The wheel thing: Will Self on the Brompton bike

When is a bicycle not a bicycle? When it's a foldable and fiendishly clever expression of British design genius. Will Self tells the story of the Brompton bike, and reveals how he lost his heart to an unlikely two-wheeled wonder. Portrait by Andy Sewell

Sunday 23 October 2011 03:42

It was love at first sight – the first time I saw a Brompton folding bicycle, I fell in love with it. All right, perhaps this is an exaggeration on all fronts: it wasn't the first time I'd seen one, but the first time I'd really noticed it – or her. And it was not so much love – an emotion, I concede, that unless you're seriously perverted, only truly exists between sentient beings – as a kind of lusty covetousness; but, you can take it from me, it was a very strong feeling, and one that has only increased over the years I've either had a Brompton between my thighs, or hefted one in my arms.

And if you feel tempted at this point to cast my piece aside, unread, on the quite reasonable grounds that not only do you not like bicycles, or cycling, but you especially revile the ghastly middle-aged-mannish gadget obsession that you already feel emanating from my prose in great waves, then I say: desist! Give me a chance! Read on, and if I can't convince you by the end of these 2,000 words that a Brompton folding bicycle is not only a superior means of locomotion, and a perfect antidote to the stresses of the modern world, but also a means of achieving a deeper harmony with place and culture than you've hitherto achieved, then I personally guarantee to come round to your house and sort out your old Allen keys – or something like that.

Of course, I'd seen Brompton bicycles before – there's the one the redoubtable travel correspondent of this very newspaper, Simon Calder, holds in his by-line photo, and I'd also seen chaps and chapesses toddling about on them in the London streets, but I'd never really noticed one before that fateful day in 2002, when, cycling down the Wandsworth Road, near my home in south London, I saw a man on the kerb with his arm lightly resting on the saddle of a lime-green bicycle-shaped contrivance that was yet not a bicycle, for the back wheel seemed to have flipped forward and tucked itself in behind the front, so that the whole contraption stood up by itself.

When the pupil is ready – the guru appears. I'd taken up cycling again about nine months before, and already I'd begun to experience the limitations of my big-wheeled, rigid bike. I travel out of London a fair bit for work, usually by train, and I wanted to take my bike with me, but hated the hassle of getting it on and off the train, and then the anxiety of leaving it chained up in unknown places. So, I'd been thinking foldaway – but these thoughts were inchoate.

I dismounted and started talking to the man with the contraption, and, like a lot of Brompton riders, he turned out to be a little bit of a zealot, folding and unfolding it with martial efficiency – and rapidity – discoursing at length on its lightness, portability, and the quality of its ride. I was sold, and hied me to my local bike shop to order one, while at the same time half-loathing myself for what I'd become. A folding bike! It conjured up memories of those Bickerton bikes you saw in the 1970s and Eighties, the sort of thing men who drove Robin Reliants and carried Thermos flasks and Tupperware boxes of cheese sandwiches cleave to.

But any anxieties I had were dispelled when I got my Brompton: everything the Wandsworth Road zealot had said was true – after a 10-minute tutorial I could assemble the Brompton in 30 seconds. The ride was so good that in the first month of owning one I'd done a 50-mile run in a day on it. The versatility of the machine meant that I began leaving home with it quite casually for four- and five-day mini-tours, during which I'd cycle a bit, hop on a train or bus, then cycle some more. Most of all, it liberated me from the ghastly feeling of disorientation I got when I was doing tours to promote my books, and would travel to a new town every day. Having the Brompton forced me to orient myself – to know where I was. Cities such as Birmingham that I'd been visiting for years suddenly became legible – and I was fitter, too.

During the first few years I had the Brompton it was still an object of either curiosity or risibility. In the sticks small kids would shout and run after me, while the Tupperware men – and Melamine women – would stop me for a nerdy chat. But as Brompton have sold more bikes (sales have more than doubled in the past six years), the sight of full-sized people pedalling about on tiny wheels has become less worthy of comment.

Many bikeys criticise the Brompton for being "an engineer's bike", and it's true that Andrew Ritchie, who is the bike's only begetter, was an engineer by training, rather than a yellow jersey-wearer. Following his degree at Cambridge, he was kicking round without much to do. His father knew the Bickerton family and Ritchie looked at their bike and decided he could do better. I don't know exactly what his eureka moment consisted of, but it must've hinged on the double-jointed fold of the bicycle.

Before the Brompton (named for the Brompton Oratory, near where Ritchie lives), foldaways folded in half lengthwise, then the saddle and handlebars folded down. It was Ritchie's genius to conceive of the bike folding in on itself simultaneously lengthways and vertically into an almost foetal shape. The Ritchie story is a classic tale of cranky British inventing: the young man with a brilliant idea but no funding. The first 400 bikes were built in a jobbing shop during the early 1980s, while Ritchie funded the enterprise by doing extravagant landscape gardening for large corporates.

