If you’ve never seen one of these before, watching one go by you is a bit of a trip. It looks like a wheelbarrow with a bike seat on it. The first time my wife and I saw one ride by us in Portland we about had a heart attack. We had been discussing for a while how to achieve a car-free life-style, and we knew instantly that we were looking at the missing part of the conversation. I emailed the company that sells these bikes in Portland (CleverCycles) the next day. For you Seattleites, it's Dutch Bike Co. Seattle.
Bakfietsen have been around for a while in Holland, and this fact becomes obvious very quickly when you get one of these on the road. The Dutch have had enough iterations on the design to get things right – every detail is well designed. The box up front is made of marine grade plywood, so you can spray it down with a hose. If your kids were to…say… drop a milkshake in the box (true story) it’s not a big deal. Grab a hose and wash it like your car. In fact, according to the literature, the bike is built to handle outdoor storage. I haven’t put it to the test, but it seems to me to be hearty enough. Something you can’t see in the photos is that the bottom of the box has a rubber mat floor in it that helps things to not slide around when you’re hauling cargo. It also has holes drilled in the corners for drainage; very handy. The box has a nice little bench seat for the kids that folds up when not needed, and has seatbelts built in. We thought we’d do the kids a favor and also purchased a seat pad, although they never complained when we didn’t have it. The Bakfiets comes with a 4-point kick-stand that is so sturdy that kids can climb in and out of the bike without it tipping over. Our kids treat it like a jungle gym and the thing never budges. These bikes also come with a rear-rack that is sturdy enough to sit on. We’ve never used it for cargo, but I’ve used it’s built-in bungee cords to wrap up little things like locks, jackets, and extra helmets numerous times.
As a lifetime bike commuter, there are some built-in features on the Bakfiets that I absolutely love; most of which have to do with braving the elements day after day. The spokes and fenders are stainless steel. That coupled with the anti-rust primer under the paint makes this thing completely weather proof. Got mud on it? No problem – spray the thing down. Left it outside during a downpour? No worries, it’s weather proof. And the internal Shimano 8-speed hub along with drum brakes and a fully encased chain means no mucky transmission. No maintenance whatsoever really. The only time I’ve taken it in since we bought it last June was to get the 30-day cable-stretch adjustments taken care of, and it’s still looking and running like it’s brand new. As a matter of fact, Todd (one of the other owners of CleverCycles) told me that he hasn’t touched the chain on his Bakfiets in
Another wonderful standard feature is the wheel-lock. Just like your car, you use a key to unlock your back wheel; then you ride with the key in; and when you get to your destination you just take the key out and the wheel locks up. The bike is effectively parked. No U-lock or bike-rack required. Dean, another owner at CleverCycles, pointed out to us that it would take about three large guys and a pick-up truck to steal this bike with the lock engaged. In other words, this a perfectly good lock for running into the grocery store or catching a movie – maybe not so good for over-night. Our cargo bike also came with an 8-speed Shimano internal hub, which performs surprisingly well. It has one fantastic feature that I use every time I ride: you can change gears standing still. Don’t laugh, when you’re at a stop-light with 100+ lbs of kids and groceries, and you realize that you forgot to shift down, this is the greatest invention ever. You just shift down to 1st gear and take off when the light turns green. If you were stuck in 8th gear with a conventional transmission you’d be screwed. Another easily overlooked feature is the “step-through” frame design that lets you step out of the bike without that standard over-the-seat leg swing that is so much apart of getting off of any other bike in the world. I spent the first few months doing the leg-swing after parking the bike. Until, of course, my wife started making fun of me. Hard habit to break!
Last but not least, the cargobike comes with front and back lights that are powered by a generator attached to the front fork. The back light has a nifty little feature: it stores up the extra charge and stays lit when you stop pedaling. This is great when you’re sitting at a stoplight at night. The newer cargobikes coming out of CleverCycles these days have generator hubs built into the wheel, which are pretty sweet. Ours is a “side runner” that runs off the side of the tire. Truthfully, at first I was annoyed at the idea of something that added friction during the ride. But having used it for a while, the friction is almost imperceptible. Plus, I’m in love with the thought of not having to use batteries. (I’m so green! Don’t you want to be my friend?!)
Oh - and an option that we couldn’t pass up is this space-age looking rain-cover to keep the rug-rats dry when it’s wet. And it’s not just for rain – we’ve taken them out on adventures in the dead of winter (temp in the 30’s) and they were just fine in their little green-house.
“Is that hard to ride?” – wow do I get that question a lot. The answer is “Nope. Not after your first couple of rides.” I like to say that it’s like learning to ride a bike all over again, but much easier. Once you get the hang of it, you forget that it was ever weird to ride in the first place. That’s how it was for my wife anyway. To be honest, I was feeling pretty confident after about a couple of blocks. And then I was amazed at how smooth the ride was. It’s truly a well designed machine, with a low center of gravity that stabilizes the ride very effectively. Sitting up and having an elevated view of traffic doesn’t hurt the experience either. It is a very different ride than a regular road bike though. More like a cruiser, but with a lot more weight and inertia. Then comes the part that makes you nervous: putting the kids in. I was at Dean’s house in Portland taking a test ride (this was before they had their shop finished) and Dean said, “put your son in, try it out.” With all the false confidence I could muster I put my 4-year old in, said a few “our fathers” under my breath, and took off down the street. It was a bit awkward at first, especially since he was sitting off center on the right side of the bike, but not nearly as much as I had expected it would be. After a block or so I had adjusted. No problem. Then he saw a soccer ball in someone’s yard, “look Papa!” and shifted his weight all the way over to the other side of the bike. While I will admit that I had to do some acrobatics to not ditch, I was surprised how much the low center of gravity helped me to adjust. Had he done that in a seat on my road bike I’m convinced we would have hit the ground. These days both my kids could break-dance in the front and I’d hardly notice it. You get confident enough after a month that you’re adjusting their helmets and seatbelts or pulling you phone out of your pocket to catch the time – all while you’re riding.
