An introduction to the introduction from editor Henry:
About a week has passed since this post first went online and as of this moment there are 109 comments, quite a few of them rather extensive, a couple mildly angry or at least indignant. A few people have expressed dismay that I would publish such a piece, even if I didn’t write it myself. Another has requested that I add something to the introduction to further qualify the post below. That last request seems the most appropriate approach and what I’ll try to do now.
Interestingly though the post is widely criticized and has even apparently sparked offline discussions in coffee shops (both flattering and a little scary) nobody has suggested that I remove it. This is good since that would be quite a disappointment to all those who’ve invested time in writing, editing, commenting, discussing and even writing their own blog posts about this post. So now I have to actually figure out what it is that really needs to be said to further qualify this post.
That the post is, in retrospect, a grand faux pas is an understatement. But every now and then I just do that: I make a weird misjudgment and stick my foot deeply in my mouth. As one miffed commenter noted it doesn’t matter so much that it’s a guest post; It is my blog and I determine its content. Fair enough.
But what is exactly the problem? I’ve reread the post and slogged through the comments several times. I see two basic issues:
1. Several commenters dispute Josh’s experiences and opinions about two of the bikes discussed: the Bullitt and the Metrofiets. The Metrofiets I’ve only seen in photos so for the sake of discussing the post I’ll focus on the Bullitt which I’m familiar with.
Concerning the Bullitt I had already added from the beginning an editor’s comment that Josh’s opinion about aluminium being an unsuitable frame material was unsubstantiated and probably unjustified. Nonetheless a discussion raged about whether aluminium is a suitable material for such a bike, something I found rather silly.
Yet for all the defense it’s received here the Bullitt IS, in all fairness, a quirky bike. I’ve ridden several of them, loaded and unloaded (as well as being a noted bike designer who’s ridden a LOT of bikes) so I’m not in the dark here. Aside from the still underground CETMA the Bullitt really has no competitors in the world of light, sporty Long John type bikes. Structurally and conceptually it’s brilliant: light and apparently quite tough. But come on folks, please accept that it’s got its quirks too: The steering geometry is far from ideal and the ergonomics are strange. By no means is either factor a deal killer; After a little while you get used to the handing and forget it was ever a problem. You either adapt to the bike’s sitting position or swap out a few parts to make it fit better. My own bike designs have their own quirks and I really don’t mind hearing about them either.
I suspect that any criticism of a bike with such a cult following as the Bullitt will deliver some angry fans to your doorstep but Josh unfortunately digressed too far into opinion instead of more objectively addressing the bike’s virtues, faults and eccentricities. Interestingly, Josh’s Metrofiets critique stuck more closely to his own experiences but was also met with resistance.
2. Interesting material but in the wrong place: I believe the crux of the issue is that posting critical reviews on the forum of a person or company playing in that very field is just tricky business. It isn’t impossible: I do it regularly and somehow seem to find shelter in a steadily more developed mix of obvious irony, humor, absurdity, self-reflection and hard-core objective criticism that’s just difficult to argue with honestly. And, yep, sometimes I just plain old shoot myself in the foot. That I accept as a necessary consequence of keeping Bakfiets en Meer, and by extension Workcycles honest and real. There’s no fluff here folks and I’m not a professional writer.
But that’s all much more difficult to keep straight in a guest post. Josh has a lot of experience and insights and a lot to say. I was game to let him take a crack at a post and I take full responsibility for the results. But then as he notes in one of the now 110 comments below, he’s more comfortable working with metal than with words. And I have only so many hours for blogging. I do also run a company, have a wife and two little kids and like to ride my racing bike fast with my friends when possible.
We’ve discussed this experience offline and Josh seems game for another try… ahem yes, with a somewhat different approach. We’ll see how it goes.
An introduction from editor Henry (the original introduction that is):
Over the years I’ve offered several colleagues the opportunity to do a “guest post” but maybe only once before has somebody gone for it. I’ll begin this one with an introduction and preface:
I didn’t write the post below nor do I necessarily even agree with some of the things Josh wrote. It’s an opinion piece. Nonetheless I found it an interesting and discussion provoking read and after somewhat too many hours editing chose to publish it. Even though it’s written by somebody completely independent of Workcycles, I founded Workcycles and this is my blog. So no, I can’t really avoid taking some heat for the criticism of colleagues’ bikes but I can live with that.
