I suppose with a love of tweed, Edwardian turns of phrase and more importantly a stable of two bicycles unashamedly British I could be accused of jingoism. I would disagree with such a conclusion, but will do nothing to disabuse anyone of this. Instead I will turn towards what is undoubtedly a hot topic in British manufacturing circles – which is better Stratford-upon-Avon’s Pashley or Chiswick’s modern pretender the Brompton.
Many a long mile and journey have I galloped along using the thoroughbreds from both these distinguished houses. Admittedly I have only ever used Pashley’s Guv’nor but I have also had the pleasure to ride on Brompton’s 2 speed M and S types (mainly the S type which I own), as well as a stately white 3 speed M type, so really this is a discussion of the Guv’nor (3 speed) vs the Brompton S type (2 speed). I will seek to look into such practical things as beauty, maintenance issues, comfort, city and epic treks, accessories, and engagement with the actual manufacturers. Clearly this will be a comprehensively exhausting comparison, with no partisanship whatsoever – so buckle up and lets roll…
This is a pretty tough question for me. My Brompton holds a special place in my heart – he has a name that fits (Basil), his scratches and scrapes are akin to that of a favoured teddy bear and I only have to look at him for a smile to tweak my lips. When it comes to foldaways, there are no bicycles on the market which can compare with the clean swooping lines of the Brompton…but my Pashley is no foldaway, and his acquisition was more through lust than any reasons of practicality. I know of no other bicycle that inspires such a positive public reaction. Cars, vans, motorcycles and even pedestrians have all passed the time to exchange pleasantries about this particular steel steed – it really does bring a smile. To my everlasting shame, I have yet to settle upon a name – I toy with “Pashers” but it never feels quite right. The whole frame and attention to detail such as the cream tyres, leather handle bars, brass bell and clean lines caused by the hub brakes really do make for a beautiful bike. Now you could criticise it for being akin to the kitcar of the bicycle world, but that does not detract from its handsome frame rather criticises its performance. Built in a style harking back to the 1930s, the Guv’nor really is more beautiful than a Brompton. The Brompton is a funny looking beast with tiny weedy wheels making the rider look like a circus performer, but I think love lies here more than with the Pashley – but this could be down to maintenance issues…so anyway – round 1 to Pashley. Hurrah.
I have a friend with a fixi – and there lies true envy when it comes to maintenance issues. Both the Pashley and the Brompton are utter bastards for maintenance. They differ from your standard bicycle in ways that require careful study rather than a gung ho approach to maintenance. Actually, I suppose when discussing when maintenance, I should really explain I mean initially repairing rear wheel punctures. It is hard to say which is worse to deal with, but seeing as this is the purpose of the piece I will do so. It is the Pashley. I nearly took the whole frame apart when trying to release the rear wheel. It is all down to the hub brakes, which while all kind of groovy, play merry hell with the wheel removal process. In my saddle bag there are always a pair of spanners to deal with this eventuality, while for most other bicycles one would be sufficient. A 5 minute job takes about 20 and requires keeping track of all the nuts and bolts you have to remove (there are many) – which is not always so easy to do on the bummel. The Brompton is actually much easier – it looks complicated and for my first forays into this job I did frequently take the whole gearing system apart until I realised this was not necessary – and overall it is a far simpler job than the Pashley.
For some reason, many bike shops try to charge a lot more for the changing of a Brompton rear tyre than any other bike – once you have the knack it really is not that bad, though it is frightfully mucky. It is important to learn how the Brompton system works (as with any bicycle), as not only will it save multiple pennies, but also in my experience it is a skill frequently needed. My Brompton, no matter the tyres I used (usually bullet proof Schwalbe ones), is like a magnet for punctures. I put this all down to the small wheels. The great thing is that if you do encounter a puncture and cannot be bothered to fix it, you can just fold up and bus/train/hitchhike to your next destination. Sooooo…on the puncture front, despite the frequency, I much prefer the Brompton.
However, there are other parts to the Brompton which just bamboozle – simple tasks like replacing mud guards are puzzles to test a member of Mensa. A common feature between these two bicycles also seems to be the use of inferior products…yes British manufacturing scrimps and saves…who would have thought it? The Brompton has a world of plastic parts which have a limited shelf life, professionals scoff at their brakes (not me – I cannot tell the difference) and older versions used to have a saddle which would just break early on its life. There is also the hook on the front wheel which will just snap, the seat posts rust (requiring replacement), and the folding pedal will break. All of these bits are costly to replace, which is horrid. Pashley are not exactly innocent on this front either. There is a persistent problem with the Guv’nor’s headset which has to be resolved every couple of months (cleaning and resetting etc); the breaking and gearing is archaic (out of stylistic reasons I suppose) and according to some bike mechanics I have spoken with the cranks and pedals leave a lot to be desired too. Parts are not so costly as the Brompton, but they can be difficult to source. For instance I had a huge problem with locating a vendour of the whopping great cream tyres it needs – Evans and some specialist shops all drew a blank and suggested I go straight to the factory. In the end the almighty Velorution solved the problem, and I now turn to them for all Guv’nor related issues as they are simply great. However, if you’re not London based, you could be a little bit buggered on Guv’nor maintenance related issues if you’re like me and only puncture capable. Bromptons are now pretty everywhere, so maintenance issues here really should not be a problem – nor the sourcing of parts (even if they are costly).
Verdict: Brompton and the scores are levelled at 1 all.
Putting aside issues of saddle, it has to be the Guv’nor. The riding style is very different to pretty much anything else you will encounter with its North Road handlebars, but once you get over this, it is supremely comfortable and relaxing. Arms are locked straight about shoulder width and the hand grasp is in a very natural position – and one that is not so committed as drop bars. It looks totally bizarre but works very well. The Reynolds 531 tubing give a certain amount of flex to the ride, while the balloon like tyres means everything but the most extreme potholes are taken without mishap or uncomfortable jolting.
The Brompton’s style is not half so relaxed. I always feel perched on the saddle, and it can feel a little strange seeing such a tiny wheel at the front if you are used to a more conventionally sized bicycle. Still it is only strange for a little while, but actually pretty comfortable too. As you would imagine you have to work a little harder than conventionally sized bicycles to maintain a rapid pace, but what surprises most non-Brompton users is that they really are quite fast – and their acceleration is second to none. I do not think in all my years of Brompton use I have ever found anyone (or bicycle) on the mean streets of London to match the acceleration you can achieve with such small wheels. It is utterly fantastic…
The difference between the two in terms of comfort ultimately comes down to distance. It is far easier to coast on a bigger bicycle, and for long rides (and for me) coasting is key…add to this the fact that a larger frame provides more stability for going down steep hills and the Brompton’s dislike for the potholes scattered across London like a Dalmatian’s spots then really comfort wise it has to be the Pashley.
So at the end of Round 1 it is Pashley 2, Brompton 1. Tune in for tomorrow’s exciting instalment where the final result will be revealed…