John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Brompton World Championship

I'm hardly an Olympic athlete, but I have competed in a couple of world championships. Back in 2008 I took part in the World Custard Pie Championship, and a couple of weeks ago I took part in the Brompton World Championship.

I saw the launch video a few months ago which amused me, e.g. when there were people bench-pressing their folded bikes. One unusual thing about this race is the dress code: "All participants, both male and female, must wear a suit jacket, collared shirt and neck tie. Shorts, three-quarter length trousers and skirts may be worn if preferred, though sports attire (e.g. Lycra shorts/leggings, tracksuit pants, etc.) is not permitted." I travelled to Oxford in casual clothes, with my "race clothes" in a suit carrier. However, I couldn't fit that into my pannier so my trailer came in handy.

This event took place at Blenheim Palace on Sunday 21st August. So, my basic plan was to go up to Oxford on Saturday 20th, stay in Witney overnight, then go over to Woodstock on Sunday morning. When I arrived in Oxford, I saw a couple of other Bromptons at the bus station and I thought "Hmm, that's unusual." I then realised that they were probably there for the same reason as me! Unfortunately, the rim of my rear wheel cracked when I arrived in Witney, as I described in my previous post. I made it to where I was staying, but I could tell that this would be a big job to repair, so I went to bed assuming that I wouldn't be able to compete after all.

On Sunday morning I arrived at the event and collected my registration pack. I've seen other events (e.g. the London to Brighton bike ride) where they have mechanics near the start, so my only hope was that they'd have something similar here. As it turned out, Warlands did indeed have a stand in the corner of the Brompton tent. I showed them my bike, and they said that there was no way they could fix it in 20 minutes. I asked whether I could hire a bike, and they very kindly agreed to lend me their demonstration model. I had to pay a £1100 deposit on my Visa card, and they refunded this when I returned the bike. (They had a hand-held "carbon copy" machine for the payment rather than an online terminal, so they just gave me back the receipt afterwards.) That deposit would cover the purchase price of the bike if I'd run away with it, but it also meant that the rental itself was completely free of charge. This isn't a service that they normally provide, but they mentioned the spirit of the occasion and they didn't want me to miss out on the race, so I'm very grateful.

Although Brompton bikes are basically "one size fits all", there are a few variations between models. The bike they lent me was a superlight sporty version, with titanium parts. I'd considered that when I first bought my bike, but it seemed like a lot of extra money for a relatively minor difference; my only titanium component was the telescopic seatpost extension (no longer available). I was quite surprised when I picked up their bike, because I could immediately feel the difference. However, I now think that there were several factors contributing to this, and the frame was only part of it.

ComponentMy bikeWarlands bikeDifference (grams)
HandlebarsM typeS type58
GearingHub (x3)Derailleur (x2)550
Mudguards and rackMudguards and rack (R)Mudguards only (L)145
FrameAll steelSuperlight790
Seat heightSteel pillar,
titanium telescopic extension
Titanium pillar313
TyresSchwalbe Marathon PlusBrompton Kevlar (?)199
LightingSchmidt SON Hub DynamoReflectors only236

Based on that, while the frame is indeed lighter it only accounts for a third of the saving. A lighter bike might be better for racing, but it's not really important for my daily commute, and my luggage will have an impact too. I didn't carry my front pannier during the race; I'd never intended to (due to the weight), but I wouldn't have been able to anyway, since the C bag isn't compatible with the S type handlebars. The superlight bikes don't have a place to mount a pump, but realistically if I got a flat tyre then I'd be out of the race anyway. The only real snag is that the Brompton doesn't have a bottle cage so I couldn't carry any water with me. It was quite a hot day, so the back of my shirt was soaking wet by the time I crossed the finish line.

I took the bike for a quick test ride before the race started, just to get a feel for it. The different handlebars and lower seat meant that it felt a bit different, but it was near enough to my own bike to be familiar. The lever for the derailleur gears is on the left rather than the right (so that you can have both levers/gears in a 6-speed bike), but that wasn't a problem. I think the gear lever had a bell built in, although I didn't try ringing it. If it worked, that would be useful; I fitted a bell to my Brompton a while back, but then the handle snapped off the first time I tried using it.

There was a small "race village", with several tents. This included a first aid tent, run by St John Ambulance, so I wandered over to say hello. I'd recently been out on duty with one of their cycle responders at a London event, so he took a photo of me:

John before the race

Moving on to the race itself, Brompton have made a video of the event:

They told us that all the bikes had to be on the starting grid by 11:40, and it literally was a grid. My registration pack included my race number (382): this was printed on a wristband, and on a card that I attached to the handlebars using the cable ties they provided. The starting area had several patches of grass (separated by paths), and each patch of grass had rows of numbered pegs (photo). I found the peg that corresponded to my race number, and left the folded bike there. To borrow a line from Star Trek IV: "Everybody remember where we parked!" That probably explains why we were issued with wristbands, considering that nobody else could see it under my jacket.

