Cargo Cult

Bicycles for carrying stuff

Most Australians think of bicycles as children’s toys or sporting equipment. The typical suburban bike shop is packed with full-suspension mountain bikes, lightweight road bikes and fat-tired retro cruisers. And as wonderful as these machines are, none of them are much good for getting to work in the morning, carrying toddlers to preschool or picking up groceries on your way home. But not all bikes are designed for kids and fitness freaks. If you know where to look you can find another kind of bicycle — one designed for carrying stuff.

Of course there’s nothing new about using a bicycle to carry stuff. Freight-carrying bikes were once common in Western countries and are still used in many parts of Asia and the third world. But now in countries like the United States a growing number of bike makers are offering new models designed for carrying people and things.

The Dutch Bakfiets cargo bike has attracted a cult following in the United States. The Bakfiets or ‘barge bike‘ looks like a cross between a bicycle and a wheelbarrow. If the promotional pictures are to be believed, the Bakfiets’ chief function is to allow young blond women to transport small blond children (but it works equally well carrying pumpkins and beer).

In the United States, Xtracycle offers cyclists a way of converting their existing bike into a kind of two-wheeled ute (or ‘sports utility bike‘). The FreeRadical hitchless trailer bolts onto to the back of your bike’s frame and increases its wheelbase by moving the rear wheel backwards. It comes with a set of large saddlebags and a rear deck that can carry a load or passengers.

Recently US bike-maker Surly teamed up with Xtracycle to create the Big Dummy — a ‘longtail‘ bike with a frame specially designed to use Xtracycle’s racks and saddlebags. Other bike makers like Kona are also selling longtails. Kona’s aluminum longtail is called the UTE and comes equipped with a disc brake on the front a v-brake on the back and a coat of non-optional green paint.

Longtails come in a wide range of designs and bike makers haven’t agreed on a standard. Many — like this one-of-a-kind Vanilla longtail — use Xtracycle racks and saddlebags while others — like Kona’s UTE and Yuba’s Mundo Utility Bicycle — leave the choice of luggage up to you. Longtails set up for passengers have footrests and sometimes an extra set of handlebars at the back (check out the Fraser Cycles Frontier).

While these new load-carrying bike frames can easily bear the weight of a week’s groceries or a couple of small children, the bike’s human engine will often struggle. As a result, some longtail owners are fitting electric motors to help speed things along. Cleverchimp’s Stokemonkey and the BionX are two examples.

Of course the major obstacle to carrying cargo on a bike isn’t the way bikes are designed, it’s the way cities are designed. For many people, cycling to work means mixing with fast moving traffic on busy arterial roads. So by the time you get to work, you’re tired, sweaty, stressed and late. If you decide to take the kids along, you’ll probably be reported to the child welfare authorities. Serious cycling isn’t for people who live in affordable outer suburbs — it’s for people who live in older suburbs with grid-pattern streets and shops and services nearby. Those who are really lucky will have bike paths that take a direct route to somewhere they need to go.

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18 Responses to Cargo Cult

  1. The Doctor says:

    Of course, you seemed to have missed out the touring bikes – but that would nearly destroy your argument completely.
    Tourers are great for commuting and small load carrying(40kg).
    As for the comment on commuting, if you are doing it regularly, you only end up being sweaty. Indeed, in the major cities regular cyclists often beat all other transport options and the exercise is a great de-stresser.

  2. harry clarke says:

    The photo of the woman and the 3 kids on the ‘barge bike’ is great. the kids look like they are having a great time.

  3. Patrick says:

    Holland is dangerous – too many bikes! Our kids were often nearly run over!!

    And racing bikes are fine for getting to work, better than anything else in fact since you are (usually) only riding on roads and paths, so you don’t need suspension.

  4. Don Arthur says:

    Doc – As you say, you can load a fair bit of stuff onto a touring bike — especially if you’ve got a rack on the front as well as the back. And then there are trailers.

    I can see what you’re getting at. I ride to work on a cyclo-cross bike. I’ve bolted a rack on the back and I don’t have any trouble carrying everything I need using an ordinary set of panniers. I use the panniers to go grocery shopping, and that works well too (we’re a no-kids household).

    For me cycling is just about the quickest and easiest way to get to work. There’s a bike path at the end of my street and it takes me almost all the way to the office. And as you say, it’s a great de-stressor.

    In the past I used to ride in city traffic. That was fine too. With plenty of traffic lights and bumper to bumper cars it was no trouble to keep up with flow. As long as I kept an eye out for the car doors, crazy taxi drivers and rogue pedestrians, it was fun.

    But I don’t find riding in fast moving suburban traffic at all relaxing or fun. When cars are moving around me doing 80 to 100 kmh and I have to fight to keep my lane I don’t feel de-stressed. I especially hate crowded roads where the traffic builds up behind me. You don’t have to read minds to know that car drivers are fantasising about killing you.

    Harry – How about this bakfiets pic?

  5. The Doctor says:

    a cyclo-cross bike is just a Tourer with attitude!
    As for traffic, the trickiest is in the transition zone between rural & suburban traffic.

  6. If I was going to get a commuter bike, the one thing I’d insist on that doesn’t seem to come standard is a chain guard.

