Saturday, 21 October 2017

End of season London to Brighton overnight

A couple of weeks ago - 6th October - I embarked upon the last of the night rides to the coast for this year. The very thought of this almost brought a tear to my eye as it would mean a wait of perhaps five long months before we would be able to do it all again.

The first of these rides was to Southend - I think - and I completed that on a Brompton. I had decided ages ago that it would only be fitting for me to complete the last of these rides on a Brompton. Dr John had I think deliberated on whether to take one of his road bikes but me talking of small wheels made him pause for thought and he too brought a Brompton for this ride.

Regular readers will know that I despise public transport when it is busy. With almost aversion-type therapy I have been trying to use public transport more and more, especially when travelling to and from these sorts of rides. Sadly, my worst fears were realised. The tube carriage I was in was soon filled with middle aged men having running battles with each other in a alcohol fuelled scene. It seemed that the cause of all this anger was a lingering look towards one of their partners. I tried not to give too many lingering looks as I knew that a look would turn into a full on stare to see if they all fixed the description of the missing link? Thankfully the looks I were giving out - knock into me or more importantly my Brompton and you'll regret it - were enough for me not to be bothered, unlike some other poor unfortunate members of the carriage.

With the Jeremy Kyle tube journey over I found sanctuary in London at night. Crossing the Millennium foot bridge I made my way to the agreed meeting point near the Royal Festival Hall. There were already quite a few participants there when I arrived and one gentleman - who asked if I were Mr Orange of that Orange Brompton blog - said that he had signed up for this ride as a direct result of reading my past ramblings.

Soon thereafter Dr John arrived on his Brompton and we were to be the only riders on small wheels. Sam of 'Skye Caps' also joined the ride and before long we were listening to Adrian, our ride leader go through the safety talk. With this done we all got ready for the big off which was to come at midnight.

Normally I press the start button on my Garmin 820 but I have been testing out two offerings by Wahoo - the Bolt and the slightly larger Elemnt. I will almost certainly be sticking with the Bolt but I have to say both are excellent and as far as ease of use and navigating, totally kick the stuffing out of the Garmin. Navigation has always been an issue for me but using these devices from Wahoo over the past few weeks has allowed me to navigate with more confidence. I will write a blog post about them at some point. So I pressed the start button on my Bolt and we were off into the night for another adventure.

Our first stop was at the familiar Clapham Common where we regrouped for the tail to catch up. We were illuminated somewhat by the tail end of a Harvest Moon.

Progress was good and the ride felt purposeful and brisk, with few mechanical issues or punctures to slow proceedings down. Dr John was as always excellent company and yet again I have my Brompton to thank for meeting him. It is lovely that simple and lasting friendship have been established thanks to a small wheeled folding bicycle.

The weather was pretty good all night and the very faint drops of rain didn't get started. It was quite mild too which all made for pretty good riding conditions.

At about 30 miles or so we reached the halfway stop that was Gatwick Airport. Those on big wheels left their bicycles outside - watched selflessly by a team of fellow riders - which allowed them to head inside to get some food and refreshment. Dr John and I simply folded our bikes and headed in.

After some deliberation we opted for and M & S food outlet where Christmas had already made an appearance! After being suitably fed and watered we all got ready to go for the second half of the ride.

Starting off on the second half can be a time where one really feels the cold. I felt fine and didn't see the need to layer up. After a few miles I was warmed up.

The ride progressed really well and Dr John and I stayed with the front pack for almost all of the ride. Not too far from Devils Dyke, Adrian offered an alternative route - slightly flatter - for those not wishing to ascend a hill. Dr John and I opted for the hill.

On a previous ride a few year ago that was Brompton exclusive our route to Brighton took us up Devils Dyke. It was demanding but for me easier than Ditching Beacon. Dr John was off ahead of me but after about two miles of climbing I slowed down to see others at the top.

While we waited for others to catch up lots of photographs were taken and through the early morning haze the sea could just about e made up in the distance.

It may seem like madness to ride all through the night to the seaside however once you have it is addictive. It is has a draw that is hard to explain but you do find yourself wanting to do it again and again.

When we set off again, much of the remaining miles were flat or downhill. Cycling at speed a gentleman on a road bike behind me shouted out that he never thought he'd see the day when he would be drafting behind a Brompton. I almost felt like shouting back that if he thought I was fast, he should meet some of my friends!

The breakfast stop was not too far from the station but as the journey back to Victoria was double the time it normally takes due to I think engineering works, Dr John and I decided to head straight for the station and the first train back to the big smoke.  Our journey went quickly and at Clapham Junction we said our goodbyes.

I was glad that I took the Brompton with me. I enjoyed using it and have to report that I didn't really miss my Condor road bike too much. I suspect that when the new season of these rides start again in 2018 I will probably use the Orange one a great deal more.

Many thanks to Adrian for being a good ride leader and to his team of TECs. Also many thanks to Dr John for his excellent company throughout the ride and the journey home.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Electric Brompton Impressions

The Electric Brompton has certainly caused quite a stir since it was announced. There has been rumours of this happening for ages but the reality is now here and Brompton are even taking pre-orders.

In a first for my humble blog, one of my Brompton colleagues and all round good egg, Simon S has written a rather superb review of the Electric Brompton. If you have not gone for a test ride yourself, Simon's review certainly gives food for thought. All the words and photos below are his. Many thanks to Simon for a quite excellent review. Enjoy.

