Our mechanic Josh is a fervent utility bicycle enthusiast. Here are some of his personal thoughts and opinions on various cargo and utility bicycles. Enjoy!
Cargo bikes and the Information Revolution
Bicycles that carry stuff have been around for over 100 years. Some of the earliest know examples are the Monark Long John, still in limited production, and the Dutch Bergreijer company, who made various styles of cargo-carrying bicycles. There does however, appear to be a relatively recent “revival” of cargo bicycles (at least in America) throughout the last few years, due to a number of factors. First of all, bicycles in general have been gaining popularity since fuel prices are high and climate concern is high. As Americans, we tend to think “large” and desire to move all about easily, often carrying loads of useful cargo or loads of crap. Either way, we like “stuff” and now more and more of us are looking for ways to carry our stuff by bicycle. This desire is nothing new at all: the traditional Randoneuring and Porteur bikes of France, the Transportfietsen of Holland, the Bakfietsen of Holland, and the Long John of Switzerland, and the Postal bikes of England are all tried-and-true examples of this. One thing that has changed rather recently however, is the way we buy things, and they we gather information-(often misinterpreted as learning) about things. The Internet has changed the way we live in almost every way.
There has always been inferior designs of machinery, low quality products, sales people completely disconnected from what they are selling, and marketing scams in one way or another. The difference now, with the Information Revolution, is that all these things are able to reach many more people much more quickly. One of the results of this is that some shitty products actually get out to quite a few unsuspecting, ill-informed people and a dishonest company makes a profit at the expense of the consumer. How does this happen? Well as said earlier, the way we buy things is different now, the way we gather information is different also. We may look at photographs on the internet and read about them on the internet, gathering information, making decisions, all without ever actually seeing or touching whatever it is we now have all this information about. So in general, there is a growing lack of actual communication, a growing disconnection from all things material, a growing frenzy of confusion, deception, discontent; a growing market for Crap. What follows is my brief review of this phenomenon regarding the recent cargo bike revolution in American Cities.
So let me first introduce myself and explain why I think that what I have to say should even be read: I have been a professional bicycle mechanic for 15 years now, among other things. One of the companies I worked for was The Dutch Bicycle Company (now the DBC). We were one of the first to import the VanAndel (Bakfiets.nl) Bakfietsen and Workcycles “stadsfiets”. This was my first introduction to “real” bicycles, that is: bicycles for every day life, riding to work, etc. I moved with the company to Boston and witnessed first-hand the company’s shift from importing quality bicycles and trikes, into poorly trying to reinvent the wheel with their boring “Swift” city bike. So by this time i was able to ride extensively, the Monark Long John, Cycle truck, Bakfiets,–both long and short, Sorte jerhherst rear-steer trikes, and all of the imported city bikes from Workcycles, Velorbis, and Sogreni. I moved on and rode my fixed-gear bike with a BOB trailer to California. Here I worked in a few different shops and was introduced to the Bilenky cargo bike, and the Extra-Cycle. I performed probably 50 or so Extra-cycle conversions, and thoroughly learned the limits of that idea. Many were very scary to ride! Surly came out with the Big Dummy, an improvement on the idea, and now all the big names make extended rear-triangle models, and Bikes Not Bombs performs sketchy extended rear end conversions for developing countries. Now I work at My Dutch Bike in San Francisco and have come full circle you could say. It is here that I’ve gained the most knowledge about cargo bikes since so many “new” designs have popped up in the last two or three years. I’ve been able to test the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt, the Portland-built Metrofiets, the Double Dutch Birota (which is also called a number of other names under different “brands”, the Human Powered Machines cargo bike made in Eugene, a Puma/Biomega prototype at Interbike, the Fr8 by Workcycles, the Gazelle Cabby, as well as a number of local, hand-made bikes of varying quality and functionality; and I’ve even designed and built my own cargo bike for my girlfriend and I to use for transporting gardening supplies, welding tanks, and other bicycles, since we do not drive or own a car. Lately, I can’t help but notice how many people have TONS of information, but are sadly misled when it comes time to purchase something; I see the marketing game, which the bicycle industry is not alone in. I read all this absolute garbage! on the Mighty Internet–so much MISINFORMATION!–It bothers me that so many frauds, fakes,–people who know nothing about bicycles at all, who care nothing about them at all make a profit selling the unsuspecting public absolute crap. My prediction is this: within 1 year from now, there WILL be a “cargo Bike” available at Wall Mart, Target, and Cost Co. for about $200.00 while across the street at some high-real-estate storefront will be a “Yuppie yup yup hyped-up local, green, local, hand-made, local, made-entirely-by-hand” company selling poorly-functioning “bikes” with popsicle paint jobs for 8 grand.