I’ve known Josh Boisclair for six or seven years now. He’s worked for two of our dealers, visited us in Amsterdam a couple times and spent a week or two “learning” in the Workcycles workshops. Realistically he was learning much more about Dutch culture and cycling than about building Dutch bikes because he’s one of those few, gifted mechanic types who doesn’t really need to be shown how something as simple as a bike works. With a couple hints about what to be looking for he’ll figure out the rest. Josh has spotted and solved a couple of our production irregularities from afar.
Such characters don’t generally come without their eccentricities and Josh is no exception. Perhaps Josh’s tick is that he’s brutally, sometimes painfully honest. If he sees that something’s been poorly designed or made… he’ll say it regardless of the political ramifications. If he digs something you’ll hear that too. He doesn’t kiss ass and that makes a great barometer for the thick-skinned. And I suppose that’s why you get to enjoy Josh’s take on cargo bikes ca. 2011; If he didn’t like my own bikes he’d have explained exactly why and then there wouldn’t really be any point in me publishing such unflattering stuff on my own blog.
The other tick is a rather humorous tendency toward conspiracy theory or at least a belief rooted in the misconception that everybody has innate technical understanding. Thus one who sells something that’s less than “as good as they can be reasonably expected to produce” is quickly categorized as dishonest, rather than possibly naive or disinterested.
So my dear colleagues apologies in advance for any bruised egos that result from the report below. I didn’t write it but I do trust both the technical understanding and honesty of its source. Put your hardhats on and have a fun ride!
Photo courtesy of Oscar Mulder at My Dutch Bike. Photographer unknown and almost certainly no longer amongst the living.
Bicycles that carry stuff have been around for over 100 years. The Long John, of the 1930’s is still in limited production. The Dutch Bergreijer company was one of many firms experimenting with various styles of cargo-carrying bicycles at the turn of the last century. There is however, a relatively recent “revival” of cargo bicycles in the last few years. Bicycles in general have been gaining popularity. Americans like “stuff” so now more and more of us are looking for ways to carry our stuff by bicycle. Of course this isn’t really new at all: Elsewhere in the world people have been carrying stuff by bicycle for over a century. What has changed though, is the way we buy things, and how we gather information-(often misinterpreted as learning) about things.
There have always been inferior designs of machinery, low quality products, salespeople completely disconnected from what they are selling, and marketing scams. Now all these things can reach many more people much more quickly. The way we buy things and gather information has changed. We may look at pictures and read about products on the internet, all without ever actually seeing or touching the product in question. In general, there is a growing disconnection from all things material, a growing frenzy of confusion and deception… all leading toward a growing market for Crap. What follows is my brief review of this phenomenon regarding the recent cargo bike revolution in American cities.
I have been a professional bicycle mechanic for 15 years. One of the companies I worked for was The Dutch Bicycle Company (now called “The DBC”, not to be confused with “Dutch Bike” Seattle and Chicago ). We were one of the first to import the van Andel (Bakfiets.nl) Bakfietsen and Workcycles “stadsfietsen”. This was my introduction to “real” bicycles: bicycles for every day life. I moved with the company to Boston and witnessed the company’s shift from importing quality bicycles into poorly trying to reinvent the wheel with their own city bike. By this time I had ridden many bikes extensively: the Monark Long John and Truck, Long and Short version Bakfiets, Sorte Jernhest rear-steer trikes, and all of the imported city bikes from Workcycles, Velorbis and Sogreni.
I left and rode my fixed-gear bike with a BOB trailer to California. (Ed: Yes, Josh actually RODE his fixie across the USA with a trailer, folks) Here I worked in a few more shops and was introduced to the Bilenky cargo bike, and the Xtracycle. I performed probably 50 or so Xtracycle conversions, and thoroughly learned the limits of that concept. Many were very scary to ride! Surly came out with the Big Dummy, an improvement on the longtail idea, and now all the big names make such bikes. Even 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. Many “new” designs have popped up in the last two or three years and 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. 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 bikes.
