The Material World: Return to the fold

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Indy Lifestyle Online
These wheels have not been crushed, just re-invented. The folding bike is back. No, not those bulky Moultons that went into the boot of the Mini in the Sixties, nor the east European efforts of the Seventies and Eighties with spongy metal and spongier tyres that cost less than pounds 40 by mail order and fell apart. The newcomers are compact, lighter - and come with attitude.

Anti-car attitude, that is. Whereas the Moulton and its plagiarisers were marketed as bike-and-car combos, the ghost in the new machine whispers the green gospel of bike-and-train. Commute to the station by bike, bag it, and bike again at the other end.

There's something politically subversive about bikes masquerading as luggage. They beat the system. No pounds 3 bike charge to pay. And no one need know. Unless,

of course, the biker displays the traditional symptoms of sweating, wheezing and nose-blowing.

Not everybody loves them. They are not much help to the Cyclists' Public Affairs Group (C-Pag), which is campaigning for folding train seats rather than folding bikes. Anyway, says C-Pag, folding bikes are not very comfy.

But sales are booming - chiefly due to a single new compact design, the Brompton (shown left), which claims to combine a first-class ride with portability for the first time. Although it has a full-size frame, it weighs little over 25lb and compacts into a Laocoonic lump not much bigger than its wheels. Folding or unfolding - in three swift moves - is claimed to take only 15-25 seconds. Well, try it yourself. Cost: pounds 378 for the three-speed version, more than pounds 600 with extras.

Production of the Brompton has expanded by 30 per cent a year since the model was launched in 1988, and the firm now turns out 125 a week. In the past year, subscriptions to The Folder, fanzine of the Folding Society, have shot up from 300 to 1,000. Its founder, 36-year-old David Henshaw, is a Brompton convert who works part-time as the company's sales rep.

The Brompton's designer-manufacturer, Andrew Ritchie, a former landscape designer, describes himself as a "lunatic inventor". He spent five years building prototypes. The first 30 models were bought by friends who paid in advance. Design writers raved about it, but then his supplier of hinge joints did what hinges do, and folded. It took him six years to raise capital for a born-again Brompton.

Admissions of lunacy are a necessary credential among pioneer folding- bike devotees. The only one I ever got to know used to spend hours cleaning and caressing his, which was a Bickerton, and weighed in at a mere 20lb in 1970. It was flimsy, awkward to fold, but the first true compact folder.

The first book about folders, It's in the Bag, just published by two bike cognoscenti, Tony Hadland and John Pinkerton, reveals 120 years of obsessive ingenuity. In the early, pre-automobile days of the high bicycle, folding to carry on the railway was the thing, just as it is now. The wheel has come full circle.

Those who doubt the possibility of folding a 5ft-tall machine should study the portable high-wheel produced in 1878 by William Grout of Stoke Newington. His huge main wheel was in four parts and the whole contraption folded into a quadrant-shaped "Wonderful Bag". Assembly took 10 minutes. Alas, no examples survive.

The quest is now on for ultra-light folders. Ritchie hopes to launch in October a 22lb model - approaching the weight of the Bickerton. And Clive Sinclair, who recently junked his design for an X-shaped folder of only 8lb - because he wanted one even lighter - hopes within five years to produce one that transcends conventional technology and is as easy to carry as an umbrella. New? A "walking stick" bicycle was patented in 1892

'It's in the Bag', hardback pounds 13.95, softback pounds 9.45 inc P&P: cheques, Dorothy Pinkerton. 19 West Park, Castle Cary, Somerset BA7 7DB. Brompton Bicycle Ltd, 2 Bollo Lane, Chiswick Pk, London W4 5LE (0181-742 8251)