If there is a goal to this essay, it is just to provide a real, “blue-collar” if you will, general review of the cargo bicycles I’ve personally ridden, and some helpful information about others I either admire and am enthusiastic about, or utterly despise. I feel there needs to be more “informed” information available about cargo bicycles since so many people are now purchasing them who previously were not necessarily “in the know” when it comes to bicycles. I am very passionate about and involved, in may ways with cargo bikes specifically, so I feel that my opinions and thoughts about these bikes can be given some consideration. This brief article is by no means a complete review of all that is available, and will not cover regular city bikes with front racks, touring bikes, porteur bikes, and the like, and will not extensively cover all the different trailers available nor “extend-a-bikes” or so-called conversions, nor trikes.
VanAndel Bakfiets (Bakfiets.nl/Worckcycles)
This is the cargo bike that I have the most experience with, riding them, assembling them, and servicing them. My girlfriend and I had a short one back in Florida and used it everyday. Since real-world bicycle use is almost non-existent in Florida, the bike always gathered tons of attention and positive comments. It really introduced me to the endless capabilities and uses of bicycles. Before this bike, all I ever had to carry things was a BOB trailer. Loaded up to its maximum recommended capacity of 70 pounds the trailer was not very pleasant to use, especially on a Litespeed Vortex racing bike with downtube shifting and a 20/24 spoke wheelset. Keeping the weight below 60 pounds and pulling with a mountain bike or touring bike was very acceptable though. So the Bakfiets, really enlightened me to the ease and comfort of carrying 100 plus pounds regularly. Our bike was equipped with the discontinued 4 speed Nexus hub which was very adequate for our area.
Since then, I have lived in Boston with the same bike, and now live in California and sell the Bakfiets at My Dutch Bike in San Francisco. The frames have since been modified slightly: a larger main tube in place of the old gusset along the bottom, with a very convenient “handle” above the Bottom bracket, strengthening the frame. The rear rack is also changed slightly, though it’s function the same, and in my opinion, these bikes represent a very aesthetically pleasing way to efficiently manufacture a strong, durable cargo frame. The stock gearing is 38 x 22, so first gear is a very small 23 inch gear, reasonably adequate for the majority of people in the Bay Area. Even after importing fees, taxes, euro to dollar conversion, and customs, the bikes are selling at a reasonable price. If you add up the parts, and consider the frame, paint, box, ball joints, 2 oversized cartridge headsets, really long steering tube, steering rod, alloy double-wall rims, 13 gauge stainless spokes, dynamo hub, led lights…the list goes on: the bike clearly costs what the sum of its parts add up to. The one thing I do miss is the internal electrical wire routing of the older frames. Not sure exactly why this stopped, although the wire is still adequately protected with plastic sheathing. Could you build a lighter-weight version of this bike and still have the same load capacity? Sure, but it would take twice as long for the factory to make resulting in a utility bike costing more than most are willing to pay….at the moment. What Azor/VanAndel/Workcycles have done is engineer into a bicycle a perfect blend of practicality, affordability, features, and quality.
Larry Vs. Harry Bullet:
This Danish bike is interesting. There are a few messengers here in SF riding these around in very flashy custom colours. The bike IS very light, although the cargo platform is too narrow in my opinion. Also, I am curios why they did not make it with a lower step-through,(but the general market for these bikes is the rather experienced rider), and loaded down, it is actually easy to mount and dismount in the traditional rolling/ one foot on one pedal / swing the other leg around back way. There is at least one other Brand making an aluminum-framed cargo bike with a lower step through though, but its name escapes me at the moment.
Here is great video highlighting the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt in Copenhagen. Also visible are Sorte Jerhest rear steer trikes.
