Searching for an errand-running bike

As I mentioned in my previous post, I came back from our year in Copenhagen wanting a bike that I could use for practical, day-to-day errands.  I don’t need to haul huge loads or impress people with my environmental virtue.  But to really reduce my daily car trips, I need to get a week’s worth of groceries or a 5th-grader up a pretty steep hill.

Motorized trikes

At first, I was convinced that a motor-assisted tricycle was the answer.  In particular, I was looking at a Cycles Maximus trike.  This company has been around for a long time, and the trike is built like a tank.  I saw one photo of a guy hauling a washing machine up a hill!  I pictured my whole family getting cozy in the rickshaw, allowing us to do even family outings using pedal-power.

However, our city of Bellevue has very narrow bike lanes, when they exist at all.  The trike is too wide to fit on a sidewalk, so our only choice would be to block traffic.  Top speed for this trike would be less than 15 m.p.h.  Antagonizing drivers doesn’t seem like a good strategy to promote biking as a practical alternative.

Xtracycle cargo bikes

Once I decided that overall width was an important constraint, my eye turned back to various cargo bikes that conform to the Xtracycle standard.  Xtracycles are just like regular bicycles, but the back wheel is extended backwards by about the diameter of the wheel, allowing larger bags to carry your stuff.  What’s especially cool is that Xtracycle has become an open standard, so a variety of companies can produce kits and accessories to match your particular needs.

Even better, a number of bloggers have put electric motors on their Xtracycles, and have provided good feedback for the next generation of riders to follow.  The bikes that really inspired me were the affectionately-named Bettie and Barney, both being ridden in the Seattle area.

But even though they are great pioneering bikes, Bettie and Barney have a few issues that gave me pause.  The first is the StokeMonkey motor.  One of the technicians who built these bikes told me that the StokeMonkey requires periodic tinkering to keep everything in alignment.  Because it’s driving a chain close to your pedals, you have to be extra careful to keep your clothing away from it, or it will tear your pants off.  Maybe he was just being dramatic, but the image wasn’t very comforting!

Another problem is the height of these bikes.  They use big balloon tires, and it’s a long way down to get your foot on the ground.  It can be a challenge to keep the bike upright when you stop, especially if you’re carrying a heavy load.  I want a bike that my wife or I can ride comfortably, so this issue was important.

Rans Hammer Truck

After debating for a couple of months, I heard about a relative newcomer to the cargo bike market: the Rans Hammer Truck.  The most interesting feature of this bike is its “crankforward” design, which means that the pedals are about 10 inches in front of the seat rather than almost directly below.  This has some interesting benefits which I will describe shortly.

I was anxious to get a test ride before I spent almost $2000 on this bike.  Fortunately, I found a Hammer Truck at Angle Lake Cyclery in SeaTac.  The owner of the shop, Dale Clark, actually let me take the bike home to see how it worked on our hill.  The bike is big – it barely fit in our mini-van with one of the second-row seats removed.  But by the second or third time I rode it, I knew it was the bike I had been looking for.

The crankforward design is a significant improvement in several ways:

  1. The seat can be bigger and more comfortable, because it doesn’t have to be cut away to accommodate the motion of your thighs.
  2. Your sitting position is more upright and natural.  You aren’t supporting your weight on your hands, and your fingers and palms don’t get numb.
  3. You can crank pretty hard on the pedals by pulling back on the handlebar.  Climbing a steep hill is possible without standing on your pedals.
  4. You ride an inch or two lower than a normal bike, which allows you to put your foot flat on the ground when you stop.  That helps avoid tipping the bike when you’re carrying a heavy load (or a wiggly passenger with a high center of gravity).

The main downside to the crankforward design is that the bike feels a little wobbly when you’re travelling less than 3 m.p.h.  I solved that by adding an electric motor, which I will describe in great detail in a future post.

My wife on the Hammer Truck
My wife on the Hammer Truck

Another downside of the Hammer Truck is that it does not adhere to the Xtracycle standard, so there aren’t so many load-carrying accessories available for it.  In our case, this wasn’t a big problem.  The extra-large bags (larger than the Xtracycle, I believe) are wonderful for carrying most of our stuff.  I frequently haul my daughter’s viola in its case, two school backpacks, and one 5th-grade passenger up our hill with plenty of room to spare in the saddle bags.  Even a week’s worth of groceries for our family of four hasn’t come close to filling those bags.

One downside that affects all of these “long tail” cargo bikes: they’re not easy to transport.  The Hammer Truck won’t fit on the standard bike rack on our car or public buses.  I can just barely fit it into our mini-van, but it’s quite a chore.  Hopefully, it’s not something I will have to do very often.

