They shortened it
Folding bikes are icons of sustainable transportation, and of great personal interest to me. We grew up in the transport-deficient south-east London suburbs, and a folding bike was very handy. My Dad had a couple of Raleigh RSW folders with small balloon tyres in the 1970s (see right) – they were too heavy, folded badly, and not really very workable. I snapped the front fork on a grey 3 speed one. I also had a purple Raleigh 18 as a teenager in the 1970s. We also had a Bickerton, the extremely lightweight 1970s aluminium bike that tended to bend under stress, collapse, and even break under duress (left). I inherited that one, and broke it in the 1990s.
Since 1995 I have had an R&M Birdy (photo right, mine). I bought one of the very first Birdys , and now own two more. The point of all of these bikes was to allow some degree of portability and thus more flexible use. In the rather small world of folding bike enthusiasts, there is a never-ending search for the ‘gold standard’ – a bike that weighs very little, rides comfortably and fast, and folds up nicely so you can store it easily in a building, on a bus, train or in a car.
Folders require more technological ingenuity than a ‘cumbersome’ but the big money in the cycling industry has never really supported them – folders tend to be the domain of a few eccentric shoestring designers, and also some larger companies based in China or Taiwan than have a mix of cheap and passable designs for the global market.There are some top-end models produced by these bigger companies, currently dominated by Dahon and Tern (my Dahon Jetstream SP, like the one on the left, is passable). But purchasers with money to spend on a good folder (currently, let’s say US$1500 or so minimum) have been, for two decades or more, attracted by R&M’s Birdy and the Brompton.
For supporters of these two machines, every other brand is a distraction. Both were designed by backyard budding engineers with scant resources. Andrew Richie (photo, Wiki Commons) borrowed money from 10 friends to get his 1976 Brompton prototype into operation, but by 1982 had ceased production pending a further capital injection. Alex Moulton and Harry Bickerton were the other lone British bike inventors (the Bickerton was a particular influence on Richie, who thought he could do a better job). Moultons do not fold. The Birdy was built by 2 students in a garage in Germany in the early 1990s and released in 1995 (video). In the last few years, Brompton have been winning decisively in the marketplace. I move between countries a fair bit, and I see far more Bromptons now in London and the UK (understandable since the bikes are made there), Australia, Belgium, France and even in the USA. A Birdy is a rare sighting even in Berlin, where I went in 2015 expecting to see this German brand. The success of the Brompton is due in part to marketing and supply – after a rocky supply chain since the mid 2000s they have become efficient in their London operation, while R&M, based in Germany, have made some effort to supply outlets in important western world markets, but with less success. These bikes are more present in Japan and parts of SE Asia, Singapore, China, HK and Taiwan, where you can also buy ‘luxury’ aftermarket components and different versions.
Discussion of the changing market for folders can be found at AtoB magazine, who in 2015 ran a series of articles comparing folders in different price bands. You would think that the quality of the bike itself would also determine consumer choice, not just the ease of purchase and the supply chain. If anything, quality should be the main determinant of market success. But I am unconvinced this is really true, as is Dave Henshaw in AtoB whose articles include reliable bike testing. I think Bromptons are rather like Apple products – they are good but they also encourage loyalty and lock-in. But customers return, sometimes to trade in for a superior model after a few years. They rarely choose to swap to anything better, including a Birdy. I don’t know enough Birdy owners to say if the reverse is true, but it probably is.
