Tuesday, October 9, 2012

The Brompton Has Landed

Ok, so after all the obsessing and agonizing over how/whether to bring the Brompton along for the ride during the trip to Belgium, I did it.

Ask anyone who knows me, and they will tell you how I wore them out with the should-I-or-shouldn't-I-bring-the-bike question. Hamlet had less trouble making his much more permanent decision than I did. Many thanks to all of you who put up with that.

Tipping the scales:
Because I knew I'd blog about it, I decided, yes, go ahead and do it. If disaster struck and the poor little Brompton met a horrible fate by being stolen/damaged/just generally messed up, at least I'd have a great story to tell and some useful info to pass along.

Hard case vs soft case vs no case at all.
Erik at Bicycle Space has travelled far and wide with his Brompton. He kindly shared his experience with me.

Erik's naked take: Once with a B-bag, once naked. And by naked, I mean the bike was naked except for some straps to hold it in place. He was asked what it was, and described it as a personal mobility device. End of story. No challenges, no quizzing. No damage outside of some scratched paint, but hey, you can get that when you park/lock it.

Soft case:
Alex Baca has shared her experience on an epic journey to Eastern Europe in which she racked up some serious mileage and found the B-bag to be just the thing. Thanks, Alex.

Hard case:
I found at least two people who had happily travelled with the hard case made by B&W, which is not a Brompton product. Here's a video demo of the case, a nice look at how the thing looks/feels. I opted out of this due not to the expense (ouch) but due to the bulk of it. I knew I'd be traveling by rail and renting a car once here, and felt that the bulk of that case was just too much bother.
For the best account of how things went for one hard-case user: check out Lovely Bicycle's blogpost here. And just check out her blog. Lots of helpful info.

Ah, the elusive B-Pod. It was going to be Brompton's answer to the needs of its fans. A protective shell that was as portable as the bike itself. But it was not to be. There were/are varying accounts of how long it had been in design phase, and how it was put on hold. Brompton at first reported that there was a problem with supply/manufacture. Then I heard that sometime in 2012, Brompton would resume production. But it was not to be. I sent an email to the company, asking about it, and got a prompt, but disappointing response. Bottom line: Brompton is out of the luggage business, at least for now. They don't outright recommend the B&W hard case, but that's only because they say, they haven't tested it themselves.

Final Decision:
After all the pricing, measuring, consulting blogs and airlines' luggage restrictions, I chose the B-bag. I did have some reservations: it has two wheels, not four. That in my experience, makes it a bit tippy. and you have to turn it in the right direction to benefit from those two wheels. No spinning or backing. And while it's not heavy on its own, it seemed to create a bulky, heavy package when the bike was stowed inside. Still, it seemed the best option outside of a Dutch-made rig that I considered. (More on that later.)

Here's what I'm carrying. Taken near the baggage carousel in Brussels.
My experience:
Right down to the morning of my departure, I was still waffling. It would be sooo nice to travel light, with just two bags, a small roller and my carry-on. (I have recurring fantasies that some day, I'll be so organized, I'll need just a clutch as my purse, and my go-kit at work--the one with mics, cords, laptop, phone charger, various connectors, will be reduced to a slim, stylish briefcase. Ah, to dream...)
So one part of me thought, forget this madness. Just rent a bike when you get there. But the other part of me thought I'd be kicking myself for not getting the chance to test all that I'd learned.

Jamie, my colleague and my go-to person for watching my home and my cat when I travel, watched with some amusement as I continued to debate until seconds before hopping into the taxi to the airport. Even as I hauled the bike in the bag down the steps of my building, I was thinking "I sure hope I know what I'm doing."

Checking in:
I didn't check in via email, but waited until I got to the airport. I headed to the check-in counter, and was waiting for the challenge. I'd heard and read so many stories about how it all went badly for some travelers: getting dinged with fees for a full-sized bike, getting dinged for oversized luggage, etc. So I braced myself. I would be polite, but firm.

Immediately, I thought there could be a problem. There was a young couple in front of me, giving the check-in clerk a tough time over their very, very big bag. And by very big bag, I mean a bag that looked to contain a body. Maybe two.  ("Hello, FBI? I think I found Jimmy Hoffa. He's not alone.") It stood about 4 feet tall when plopped on the scale, and I have no idea how much it weighed. Certainly more than 50 pounds.