My Rans Hammer Truck electric cargo bike

My cargo bike is a Rans Hammer Truck with sling bag and runners.  This is a “crankforward” design, which means that the pedals are about 10 inches in front of the seat rather than almost directly below.  This has some interesting benefits:

  1. The seat can be bigger and more comfortable, because it doesn’t have to be cut away to accommodate the motion of your thighs.
  2. Your sitting position is more upright and natural.  You aren’t supporting your weight on your hands, and your fingers don’t get numb.
  3. You can crank pretty hard on the pedals by pulling back on the handlebar.  You can climb a steep hill without standing on your pedals.
  4. You ride an inch or two lower than a normal bike, which allows you to put your foot flat on the ground when you stop.  That helps avoid tipping the bike when you’re carrying a heavy load.

 

The motor

The main downside to the crankforward design is that the bike feels a little wobbly when you’re travelling less than 3 m.p.h.  I’ve fixed that by adding a BionX PL-350 electric motor.  Now I can climb a steep hill with a heavy load at 4 or 5 m.p.h. — no wobbles!  The battery and motor are hidden under bags.  Since the motor is completely silent even under the heaviest loads, it’s not obvious to onlookers how much assistance I’m getting.  🙂

Accessories

To heighten visibility during our gloomy Seattle days, I’ve added CatEye headlights and tail lights and Down Low Glow light sticks to increase visibility from the sides.

The final result is pretty expensive for a bike (around $5K), but cheap for a second car.  I use it for errands, carting our kids up and down the hill to our local school, grocery shopping, going to the YMCA… well, you get the point.  It’s a lot more fun than driving our mini-van around the neighborhood, but our bike lanes are nothing to brag about, so you have to be cautious as well.  I never ride without the lights on.

Another bike blog?

If you do a Google search for blogs about cargo bikes, you can find quite a few people who are carrying impressive amounts of stuff (and kids) on bikes of varying shapes and sizes, and blogging about their experiences.  It’s kind of inspiring, but it also feels a little fringe.  Who are these eccentric folks and why would I want to join them?

That’s how I used to feel before we moved to Denmark for a year.  We wondered if we could live without a car in Copenhagen, so we travelled everywhere on bikes.  Occasionally, we used Copenhagen’s exceptional public transit system.  In the end, biking became our favorite aspect of our year in Denmark.  And not only us, but all our friends and family who visited us were similarly impressed.

It’s not easy to describe how compelling the bike-centric culture is if you haven’t been there.  However, this video will give you a hint.  As you watch, notice how many obese people you see.  Think about all the roads and parking lots the Danes would need to build if these cyclists were driving their cars instead…

Even though the video shows what is happening in Copenhagen, it doesn’t makes a case for why this is a good thing.  There are lots of benefits, but I’ll list my favorites:

  • It’s good for the environment and our children and their children.  You’ve heard that before.
  • It’s good for society.  Even if the Danes are famously reserved, they see more of each other on their bikes than Americans do in our isolating metal and leather cages.  It feels less anonymous, more personal.  If someone does something annoying on their bike, at least you can see a real person and perhaps feel some sympathy, as opposed to cursing some anonymous jerk behind tinted glass.  If you still feel annoyed, you can crank harder on your pedals.  It’s amazing how quickly your burning thighs and heaving chest bring things back into proper perspective!
  • It’s good for freedom.  When you’re in a car, you are at the mercy of circumstance.  You can easily find yourself boxed into a traffic jam with no way out.  On a bike, you have more options.  It’s empowering to find ways around obstacles that have drivers banging their steering wheels in frustration (without breaking any laws, of course).
  • And it’s good for you!  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Danes seem more fit, on average, than Americans.  But the benefit isn’t limited to physical fitness.  Biking is a less stressful and more predictable way to commute than many other options that can haphazardly tax your independence and self-reliance.

After seeing how well bikes are working in Denmark, I wanted to bring some of these advantages home to Seattle.  Unfortunately, there are some challenges:

  • Hills!  Denmark is amazingly flat.  Our hills burn out your legs and make you sweat when you don’t have time for a shower.  However, electric motors that provide assistance are becoming increasingly attractive.  I’ll describe my electric motor in more detail on this blog.
  • Infrastructure.  Copenhagen’s bike lanes are light-years ahead of ours.  As long as biking is seen as life-threatening, it won’t be a viable transportation alternative the way it is in Copenhagen.  I am becoming more active in local politics to incorporate bikes in transportation plans.
  • Weather.  It’s not fun to bike in the rain.  Or is it?  The Danes have a great saying: “There is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”  I wouldn’t make a habit of riding in torrential downpours, but with good rain gear, riding in Seattle’s heavy mist is actually envigorating.  (We’ll see if I still feel that way after I’ve made it through our winter…)

Now I’ll return to the question of what distinguishes my blog from all these other cargo bike blogs.  I think it’s partly because I’m not so interested in pushing the envelope.  I don’t expect to use my bike to transport heavy construction materials.  I want to do all the mundane errands that keep us hopping into our cars – buying groceries, going to the fitness club, getting kids to various activities.  These are things that the Danes are doing on their bikes. 

