About a Brompton: C line Electric Review

 

I’ve developed an interest in folding bikes as well as small wheeled bicycles over the years.  Lately, I’ve also wanted to explore the growing world of e-bikes.   I combined all of these interests together in purchasing this Brompton C line electric bicycle.

Before delving in to my impressions of the bike, there’s first a lot to unpack about Brompton bicycles in general and the e-bike version specifically.  First and foremost, this is a folding bike with tiny 16 inch wheels.  It folds into a squarish size that can easily fit behind a desk or in even the smallest hatchback.  The folding process is quick, involving only a few steps, and is arguably ingenious as there’s no other (rideable) small wheeled bike that folds up this small and this easily, to my knowledge.  I won’t go into the folding process here, as there are multiple resources on the web to help you learn.

In practice, I have rarely fully folded the bike, but have found this “kick stand mode” very useful, both outdoors and inside.

Of the many quirks and oddities of Brompton bicycles, the most important is the fact that since this is both a folding bike and a “one size fits all” bike, virtually every component is purpose built and cannot be upgraded or swapped without voiding the 7 year warranty (frame only, 3 years for the e-bike components).  Essentially, everything on the Brompton, down to the cables and their housings, is custom made.  I learned this after purchasing the bike with the taller version of the handlebars.  Only one style of handlebar is available with the e-bike version, and it comes in two different heights, achieved by different stem lengths.  Swapping bars is an expensive undertaking and can only be done by the dealer.  Fortunately, having only a few miles on the bike, I was able to swap it out for a different model with the shorter stem.  Even so, I find the medium height bars too tall for ideal comfort.

Likewise, the shape of the bars, necessary for the bike to fold, means that there is no swept-back angle on the grip portion, which instead are perpendicular to the stem.  This rotates your shoulders forward and twists your thumbs and wrists into an uncomfortable position.

I removed the stock grips and wrapped multiple layers of cloth tape to the grip area, opting for a funky two tone look.  This helped to make the grip area less thick, making it less painful for my thumbs to lock under the bar, and I like the feel and moisture absorbency of cloth tape.

Because of the bike’s non-standard design, all of the visual cues that one might use to set up the ergonomics are missing. I needed to get out my angle finder and tape measure to get the bars and saddle set up in the most tolerable position for riding.  One size fits all means some ergonomic compromises.

The utilitarian saddle clamp is made less effective by its single bolt design with the bolt positioned so that one must mount the saddle (I removed the uncomfortable Brompton saddle) on the upper rails of the clamp in order to access the bolt.  If mounted on the lower rails, you can see that the saddle can’t be positioned correctly because the bolt becomes inaccessible from the side. Traditional saddle clamps have the bolt accessible from underneath the saddle.  The clamp itself allows for micro-adjustment, however.

I wanted to use my leather Cardiff saddle with this bike, but ended up swapping it for a well worn WTB Deva which provides a little more cushioning, necessary due to the bouncy ride.  Even though the bottom bracket is offset ahead of the seat tube, I still needed to push the saddle back to account for the forward mounted (and must not be reversed for unknown reasons, per the owner’s manual) no-set-back saddle clamp.  I also angled the handlebars inward toward the saddle to bring my hands into a comfortable position with some elbow bend to provide much needed shock absorption.

Rear suspension block

Short spokes make for a harsh ride

Rear wheel not centered between chainstays

Small wheeled bicycles, with their shorter spokes, are improved by front and rear suspension to help smooth out the ride. I’m amazed, given how harshly this bike rides, that Brompton hasn’t invested in engineering some kind of front suspension.  Alex Moulton figured this out back in 1962 when he designed the first Moulton with full suspension front and rear.  It too featured 16 inch wheels.  The folding stem would admittedly present engineering challenges. Brompton has only managed to engineer a simple rear suspension block, perhaps choosing instead to spend its money on branding every single component of the bike, down to the rear fender flap.