My goal here is just to provide a real, “blue-collar” review of the cargo bicycles I’ve personally ridden, and some meaningful information about others I either admire or despise.
van Andel Bakfiets (Bakfiets.nl/Workcycles)
This is the cargo bike that I have the most experience with. My girlfriend and I rode a short one back in Florida daily. Since real-world bicycle use is almost non-existent in Florida, the bike got tons of attention and positive comments. It introduced me to the endless capabilities of bicycles. Before this bike, all I ever had to carry things was a BOB trailer. So the Bakfiets really enlightened me to the ease and comfort of carrying 100 plus pounds regularly.
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. The rear rack is also changed slightly, though it’s function is the same. These bikes represent a very aesthetically pleasing way to efficiently manufacture a strong, durable cargo frame. The stock gearing is 38 x 22, so 1st gear is a very small 23 inches, 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. 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 one 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. Azor/van Andel/Workcycles have engineered a perfect blend of practicality, affordability, features, and quality into a bicycle.
Larry vs. Harry Bullitt:
This Danish bike is interesting. I like are the look, the colours, and the general idea of building a faster, lighter, sportier cargo hauler. 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. Also, I am curious why they didn’t make it with a lower step-through. Perhaps because the market for these bikes is amongst experienced riders. Here is great video highlighting the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt in Copenhagen. Also visible are Sorte Jerhest rear steer trikes.
What I don’t like about the Bullitt are the ergonomics, the steering geometry, aluminum frame, exposed drivetrain, inability to mount a rear rack, lack of 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 chro-moly steel, like the Cetma Cargo bike and others, and the top tube should be lower. Aluminum is not nearly as strong as steel and is soft. To make a frame that won’t 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. I am very interested to see how and when these bikes start breaking.
(Ed: Josh, I disagree on this one. I suspect the Bullitt is so overbuilt that it’ll take a lot of use and abuse before even fatigue and crack propagation kills any. And besides it just wouldn’t be the same bike in skinny steel tubes. The fatness is very much part of the bike’s charm.)
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, amongst them Joe Bike and Tom LaBonty. As much of a fan I am of the Metrofiets ideal, I was not impressed with their bike though. It rode like a wet noodle with gobs of lateral flex even without a load. The steering feel was very heavy and stiff since instead of heim joints they use bolts with a plastic sleeve, and the front wheel is large at 24 inches. The bike itself was huge and seemed just as heavy as the van Andel Bakfiets yet it included no rear carrier. The Metrofiets box, while nicely made, was small… especially for such a big bike. I’m also not a fan of disk brakes on a bike for everyday use in the real world, nor an exposed drive chain.
As a metal worker, it bothers me to see welds ground down to be smooth yet still having pinholes visible even through thick powdercoat. More time could be spent cleaning them up. The parking stand was also not very functional at all. It sure was pretty but style shouldn’t interfere so much with function. It was rusting where it touches the ground, the paint having been scraped off and the steel being worn down. The hinges were rusting and squeaking as well.
I talked with Metrofiets over the phone and was assured all these issues were being taken care of in the new “production version” of their frames. I was told that this particular bike was made to be lightweight for the cargo bike race. Well, it wasn’t that light, and I am not sure how long that main tube can flex so much without bending or breaking. 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. I prefer Sachs drum, Sturmey 90mm drum, and Shimano IM70 rollerbrakes. Hydraulic disks are very powerful, able to stop on a dime as your pinky accidentally hits the brake lever on a bump. But the cost is too high both for the actual parts and also the extra fabrication. Maintanance and repair costs are aso higher and not so easy for the average joe just trying to get around town. Even more importantly: Is such a chassis structurally and dynamically up the task of violently stopping 500-600 lb total? I don’t doubt these bikes will get better and I wish them the best of luck. Their colours are very nice as well as their cargo bay rails and detailing. I look forward to testing one of their newer frames.
Monark/Velorbis Long John:
This bike is tough, industrial and classic. It looks like it was designed a long time ago because it was. It has a very low trail steering design, which caters well for heavy loads, but unloaded takes a little getting used to. They cost quite a bit of money for the level of craftsmanship and components used. The rear rack is insanely sturdy. I would love to own a vintage Long John one day, but the reintroduced ones are dated. There are better options available these days.
Biomega/Puma Cargo Bike:
I don’t have much good to say about this bike other than that the handling is pretty good and that the steering linkage has decent heim joints. Further, the aluminum frame rides harshly and the stupidly-long-reach threadless stem isn’t height adjustable. There are no rear carrier mounts, crappy V-brakes, crappy wheels, crappy derailleur gears, unneccesarily high stand-over/step-through height, a regular kickstand, all for an extremely small and useless cargo area. Not worth your money or another word.
