Shooting star Brompton goes electric
“Why does the word cheat always crop up when we talk about electric bikes?” asks Will Carleysmith, chief design and engineering officer at Brompton. “In Holland or Germany, they’re baffled by the idea. To them cycling is a pleasant, quick way to get around a city. It’s a transport solution. How can you cheat at getting to work?”
Our cramped, gridlocked cities have to change. But the answer may be surprisingly simple. In London just 5% of all journeys are made by bike compared with 13% in Berlin and more than 50% in Copenhagen. E-bikes encourage more people to cycle and also to ride further. You don’t need specialist kit and you don’t arrive drenched in sweat. E-biking is not a sport, it’s a utility. Many of the people who buy e-bikes don’t see themselves as cyclists, they just want to beat the crowds, get off public transport and rediscover their city.
But electric bikes can be heavy and unwieldy. It would be a nightmare lugging one up three storeys to your flat. Which is why Carleysmith believes Brompton’s folding e-bike could be a real game-changer.
Brompton, as you probably know, is one of the great success stories of British cycling. Originally designed in 1975 by Andrew Ritchie in his flat in South Kensington, opposite the Brompton Oratory (hence the name), the little folding bike has become a massive hit – with both bike nuts and city commuters. A couple of years ago the firm moved into a bespoke, cavernous, state-of-the-art factory in west London. Brompton is now the biggest bike manufacturer in the UK, making about 50,000 frames a year – a shiny new folding bike rolls off one of the two production lines every 90 seconds.
But going electric presented a problem. The Brompton is so precisely engineered that to add a motor, battery, sensors and computer control to such a compact frame proved a real headache. It could make it unfeasibly heavy or even stop it from folding – which, of course, is its raison d’être. To get the exacting technological fix they needed, Carleysmith started a project with the consultancy arm of the Williams Formula 1 team.
“It was harder than any of us imagined,” he says, “but after three years we’ve cracked it.” One of the key breakthroughs was to separate the battery into a botherfree bag which seamlessly clips on to the front of the bike when you are using it. This makes the bike less of a theft risk and also makes it simple to charge. The powerful 250W motor is built into the front hub and only adds 1.9kg to the overall weight. You could ride the bike without the battery if you wished. But why would you? Remember, this isn’t about hard work, it’s about easy city living. Hop on, select one of the three power modes, and pedal. Immediately you’ll feel the motor getting to work. You whizz along at up to 15.5mph (the legal limit). The bike handles in the same, nippy, compulsive way Bromptons always have – but now those hills are a doddle. And don’t ever think you’re cheating. ■