Bridgestone Moulton UK Version Road Test

first saw the Bridgestone Moulton in September 2000 at the club weekend event, when I was asked to take some photographs of Dr Moulton with the bike for the catalogue. The bike hadn’t been launched at the time, and was kept out of sight of other visitors, and I was under a VERY strict non-disclosure agreement, and it was not until news leaked out in Japan that I was able to publish anything on these web pages. The public launch was a couple of months later in Japan, but it hasn’t been available elsewhere (apart from a few ‘grey imports’) until now. I tested a prototype at the factory at Bradford on Avon about a year after the launch (see the report in these pages), and a number of people have been able to try these bikes at subsequent club weekends.

When Shaun Moulton telephoned in early July 2003 to tell me that the Bridgestone Moulton was just being launched in the UK, almost my first question was “When can I do a test?”. The first two bikes were already set up and committed for testing by ‘Cycling Plus’, but fortunately they were not due to be collected for about a week, so I managed to arrange to go down to Bradford on Avon and test them before they went to ‘Cycling Plus’.

lWhen Dr Moulton was originally asked to design a new version of the Moulton for Bridgestone in Japan, he was confronted with the problem of what approach to take – should it be a further development of the New Series, or something different? Over the years, a number of people have commented that they would like a modern version of the classic F-Frame Moulton of the 60’s and 70’s, and in the end this was the path chosen by Dr Moulton for the Bridgestone Moulton. The Bridgestone Moulton may look, superficially, very like the old F-Frames, but it is a completely new machine, and the appearance is really the only link with the past – the frame is now aluminium, the wheels are 17 inch rather than 16 inch, the front and rear suspensions are quite different, and 9-speed derailleur gears are standard.

In the UK, the Bridgestone Moultons are built to order at the Alex Moulton Bicycles factory at Bradford on Avon. The frames of course come from Bridgestone, but component specification and assembly is done at Bradford on Avon. There are two models available –  a separable, which has flat bars and is finished in a slightly metallic/pearly white colour for the main frame, and graphite for the forks and mudguards., and a fixed frame sports model, with dropped bars and finished entirely in a bright, slightly metallic, red. A rear carrier is standard on both models, though no bag is supplied.

As the bikes are built to order, the choice of gearing can be made to suit the individual. The rear cassette and hub are from Shimano’s new Capreo range, which is specifically intended for small-wheeled bicycles, and thus offers exceptionally small sprockets. Two options are available on the cassette at present – a 9-26 (9, 10, 11, 13, 15, 17, 20, 23 and 26) or 9-28 (only the largest sprocket changes in this case, from 26 to 28). A further option of a 9-32 may be available later – I believe that it is only the largest 2 or possibly 3 sprockets which would differ. The test bikes had been built for Cycling Plus with the 9-26 option, and I was quite happy to use this for my two day test, though I might go for the 9-28 myself, with the ‘granny’ gear for emergencies! Although a 9-32 range sounds attractive, I’m not sure how well it would work out in practice, with the extra range being achieved just through widening the gaps in the bottom couple of gears. Chain ring size is also a matter of personal choice – Cycling Plus had asked for the bikes with the largest 62-tooth ring (giving a gear range of about 40 to 116 inches). To my great relief Shaun Moulton offered to change the rings to something more appropriate for me, and I decided on a 44 (a LOT smaller, to suit my riding style and lack of strength), which gave me gears of 28.6, 31, 37.2, 43.7, 49.6, 57.2, 67.6, 74.4 and 82.6 inches. The ideal for me would probably be the 46 tooth ring and 9-28 cassette, riving gears of 27.8, 32.4, 38.9, 45.7, 51.8, 59.8, 70.7, 77.7 and 86.4 inches. For the test, only a rather large metal chain guard was available, which, as the pictures showed, rather dwarfed the actual chain ring. No multiple chain ring version is available, so there is no front derailleur or mounting. I tried VERY hard to provoke the chain to come off during the tests, deliberately changing up into top gear while riding over bumps, but the chain stayed firmly in place throughout.  Bikes with derailleurs and a single chain ring, with no front mechanism, can be prone to dropping the chain, a problem which particularly afflicted the old AM7- the special chain keeper on the single chainring New Series, and also available for the AMs overcomes this. The fitting of an outer chain guard ring usually helps, and with the very oversized one on the test bikes there seemed no problem. In practice, with such a small chainring a smaller guard would be needed, as on the test the chain would occasionally knock the guard while changing gear, or on bumps – a slightly annoying clatter, but no effect on performance. The chainrings were replaced to my requirements at less than a day’s notice, which is the only reason that the rather over sized guards had to be used, so I’d like to emphasize that I’m very grateful to the factory for not only making the bikes available at such short notice, but also changing the rings, and the fact that they had to use the large guards at this stage isn’t meant as a criticism. k

