INDEX 2

SACRED FOLDING COW

I'm not a fan of modern art. Call me a wimp, an intellectual lightweight, but I like my art easy. Don't want to have to think too hard about it. It makes my head hurt. I look at art to make my head feel nice. Now take the Brompton. A masterpiece, they say. It makes my body hurt. I'll count the ways.

Maddeningly enough, at least for the purposes of the mild blasphemy to follow -- no fatwas, please -- the Brompton is intrinsically likable. It has become the folding bike standard against which pretenders are judged; the Everest which must be climbed by those who would snatch the crown from designer Andrew Ritchie's head. It's British built, so complaining about it seems almost unpatriotic. But I happen to be American built, so that's OK. Just don't tell the Home Office.

Let's have a look at one. We'll use mine. Allow me to unfold it. Voilà! Liked that, didn't you? You're sold already. It's in great shape, hmm? That's because I never ride it. I don't think I'm alone, either.

Two years ago when I was shopping around they kept surfacing in mint condition. Apparently owners loved the folding bit, but for mysterious reasons their purchase gradually evolved into little more than a nicely mobile conversation piece. That's if they could even talk about it without looking sheepish. Some couples had a pair of them for sale, matching sweaters which never quite fit.

Go ahead, take it for a spin.

Yes, I've seen that insane grin before. It works! You can pedal it and everything! It's clear you're impatient to spirit it away, to begin your new life. But my parents didn't raise me to be so cavalierly caveat emptor.

Pick it up, as if to carry it over one of life's many obstacles. No, it's not broken. The rear wheel isn't losing interest in the rest of the bike, it's just an over-eager kickstand, ingenious but constantly annoying unless inelegantly reigned in with a bungee cord. Maybe you'll get used to it.

So how did it feel? Bouncy and fun? In time it'll just be bouncy. The 'fun' part will drop like the wheel, because the Brompton takes much of the effort you put in and squanders it like a carefree imp. The rear suspension block is a glutton, happy to siphon off the cream of your effort. The bendy toy handlebars inspire fractional confidence and fictional comfort, and work in concert with the suspension to dissipate yet more energy. It all rather overcompensates for the anticipated travails facing 16-inch rolling stock.

The Sturmey-Archer hub is Old Faithful, but doesn't exactly put the 'nip' in 'nippy'. Mind the gaps in the gear ratios. The standard tyres may as well be brake pads; even going downhill they loiter out of pure stodginess. Alas, the brakes themselves are magnificently inept.

A certain minimalism in terms of comfort is pardonable in such a unique package, but am I the only one who keeps bashing his ankles on the castors just aft of the seatpost? Or finds the ride too much of a compromise, the whole destabilized by the sum of its parts?

Then there's the unenlightened public to deal with. As I survey my kingdom from a sit-up-and-beg throne, my kerbside subjects are filled with mirth. Small wheels = big laughs. I must locate the copywriter responsible for 'size matters' and leave him shorter by the head.

Nevertheless it is an adorable inchworm, despite the dull palette. Sadly not even the yellow version produces a frisson of excitement. No wonder Adam Hart-Davis splashed pink on his, in the true spirit on one of his inventors.

Wait, don't go. I haven't shown you how to fold it back up. Owners are continually astonished by this trick, lovably enough. They'll even do it when they don't have to, for pure entertainment value. Now give it another heft. Magic, eh? The way it seems heavier folded than when not? 25+ lbs. hanging from your arm rapidly saps one's enthusiasm for integrated transport.

In fact your best chance of getting real (if elitist) joy out of this baby is to hand it over to someone who specialises in aftermarket conversions. A fellow in Somerset named Steve Parry transforms Ritchie's brainchild into nothing less than a thing of desire, thanks to his appalling attention to performance-enhancing detail. That way lies pleasurable financial ruin...

If you wish to acquire the Brompton mystique without the heartache, consider simply buying the company's famous folding pedal as a handy metaphor for the bike itself: nifty, pricey, and much more suitable for embalming in lucite to make a handy objet d'art. What's that? You want to think about it? OK. But Damien Hirst is coming by later in the afternoon for a look. Said he was bringing his chainsaw. I think he was joking.

Cycling Plus, April 2000

This wasn't meant or advertised as a serious review, just my opinion. Although I was never made aware of a fatwa (my visit to A to B magazine would have been the perfect opportunity to carry it off), I was informed that my outburst caused a minor stir in the folding bike community, possibly because it's the only 'bad review' of a Brompton they (or I) have ever come across. In any case, my views on Bromptons have softened since this story appeared. I've tested nearly all of the folding bikes available in the UK, and done the comparisons: despite its shortcomings, there's much that's admirable in this little package. All the same, I have a Bike Friday. Which was later joined by a Dahon Presto Lite.

As for modern art, it has occurred to me that much of what I write is surrealist, so my opening remarks are like the pot calling the kettle black while the egg-timer bleeds accusingly in the background.