Friday, December 7, 2012

Small Wheels and a Belt Drive: the Moulton TSR2

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
Despite seeing plenty of Moultons, old and new, over the past several years, I cannot get used to the sight of these bicycles. The "spaceframe," resembling an elaborate truss bridge, is like a puzzle that both intrigues and frustrates me. I don't know why, but that is the reaction I have to these bikes. Briefly riding a Moulton two years ago brought me no closer to forming a more defined impression, and it took me until now to work up to trying it again. This Moulton is Jon Harris's personal bike and it is a TSR2 model: featuring a 2-speed kick shift drivetrain with coaster brake and belt drive. 

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
Founded in 1962, Moulton is an English manufacturer that championed the concept of small wheeled bikes. I will not delve into the history here, as I have already done this in an earlier post. You can also read about it on the company heritage page, as well as on the Moulton Bicycle Club website. Today, Moulton bicycles continue to be handmade in Bradford-upon-Avon, England, offering a number of road and city models. [edited to add 10th Dec. 2012: read this morning the sad news that Dr. Alex Moulton, the founder of Mouton Cycles, has died at the age of 92.]

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
Following the original F-frame, the spaceframe design was launched in 1983 after years of research and development. The intent was to create an extremely stiff, performance-oriented frame. The adjustable suspension in the fork and rear triangle was designed to counteract the resultant harshness of ride quality.

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
The combination of frame stiffness and dampening is said to provide a uniquely responsive and comfortable ride.

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
At the top of Moulton's lineup are state of the art racing bikes, but the TSR models are its low-key offerings. The TSR2 is the humblest of them all - deigned as a minimalist, low-maintenance city bike with hub gears and a belt drive.

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
Flat handlebars with single brake lever.

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
V-brakes front and rear. 20" wheels with Continental Contact 37mm tires.

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
TSR frames are separable: Removing a pin in the center allows the frame to disassemble into two halves for ease of transport. While not a folding bike, this feature makes it convenient for travel.

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
I rode the Moulton TSR2 on two separate occasions, several miles each time. Congruent with the manufacturer's description, the bike felt stiff and responsive. Even this 2-speed city model is not a cruiser or a small wheel shopper exactly. The positioning is aggressive, and the handling is similar to that of a roadbike retrofitted with straight handlebars. The adjustable stem makes it easy to change handlebar height, accommodating riders of different sizes. While the fit worked well for me with the handlebars set level with the saddle, I did not like the flat and narrow bars that are standard with the build. But I understand this is possible to change. 

As far as handling, the bike accelerates quickly, holds speed nicely, and is responsive to pedaling effort. Those who like fast and aggressive, yet upright bikes, will enjoy this. The ride quality did not feel harsh on bumpy and pot-hole ridden roads. I could feel the suspension in the front and rear, but could not decide whether it was too much for my taste or just enough. 

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
The TSR2's dropouts are split to accommodate the belt, which cannot be separated the way a bicycle chain can.  This is the now third bike I have test-ridden with a belt drive (see the others here and here). Unlike the previous times, this is a Delta belt drive and not a Gates carbon drive, but in the limited context of the test rides, I was not able to discern any difference. The belt was smooth and quiet. 

The TSR2 is the second bike I have test-ridden with the Sturmey Archer 2-speed kick shift hub (see here for detailed impressions). This hub - also known as the Duomatic - is unusual in that it both brakes and shifts via back-pedaling: You push back lightly to switch gears, and you push back harder to brake. The Duomatic is a lot of fun, though I would not choose it for my own bike. In particular, the coaster brake action does not feel right to me on a bike with positioning and handling as aggressive as the Moulton's. That said, I know others who run this hub quite happily on bikes with drop bars, so it really comes down to personal preferences. 

Moulton TSR2 Belt Drive
The Moulton TSR2 can be accessorised with fenders, as well as custom front and rear racks and bags. Considering it is a city bike, I would have liked to see these features included. This would allow me to get a sense for how convenient it would be to carry my stuff on this bike and what effect the load would have on handling. As is, I have no idea. There are also no provisions for lighting. 

The Moulton TSR models are worth considering for those looking for a compact, small wheel bike that is performance oriented. Handmade in England and famous for their engineering, Moulton bicycles are costly, with TSR models starting at $1,600. My favourite aspects are the compactness, the separable frame, and the handling. Though this bike has become less of a mystery to me, I am still mesmerised and confused by the spaceframe when I see it, unable to decide whether I think it is wonderful or ridiculous. If the opportunity presents itself, I would like to try a Moulton with derailleur gearing and provisions for carrying luggage. Many thanks to Harris Cyclery for this and other Moulton encounters.

