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.