First Day of Brompton Testing

I was already pretty sure I wanted a Brompton folding bike, but I knew I needed to ride one. Clever Cycles has the perfect solution. You can rent a Brompton for $20-30/day, and if you decide to buy one, you can apply as much as $100 of your rental to the purchase price. I So I threw down for a three day rental of their H6L, a six-gear folding bike. For no additional charge I got a helmet and hard-core segmented German bike lock, and for a few bucks extra, a custom bag that fits on the front luggage lock. Finally, I opted for a telescoping seat bar due to my 6’2″ height.

I had to actually go *get* the bike, and it was getting later by the time I got up, showered, cooked and ate “breakfast,” and figured out which bus I wanted to take to get down there. I wanted to leave Junior behind so I would *have* to ride the Brompton for the rest of the day. I made several mistakes during the bus trip, and so ended up arriving about 15 minutes before Clever Cycles closed. However, they had everything ready, were super friendly and informative, and got me all hooked up.

I rode the bike around the neighborhood for about ten minutes, testing the gear shifting and getting a feel for it. The biggest surprise was how *not* special it felt. It didn’t feel exotic at all. It had that hallmark of good engineering where you don’t really notice you’re using something because it’s so easy. I had some trouble with the gearshifts at first, but that’s because I was trying to shift while peddling. This bike has a 3-gear integrated hub, and a derailleur with two gears for a total of 6. The smaller wheels made the bike feel a bit more nimble, and did catch a little more in small potholes, but overall it felt very much like riding a bike with bigger wheels.

Having gotten my sea legs, I decided it was Time for Dinner. I proceeded to Dwaraka Indian Cuisine, where I’d had several fabulous Mysore Masala Dosas in the past. During the appetizer, I managed to offend the host by double-dipping in the condiments, which evidently were going to be re-used for someone else later without being cleaned. Or something. He was *really* offended, grabbed the spoon, and said “you do it like *this*!” The dosa, while delicious, wasn’t as crispy or spicy as I had remembered. They may have assumed I wanted it less spicy because I was white. At any rate, I think I’ll try another restaurant for my next dosa in Portland. I kept a watchful eye on the Brompton, partially folded and chained to a nearby rack.

I then proceeded to The Tao of Tea, perhaps my favorite Portland hangout. It may be the most Zen place I’ve ever visited, and I really liked one of the waitstaff there. She has evidently moved on, but the place was as perfect as ever. I always feel like an asshole using digital devices there, and try to limit my usage to just reading as much as possible. I had the Second Flush Darjeeling, which was excellent, and camped out at my favorite table for a few hours. While enjoying the meditative space, I had a Really Cool Idea about using magnets to secure cups and plates in an RV so they don’t have to be stowed while driving away. More on that later, but I like the idea enough to mock up a prototype.

I knew I needed to do some serious computer slacking, so I headed down to the Southeast Grind, Portland’s only 24/7 coffee shop. One major difference between Austin and Portland is that in Portland, things close pretty early. There are very few coffee places that stay open after 10 PM. In Austin, there are several 24/7 coffee places and the city generally stays up a lot later.

It was good to be back at the Grind again. It was also a healthy ride, giving me more time to evaluate the bike. The trip from the Grind back to Amanda’s had nearly killed me a few times on previous trips, so I knew I’d either sign up for that adventure or, better yet, have a chance to fold up the Brompton and take it on the bus, one of the main reasons to have a folding bike. I’m under a lot peer pressure from almost my entire social group to do more cycling, and while it’s nowhere near as bike friendly as Portland, Austin is improving rapidly. But the last time I’d tried to Take It Seriously, I kept waiting 45 minutes for buses who’s bike racks were already full. That was a dealbreaker for me. However, with a *folding* bike, I could just carry it on and be guaranteed to make the bus.

