I used to care about weight. I’m one of those OCD types who meticulously weighed components out on my gram scale. I’m the jerk with the hollow pin chain and all Dura Ace on his carbon fibre LOOK 595. I stripped my mountain bike down to its frame, and replaced every single part. Every one. All in order to shave seconds. I have strong opinions about rotational weight and when exactly you should take on water during a race, if at all.
Yet, today, my favourite thing to ride is a burly beast of a bike, laden with as much gear as I can load on it. I want to stack as much stuff as I can on there, and then ride it everywhere, all the time. I want to ride it to the store and the bar and the park and the playground. But mostly I want to ride it into your heart. Because, see, I’m a heavy bike convert. And like all converts, I’m kind of a zealot. Which means I’m not going to be happy until you’re riding some Magnus Van Magnussen style contraption too. I want to see you on a cargo bike, because you are so going to love it.
Meet The Cargo Bike
Let’s say this up front: cargo and utility bikes are the new fixies. They are the in bike. They’re positively trendy. Which, in all honesty, is a little off-putting. But there’s a great reason for that: they’re amazing bikes. They’re practical, beautiful and damn fun to ride. They can haul everything from babies, to groceries, to large pieces of furniture. They make moving gear through traffic-choked cities faster, and more fun, than any pickup truck. I’m totally smitten.
After our daughter was born, we started looking around for a new bike. We had performance road and mountain bikes, the kind you wouldn’t dare drop a rack on. Yeah, they’re light and fast and can drop down some serious Downieville shit. But they’re not very good for groceries, you know? We needed something that could haul the kid, baby gear, our gear and the extra stuff that life often dictates you lug from place to place.
The obvious answer was a cargo bike. I knew one would get me where I needed to go, but until I dove in, I had no idea how many sizes, shapes and wonderful variants they came in. Here’s a little bit about these wonderful bikes, and why I love them so much.
Bakfiets-style Front Loaders
A Metrofiets cargo bike.
Holland is awesome. Not only does it legalise prostitution and marijuana, but its flat terrain has spawned a massive cycling culture. One bike that has really taken off in recent years is the Bakfiets, which has a large cargo bay or platform for hauling gear or kids that sits just a few inches off the street and right behind the front wheel. This front side cargo beds keep weight low-to-the-ground and on balance. Not only are original Bakfiets becoming increasingly common in the US now, but they’ve given rise to lots of other bikes made in a similar style, like that gorgeous Metrofiets pictured above.
They’re especially popular with parents — putting a kid in the cargo bay keeps him up front where he can see, rather than stuck in a wagon behind the bike with nothing but a view of your sweaty old dad arse. And of course, they make a fashion statement. Many sport bold designs with lacquered wooden cargo beds and brightly coloured frames. These are the ultimate gee-whiz bikes. All the better if you’re a gear head because they are spanner heaven.
They’re massively popular in Portland, where specialty shops and garage manufacturers are cranking out gorgeous rigs. Even here in San Francisco, where the hills are alive with the sound of cyclists gasping for breath, there are already multiple shops specialising in these long, low-slung, very heavy cargo bikes.
My favourite of these is probably the Cetma. Not only is it a stunningly beautiful, exceptionally utilitarian ride, but as it proudly boasts, “CETMA IS RUN BY ONE GUY IN A SIMPLE SHOP WITHOUT AUTOMATION, mechanised ASSEMBLY, ROBOTS, LASERS, SORCERY, SUPERPOWERS, OR PSYCHIC BEAVERS.“
I mean, YES! Shouting aside, if you don’t love that sales pitch, something is just wrong with you. Here’s a delightful video.
Long Tails are becoming so popular I fully expect to have one pants me at any moment. In my Ocean Beach neighbourhood, they are utterly everywhere, often with a surf board in tow. On the beachside promenade, and at aprés surf spots like Trouble Coffee, long tails very literally typically outnumber bikes with a more familiar geometry.
The Xtracycle platform really kicked this trend off. Xtracycle is an open-source design, and several other manufacturers like Yuba and Surly are building bikes to its specs, which means all the accessories — racks, panniers and more — will work on any of the bikes that follow its guidelines. Xtracycle sells an extension called the Free Radical that will turn just about any bike into a longtail, and a fully built bike, the Radish. Both come in all sorts of configurations, to trick out however you need.
The Kona Ute
The biggest indication long tails are about to have a serious moment? Even Trek — a company that makes excellent-but-boring bikes — has gotten in on long tails.
The cycle truck typically has a 20-inch front wheel (and often a 26-inch rear wheel) with a frontside rack that’s connected directly to the frame — which means it doesn’t turn with the handlebars. They’re lighter and can’t carry quite as much gear as a longtail. But, man, do they ride. Not only will they carry lots of gear, but they’ll also accelerate quickly and turn on a dime. They’ve also been around, approximately, since the dawn of man.
OK, that’s an exaggeration, but they were certainly one of the first bike geometries used as load-haulers. The Schwinn Cycle Truck, for example, went into production in 1939 and was widely used as a delivery vehicle. Many of them are still on the road today. They have something of a cult following, even. And, look at this bike. How could they not start a cult?
When it came to buying a bike for our family, after shopping around, we went with a cycle truck, the Civia Halsted. It’s fast and responsive and great on hills. We put a Yepp Maxi kid carrier on the back, and even when we load the front up with cargo and the back end with an extra 10kg of miniature human, it still rides pretty much like every bike you’ve been on since you were a kid.
And what’s more, it makes me feel like a kid. It makes me feel alive and powerful and like I’m in control of my own fate. I ride it almost every day. I make up excuses to go do things. I can’t get enough, I just can’t get enough. Simply put, it’s a blast.
And So Many More
Madsen’s take on the cargo bike puts the load in the rear
And, again, this is just a small sampling of what’s out there. There are so many different shapes and sizes and geometries. I mean, we haven’t even gotten into cargo trikes yet. Cargo trikes! How can you ride one of those and not feel utterly childlike, even with the heaviest load?
Look, I know, light bikes are fun, fixed gears are fast, and carbon fibre is quite possibly the greatest material moulded yet by man. I have loved them all, too. But these fat functional bikes with their oblong racks and their impossible geometries are fun in ways I’d never imagined. You really need to ride one.