Three bikes in a train

This article was published in 1999, in Newsletter 24.

Three Bromptons take a tea-break in the buffet of York station

The late seventies and early eighties were golden times for taking bikes by train, though like all nostalgia, the reality wasn’t always as good as the memory. There is still some good news in our area: WAGN and Anglia Railways carry bikes willingly, for example.

However, heading to points North and West is harder (only one or two bikes per train allowed, you must book and it costs £3 each way). Taking a party with bikes is hard in any direction. That’s why three of us took Bromptons to York on our excursion last October .

The Brompton is an ingenious folding bike, one of a modern generation of folders. They’re a common sight now on commuter trains to London. I’ve had a Brompton since the early days. But the other two that went to York were borrowed, so it was interesting to see the reaction of riders new to them.

In theory, the Brompton is very much like an ordinary bike when unfolded. However, I’ve always felt that it is harder work cycling on one, and I think the others confirmed my feelings. That’s because it has such very small wheels. I guess it is also because I’m used to riding a well-maintained 21-gear machine daily, whereas the Brompton has only five gears and mine doesn’t get used all that much.

I also feel somewhat more vulnerable, because it is so small – and perhaps because I don’t have a mirror on it. Partly, though, it was a matter of getting used to a different riding position and technique. After a weekend’s riding, we were all much happier on them. I certainly find mine very useful for occasions such as this.

Portability is what they’re all about. Folding and unfolding is easy enough once you get the hang of it. I can fold or unfold mine in under 15 seconds. It takes six moves.

The back wheel and stays are hinged just behind the pedals, and the rider’s weight keeps the pieces together. The back wheel flicks under the bike so it ends up sitting squat on the carrier. This was one difficulty for the newcomers.

Then you undo a clamp and swing the front wheel and handlebars alongside. It looks like the front wheel ought to turn around, but in fact it doesn’t. Then the handlebars unclamp and fold down. The seat post unclamps and descends into the bike. This also locks the parts together – unless, like one of our borrowed machines, a couple of the brackets are a bit bent. The chain is inside, which avoids oiliness.

Finally, the protruding pedal can be folded up too on some models. The whole lot can be put in a bag, and it fits between the seat-backs of an InterCity 125, though on our outward journey the train was packed, so finding room for what is only the size of a suitcase was a challenge.

Carrying the bike folded is quite hard unless you are strong. The Brompton weighs about the same as a conventional bike, say 15 kg. Though it has some castors on the carrier, they aren’t really suitable to run on. In fact, the easiest way to move it is nearly always to unfold and wheel it, though that’s not always practical inside buildings. Carrying it up steps is also an interesting experience.

So as one more tool to avoid the need for a car, it’s great. It does take some getting used to. Bromptons aren’t cheap, either. The basic bike is around £400, but each accessory (like the folding pedal, or five gears instead of three) is extra. The Cambridge dealer is H Drake’s on Hills Road.

They certainly attract interest. Especially if, like Simon, you carry one folded, on a trailer, towed behind a recumbent Bike-E! I was once thrown out of a Cambridge pub for bringing my Brompton inside, but usually the novelty factor wins through.

David Earl