Mon, 15 May 2023 at 8:12 pm BST
I know how Ben Derbyshire feels. The architect fought off two thieves on scooters who threatened him with the angle-grinder they were using to steal his Brompton folding bicycle from outside a café in East London last Friday. My Brompton was pinched six years ago from London’s Shaftesbury Avenue in the busy mid-afternoon, its heavy-duty lock left intact and still fastened to the railings. The criminals must have partly wrecked my beautiful bike, twisting it off, and cannibalised the rest for spares. Had I been present, I reckon I’d have taken them on too, angle-grinder or no.
Handmade, British-built and quirky, Bromptons are serious – and seriously expensive – bikes, ranging from £899 for a basic three-speed model to £3,785 for a top-end, four-speed electric version. The three-part frame devised by company founder Andrew Richie in 1975 in his flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory in West London is unique and makes the bikes incredibly compact and light when folded. Owners tend to invest emotion as well as cash in their Bromptons. Since they hold their value well, are perennially popular and very portable, they’re also a very attractive prospect for criminals.
Derbyshire, 70, says this was the third Brompton he has had stolen. “At the Brompton Covent Garden shop, they advised me not to buy a lock because they said you shouldn’t leave them outside anyway,” he says. This is company policy. “There has been some victim blaming since I shared my video on Twitter of catching the thieves, but I was expecting reasonable behaviour from others when I locked it up while I was at brunch with my children – which is why I shouted so loudly in Logan Roy-from-Succession-style language when I saw it happening.”
The incident hasn’t put him off riding his Brompton, but “in future, I will be more selective about where I lock it up.”
The police have Derbyshire’s footage but he is “dubious about them catching anybody”. Research in January found that 90 per cent of all bicycle theft cases reported to police in England and Wales over the previous year were closed without a suspect even being identified, and just 1.7 per cent resulted in someone being charged.
While bike theft has always happened, thieves on mopeds are increasing – able to get away with bikes like Bromptons quickly while covering their faces with their helmets. Before Derbyshire had his bike stolen, his daughter saw another incident about to happen, “but people came out and started shouting and filming so the thieves drove off.”
“There are almost certainly hotspots for it, where it would be sensible to up the policing,” says Derbyshire. (Hackney, where his latest theft occurred, has the highest rate of bike thefts of all London boroughs.)
“But there are other solutions. In British Columbia, there is a licence-plate law where you have to have your moped licence plate on your helmet so you can’t be anonymous – that would have helped in my case.”
‘’Unfortunately, bicycles can be the target for thieves,” says a spokesperson for Brompton. The company is “engaging with the police and other stakeholders on ways we can support the reduction of all bike theft.” Brompton advises all its customers to register their bikes with Bike Register, and to take out bike insurance.
“If a bike is stolen, we encourage customers to report it to the police immediately, and use sites dedicated to locating stolen bikes,” says the spokesperson. “All Bromptons are clearly marked with a serial number, helping them to be identified where possible.”
My own Brompton was my “midlife crisis” bike. I didn’t need one but had wanted one for years. I admired the bikes as an elegant piece of engineering but also, if I’m totally frank, as a cool bit of kit. Bromptons are practical for commuters or those with limited storage space, and company lore has it that a polar scientist used one to nip between weather sensors.
But ownership of a Brompton, especially in London, sends out a complex series of messages: that you appreciate a design classic, care about the planet, and have at least £800 to spend on a machine that, as AA Gill once put it, makes you look like a performing bear in a circus. Hence their use by the middle-managers, played by Hugh Bonneville and Jason Watkins, in the BBC’s self-satirising sitcom W1A.
Anyway, when I approached 50 I explained to my wife that I didn’t really need any more possessions but that a second bike would be cheaper than the usual crisis acquisitions of a man startled by middle age – a mistress or a sports car. She laughed, albeit thinly, and acquiesced. I chose the simplest steel-framed, two-speed Brompton, the S-type with elegantly straight handlebars, now no longer displayed on the company website. You can have Bromptons in British Racing Green, periwinkle, or parti-coloured but I chose classic black.
Having a tiny real derailleur (gear changer) instead of a heavy three-speed hub gear kept the weight to 11kg, so when folded it was slightly smaller and lighter than two six-packs of one-litre plastic mineral water bottles. A titanium version would have been lighter still, but twice as expensive. My Brompton cost just under £1,000 and I bought it through the Bike to Work scheme so my employer stumped up half the cash. The rest was paid for by my wife, my sister and her husband, and my in-laws, whom I adored: it was the last present my mother-in-law gave me before she died of cancer.
God, I loved that bike: the springy, skittish nature of the ride, compared with my old warhorse street bike; learning the art of folding it up, including the little flick that clicked the rear third of the bike into place; the folded heft as I stashed it under my desk or a restaurant table. I loved the little stylish innovations: the small plastic dolly wheels that enable you to push the half-folded Brompton around like a pram; the toolkit that fits inside the frame just below the main hinge; the way the underside of the saddle is moulded as a handgrip for easy carrying.
Even though I bought an Abus folding lock of flat steel bars that weighed almost as much as the bike itself, I never left it outside. The one time I did, for an hour, in a part of central London thronged with traffic and pedestrians and littered with CCTV cameras – bam, it was gone. The lock had been threaded through the two steel triangles holding the rear wheel. I presume it was easier to cut through all of them than the lock, and graft what remained of the wreck onto another partial skeleton, before selling the resulting Frankenbike through any number of online marketplaces. I’d had it less than a year.
The bike was registered and numbered and I reported the theft, which generated a long email correspondence with the police – including, I think, the offer of counselling – but no results. No surprise there. Fortunately, my insurance paid up and I bought an identical Brompton.
I use it now to commute between stations when visiting my mother in Ramsgate, or when I know I can keep it by my side at my destination. But for most of the time it sits mewed up in my office at home, like a jealously guarded fairytale princess. It’s beside me as I write, a beautiful thing that I’m pleased to look upon. But it’s also a practical mode of transport, better for me and the planet than a car or public transport; and it irks me that I can’t regularly use it as such because of those b——s with angle-grinders.