Both bikes were fitted with quite long handlebar stem forward extensions – as has been commented in previous tests, the bike feels quite short, with the bars rather close to the rider, and the longer handlebar stem compensates for this. On the separable bike, with flat bars, the stem could be adjusted fro angle, allowing the rider to make some adjustment for reach, while the non-separable with dropped bars had a fixed reach stem, but with the very useful feature that the stem can be changed without removing the grips, levers etc from the handlebars. The handlebar width on the separable was almost ideal for me without bar-end extensions, but as I would prefer to fit these, to give an alternative riding position, and to give an optional longer reach position, I’d perhaps prefer an extra 2cm on the length. Graham McDermott, who also tried this bike, though the bars a bit narrow. The dropped bars of the sports model were a bit on the wide side for me – I still particularly like the rather narrow drops of my original AM7, and find all modern drops seem to wide for me. I did not investigate the range of size adjustments fully, but it should be possible for people much shorter than myself (about 5ft 7in, 1.7m) to lower the saddle to suit them, and there appeared to be plenty of upward adjustment as well. [I did take quite a lot of measurements while I had the bikes, but unfortunately the file containing the data got overwritten when I synchronised my personal organiser when I got home – very annoying!]

Back to the gears: on the flat-barred separable, a Rapidfire changer is fitted, and is as convenient and smooth in operation as these excellent devices always are. A bar-end shifter is used on the dropped bar non-separable – personally, I’ve never liked these, but it worked effectively. As with all modern derailleurs with lots of ratios, setting cable length is a bit critical, but once this has been done the indexed gears operated beautifully – very precise, clean changes.

Both the test bikes were fitted with Shimano Ultegra components, apart from the Capreo rear hub and sprockets. Production versions of the separable will use the Shimano 105 range and Capreo rear hub and sprockets. Although these aren’t quite to the standard of Ultegra, they are widely used and have a very good reputation as robust, medium priced components which perform well, and I would be quite happy with them myself. The separable frame is of course more expensive than the non-separable, and the use of the cheaper components will compensate for this and allow both bikes to be sold at the same price (£1600 including VAT – more on price later).

The rear brake and gear cables pass through the main frame member on both bikes, though on the separable they enter further back, in the rear part of the frame, with the familiar barrel connectors to allow the cables to be split when the frame is separated. The joint is very similar in principle to the original Stowaway joint, though  much more robust, and it is secured by an allen screw from the top. Two allen keys are mounted on the bike, at the front of the carrier – easy to reach, but perhaps rather an open invitation for theft. The one used to secure the frame joint is long to allow the joint to be tightened properly – inadequate tightening of the joint was the main cause of problems with the joint on the old Stowaway. Unfortunately the length means that it can’t be spun round as it hits the frame, so short strokes are necessary, and the other end of the key is a different size. Shaun Moulton is already looking into a slightly different key which would have the same key at both ends, so that the long lever can be used to ‘break’/do the final tightening of the joint, and it can be reversed and spun for the rest of the operation.

