Sunday, July 31, 2016

The First 800 Miles with My Brompton

A little over a month ago, I introduced My New Set of Wheels -- my folding Brompton bike. Many of you asked how I liked my new bicycle, which I affectionately named "Bromleigh." At the time, I hadn't put enough miles on Bromleigh to form an opinion. But now, with more than 800 miles on my new rig, I'm ready to share my thoughts.

Me, just about to set out on my first tour with Bromleigh. (Photo: Pat Goede)

In the past, I've toured with Shirley, my trusty Long Haul Trucker. Commonly referred to as the "gold-standard" in affordable touring bikes, I've been nothing but satisfied with Shirley's performance. However, on my recent bicycle travels to South America, I learned that traveling with a full-sized bicycle can be cumbersome and expensive. And so it was that Bromleigh was born into my repertoire of bicycles.

Bromleigh has being quickly baptized into the world of bicycling. With only about 50 miles of experience, I packed her up for a two and a half month adventure. Together we have travelled across the country. Starting in Seattle, we headed to Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho for one week of personal touring followed by two weeks of leading Adventure Cycling's van-supported Tetons-Yellowstone trips. We then traveled together to Florida, where we are now, for a three-week housesit. When our housesit ends, we will head to South Dakota to staff Adventure Cycling's fully-supported Blacks Hills trip. Only then will we return to Seattle.

The 800 miles we've pedaled thus far have included all sorts of riding -- running errands around town, unloaded long-distance rides, and loaded long-distance touring. During that time, I've also traveled with Bromleigh via car, bus, and airplane. Plus, I've been "living on my bicycle" for about 750 of the 800 miles. Suffice it to say that I've had a wide variety of circumstances in which to test my new Brompton.

There's one thing that's for absolute certain in traveling with a folding bike: You can't go anywhere without being bombarded with compliments and questions. People love my little folding Brompton! There has been a lot of curiosity about the bicycle -- how it folds, how I carry gear, the bike's features, how I travel with the bicycle, as well as its pros and cons. In the following paragraphs, I hope to quell this curiosity and to drum up further interest in riding a Brompton.

Foldability


Bromptons are well-known for their ingenious ability to quickly and compactly fold. Here is Bromleigh, in her full ready-to-ride position:

Bromleigh, in her ready-to-ride position.

She attains her fully-folded position in four easy steps.

Step 1: Fold Rear Wheel


The first step is to fold the rear wheel under the frame. This is achieved by pulling a lever near the rear frame, while flipping the rear wheel under the bike.

Step 1: Fold rear wheel under frame. (Also doubles as kickstand position.)

This position also serves as a kickstand for the bike, as the bike is able to freely stand while balanced on its rear rack.

Step 2: Fold Front Wheel


The second step is to fold the front wheel under the frame. This is accomplished by unscrewing one of two clamps and swinging the front wheel around so that it fits snuggly against the rear wheel.

Step 2: Fold front wheel under frame.

Step 3: Fold Handlebars


The third step is to fold the handlebars. This is achieved by unscrewing the second clamp and letting the handlebars drop alongside the front wheel.

Step 3: Fold handlebars down.

Notice in the above photo that there are four small wheels located at the corners of the rear rack, which is now positioned parallel to and just above the ground. In this position, the bicycle can easily be rolled along the smaller wheels. To do so, you stand behind the bicycle, tilt the seat post and adjoining saddle slightly towards the ground, and then push the bicycle using the two wheels of the rear side of the rack. Brilliant!

Step 4: Lower Seat Post


The final step in folding the bicycle is to lower the telescoping seat post. Doing so locks all of the folded pieces together. The bicycle can then be easily lifted and carried by the nose of the saddle.

Step 4: Lower seat.

When all is said-and-done, the Brompton folds into a tight, compact space. What's truly fantastic about the fold is that the delicate parts of the bicycle (primarily the drive-train) are protected within the fold.

Carrying a Load


Bromptons are well-designed for carrying a load. As you can see in the photo below, I have three bags on my Brompton. These bags serve as my touring set-up. The bags provide plenty of space to carry all my gear.

Bromleigh carrying her three bags.