The young man was polite, but insistent that he should not be charged for more than one bag. The clerk struggled to explain he was not being charged for an extra bag, but for a bag that was over the 50 pound limit. Both sides were polite, but firm. Finally, something was worked out, and the young couple got ready to board. So I stepped up, aaand--a new clerk walked up. Uh-oh.

She looked like a supervisor, directing other people to the counter, handling questions on the fly. Had she been sent over because I looked like trouble? Did my bike bag look so suspicious? Nope, it was just break time. So I put the bag on the scale, and then instead of putting the bag on the conveyer belt behind her, she directed me to an area where the TSA was checking in the bags. No questions, no raised eyebrows, no challenges. The bag does fall within luggage restrictions and certainly weighed well under the 50 pound limit. I'd put it at around 35 pounds with my lock an some added items.  So no questions.

Yet she sent me to the TSA area. Did my bag really did look suspicious after all? I figured I'd been singled out as a problem. I figured wrong. Every single bag was sent to this area. When I got past the large partitions used to cordon off the area, I could see what looked like acres of luggage. And I figured that my poor little Brompton would be squished to death, but it was too late now. I'd have to see if my cardboard-reinforced Brompton bag would protect my ride.

At the airport in Brussels, I was fortunate enough to see that my bag was among the first to pop out of the chute and onto the conveyer belt. And voila! No damage. At least none that was obvious. I'm not even sure they opened the bag.

Ok, so now I had to go from the airport to the train, which at the Brussels airport is two levels down from arrivals. Normally it's a question of taking an escalator down, but as tired as I was, and having to handle my roller and the bike bag, I thought I'd take the elevator. No problem. They've got a number of large elevators for those with oversized luggage.

But once I bought my rail ticket to get me from Brussels to Brugge, where I'd be picking up a car, I had to get down one more level to the trains. In the six years since I started making annual trips to Belgium (it's an addiction) I've noted how they've updated air and rail stations with more escalators. Escalators I must add, that never seem to be out of order. I had about 4 minutes to get to the platform when I spotted another elevator to platform level. Perfect!

Next challenge: Train from the airport to Brussels-Midi Station
I'd have to transfer at Brussels-Midi/Brussels-Zuid to get the local train to Brugge. I'd arrived at the airport at around 7 a.m. on a Monday morning. By the time I got to the transfer point, it could be well inside of rush hour. But I lucked out, the stations were busy, but not jammed.

Next challenge: Brussels-Midi Station to Brugge
I had to figure out what platform for the train from Brussels-Midi to Brugge. I looked for, but didn't find an escalator here. I could have been wrong, but I just didn't find it.That meant going downstairs, into the station, heading to an area where the departures were marked and then having to haul the bike upstairs to another platform. As I began the descent I was beginning to think bringing the bike might be  a really stupid idea. There weren't too many steps, two flights of between 15-20, but it was awkward. I had a carry-on that clips onto the Brompton, the roller with my clothing, and my Brompton in the B-bag. I had to take a few steps at at time before re-organizing. One man very kindly raced back up the steps after hauling his own luggage down and gave me a hand. He was American. I note this because I've seen over and over again how, when someone here struggles with bags, it's generally the American in the crowd who offers a hand. I'll let you all draw your own conclusions.

I find my connection to Brugge. I look for the platform and find I've got an up escalator. Because I'm headed up, it's easy to tip the Brompton bag slightly (it's got two wheels, not four, a design flaw I hope they'll address someday)  and hop on. Thanks to the rear wheels on the bottom of that bag, I can glide off at the top of the escalator.

The platform for the Brugge train begins to fill. It's Belgium's most popular tourist destination, made even more popular by the movie "In Bruges".  Soon it's crammed to the gills with kids on field trips, adult tour groups (they have matching jackets--there are dozens of them) and regular commuters. The tourists outnumber the commuters by far.

The train rolls into the station, and I luck out..the door to this car opens right in front of me. I hop in quickly and find that the seats nearest the interior door are vacant and the train is not crowded.

In Bruges:
Once in Brugge, I find that the station, updated in recent years, has plenty of working escalators and even elevators. Now I have about 3 hours before the rental car has to be picked up. I did that on purpose since I wanted to spend a little time in one of my favorite places anywhere.

I decide to take advantage of the station's lockers (4 euros for the biggest one), and take my Brompton out for a ride. It's a sunny day. In Belgium, when the sun shines, you get out and enjoy it. Plus, this is my first chance to take my time and examine the bike to see how it fared on the flight.

