Racing a Brompton by Buckingham Palace is exhilarating, and ridiculous

We take on 500 folding-bike warriors at the Brompton World Champ Finals

When is a race not a race? When it’s a Brompton World Championship Final, of course. The dress code at this year’s event in central London was formal but fun — jackets, shirts and neckties for the men, but that still left a lot of room for colourful outfits. Some racers turn up to win (they can be identified by the clipless pedals), but most were there for the giggles, and love of their diminutive folding bike. BikeRadar’s Jamie Beach was in the latter category and tells us about his horse for the course…

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I bought a Brompton bike at the beginning of this year on the UK’s Cycle To Work scheme. Partly so that I could drop my kids at school then speed off to the train station, before getting onto a packed carriage. Partly because I wanted a town run-around I could fit into our small front shed. And, yes, partly because my ideal number of bikes is N+1, and I’ve always liked the eccentric-yet-practical vibe of these British-made bikes.

Brompton World Championship Final – 2016
There were some big names at the sharp end of the pack, including former pros David Millar and Michael Hutchinson, plus reigning champ Mark Emsley

So with encouragement from others on the BikeRadar team and after a lot of research and a test ride or two, I went for a Brompton M3L, in a raw lacquer finish and weighing about 12kg. That means it has the M-type handlebars (the classic ones with an upright position), three gears via a Sturmey-Archer hub, and mudguards but no luggage rack. The raw lacquer finish is beautiful and shows off the frame builder’s brazing skills very nicely. Though I was sorely tempted by the racing green.

After months of commuting on this little bike, I’d definitely say that I’m happy with it. The fold is superb, the ride is nippy yet stable enough to get me around Bath’s many hills and cobbles, and I love the well-thought-out details like the little rollers for wheeling it about, and the rear suspension block. I can see why these bikes inspire so much affection. But what’s it like to race? I was invited by Brompton to find out.

Knighthoods all round

Mona Beach / Immediate Media

This year’s Brompton World Championship Final was held during the Saturday evening of RideLondon, the city’s massive annual cycling festival that now claims over 100,000 participants. Eight quick laps were planned of St James’s Park, past Horse Guards Parade, and finishing down The Mall in front of Buckingham Palace to cheers, applause and possible knighthoods from HM The Queen. OK maybe not the last bit, but I was definitely looking forward to laying down some rubber outside such a famous landmark. Each lap was 2.15km (1.34 miles), giving a total race of 17km (10.5 miles) over eight laps.

There were some big names at the sharp end of the pack, including former pros David Millar and Michael Hutchinson, plus reigning champ Mark Emsley, who was on for the hat-trick of wins (2014/15/16). Also racing was Brompton CEO Will Butler-Adams, and a fair number of riders proudly wearing their national champion stripes. So I was under no illusions that I’d trouble the frontrunners for the win, but I hoped to do myself and BikeRadar proud, remember how to unfold the bike at the crucial moment, and come in somewhere mid-pack.

There were some very colourful outfits on display, including at least one fascinator feather, a top-hat-helmet, authentic Lederhosen, Union Jack bow ties and some WW1 army uniforms

Ah, the start grid — that’s challenge number one. Each rider must leave their Brompton folded up on the track in front of them, and when the starting klaxon goes, we hare off to it, unfold it and go. With many months of commuting under my belt, I wasn’t too worried about forgetting how that bit works. But I definitely didn’t want to crash and embarrass myself.

My Directeur Sportif/wife and I arrived in St James’s Park well before the start briefing, leaving hours to kill. Just as well there was plenty of entertainment on offer, from the food and drink stalls to the speed folding competition, the women’s RideLondon Classique also taking place, and an amazing service that offered to stitch your portrait on a sewing machine driven by a Brompton on a turbo trainer. Lovely.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. With minutes to go before the off, I was talking an increasingly good fight in my head, sizing up the competition, doing some last-minute leg stretches, visualising the unfolding process as well as remembering my roadie background and the importance of pacing my efforts and using people’s slipstream. But don’t take it too seriously, it’s only a bit of fun.

There were some very colourful outfits on display, including at least one fascinator feather, a top-hat-helmet, authentic Lederhosen, Union Jack bow ties and some WW1 army uniforms. I went for a more restrained outfit: grey blazer, blue shirt and tie, shorts and trainers. No chance to wear the BikeRadar Lycra for this outing. I did buy a colourful Brompton cycling cap though, and I was wearing my Madison Genesis-issue Lazer Z1 helmet.

My Brompton M3L

My Brompton M3L, in raw lacquer
Jamie Beach / Immediate Media

So how about the horse for his particular course? Well in my case there weren’t many modifications over a standard Brompton M3L. I’ve added a Knog Blinder rear light, and a Cateye Volt front light. I’ve swapped out those rollers for some Eazy Wheels, which are bigger and get sealed bearings. I haven’t yet swapped out the foam handlebar grips, but I’m definitely planning to upgrade them to Ergon GP1 grips in the near future.

The frame is a standard steel Brompton, no fancy titanium fork and rear triangle for me — this would save around 740g, but add around £600 / $959 to the price. The frame does have a very nice raw lacquer finish though, which costs £160 / $256 more than a standard paint finish, but I think it’s worth it.