The rear carrier fitted as standard is a reasonably robust design, but, to my mind, a slightly awkward size – much bigger than the day-bag carrier of the AM/NS ranges, but much smaller than the bigger racks of these models. You could mount an AM day bag on it, though it would only occupy about half the rack size. I used a Lowepro Photo Runner bag, which fitted very nicely, though as it isn’t meant for job, I had to use a crude bungee to secure it, which made opening and closing a bit awkward. Bridgestone’s catalogue from Japan shows a medium sized bag for the rear rack, which can be expanded upwards to give a bit more capacity. There also seems to be a rather smaller, flatter rear bag. Shaun Moulton will be looking at bags for the carrier in the near future, and one or more UK designs will probably result. There is an option of a front carrier for the bike – this looks quite similar to the front rack of the old F-frame and AM, though the mounting method is slightly different. The Japanese catalogue shows a bag very similar to the expanding rear bag mounted on it – in fact, it might even be the same bag. The Japanese catalogue also shows a carry bag for the separable – the illustration appears to show both parts of the bike in the same bag, with the handlebars turned through 90 degrees, the pedals removed and the seat pillar at the lowest position.

The mudguards are of course standard. Rather surprisingly, they are metal rather than plastic. They are quite narrow and shallow, and I’m not sure how effective they would be in wet conditions – fortunately for me in all respects the weather was magnificent for both test days – dry, hot and sunny, and as there had been no major rainfall for some days beforehand, roads and tracks were completely dry. I was more concerned about the clearances though. There is no question of this preventing fitting of other tyres, as with the 17 inch wheels we don’t have any larger tyres to choose from, just the Bridgestone (IRC) ones fitted to these bikes, or the Continental, which closely resembles the original Wolber tyre externally, and which I prefer. The clearance between tyre and mudguard looks rather close, especially at the rear where it passes under the brakes. However, the strut s which secure the mudguards are attached to the mudguards by nuts and bolts, which means that there is quite a large nut reducing the clearance still further at two point. Mud or grit easily accumulates around these in dirty conditions, and causes jamming – a problem which many AM owners, and still more Brompton owners, must be familiar with. After many initial moans, I’m happy to say that New Series Moultons are now much better in this respect, though of course still only able to take two rather skinny tyres. Apparently the latest mudguards on the AM series have been reshaped to provide better clearances (I forgot to look at these during the visit), and the possibility of using these instead of the Japanese ones is going to be investigated.

I took a lot of measurements of the bike during my visit, but unfortunately I made the mistake of synchronsing my personal organiser as soon as I got home, and for once the synch seems to have done entirely the wrong thing, and has overwritten the file containing these dimensions with the earlier version which had the list of dimensions I wanted to measure, but no values! One figure I do remember, and which will be of particular interest, is the weight. The non-separable bike was measured as being 26 pounds (11.8Kg). This includes the mudguards, rear rack, (Terry) saddle and pedals. As a real, road-ready, weight this is quite reasonable – the separable is likely to be slightly over half a pound heavier (0.25Kg).

On the road

I’m sure that what most readers are interested in is how the bike performs on the road – specs and theory are interesting, but it’s the end result that counts. You will also have noted that I’ve scarcely mentioned the suspension yet either – and that’s because I think that it is the way that it performs which really matters. Anyway, the operation of the suspension is fairly obvious – a block of rubber which is compressed at the rear, and a compressing suspension medium at the front. Both front and rear suspension are different from previous Moulton models, and crucially the UK Bridgestone Moultons have a modified front suspension compared with that on the original Japanese models. The Japanese bikes have an elastomer front suspension medium within the steering tube, but the UK models have had this modified to a combination of elastomer-coil spring-elastomer, which reportedly improves the performance significantly
Photograph: Front suspension – note the lower mounting for a front rack just above the suspension on the main frame. The upper mounting uses the bottle bosses – one set mounted further up the front tube.