I unzip the bag and take out the cardboard inserts I'd crafted. (The b-bag  has a thin steel plate on the bottom--but is soft-sided and offers little serious protection when tossed into a plane's luggage compartment or when sliding down a chute to a baggage carousel.) Both cardboard inserts have areas where the cardboard had been punched through--areas of the bike that stick out just a bit--at the pedal points for example. While packing for the trip, I thought it was kind of goofy to have to reinforce a bag designed to protect the bike, but now I'm glad I bothered to add them.
Now, it was off to play in sunny Brugge. From the first, I am thrilled that I brought the bike along. Belgium has great bike infrastructure and as I ride I notice a bunch of folding bikes---many of them other brands: Bike Friday, Tern, etc. At one point, I pass a father with a toddler who's on a "starter bike" the little push-bikes without pedals used to prep children for the transition to a the real thing. (You don't see trikes here for children. You do see them for adults. I'll have to ask in a bike shop about that. ) The dad, a Brit, spots the Brompton and says to his child "Look, a lady on a little bike!" I'm pretty sure that kid is gonna be bugging Dad for a Brompton before too long.

I decide I need coffee and a little food. I have to say here that the airplane meal of chicken was the single most awful thing put in a foil packet--ever.  I truly have not a clue what it was supposed to be, but there was rice, a few veggies suffering from freezer burn and the rapid microwaving that followed, and a disgusting concoction of something with a barely identifiable meat-like substance in a toxic sauce. I'm not a picky eater, really I'm not, and I know airlines aren't in the restaurant business but man, that was criminal.

On a side street, I find a cute little shop where I get a tomato/mozzarella sandwich. Two girls behind the counter blink for a second when I trail the folded bike in rather than lock it outside, but I tend not to lock a Brompton when I don't have to. I think it's too appealing to thieves.

Out for another ride before picking up the car.  I note how in areas where you ride with traffic, (as opposed to having a fietspad--bike path) you ride as traffic. That doesn't mean that cars don't come closer than you'd like--they sometimes do. But they do it at a rate of speed that likely won't kill you. And you just don't hear cars honk at cyclists. That would constitute harassment and I suppose, bring a fine.

Call Me Miss Multi-Modal:
In 24 hours, I flew, walked, cycled and drove. Well, the pilot did the flying, but you get the idea.
In all my travels to Belgium, I've never used a car. In most cities, they are--as in the U.S. --more trouble than they're worth. The streets here are quite narrow, grid patterns are not common, parking is a hassle and an expense, gas is pricey and I just hate the inconvenience of wondering: what do I do with the car once I get to my destination? But this time, I'd be traveling to an area not served by rail and the hotel has parking so I figured, eat the cost and rent a car.

In Belgium, as in the U.S., you drive on the right side of the road. Drivers here are heavily fined for traffic violations, so that tends to cut down on a lot of bad behavior, but I will say, when aggressive drivers want to push you on the highway, they really press their luck. Any speeder's a danger when they're coming up on you at god-knows-how-many-miles an hour, but here, it seems they hurtle at you in a way that suggests they have no brakes and there is no way either of you will survive. Twice I had drivers accelerate so hard, and come so close, that I think I could have given you the serial numbers on the bulbs in their headlights.

I took advantage of adding a GPS as part of the rental (I don't own a GPS since I don't own a car) and found it incredibly helpful. Since I hadn't driven here before--road signs, road markings differ--I figured the last thing I needed to do was take my eyes off the road to consult maps. If you're at all anxious about driving in a new place, it's one less thing to sweat.

Bottom Line:
So far, so good. I'm glad I brought the bike.

And now, since I've been blogging, it's time to get out and explore.


  1. Great post about your experience with flying with the Brompton so far. You didn't say whether the airline asked you about your bike/bag at all? I guess perhaps not? What airline did you fly?

  2. Nope, Char. Not a single question, challenge, statement. She just very efficiently checked me in.
    What threw me was that instead of putting it on the conveyer belt behind her, she directed me to the TSA area where they took all checked baggage. I'd never experienced that before.
    I'm holding off on identifying the airline for now since I've heard from others that the return trip is where they ran into issues. Let's just see. Promise to identify it once I return.
    And I have to say, my experiences good or bad, should not be taken as endorsements. Sort of the obligatory "a re-Tweet is not an endorsement" thing.