In my view the Birdy is a far superior machine, but it is overpriced in some countries and has lost the worldwide marketing battle with the Brompton. The debate on their relative merits has been hashed out online a fair bit, but here is my perspective. On quality of build, both bikes were not so great back in the 1990s when the back end and stem of a Birdy would get stress fractures in the aluminium ( I broke three), and so would Brompton handlebars (earlier in time). All this has been ironed out – current Birdys, particularly the MkIII and titanium are built to last, and with standard headsets, derailleur gears and cranks, even disc brakes, that you can source almost anywhere. Brompton bits, however, are a bit more specialised since many are made in the factory and the firm does not like outsourcing more than necessary. Like Apple, for computers. In terms of gears, Birdys have far more, up to 11 speed derailleur on the standard models, which is about all you need, and even a Rohloff option, and the standard derailleurs work well. Brompton relied on a narrow Sturmey Archer hub for its 3/5 speeds (5 speed gearchange not always good), then used SRam after SA went bust in 2000, now offering a mix of 3 speed hub and 2 derailleur options, very inferior to the Birdy (rode such a 5 spd Brompton for a week in 2018 – hated it). Hub gears don’t get grime in them, but changing the back tyre is more tricky and a lot of fuss is made about getting gear ratios right on an odd 2 lever system. They also have 2 speed and single speed models, but nothing beats a proper gear range with the least friction. On suspension, always desirable on a bike with small wheels, the Birdy is the gold standard. The front suspension is no-dive and pretty unique; the back is similar to a Brompton. The Birdy wins hands down with its dual setup. Having no front suspension on a Brompton has predictable effects on rough roads. On speed, all my trials – and others except AtoB’s downhill rolling tests- suggest the Birdy is the clear winner. You can put slick tyres on both which make a huge difference with small wheels, but the Birdy is light and with its gear range it pulls away uphill. Weight is about equal between the two, say 10.5-12.5kg on average, and both have or will have titanium options and so-on that most people cannot afford. Both can go down to 7-8kg if you have money. The Brompton is made of steel, the Birdy aluminium (and titanium versions of both, very expensive). On luggage, the Brompton is better – it has a special bag. You can adapt those to a Birdy or get panniers front or rear, but most will not bother and just use a rucksack. On folding up, the Brompton is better (smaller) although not necessarily quicker – I can fold both in the same number of seconds. On the Birdy you have to get the gears and pedal in the right places before starting, and the package is bigger (MkIIIs are smaller than before).
My summation is that if you want to go fast in a city or a rural environment, buy a Birdy. You can go for kilometres before you get tired and the engineering is fantastic, especially if you are tall. The handlebars adjust up and down on a Birdy – not on a Brompton. The disadvantage is the folded package size, the creaks you often get from the suspension on older models, and needing to tighten things up frequently if you are heavy like me. I think the Birdy is undersold. It is not in enough shops. It could be that the company needs to innovate its supply chain and list of models, but it looks like they do keep releasing attractive new variants. A major supplier in the US, NYCEwheels, pulled out from stocking Birdys and then promoted only its Bromptons. The change in language when this has happened in 2014 is interesting, and perhaps this is replicated elsewhere. Initially they promoted and sold both machines, and branded the Birdy as an excellent deluxe option , saying “If you want high performance in a compact folder, the Birdy folding bike is the best choice” (see their archived comparative review here). Then it is was about the Brompton [until in 2016 the Birdy came back and the language changed, but stocking Birdys did not last long!]. A similar thing happened in Australia with St. Kilda cycles and also the defunct Cheeky Cycles in Sydney, but now St.Kilda in Melbourne are also selling Birdys again. Velo Cycles in Melbourne say that if they stocked Birdys they would sell only 1-2 a year – but their 3 speed Bromptons are now up at AU$2000. For less than that you could get a 9 speed Birdy at St.Kilda Cycles across town when I wrote this in 2016- I have one of those -customers would do best to try both.
The point being – if Birdys are not available in the same shops as the Bromptons, it is obvious which customers will buy. The most comprehensive review, of a budget Birdy model, is here – hardly inferior to a Brompton. (others here)
Anyway as I travel the world with Birdys, I have concluded I will stick with them. You can go fast and in comfort. Take-off speed is excellent. Speed is less important at my age, but effort and comfort, with those bigger wheels, full suspension and adjustable bars, does matter and Bromptons just do not have those things. I have in any event, after 40 years on folders, probably saved thousands of dollars in public transport fares, hundreds of hours in waiting and walking times, beaten transportation strikes and carriage restrictions on trains, trams and buses, and intrigued a few university students who see the Birdy propped up against the lectern every week. I am not one of those academics that drives to work to then lecture about sustainability.
New Birdy frame June 2015 http://en.r-m.de/news/riese-mueller-introduce-the-new-birdy/
Jamie Lim comparison video 2020 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WX8Frf19xz8
Postscript Oct. 2015. Early in September I was hit by a large truck doing 50-60km/h when riding my Birdy in Melbourne. I was in hospital for almost three weeks. The Birdy was caught under the truck, I did somersaults along the road, but survived. No more bikes of any type for me for a while. Too many fractures. The whole story is here – it is remarkable. I think the Birdy has survived, the seatpost is bent, I have to take it to a specialist.
