Reviewing the Brompton M3L, 5 Months In
An Upgrade, A Delight, and A Religion
Many people who read reviews of bicycles probably have their minds made up about the bike. The reviews found are more about settling a few nagging questions than coming up to speed with general specs. Folding bike reviews are often great to parse for these bits because many of the models offer a “one size fits most” framing. Except for Brompton. These bicycles are a good bit different than all but perhaps what’s felt at the niche/high end of automotive, consumer tech, and cycling spaces — there’s not just the bike, but the adoration of the experience. In immersing myself in folding bikes and adjacent topics over the past year and a half, then finally acquiring a Brompton this year, am coming to understand this bike and it’s adorations. And you know something, it makes sense.
I purchased a “very lightly” used Brompton this past summer to augment (then replace) the Citizen Gotham I’d purchased the year prior. While the Citizen had been an excellent bike — granting access to metros via consumer rail, and making a few longer trips more bearable by having a bicycle on deck — it was also a heavy bike, with gearing and weight meant for something larger. The Brompton was a want from the previous summer’s research, and after enough nagging and then a test ride, it became a purchase.
Compared to the Citizen Gotham:
- The Brompton weighs 5lbs less with the listed weight (coming in at 25lbs); however it rode closer to its actual weight than the Citizen. Yes, the Gotham had airless wheels and a rack, and was made of a different type of steel. But, “by feel” it was about 10lbs heavier than the Brompton in use.
- The Brompton folds much, much smaller. So much in fact that it could fit into the trunk of a Mazda MX-5 Miata. The Citizen couldn’t fit in the trunk with its larger 20in wheels (compared to 16in for the Brompton) and spent automotive trips as the passenger — heavy enough to trigger the passenger airbag and seatbelt warning lights too.
- The Brompton has a proprietary gearing setup where the gearing (and its actual hardware) for the Citizen was identical to my other full-sized bicycles. This made maintenance easier for the Citizen, however physics didn’t play as nicely. The Brompton immediately felt as good as my road bike because of his aspect of its engineering.
- Both models have their share of custom accessories, however Brompton is just about a religion or a cult. Because of its size and the front luggage carrier block, there are numerous accessories for all kinds of fashion tastes, weather situations, and even regional allegiances. Most interesting has been finding Brompton communities across SE Asia and the various tweaks and customizations which happen on their models. I’ve got a notepad of thoughts, links, and lessons from those alone.
Lastly, the Brompton is considerably more expensive. With a starting price of $1000 USD (and that’s just for the B75 model, which has components from their 2017 models and no customization options), getting a Brompton is easily a sign of a certain kind of affluence. In my rides between DC, Baltimore, and Philly, there’s been several people who remark mostly positively, with a near final question being “how much did you pay for it?” Mine was acquired on Craigslist. To purchase from the Brompton site, and going for the more recent and customizable models, you’d be looking at $1300 USD to start. Max out the options, including going for the electric model and various accessories, and you’d be over $3000. And that’s not even counting the various a special edition Bromptons — these could push even higher depending on configuration.
On the other hand, the Citizen Gotham was a bargain at $400 with the options added. And even then, it’s hard to configure a Citizen model of any kind and pay more than $700–900 USD (this speaks of accessories and their new electric motor option). A reasonable Citizen bike could be had for $300–500 USD, usually quite well equipped and accessorized, which is very much attractive to many who want a folding bicycle but not a severely lighter wallet.
With the Brompton though, I’ve gotten what was paid for. And the excellent service provided by one of DC’s local bike shops, BicycleSpace, has made Brompton ownership quite enjoyable. I’ve had no major mechanical issues other than a pinch flat. Had the bottom crank replaced due to a recall that my model missed receiving by the former owner; and learned how to adjust the 3-speed hub and install a dynamo wheel and light. It has been quite the low maintenance affair.
Has the Brompton been a signal as an affluent ride? Yes. But, can also say that it seems to catch others a bit differently than the carbon and electric bicycles and their gathering spaces. There’s a sense of delight that it offers both in my riding and the questions others have asked about it. Yes, Brompton ownership has been well worth the upgrade.
Thinking back, I probably should have done a test ride last year. However, it wasn’t until this year that a short test ride cinched wanting to own the Brompton. Ownership hasn’t dulled that feeling one bit. Weirdly, the Brompton straddles a line between being quick enough for short rides, and comfortable enough for longer ones.
Most of this is because of the gearing. The Citizen is geared with the same gearing found on full-sized bicycles. While this makes excellent sense for maintenance, it challenges delight when riding due to those gears being made for bicycles with larger tires and frames. The Brompton has a more unique gearing profile. In simple language, it feels like a well-done road bicycle. It was probably the third or fourth ride with it when taking it further than 10mi and it was just pleasant. I didn’t feel the three speeds were a limitation. In fact, it felt better because there were fewer gears and they were well-suited to my cadence.
The delight is also in how you feel on the Brompton. Many who’ve tried it talk about the small tires and twitchy steering. I feel those bits, but not as a detriment. Yes, there’s no searching for potholes for the Brommie — small tires, lack of suspension, etc. makes it not a curb or canyon jumper. It’s not that kind of bicycle. But, it is one where there’s this simple compliment of stance and structure makes it quite pleasant.
