they’re easy to find secondhand for even more savings and less risk if you dislike it.
They have some proprietary parts
It’s nice when bikes use universal, commodity parts. Replacements are cheap and ubiquitous online, and most bike shops will stock and install them.
However, some Brompton parts don’t meet that criterion. They’re not wear-and-tear parts, so frequent replacement isn’t likely, but they’re worth noting.
Off the top of my head, the seat collar clamp might require a special order, and the folding pedals are an even better example of somewhat unusual parts. There’s also the matter of shifters that no other bike (to my knowledge) shares with a Brompton.
All these are readily available from the manufacturer plus a handful of more utilitarian bike shops. You just can’t count on finding them quickly when you’re in a pinch.
16″ wheels sacrifice smoothness for portability
Besides some gimmicky, no-name, novelty bikes on Amazon, you really can’t find wheels smaller than 16″ on anything meant for adults.
That’s basically the threshold below which a bike just isn’t steady or predictable enough to use.
In effect, when there are bumps in the road, you’ll feel them more (and they’ll affect your handling more) than with a larger wheel.
The Brompton’s rear suspension block does a good job of taking the edge off, and the wide tires (at least by road bike standards) make handling as smooth and predictable as possible. Still, you’ll need to mind the terrain a little more than on a full-size bike or even a 20″ folder.
Handling is best with a front load
The amount of offset between the front axle and the steering axis has a huge affect on how a bike (or motorcycle, etc.) handles in terms of cornering vs. holding a straight line.
The Brompton uses what we bike nerds call “low-trail” geometry, meaning that this offset is very high. That makes handling nicely responsive and, well, normal when there’s a front load.
But when there’s not a front load, it feels twitchy and squirrelly. To be clear, it’s not like it has a mind of its own. It just feels too easy to turn when you’d really rather not.
Most commuters will want to take advantage of the fantastic luggage system (more on that later). But if you’re not planning to carry a load, then you probably won’t find the handling as relaxing as on most other bikes, whether folding or not.
Older ones have a couple trivially rough edges
Prior to 2017 (as best I recall), Bromptons had cheap-feeling shifters and brake levers that just weren’t solid in your hand.
To be clear, they were perfectly adequate and countless Brompton riders still use bikes from those years without issues. It’s strictly a matter of fit and finish.
But it was an unfortunate oversight for the maker of such an expensive bike to use less-than-awesome parts in places you continually handle.
Again, this was only until around 2017, so any new Brompton (and many used ones these days) do have the update, refined controls.
Mind you, it speaks to their overall quality that this is the biggest quality complaint I could come up with.
5 Things That Make Bromptons Awesome
With the above caveats out of the way, let’s look at a handful of positive attributes that just might seal the deal for you after all.
Construction quality is fantastic
I appreciate how well-constructed the Brompton is from top to bottom and end to end.
For instance, on my personal raw lacquer model, you can actually see the welds through the transparent coating. They’re immaculate, clearly the work of a skilled craftsman, and it’s fair to assume that every inch of the made-in-England frame was built with the same care.
Speaking of quality and the like, it’s worth mentioning that after about a year of daily commuting, I’ve done literally no maintenance.
To be clear, I’ve lubricated the chain and topped off the air in the tires. But actual, mechanical maintenance? None at all.
The internally-geared hub (IGH) keeps the drivetrain mostly hands-off. The two-speed derailleur hasn’t needed anything beyond slight cable tensioning through the little barrel adjuster next to the shifter.
And the shop aligned the brake calipers perfectly before delivery, so braking has remained tight and responsive.
The folding mechanism is brilliant
Even without the excellent build quality, the Brompton’s folding mechanism alone might be enough to justify its price.
Fully folded, it’s something like 10″ wide x 24-25″ long x 24-25″ high. To my knowledge, that’s the most compact fold on the market. The little 16″ wheels help make that happen, just with some decreased ride quality as mentioned earlier.
The folding process isn’t totally obvious at first. Particularly, there’s a little hook on the left side of the front axle that you’ve got to rest on the chainstay when folded. That’s easy to miss, but you’ll know it when you do.
But after practicing just a few times, I can consistently fold or unfold it in 20 seconds or less. When you see your bus or train arriving, or you’re hurrying to get inside from the rain, there’s no time wasted!
Longer chainstays help with ride quality
The chainstays are the tubes from the rear axle to the bottom bracket (i.e., where the cranks attach).
As they get longer, the handling will generally feel steadier. That’s the most noticeable if you favor a more upright riding position (which puts your weight farther back over the rear wheel).
Because Bromptons already fold so compactly, they don’t have to use the ultra-short chainstays that (regrettably) most folding bikes have.
Consequently, its chainstay length is actually on par with many full-size bikes.
That’s one of the subtle and oft-overlooked features that makes a surprising difference in your experience.