I rode the bikes four times in the Bradford on Avon area, with rides in much the country that we cover at the club weekend runs, including visits to Lacock. As well as covering a variety of road surfaces, from billiard table smooth main roads to rough country lanes, roads with damaged top dressing, potholes etc, and I also covered a substantial distance on the Kennet and Avon canal towpath. Under all these conditions I found the suspension coped admirably. It feels moderately hard suspension if you just lean on the bike at rest, but in practice it is highly effective at insulating you from the road (or track) surface. In fact, after two days of use I came to the conclusion that it performs as well as, or better than, that of any of the other Moulton models, including the NS. The front suspension is moderately firm, with less obvious movement than on a NS, and without the sometimes excessive movement of the AM, especially when stopping and dismounting. It is perhaps nearest to the APB in terms of hardness, but it is much smoother, without the stiction and noise. It handles both major bumps and minor surface damage exceptionally well. Though the rear suspension may be quite hard, it too seems to provide a high degree of immunity from all sorts of road and track conditions. Overall, I felt more comfortable on this bike than any of my other Moultons and I felt less need to steer away from any sort of obstacle, or reduce speed, than on any of my other bikes except the full suspension Marin mountain bike with long suspension travel and very wide knobbly tyres! On the towpath, admittedly exceptionally dry on this occasion, and with a pretty good surface, it felt entirely at home, though of course the narrow, high pressure tyres did struggle rather on a couple of short stretches with deeper, loose, larger pebbly gravel surface. At one stage I encountered major road resurfacing work near Melksham –  one of these operations where they have gouged away the top surface leaving a very rough surface prior to resurfacing. I barely felt the need to slow down at all (I had to do so a bit, as the motor vehicles were going slowly though), and I don’t think I would have felt as confident or comfortable in these conditions on any of my other bikes, except the cumbersome Marin mountain bike. (The Marin, in contrast to the Moulton, would have felt horribly sluggish when back on a reasonable road surface). Apart from conditions where the tyres are the limiting factor, I’d rate it as better than the APB in terms of suspension and ride, and on good surfaces, I felt the ride was better for me than an AM, and perhaps even better than an NS. I weigh just under 9 stone (126 pounds, 57.2Kg), so I’m quite light. Graham McDermott also tried the separable model, and I think it is fair to say that he is quite a lot heavier than I am. He too thought the suspension was outstanding, so I don’t think that it is just a good ride for lighter people – in fact, as if anything the suspension seems quite firm, it might be that heavier riders will be even more favourably impressed.

Addendum: There is no provision for any adjustment of the suspension by the user – no damping adjustment of the kind used on the AM models at the front, air pressure adjustment used at the rear of the NS, or the lock-out of the front suspension of the NS. For most riders in normal use I don’t think this really matters, though for high speed riding the lock-out of the NS, which prevents bouncing when riding very vigorously, might be useful (but this probably isn’t the way these models would normally be used anyway). [My thanks to Marco Schuett for reminding me to comment on this aspect of performance – this was another thing that I had put into my PDA, and which got lost when I synchronised it!]

In terms of suspension, both the bikes I rode felt identical, but curiously they felt very different in some other respects. Both felt very stiff, with no sign that I could detect of any frame flexibility, and the separable version was not in any way inferior in this respect to the non separable. However, despite the fact that the gearing and all the componentry was the same, I felt much happier on the separable bike – it seemed to run much more freely and I seemed able to pull at least one higher gear. There was absolutely nothing wrong with the non-separable bike, and if anything I would have expected to have found the non-separable bike, with its marginal weight advantage, the more fun bike to ride, and I’m entirely used to riding on dropped bars, but although the non-separable performed well, it was the white separable bike that excelled for me. I guess it can only come down to minor aspects of riding position – perhaps partly the rather wide, for me,  drops of the non-separable, and the less convenient bar end shifter, but the separable was definitely the machine that I preferred.

