Review: Brompton H6L Folding Bike

Putting 5 collapsible commuter bikes to the test
Chris Lesser

Brompton H6L; $1,425

Who It’s For: Practical commuters who want a bike that gets them where they’re going in style and easily folds into a compact, convenient-to-carry package; Englishmen.

Vital Stats
Folded Size
: 23 x 22.2 x 10.6 inches (3.13 cubic feet)
Wheel Size: 16”
Weight: 26.6 pounds
Relative Foldability Rank: 1st Place
Hits: nimble, narrow bars are good for navigating tight spots, most compact design
Misses: seatpost slipped, not a bike for picking up chicks with, slight heel drag
Extras: fenders with mud-guards, integrated tire pump, safety bell, chainring guard
Buy It: NYCeWheels

The Brompton proved itself the smoothest-folding and most compact design of the five folding bikes that we tested—and it’s no wonder: the UK-based company has been at it for more than 30 years. In less than 15 seconds, this glorious contraption goes from a briefcase-sized amalgam of vaguely bike-shaped parts to a fully functional bicycle, with six gears, excellent brakes and an integrated safety bell to boot.

I never expected this one to be my favorite, though. At 6-foot-two-inches, I’m not what one would call uncommonly large, but I’m tall enough to be at least moderately awkward in most situations. And this bike has the smallest wheels of the bunch, with a diameter about the size of my forearm.[slideshow:518]

When I caught my reflection riding the Brompton past a bank window, I saw a bear riding a circus bike. But when I put it through the paces of my five-mile commute, the bike’s handling proved downright nimble. The Brompton has the tightest turning radius of the bunch—always a plus when weaving in between lanes of stalled city traffic. The narrowhandlebars helped, too.

The Brompton’s folding design is downright brilliant. Its rear wheel swings underneath the frame in a snap, and the single-alloy-tube chassis folds directly in half with a few turns of an oversized wingnut that keeps the hinge locked securely in place. An identical joint keeps the mast of the long stem and handlebar assembly upright and absolutely secure, if only relatively sturdy.

While the bike’s folding action was slick, it did not provide the smoothest ride, per se. Its 16-inch wheels are the smallest of the group, and if the 29-inch-wheel mountain bike movement has taught us anything, it’s that bigger wheels roll better. Here in New York City, the roads are less than perfect—which is a nice way of saying that some streets are how I imagine Sarajevo’s streets were, circa 1994. That said, with its high-pressure Schwalbe 1.35-inch-wide tires, the bike rolled faster than expected on smooth stretches of road.

This particular Brompton’s transmission consists of an internal three-speed hub and the smallest-range (two-speed!) derailleur I have ever seen, but it’s available in a variety of built-to-order configurations. This bike’s six different gear combinations may sound paltry, but the range proved surprisingly adequate for my commute, the highest point—both in terms of altitude and scenery—being the center span of the Brooklyn Bridge (read: not a whole lot of climbing).

But riding Brompton is only part of the joy of what I imagine owning one would entail. I found I could fold the thing up and tote it just about anywhere—into a downtown bicycle-banning NYC office building, and right past the doorman; under the table of a bar or restaurant without drawing so much as a second look; or the ultimate test: onto the subway during rush hour—an act sure to draw withering glares (if not outright insurrection) from fellow passengers if one were to roll up with a regular bicycle. But the Brompton? No problem.

So, would I buy one? I’m not going to, but I would. I already have too many in the apartment and my wife won’t stand for one more. But then again, if I can fit it in the bottom of the closet, does it count?

Second Opinion: I have to agree with Chris on most points. As folding bikes go, the Brompton seems to have most everything you’d want. Its design is utilitarian—it gets you from point A to point B, and folds up like a dream when you get there—but it has an understated elegance that pegs this as the perfect gentleman’s bike.

Its unique folding design, which is the same on every model from this company, is so intuitive that the Brompton logo printed on the top tube served as adequate enough “instructions” for me to figure it out on my first try. Other nice (and, again, utilitarian) touches included the perfectly British built-in fenders with mud flaps and frame pump.

As far as ride goes, this is still very much a folding bike. Yes, the tight turning radius is great, and the six-speed setup meant I could easily cruise at 17 or 18 mph on the flats. But the tiny wheels and less rigid frame means you really feel the bumps, especially when you put it through the motions of a 20+ mph Williamsburg Bridge shake test. Also, there was a certain amount of flex in the stem and cranks that I wasn’t too happy with. But it’s a folding bike, not a performance racer, and for day-today use, this bike is probably the most practical and well-executed of the bunch. —Peter Koch

More Info:

See the other collapsible commuter bikes we tested from Dahon, Montague, Tern and Pacific Cycles.