Talking to Brompton Bicycle recently regarding their 2010 product line-up, I mentioned that I live next door to Blenheim Palace, site of last weekend’s Brompton World Championships, and said that because I’d be covering the event for Road.cc, it would be good to catch up with them there for a quick chat.
“Since you’re there,” they suggested, “why don’t you ride the event and you can see it from the competitor’s angle?” Great idea, but there was just one problem. I don’t own a Brompton. “Don’t worry,” they said, “we’ll lend you one.”
As someone who used to work with Brompton owners who would talk lovingly of their bikes, and thought seriously about buying a folder back in my commuting days, it was impossible to turn the offer down.
And so on Friday afternoon, two days before the race, the bike arrived. Brompton explained that it was best I had some time to practice folding and unfolding the bike before the event, instead of being left still struggling at the Le Mans-style start as the other 599 competitors disappeared into the distance.
Out of the box, the first thing that struck me was the compactness of the fold. That, and just how much thought and engineering had gone into packing so much into such a small space. The next thought, inevitably, was “how on earth am I going to unfold this?”
As it turns out, the process is pretty straightforward and intuitive. There’s even a video on Brompton’s website of founder Andrew Ritchie showing how it’s done, making it look ridiculously easy, which with practice, it is.
In essence, it boils down to a few simple steps, and first time it took me all of 60 seconds to unfold the bike. That got quicker with practice. Folding it back is slightly more complicated, since there are a couple of tweaks you need to know about – one, to ensure that the front wheel is the correct way round so that the clip on the front right fork is facing the frame, and two, to keep the bike raised slightly to ensure that the clip engages. That’s it.
The bike Brompton provided was painted Turkish Green, although my immediate thought on seeing it was Bianchi Celeste, or Cambridge Blue – the latter observation causing a raised eyebrow from my wife, who works at a certain university associated with a much darker shade of blue. It was certainly striking, though.
On Saturday morning, I took the bike out for a quick run up to the shops. It wouldn’t do to ride a bike for the first ever time in a world championship, now, would it?
I have to admit that I got on with a bit of trepidation, for several reasons. One, I was still bumped and bruised from a heavy tumble off my road bike a couple of days earlier. Two, overnight rain had made the road slippery. Three, there’s a river between our house and the village, meaning that whichever direction you go, there’s a pretty quick descent to the bridge followed by a sharp uphill climb. Last – and certainly not least – a trawl around online comments from Brompton owners suggested that for first-timers, the steering can take a little getting used to.
They were certainly right on that last count. The last time I rode something with a front end that felt this capricious, it had four legs, answered to the name of Spartacus, and was owned by a Frenchman of Cossack extraction named Serge who ran a riding school down in the Pyrenees. But you quickly get used to the Brompton’s steering, which proved reassuringly stable as you pick up pace.
As for the hills, going down was a breeze, and the generous gearing meant it was no problem getting back up the other side, albeit at a much gentler pace than I’d normally be going on my road bike. The Brompton-branded Kevlar tyres provided good grip, and finally the upright riding position proved perfect for my still-battered body.
Having missed last year’s inaugural Bike Blenheim Palace event through holiday, I’d been itching for a chance to ride on the traffic-free paths, closed to cyclists the rest of the year, where I take the dog for her walk every day. That, and the chance to have a crack at the two-lap, 6.5-kilometre course with the likes of former Vuelta winner Roberto Heras.
Sunday morning saw me in shirt, jacket and tie lined up for the Le Mans-style start. While most fellow competitors were similarly attired, it was great to see the efforts that others had made, with prizes on offer for the best-dressed male and female riders. Even the chap who brought his dog along for the ride – check the photos – ensured that his canine companion was suitably attired in collar and tie.
With the field increased to 600 entrants this year, Brompton had decided to start the race in waves of around 100 riders at a time. My start number meant that I was in the last wave, setting out a good few minutes after the more fancied riders.
My greatest fear that I would be stranded at the start still trying to unfold the bike proved unfounded, and I whizzed off down the road, buoyed by the vocal encouragement of a sizeable crowd. Things felt great until I hit the hill – not steep, but very long – about a third of the way round the course.
It didn’t help that the rider in front of me slowed almost to a halt in the early stages of the climb, causing me to lose any momentum I’d built on the preceding descent but I made it up, albeit slowly in the granny gear, before coasting down the other side.
Meanwhile, the Heras group, which had started a few minutes ahead of me in the first wave, flew past. I had no idea a Brompton could be ridden so quickly. But whereas if I were out on the Colnago I might be a bit put out at a bunch of riders going past me at such speed, the presence of a former Vuelta winner notwithstanding, the truth is I was enjoying the experience of riding the Brompton so much that I just shouted encouragement at them.
When I eventually rolled in – this was a day that for me was more about the taking part than the winning – it was to cheering crowds, even though to my disappointment there wasn’t anyone else nearby to enable me to test my sprinting abilities.
By that time, of course, the winners had been decided. Heras, runner up last year, took the men’s title by a whisker from Michael Hutchinson, although the latter had the excuse of having just ridden a 20-kilometre time trial around the same course in which he finished a second shy of a minute ahead of the field. Julia Shaw, meanwhile, added the Brompton title to the time trial win she had achieved earlier in the day.
One thing that came across clearly during the day is that Brompton owners are a fiercely brand-proud and singular lot, much the same as those who own MG cars, or Leica cameras. The presence of Brompton owners from all over Europe and beyond paid testament to that. Brompton is a brand that sits atop its niche, and which has a loyal following who revel in its quirkiness, and a day of celebration like this can only reinforce the sense of belonging to a wider family of like-minded individuals.
So, would I buy one? If I still had to commute to work by train each day, absolutely – I’m sold. Will I do the race again next year? I’d love to, and will talk to Brompton-owning friends ahead of time to secure a bike on loan. Will I win? Well, assuming next year’s event is at Blenheim, I have 12 months to train the pheasants in the park to do all they can to impede the likes of Roberto Heras and give me a clear run round the course.
Thanks again to Brompton for the loan of the bike and an unforgettable day.
Fastest Male 1st Roberto Heras Spain 0:21:45 2nd Michael Hutchinson United Kingdom 0:21:45 3rd Alastair Kay United Kingdom 0:22:13 Fastest Female 1st Julia Shaw United Kingdom 0:24:22 2nd Rachael Elliott United Kingdom 0:25:47 3rd Delia Beddis United Kingdom 0:25:54 Fastest Male Veteran 1st Gary Higton United Kingdom 0:25:46 Fastest Female Veteran 1st Sarah Wookey United Kingdom 0:32:27 Fastest Junior 1st Brock Duncumb Rogers United Kingdom 0:24:53 Team Event 1st Brompton 1 United Kingdom 01:10:31 2nd Bike Tech Spain 01:12:00 3rd Cap Problema Spain 01:14:06 Veteran Norfolk Enchants United Kingdom 01:27:25 Best Dressed Male 1st Gary Foulger United Kingdom Best Dressed Female 1st Susie Smith United Kingdom
Born in Scotland, Simon moved to London aged seven and now lives in the Oxfordshire Cotswolds with his miniature schnauzer, Elodie. He fell in love with cycling one Saturday morning in 1994 while living in Italy when Milan-San Remo went past his front door. A daily cycle commuter in London back before riding to work started to boom, he's been news editor at road.cc since 2009. Handily for work, he speaks French and Italian. He doesn't get to ride his Colnago as often as he'd like, and freely admits he's much more adept at cooking than fettling with bikes.