My good friend an commentating colleague Ned Boutling shares with me a fondness for folders. We do realise that not everyone else does. Here’s Ned’s experience in his own words.
I had no idea, until the first peals of laughter, that the French find folding bikes utterly hilarious.
“Regarde le vélo!”, people would scream from their roadside position. “Comme les roues sont petites!”
I knew that my bike had little wheels, and I didn’t need telling. But then again, people have always liked to holler the bleedin’ obvious at cyclists. It was de rigeur, for instance, during the 1970s, to yell, “Oy mister!” at people on bikes. And once you had their attention, you’d throw in the punchline: “Your wheel’s going round!”
This would be accompanied by a fusillade of Sid James-style chuckling. I never understood why.
And so it was, that, during the Tour de France, David Millar and I would normally get in an hour or two of riding before work, on folding bikes. We’d unpack them from the boot of Millar’s frankly obscenely over-specced sponsored high performance vehicle, and pedal off, wobbling and with extreme British upright bearing (a subliminal response, no doubt, to our sudden status as pariahs of the European Union).
My first heckle came on a climb to the finish line in Cherbourg, when, labouring up a hideous drag in pouring rain along a dual carriageway, a kindly onlooker, almost doubled up with laughter at my “clown’s bike”, decided to inform me that it was “easier to go downhill than it was to go uphill.” I nearly got off and thumped him.
But that wouldn’t have been very Brompton behaviour. Especially not when you consider the fact that my bike was equipped with a Brooks saddle. A hand-crafted seat of such extravagant gentility is the very opposite of a call to arms. It’s a call to sit down and smile beatifically.
Over the unfolding (literally, and not always terribly efficiently) three weeks, I fell deeply in love with my new pushbike. And I came to love a new way of riding in the countryside. Not hell for leather, but supported by heavenly leather.
My bike and and I developed a bond that was neither tested nor stretched, but merely strengthened and enriched from the hours spent in each others’ company. We went spinning slowly up and down mountains, through river valleys, occasionally taking wrong turns in industrial estates, hugging canals and battling extraordinary headwinds along the tree-lined avenues leading to a bike race whose middle phase was characterised by an unrelenting Mistral wind.
Together, in the Pyrenees, we crested the Col d’Aspin. We jointly laid to rest my demon mountain, the Col de Peyresourde, which had forced me to jump in a car two years ago and surrender. This time Brompton and I, with LED lights twinkling through the mountain gloom, rolled over the summit at dusk. The next day we rose, ever so gently and with infinitely moderate pace, over the mighty Porte de Bales. Andorra Arcalis succumbed to our polite assault, and the Mont Ventoux welcomed us up its slopes. Well, as far as Chalet Renard, anyway, where later on that day, we gazed on in astonishment at the sight of Chris Froome hot-footing it up and mountain without a bike. In a bike race.
Yes, there were occasions when I realised the limitations, in terms of performance, that are associated with sitting bolt upright. Grimacing into the face of a truly bestial headwind one morning, a French baroudeur, whose mahogany shaven legs and Paris-Brest-Paris jersey suggested true amateur pedigree, got in front of me and offered me his wheel. I could only hold it for twenty seconds, before he pulled away, stunned at my lack of form. I waved him off as cheerily as I could while frothing at the mouth, ears and nostrils.
Another time I sprinted for a radar LED speed sign on the entrance to a village near the river Saone. I pinged it at 31kph; a true achievement.
But from the savage glories of Utah beach, through the Massif Central, the Pyrenees, and the Alps, before rattling over the cobbles of the Champs Elysees, my bike kept me sane on an insane event. And its very otherness was the key to its life affirming pleasure. The way it sits alongside me in the passenger seat of the car, folded and coiled and ready, puppy-like, to answer the call.
There is a time, and a place for every kind of bike. That’s something of which I am increasingly convinced. The thing about the folding bike, I discovered, to my utter joy, is that time and place is pretty much anytime and anywhere.