42 comments:

  1. "unable to decide whether I think it is wonderful or ridiculous"

    That's easy: does it perform it's function well? If it does, it's wonderful no matter what it looks like!

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    1. It's not the looks I meant, but the concept. The design is an awful lot of trouble to go through to achieve a fairly commonplace goal: frame stiffness without a harsh ride.

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    2. I think the look of the bicycle is its most important feature. For me, the frame is over-engineered, but it is interesting to look at.

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    3. I could not agree more.

      I recently bought a TSR 9 (also from Harris), and I still have this debate on whether the bike is brilliant or ridiculous. It is a delight to ride for all the reasons you mention. Though I'm not sure what functional niche this complicated bike fills that more ordinary bikes do not, other than being peculiar and a cult classic. It's not as if every bike has to be practical.

      Feel free to take my 9 speed TSR for a ride some time...
      http://www.flickr.com/photos/27988383@N06/8242572256/in/photostream

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    4. And I would like to suggest that aesthetics do matter. It's hard to love a bike if you don't like the way it looks.

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    5. Steve - Nice! Are you planning to get racks for it? And are you finding it any different (faster? more responsive?) to ride than a similarly set up normal bike?

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    6. Racks, probably not. While the Moulton racks are nifty, I accomplish the same thing with a large Carradice saddle pack.

      Yes, it's different from a normal bike. The front suspension really makes for a smooth ride, but the down side is that it makes standing pedaling awkward. The steering is really quick and the small wheels give a zippy feel. I would say that it is quick but not necessarily fast. This is a great bike for shorter flatter trips like my 6 mile commute. I prefer a road-ish bike for long or fast rides.

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  2. Last year I built my own small wheel folder based on a Raleigh Twenty frame. I built the rear wheel around the same SA hub, because I didn 't want any cables on this bike.

    I found that riding this bike was rather frustrating: each time I needed to brake, the hub shifted to the other gear. Especially in town, I don 't want to be bothered with all this shifting...

    Didn 't you have the same experience with the Moulton?

    Greetings,
    Karel, Belgium

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    1. I was already familiar with the hub when I tried the Moulton, so I didn't have issues with mis-shifting. But as I explained, I found the coaster-brake action to be at odds with the geometry and handling of the bike. On a laid back Dutch-style bike, I like the coaster brake because it feels that my body is in the optimal position to intuitively use it. On this bike, no.

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    2. These hubs do repay a little practice - you have to think a little bit more like a fixed rider when approaching junctions etc.

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  3. Thanks for introducing the Moulton. £1000/$1600 seems like a lot for a folding bike that dosn't fold. I guess the suspension and belt drive is something you don't get on the Brompton, but then the basic model Brompton is £700. Plus, lets face it the Moulton is an ugly looking thing. My 1k would go elsewhere.

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    1. All Bromptons have a rear suspension with two stiffness configurations.

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    2. I could call the appearance of a Moulton polarizing.

      Moulton and Brompton only have one thing in common - small wheels.

      Other than, they are too different to be compared. Brompton is a superb folder, perfect for a stow away multi mode commute. The Moulton does separate, but it takes while and the pieces aren't small - you wouldn't want to break it up to catch a train to work. With the Moulton, it's more about a clever design and great handling, or something like that.

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    3. As Steve says, the separability of the Moulton is more of an added bonus of the frame design rather than design feature. They are too unwieldy to use as a daily 'folding' commuter but they are really useful if you want to transport them by train or car somewhere. At the end of the day, the Brompton only has one suspension point (licenced from Moulton I think!) and the ride is more tiring over longer distances.

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  4. Personally, I love it. If I had the cash to plunk down for one of these, I would definitely get one, with the fenders and racks though.

    Regarding lighting, just strap on some good lights and call it a day.

    What a neat machine :)

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  5. That double fork... springer, elastomer, or both?

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    1. Kinda looks like both.

      This bike strikes me as a full susser mountain bike: really rigid frame for efficiency, shocks to get the wheels on the ground.

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    2. There's a spring inside the headtube with a greased stopper at the bottom, then at the links at the bottom of the forks are friction damper discs, and this combination creates fully adjustable, dampened suspension. It can be adjusted for stiffness, locked completely, and also adjusted to suit the weight of the rider.

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  6. "Founded in 1962, Moulton [...] pioneered the concept of small wheeled bikes."

    By 1962, the folding bike craze in Europe was already in full swing. Daniel Rebour reported from the bike shows that the new big thing, which was going to save the bike industry, were folding bikes with small wheels that fit inside the trunk of a car.

    Of course, there were pioneers of small-wheeled bikes long before the 1960s, like Vélocio's famous "Trotinette" with roughly 20" wheels, which he rode a lot in the 1920s.

