Folding bikes are icons of sustainable transportation, and of great personal interest to me. We grew up in the transport-deficient 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 left) – they were too heavy, folded badly, and not really very workable. I snapped the front fork on a grey 3speed 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, my one). I bought one of the very first Birdys, and now own a current model as well. 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 and currently ridden by my 11 year old). But purchasers with money to spend on a good folder (currently, let’s say US$1300 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. In the last couple of years, Brompton seems to be 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 although I will soon travel to Berlin, and I will be looking out for this German brand (sorry guys-more Bromptons there too). 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 very 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 except Japan. Discussion of the changing market for folders can be found at AtoB magazine, who are currently (2015) running 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. Like Apple, Bromptons have a lot of unique parts. And 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 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, and so would Brompton handlebars (earlier in time). All this has been ironed out – current Birdies, particularly the MkIII 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. In terms of gears, Birdys have far more, up to 10 speeds on the standard models 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 hub and 2 derailleur options, very inferior to the Birdy. 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. 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 titanium options and so-on that most people cannot afford. The Brompton is made of steel, the Birdy aluminium. 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 kms 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, and needing to tighten things up 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 release attractive new variants. A major supplier in the US, NYCEwheels, pulled out from stocking Birdys and nthenow 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 (see the comparative review here). Then it is all about the Brompton [until in 2016 the Birdy came back and the language changed!] A similar thing happened in Australia with St. Kilda cycles and also Cheeky Transport in Sydney, but now St.Kilda 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 can get a 9 speed Birdy at St.Kilda Cycles across town- I have one of those -customers would better 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.
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/
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)!