    I’d also consider going with the Rohloff Speedhub if I could afford it.

  7. Aidan says:

    Those speedhubs are unreal. Very expensive though.

    The bike boards are discussing the merits of the NuVinci continuously variable planetary transmission at the moment. Weighty, but has a big future.

    I’m in the process of replacing my 14 year old mountain bike (no suspension and smooth tyres) with a “flat bar road bike”. I am leaning towards something equipped with a Shimano Nexus 8 speed hub.

    Seems to me derailleur systems are all going the wrong way for commuter cycles. More and more gears on the cassette means slimmer chains, larger angles on the chain and hence shorter lifetime. I like the idea of a chunky single speed chain with the gears safely tucked inside the hub.

  8. The Doctor says:

    the angles have not changed since the 8-speed hubs, though the chains have not narrower.

  9. I have two friends with Shimano Nexus 8 speed hubs. All happy so far. No one I know has fiddled with it yet but as far as I can see you can still have a two speed derailleur on the front and then have 16 gears or change the size of the cogs on back and /or front to give lower or higher gearing. From what I understand granny gear on the 8 speed doesn’t get as low as on a 7×3 or 9×3.

    I don’t know enough about mechanics and energy transfer but shouldn’t the internal hub make it possible to use a crankshaft instead of a chain?

    I understand that the Rohloff presents a marketting dilemma, it’s huge cost suggests it be marketed to the men who pay $100+ bucks for carbon fibre bottle cages but the image of internal hubs is tighty tied to ‘girly” commuters and neighbourhood peddlers.

  10. Aidan says:


    Not sure what you mean. With no front derailleur and a single sprocket on the back you have a straight line for the chain. You can also run a much sturdier chain because it doesn’t have to flex to accomodate multiple sprockets on the back cassette.

    It is quite nicely explained here:

    With one chainring you do get a smaller gear range than a typical 7×3 mountain bike setup (the Shimano NEXUS 8 has a gear range of about 306%). I currently have a 42/35/24 on the front and 28-11 on the back. The NEXUS is equivalent in range to my biggest front chainrings + cassette (like I lost the granny gear front chainring). Frankly, for commuting, this is fine unless your commute is in the Himalayas.

    People have tried driveshafts and continue to do so, and also belt drives.

    I think Rohloff have missed the mark a little, but apparently they sell every one of the hubs they produce. They are for serious riders, and are very popular with the recumbent crowd.

    I love this quote:

    What problems have you had and what is the service life? I asked, getting straight to the point, after introducing myself.

    No joke, Andy, but we have never had a hub fail, so we cant tell you the service life, but some of our customers have covered 70,000km of world travel was the reply from the product manager, Carsten Geck.

  11. Don Arthur says:

    I understand that the Rohloff presents a marketting dilemma, its huge cost suggests it be marketed to the men who pay $100+ bucks for carbon fibre bottle cages but the image of internal hubs is tighty tied to girly commuters and neighbourhood peddlers.

    The image of hub gears seems to be changing. For example, how about this review of the Cannondale ‘Bad Boy’:

    The Alfine hub gives just enough range for city riding and it has the look of a fixed wheel without the limitations (for the record, I think the fixed wheel fad in London in the moment is all form over function, it is like a fashion show on wheels and people are putting coolness over the ability to stop when you need to)

    The Bad Boy makes its own fashion statement. It’s painted matt black and the cables are routed through the frame to give it a clean look.

    Cannondale also make a version with a Rohloff hub. I’m not sure who’s buying these things.

  12. Just Me says:

    Always been surprised that (grease free!) belt drives haven’t been more common on bicycles.

  13. timboy says:

    The Bakfiets cargo bikes look great for family shopping trips, but the pricing is pretty prohibitive.

    They will also probably put people off who don’t live in a suburb as flat as Holland itself.

  14. Graham Bell says:

    Don Arthur:

    Go on. Nothing beats the good old northern China 3-wheeler flatbed. You just keep loading it up until the spokes start bending and welds in the frame are in danger of cracking. It’s got two gears: left leg and right leg.

    Jokes aside, it’s layout is very useful and a similar goods bike could be made from state-of-the-art materials.

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  16. dansker says:

    Don’t forget the danish bike scene. Christania bikes are the family car in Copenhagen. You can fit the dog, kids and a crate of beer.

    Otherwise, Velorbis long johns are a pretty challenging ride.

  17. Rod says:

    I just bought a Kona Ute so I can haul my big dog around on the back with me when I go to the markets on the weekend etc. I’ve been waiting for something like this to hit the aussie market and I think I’m going to be very happy with it. Instead of the Rohloff (as suggested above) I opted for the shimano alfine 8 speed since I don’t really need the huge range since most of my riding around Brisbane city is along the river and quite flat. I have been using an Alfine hub on my Cannondale Bad Boy Ultra 8 and have been incredibly happy with it. I’ve considered the Rohloff but just can’t justify the price difference for the type of riding I do. If I was going touring, that would be another story. I’ll try to post an update when I’ve given the Ute a good run.

  18. Don Arthur says:

    Rod – I’d love to hear how you go with the Ute.

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