A supposed advantage for these bikes that I haven’t found to be true is that the you’re supposed to be able to put your foot on the ground while seated on the saddle. The theory is that the angle of the seat-tube is so lax that the seat sits back from the pedals instead of above them – thus you’re far enough away from the pedals to be ergonomically correct (no knee strain from being too close) while being able to flat-foot the ground at a stop; all while seated in the saddle. On my cargobike, with the seat as far back as it goes, I still have to tip-toe the ground when I’m at a proper distance from the pedals. It’s not as extreme a stretch as it is from the saddle of my road bike (so yes I notice the difference) but I’m not flat-footed by a long shot.
For those people who have kids, the cargobike is a magical experience. I never liked hauling the kids around in a trailer. I especially didn’t like having them a foot off the ground, eight feet behind me in a fabric and aluminum target for inattentive drivers; which is how I’ve always thought of trailers. There’s something about having them right in front of you that makes you feel much safer about having them on a bike in the first place. Not to mention the fact that they’re encased in a sturdy wooden box with seatbelts on. I’ve read an article about a lady who was cut off by a car and ditched her cargobike. It slid 15 feet down a hill with her little boy inside. Neither she nor her boy sustained any injuries. Sounds good to me! Another advantage to you having your kids right in front of you is that you can manage them more easily. (i.e. answer questions, make minor adjustments, break up fights, etc.) Anyone who has ever towed kids in a trailer knows how frustrating it is to stop, lay your bike down, and then walk back and open the trailer just be cause you 1-year-old’s helmet has slid off to the side of his head and he’s crying. (And you just did the same thing 5 blocks ago!) On the cargo bike you can reach forward and push it back up. Even if you have to stop, the kids are more easily accessible in the cargobike than in a trailer. And most importantly, you can have a conversation with them the whole time. You just can’t do that when they’re in a trailer.
I have a hard time saying that there are any drawbacks to this bike – but there are certainly a few things that any potential buyer should know before plunking down $3k.
First: this bike is heavy!
Another thing you have to be aware of on a cargobike is braking distance. Todd explained it to me perfectly one day when he was telling me why they don’t put disc brakes or cantilevers on the Bakfietsen, “It’s a lot of weight, being stopped by two small patches of rubber. The kind of brakes you use are not the issue.” When you’re riding a cargobike, you have to be aware at all times (especially on descents) that it’s going to take longer to stop than it would on a regular bike; maybe even a car. I haven’t encountered an accident situation in which I was unable to stop in time (yet) – but I have twice unintentionally run stop signs at the bottom of hills when I didn’t notice the stop sign until I got to the intersection (damn cars blocking my view!) and one of those times I went through the stop sign with kids in the bike! Let me tell you, you don’t do that twice in the same intersection.
Some people think the price is steep. I will admit to never having spent $3000 on a bike before. But for us the price was easy to justify: this isn’t a bike, this is our other car. We sold a rarely-driven-truck that had been darkening our driveway for 6 months, and it paid for this bike. I realize that not everyone has a car to trade-in (although some good friends of ours did exactly the same thing – getting rid of their rarely used second car to buy a Bakfiets) – but do the math; you can easily justify the cost of a fleet of bikes, including a Bakfiets, when you compare that cost to how much you spend on single car. Car-payments, insurance, gas and maintenance – cars are money-pits. Anyone who has owned a car knows this all too well.
Maybe the last drawback I can think of is the handlebars being the same height as my kids’ heads. It’s simple physics – during a sharp turn the kids’ heads get in the way of the handlebars. There’s no other place to put either of these two things, so be careful not to whap the kids in the head when turning sharply. Good thing they wear helmets.
In conclusion – I personally don’t believe that any of the drawbacks outweigh the benefits. This is a fantastic bike and knowing everything I know now I’d would definitely still buy it again. I should point out that Bakfietsen may not be great for everyone. For people who live in Northwest Portland or Seattle for instance (have you seen those hills!!!) or people who don’t have kids and who just want to haul cargo (where a trailer might be more efficient) this would be an impractical bike.
But for us urban dwellers living in relatively flat towns with young children (under 6 or 7) the Bakfiets is a godsend. It truly is. On a spring day, when I’m riding on the waterfront with my 4 year old, and we’re both making goose-calls to the geese, or pointing out the boats – it’s heaven. It’s just impossible to have a more thrilling rapport with you child than when they’re sitting right in front of you during a bike ride. This last weekend we took the family out for a cargobike ride to Ladd’s Addition for hot chocolate, and my wife (riding her Dutch cruiser) asked, “do we ever have happier moments than this? When we’re out on our bikes?” I couldn’t think of any.