Saturday, October 31, 2015

Brompton Touring Basics


Cycle touring is a great passion of mine and my first choice when traveling and discovering new places. Having used a Brompton folding bike on my latest cycling tours I can definitely say that it exceeded all my best expectations and performed so well that it has become my bicycle of choice for my cycling tours ever since.
I fly packing the Brompton into a soft folding bike bag and my setup to carry all I need on my tour consists of a Brompton T-Bag at the front and a standard rucksack fitted on top of the bike rack in a way I described in this article
Over the years this has become a tried and tested way to carry luggage on the folder and has been used by many Brompton cycle-tourers all over the world. It offers a stable and well balanced ride and is extremely versatile in any multi-modal tours where some kind of transportation is  involved. 
Whenever you need to, you are able in just a few minutes to switch from a fully loaded bicycle to a packed setup that you can hold in your hands and carry on a car, bus, train or plane.
Every bicycle traveler loathes the difficulties of transporting bikes to destinations, finding boxes to pack things, and shift around two or more panniers at the same time.
This setup makes it all very easy and hassle free.
Concerns about the reliability of a Brompton folding bike as well as its comfort and ability to cope with hills, descents and generally long days of riding with the weight of my luggage, proved to be unfounded. Touring on a Brompton has just been a pure joy. 
I believe there are three conditions to meet before you consider cycle touring on a Brompton; if these don't seem too much of a limitation I would have no hesitation recommending it.

  1. You are planning a tour on decent, mostly surfaced roads.
  2. You will not be touring in extreme cold temperatures.
  3. You will not be for any extended time in remote areas where self efficiency is a must.

( 1 ) Brompton's are sturdy bikes and can withstand more abuse than you imagine but still their small wheels and thin tyres are not best suited to rough terrains and muddy tracks. I have successfully cycled on unpaved road and you will be able to cope with the odd exception by walking, but if that is the condition of most of the roads you will travel on, an expedition touring bike or a mountain bike will be a better choice. Mud, due to low clearance of the mudguards and limits on the choice of tyres, is something that Brompton are definitely not good for.

( 2 ) This might be a bit more arbitrary and you can probably prove me wrong but I have found that my setup has to be really compact and light in order to work best and provide the benefits that a folding bike brings in the first place. Traveling in cold temperatures means having to carry much more weight and gear in order to be comfortable during the tour. Each kilograms you add to your setup will put further strain on the bike and make it harder to be carried on public transport if needed.

( 3 ) Brompton have proved to be very reliable bikes but are not bullet proof and also use a lot of specific and proprietary spare parts. Traveling for an extended period in remote areas means that should you have a technical issues, you might not be able to fix it. Adding to that the likelihood that no transportation is available, your tour will not be much fun. Traveling remote areas involves being self efficient i.e. carrying a lot more stuff than you would otherwise. Carrying lots of water and food and all the gadgets and utensils that make it possible, is not an easy option on such a small bike.

Reliability

In my experience I have had hardly any reliability issues to report, probably on a par or even less than on mountain bikes or touring bikes I have used in the past. Traveling over 10000 kilometres all I had to cope with were punctures on a rear tyre. What becomes important is to properly maintain your bicycle and ensure that it is well tuned and fully functioning before setting off on a tour. My strategy here is to be more proactive than I would be on another bike. I regularly replace parts that need changing after a recommended mileage. Chain and sprockets are swapped when needed, gear cables and brake cables are also newly fitted every few years, to limit the possibility of failures while I might not be able to source spare parts.
Marathon tyres even on such tiny circumference are exceptionally tough. The rear tyre will wear out faster than on larger wheels. It is only natural that the small wheels increased contact results in increased wear; I always bring one or two spare quality tyres for Brompton's 16" wheels as these are not always easy to find in bike shops around the world. In the past I have simply swapped tyres when I felt that they were not evenly worn but a tyre failure shouldn't be a reason to wreck your plans and two tyres are small, not too heavy and can be easily carried around your rucksack like on the main picture above.  
Wheels always performed faultlessly, staying perfectly tuned to the last day.
I always carry several replacement spokes too, again due to the fact that should you need to fix the wheels a shop might not have the right size. These are stored in the hollow tube holding the rucksack. 
Something I am always aware of is to try and be gentler on the bike. For example while climbing I refrain from standing on the pedals and rocking the bike as I would do on a mountain bike or a racer. If the roads get bumpy and uneven I ride in a very conservative way and do not hesitate to dismount and have a little walk if I believe it safer for myself and the bike.