The thing I DON’T like about the Bullitt and would love to see changed are the ergonomics, the steering geometry, aluminum as the frame material, the exposed drivetrain, no way to mount a rear rack, no wheel lock eyelets, and the smallish cargo area. The steering column should be taller and threaded for use with a 1 1/8” quill stem. The Frame should be Cromoly steel, like the Cetma Cargo bike and others, the top tube should be lower. Any engineer will tell you that aluminum is not nearly as strong as steel and is very soft. In order to make functional bicycle frames that do not break, the tubes have to be thick and large, resulting in a very stiff ride. If the frame flexes enough, over a long period of time, stress fractures are inevitable. Even a small dent in a tube starts to crack after a little while. Aluminum is just not a material for a long-lasting cargo bike. Sure, it’s light, and a equally light steel bike would be even more expensive. I am very interested in seeing how and when these bikes start breaking. Things I like are the look, the colours, and the general Idea of building a faster, lighter, sportier cargo hauler.
Metrofiets Portland Manifest Cargo bike w/ Box:
I absolutely love what Metrofiets is doing in Portland. They join a handful of other cargo bike builders there, among them are Joe Bike and Tom LaBonty. As much of a fan I am of the Metrofiets Ideal, I was not impressed with their bike. It rode like a wet noodle,–gobs of lateral flex and it had no load in it whatsoever. The steering feel was very heavy and stiff since they don’t use heim joints but bolts with a nylon/or polyurethane sleeve, and the front wheel is quite large at 24 inches. The bike itself was huge and seemed just as heavy as the VanAndel bakfiets but included no rear carrier. The Metrofiets box, while made very well, was a little small, especially for how large the bike is. I am also not a fan of disk brakes on a bike for everyday use in the real world, nor exposed drive chains. As a metal worker, I also do not particularly like seeing welds that are ground down to be smooth and then, there still being pinholes in the weld bead visible even through thick powdercoat. Aesthetically, the smooth welds are appropriate, especially with the overall look and impression of these bikes, but I feel a little more time could be spent cleaning them up. The parking stand was also not very functional at all. Pretty, sure, but style shouldn’t interfere with function this much. It was rusting where it touches the ground: the paint having been scrapped off long ago and the steel being worn down; the hinges were rusting and squeaking as well. I had the pleasure of talking with Metrofiets over the phone and was assured all these issues were being taken care of in their new “production version” of their frames. I was told that this particular bike was made to be light-weight for the cargo bike race. Well, it wasn’t that light, and I am not sure how long that main tube can flex that much without finally yielding in one way or another. I mean, there was no weight at all in the bike and I felt like I was riding a leaf spring. The production bikes will still have disk brake mounts, but they can build you whatever you want also, –and I am a huge fan of Sachs drum, Sturmey 90mm drum, and Shimano IM-70 roller cam brakes for avoiding cars slamming on their disk brakes in the bike lane or opening their doors into the lane just as you approach at full speed. Sure, hydraulic disks are very powerful, able to stop on a dime as your pinky accidentally hits the brake lever on a bump. But not only is the cost too high, for both the actual parts and also the extra fabrication necessary on the bicycle frame, but maintanance and repair costs are higher and not as straight-forward for the average person trying to get to work, school, and the super market. And even more importantly: are the 2 wheels structurally up the task of violently stopping a 500-600 pound machine? Also rotors get contaminated and become damaged rather easily. The Metrofiets shop looks very nice and rustic, but you will notice a very limited amount of tooling. While that’s very admirable and impressive –that they build the frame by hand with so few expensive/large tools– the result is it takes a really long time to build, thus the price and the waiting list. In My Opinion they should beef the frame and fork up where it needs it in order to handle drum/roller brakes; ditch hydraulic disks altogether and just use slick, compressionless cables and housing; ditch the sliding rear dropouts and just use normal horizontal fork ends with axle tugs to reduce cost and things to go wrong; offer chaincases; use Heim joints on the steering linkage, or at the very least use sealed ball joints; and use a threaded steerer on the steering column. Put rubber feet on the parking stand, and don’t paint the hinges! –use plating or stainless, or bronze bushings or something. Using two steering rods on either side of the bike will also greatly reduce/eliminate bump-steer,–inevitable using a single linkage and a flexible frame. While vertical compliance in a bike frame is a plus, there is a limit where the bike will begin to wallow through turns, sway as you pedal, etc. These bikes will only get better, I’m sure, and I wish them the best of luck. Their colours are very nice as well as their cargo bay rails and detailing. I can’t wait to test one of their newer frames.