May 2016 Back in action (bike, new seatpost and me)!
March 2018 I noticed there is now a 2017 review on Cycling UK’s website that reaches similar conclusions here.
However at the moment R&M are not doing themselves any favours by canceling the cheapest World Birdy Sport model (below), reviewed here, for 2018. It has gone. The company say they are still committed to the Birdy, but the prices keep going up and models keep changing.
2018: I managed to get a secondhand 2000 24 speed SRAM mark 1 in the UK for £285 and it came with various handlebar stems. Spares availability is getting dire. I also have an old early Mk1 model with missing pins for the handlebar stem – here is the solution from a German Citroen dealer! Just cannot find the originals anymore, even in Germany.
One benefit of an academic career is that a few personal eccentricities are tolerated, and even encouraged as long as we meet our spiralling performance targets, many of which contravene academic freedom. In my case, aside from some strong views on ethical academic practice and publishing, I ride a rather exotic folding bike to work every day at the University of Melbourne, and it ends up folded in the corner of lecture theatres where students fail consistently to marvel at its engineering design and its self-evident contribution to low-emissions urban mobility. In 11 years I have driven to work about three times. I also prefer that my main means of written communication is a laptop and paper – no smartphones and tablets, which simply overwhelm and frustrate me with their app-based software, size, and provocation to be instantly connected and available. This means writing and preparing teaching materials is done in a concentrated spell in front of a decent laptop screen or monitor, at home, at work, or out and about. The laptop, on which the Journal of Political Ecology is also prepared, is carted about on the bike, as all my students know.
Frankly, my family hate me using the laptop. When we used to have office PCs I stayed late in the office, but now they say the laptop renders me ‘absent’ from family life, while present physically at home. It signifies the type of mismatched life-work balance that infests almost every academic career, as work pushes into the interstices of domesticity (except for those annoying people who are too efficient for that). In Melbourne’s overpriced inner north where I live, our small house lacks a decent workspace, so I am frequently found at the kitchen table checking emails, grading or editing student papers, running my academic journal or just writing. My laptop ends up co-mingled with dinner, discussions, and school homework tasks. I am a bit better at separation these days, after a sharp telling-off (while my family members then got a smartphone and tablet in 2015, reducing the power of their critique somewhat), but everything I need to do seems to require a screen, and the important stuff can’t fit into an 8 hour work day. The computer even gets whipped out during meals with friends to resolve idle debate about historical events and personalities, or to provide directions, or to show cute holiday photos – tasks where most would at least use a smaller smartphone. But for me this would be one giddy step too far and I have no interest in having a gadget with software that encourages checking every few minutes.
But how the tables have turned in the laptop’s favour! Last week I was cycling into work, and approaching a pedestrian and bike crossing that I have traversed a thousand times, opposite an iconic Fitzroy swimming pool. With my head lifted and looking forward, and my memory is fuzzy here, I thought I saw a green bike/pedestrian light to cross three lanes of traffic. Unfortunately I may have been looking at the green light on the far side of the road, where people and bikes were definitely still crossing; the two traffic light cycles are in fact not linked. I knew this, deep down but a microsecond of inattention was enough. On my side of the road, witnesses said, the light had just changed and I was hit full on by an HGV truck driving at between 50 and 60 km/h (31-37 mph). I have no memory of this, and I do not know how I was revived, but the witnesses and police say that while my Birdy folding bike went under the wheels (and broke), my body somersaulted and rolled several times before I ended up unconscious in the road. The next thing I remember was the paramedics bending over me, and being lifted into an ambulance. Since then I have been under excellent care courtesy of the taxpayer funded TAC, for 4 rib fractures, a fractured leg and a collapsed lung. Brain intact, after some early doubts. A lot of people must be thanked for getting me get back on my unsteady feet since then.*
So I will live, but the odds were against me given the size and the speed of the vehicle. What accounts for this? When pedalling my leg is the same height as the fender of an Australian truck, and that fracture is understandable and will heal in weeks. But my upper body, next to hit, was protected only by a Berghaus Freeflow hiker’s rucksack with a strong plastic insert, with the infernal laptop, the very object of domestic acrimony, nestled within. It appears it, and a few papers, saved my spine and other internal organs as the truck hit my upper body and I tumbled off down the road. It all acted like a motorbike jacket with its hard inserts around the back and arms. The computer did not come off too well itself, but its hard drive is still intact and it is permanently bent. My own hard drive suffered only a concussion that lasted for days. Laptop redeemed!
