When I got the news of my promotion I bought a folding bike. But not just any folding bike: a Brompton. How come? Because it’s the only folding bike with a child seat, that’s how come. No bike will enter our lives for years to come unless it can haul the small.
I would advise the potential purchaser of a Brompton+IT Chair to be very sure that they are going to be okay with a lot of attention from strangers. And I do mean a LOT of attention. It’s not something that I was expecting. This setup stops traffic of all kinds. Jaws drop. People run over to see your bike. People in San Francisco are typically extremely cool in the face of the unusual. Piano bike? Sequined gold hot pants on a drag queen sashaying through the Financial District on a weekday afternoon? Bike Friday triple tandem? Naked people hiking through Golden Gate Park with fanny packs? Nothing worth noticing here! But people here gawk when they see me with my daughter on the Brompton, and yell, “COOL BIKE!”
The Brompton is both outrageously goofy and breathtakingly awesome. Even though I swear a blue streak at its makers every time I go up a steep hill (and I got the “San Francisco” gearing!), I love this bike. And although I was not really looking for practicality, this may actually be the most practical bicycle purchase a city rider could make: it’s a utility bike.
I am sidestepping the fundamental question here, which is why I got a folding bike at all. Part of the answer is that it was cool and unlike any other bike, which fit with my desire to get a bike that could compete with a pretentious chair. But most of the answer is that it seemed like a great bike for riding in the grittier parts of the city and for taking on the road. It makes bike rides possible that weren’t possible before. I would never lock up my Breezer outside when I am visiting homeless shelters in the Tenderloin, but there’s been no problem bringing a folding bike inside to meetings. The Brompton also fits in a shopping cart at the grocery store, and when I don’t feel like locking it up, that’s exactly what I do with it. Moreover the Brompton is a clever travel bike. The Capitol Corridor Amtrak line that I took to Sacramento often runs out of bike spaces. Having been warned, I took the Brompton. The Amtrak folks recognized it instantly, but they do not count it as a bike. Later, when I hitched a ride in a friend’s car back to San Francisco, the Brompton fit in the trunk with plenty of room left over for our luggage. I may be taking an extended trip to Washington DC next year; if that happens, I will take the Brompton with me. If we lived in a small apartment again, this bike would easily fit in any random corner.
The Brompton isn’t the cheapest folding bike you can buy, but it’s not the most expensive either. And this surprises me, because the incredible fold means you can put it almost anywhere. Most of the time mine hangs out in our non-functional fireplace, which it turns out is basically a Brompton-sized hole in the wall.
I ordered my Brompton from Warm Planet, which sells only folding bikes. They had never heard of the IT Chair before, but they didn’t have experience with any other child seats either. This may be the one bike shop that I forgive for this ignorance, as they primarily serve multi-modal commuters heading to CalTrain (they offer free bike valet parking every weekday). But they were bemused that such a thing existed, and impressed that it folded with the bike. The IT Chair had to be ordered from the UK after being hand-machined in Spain. It turns out that this takes a while, but it also takes a while to get a Brompton, so ultimately they arrived within a week of each other. This is good, because I refused on principle to pick up the bike without the child seat.
The design of the IT Chair seems to have changed. Formerly it had folding footpegs, but my IT Chair does not. It makes folding the bike with the seat a little more tricky, and you have to get the sequence just right. It also is ridiculously, laughably expensive given that it is essentially just a piece of bent pipe. On the other hand, given the sporadic-at-best production line, IT Chairs apparently lose nearly zero value on resale, when the time comes that we can no longer use it. We were unable to find one used, but did find lots of desperate requests for them posted in the years when they weren’t being made.
My daughter loves the IT Chair. Given the choice, she always asks to ride “mommy’s present bike.” She loves it because she can stand on the footpegs and ring (and ring and ring) the bell. I love it because a front seat is outrageously fun and makes conversation with her easy. My former experience with a front seat (the Co-Rider debacle) was not reassuring. But my brother-in-law assures me that design-wise, the IT Chair is bombproof, for all practical purposes an extension of the frame. To my surprise, he loved the Brompton, and proposed that we should get one for everyone in the family, once the kids are big enough, arguing that we could park four Bromptons in the space of one ordinary bike. In the meantime, my son has thus far refused to ride the IT Chair, as the design does not appeal to his cautious nature (no kid handlebars). But recently he realized that his reluctance meant that his sister has now ridden more bikes than he has, and evidently this will not stand.