The saddle is a stock Brompton seat, which has a low-key moulded grip built into it for easy carrying. I’ve found this saddle to be very comfortable and in keeping with the Brompton look, so I haven’t yet upgraded it to a Brooks classic leather saddle. Though I have considered it.

Eazy Wheels and a smaller front chain ring are two of the modifications I’ve made
Jamie Beach / Immediate Media

The gearing is slightly lower than normal — living in Bath, I decided to go for a smaller front chainring than standard when I ordered it on the marvellous Brompton Bike Builder. I was a little worried that this would leave me under-geared in a race scenario, but in the event it worked out fine, leaving me with enough leverage to sprint down The Mall towards the finish line. I was blowing quite hard by that point anyway.

The stock 16-inch wheels get 28-spoke stainless steel rims front and rear, shod with Brompton Kevlar rubber, featuring reflective sidewalls. Not the lightest nor the fanciest (and I did see some deep-dish carbon rims being ridden), but dependable enough.

The plastic gear lever isn’t the most comfortable, but it does the job
Jamie Beach / Immediate Media

The M-type handlebars give a comfortable riding position that’s much more upright than on my road bike, but that suits me when wearing normal street clothes. The steering is a little twitchy, as is inevitable when there’s no stem length to speak of, but you quickly get used to it and it’s great for darting into and out of gaps. The brake levers and gear shifter are also Brompton’s 2016 stock units, and I’ve found both to be reliable and sturdy. The gear shifter isn’t the most ergonomic thing out there, but it does the job.

The pedals are again the standard Brompton ones — the left pedal folds inwards so it doesn’t bang you when you’re carrying the folded bike. This adds a little bit more size (and weight), but the fold is secure and positive, and easy to use. I have rolled my foot over the pedal cage once or twice, but I’ll put that down to my lack of souplesse. I didn’t fit clipless pedals, but I reckon around a third of competitors did.

The Brompton World Championship Final 2016

Ah sh*t, how does this work again?
Mona Beach / Immediate Media

So how did I get on? Well I got off to a good start, the unfolding went well — not the quickest of course, but not the slowest either. One or two competitors got their frame’s wing nuts stuck and were there for considerably longer than me trying to get ready to ride.

As for me, I was already barrelling down The Mall and past Buckingham Palace in my highest gear and spinning fast to keep up with the pack. Slower riders to the left; faster riders to the right. I knew the first wave were already around 15 seconds ahead of me, and at some point they’d catch and lap me, but that shouldn’t happen for a while yet.

Isn’t this fun!
Mona Beach / Immediate Media

There were some potholes and bumps in the road coming back up the long straight of Birdcage Walk, towards Downing Street and Horse Guards Parade, and the Brompton’s elastomer suspension block soaked up most of these rattles. I felt like I could keep pedalling hard through most of them with no loss of traction.

The sharp left at the end of Birdcage Walk caused my one real sketchy moment of the race — I wanted to keep pedalling hard through the corner, but forgot how low the bottom bracket is on a Brompton. I scraped my inside pedal hard on the ground and nearly lost my balance. I’d add that this isn’t usually a problem in everyday riding, I was pushing the bike much harder than normal. And there were crash barriers in place too.

Is it possible to tuck on a Brompton? Yeah I tried to do just that coming down The Mall a couple of times

Coming down Horse Guards Road I slipped briefly down a gear to deal with the slight incline — yes, I was beginning to perspire in my jacket by this point. Round the corner and back up into my highest gear to charge down The Mall and finish lap one. Six more laps followed (one lap less than the winners due to being lapped), I overtook some people but was overtaken by more of them – feather hats and all.

Around the halfway point I decided I needed to use some road racing tactics to keep myself in the middle of the pack, so I started slipstreaming other riders (and being slipstreamed in turn). The Brompton’s quick handling is superb at finding and holding onto a rear wheel, then nipping past when the moment’s right. 

Is it possible to time trial a Brompton? It sure is
Mona Beach / Immediate Media

Is it possible to tuck on a Brompton? Yeah I tried to do just that coming down The Mall a couple of times, grasping the bottom of the M handlebars to get my head and shoulders lower and hide from the wind. Whether it made any difference I don’t know, but it felt good.

Finally, the lead group of riders charged past leaving me pottering in their wake. Once they’d finished their eight laps, the race would be over and we’d all finish our current laps. I was only lapped once, and was rather relieved to see the black and white chequered flag being waved as I finished lap seven. I managed to summon enough energy to outsprint a couple of people to the line.

The race is over
Mona Beach / Immediate Media

I finished seven laps in 29:45mins, finishing 173rd out of 500 or so riders and somehow averaged 30kph during the race, which was a total surprise. I thought it’d take me a lot longer. I was a long way behind overall winner Mark Emsley by this point, but was happy to ride a warm-down lap and enjoy the atmosphere. 

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I’d been so focused on the race for the past half hour that I hadn’t really noticed just how many people had turned up to watch, bang the hoardings and shout encouragement. I never did see any cheers from the famous balcony of Buckingham Palace, but I like to think that Her Majesty was amused.