Comfort

Of course it's great benefits in portability means that you have to do some compromises in comfort; these are less noticeable than you might think. With a 6, 12% reduced gearing bike setup, you are able to climb most hills or even mountains where gradients are not too extreme. They proved an adequate gear ratios to cover most terrains, fast descents, flat sections etc. Using a Brompton makes you more conscious of how much weight you take with you; you will travel much lighter and I found that often I am faster on climbs than most cycle tourists I encountered along the road. On descents the opposite is true. You must be aware of having small wheels and therefore more cautious and focused.  Overall during a day you will find that your pace and the daily distances you are able to cover will probably match those of other tourers and their more traditional bikes and setups. 
A front T Bag with the heaviest load and a lighter rucksack at the back turns up to be a very efficient way to load the bike. You feel very well balanced, secure and the handling of the bike is almost better than while unloaded.
Having a rucksack instead of a dedicated bike pannier is much more versatile. If you want you have the extra ability to take a day off the bike and go for a trek and when you have to take the bike on buses or trains you have a fast way to put luggage on your shoulders while having your hands free to carry the folded bike and T Bag.
I heard that on older Brompton versions brakes efficiency on long descent would be a challenge but I found the more recents models come equipped with adequate brakes and feel secure on the steepest descents even with the extra luggage weight you are carrying.

Conclusion

The only serious limitation I can see is going on extended expeditions in remote locations where sourcing proprietary spare parts would be difficult and touring where road conditions involve dirt and muddy tracks. The Brompton offers in my opinion the best setup for a multi-modal tour, where the odd transfer by other means of transport is involved. There might be times where the road is too steep and you might need to break your cycling with a short walk but I turn this limitation into an advantage. It becomes a good chance to use different muscles and I have found out that a folding bike loaded this way is extremely comfortable and easy to push.
To me these compromises are well worth it and I found touring with a Brompton folding bike, an easy and fun way to cycle travel.


11 comments:

  1. Great blog Gianni. i was wondering how it is to fly with Brompton only in a soft bag.What about damage to derailleur, chain and other parts?

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  2. Thanks Atle! As far as derailleur and chain are concerned they are inside the fold, which is perfect for protecting parts as well as keeping you clean when you carry it. I put up a video on how I pack the bike to protect it a bit more. Of course it isn't as a good option as a rigid bag, but rigid bags limit you in the sense that you can't carry them with you once you start cycling and also it is more obvious you are carrying a bike and airlines will jump at you and ask you for more money... In my experience and from what I have heard from other Brompton travelers unless you run into particularly rough luggage handlers your bike should be ok.

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  3. Hola Gianni, no sé si entiendes el español. Yo no hablo inglés, lo siento.
    Muy de acuerdo con tu artículo sobre las posibilidades de una bicicleta
    Brompton para la práctica del cicloturismo yo he realizado viajes con ella
    y nunca me ha fallado.
    Enhorabuena por tu gran página y magníficos videos.

    Saludos. Gerardo.

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  4. Hello Gianni,

    As a owner of an M6L x 50T (2016 build), I found the hardest gear useless to me with my casual riding style. But, I found the 3rd and 4th gears great for flats.

    After deciding to reduce my gearing with a 44T chainring, I now find it be be noticeably easier. But, I need to relearn what my favourite flat gears are.

    Just curious. What gears you prefer to use in which situations? If you don't mind me asking.

    Regards
    Ciro D

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    1. Hi Ciro I have never tried the 50T ratios. As you can see from the site I use the Brompton for touring mostly and I found that with the extra weight of the luggage I carry the 12% reduced gearing is perfect. Favourite gears on flats are 4th and 5th. 1st is mostly used on steeper hills and when used it means traveling at a speed of 7/8 kph. Below that I would think I rather walk as I would travel as fast! Hope it helps. Enjoy this fantastic bike!

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  5. Gianni, I have found almost all your travel videos on You Tube and finally came back to this web page from one of the links. Your tour videos are one reason I went for the Brompton as my retirement bike. I ordered an M6R with 12% reduced gearing- perfect for my legs and all the hills here in Michigan. I hope you keep traveling in fun and safety like this. Your videos are fun to watch. I feel like I'm peddling along with you as I watch. What's next?

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    1. Thanks Mark, I appreciate your comments and am glad to know that my videos helped you make a decision. They are very nice bikes to ride and very versatile as you can ride them in a city or fold them to quickly take them with you in a car, train, plane etc. I just returned from a short week riding around the Bay Area and will upload a video of that too in the next few months. Good luck with your traveling plans!

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    2. Thanks for the reply :-) I'll watch for your latest video.

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  6. Hey Gianni. Great blog. I´m currently teasing with the idea of traveling Europe on a bropmton but I´m not sure if it will be right for me. I weight about 100kg, which is close to the limit brompton recomends, and I don´t know if it will be advisable to do long distances (80km) being so close to the limit. Also, what are your thoughts about the riding position of the bike for long hours? Did you noticed any pain, something you had to improve to be more comfortable? Thanks!

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    Replies
    1. Hi Federico, thanks. It's not easy to answer your question but if I were you I would first check that your weight and weight of the luggage you carry are not too much over what Brompton recommends. I assume their recommended weight is on the conservative side as they have to be extra cautious. In my experience it is a very sturdy bike and I haven't experienced any failures in 10000 km or my trips. I would also make sure that the bike is well maintained and parts are replaced when needed and then test your setup on day rides where you can get a feel for what the bike can do. Riding position personally is pretty comfortable,I don't experience any pains on my trips. It is important to have an alternative position for your hands as that allows you to move the body every now and then and use different muscles. All you need for that is some kind of grips. I use Ergon and highly recommend these. Take care and good luck with your plans.

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