On your mark ... get set ... unfold ... go!
One look at the starting line of the second annual U.S. Brompton bicycle championship will tell you this isn't your typical spandex-and-carbon fiber bicycle race. First hint: tweed, ties and formal wear are de rigueur _ no head-to-toe Bianchi racing getups, thank you very much. Second hint: the equally fashionable and curiously foldable British bikes made by Brompton, a builder with a devout and growing ridership on this side of the pond.
Saturday's six-mile race also features a Le Mans-style start, where the dapperly turned-out competitors sprint to their bikes in the lineup, unfold them, hop on and go.
"Folding skills can make or break where you finish," said race organizer Mike McGettigan, who sells Bromptons in his Philadelphia shop, Trophy Bikes. "Nowhere else will you see a race with people running and unfolding bicycles while wearing a tuxedo jacket and bowtie with shiny disco pants."
The disco dandy McGettigan describes is Vinod Vijayakumar, 35, of Philadelphia, a Brompton owner for about eight years who captured the "best dressed" crown last year with two friends who also donned top hats and came equipped with pipes and flasks.
"My wife and I take our bikes into the movies, we check it in a coat check at the bar, it fits under my desk at work," said Vijayakumar, an engineer. "From an engineering perspective, there's a lot of very thoughtful design elements; ... it's that cross between the compactness and how well-built that it is."
More than 60 people brought their folders from as far as California, France and Japan to ride in last year's inaugural U.S. Brompton championships in Philadelphia. Organizers are anticipating as many as 100 riders on the single-lap course Saturday in picturesque Fairmount Park, created for fun but boasting a serious prize.
Brompton will award the Philadelphia race's fastest man and woman a free trip to the world championships in August at Blenheim Palace, birthplace of Sir Winston Churchill, in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Awards also are given for the best dressed man and woman, prizes that come with bragging rights but alas, no trans-Atlantic trip.
The world championships saw more than 600 Bramptoneers from 34 countries brave the rain to compete in the eight-mile race last year at Blenheim Palace. Both the British and Philadelphia races have a dress code requiring participants to wear a suit _ technically a proper jacket and tie, but room for creative interpretation is allowed.
"Last year someone wore a gorilla suit and a necktie," McGettigan said of the Philadelphia race. "He had a tie, so it was OK."
Brompton was founded in 1976 by engineer Andrew Ritchie. He named his company after Brompton Oratory, which he could see from the window of his cramped London bedroom-workshop where the first prototypes were created. After years of financial struggles and design refinements, Brompton sales began taking off in the 1990s. The privately held company now has 115 employees and makes 30,000 bicycles a year _ more than four times the number made in 2002 _ for export to 33 countries.
The three-step fold _ the rear wheel swings forward, the front wheel slides back, the handlebars fold to the side _ is locked in place by pushing down the seatpost.
The standard steel-frame version weighs in at around 26 pounds _ the titanium version shaves off around 3 pounds _ and folds up in 15 seconds to a size that's slightly larger than a carry-on bag. Zipped inside a nylon case and carried over the shoulder, a folding bike can be inconspicuously brought inside office buildings, stores, subways and other places conventional bikes are not free to roam.
When gasoline prices spiked in 2007 and 2008, U.S. sales of Brompton rose as Americans ditched their cars and sought alternate ways to get around, said Ed Rae, the company's North America representative.
"Unlike the rest of the world, where bikes are seen as a utility tool, in America they'd been perceived as for sport, racing or recreation," he said. "That's changed. We think there's a permanent shift in the way Americans perceive bicycling, and it's not a fad."
When he became one of only two Brompton dealers in the U.S. eight years ago, McGettigan expected to sell one a month. In that time, customers have bought more than 300 of the British folders from his shop _ triple his initial estimate _ and there are now around 60 Brompton dealers nationwide.
"Bromptons are built the way everything else used to be built," said McGettigan, also an aficionado of vintage manual typewriters. "It's light, it's fast. It has a quirky charm. It's tank-like but incredibly high-tech."
City dwellers are among the biggest fans of folders. Brompton is one of about six companies that make the world's most popular models, which can be carried up stairs and stowed inside the smallest of dwellings or under an office desk.
"Switching to a Brompton automatically makes your apartment bigger," McGettigan said. "And they rarely get stolen because they're never outside."
Convenience and craftsmanship don't come cheap: The standard and most popular three-speed model will set you back around $1,200 _ triple the price of low-end folders by other manufacturers. For true believers, however, their Bromptons are far more than the sum of their 1,200 parts.
"They get really affectionate about their bikes," Rae said with a laugh. "It's more like a pet. Brompton owners have a relationship with their bikes that's pretty extraordinary."