And with 16″ wheels that naturally tend toward the harsher side, the added chainstay length is a welcome countermeasure.
(The Brompton frame has been wildly popular and basically unchanged for a few decades, I believe. That’s quite a testament to their thoughtful and clever engineering.)
In brief, the ride quality of a Brompton is excellent for its size.
It would be ridiculous, and unfair, to compare it to the feel of a full-size road bike. After all, its wheels are perhaps 2/3rds the size.
(For that matter, it would be ridiculous and unfair to criticize a full-size road bike’s lack of portability!)
Having tested several folding bikes over the years, I’ve yet to find another with the same overall ride quality and predictability. Others have slightly larger wheels, but the long chainstays and suspension block contribute a ton. (Again, good handling means using a front load, as the bike is designed for.)
In a nutshell, there’s no better ride available without sacrificing the small, transit-friendly, apartment-friendly package.
The luggage system is ingenious
It’s worth talking about the luggage in detail elsewhere.
The brief version is that all luggage clips onto a small mounting on the head tube of the frame itself. That means it’s not attached to the front axle or the handlebars, which adversely affects handling. (Hence the frame-mounted front racks on most cargo bikes.)
In fact, somewhere from 5-15 lbs on the front makes handling more stable and predictable. With a typical commuter load of a laptop, lunch, and maybe some clothing or a coffee thermos, the Brompton handles beautifully. In fact, if you shut your eyes, it’s almost impossible to tell that a load is attached in the first place.
You get the distinct impression that it was built with (at least) this sort of load in mind.
Their weight is reasonable for their practicality
Right off, let’s be clear that this is a fairly beefy, steel frame. An internally-geared hub will add a bit more weight, and my Brooks saddle and dynamo hub plus lights (all quite common upgrades) add at least a couple pounds again.
Even so, the weight still falls in the range of high 20s to maybe 30-ish pounds.
If you’re used to carbon racing bikes, that’s a pretty alarming weight. But for a robust, dependable, “daily driver” bike, it’s tough to find something this full-featured (fenders, rack, internal gearing, etc.) for even close to 30 lbs.
Now, the point of the bike is to be extremely portable. It’s supposed to be easy to carry around, lift overhead, store in cramped quarters, or whatever you’ve got to do. Clearly, less weight is better, but 28 lbs (or whatever mine weighs exactly) comes out surprisingly manageable.
Is A Brompton For You? (& What Else To Consider)
We’ve covered five reasons you may want to pass on a Brompton, or at least not start with one on your folding bike endeavors.
We’ve also gone over five major advantages that make it a fantastic folding bike, and perhaps the best folding bike for you.
So, where does that leave us? My suggestion, in brief, is to buy a Brompton if folding size is paramount and budget isn’t a major constraint.
Still, it’s not the only game in town. You’d do well to choose a different folding bike if saving money is more important than minimal size or maximal ride quality.
Finally, consider a kick scooter if compactness is critical but your trips are under 1-2 miles. They’re not as smooth, capable, or rain-friendly, but they’re cheap and ultra-convenient for quicker trips. (Electric scooters are also reasonable alternatives, but most of the decent ones are too large to carry easily, especially on transit.)
Why are Bromptons so expensive?
Brompton bicycles are expensive because their frames are hand-built in England. They use brazing, which is lighter and stronger than welding, but also more difficult and laborious. The price also reflects many proprietary components, which help them perform well despite folding up so small.
Additionally, Brompton’s chromoly steel is much more expensive than the high-tensile steel on budget bikes. However, it saves considerable weight and is a more resilient material, which improves both ride quality and fatigue life.
Bromptons cost roughly twice as much as a cheaper-but-still-good folding bike, such as you might buy from Dahon. They also cost about twice as much as a non-folding city bike with similar parts.
Those are very rough comparisons, but they’re usually in the ballpark.
A closer look at the cost
So, why the difference in price?
Firstly, Brompton frames are all hand-built in England. The vast majority of bikes come from Taiwan these days, and some of them are extremely high-end. A good craftsman is a good craftsman in any country.
But UK labor costs more, period. For something as quintessentially British as a Brompton, it would be sacrilege to move production abroad even if it cut costs.
What’s more, a folding bike requires extra precision and durability versus a non-folding bike. Every joint and hinge is a potential point of failure. Adding joints and hinges to fold means more things that must be perfect for safety’s sake.
I speculate that outsourcing production would have been too risky in the earlier years of Taiwanese manufacturing, so building in England simply made sense. Even today, with high production and a time-tested design, there’s a strong branding/marketing reason to keep it all in-house.
Another factor is that Brompton’s unique fold requires unique parts. Things need to fit together in a different way from any other folding bike. That adds up to a lot of custom components and frame tubing, all of which are going to raise the production cost substantially. It’s not a coincidence that cheaper brands don’t fold as compactly or precisely.
