The cycling experiment: using a TFL bike after years of Brompton

Brompton TFL
Weight ~9 kg ~23 kg
Gears 3 3
Brakes 2 (front and back), pads, immediate action 2 (front and back), drum brakes, not quite immediate
Feels agile, responsive sluggish, leisurely

I normally cycle to the office, but yesterday I had to go somewhere before the office, and that place wouldn’t let me store my foldable bike. So I took the tube. On the way back, determined to not to take the tube and also not to walk because I know I can reduce the time to less than half, I used a TFL bike (also known as “Boris” or “Ken” or “Barclays” or “Santander” bike, depending on who’s perceived as responsible for introducing or sponsoring them).

This was very intentional, so I had brought my helmet and gloves. I was determined to do the same ride home as usual, only using a different bike.

I hadn’t used one of these since 2014, so I didn’t remember where things were, or how heavy and big they are compared to my Brompton. It did feel as if I was wearing somebody’s jacket and I didn’t know where the zipper was, or whether it was not a zipper but concealed buttons.

The other noticeable aspect is how useless the gears are. The first one, marked “start”, is literally useful for a few centimeters only. After you’ve reached a minimum speed, you find yourself frantically pedaling and trying to engage the next gear. Unfortunately it seems I got a slightly defective bike, so the next gear would either not engage or jump directly to gear 3, the longest. Which still felt super short. I’d say it felt like 2.25 and 3 (compared to the 2 and 3 gears on the Brompton).

Apparently this is by design: the bikes are designed to go 22% slower than a “normal” bike of that style and with normal gears would go. This made me feel really stupid going up a bridge, as it is slightly uphill, as most bridges are, but it was very windy yesterday. So if I went to gear 3 it was really hard to pedal, gear 2 would not engage, and gear 1 was evocative of public humiliation as I’d be pedaling like a hamster and barely moving at all–pedestrians were just slightly slower than me.

The gear mechanism is also slightly different from the Brompton’s too, so at the beginning I was expecting the gear to change, but it wouldn’t engage until I had pedaled a bit, whereas the Brompton’s is near instant. Cue some more hamster pedaling!

The brakes also felt quite used. I wasn’t really sure if I was braking at points, as I didn’t feel the very effective “ooomph” and subsequent slow down you get when you brake hard on a “normal bike”, but I was going so slow anyway that I’m sure I could bring myself to a halt by a combination of not pedaling and putting my heel on the floor 😜

Good aspects were that since the wheels are way bigger than my Brompton’s, the potholes, manholes, bumps, holes and any other anomaly in the roads (of which there are many) were less noticeable. I also liked the more upright position, and the fact that the pedals are further away from the road compared with the Brompton’s: I often need to be careful when going near pavements to make sure the pedal is on the higher point on that side, otherwise it’s highly likely to be scratched.

The other good aspect is that other drivers would just see me cycling on this bike, and just assumed I’d be slow as a turtle, and leave me alone on my side of the road. It did feel true that drivers were more careful around me driving a TFL bike 🐢

On telling this story to my partner, I’ve been suggested I get a pin that proclaims:

My other bike is a Brompton

so I can proudly wear it next time I use a TFL bike, and assure everyone I am normally NOT this slow. Maybe I just got the slowest bike in the system! It didn’t even have the laser lights.

We’ll see next time…