Finding the Shortcomings

Posted on May 15th, 2008 in Driving Emotion,pedal power by Julian Edgar

As I canvassed in this blog, my wife Georgina and I have been thinking of going pedal touring. Carrying 3½-year-old son Alexander in a Burley child trailer, we originally were going to use recumbent trikes, machines that are stable and have a very wide range of gearing.

But getting the trikes to any distant location is an expensive exercise, so we reluctantly decided to instead ride Brompton folding bikes. (Disclaimer: Georgina’s business sells Burley trailers, Brompton bikes and Greenspeed recumbent trikes.)

The advantage of the Bromptons is that they can be folded into such a small package that on an airline flight they cost nothing at all to take with us. In fact, flying within Australia on Virgin Blue, we can take along two bike trailers, two bikes and all our camping gear – and pay not one cent extra over the three fares!

That’s a pretty persuasive argument for bike touring on these machines.

Our first thoughts were to fly everything to Cairns and then ride from that location, but – since we’ve never done anything like this before – I thought that maybe we should try some local touring first. ‘Local’ so that when something went wrong, we could take a taxi home!

We live on a very steep mountain so the first step was to find somewhere at the bottom of the hill where we could park our car. That way, we could put everything in the car, drive down the mountain, then tour from that point. (Another advantage of the gear: we can fit inside my Peugeot 405 sedan, two people, one child, the two bikes, full camping gear and two bike trailers!)

So we’d be leaving from Upper Coomera (inland from the Gold Coast) and then heading south. To where, then? We thought Byron Bay – taking a leisurely 7 days or so for the 220 kilometres return trip.

The gear comprised two Brompton bikes (both fitted with aftermarket wide, sprung seats), a Burley Solo child trailer, a Burley Nomad freight trailer – and about 40kg of gear. Plus of course the weight of Alexander – 18kg.

So you can see why the schedule was pretty conservative!

I was excited when we headed off, but it took only 15 minutes or so before we hit the first hills. And, as I’d feared would be the case, they were incredibly hard.

The Bromptons have 3-speed internal hubs, with my machine having a further two gears selectable by a mini derailleur. Georgina’s machine has just the internal hub 3-speed. We were standing on the cleated pedals to get sufficient torque to get up the hills, slight as they were…

However, we persevered and by that afternoon were pitching tents at the Tallebudgera caravan park. 

By the second night we were at Pottsville. However, even though the ground had been (mostly) flat on this second day, we were now pushing into a strong headwind. The 20 km/h headwind was the equivalent of climbing a long hill all day!

That night it rained heavily (no problems; the tents were dry inside) but the next day looked like it was going to be wet – very wet. In fact, as we had breakfast, the pouring rain was almost horizontal, so strong was the headwind.

As I sipped my coffee, I looked long and hard at that rain. The clothing, tents, sleeping mats, methylated spirits cooking stove, and the food and water we’d brought had all worked well. The bikes were proving more stable and surefooted than I expected, and the trailers towed superbly.

But clearly the Bromptons were geared way too high for what we were asking of them. Into this magnitude of headwind, and knowing that today we would have real hills to climb, I wondered if it was worthwhile going on.

Better to keep enthusiastic and happy about it all, rather than to struggle with a major equipment deficiency and grow despondent and frustrated.

So we turned around and went home. It took us just seven hours to get the 90 kilometres back to the car – and when we had two leisurely stops along the way, that’s pretty good going.

So what to do about the gearing? I thought of lots of different approaches, talked with some experts, then decided to do the simplest (and not inconsequentially, the cheapest) thing.

What I’ve done is to fit a triple 44-32-22 chain-ring with 152mm cranks, replacing the standard Brompton 50-tooth wheel and 170mm cranks. The different cogs are selected by the simple expedient of stopping the bike, and manually swapping the chain over – a 10 second job.

The change in gearing is massive – in fact, with the chain on the smallest front cog, and the lowest ratio on the derailleur, and the lowest ratio in the internal hub three-speed, moderately fast pedalling takes the bike along at a speed that’s only just stable in balance.

But oh boy, even when towing a trailer, can it ever climb hills!

I’d expect to change the front cog only two or three times in a day, in hilly territory (with or without headwinds!) staying on the smallest front cog up the hills and simply rolling down the other side. The middle cog would be used for normal grades and headwinds, and the top cog – well, I don’t think we’ll need it. (And if we don’t use it that would be good: the angularity of the chain is starting to become excessive on this cog.)