It was a long time coming, but the Electric Brompton is finally here, and last week I got to try one during a Cambridge demo day. What was it like? Is it the future?
To give you some background, I own three Bromptons and love gadgets. Last winter, I converted one of my Bromptons to electric to learn about what makes a great e-bike and this review is written based on this experience. The opinions in this review are my own and I am not associated with Brompton Bicycle in any way.

What does the Electric Brompton look like?

Well pretty much like the standard bicycle, albeit with some slightly strange front luggage.

The approach Brompton took has the battery in a detachable front bag and a motor embedded in the front wheel. It is pretty conventional and there are already a number of similar pre-existing conversion kits on the market. It is a proven approach that works well and still allows the bike to fold. The 2-speed version of the bike was quoted as being 13.9kg with the battery pack weighing 2.7kg. The battery pack detaches for easier carrying, and whilst you notice the extra weight it is not excessive. The one time you will notice the extra weight of the motor is when folding and bringing the front wheel round to hook it in position.

What differentiates the “official” Brompton approach is the attention to detail. There is no clutter around the handlebars and all the wiring is neat. The battery clips on and off with a new connector block system and a well placed release latch. Controls are simple and the application of power seamless. Front forks are subtly modified and strengthened to mount the motor. There is a connector to easily disconnect the power supply to the front wheel to repair a puncture. A torque sensor is fitted which is part of an advanced control system for the application of power.

It should be noted that these changes do mean that the frame is subtly different and the electric system cannot be retrofitted to a normal bike, but this lack of backwards compatibility is worth it for the benefits the bespoke nature of the frame brings.

How does it ride?

This is the big question. Without electrical assistance it rides just like a normal Brompton with a heavy front bag. Same gears, levers, handlebars, seat. You select one of three levels of assistance on the battery pack itself, and the motor then assists your cycling when you pedal. The level of assistance is set while stationary and the rest is left to the bike. 

The motor itself has gears and a freewheel inside it. In use, it gives off a high-pitched hum that is actually quite nice as it tells you the motor is working and gives you reassurance. However, the noise is a bit of a giveaway if you are thinking of using your electric Brompton to burn off MAMILs at the traffic lights.

When setting off from stationary, the bike has to detect the effort the rider is applying to start the motor assistance, and this is done with a torque sensor in the bottom bracket. It is a legal requirement that the motor may only assist while you are pedalling, and this is the reason for fitting a torque sensor. But even the best torque sensor needs a bit of movement on the cranks to detect the rider’s effort, which means that when pushing off and starting to ride, the motor assist lags a big. Brompton’s technical staff say they are working out how to minimise this, and it would be great if they could get this even better as, whilst not a problem on the flat, you do notice this lag on hill starts.

Another legal requirement is that e-bike assistance is limited to 25 kph or 15.5mph. When cycling between 15 and 16mph you can hear the motor cut out, and you are left pedalling a conventional bike. This transition is smooth, and being able to hear if the motor is working is really useful as you can judge your speed accordingly. It is especially useful as, unlike on most electric bike control systems, there is no speedo. During my test ride, I was using a Suunto GPS watch to check my speed and the 2-speed version I was using seemed really well matched to cruising at a power assisted 15mph. I suspect that the 6-speed would spend more time going a bit faster unassisted, but remember that you are also putting in more effort to do this.

The test ride was in Cambridge, which is not renowned for its hills, but a short cycle alongside the guided busway brought me to the Addenbrookes guided busway bridge. This is quite steep and some cyclists need to get off and push their bikes over it. On this impromptu test the Electric Brompton flew over it with minimal effort from the rider. Yes, you could hear the motor working harder, but it took it all in its stride. This gave me a lot of confidence that it could manage gradients and deliver on its promise of power assistance.

There is a 300 watt-hour battery, which Brompton say is good for at least 25 miles and up to 50 miles in eco mode. Some other unofficial Brompton conversions use 36V cordless drill batteries, which only give between 6 and 12 miles, which is just not enough real world range. Range anxiety (the fear of running out of juice) is a genuine concern when running any electric vehicle. The battery size that Brompton have used is sensible, allowing you to do a 10-mile each way commute with confidence.

So who is it for?

At first glance, spending over £2500 on an electrically powered folding bike which is effectively limited to 15.5 miles an hour doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense. On the forums there seems to be a kneejerk reaction, with many people saying “how much?” or “what’s the point?”, but this does not consider the bigger picture. Let’s think about commuting for a moment, as this is not the fun sort of cycling - it is getting to work on time, day in and day out, come rain, shine or wind. Generally commuting is tolerable in spring and autumn, but in summer you arrive all sweaty and in winter cold and knackered from the headwind. The biggest revelation when running my electric bike was how it changed my attitude to commuting. No longer is a headwind an issue, no longer do you arrive sweaty at the height of summer, journeys are more consistent and the whole experience pleasant – all year round.

The other insight comes from my daughter, who has started riding my Electric Brompton because it allows her to keep up with her brother on family cycle rides. Where two people want to ride together and one of them is not as much of a “keen” cyclist as the other, then I can see that the combination of one conventional and one electric bike would work well.

In summary

If you commute by bike, then an electric bike will transform your journey. Yes, it does cost twice as much as a normal Brompton but it is worth it when you consider what you would save on train / tube / bus fares or even running a car. It is an all-year-round solution.

The Electric Brompton’s mainstream appeal is limited not by the capabilities of the bike, but by the law which imposes a speed limit on assistance. 15.5mph is just not quite fast enough for fun cycling. This is especially true in the UK where cycling is seen more as a sport rather than as a means of transport.

After the release of a number of limited editions featuring only superficial changes such as different colours, with no tangible improvements or refinements, Brompton have now improved the bike and made it relevant. This shows the bike and the brand have a future.