Americans tend to think of bikers as fanatics in spandex and toe clips.  I’m just an average suburban dad who would like to help expand our transportation options.

vroom vroom!

The Clarkberg Family has moved to the cutting edge of transportation technology with the addition of a Stokemonkey electric motor to Rini’s Surly cargo bike. The motor came as part of a kit that Thea and Larry assembled in an afternoon. The motor really opens up what is possible to accomplish with a bike (and without a car). Yesterday Jasper “biked” a mile straight up Ithaca’s West Hill with Thea on the back of the bike (and Larry panting alongside on his road bike). The Stokemonkey is very practical and extremely fun.

the fun factor

Today I thoroughly enjoyed the after-school activity of taking neighborhood kids up and down James St. on the Surly, one or two at a time. I really like this bike and kids do too. It makes you want to ride around just for the fun of it. How often do you feel that way about your car? Ditching your car for a bike is a step up if you figure in the fun factor.

shopping by bike

We had the most wonderful shopping trip this evening by bicycle. First we biked about a mile to the dollar store to get some glow sticks for the Quaker meeting retreat this week. Thea rode on the back of Rini’s new Surly “Big Dummy” long tail cargo bike while Jasper and I accompanied her on our road bikes. We had dinner at our favorite restaurant (Maxie’s), followed by a trip to Greenstar to pick up several bags of groceries. Rini easily yet heroically brought home both Thea and the groceries on the Surly as shown in this photo.

shopping_trip

Hi Fell!

Bicycling turns chore into exercise, fun

While “quick trips to the store” can feel they are sucking my life away, completing the task this morning by bike was fun.

The breeze from pedaling on a hot August day felt nice. I got little exercise– more like a relaxing walk than a strenuous run– and the formally fussy baby fell asleep like she always does on the bike.

Arriving back home I ran inside, dropped the bag of groceries, and returned back to the bike to voluntarily extend the trip.

Today a narrow, unmarked footpath off the bike path caught me eye. I decided to push the bike down it for a bit. This risked having to push the bike backwards to return, if I found no opening to turn the eight foot bike around in. After a few minutes of pushing aside branches and ducking brambles, I found just the clearing I was hoping for, and a new set of trails that looked like a shortcut to a waterfall. I can explore that further another time. Now the baby was fast asleep and it was time to wrap up my “chore” and return home for breakfast.

About our bakfiets

Three children in a bakfiets cargo bike

That’s a bakfiets, (pronounced “bach feets”), a Dutch-made bike which recently started to be imported to the US.

For those who need haul kids or “stuff”, the bakfiets comes loaded with features that make it an attractive car replacement.

For kid hauling

This model comes standard with a bench seat for two children, including safety harnesses for both. Although difficult to see in the photo, the bottom edge of the bucket contains a step to make it easier to get in and out of the bucket. A super-sturdy four-point kickstand makes the bike totally stable as passengers enter and exit. And unlike a trailer, the kids have a commanding view of what’s going, and the parent can constantly keep an eye on them. It’s no surprise the Dutch royal family is known for carrying their own children around in a bakfiets. For rain and colder weather, a see-through cover is made as an accessory for the bucket.

For busy people. Real people.

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A bike should work with your lifestyle, not the other way around. The bakfiets comes from a country with more bicycles than people, and practical bikes are understood there. So, it’s built to just get on and go. There’s no external gears to maintain. Eight gears are provided inside the wheel. The are no external brake pads to be serviced. Discrete drum breaks work reliably. A built-in lighting systems provides bright front and rear lights, powered by your pedaling, and still shining for a while after your stop. Greasy clothes are no worry. Fenders, an enclosed chain and even a skirt guard are all standard. Locking the bike now works like a car, with a reliable key-based system that disables wheel and is difficult to defeat.

Family Bakfiets, Portland Oregon, April, 2007

To top it off, it includes puncture-resistant tires, a comfortable riding position and a pleasant sounding bell!

If you are local to Richmond, Indiana, you can meet the bakfiets by contacting Mark Stosberg

See Also