All the riders then assembled for a briefing. The guy in charge said that there were 800 of us, but the registrations were limited to 750 so I assume that he was rounding up. According to the official website: "The Brompton World Championship saw 673 of the 750 registrants making it to the start line, this is without doubt the biggest turn out to date!" Looking at the results, only 666 people are listed, so I assume that the other 7 didn't finish the race.

I knew that we would have to unfold our bikes at the start of the race, so I've been practicing that on my daily commute to do it as quickly as possible. My personal best is 12 seconds, with an average time of about 15 seconds. However, it turned out that this wasn't really necessary. The race card on the front of each bike had a timing chip attached to it, which would record when we crossed the start line and the finish line. So, the organisers emphasised that we didn't need to trample each other when the whistle blew. (Looking at the video, I see that there was a separate speed challenge for folding your bike, but I didn't spot that on the day.)

When I registered for the event, I had to predict how long it would take me. The course was 13 km, so I put myself in the "30-40 minutes" range. Each patch of grass had a range of bikes on it, and the riders for those bikes were in a "pen" at the end of the grass. They set us off at 90 second intervals, and we were presumably grouped together based on our estimated time. I was in the fourth wave, for bikes 351-500. Since we had timing chips, that meant that we weren't technically racing against each other, and the person who finished first might not be the overall winner. However, if you're surrounded by slower riders then it will be difficult to make progress, so fast riders will benefit from being at the front.

While we were waiting to set off, there was a friendly atmosphere, including a Mexican Wave that went across all the pens. Looking around, I saw that the dress code wasn't being rigorously enforced, but most people had made an effort and I think it's quite funny to see women in "drag" (shirt and tie).

Once the whistle blew for my wave, I jogged over to my bike and set off. I was cautious about pacing myself, so my basic plan was to use the first lap for reconnaissance, then go a bit faster on the second lap when I knew what to expect. Unlike my commute, there were no traffic lights to contend with, so I didn't have to stop at all; that meant that I could cover the same distance in a shorter period of time. I had my helmet camera running so that I'd have a record of the route. During the briefing, the guy mentioned that this wasn't a flat route. While there were a few hills, I didn't find them particularly strenuous; I go up longer/steeper slopes every day, and I encountered far worse when I was touring.

The theory was to ride on the left and overtake on the right. However, this wasn't always practical. It's similar to driving on a motorway, where some people sit in the middle lane when there's nothing on their left. I tried to avoid passing people on their left, but that meant that I had to hold back a few times when I would have liked to go a bit faster. On the flipside, one person specifically said "thank you" when I kept left to let her overtake, which was nice. Generally, I think there was a lot more overtaking during the first lap, as we all sorted ourselves out into a sensible order. There was still a bit going on during the second lap, but to a much lesser extent. I saw a couple of collisions while I was going round, but the riders jumped back on their bikes and continued.

My SJA colleagues were out along the route, and one of them kindly took a photo of me as I went past:

John during the race

After I crossed the finish line, the route continued around the corner and widened out. That was where staff were on hand to collect our timing chips and hand out "goodie bags"; the bottle of water was particularly welcome! We were each given a medal for completing the race; I've received a few of those from SJA duties, but this is the first time that someone's actually hung the medal around my neck and that was quite rewarding.

Apparently the results were put up in the Brompton tent after the race finished, but I didn't see them there, so I waited until they were posted to the website the following day. My time was 30m 23s, and I came 269th overall. (I was 207th in my category, i.e. Male Open.) I think that I could have done it a bit faster, so next time I'll aim for under 30 minutes; if I'm in an earlier wave then that should help. According to the results, there were several people with numbers below 350 who had longer times than me, i.e. they set off in earlier waves and I presumably overtook them.

As I mentioned, the bike I borrowed only had two gears. There were several occasions when I was in second gear but there was no point in pedalling because it wouldn't make me go any faster. If I'd had a higher gear, I would have used it, but I'm not sure whether third gear on my bike is significantly higher than second gear on that one, i.e. I don't know how the gear ratios were set up on it.

After I'd got my breath back, I collected the cream tea. Well, actually I gave my voucher to a friend, and he queued up for me while I returned the borrowed bike and reclaimed my own. Someone else commented that he looked remarkably fresh after all the hills, so he had to confess that he hadn't actually taken part in the race! I was quite impressed by the food they provided, particularly the tiny pot of jam for the scones. I then wandered around Blenheim Palace afterwards (covered by my entry fee), which was quite pleasant. If you have young children then I particularly recommend the adventure playground and the mini-train.

All in all, I had a good day out, and I certainly intend to do it again next year.
Tags: cycling

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