Chinese Cargo Bikes (Birota, Double Dutch, Zeitbikes… )
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” they’re using to build these bikes 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 getting a nice puddle of molten steel to weld with you get 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 want to make money for nothing. Flying Pigeon bikes are still made and still sell, because you can get them for about $200, much less in China. Expect prices of the Chinese cargo bikes to drop to $300 – 600 within in the next few years. Meanwhile, the CEOs of these companies are buying their retirement retreats in Florida.
Great for family duties. Also good when you have an oversized vehicle in a one-car garage since the cargo bay folds up. The swoopy lines suggest the designers had fun with this bike and those lines are not entirely functionless. If you like the modern look, than you might like this bike. There is lots of plastic though, and the sub $3,000 price comes with a price: frame is made in China. The Cabby differs from the Chinese cargo bike knock-offs however: it’s TIG welded to a good standard. The frames are also very straight, and I have yet to see rust on a brand-new Gazelle. (Ed: Plenty of quality frames are made in China too, including those of many of the megabuck carbon fiber bikes.)
Francis Small Haul:
If I were to give awards for cargo bicycle design, the gold medal would go to Joshua Muir of Frances Cycles in Santa Cruz for his Small Haul. It’s obviously not for everyone nor for heavy cargo but it’s definitely useful and absolutely beautiful! The number of connections and amount of detail in the steel frame make it totally impractical as a production bike but that is part of the charm of this small cargo bike. Muir is clearly an talented craftsman, and his Small Haul is one of the handful of truly innovative modern designs. This is the bike I’m most excited about riding one day.
Workcycles Fr8, Universal Frame:
The design, craftsmanship, and detail execution on this bike are superb. Very few production bikes have the useful. little details properly executed, in such an elegant and practical package. This may be the “Heaviest Duty” regular format bicycle (without extended steering) available. Flex is nonexistent until you have more than 200 pounds on it plus yourself, suggesting its carrying capacity must 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.
I don’t think any proper “city/utility” bike is as modular or interchangeable as the Fr8. Sure, there are lighter-duty bikes which may be slightly more suitable for some people carrying lighter loads less frequently, but this bike is called the Fr8 for a reason.
The Fr8 successfully blends the best elements of the traditional Dutch transportfiets, and the traditional baker’s bike, deli bike or truck bike (whatever you want to call a bike with a smaller front wheel and low front rack with a single steering column) and adds modern materials and components, insane modularity, vastly improved ergonomics, significantly increasing the bike’s versatility over anything previously made.
This design, like the Xtracycle, and various other extend-a-bikes seems a passing fad. I mostly see people carrying two children on the back platform, or groceries, sometimes a large ladder or box,… plus an additional “counter-weight” on the other side. The drive chain needs to be very long, necessitating rollers and/or varying kinds of tensioning /anti-derailment 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! Otherwise I’ll regard them as nothing more than a 10 to 20 year-long fad in bicycle design.
One day about a year ago I was stupefied when somebody came into the shop carrying two bikes, one on either side of their Xtracycle 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 Xtracycle, 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?” Actually I didn’t really say that last question out load since I then realized that some people just like to be seen riding their bike(s).
When buying a cargo bicycle or ANY piece of heavy-use machinery, go with something that has stood the test of time. Any “brand-new” design or company will be hit or miss, mostly miss. To a certain extent you generally get what you pay for except with the cheap, Chinese “cargo bikes”: in that case you’re just getting screwed.
Carrying multiple children distances under 20 miles is still best with either the van Andel Short Bakfiets or Joebike Shuttlebug. Second place comes the Long Bakfiets or the Workcycles Fr8, since these can actually carry three or more children. Compared to the US hand-built bikes these bikes have more real world useful features like a built in lock, good parking stand, hub brakes, enclosed chain, etc. For longer distances and/or “sport riding” with children the Francis Small Haul looks great.
For carrying cargo, there are plenty of options dependent on your needs: Bilenky or Borracho “Filibus” type cargo bikes, the Cetma Cargo or HPM Long Haul, the Workcycles Fr8… However an actual vintage Dutch Transportfiets would gain you some retro-groutch/bike snob/cool points.