The bottom line on value
Brompton bikes are excellent in terms of build quality, folding design, and size. Their ride quality is also outstanding relative to their 16″ wheels, but of course they don’t ride like full-sized bicycles.
Whether they’re worth buying is another matter, and that’s largely the point of this review.
As I emphasized throughout this review, a Brompton is ideal when compact storage is your top priority, and you plan on mostly practical riding (as opposed to sport riding).
If you appreciate their quality and attention to detail (for practical or purely aesthetic reasons), then I believe it’s the best option available today. But if you’re OK with average but totally decent build quality, then you can probably save hundreds with other brands.
And speaking of value…
How well do Bromptons hold value?
Bromptons hold their value remarkably well. Exceptional build quality is a major reason. Additionally, the design was refined early on and has not changed much. Older models are not inferior to newer ones, so they retain value better than most.
In other words, they’re intended to be as timeless as possible. Age affects their value less than with other brands.
It’s more helpful to think in terms of generations than of model years.
For example, the most recent revision was a combined handlebar, brake, and shifter improvement that hit the market in 2017 (source). Those are not terribly hard to retrofit if you wish. Otherwise, the last significant change was arguably the introduction of the wide-range internally-geared hub in 2009, and before that, the lengthened wheelbase in clear back in 2004.
So, for instance, I consider a 2018 and 2017 model equal in value, but a 2017 slightly more valuable than a 2016. (Assuming they’re all in identical condition, of course.)
How long do Brompton bikes last?
The Brompton warranty is good for 7 years, but with proper maintenance, a Brompton will last multiple decades. It’s not uncommon to see ones from the early 2000s that are still in daily use!
Like any bicycle, some of its parts will wear out over time.
The most drastic or expensive failure would probably be the internally-geared hub, if yours has one.
Those normally last for many years with little maintenance. Still, in the unfortunate event that it completely failed beyond repair, you could replace the entire wheel for just $200-something. That’s not cheap, but it’s literally the worst possible scenario.
It goes without saying that proper maintenance will maximize the entire bike’s lifespan.
Bromptons have three hinges/joints, all of which are subject to a lot of stress even under gentle riding. They’re designed with that in mind, but it’s still critical to check their alignment and to avoid over- or under-tightening them.
You’ll also need to check and perhaps lubricate hinges on occasion, especially if you ride in harsh conditions or on salted winter roads.
As the bike gets older, keep an eye out for distorted or cracked areas (especially near joints).
Can a Brompton go off-road?
The Brompton handles smooth dirt and gravel roads surprisingly well. The suspension block absorbs vibrations and small bumps, and the long wheelbase gives much-needed stability with small wheels.
However, avoid rough terrain on your Brompton. Not only are small wheels and narrow tires inappropriate for harsh conditions, but it may void your warranty. According to the manufacturer, it’s “for use on roads and well-made paths. It is not designed for cross country riding” (source).
Are Bromptons slow?
A Brompton is as fast as you are!
I’m only half-kidding. In all seriousness, there is nothing inherently “slow” about a Brompton. Let’s clear up two common misconceptions.
First, smaller wheels aren’t slower in practice.
It’s true that smaller wheels get hung up on obstacles that larger wheels would roll over(picture a racing car versus a Jeep). In theory, that means they lose momentum faster. But in reality, if you’re riding on halfway-decent roads, then this phenomenon is just theoretical.
As long as the wheels spin freely on their axles and bearings, then a wheel of any size can roll just as quickly. Sure, smaller diameter means more rotations to cover the same distance, but that doesn’t affect speed.
In fact, smaller wheels are quicker to accelerate from a dead stop. Smaller size means less mass that you have to get moving.
In most urban riding, there’s a lot more stop-and-start than there is rough terrain. That means any difference due to wheel size would be helpful (accelerating from a stop) rather than harmful (theoretically slower on rough ground).
Second, besides your own effort, what really affects speed is your posture while riding.
A racing bike puts you in a deeply forward-leaning position. That engages more of your glutes when pedaling and reduces wind resistance.
A more upright position is more comfortable, but you’ll put out slightly less power and will face more wind resistance.
Note that upright riders can still lean forward when they want or need to. In fact, most people instinctively lean forward when they ride uphill just to squeeze out that extra bit of power, no matter what bike they’re on.
If you want to sacrifice comfort for speed, then choose the S handlebar, or the M if you’re around 6′ or taller.
If you’d rather be more comfortable and able to see your surroundings, then choose the M or even H handlebar.
One quick note is that an internally-geared hub (on 3- and 6-speed models) and dynamo hub (strictly optional) each add a little bit of resistance. They only sap a few percentage points of your power, which technically slows you down.
For most riders, their practical benefits outweigh their minor resistance, but avoid them if you’re concerned about riding as fast as possible. (Then again, you might want a different bike altogether!)