Cyclists tend to fall into two camps when confronted with the iconic British folder, the Brompton. They either run in the opposite direction, screaming things about wobbly handling due to small wheels, or they hold it aloft, proclaiming it as a world beater because of its remarkably quick and compact fold. We're in the latter camp.
A quick glance at the 2009 M6R-X (R = rack and X = superlight) might give you the impression that virtually nothing has changed from the bikes of yesteryear, but you'd be wrong. The principle difference is the introduction of a wide-range gear box to assuage the grumbles of Bromptonites living in hilly areas.
Gone are the days when Brompton bought components 'off-the-shelf'. With their new-found purchasing power they have teamed up with Sturmey Archer to create a bespoke wide-range three-speed hub gear that, when coupled with a two-speed derailleur, gives a very useful 302 percent gear range, beating the previous six-speed setup by nearly 90 percent. Well worth having. Other minor changes add that little bit more pleasure to an already pleasurable experience.
Ride & handling: New gear system works well, but could be more user-friendly
Is the new gear system as impressive in practice as the stats look on paper? In many respects, yes. Changing is very smooth and there is none of the 'sponginess' associated with hubs containing more gears.
By using the two handlebar 'trigger' changers – your right hand operates the three widely-spaced hub gears and your left hand works the two more closely spaced derailleur gears – you can change smoothly and quickly through six evenly spaced gears, improving performance noticeably, especially up the hills. I was easily tackling my local one-in-seven gradients and streaking down the other side with power to spare.
The downside is that, unlike with conventional hub gears where you rotate a single twist grip in the appropriate direction for harder or easier gears, on the M6R-X you need to be constantly aware of what gear you are in. Some gear changes will require just one lever to be flipped while others will require both left and right levers to be moved. Given that both are black, with no symbol to indicate what gear you are in, the system could have been designed a lot more clearly.
SRAM's Dualdrive system uses a similar rear hub plus derailleur setup but all the changing is done by the right hand and is much more intuitive – a path Brompton might want to consider. Having said all this, use the Brompton gear system regularly and you'll soon get used to it.
If you live in a very hilly area you might want to order the smaller chainring option to lower the 33in bottom gear that comes with the standard 44in chainring. As for the handling, you simply have to ride a Brompton for an hour or two and you'll know whether you can live with the small wheels. They're no problem for hundreds of riders across the world.
Frame: Lightweight chassis folds in seconds and can be wheeled along
The suspension block has been changed from rubber to foam-filled polymer, meaning you can choose a soft or firm compound. Our model felt fine but this is a useful option, allowing you to tailor the slight suspension effect of the block according to your weight and likely conditions underwheel.
The 2009 bike also features a hand-operated catch that locks the two halves of the bike together – not really an improvement in our book, as we like being able to swing the back half of the bike under the front quickly in order to park it.
Otherwise, the Brompton continues to do what it always did fantastically well, folding in a matter of seconds as well as having a very useful wheeling facility so you can push it along train platforms with using the seatpost. Not that the 12kg weight of the M6R-X, with its titanium forks, rear frame and seatpost is too much to carry.
Equipment: Improved brakes and tyres, but front light is dim and badly positioned
What else is new? The once spongy brakes have been gradually upgraded over the years in small but incrementally effective ways – re-engineering the dual pivot mechanism to include bronze bushes, for example – with 2009 seeing improved brake pads from Fibrax, meaning the braking is now as sharp as you would have any practical need for. Indeed, if you didn't know otherwise, you might think you were using top class V-brakes.
The standard Brompton tyre now has softer compound grey rubber on the edges to counter concerns that the old tyres could be prone to slipping on wet manhole covers – not something we've ever come across. The tyres remain light and fast, maintaining that crucial Brompton riding quality, 'nippiness'. A great attribute to have in and out of traffic.
It would be nice if Brompton got around to a front light upgrade too. The rear wheel AXA bottle dynamo is perfectly functional and the rear Spanninga light has a great standlight feature. However, the halogen front light could do with an LED upgrade – with standlight – and could be repositioned so it is not obscured when a touring bag is fitted to the front, which is a serious safety compromise by Brompton's perfectionist standards.