The moral of this tale is nothing more than needing to keep all road users alert on the road at all times. And, don’t forget the road safety advice that we learn as kids, and then bawl back at them as adults. It is good advice. But of course human behaviour does not always heed it, and I am in no position to be sanctimonious about that. A secondary lesson is to stay true to some core beliefs, regardless of social pressures, but maybe not if they are outrageously dangerous ones. This works both ways, but last week was certainly not a good time for a technological upgrade – and a train to work instead of bike might have helped… My working eccentricities are my curse and in this case, my salvation as well.
The incident could also be used to support or refute numerous ongoing arguments about cyclist and motorist behaviour in Melbourne, and the need for transport infrastructure improvements. Yes, people could drive more slowly and we need fewer carbon-emitting vehicles in total, but it was not the absence of bike-friendly infrastructure that caused this particular accident. My case has little to do with the contentious Melbourne East-West link tunnel, that would have sent big trucks right under the site of my accident but has now been scrapped in favour of public transport investment– I could just have well have been hit by a truck on a local journey avoiding the tunnel tolls. Nor has it much to do with bike helmets, about which Australians also argue because they are compulsory here – it was a journey where I probably would have worn one anyway, and in this case the plastic lid did something, although not enough to stop concussion. But the central role played by the laptop has a nice synergy between form and function. It was multi-tasking, at a time when my brain suffered a split-second lapse of concentration. This small academic workhorse and instrument of family disharmony became a vital protective shield. The laptop superhero.
The anthropologist Paul Richards has argued that technology is social, and best studied through what he calls technography – the ethnography of technology (Richards 2010). Inspired by Emile Durkheim, he says technology includes the “technique” used to master it (like safe cycling on a bike), and we should not “educate the users to fit the machine but … redesign the machine to respond to the way users use (or abuse) it.” (p4). He means that human inventiveness, actions, and innovation should drive technological design, rather than experts building technology without that input, in the hope that it will be used. Vehicles and bikes as machines often clash, as a recent movie illustrates, but the precise modifications to the streetscape required of planners and engineers need to be observed on the ground and then co-designed, not remotely or through blindly applying ‘best practice’ as so may engineers and planners tend to do. In my case, I do not know what the accident statistics are for the crossing but something must have made me less attentive than the last few hundred times I took it; more warnings or larger signals could have reduced the risk. Bike and ped. tunnels is really what this road needs, but Melbourne builds them almost never. The car lobby is just too powerful privately and in government, followed by the public transport lobby. More crossing time for pedestrians and bikes would help, reducing the tendency to speed across them to beat the lights. We just don’t get our share, often waiting 2-3 minutes. This is bad policy.
But at the same time, the laptop had an unintended function and was bestowed with additional powers beyond its prime role as a data handling and retrieval device – this was not designed in by me, or even anticipated. Not something to influence policy design perhaps, but nonetheless I will be eternally grateful. If I ever cycle again in Melbourne, it will travel with me.
Richards, P. 2010. A Green Revolution from below? Retirement address, Wageningen University, the Netherlands.
*Thankyou to everybody who has supported me over the last few days and I hope I can return favours. There really are nice people in universities, and outside of course. Things are still a bit raw, I have not yet seen the report or written to the driver. This post was rejected by The Conversation – on my first ever submission!
My return to work corresponded with the launching of a new university marketing campaign – “Collision”!! http://collision.unimelb.edu.au/
Update Dec. 2017. Injuries healed and I returned to cycling in about 4-5 months. I even managed to rejuvenate the Birdy bike – only the seatpost and wheel was run over, it turned out. These days, in England, very cautious. My family made me get a smartphone since I could no longer keep up. I hate it. The laptop works fine but it sitting on a shelf in my office, still bent out of shape.