The Brompton tagline is ‘Made For Cities’, but why stop there? Some may be put off cycle touring with a Brompton because they fear the small wheels, smaller gear range, or lack of luggage space.
But in reality these need not be an issue. And there are some great advantages to touring with a Brompton that far outweigh the drawbacks.
So let’s first lay some ghosts to rest. Wheels. One of the things people often ask me when they see a Brompton up close for the first time is “what about the wheels?” They imagine the wheels slow the bike down somehow, and they fear the rider will be exhausted after any distance. It’s not true. Yes, there will be a tiny bit more effort at the hub, which has to roll further to achieve the same speed as a big wheel. But this gain in friction is negligible. A second factor is the degree of vibration felt through small wheels compared to larger ones. This can make for discomfort and slowness on poor roads or tracks, but for most roads it is not an issue. What’s more, a laden Brompton dampens this effect, and actually makes touring more comfortable than bumpy city riding. Bromptons also have frame suspension, which makes the saddle less jolting than a touring bike. A third factor is the momentum in small wheels when compared to large. This is not just a factor of the wheels’ weight, but of the greater effort invested in getting a big wheel going. Small wheels mean fast and easy acceleration. True, this can feel daunting when a gust of wind brings you to a standstill; but the flip side is that getting going again is easier. Over the course of a day, smaller wheels reduce the fatigue of constantly getting going again.
What about gears? I’ll focus more deeply on gearing options in a future post. Two things matter when gearing up for cycle touring: the ratio of your lowest gear (to ensure you can tackle the hills), and the overall ‘range’ of your gears, i.e. the spread of ratios from low to high. On a 6-speed Brompton, your range of gears is 302% – in other words, in top gear one rotation of the pedals will take you roughly 3 times the distance of bottom gear. This is not a bad spread of gears, considering – it almost equals the Shimano Alfine 8-speed hub (306%) for example. A full touring bike with 27 gears might achieve a range of around 550%. However, you don’t need all this range. What matters for touring is that your lowest gear will do the job. (When higher gears are required, let gravity do the work!) The lowest Brompton gear (16 tooth rear sprocket and 44 tooth front) will allow you to drop to 6mph at a slow cadence of 70rpm (your pedals revolving 70 times per minute.) If this is still a bit too fast for tackling big steep hills, you might want to drop to a 39t chainring which will allow 5.5mph at 70rpm. My own solution was to fit a Shimano Nexus 33t chainring in conjunction with a Sturmey 8 hub (with 23t), which nudged the lowest gear to just under 5mph at 70rpm. This got me up the hairpin bends that climb out of Dervaig on the Isle of Mull, fully laden for a weekend’s camping. More about hubs later!
A third area that might raise eyebrows is carrying capacity. The standard Brompton solution is to carry a large bag on the front block, and use the ‘rack sack’ on the back. This is fine, but also frustrating – what’s the point of having a rack if you can’t use panniers on it? Most large panniers would touch the ground if hung on a Brompton rack; and even small ones can’t easily be used, as they foul the rider’s heels. As a rule of thumb, to avoid this clash, any pannier needs to be hung behind a point level with the rear axle – but the Brompton rack isn’t long enough. The dedicated Brompton tourist needs to find some way to lift panniers upwards and backwards, to clear the ground and the rider’s heels.
My solution was to build an extension to the rack, held in place with two bolts and butterfly nuts for quick removal. Maybe others can come up with a more elegant solution. What this enabled me to do was hang two small panniers either side of a rack sack, and use a C-bag on the front. Plenty of room for food, tent, sleeping bag, carrymat, clothes, tools etc!
So why tour with a Brompton, when you don’t have to? One obvious big advantage is that you can get quickly to your start point by public transport. The other big advantage is that you don’t have to plan a circuit. Follow your nose, or change your plans; provided you’re on a bus route, you can pack up and go home from wherever you like. I still remember the amazement with which I was viewed when I pulled seven bulky objects from the hold of a coach at Glasgow bus station – and proceeded to assemble them into a fully loaded touring bike, and ride away! And one other big advantage not to be overlooked – you get to ride a Brompton!