Monark/Velorbis Long John : My initial impression of this bike was an aesthetic one. It looks tough, industrial and classic. It looks like it was designed a long time ago because it was. I don’t exactly remember but i believe it has a very low trail steering design, which caters well for heavy loads, but unloaded takes a little getting used to. I also feel, they cost quite a bit of money in relation to the components actually on the bike, and the craftsmanship. This is to be expected however, since they are imported across an ocean, which isn’t cheap at all. The rear rack and is insanely sturdy. I would love to own a vintage Long John one day, but the reintroduced ones seem a little dated. There are better options available these days, though the bike itself is not bad by any means.
Cetma cargo bike:
This looks like a wonderful work bike, which I haven’t had the pleasure to ride myself just yet. The frame design looks perfect for what the bike is for: pure function and strength, but also bi-partable for low shipping costs and Amtrak transport. But again, we have disk brakes and an exposed drivetrain. This bike would be great for regular heavy use if you don’t mind a bit of regular maintanance, and the risk of damaged brake rotors. This is what I consider a better version of the Monark, design-wise, but it still needs drum brakes and a sealed drivechain….I’m sure Cetma can build you what you want however, but don’t expect the price to be any less than a Monark or a Metrofiets.
BioMega/Puma Cargo Bike
Here is another aluminum cargo bike…..I don’t have much good to say about this bike other than the handling is pretty good,–disregarding the harsh ride of the aluminum frame and the stupidly-long-reach threadless stem; and the decent quality heim joints on the steering linkage. But hmmmm, no rear carrier mounts; Shitty v-brakes, shitty wheels, shitty disraeli gears, unneccasarily high stand-over/step-through height, extremely small/useless cargo area, regular side/kickstand, yada yada yada. Not worth your money or another word. I will out “Period” though.
Chinese Cargo Bikes (Birota, Double Dutch, Zeitbikes, Babboe)
I started working with steel a few years ago, welding, brazing, cutting, bending, building, etc. Needless to say, I’ve learned a ton about various types, kinds, and grades of steel and What it all Means in the real world. To sum it up, whatever “metal” the Chinese use to build their bikes out of is soft, weak, and full of impurities. I know this first hand: you can cut through a Chinese Bakfiets with a dull hacksaw blade installed backwards in about 30 seconds. Then, you will notice that the inside of the frame tube has a thick coat of bright orange rust, even though the bike is brand spanking new. If you try to weld the two halves back together, good luck: all the impurities burn off and instead of a nice molten puddle of steal to weld with you are left with a gaping hole since all that wasn’t steel just went into your lungs if you weren’t wearing a respirator. So is it even necessary to go further and waste time talking about the shitty components installed on the frames? Or the thoughtless “design” of the frames? The amount these bikes are selling for will not last, but these bikes will always be available, and some schmuck will make money for nothing. Flying Pigeon bikes are still made and still sell, why? Because you can get them for about 200$ new. Expect any Chinese cargo bike to cost anywhere from 300.00 – 600$ depending on the rear hub in the next couple of years. Meanwhile, the CEOs of these companies are buying their retirement/hide-out retreats in Florida.
Great for child-specific duties. Also good when you have an oversized vehicle in a one-car garage since the cargo bay folds up to reduce its impact on the crowded environment. I think the designers had fun with this bike given that it has lots of swoopy lines and those lines are not entirely function-less. If you like the modern look, than you might like this bike. Lots of plastic though, and the sub-3,000 price comes with a price: frame is made in China. The Cabby differs from other Chinese cargo bike however: it is tig-welded, to a rather good standard. The frames are also very straight, and I have yet to see rust on a brand-new Gazelle.
Human Powered Machines Long Haul:
These bikes have been around for a long time and I am intrigued by their frame design. There is a local courier company that uses one of these with a waterproof, lockable container. The bikes are surprisingly light and a close look at the frame design shows very smart details and execution. A fine example of a hand-made-In-USA cargo bike. Still missing are the practical “Dutch” elements like hub brakes, enclosed chain, wheel lock, etc. Overall too, this is a great company doing lots of good things. Check them out at the Center For Appropriate Transport in Eugene.