The bikes were made by hand, and at a loss. Ritchie knew he had a great product, but he was on the point of giving up when an entrepreneur arrived who had the financial nous and the enthusiasm to take the bike forward. Brompton now operates out of a factory in Brentford, west London, sales are projected to increase 30 per cent a year for the next three years, and demand is comfortably outstripping supply.

Naturally, despite my love affair with the Brompton I'd been unfaithful in my mind. The thing is, once you've got a lightweight, folding bicycle, you want one that's lighter and still more foldable. I trawled the net, having heard of a Japanese machine that weighed nearly two kilos less than my Brompton. I stopped other foldaway riders in the streets and shamelessly examined their bikes. I bored the blokes in the bike shop still more than I normally do. But nothing I discovered convinced me that there was a better machine than the Brompton.

Still, a man grows older, and my Brompton, although a lovely machine, was beginning to feel a little like a young Valkyrie who was wearing me out with her prodigious appetites. The word was that Brompton were now building a bike with titanium fittings – a much lighter, and more sylph-like machine. And there were also new, T-shaped handlebars for a sportier riding posture. Naturally, like any new mistress, she wouldn't be cheap, and I'd resigned myself to living out my days with the bike I had, until one evening in a Mexican restaurant in Notting Hill a group of young wanker-bankers came in, and one of them was carrying a Brompton that he handled as cursorily as if it were a rolled-up newspaper.

Coincidentally, I was dining with a fellow Brompton rider and we both gave the new model a heft and were amazed by its lightness. I was smitten, and resolved to have one myself. Most people will have to order a new Brompton through an established dealership and there's a six-week wait, but apart from getting to wear a trench coat and be laughed at by teenage police when you brandish your press card at a crime scene, journalism has its perks. So, I called up Brompton and said: could I order a new bike and come down and pick it up in person?

There followed a conversation that was a bit like the lyrics for Chuck Berry's "No Money Down", during which I specified exactly what I wanted from my new wheels. The titanium fittings, the Brooks saddle, the puncture-resistant tyres, and the T-bars were a given, but I'd also be dispensing with the carry rack, the three-speed gear system and the dynamo – all in the interests of less weight. And oh yes, colour: matte-black, natch, I am a child of the 1980s after all.

In the week before I went to get the new bike I began to have misgivings: the old Brompton had been good and faithful to me, and here I was casting her off like an old boot. Memories of the times we'd had together came back to me incontinently. Me and her together on the ferry to the Orkney Islands, then pedalling across the Orkney mainland to attend a funeral. Me and her flying into Bristol airport together then scooting across the Clifton suspension bridge and down into town. Me and her scooting down to Waterloo, hopping on the Eurostar, then scooting across Paris from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon, then taking the train to Provence.

Luckily, my nephew is doing an architectural internship in Paris, and he has all hallmarks of a serious Brompton rider: a keen interest in psychogeography, and a preoccupation with individual transportation. I would be able to induct him to the Brompton – and send her to live in a small apartment in the eighth arrondissement. What better send-off for an old mistress: Paris, where we had spent so many happy hours together.

The great day came and I set off for Brentford. It was a perfect foldaway trip in every respect: I could ride my big bike to Vauxhall, take the over-ground train to Kew Bridge, walk to the factory, pick up the bike, then cycle back to the station, put it on the train, and then at the other end – bliss of bliss – get out the Brompton bag I'd bought years ago in an excess of uber-nerdishness, put the foldaway bike in it, sling it over my shoulder, and cycle home on the big bike. Bike-on-bike action! That's what we foldaway perverts really go for.

At the Brompton factory I was in hog heaven: it was like a seraglio for Brompton lovers. Katharine Horsman, the press officer (10-mile Brompton commute each way, every day), took me round. I got to see individual parts being braised, I got to handle the 18th Brompton that Ritchie ever made, and I got to meet the new MD, Tim Butler-Adams (Brompton-train-Brompton commute from outside Maidenhead most days), who'd thrown a career in big business over to take the handlebars of the company and pedal it into the 21st century.

Butler-Adams was so handsome and clean-limbed and engaging that he almost made me feel hip about riding a Brompton. He showed me Andrew Ritchie's original drawing for the bike, and told me that they still regularly consult it. Then it was time to mount the new object of my desire and pedal off. Yes, the bike was lighter, yes, it was way speedier, but the most heavenly thing of all was that as I was leaving one of the shifts was knocking off, and out from the doors of the factory came the bike builders themselves, perfectly ordinary young men, full of beans and vim, none of them probably even knowing what a Tupperware box or a Robin Reliant looks like, and all of them riding Bromptons! One lad even pulled a wheelie on his bike, while his mate slewed to a halt and said to me: "You realise how difficult that is on a Brompton?" And I did realise it, believe me, I did.

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