The Front T-Bag


Bromleigh has a front carrier block located on the steering tube. Brompton offers an expansive line of proprietary bags that easily attach to the carrier block. What's particularly neat about the carrier block is that it carries the front bag independent of the steering column. What this means is that the steering is unaffected by the weight of the bag, thus enhancing the riding stability. What it also means is that it may take a little bit of getting used to riding the Brompton, since the front bag continues to face forward even when the handlebars are turned.

After pouring over many blogs and considering the advice of other Brompton owners, I decided to purchase the Brompton T-Bag for my front bag.

The Brompton T-Bag. (Photo: http://www.bromptonjunction.com)

A huge fan of Ortliebs, I wasn't sure I was going to like the T-Bag. All it took, though, was one ride to the grocery store, and I fell in love with the T-Bag.

Like Ortliebs, the T-Bag has an easy roll-top closure. If I'm not able to fit everything (such as a loaf of French bag) into the bag in its rolled state, I can keep the top unrolled, allowing for a greater carrying volume.

The T-Bag has a water bottle holder on the exterior of the bag, as well as a second large exterior zipped pocket, which can serve as a second water bottle holder. Both of these are within easy reach as you ride the bike.

Unlike Ortliebs, the T-Bag has plenty of pockets for organization -- the large exterior pocket (mentioned above), a slim interior pocket, and an elastic exterior sleeve that expands along three sides of the bag. These elastic pockets are great for easy-to-reach items, such as sunglasses, sunscreen, and my neon riding vest.

Ortliebs are watertight, which is an extremely valuable feature -- especially where I live in the Pacific Northwest. Though the T-Bag is made of a tough, water-resistant Cordura fabric, it comes with a reflective, bright yellow waterproof cover that tucks away into its own pocket. In light rain, the waterproof cover is unnecessary; heavier rains will inevitably soak through the Cordura. I've used the waterproof cover a few times in my 800 miles of riding, and it has served well to keep the contents of my bag dry. I have yet to test the bag and its cover through a rainy winter in the Pacific Northwest.

As for space, because of its rectangular shape and its exterior pockets, I can fit more into the T-Bag than I can into a single rear Ortlieb pannier. This is a huge plus.

The Rear Backpack


I use a regular backpacking-backpack for my rear bag. What I love about using a backpack as my rear pannier is that I have a piece of luggage that I can easily use for non-bike travel. This is a huge plus when I use my Brompton for multi-modal traveling and wish to spend some time traveling off-the-bike.

The secret to attaching a backpack to a Brompton is a canny (not to mention super-duper inexpensive and easy-to-make) PVC pipe structure consisting of a narrow pipe and two "T" joints.


This simple PVC pipe structure allows for a backpack to be attached to a Brompton.

As much as I'd love to take credit for this brilliant idea, it is not my own. I found the instructions for making the PVC pipe structure on a blog called The Unfolded Path. As you can see, the pipe is attached to my saddle with two toe straps, though you could use any similar type of attachment. The stock saddle has two built-in strap attachments, which work perfectly for attaching the PVC pipe.

To attach the backpack, the shoulder straps of the backpack are wrapped around the two ends of the PVC pipe. (Note that I wrapped the backpack's chest strap tightly around the two backpack straps to create a more snug fit around the PVC pipe.)

The backpack's straps are wrapped around the two ends of the PVC pipe.

The base of the backpack rests atop the rear rack. The Brompton rack has two integrated bungee straps, which I feed through the straps at the base of the backpack to more securely attach the pack to the rack.

Bungee cords integrated into the Brompton's rear rack help secure the backpack to the bike.

Many have questioned the stability of the backpack on the rear rack. If you were to violently shake the Brompton from left-to-right, you will notice that the backpack noticeably shifts from left-to-right as well. However, subtle movements in the bicycle, such as those due to cornering, have an insignificant impact on the stability of the backpack and the bicycle.

The Handy-Dandy Goodies Bag


The third bag is attached to the cockpit-side of the handlebar. I repurposed this bag; it used to be my chalk bag from my rock climbing days. As I haven't seen anyone else use this bag, this is my personal contribution to a Brompton set-up. It has worked really well for me.