I was surprised at some of the ways that the Brompton excels. Its fenders are the best I’ve ever seen, so this is now my bike of choice for rainy day commutes. Assuming (correctly), that putting a kid on the bike would imply lots of things to carry, I also got the largest Brompton bag, the T-bag (an extremely poor choice of name). All the Brompton bags are frame-mounted, which means that they can haul massive amounts of weight. And although I find the bag sort of ugly, it is big enough to hold all four of our helmets when parked at the bike valet, plus a few jackets. With this kind of cargo space, plus the small footprint, the Brompton has also become our bike of choice for trips to the farmers’ market. It effortlessly manages a week’s worth of groceries, up to and including a half-flat of strawberries and Matt’s boxes of wine.
It doesn’t do everything well. Although there are people who take this bike on long trips, I prefer my Breezer for distances longer than a few miles, particularly given that my daughter likes to stand up on the footpegs while we’re riding. And then there are the hills. For mild to moderate inclines, the supposedly-designed-for-hills gearing I got is more than adequate, even pleasant, although the shifting itself is bizarre, as it switches between an internal hub and a derailleur, so every gear change involves both handlebars. When I hit a steep incline, however, it suddenly feels like I’m dragging a cinder block behind the bike. I’ll admit that this may be because I’m often hauling more weight at the front of the bike than it was really designed to carry when I put both a preschooler in the IT Chair and a week’s worth of groceries in the bag. (And it doesn’t help at all when that preschooler decides it would be fun to shift the gears randomly. This is a downside of the front seat. That and the endless bell ringing.) But it can be a problem even on days when I am relatively unladen. I appreciate that this problem may be unique to San Francisco. Let us say that this bike has made me stronger.
Getting a Brompton also involved the purchase of several pricey accessories. It’s a good thing that I was thinking of this as a “yay, I got a promotion” bike, because otherwise the total cost of all the extras could have ruined my mood. The IT Chair is the most obvious (price varies based on exchange rate at the time of order, assuming it’s in production), and the Brompton frame-mounted bags are expensive as well. It also turns out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to lock up a Brompton with a typical U-lock, and in San Francisco we do sometimes go places that are so small that even a folded Brompton is unwelcome. So on the recommendation of other folding bike owners I ended up getting a folding lock to go with my folding bike, the Abus Bordo Granit X-Plus. (However this lock is so fabulous that I ended up using it all the time. Matt asks to use it when we go out on rides together. So I can only really claim part of the price of this lock is specific to the Brompton.) On the other hand, the Ikea Dimpa bag that I sometimes use to carry it around was a steal at $4. Somebody at Ikea owns a Brompton.
Yet I would get this bike again in a heartbeat. It is surprisingly fun to ride, nimble and responsive. It is also fun to fold and unfold, and although it weighs are much as my daughter with all the accessories, it is fun to carry around. (I’m carrying my daughter around all the time anyway, so it’s not like a bike that weighs the same amount is a big deal.) It is safe in places where other bikes are not. It goes almost anywhere and stores almost anywhere. The Brompton may be the ultimate city bike. As a celebration of my promotion, it is infinitely better than a set of pretentious chairs.
The attention we get on the bike still surprises me a little, because riding it seems unremarkable to us now, but I find myself minding this less over time. The Brompton turns out to be the ultimate ambassador of family biking for people who’ve never thought of riding with kids before, which I find funny, because to me, my Brompton still looks like a clown bike. I think it seems less intimidating than a cargo bike; some moms see longtails and box-bikes and can’t imagine maneuvering them, but it is immediately obvious that any able-bodied person could handle a Brompton–and mine is usually hauling both a kid and two bags of groceries. (It could even haul two kids with a Trail-Gator, which another parent at our son’s school suggested.) And the Brompton, although it is by no means a cheap bike, costs less than a traditional cargo bike.
The Brompton is not my everyday bike, but I ride it every week. It proved to me that you should buy the cool bike. I keep it in the living room! And I smile every time I see it.