The little 250 watt motor housed in a relatively small flange hub, still eats up a big portion of the front wheel’s diameter, making the spoke length very short. I don’t hear riders of regular Bromptons complaining bitterly about the harsh ride, but maybe that’s because they have three things going for them:  longer spokes on the front wheel, a lighter and more flexible fork, and more (and better) tire options.  Brompton has specified only two tire options for this e-bike:  the Schwalbe Marathon Racer and the Schwalbe Marathon, both harsh riding tires with heavy, stiff sidewalls.

My bike came equipped with the Marathon Racers, which measure 34mm wide on the Brompton rims.  I’ve had to experiment with tire pressure, as there is a trade off between rolling resistance and ride harshness, which I’ve found to be balanced at about 70-75 lbs. front and rear.  You’ll note from the above photo that in offering the 6 speed version of this bike, which involved installing an extra cog on the Sturmey Archer hub, they spaced the rear wheel toward the drive side, rather than installing longer spokes and re-dishing the wheel to center it in the frame.  Consequently, there’s only 3 mm of tire clearance on the drive side chain stay, meaning that it would be impossible to install wider tires even if you wanted to risk voiding the warranty.

The drivetrain consists of a wide ratio Sturmey Archer 3 speed hub with two cogs, 16T and 13T, mated to a 50T chainring up front.  This gives a gear inch range of 33 to 100, which is a good spread for just about any kind of riding.  There’s an oddball “chain pusher” clamped to the chain stay that shoves the pulleys, which are plastic, from one side to the other of the the also plastic chain tensioner.  The (plastic again) shifters have the cog shifter on the left side and the internal hub shifter on the right side.  I found the half step gear shifting pattern to be non-intuitive until I made the above gear shifting chart.  Now, it’s easy to remember that any time I am shifting the rear hub, I’ll need to do a double shift to maintain cadence.  The whole system is noisy as can be, with something always whirring and clicking. Combined with the thunking and rattling noises caused by the harsh ride, it’s taken a while to get used to, and has at times caused me to think that something is seriously wrong with the bike.

There’s also a lot of friction in the drive train, which you can note by trying to spin the crankset backwards.  It simply doesn’t.  Normally, there would be about a 5-9% loss in power due to the internal gear hub as compared to a derailleur geared bicycle, but this drive train feels more sluggish when “unplugged” than my vintage 3 speed bikes.  I suspect this is caused by the pulley placement on the chain tensioner:  there is almost no clearance between each pulley, barely enough room for the chain to fit through.  Add to that the drag from the front motor, and this becomes a bike that’s not fun to ride with battery turned off.

But, many faults and flaws can be overcome with the addition of a little battery power and a motor. The bike comes standard with a soft case to hold the battery, which clips into a specially designed front bracket.  The case is very small, but can hold a U-lock, cell phone, and wallet.  I opted to purchase the larger commuter bag and have found it very useful, and big enough for a change of clothes or a day’s shopping.

The bike comes with some thick owner’s manuals and the learning curve for this bike is  steep, especially if you haven’t owned a Brompton or an e-bike previously.  But, I’ve learned a few tips that I can now share.  First of all, when you insert the battery onto the bike, make sure it is fully clamped in by giving it an extra shove, otherwise the battery can pop out/turn off unexpectedly while hitting a bump.  Secondly, the battery, sensors, and motor are re-calibrated each time the battery is installed, so do not turn the cranks or move the bike for the first few seconds.  Wait until all the lights come on, and even a few seconds after that.

There are three power modes.  Don’t waste your time on power mode 1, as it is too wimpy to overcome the bike’s drive train flaws.  I’ve found that using mode 2 consistently, with the lights always on, gives me about a 30 mile range before re-charging.  Mode 3 is great for steep hills, hot days, and miserable rain, but will use the battery more quickly.  According to the owner’s manual, the battery likes to be recharged early and often.

As per British e-bike standards, the power cuts out at 15 mph, for which I am thankful.  This little bike with its tiny wheels can be scary on descents, especially if encountering a bump or pothole, which can turn the fork and even swallow the front wheel.  For me, it’s also nice to not overtake super-fit riders.  I’m not riding to get there as fast as I can.