A chalk bag is used to carry easy-to-reach items.

I use the chalk bag for easy-to-reach items, such as my phone, my Chapstick, my keys, and snacks. It could also be used as another water bottle holder, if needed. What's great is that the chalk bag does not interfere with the folding of the bicycle, so I can keep it permanently attached to the handlebars.

Accessories


Bike Computer


In the above photo, you'll also notice that I have attached a Cateye MC100W Wireless Bicycle Computer to my handlebars. Unfortunately, I have not yet been able to properly calibrate the computer to Bromleigh's tire size, as the computer's instructions do not consider Brompton's proprietary 16" wheel. I contacted Cateye's Customer Service via email to inquire about the proper calibration, but, though more than a month has passed, I have yet to hear back from Cateye. (A thumb's down for Cateye's Customer Service.) From what I can tell, the computer is about 0.08 miles short with each mile pedaled.

Handlebar Grips


The Brompton comes equipped with a basic set of foam handlebar grips. I replaced the grips with a pair of Ergon GP2 Bar End Grips. (Note that you'll need to trim each bar-end grip by ~3/4" in order to fit them onto the handlebars.)

Ergo's GP2 grips.

On my Surly Long Haul Trucker, I use the drop bars that were stocked with the bicycle. Though I never ride in the drops, I'm very happy with the numerous hand positions offered by the flat portion of the handlebar as well as the hoods. I can't yet say the same about the Ergo grip.

A number of times throughout my 800 miles of riding, I experienced numb hands. Whenever I experienced the discomfort, I made a conscious effort to improve my posture by using my abs to hold up my upper body instead of placing so much weight on my hands. This fixed the numbness. As many cyclists swear by their Ergo grips, I need to do more experimenting with different grip angles before I conclude whether the hand numbness is due to the grips or to my poor riding posture.

One other item to note is that the vertical extensions on the Ergo grip can interfere with the folding of the handlebars. When I drop the handlebars (Step 3 in the folding process), I need to tip the bike slightly away from the direction in which the handlebars are folding so that the extension on the right side of the handlebar doesn't hit the ground. Once the handlebar is fully folded, though, I no longer have to worry about the grip extensions.

Pedals


Brompton stocks their bicycles with their own proprietary pedals. While the pedals have a neat folding design, the pedals need to be removed when packing the bike. Though the pedals can be removed with a multi-tool, I thought I would experiment with quick-release removable pedals.

After doing some online research, I purchased a pair of Xpedo Quick-Release Pedals. They were difficult to find -- I was only able to acquire them via a China-based dealer on EBay. As you can see in the photo below, there is a black plastic ring around the ingress where the pedal is inserted. On this ring is a button that is pushed to release the pedal, hence it's quick-release capability.

Expedo's Quick-Release pedals.

When the pedals arrived from overseas, they were much smaller than anticipated; the width of the pedal platform only supported about 3/4ths of the width of my foot. Despite its disappointing size, I vowed to give the pedals a try.

On a handful of occasions throughout my 800 miles, one of the pedals would detach itself from the crank arm...as I was pedaling! I'm not 100% certain that I have accurately diagnosed why the pedals spontaneously detached themselves, but it's likely that my foot accidentally hit the quick-release button on the black plastic ring. To prevent this from happening again, I needed to conscientiously place my feet on the pedals to ensure that I did not accidentally engage the release button with my feet.

I also noticed an occasional numbness in my legs as I pedaled. I attribute this to the narrow pedal platform and their inability to support the entire width of my foot.

Though I love the ease with which the Expedo pedals quickly release from Bromleigh, I do not care for the ease with which these pedals spontaneously detach themselves. I will resume using the stock Brompton pedals until I find a more suitable quick-release option.

Wrench


Though not a sexy accessory, I also acquired a 15mm "stubby" wrench to assist in removing my wheels, should I ever get a flat. Though removing the front wheel is straightforward, the internal hub makes removal of the rear wheel a bit more complicated. After watching a few YouTube videos, I practiced removing the rear wheel before I set out for my travels. I recorded a few key wheel removal steps on my phone, should I need to re-spark my memory while out in-the-field.

