Perhaps Brompton Suburbia would have been a better name for this new edition, which looks like it’s dressed up for a fancy dress party, not for serious touring. Donning a pith helmet and plus-fours doesn’t make you an explorer.
I’m disappointed because I’d hoped that Brompton would have used their engineering genius to solve some basic problems that make the Brompton inadequate for touring. Like the fact that the rack can’t take panniers. And the gearing is too narrow and still too high. And there are no mudguards.
And I’m frustrated, because the Brompton has a lot going for it as a tourer. I’ve taken mine twice round the Scottish isles of Mull and Iona, and wild camped on remote beaches and hillsides. It’s not a fast touring bike, but with its small wheels it doesn’t tire you out (getting going is always easy), and its frame suspension keeps you comfortable.
And I’m suspicious, because this edition feels more like a marketing ploy than a serious attempt to get the bike ready for the wilds.
The Explore edition is basically the same bike as the city bike, with a few alternative accessories. A bit of khaki paint. A softer saddle and bar grips. Some spares and tools. Marginally thicker tyres. And a new front bag.
The things that really matter on a touring bike, however, remain unchanged. Gearing. Carrying capacity. Mudguards.
Let’s look at these a bit more closely. Although the advertising blurb trumpets the gears as something special, so far as I can see they are nothing more than the -12% option available on any standard 6-speed Brompton, achieved by opting for the 44t chainwheel. I’ve ridden this configuration on the steepest hills of Dundee, and while first gear just about got me up them on my way to work, I wouldn’t like to try this with the bike fully laden.
I find the easiest way to compare gear ratios is using the measurement of ‘metres of development’ because I can visualise this – the distance the bike travels with one full revolution of the pedals. The Explore will take you 2.63m on its lowest gear, and 7.96m on its highest. When I did my touring, I swapped out the Brompton gearing for a Sturmey eight speed hub with a 33t chainwheel and 23t rear sprocket, which offers efficient direct drive in its lowest gear, and a delicious 1.89m for getting you up those hills with little effort. The hub has a range of 325% compared to the standard Brompton 6-speed range of 302%, so the top end isn’t bad either – 6.16m of development at the top end, which means you’re still on the pedals at plus 20mph. Couldn’t Brompton have brought a bit more ingenuity to spread their gearing for this edition, instead of parroting the city gears?
Then there’s the luggage. Why, oh why, can’t Brompton make more use of their rack? The bag that sits on top is a kind of solution – ingenious because it corrects the natural slope of the rack. But any serious person touring will not want to have anything strapped to their back all day, to cause them to sweat and pull on their vertebrae. The great joy of a bike is that it can carry weight, so that you don’t have to. If you want weight on your back – go hiking!
All Brompton need to do is redesign their rack with some cunning fold-out system that allows panniers to be held higher and further back, so that they lie behind the rear axle and don’t foul either the ground or the rider’s heels. Do we think Brompton could design something that neatly folds?…
I managed this by building my own, clunky, rack extender – but it does the job. It has quick-release butterfly nuts, and I took the whole lot up to the Highlands on a coach from Glasgow. This enabled me to carry two small panniers on the sides of the rack, a tent beneath it, and the rack bag on the top. I used a brompton C bag on the front – food, clothing, tent, everything on the bike. The C-bag, by the way, has a capacity of 25 litres, just 3 litres fewer that the new bag for the Explore edition – so don’t think you can get most of your stuff in there. If you watched the promotional video of two chaps taking their Brompton Explore’s to climb Suilven, you’ll see they relied on stuff being strapped to their backs. Admittedly they were carrying inflatable canoes… a nice touch.
And a final thought for this review – mudguards. Who ever heard of a touring bike without mudguards? Who wants to arrive at a wet camp site with their face full of water, and a wet stripe running up their backside? It’s just not convincing if Brompton are trying to sell this as a serious tourer. Come on Brompton, you can do better than dressing up an old product in a pith helmet! A Brompton is a great bike to tour with, but it could be so much better with a little more sprinkling of the design genius that got us this far.
When I was doing the last few miles across Mull, and the Isle of Iona was nearly in sight, a couple of guys on touring bikes passed me going the other way. I overheard one say to the other – ‘Blimey, that was a Brompton.’ Too right, I thought, and long may it continue.