Francis Small Haul:
If I was someone who gave Awards for bicycle Design, I would give First place to Joshua Muir of Francis Cycles down in Santa Cruz for his Small Haul. Obviously not for everyone nor for heavy cargo, but deffinitly useful, and in my Opinion absolutely Beautiful! Totally impractical as a “production Bike” due to the amount of connections and detail in the steel frame, but that is part of the beauty of this Small Cargo bike. I really want to try one of these out soon. There has been at least one very crude copy of this bike and it is downright ugly. Joshua Muir is an etremely talented craftsman, and his Small Haul is among the handful of truly innovative modern designs, (not that cable steering is anything new however)–but appropriately executed on the Small Haul. The bike I am probably most excited about riding one day.
Bikes At Work Trailers, and Black Oak Fabrications trailers: industrial and heavy-duty trailers that work. Not super convenient for regular every-day use but for specific loads and irregular use are practical.
Workcycles FR8, Universal Frame:
The Design, Craftsmanship, and Detail execution are superbe on this bike. Very few production bikes have the little useful details properly executed, in such an elegant and practical package. I think this may be the “Heaviest Duty” regular bicycle (without extended steering) there is, not exactly sure about that though. Flex in this bike is non-existent until you have more than 200 pounds on it plus yourself, leading me to believe its carrying capacity has got to be somewhere around 350-400 pounds plus 200 pound rider. The tig welding is above average for a production bike as well as the overall frame alignment and placement/fitment of all attachments. Very few bikes available are as interchangeable as this bike. In fact, I don’t think any proper “city/utility” bike is as modular. Sure, there are lighter-duty bikes out there, which may be slightly more suitable for some lightweight people carrying lighter loads less frequently, but the bike is called the FR8 for a reason. You don’t call freight trains cargo trains.
A description of the bike can be summed-up in one sentence: It succesfully blends the best elements of the traditional Dutch Tranportfiets, and the traditional Baker’s bike, deli bike or truck bike (whatever you want to call a bike with a smaller front wheel and very low front rack with a single steering column) and throws in modern materials and components, insane modularity, with vastly improved ergonomics, significantly increasing the bike’s versatility over anything previously made.
Bilenky Cargo Bike: David Wilson Industries(DWI) “Borracho”-600 pound capacity!; Kemper Filibus cargo bike; ANT “frontaloadontome” :
I lump these all together only because they share a similar basic design element. There are other brands of this style as well, such as Kronan and DeFietsfabrik. But these are less likely to be available easily here in the states. This design (that of placing the cargo area higher-up and shortening the wheelbase) has quite a few advantages over other larger bikes, and if the steering geometry is appropriate, are some of my favorite types of cargo bikes to ride out in the harsh World of Reality. I have heard a few people say that they are a compromised design, easier/cheaper to manufacture, and suffer from poor handling and instability due to the high center of gravity. Well all this is mumbo jumbo (but they are slightly easier/less expensive to build generally speaking). The design of the bike has the ability to be extremely strong, nimble, and efficient, and the shorter wheelbase provides instant feedback when negotiating rush-hour traffic. If the geometry is correct, you do not Lean these bikes as much in the corners, you just shove or crank the bars in the direction of the turn. The weight therefore, ends up actually leaning at less of an angle, but since it is higher up moves off-center in the direction of the turn about as much as a lower cargo bed leaning more in the same turn, which is what you feel,–and all that matters. This type of bike is able to be carried easily up stairs if it is not over-built and can be taken on public transportation much easier than a longer bike. Drawbacks: not the best for child carrying and/or for timid, weak, small riders, although perfectly acceptable. They are more aggressive in my opinion, require maybe more attention and input as far as steering/braking, etc. But have larger payload capacities. The traditional long Bakfiets, or the Monark Long John and the Metrofierts gets pretty flexy and slightly unpredictable once you have 200 plus pounds in there plus yourself, mostly due to the single-sided steering linkage and the long wheelbase. These shorter cargo bikes are very fun to ride….In My Opinion.