15mm stubby wrench.

Transporting the Bicycle


One of the huge advantages of a Brompton bicycle is that it is easy to transport via planes, trains, buses, and automobiles. When it often costs $150 to transport a regular bicycle on an airplane, the folded bicycle simply counts as a regular piece of luggage, costing a mere $25 on most airlines.

If I'm transporting the bicycle in an automobile, I simply fold the bike, and it's good-to-go. However, if I'm transporting the bike via another means, I take a few additional measures to further protect the bicycle.

After folding the bike, the first thing I do is remove the pedals and place them in a ziplock bag. I also remove the two clamps (and accompanying screws and washers) and place those in a second ziplock bag. To make the bike even smaller in size, I remove the telescoping seat post, wrap it in packaging material, and strap it to the top tube of the bicycle, as shown below.

Removing the pedals, clamps, and seat post.

Brompton sells a soft-sided carrying case, called the B-Bag. Though I love the B-Bag, it is a pricey piece of gear. I researched alternative carrying options and found that many Brompton owners use a Dimpa Storage Bag to carry their bicycles. These storages bags can be purchased from Ikea for a whopping $3.99.

Packaging Bromleigh in her IKEA Dimpa Bag.

As there is minimal handling when riding the bus or train, I'm comfortable placing Bromleigh in a Dimpa Bag without any additional protective packaging materials. However, when flying via plane, where the bag is more susceptible to be tossed about, I feel more comfortable with an added layer of protection. In this case, I place the Dimpa Bag within a second Dimpa Bag and place a layer of cardboard between the two Dimpa Bags along the length, width, and height of the bag.

The great thing about the Dimpa Bags is that I can easily fold them up and store them in the bottom of my backpack when they aren't being used. Should a Dimpa bag ever fail, it can be easily and inexpensively replaced. The cardboard reinforcements for airplane travel can be easily fashioned from any cardboard box.

Once Bromleigh has been packaged, I now have three bags to maneuver. The backpack is easily worn on my back, the Dimpa bag is easily worn over my right shoulder, and the Brompton T-Bag is easily slung over my left shoulder. This set-up is so much easier to handle than my traditional touring set-up, which includes a monstrously-sized bike box, two rear panniers, two front panniers, and a handlebar bag, none of which are easy-to-carry off-the-bike.

Three easy bags to carry.

Other Thoughts About My Brompton

  • As I mentioned in My New Set of Wheels, Bromleigh is a truly fun bike. I particularly love running errands around town, as it's so easy to maneuver on the Brompton. There have been a few occasions when I've needed to stop at the grocery store, but I haven't had my lock with me. No worries...I simply fold up Bromleigh and place her in my shopping cart!

  • I suffer from poor riding posture, and so the upright geometry of the Brompton is very comfortable.

  • I love that Bromleigh fits under the vestibule of my one-person MSR tent, as shown below. Keeping her protected from the elements helps reduce the frequency with which she needs TLC, such as chain lubing.

Bromleigh easily fits underneath my tent's vestibule.

  • Likewise, Bromleigh's internal gearing requires far less maintenance than traditional gearing.

  • As is the case with all the Schwalbe tires I've owned, the Schwalbe Marathon tires on the Brompton have held up well. I have yet to have a flat! It's worth mentioning that the tires lose air more easily than other tires, and so the air needs to be topped off every two or three days. Fortunately, the Brompton makes this easy, as the bike comes with a little pump that fits snugly into the rear fork.

  • The Brompton is a solid bike. Not only is it made of steel, but it's also super-well designed. Bromleigh is not a dainty bike, by any means.

  • I've heard complaints that all folding bicycles (including brands other than Bromptons) don't handle downhills very well; I've heard that the bike becomes jittery with speeds in excess of 30 mph. My maximum speed on the Brompton was about 35 mph, and I never noticed the jitteriness. Of course, it may have helped that I was always carrying extra weight in the T-Bag on the front of my bicycle.