There are many other quirks and “Bromptonisms” that need to be learned.  I’ve found the videos by Brilliant Bikes especially helpful and humorous.

Poorly designed rollers

Roller on fender which doesn’t actually roll

One locking solution for quick stops.

I did consider selling the bike until just recently, as I’ve come to think of it more as a commuting appliance, rather than a bicycle.  There have been so many notable flaws, including the fact that this bike isn’t suited for multi-modal transportation (except via car).  It is too heavy (about 39 lbs. with battery) to comfortably carry up steps, and the poorly designed “rollers” to be used when the bike is partially folded, simply do not work on this bike.  Perhaps because it is heavier than regular Bromptons are, but the bike doesn’t roll when folded on anything but the smoothest polished surfaces.  There are aftermarket rollers available, but it is disappointing that Brompton would not properly engineer these rollers to work with the e-bike.  Because of the weight and inability to roll when partially folded, you can’t take this bike with you into the grocery store, as you can with regular Bromptons.  That means you have to figure out a way to lock it.  I’ve come up with one solution, shown above, that locks the battery as well.  So far, so good.

Likewise, failing to provide for a bottle cage mount is another disappointment.  Fortunately, I found a suitable solution with this clamp made by “Monkii”, but it is puzzling that such an important feature is left for the consumer to problem solve, especially on a bike in this price range.

To end on a positive note, I’ll say that one redeeming feature is this adorable pump, engineered to fit perfectly on the left side seat stay.  It works fine, too.

So, why do I still have this bike?  In addition to commuting on hot days, cycling on unpleasant errands, and riding through rain storms, I’ve also taken this bike on some almost fun jaunts out of town.  I’ve expanded my normal routes to include previously unconquerable hills.  While not my favorite bike by any means, I have found it helpful to have an e-bike on hand when I want to ride even though conditions are bad. Its folding capabilities mean that I can take it with me on out of town trips even when I am bringing another bike, because I can squeeze it in just about anywhere.  But, I cannot recommend this bike as one’s only bike, except maybe in an environment with very smooth roads. Wired Magazine declared this bike un-rideable in its recent review.  Let’s hope that as competition in the e-bike market increases, Brompton will be required to address some of this bike’s glaring shortcomings.

14 thoughts on “About a Brompton: C line Electric Review

  1. I’ve owned a regular Brompton for over a year and enjoy it. I thought it would be just a “touring appliance” but actually enjoy the ride, never finding it harsh. And I do enjoy the multi-modal aspect, as I have flown with it and taken it on the train. Perhaps try one next?

    • I might just do that. Another reason for the harsh ride on the e-Brompton is that the fork was swapped out for a heavier model with thicker tubing, presumably to accommodate the front wheel motor. Forgot to mention that in the blog post.

  2. Nola, I’ve always looked at folding bikes as more of a convenience tool , say for limited space or traveling. The hub drive ebikes work but the bike is hard to ride without using the motor. My wife rides ebikes due to physical limitations. She is now on her third, the first was front wheel hub drive, the second was rear wheel hub drive , and now she is on a mid drive Townie. The mid drive Bosche system is by far the best she has had. No it isn’t folding , but it must be pedaled to go and it the battery is turned off , it rides well, just heavy , but no real drag. Hers also features a Shimano internal 5 or 6 speed hub for easy shifting. The power for climbing is much better on mid drive systems and you can select the level of assist , which she likes , no holding a throttle with her hand , just ride and it “learns” the level you select. I have never seen a mid drive folder so may not be available. If you haven’t tried one I recommend them.

    • I think the fact the the front motor is only a 250 watt model helps to overcome any inherent limitations in that design, and makes the e-Brompton “all wheel drive”. But it does make more sense to put the motor into the frame using the mid drive design. Glad your wife is enjoying it. I’ll have to try one. And, what’s the point of cycling if you are not pedaling 🙂

  3. Yes, that bike looks very balanced and I’m sure it will serve you well. The ebike is becoming quite popular and I saw a few when I went for my ride. Most folks pedal with them but I have seen people that use them as motor bikes and I don’t get it . A Fanny for every saddle!