This design, like the Extra-Cycle, and various other extend-a-bikes seams like a passing fad to me. I mostly see people carrying two children on the back platform, or groceries, sometimes a large ladder or box, but then additional “counter-weight” on the other side. The drive chain ends up needing to be very long, necessitating rollers and/or varying kinds of tensioning /anti-deraillment devices further adding drag, wear, and things to go wrong. I have yet to find any “old” photos of bikes with this design. If anyone finds any, please share them and let me know! Then MAYBE I would consider reconsidering them as nothing more than a 10 to 20 year-long fad in bicycle design. I was stupefied one day about a year ago when somebody came into the shop carrying two bikes, one on either side of their extra-cycle rear end. The customer carried one bike into the shop for service, and I assumed both because, why carry two right? When I asked about the other bike, carried four miles on their extra-cycle, they said it wasn’t being dropped off, but was counter-weight to balance the repair bike. “well what is your counter weight now” I asked since they just dropped off one bike for repair. “no need, I’m just going to ghost ride it home” “ok, I thought, why didn’t you just ghost ride the repair to the shop?” this was a silent question to self since as I was asking myself the question I realized some people just like to be noticed riding their bike(S).
If you want a lower-quality and lower-priced ice-cream cart than Workcycles offers go here, (or if you prefer to “buy American” just because it seems like the right thing to do). They also have low quality and low price-point trikes and American-style cruisers. I have built-up and ridden a few of their lugged truck bikes with 20” front wheel, 26” rear and huge front carrier from the ‘60s and while over-built (heavy!) was of decent quality. Expect cheap unsealed bearings, thin chrome, poor paint, sloppy welding, etc these days though.
Various Prototypes in the works from around the world for your entertainment:
When looking to buy a cargo bicycle or ANY piece of heavy-use machinery for that matter, go with stuff that has stood the test of time. Any “brand-new” design or company is hit or miss, mostly miss. You get what you pay for usually, except when reffering to those Chinese “cargo bikes” for $1600 or less: in this case you are getting screwed and are really getting something worth about 500.00 and that’s only because you might be able to find some schmuck on craiglist willing to pay that much for it used.
Carrying multiple children in urban and rural areas distances under 20 miles is still accomplished best in either the VanAndel Short Bakfiets or Joebike Shuttlebug. Second place comes the Long bakfiets or the Fr8, since these can actually carry three or more children. If you want custom colours like the “hand-built” versions, most shops would not charge more than 400 dollars for a single powdercoat colour, so the final price of a production bike with custom paint can still come in below the hand-built bikes, and with more useful features for the Real World like built in lock, good parking stand, hub brakes, enclosed chain, etc. for longer distances and/or “sport riding” with children a Francis Small Haul is the hot shit.
For cargo carrying specifically, it largely depends on your needs. The Bilenky cargo bike, the Cetma Cargo bike, the Human Powered Machines Long Haul the Fr8, or the Borracho are all top choices. However an actual vintage Dutch Transportfiets would gain you some retro-groutch/bike snob/cool points.
For carrying dogs and groceries, or a bicycle camping trip I think the Francis Short haul wins since you can blast down a fire road on the way to the store…Speaking of store, the Short Bakfiets is great compared to the long for extremely crowded super market Bicycle parking.
bicycle camping trips, touring etc is still best with BOB trailer, Bilenky cargo bike, or Francis small haul. Traditional French-style touring bikes are great, but not really the focus of this article. Francis wins for style and innovation of course.
If looking purely for style and a certain retro aesthetic, Metrofiets hopefully has that covered, as well as Marktplaats.nl if you’re looking for a winter project.
All in all, there is not much that is really “New” as far as utility bicycles are concerned. Planetary gears both in the hubs and bottom bracket, generator lighting, bamboo frames, full suspension, folding bikes, etc.–it’s very easy to find examples of these things on bikes older than your grandmother. Luckily, the bicycle does keep getting refined slightly and slowly, as the years go by, but innovation? Rare. Creativity? Sure, but how does it translate into something we will use without thinking about it just because it’s so easy?
If you’d like see some real creative innovation, both very useful as captivating entertainment and technical amazement, but also mechanically fluid and beautiful, check this out.
If you find something that can compete with that in the Game of “modern bicycle design and innovation” please let me know!