  • The only downside of my Brompton is the gearing. I custom-ordered the Brompton with 6-gears and 12% reduced gearing, which is the most optimal gear set-up that Brompton provides for touring. While the gearing has been adequate for 95% of my riding thus far, I sure wish I had more optimal gearing for climbing and descending hills, particularly when carrying a load. I consider myself to be a strong climber, but I really struggled in pedaling Bromleigh over Teton Pass (the final 2.7 miles of which are at a 10% grade). I also topped out at a speed of about 20 mph in pedaling a long stretch of moderate decline. Hopefully Brompton will consider a more favorable array of gears for loaded-touring.

Despite the gearing, I am in love with my Brompton. Bromleigh is a keeper! While she wouldn't have been able to handle the treacherous roads I cycled earlier this year in Patagonia, and while I will still choose to ride Shirley on a trip that is exclusively about bike touring (and where no costly airplane rides are required), for all other purposes, Bromleigh is my go-to bike.

For those of you who have been considering the addition of a folding bike to your repertoire, I'd highly recommend a Brompton.

Here are the build specs for my Brompton:

M6R/-12/BK/BK/SPT/TYM/HSU/FCB+sep/REV
  • M: M-type handlebars
  • 6R: 6-speed
  • R: rear rack
  • -12: reduced gearing
  • BK/BK: black main frame and extremities
  • SPT: telescopic seat post
  • TYM: Marathon tyres
  • HSU: firm suspension
  • FCB+sep: front carrier block and bag
  • REV: reverse brakes (standard for bikes delivered to the United States)

Go Brompton!

23 comments:

  1. Thanks for the write-up. It sounds like a superior solution to the Bike Friday Air Glide that I used to own several years ago. Getting it into the suitcase was tantamount to disassembling and reassembling most of the bike (wheels, stem and bars come off, for example). I got it down to about 30-45 minutes, but it was not something I'd do casually for a commute. I really like that the Brompton is quick enough to fold that you can tuck it under the tent.

    One issue that was a problem for the Bike Friday that I'm curious if you'll run into was braking on long hills would eat through rims pretty quickly. I had some disc mounts welded on, solving that problem, but adding to the effort to pack. (Disc rotors needed to be removed, lest they get bent)

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    1. I've heard similar complaints from many Bike Friday owners. The Brompton is a superior solution indeed! It takes only a fraction of a minute to fold up a Brompton. That's quite a bit of time (and frustration) savings!

      So far I haven't noticed any premature wear'n'tear on the rims. Given the size of the wheels, I anticipate I'll be needing to replace parts (tires, rims, brakes, etc.) more frequently than for a larger-sized bicycle. As most all of the Brompton parts are proprietary, I'll be curious to see how goes the long-term maintenance hassle (not to mention maintenance cost). For this bike, though, convenience is a HUGE intangible!

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  2. I know someone makes campy 11 speed rear ends that you can swap for a greater customizability and you can do a kick shift double up front. Check out russ from
    Path less pedaled setup. Also a 15mm cone wrench might save ya some
    Wieght if needed be instead of the stubby one

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    1. Thanks for the insight, Spencer. I'll check out Russ's set-up. Hope you are enjoying your guiding this summer as well as all of your other adventures!

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    2. Spencer - I looked a bit into your suggestions and they are PRICEY solutions -- nearly as expensive as the bicycle itself! If the bicycle served all of my needs from here until eternity, I'd consider it. Meanwhile, I'll continue my search for a more economical solution. Thank you, though, it's always good to know what's out there.

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  3. I seem to recall an option on the Cateye to enter the cricumfercme of the wheel. Would eliminate the need for the size of tire maybe? Love this write up, I have a buddy who is considering a fold up bike and will share this with him!

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    1. The Cateye Manual includes a chart for different "wheel circumferences." The chart has a specific input for a 16 x 1.50 tire and a 16 x 1.75 tire, but there is no input for a Brompton tire, which measues 16 x 1.35. My next step is to try to triangulate the proper input based on other tire circumferences. Time and a reliable source of mile markers will tell me whether I've found the right setting. :)

      I hope this write-up is helpful for your buddy!

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  4. Very interesting post, Sarah. I love that you can put Bromleigh in your shopping cart!