  4. Not to sound like a quitter but you may want to reconsider trying to recoup (most of) your investment and find another eBike that isn’t made as a one size fits all. Or at least, fits who you are better.
    There wasn’t much positive in this review about the bike and from my own personal experience, I’ve found that those bikes that simply don’t fit (I use “fit” loosely) continually drive one to frustration for as long as you own it, no matter how you (re)define it.

    • I was really disappointed in the ride quality and the drive train friction, but have managed to improve the fit with ongoing tweaks. Recently I needed to clean the chain and saw that the OEM chain lube was quite heavy and sticky, causing the chain to pick up all kinds of debris. After thoroughly cleaning and re-lubing with Tri-Flo the shifting is much improved and there’s noticeably less friction. So, I may continue trying to problem solve the bike’s issues and see where that gets me.

  5. Hi Nola

    Never posted before but love your site. I am a fan of the small wheeler. Got a brompton but have just never got on with it. I am a big fan of the Dawes Kingpin (a bit nicer than the more common Raleigh 20) from about 50 years ago. There is a whole world of modifying them out there. But bringing things up to date i would love you to ride something like this:

    https://www.renehersecycles.com/hirose-mini-velo/

    one day or the much cheaper version:

    https://www.bikesdirect.com/products/mercier/nano.htm

    There are also ones from Soma, Fuji and a host of others. I would just be interested in getting your thoughts.

    I’m nearly 6 foot and look like a clown riding small wheeled bike but love them.

    David

    • Thanks for your comments and the links. Small wheeled bicycles have been around awhile, haven’t they? I’ve never seen a Hirsoe mini up close and would guess they are hard to come by and look extraordinary. There’s also the VO Neutrino, for a modern day version. My smallest wheeled machine, prior to the Brompton, was (is) a small frame (48 x 48) ALAN with 24 inch wheels, which is a very fun ride. It wasn’t built for commuting and daily riding so I’ve always pined for a Moulton or Raleigh Twenty. Didn’t know about the Dawes Kingpin – thanks for the tip.

  6. I’ll second the idea of a nicely modified vintage Dawes Kingpin which, of course, could be adapted with an electric motor kit (and also agree it’s a nicer ride than the Raleigh 20). Even if you were to factor in an e-motor, new wheels & professional paint job, it’d be a fraction of what the Brompton costs, a far better ride, & pretty much better than any contemporary folding bike.

    Pose factor aside, the only real attraction of the Brompton is a train regulation beater for commuters, i.e. where you’re only allowed to take bikes on the train if they fold.

    I concur about the ergonomics of the handlebars, & the other criticisms in this article. Having basically no other real competition in the market, they’re resting on their laurels too much.

  7. I’ve ridden my non-electric Brompton for thousands of miles and never found it too harsh. What tyre pressure do you run yours at? I currently use Continental tyres which I think are the best I’ve tried so far.

    My 1964 Moulton is definitely a bit smoother but obviously it doesn’t fold. Any folding bike Is going to have to be a compromise in some ways.

    • As I mention in the post I think the shorter spokes and thicker fork blades of the ebike version cause the harsh ride. I’ve gone all the way down to 65 lbs on the Schwalbes and that has helped. What pressure do you run on the Continentals?

      • I ride my Continentals at about 55 psi on the back and 50 psi on the front. They are roadster sized 1 3/8″ tyres so not need to be inflated to high pressure.

  8. Only now I have found your interesting blog!

    I am a bit surprised by the differences between the “normal” and the electric Brompton. Actually, I have a normal Brompton (the H6R model) and didn’t noticed mosth of your problems (but I am relatively tall so the Brompton’s handlebar and seatpost sizes and positions fit my needs).

    I even have no problems with the stock saddle (I have the wider version) – it seems to me to be comfortable (I commute daily on my Brompton).

    And thank you for the shifting chart! I never thought toom much about the shifting – I use the 13T for most of time and only when I need the lowes gear possible then I use thne speed “1” with the 18T. I should play with these two cogs more, O think..

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