Sometimes the best performance upgrade is portability
Recently I was waiting for the light at a busy intersection when a young gentleman who looked like he'd just stepped out of one of those Honda Civics with the farty exhaust pipes crossed in front of me.
"That's a wack-ass bike," he uttered nonchalantly as he sauntered past.
My first impulse was to reply indignantly, like Dan Ayckroyd in Trading Places when Bo Diddley makes a lowball offer on his watch:
This is a Rouchefoucauld. The thinnest water-resistant watch in the world. Singularly unique, sculptured in design, hand-crafted in Switzerland, and water resistant to three atmospheres. This is the sports watch of the '80s.
For I too was at that moment in possession of a singular piece of engineering: namely, a Brompton bicycle. Handmade in London, eminently portable, able to pass through subway turnstiles in a single bound... I stood aghast at his failure to appreciate the brilliant efficiency and sheer class of this precision folding instrument.
At the same time, I could kinda see where he was coming from, for while I may have stood aghast at his ignorance, I did so atop a bicycle with 16-inch wheels that made me look like a circus bear.
In any case, by the time I'd reconciled these conflicting emotions, the light had turned green and the guy who'd so casually insulted me was already ensconced in the vape store across the street, so I put foot to pedal and continued on my way.
As cyclists, many of us have a funny relationship with performance technology in that we're more than happy to accept the exaggerated proportions that often come with it, just so long as these distorted bicycles meet certain aesthetic criteria. Comically bloated fat bikes? Sure. Mountain bikes that look like motocross bikes? Of course. Deep-section wheels modeled on whale fins and carbon frame tubing the diameter of a PVC sewer drain pipe? Bring it on! Even non-cycling laypeople respond to this aggressive design language, as anyone who's had a complete stranger approach and ask appreciatively how much their bike costs or if they can lift it to see how light it is can attest.*
But build a bike that handles nimbly and capably, can be configured for many different styles of riding, and in 20 seconds breaks down small enough to fit under the desk in your cubicle, and suddenly it's a "wack-ass bike."
Hey, I get it. For years I relegated folding bikes to that same corner of my brain where I keep unicycles and recumbents. I call it the, "Hey, whatever works for you" corner. Imagine saying it while backing away politely from someone in a helmet mirror and a Hi-Viz windbreaker explaining why his 'bent is more comfortable and efficient than your "wedgie" and you've got the idea.
Eventually, however, a number of things changed. For one thing, my own personal style considerations evolved as they tend to do with age. (If you can't come to terms with comfortable shoes and baby puke stains then you've got a rough ride ahead.) For another, I traveled quite a bit. In Seattle, I met a couple who were traveling the country on Bromptons and had yet to incur a single airline fee (you can often gate-check them or stow them in the overhead). In London, the streets teemed with well-dressed commuters astride bicycles I had naively dismissed as "dorky." And while I'd always prided myself on being a well-rounded cyclist, it began to dawn on me that I was in fact highly provincial about bikes, and basically the cycling equivalent of the rube who won't try a new cuisine because it looks "icky."
In fact, I began to detect a certain...elegance.
Most importantly, my relationship with riding in my own city changed. The bicycle is in many ways the ideal vehicle for New York City in that it is immune to both traffic and transit delay. Riding here is also thrilling: not because it's especially dangerous (objectively speaking it really isn't), but because the act of wayfinding in a city of this size is exciting in itself, and moving deftly and efficiently through it is immensely satisfying.
At the same time, there are certain limitations to the bicycle in New York that can sometimes make cycling feel like an all-or-nothing proposition. In particular, there are the twin issues of theft and lack of storage space. Keep your bike outside and it's liable to get stolen; bring it inside and there's nowhere to put it. And let's just say you do want to ride the train with your bike. While it's technically legal to bring it on the subway, if you attempt to do so during rush hour, you're nuts. (Rush hour here is pretty much all the time.) As for commuter rail, that involves poring over the schedule and figuring out which trains allow bikes and when, and as someone who's been kicked off a train on the east end of Long Island for getting that wrong I can assure you it's less than convenient.
None of this is an issue with the Brompton. I was looking for a loophole in the all-or-nothing contract, and it turns out that loophole is the folding bike. I can pretty much take it inside with me whenever and wherever. I store it next to my coat rack. And while one of the benefits of riding a bike may be avoiding the transit system, the folding bike removes the moat between it and your bike on those occasions when you don't want to avoid it. (Large meals, heavy imbibing, and snowstorms are all solid reasons for skipping that ride home.) This freedom is by no means limited to big cities like New York (or to Bromptons for that matter, it's just the one I happen to prefer), because no matter where you live you can probably relate to the convenience of a bike that you can throw in the trunk with the groceries or fly with for free.
Of course, I don't ride the Brompton all the time, but when I do I think about how silly I was about folding bikes. What I once thought of as dorky is more like a switchblade. (Albeit a switchblade that inspires no fear in others whatsoever because you ride it like a circus bear, but still.) In many ways, it's the ideal urban bike, and certainly more worthy of that mantle than the track bikes and various other machines that once aspired to the throne.
Wack-ass bike indeed.
*The correct answers to these questions are of course "Well, if you have to ask..." and "No you may not!" respectively.