Shortly after you read this, Georgina and Alexander and I will again be on the road, this time trying to get to our destination and prove the equipment can do what we want it to do.

Then perhaps, to hop on an aircraft and head off to a distant location before starting to pedal…

2 Responses to 'Finding the Shortcomings'

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  1. Tim Paton said,

    on May 19th, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Loaded touring on three-speed bikes? You’re either very brave, out to prove a point, or very poorly advised.

    Sure, they used to do Tour de France stages on single-speed or two-speed flip-flop wheels, but seriously… it’s not the 1940s anymore.

    I’m a huge fan of hub gears, in their place. They’re almost bombproof and require little maintenance, which is ideal for a city bike. But a 3-speed hub has a gear range of about 180% – that is, bottom (climbing) gear is only about 1.8 times the mechanical advantage of top (cruising) gear.

    A typical touring bike, with triple-ring crankset and a wide range cluster at the back, has a gear range in excess of 500%. Towing a loaded trailer over hill and dale, you’ll use both ends, and be wishing you had tighter spaced ratios in between.

    A three-speed hub is completely out of its league on a touring bike. A 14 speed Rohloff gear-hub is a worthy contender, with similar gear range… if you have the funds to invest in one.

    As for your 10 second off-bike manual shifting gear setup – seriously, derailleurs were invented in the 1900s, and have been immensely popular since the 1960s. Don’t reinvent the wheel. You’re towing about $1500 worth of trailers on a pair of $2000-ish bikes. I’m sure the budget can stretch to something a bit more sophisticated than greasy fingers and (one would assume) an adjustable chain tensioner.

    Touring on Bromptons is obviously not entirely conventional, but I have no doubt they’re capable of the task. Folders aren’t given the credit they deserve. But they have to be set up to suit the task at hand. A 3-speed Brompton is possibly the ultimate multi-modal commuting bike (take it on the train and ride to and from each station), but as you have found, it is a really bad choice for a long distance tourer. Anybody with any amount of bike knowledge could have told you that and saved you the unpleasant learning experience.

    You’ve let yourself down by admitting to such a frankly silly misadventure. You’re smarter than that.

  2. Julian Edgar said,

    on May 20th, 2008 at 7:23 am

    Tim, all the points you make are valid, but in a way, you’ve missed the major point!

    As I wrote, we can take all the gear with us for no cost when travelling – and that’s an enormous positive. My recumbent touring trike is probably amongst the best pedal based touring machines in the world, and is superior to the Bromptons in every touring way (gearing range, comfort, ride, handling, stability, speed, braking, etc) but it costs a lot of money to freight anywhere. Furthermore, what do you do with its shipping crate at the other end of that transport?

    With the Bromptons and Burley trailers we can fit all the gear (including camping gear) in four hand-held bags that can be flown anywhere (domestically at least) at no extra charge over the three normal fares. At the other end, we unpack the gear, fold-up the carry bags and away we go.

    As I wrote, I looked carefully at improving the gearing system on the Bromptons and have chosen the front triple ring, hand selectable. You cannot fit a front derailleur on a Brompton, the extra rings adds just 100 grams, the rear dropouts will not take a Rohloff, rear derailleur gearing also requires major modification of the Brompton (it’s not just a bolt-in). The Brompton already uses a sprung chain length thingy so no extra rear derailleur is needed to cope with the change in chain length.

    The only other alternative would be to go for something like Bike Friday folding machines, but I am reluctant to start again from scratch with completely new bikes.

    Since I wrote the blog, we’ve gone testing with the triple ring Bromptons, towing the trailers on a long single-day ride over undulating ground. The gearing was much better, but of course there was plenty of rolling down hills (rather than pedalling).

    Changing the front chain rings was a trivial task. You need to remember also that we’re just ambling along – with stops for food and allowing a little boy to run around, averaging about 10 km/h.

    When touring I think I will always be hankering after my 81-speed, airbag-suspended, disc braked recumbent trike – but taking two such trikes with us would more than double the price of any interstate trip, as well as making travel logistics at the other end nearly impossible.

    In about two weeks all is being put to the test – we’re flying everything interstate and then pedal touring for ten days.