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  5. Sarah, I loved your write-up. I never thought before that a folding bike could be so kool and versatile! I certainly would entertain getting one in the future for traveling. Oh, by the way, I saw a Brompton in the bike rack at REI with an electric front wheel setup last week. That might require a few more muscles to pick up and carry around!
    Boo (from REI)

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    1. Thanks for your note, Boo! I was really excited to get the Brompton, but it's proved to be even cooler than expected. :) I considered getting a hub generator built into my front wheel, as I love the one on my Surly. But before investing in this addition, I first wanted to see how much I used the Brompton in situations that would benefit from the generator. So far, I haven't felt the need for it. Hope to see you on a folding bike someday soon! :)

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  6. Sarah...so excited to see that you are riding your Brompton and touring on it!! As you know I have toured...fully loaded... the Selkirk Loop and the full length of the Rhine River on my Brompton. Many many miles with very little need for maintenance. For those of you reading Sarah's posts - she is right! The Brompton is a riot to ride and is a great touring bike. BTW I just got a Burleigh Travoy trailer for my Brompton. The folded Brompton, the Travoy and my T Bag all go easily on Amtrak for train/bike adventures -- all as 'carry on' baggage -- no worries about Amtrak Routes that restrict your baggage and no extra costs. Bonnie

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    1. Bonnie, thanks again for turning me onto Bromptons a few years back. Without your influence, I likely wouldn't be enjoying Bromleigh right now. I'll be curious to see how it is touring with your new Burleigh Travoy. I'll continue to follow your travels on Facebook. Cheers!

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  7. Great write up, I also love touring on my Brompton and have found this bike a wonderful way to take the hassle out of transporting the bike to places. Enjoy!

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    1. Thanks for reading, Gianni! Bromptons are indeed great bikes! :)

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  8. Thanks for the nice article. I purchased a Brompton in August for use when my wife and I go traveling with our travel trailer. Love the bike so far but haven't toured with it yet.

    I think this method will work for calibrating the cateye:
    1. Draw a line on the sidewalk and place the valve stem of your front tire above this line.
    2. Wheel the bike forward for one complete revolution of the tire. Make a line directly under the valve stem
    3. Measure the distance between the two lines in millimeters.
    4. Enter this number into your cateye as the wheel circumference.


    Hope to read more of your travels in the future

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    1. Hi Leon. Thanks for reaching out! Bromptons are wonderful, aren't they? If you've toured before on a "regular" bike, I'll think you'll be surprised at how easily you can tour on a Brompton.

      Thank you for detailing how to calibrate the Cateye. This certainly works, but...it requires effort. Although I have endless energy for traveling by bicycle, when it comes to measuring a wheel circumference, I'm as lazy as can be. A Google search tells me that folks have measured anywhere between 1282 and 1330. Of course, this is dependent on a number of factors -- tire width, pressure, etc. I think 1300 sounds like a nice round number to me. :)

      Happy pedaling!

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  9. Even better, your Brompton can BE your shopping cart ;)
    Especially easy to manouver and stable with a rear rack.

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    1. Agree 100%. The Brompton can be the shopping cart. :)

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  10. Hi Sarah,
    Two questions: firstly, why do you remove your pedals? I have simply padded mine when traveling with them and they've come to no harm.
    Secondly, have you bought, or considered buying a Brompton toolkit? Not only do you never have to worry whether or not you've remembered to pack it (it stows away in the frame so it's always with the bike), it's got pretty much everything you'll need to get you out of trouble.
    Otherwise, good post! Happy Bromptoneering!

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    1. Hello. :)

      To answer your questions...

      I remove the pedals to reduce the likelihood that they might be damaged. Padding them is also an option; I just don't want to have to carry or deal with extra padding.

      I considered buying the Brompton toolkit. However, given it's price, I decided it easiest just to use my existing multitool.

      Thanks for reading, and thanks for your questions.

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  11. My Brompton has now replaced my touring bike for most of my travels, have you thought about some of the 8 speed kits available from the link below.

    http://www.kinetics-online.co.uk/folding-bikes/brompton/brompton-alfine-kits/

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    1. That's great, Roy! I'll take a look at the link you sent. Thank you. :)

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I would love to hear your comments on this post!