I did a bunch of research on Bromptons and Clever Cycles prices on them, and while there’s a small markup on some of their parts and options, it’s actually quite small, and assembling the same package from a bunch of different sources would be a huge pain in the ass. I agonized over how expensive the whole thing is, but if I’m going to take it seriously, it *is* worth forking it over for the integrated lights, the custom bag, the Teutonic lock, etc.

The cargo system is worth noting, because of how surprisingly well it works. There are a variety of bags that can be attached to a small latch on the front of the bike. Unlike other bikes, the Brompton has the headlight *under* the cargo bag, and the bag is attached to the main body of the bike, *not* to the handlebars. This makes the cargo much more stable, as it doesn’t move from side-to-side with the handlebars, but stays stable in the direction the bike is going. I had transferred most of my heavy shit, including my laptop, to the Brompton bag, and it worked really well. You *can* get a rear rack and saddlebags for the bike, but it makes it much harder to fold. The only thing I didn’t like about the front bag was that it’s a bit hard to find the release. But once you do, a single click and lift and the whole thing pops off. Pull out the carrying strap, and it goes over your shoulder. It has feet and will stand upright on a hard surface, even with a laptop in it. If I buy one, I think I will spend the extra money to get a good, big one, because they’re proprietary and make the bike a *lot* more useful as a workhorse commuting vehicle.

So the Final Test for today was the trip home. I decided to be lazy and take the bus most of the way. I proceeded to the bus stop and folded up the bike all the way for the first time today. I had very little trouble remembering the steps even though I’d only been shown once. The final package was quite small, though I was a little skeptical of whether it would fit under a bus seat.

Once the bus arrived, I got no guff from the bus drive for my backpack, the Brompton bag, and the bike itself. It wasn’t super light, but it wasn’t super-heavy either. You can get titanium components for the bike to make it a lot lighter, but I feel that I could do with a bit more manual labor in my life, and consider the extra weight a feature rather than a bug. Others might find dropping the extra thousand or so to reduce the weight worth it.

So how did it go on the bus? Mostly ok. If I was sitting in a side-by-side seat, I could manspread around the bike with my bags on top and took up about 1.5 seats. It was somewhat uncomfortable and goofy, and not something I would want to do for a long ride. I then got brave and tried sticking the bike under a two-seat-wide bench seat. This was the result:


As you can (sort of) see, it fit *mostly* under the seat. The Real Answer here is that it *will* fit completely under a set of two seats without sticking out enough to bother anyone but the rider. It will *not* do that for only one seat, shit sticks out. So not everyone on the bus can have one. Not all seat clusters have enough space for it, but a majority probably do. I’m guessing that with a little practice, the rider can find a place for it out of everyone’s way probably 85% of the time. The rest of the time may require holding it in one’s lap, taking up extra hallway space for it, or just being an asshole and using more than one seat.

There was one final problem. I realized my stop had arrived a few seconds late, and I hadn’t pulled the bike out from under the seat yet. I yelled and asked the driver to wait a second, but she didn’t. As a result, I had to get out one stop later than planned. With practice this probably wouldn’t happen as often, but it still sucked.

I then got to use the little rolley wheel on the back of the bike to move it like a luggage cart. You fold up everything but the seat, and then roll it from there. It occurs to me now that maybe I should have rolled up everything but the handlebars. However, the way I did it, the angle of the tiny castor wheels on the pavement had to be *very* precise to roll at all, and was stopped by even the tiniest imperfection in the pavement. This was the most disappointing thing about the experience so far, and I’ll have to practice a bit more tomorrow to see if there’s something I was missing.

Once I got off the bus about ten blocks from the Soul Pad, I unfolded the bike in about 30 seconds. Because of the fully integrated lights, I didn’t have to fuck around clipping anything to the bike except the bag. That was super easy and fast, and then I was peddling home. During that trip, I encountered one of the blocks unmaintained by the city that was basically a dirt-and-rock road. I was impressed by how well the small wheels and shocks smoothed that ride, and while it was a little fussy, keeping the bike moving in the right direction was still a piece of cake.

So far, so good. More tomorrow!

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