    Moulton was a pioneer, but it's hard to define of what. Perhaps the first post-war maker who combined small wheels with suspension in a bike that had performance aspirations? (The folding bikes were emphatically not designed with performance in mind.)

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    1. Good point. I changed the wording slightly.

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  7. Of course it's eccentric -- it's English.

    The cleanliness of this item suggests it isn't ridden much.

    Please to compare the ride quality and speed to Brompton, is the obvious question. Head to head with Bike Friday would be interesting.

    See where the st wb braze ons are? That is where I suggested you put them for your project.

    So...I head over to Harris' blug and see the Yves and recognized the photography style...then the writing...hey where am I?

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    1. Doing some photography & historical documentation for Harris, and helping with social media stuff till January, I think.

      The Moulton is a recent acquisition, so not ridden much. Jon plans to get fenders for it, and I hope also a rack. His main rides are a Brompton and a vintage Motobecane, single-speedified. He also has Sheldon's old F-frame Moutlon.

      The comparison with Bike Friday would be the most useful one, I think, since they are both said to be performance-oriented and disassemble, though don't fold exactly.

      The Brompton is a completely different animal. The focus is on the fold first, carry capacity second and handling 3rd. Moulton's priorities are the exact opposite. The difference in handling might boil down to a basic low vs mid trail thing, though I feel there is more. I'd like to get my hands on the Moulton's geo, as well as to ride it loaded and for longer before I say more. With the drivetrain and position differences between them, it is not obvious to me which bike is "faster."

      The bottle cage on my proto mixte is on the DT, more on it soon.

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    2. I'm pretty sure the 16" Brommie wheels made it take a momentum hit going into the wind.

      Perhaps 20 inchers are better in this regard.

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    3. Oh yeah the Bike Fridays I've ridden have a horrible ride quality imo, compared to a Soma Mini Velo or Brommie.

      It isn't suspended, so comparing the two speed-wise by feel alone would be pretty much impossible.

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    4. Forgot to mention: One benefit of the Moulton (as well as the other mini-velos) is that their fit is adjustable and you can replace the handlebars with your own. On the Brompton this is not an option, you have to adapt to one of the existing models and the fit is almost always a bit weird.

      I would love to try a Bike Friday, but don't know anyone locally who owns one other than a tandem. Soma has offered to try the Minivelo, so that might happen in the future.

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  8. The bike is interested, but it is the belt drive matched with the duomatic caught my attention.

    Belt drive and coaster brakes make a lot of sense on an urban bike. I've read a number of comments around the web from people who wonder whether a belt is sturdy enough for a coaster. Appears Moulton is not worried.

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    1. I know a few fixed belt drive owners and they've not had problems with that setup; I should think a coaster brake would place a similar amount of stress on the belt?

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  9. I've loved Moultons since I first rode my friend Paul LeMaires MkIII when I was about 15 in the mid '70's. I bought an old Four Speed F frame in Portsmouth NH in '76 or so. Fitted it with drop bars, Marcel Berthet pedals and a Brooks B-17; I could carry four cases of beer on the front and rear racks (that was a long time ago). Later I bought another MkIII. Again fitted with drop bars etc. it was a surprisingly rapid ride. I've since stripped it, rebuilt the forks with an Everest crown, Columbus blades and forged drops, rebuilt the rear triangle similarly,removed and added some braze ons. I have some NOS Milremo 17" rims and a 68 tooth T.A. ring for the project. Maybe someday I'll finish it! :)

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  10. What didn't you like about the handlebars and which would you replace them with?

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    1. They felt too narrow, and the fit/positioning of the bike placed too much pressure on my hands at an awkward angle. I think I would be comfortable with something like this.

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  11. From the desk of Alex Moulton,
    c. late 1950s;

    To do:

    One-
    With fellow engineer, Alec Issigonis, design original automotive chassis layout that will establish a new paradigm to replace the 60 year reign of the Systeme Panhard, inline front engine driving rear wheels, with a transverse front engine driving front wheels.

    Two-
    Design alternative to the classic diamond frame bicycle that held sway from the first 1880s "Safety" model of James Kemp Starley. New model to become beloved of enthusiasts and start heated debates for at least the next fifty years.

    Done and done.

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  12. I just love the look of the Moulton frames. I wish I had the money to buy one. Or even look like I have the money to not feel bad about test riding one.

    I'm very envious of your test ride.

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    1. I would not describe Moulton owners as looking like they have money to buy one. I think you're safe test riding one.

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  13. Why have a hand brake on this bike if the hub has braking capability? Can the hand brake be removed without compromising safety?

