Thursday, 1 October 2020

Flying with a Brompton

Let's show the ferret to the egg, and just to make things real spicy-like I decided to take my Brompton as well. How did I get along? Continue reading, dear reader, and I'll tell you, although I like to think that Celine Dion was watching out for me. Not just in Lucca, but for the whole trip.

She averted her eyes when I took a shower, but she was there just in case I slipped or the shower failed just as I had lathered up. She helped me choose clothes that would wow the Italians - not an easy task - and at the end of the trip she helped me pack my suitcases and waved me off. Bonne voyage, she said, because she's Canadian and speaks French.

I don't need to thank you, Celine, because you are pure love and adore me unconditionally, but I would like to thank you anyway. Thank you.

I flew from Bristol to Pisa with EasyJet, but spent most of my time in nearby Lucca, which has a mostly pedestrianised walled city just across the road from the train station. I cycled around the walls and then through the old town.

What was the point of going abroad to cycle round in circles? Why not take the train to Swindon and cycle around in circles there? Or Basingstoke, which has one of Britain's few remaining Wimpys? I think I've answered my own question.

Back in May I bought a Brompton B75. It's a small folding bicycle. The B75 has a three-speed gearbox, old-style brake levers, fixed pedals, older components, no mudguards, no pump. It was launched in 2019 as Brompton's budget model. If you want to buy one now, you can't! Brompton sold the last of them in mid 2020. In fact if you want to buy a Brompton at all - any model - the company now has a six-month backlog.

The COVID crisis has been a huge inconvenience for many and a life-altering tragedy for some, but for Brompton and other bicycle manufacturers it has led to a boom in sales. Bromptons are tailor-made for commuting by rail or in the boot of a car, but they're also small enough to take on board an airliner as luggage. In theory they're also small enough to fit in the overhead lockers, but for any number of reasons I can't imagine an airline in 2020 agreeing to let me bring 10kg of hollow, folded metal bars into an airliner cabin.

Several companies, Brompton included, sell wheeled hard cases that swallow the bike and keep it safe. If you plan to drive or take a taxi to and from the airport I heartily recommend a hard case; I opted for a softer option partially because I didn't have time to evaluate a hard case, partially because (ironically) the most popular model of case had sold out in the UK, partially because I don't drive and didn't fancy wheeling a big heavy case to the train station and back.

Instead I picked a popular budget option, which involves a trip to IKEA to buy a couple of Dimpa bags:

The Dimpa is a big square storage bag. It costs around £3 and is exactly the right size for a Brompton, with the seatpost reversed:

One bag is strong enough to carry a Brompton but I used two bags just to make sure, and also to disguise the interior a little bit. I was slightly worried that EasyJet might refuse to take the Brompton - they charge a flat £45 each way for bicycles but, off the top of my head, £20 or so for a 23kg bag - if they knew what it was, but no-one asked me what was inside the bag.

There's also the issue of baggage theft, but it struck me that the handlers would know immediately what was inside the bag no matter how I disguised it, and tying up the bag would be pointless because they could just carry the bag away. My bike's serial number is registered with Brompton, admittedly not much use if it turns up in Indonesia, but still.

The Ingredients List

Two Ikea Dimpa bags

A yoga mat

Several squares of bubbly insulation material

Half a roll of gaffer tape

A pair of removable pedals


Ingredient number two was a cheap yoga mat from Lidl. I wrapped it around the bike, although in this picture I'm just using it as a mat while the bike does a down dog:

It's terrible, isn't it? I didn't get around to buying a thicker mat. It struck me that the two most likely hazards would be slow crushing under a pile of cases, in which case even the thickest yoga mat wouldn't help, or a sudden impact from a case sliding corner-first into the bike, in which case a yoga mat still probably wouldn't help much.

The Brompton's basic design is surprisingly well-protected from impacts around the edge. The saddle, wheels, seatpost bung, and suspension bumper protect the top, bottom, and right-hand-side (as in the picture above). The main chassis fold is protected from hyperextension by the rear wheel pressing against the crossbar.

However the front folds look vulnerable. In particular the little clamps that hold the bike together look as if they might bend, so I unscrewed them. Even if they were just slightly bent the bike would be unusable, and where would I get replacements? I suggest you get hold of a small bubble-wrap bag to store the clamps, otherwise the grease will go everywhere:

At this point I rustled up some makeshift impact pads. I used a bunch of insulation material I had lying around:

Why did I have all of this insulation? In late 2019, in the Before Times, I bought a Trangia portable stove. I wanted to make a pot cosy that would keep the Trangia's thin aluminium pots warm in subzero temperatures, because 2020 was going to be the year I visited the arctic circle. The year I was going to visit the arctic circle twice! Was.

In this photo I've just used a tiny bit of gaffer tape. I'm mocking it all up for the cameras; in real life I used lots of tape, and taped up the tape that so that the pads would stay in place. It's surprisingly hard to tape up a Brompton. I didn't want to put tape over the cables, because I was worried that I might pull them loose when I removed the tape, but threading the tape between bits of the bike was tricky because tape is sticky.

Still, for the next step I took out the pedals. The B75 comes with fixed plastic pedals, but most Bromptons have a folding left pedal (the right pedal doesn't stick out). I bought some removable pedals from a company called MKS. They're nifty:

They come in two pieces. An adapter ring screws into the crank, and the pedal slots into the adapter. In order to remove and replace the pedal you have to pull back the ring and pull out (or push in) the pedal. The system works surprisingly well, although the pedals and too awkward and too greasy to remove if you're just carrying the bike around casually.

After rehearsing all the above at home I then went to the airport, pushing the bike along beside me, with the yoga mat and gaffer tape etc in the Dimpa bag, hanging from the handlebars. It was disconcerting to see Bristol Airport transformed into Combine Airwatch Checkpoint Bristol. My flight left at 06:30 so I had plenty of time to assemble the package, which I had to do outdoors because the landward side of the airport was closed:

Off the top of my head it took around twenty minutes. I used some gaffer tape to keep the bag upright while I slotted the padded Brompton into it, then did the same with the second bag. Carrying the assembled bag was difficult, but I managed to fit it over my shoulder, and I only had to move it short distances at a time.

At Bristol the staff asked me to use the oversized baggage belt; at Pisa they didn't. I should really illustrate this part of the article with photographs of the interior of both airports, but the overall military look of Bristol disconcerted me (Pisa, on the other hand, has not changed much).


Whilst on a plane I wondered if my Brompton would make it intact. This added a welcome note of drama to what would otherwise have been an unexciting flight. The Airbus A320 has a pressurised hold, but at least on the flight from Bristol to Pisa the hold wasn't heated - the Brompton was still cold to the touch when I assembled it outside Pisa airport. This didn't appear to affect the bike in any way.

Pisa is one of the few major tourist destinations in continental Europe that has an airport right at the edge of town. It's at the end of a major street that leads almost directly to the train station. The leaning tower itself is just on the other side of the river. When EasyJet say that they fly to Pisa it is, for once, not a lie. They actually do fly to Pisa.

Pisa itself is very modest, but it's a short train ride from Lucca, Barga, Florence, and the Cinque Terre (in that order):

And also Genoa and Siena if you are so inclined. As of this writing Italy is one of the few places that British people can visit without being quarantined at either end of the journey, but for how much longer?