embracing the bicycle: checking in

Thea drew this Big Dummy

It’s been four months since my life-changing post Don’t Ask Me to Drive in which I explain how I have rejected driving (or more positively, embraced bicycling) as my primary mode of transportation. How is it going you ask? Very well thanks! I have only driven three times since my embracing: driving my Dad to the bus station, driving Joyful to the airport, and driving Rini to the airport. And I plan to drive 26 miles to Ovid  next weekend to teach a class there. But other than that I have kept to my commitment. It wasn’t too hard actually.

A big help was my discovery of the Surly Big Dummy “cargo bike” and the Stokemonkey electric motor. We have two Surly Big Dummies now, and the smaller one has a Stokemonkey. We use them a lot. Jasper has taken to biking to school every morning (to the east a mile and a half and then uphill). I usually join him, then bike back to the Commons for work. I’ve used my bike several times to take Thea to the dentist which is four miles uphill to the north. (Everything is uphill in Ithaca.) On Thursdays I help Amanda carry Indie’s baritone from South Hill School. We’ve made several trips to Family Math events at Ithaca College which is straight up South Hill a mile and a half. Often we have passengers and we are toting some major educational materials such as this 6-foot-long physiognotrace. (Google it dude!)


I have to admit that I am sometimes exhausted by the end of the day. Partly this is due to the fact that I am training for a marathon. Sometimes I like the workout the bike provides. But other times I just want to get an errand done. So I’ve ordered a second Stokemonkey for my bike. Beginning in December, I’ll need to bike south (uphill) four miles every week to the Three Swallows Farm pick up our winter CSA. Wish me luck.

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.