    The suspension shock absorbers--I realize they might improve ride quality, but do they also redistribute stress to the frame and preserve its integrity/lifetime (I'm not a structural engineer)?

    I'm just curious; not dissing the bike.

    As for hauling using small bikes: I have a Cannondale Hooligan 8 and have never hauled anything more than me and a sandwich and a windbreaker because it's not tasked for more than that; my wife has a Hooligan 1 which is designed for a rack and she has easily hauled 30 pounds of groceries on it. Of course that takes some mental adjustment. It's doable but not necessarily optimal compared to a larger frame bike.

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    1. Like most bikes, it has both front and rear brakes. The coaster brake is the rear, the handbrake is the front. While there are coaster brake-only bikes out there, the wisdom of that setup is questionable, especially on a fast bike. Also, in some countries and states a bike without a front brake is not road-legal.



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  14. Re your question of whether this bike is wonderful or ridiculous, I think Moultons are pretty neat and such a pure solution to the question of how to get the most from a small wheeled bike.

    I would love to spend a little time on one but can't imagine buying it. Every smooth surface available to me has 5 miles of bad pavement or gravel in the way. While the suspension would make it more bearable I don't think this is the bike for rural messing about. Maybe an ideal machine for, what, 20% of the worlds roads?

    Like the Mini (car) he justly shares the glory of contriving with Alec Issigonis, are these bikes an absolutely superb device for a few things that encourage the besotted to champion for all things? I've spent enough time in and around(and under and leaning over) enough Mini Coopers and the other variants to know that they can slay giants if you very carefully screen your giants beforehand and jump them from ambush. Just leave them at home when you don't have a point to make. Maybe the bikes are the same?

    Spindizzy




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  15. read this morning the sad news that Dr. Alex Moulton has died at the age of 92

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  16. Indeed, a sad day. I first became aware of Moulton bicycles during the early 1970s. My brother brought home a copy of the Whole Earth Catalog, which featured a lengthy feature on Alex Moulton and his revolutionary approach to bicycle design. One quote still sticks with me. He referenced the traditional diamond frame as "a bit of quadrilateral piping." I've never ridden a Moulton, but I think they're cool bikes, designed by a legend. Thanks for the review.

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  17. Sad, I read this (yesterday)) and then read his obituary this morning. See this article for a wonderful picture of the great man whizzing round the grounds of his ancestral home, on one of his bikes, with goggles, looking like Mr Toad from "Wind in the Willows."

    http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/ef313bc8-7a31-11dd-bb93-000077b07658.html#axzz2El1QQKUe

    It has slightly cruelly been said that the Moulton bicycle started from the premise that small wheels are good, and then devised a way to install them (rubber suspension) whose cost, complexity and weight outweighed the marginal benefits of small wheels. I haven't ridden one, so can't really say. But it paved the way for the Brompton.

    People tend to forget that he came from a family that owned a rubber factory (for the benefit of Americans, "rubber' here means the material in general, not the specific item to which you attach that name). To the man with a hammer, every problem looks like a a nail...He is also famous for the suspension (rubber again) which enabled the small wheeled Mini (car) to be practical (see above).

    My parents had a Mini in the 60s, then a Moulton in the 70s. Blissfully unaware of the revolutionary engineering, they thought it would fit both of them. That was just as London's streets became unpleasant for cycling. I've no idea where it went...

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  18. All very interesting. I have both Bromptons and a Moulton. - probably because I am British and eccentric. I also like Apple - and have done from the time when it was regarded as weird. I guess I just don't follow the crowd! Anyway those above who said that you cannot compare the Brompton and the Moulton are not quite right. Of course you can in terms of ride, comfort, speed etc. The Moulton wins on all those counts against the Brompton. The Brompton however is not significantly worse and has that wonderful fold. I find the Moulton frustrating because I cannot fold it! So the Bromptons get the most use but the Moulton is the best ride. I love them all. Horses for courses as they say.

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  19. The TSR is Moulton's most flexible bike, available in several versions and as frame kit. You can add off-the-shelve derailleur, hub and hybrid gears, hub dynamo, fenders and any handle bar. Optional front and rear rack maintain a low center of gravity with luggage. There are frame versions for belt drive, V- and side-pull brakes, the latter depending on the tire clearance you want.

    Riders taller than 185cm AND with short arms may face problems to get the handlebars high enough for an upright position.

    After you have ridden a Moulton for a while you will not want to go back to a clumsy, unsuspended big wheeler with diamond frame.

    Obviously a Brompton folds, but the small, unsuspended front wheel with high pressure tire is a harsh ride, on a soft frame with restricted gearing and fitting options.

    Peter

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