Folding-bike owners: it’s time to wreak revenge on the Lycra-clad racers who leave you for dust on your morning commute. After five years’ development in collaboration with Williams Advanced Engineering, and even more years of speculation, Brompton has finally announced its arrival in the e-bike market. It’s called the Brompton Electric, and the company wants it to transform urbanites’ lives.
The Brompton Electric comes at an interesting time for the west-London manufacturer. After enjoying a decade in which sales steadily rose, and the perception of its bikes being reappraised from oddball contraptions to design classics (as well as the company lauded as a paragon of artisanal craftsmanship), the 115-employee firm has seen annual profits fall by 40 per cent in 2016 to £1.3 million due to heavy investment, opening a New York office and renting a huge new London factory.
One of the reasons for such investment is the fact that the electric bike market is exploding: UK sales grew by 20 per cent in 2016 while, over the same period, 605,000 e-bikes were sold in Germany – a country seen as an early e-bike adopter and one to which Brompton exports in big numbers. This isn’t, as Brompton managing director Will Butler-Adams says: “Some gimmicky fluffy-duffy bikey-wikey thing. This is serious.”
WIRED met Butler-Adams at the company’s Brompton Junction store in Covent Garden last week for an early ride on the Brompton Electric. Like the Brompton itself, he’s very British, persuasively charming and ever so slightly eccentric. When asked about his products’ slow rise from oddball steed to a lifestyle accessory, however, he transforms into a Silicon Valley CEO. “We’ve always been nerds and weirdos,” he says. “When I look at businesses I respect, they don’t give a shit about all the other crap. They’re obsessed about the product. And because they’re obsessed, the product becomes cool. We’re not selling to cyclists, we’re selling to urbanites.”
As for the bike, it looks strikingly similar to the model many are familiar with: the low centre of gravity, the chunky, hand-welded tubes, the 16-inch wheels and long front stem assembly are all present and correct. “We weren’t interested in changing the design,” says Butler-Adams, “We’re not into the trendy latest look. We just want to make a bloody thing that’s useful and makes your life a bit better.”
It’s only when you take a closer look that you spot the tell-tale visual differences: a motor hub on the front wheel; extra cables protruding from the frame; and, of course, the battery: a two-kilo lump concealed in a stylish rucksack-style pack that’s latched above the front wheel where the luggage block usually sits. The extras add 2.9kg to the bike, bringing its weight up to 16.6kg – not a huge step up from the unmotorised version, but the extra heft will definitely be noticed when hauling the bike up stairwells and along platforms.
Compared to other folding e-bikes on the market, however, the weight is not entirely prohibitive. (“One of our competitors brought out an bike that weighed 22 kilos,” Butler-Adams points out. “Who the fuck’s going to use that?”). And having a battery on board has enabled Brompton to add a couple of handy extras: a 20 Lux Busch & Müller LYT light and a USB port for charging your laptop or smartphone while riding.
Operating the Brompton Electric couldn’t be simpler: just press a button on the battery’s LED display and off you go. Sensors in the pedals measure cadence and torque, which tells the 250W brushless DC motor exactly how much of a helping hand you need and when. It feels like you’re getting a gentle assistive shove: your legs are still doing most of the work, but the motor helps you get up to speed in a shorter space of time – handy when you’re at the front of a set of lights or kicking off on a roundabout during rush hour.
As with all electric bikes, speed is capped at 25kph, but you feel there’s a lot of extra untapped energy in there. “When we were working on the prototypes we were doing wheelspins,” says Butler-Adams. “It was hilarious, we had to turn the whole thing down.”
Brompton has struck a decent balance between the motor-assisted and physical sides of riding with the Electric. You still feel like you’re doing most of the work, but there’s little chance of going into the red or even breaking much of a sweat here. It just won’t let you. “You could fly up Ditchling Beacon on this, stop halfway, get back on and carry on to the top and still feel like bloody Superman,” claims Butler-Adams. A five-hour charge using its ‘Standard Charger’ is good for 100km of riding (the optional Fast charger takes three hours). And if the battery does run out, the low-resistance freewheel allows for a smooth motor-free ride.