Magazine article The Spectator

An Economic Cyclist's Upbeat View of British Manufacturing

Magazine article The Spectator

An Economic Cyclist's Upbeat View of British Manufacturing

Article excerpt

Everyone seems to be talking about bicycles. This week's eyecatching initiative from the Department for Transport is a scheme to turn Brighton, Aylesbury, Derby and Darlington into cyclists' utopias, at a cost of £1 million per town.

Meanwhile, more and more people have taken to cycling in London since the July bombings -- an observation that had its status as a new cliché confirmed by an airing in one of Bird and Fortune's Islington dinner-party sketches on Channel 4. And the BBC Panorama reporter Stephanie Flanders made cycles (geddit? ) the motif of her assessment this week of Gordon Brown's chancellorship.

To illustrate the fate of British industry on Gordon's watch, Flanders visited Raleigh, the Nottingham company that once made two million bicycles a year but now makes none at all, importing them instead from low-wage factories in Vietnam, Sri Lanka and Thailand.

So the humble two-wheeler has a lot to say about economics, environmental priorities and perceptions of personal safety and freedom. And since everyone else is talking about it, so shall I, not only because I am a secret bicycle bore, but also because I have hit upon a bicycle story which is not a metaphor for the threat of globalisation but -- in a modest, cheerful, mildly eccentric, perfectly British way -- precisely the opposite.

In May this year I woke up one night strangely possessed by the idea of buying a folding bicycle. Alighting from the train at King's Cross the following day en route to The Spectator, I watched a grey-suited commuter assemble just such a machine and pedal off to work. Strolling down Gray's Inn Road for a lunchtime sandwich, I found a pillar-box-red cuboid of collapsed bike winking at me from a cycle shop window. Five minutes and £500 later, sandwich forgotten, I was riding it in triumph down Doughty Street.

It's called a Brompton and it is, I'm afraid, a new cliché of dinner-party conversation all in itself. Like Su Doku and the iPod, you see it and hear about it everywhere. But bear with me: suffice to say that the Brompton is an exquisite piece of design, with a foolproof folding mechanism that takes 15 seconds and makes you smile every time at its neatness.

As to performance, the Brompton and I acquitted ourselves admirably on a 30-mile sponsored ride over the North York Moors, though I never heard the punchline of the vicar's witticism about the Church of England being like a bicycle because he was whizzing downhill ahead of me on his conventional machine -- the Brompton's smaller wheels making it a bit frisky to handle at high speeds.

But what is most captivating about my new steed is how and where it is made. Its designer, Andrew Ritchie, started making prototype folding bikes in a flat overlooking the Brompton Oratory -- hence the name -- in 1975. A former landscape gardener and plant salesman, he is everything you would wish a bicycle boffin to be. I found him wearing navy-blue shorts and brown leather lace-up shoes, dragging on a thin roll-up, hunched over a desk strewn with cogs, chains and oilyfingerprinted invoices. For years -- 'a man driven by the seed of an idea, working for next to nothing' -- he struggled to get his business going. He finally succeeded in 1988 in a Brentford railway arch, with one wealthy private investor and a few early Brompton fans behind him. …

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