I rode the non-separable bike once (30Km), and the separable three times (50Km, 25 Km and 40Km). Graham McDermott rode the separable once, mainly on the Kennet and Avon towpath. Both of us climbed the steep drive from The Hall comfortably in third gear – I was so impressed by this (I would have expected to have been in second, or even bottom) that I did wonder whether higher gearing might be more appropriate. Therefore I deliberately picked a very hilly ride for my early morning outing (5:30am) on the second day, taking Jones Hill out of Bradford on Avon and then riding our towards Freshford. I was glad of the lowest gears for this ride, but nevertheless I’d rate the bike as a good climber, and I felt that the range of gears provided was entirely adequate for my needs, even though there is only a single chainring. For my final ride on the second day, I deliberately took the road giving a long, steep descent in Lacock – no doubt familiar to those who have attended the Moulton Bicycle Club weekends in the past. I’m not a very brave rider, so my descent was not particularly fast, and I certainly used the brakes, but the bike felt very stable and inspired confidence. And on the subject of brakes, these felt very powerful, and were quite light in operation – I could not wish for anything better.

Both bikes were very free running – especially the separable. In these conditions the Bridgestone tyres performed perfectly, though personally my preference in the past has been for the Continental, especially on loose and/or damp surfaces.

Conclusions

When Shaun Moulton agreed to let me go down to Bradford on Avon to test the bikes, my initial enthusiasm was tempered by a concern that I rather expected to deliver a lukewarm report. Retro-styling has no great appeal for me (but neither does some modern styling, or anything in which styling triumphs over engineering and performance), and I expect to end up concluding that the Bridgestone Moulton was a nice bike, but that I preferred the NS, AM or the APB. After using these two bikes quite extensively for two days, I’ve had to revise my ideas. Perhaps I should not have had doubts – a bike engineered by Dr Alex Moulton may well take style into account, but good engineering will be the crucial feature, and even if there are aspects of some models which some riders would do differently , there is no doubting the excellence of the designs.

The suspension and ride of the Bridgestone Moulton is superb, and gears, brakes and everything else perform beautifully. The combination and range of gears available with the Capreo hub and sprockets and a single chain ring should be quite sufficient for most purposes, and a single ring avoids the additional weight and complexity which inevitable come with a second ring. Furthermore, with a second ring you don’t really get many more useful gears anyway – some may regard the single ring as a limitation, but it certainly doesn’t concern me.

Of the two bikes I tried, the separable one would certainly be the one I would choose. Apart from the advantage that it would fit in the back of the Smart quite easily, the very small weight penalty is worth paying for the extra versatility – and that’s from someone who is well know as being rather fanatical about saving weight. There seems no less rigidity in the frame. Both the bikes I tested had Shimano Ultegra components (apart from the Capreo rear hub and cassette), but the normal production versions of the separable will be fitted with the slightly heavier, more modestly priced 105 equivalents. This compensates for the extra frame cost of the separable, and means that the selling price of both models will be £1600. All sales, at least at present, will be direct from the Alex Moulton factory.

So is the Bridgestone Moulton good value, and which Moulton is the best buy? I’m not going to answer that – it entirely depends on what YOU want, and it is entirely pointless for me to try to give you a judgment which would be based on my own requirements, or my understanding of one imaginary individual’s requirements. You have to make your own decision. The price may be quite high, but the cost may not be – if it does what you want, it will last many years, give much pleasure, and will probably retain a good resale value, so it will be good value. At present, the range of luggage and carriers for the UK has not been finalised, and so there is a bit of a question mark regarding its use for even light touring (more than a couple of days away). Even with a large chain ring, I’d doubt that the sport version would be the ultimate racing machine – but I really don’t think it is meant to be. The APB range still offers the most versatility in terms of luggage carrying and tyre range, and at quite modest prices, with the AM offering good on-road touring capacity and refinement. The Bridgestone Moulton is a valuable addition to the model options, and I was very impressed by its performance under test, and I thoroughly enjoyed my two days riding both models. Many thanks to Shaun Moulton for providing the bikes and for his support, and also to Graham McDermott who provided me with accommodation, and who also took part in the testing.