The Brompton, as with just every model from the company, is a steel bicycle (there is an option to get one with some lighter titanium frame bits). Steel is heavier than aluminum and carbon fiber, but it’s also able to swallow a lot of the road ripples. The handlebars are the M-style — a more upright style — which was a choice made. due to not wanting the lower, more sporty feel of the straight (S-type) bar. The seat is stock, but soft enough. And there are even some plastic fenders, which have done a decent job in keeping my legs dry for a few wet moments. It just fits well together. And leaves one to simply enjoy the ride.
And the fold.
You don’t get a Brompton for the ride. You get it for its ability to fold. And it’s better than just about every other folding bike in this regard. In my initial list of needs for a folding bike included the want for it to fit into the trunk of a Mazda MX-5 Miata. This is a near impossible trick for many folding bikes except for those with the smallest tires. Small tires do not a delightful ride make. The Brompton fits in the trunk, with room for a weekend bag, and keeps the delight nearby. It’s also a comfortable ride except for on the worst of streets and trails. You can really stay in a delightful place easily with it.
At 25lbs, the Brompton is quite easy to carry when it’s folded. There’s a nice spot to grab it under the front of the seat. You could also grab it by the frame for a carry. The folding pedal keeps your leg from being scratched up. And the way it folds keeps the chain and it’s grease away from your work clothes also. It’s just a delight to travel with because it is designed for it. Even with the O-bag or T-bag (Brompton-designed bags I own) it isn’t a problem to either put the Brompton in “shopping cart mode” to carry bag and bike, or throw the bag over one shoulder while carrying the bike in the other hand.
Folding is very much a delight, yet the Brompton is designed for riding too. One of my first long rides, a 30+ mile group ride, delight wasn’t just felt by me, but seen by others. From the “hey small wheels” moniker gained from passing the nice carbon bikes when going uphill, to the “hey, I’m drafting you,” from a friend who remarked at our 22–23mph pace at one point, it’s really easy to get onto the Brompton and just be clearly into riding. No extra gear needed. Nothing more than a smile, and some open eyes to the world around you. A delight indeed.
And, A Religion
When doing homework on purchases, one of the key things to find and learn about are it’s most ardent fans. Every brand which has made it seems to foster a fan base. Sometimes, that fan base becomes a part of the brand itself — nearly amounting to a religious experience for those who wish to dive into the product, company, and community at that depth. It is almost impossible to avoid this with the Brompton. This isn’t said as a slight, but it is a peek into what happens around such a personality-laden purchase.
It would be easy to say that the fervor of being a Brompton owner should have been apparent when purchasing it. Mine came used, but the previous owner hadn’t even put enough miles on the tires to dull the “new tire nibs.” Her opinion was very positive; and yet in purchasing it was like handing to me her faith for what urban transport could be.
It wasn’t long after the purchase that I was on the forums, scouring new and old sites, and even looking at eBay for pieces to tune and personalize the Brompton. You see, part of the experience of purchasing one new is the customized color and other options. I skipped that step, but even indoctrinated as I was, there was still a want to personalize what I could.
For me, that’s turned into a few bags, all custom-made to fit into the Brompton’s front carrier block — unlike some followers, I skipped the rear rack option. That turned also into an acquired dynamo-hub, to which I’ve purchased a headlight. And there’s also plans for custom fenders and maybe a new saddle. To be a Brommie owner means these tweaks come along your path.
I should also mention the absolute friendliness of other Brompton owners. From online folks who urged the purchase from the outset, to those who’ve invited me to several Brommie events, it’s been a delightful and widely spaced range of exploring life with a Brompton. One of the first big rides I did wasn’t even a Brompton ride, but the sight of the small wheels making easy work of the uphill portions garnered a number of fans and friends alike. You are almost required to evangelize a bit about your Brompton — it’s a conversation piece in every sense of the word.
Faith has a cost though. And being faithful to the Brompton won’t always be a walk in the park. Because of its unique nature, everything is more expensive than full-size and conventionally designed bikes. Shoot, even looking for an inner tube is a challenge — Amazon almost become the better place than bike shops (the best Brompton shop is quite a bit far from me). Has it been worth that cost? Sometimes. But, some purchases are planned a bit more than on my other bike. It isn’t just trust that it can be had, it’s faith that it won’t break the bank to have it.
The Brompton — my Green Partner — has made a decent adventure out of cycling. From it’s folded size making it a no-brainer for many auto trips, to the commuter goodness it’s provided since starting a role where bike-train commuting is a better option than driving. The Brompton has definitely been something I’ve appreciated in engineering and use. To borrow from a part of my profession: it’s user experience ranks very high.
Are there challenges because of cost (the bike itself, accessories, maintenance maybe)? Yes. There are. And you certainly want to be sure that it’s a bike you will use. To see the few used listings of these say how the Brompton fell aside from use because of a life change gave me some pause on purchasing. Also, I’m not usually a winter cyclist, and yet it fits into life just enough that I’ve been able to eek out a few rides. However, those challenges can be overcome by simply realizing what matters most about this kind of bicycle.
The Brompton isn’t for everyone. If you have commuter, space, or even mild travel constraints, the Brompton works quite well as a solution. It can be a weekend ride, but it’s not made for it. It’s not a mountain bike, but does handle light gravel trails decently (I was impressed). You might even be able to keep up with the causal road cyclists for a bit. But, that’s not it’s best pace. The Brompton fits in a life where human speed means you can embrace delight. And that might be all you need to be edged out of your comfort zone just enough to unfold a Brompton and see the spaces it could help you explore.