Bullitt Cargo bikes, 3 years on

As some readers will already know, I work in the office of a London courier company. 4 years ago, my boss was finally persuaded to buy a cargo bike.  The deal was that we would supply a bike, with a secure, waterproof box, emblazoned with the company livery, and the rider would pay a daily fee to cover the costs (initial & continuing) of the bike.

The experiment was a success.  Over short distances, carrying loads too big for conventional courier bikes, the cargo out-performed the vans. The riders made money, easily covering the rental fee they were charged for use of the bike.  (I’m not going to go into the detail of the rental fee, but it covers the out-goings on the bikes more or less – mostly a little less.)

A success, but qualified by the reliability of the bike that we had bought.

Every part of the bike (frame, components apart from handle-bars and levers) broke at least twice, and some parts 4 or 5 times, over a 15 month period.  As the bike was pretty much hand-made, and had a number of one-off fabrications fitted, this meant that the bike was often off the road for days, sometimes weeks.

The following summer, 2009, the Bullitt cargo bike became available for purchase in the U.K.. We had been thinking of buying another cargo bike, but wanted something that would be more reliable, and was easier to repair, which meant mass-produced frames & parts.  The Bullitt frame was not only mass-produced, but was fitted with conventional parts, and was much lighter than anything else available, barring the 8 Freight, so we bought a Clockwork, i.e. fitted with hydraulic disc-brakes and an Alfine transmission (the Clockwork is now specced with Nexus 7).

We are now on our 3rd Bullitt, having replaced our first cargo bike with another Bullitt, and having suffered frame failure on the 2nd Bullitt after 2 years.  In that time, we have replaced pretty every part on the 2nd Bullitt, apart from the handle-bars and levers, including the kick-stand.  The front-hub was replaced not due to failure, but simply because I wanted to have a dyno hub fitted to the bike, so that the riders never have to worry about having lights on the bike.

Overall, I am very pleased with the way that the Bullitts have performed.

The spec was just about right, although I would recommend that any commercial user swap out the front hub for a dyno as soon as possible, and expect to replace the tyres straight away, as the tyres that come with Clockwork / Bluebird spec are seriously rubbish, and last about a month.  You do not want to spend any time at all dropping the wheels out of a cargo bike, so puncture resistance and durability are even more important than on conventional bikes.  I don’t actually like Marathon Plus at all, but they are perfect for this application, and well worth the money.

We did break stuff, but it wasn’t a big problem, as even when the kick-stand snapped (the kick-stand broke on both Bullitts – something I think Larry vs Harry have sorted out now, as a decent kick-stand is very important on a cargo bike – it’s seriously inconvenient to have to prop a loaded cargo bike up on a regular basis), L vs H sent us out a new one, which arrived within the week.

Notably, we broke the gear mechanism on one bike twice.  I suspect that this indicated a mixture of misuse, and insufficiently frequent servicing, rather than inherent unreliability of the part, as the 3 year old bike’s hub is only now in need of replacement.  Again, because mass-produced and widely available parts are used, it was a matter of days to get a replacement mechanism fitted.

Did I say stuff got broken? I think we replaced most of the moving parts at least once (calipers, discs, rims, chains, chain-sets, head-sets etc – there are two on a Long John style cargo bike etc etc), but over a two year period, this is exactly the sort of wear & tear I would expect from any pedal bike used for couriering most days, most weeks in London.  My very conservative, not at all well-educated, guess at average daily mileage for the bikes is around 30, so allowing 48 weeks continuous use a year, so I reckon that each bike does at least 7 200 miles a year, in all conditions – even snow, ice & salt.

As I mentioned above, we fitted secure, water-proof boxes to all our bikes, and this is probably the most problematic area for commercial cargo bikes.  You want to be able to secure the load so that it’s safe on the bike whilst the bike is unattended, and you want to be able to carry as much as possible, but clearly the box can’t be wider than the bike (this will make the bike a lot less manoeuvrable, and ideally the box will be light, as well as strong, water-proof & secure.  Too big and heavy a box will demoralise the rider, especially if the rider is asked to ride 4 miles to deliver an envelope only a little bigger than his (or her) hand.  This is important, because, as the old courier proverb has it, “a turning wheel is an earning wheel”, so sometimes it’s good to get some work on board, no matter how small the item, as long as it’s not wildly out of the way.  It’s not a great idea to send a cargo bike to Greenwich, if most of your cargo clients are based in Clerkenwell, and send stuff into the West End.

Our first bike (8 Freight) was fitted as big a box as we could reasonably fit, and this was a big mistake.  The weight destroyed the rack, and this was a big reason why the bike was so unreliable.

Repeating the mistake, we initially fitted a flight-case style box, custom made by Quentor to fit the Bullitt.  Even though the box was very light for its size, it was (is) relatively heavy, and the weight dramatically affects the handling of the bike, to the point where I dropped the bike on its side the very first time I tried to ride it.

We looked around for alternatives, and considered getting an aluminium box fabricated to our spec, but the cost was not considered by me to be worth the benefit.  Bullitt now sell a box for £300 (more or less, at it is priced in Euros).*  We fitted this box to one of our Bullitts, and with the dyno-hub, I would say this spec is pretty much perfect for courier work.  Still light enough to make envelope delivery economic and durable enough to give acceptable reliability (I find the idea of fitting carbon fibre parts, or, indeed, any race-quality parts, to commercial cargo bike ridiculous).  The commercial (as opposed to domestic) cargo bike is the epitome of the old truism of ‘light, cheap and strong – pick two’.  On our spec, the total cost is over £3000, which is an absurd sum for what is basically a sophisticated shopping bike, but for the heavy commercial user, it compares very, very favourably with the alternatives (which would be a small car).  So you could say, at least by one measure, that the Bullitt is all 3, i.e. light, cheap AND strong.

Big Blue Bike, who are based in Cardiff, got completely fed up with the weight of a hard box, and have developed a different solution, a foldable, secure, waterproof bag-box hybrid.  I haven’t seen it close-up, but they tell me it will be on sale shortly.

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25 comments
  1. Will said:

    Good review, we have had similar issues with our Bullitt, essentially mainline components wearing out over time. The only major reoccurring issue is chain tension from the slip in the rear axle. This can be fixed with chain tugs but also the new Bullitts have a different configuration on the rear drop outs which will hopefully be better.

    As for boxes, we run a large aluminium box, whilst is is heavier than a bag, the capacity and security is at a level which is needed for some of our clients, we simply can not operate those contracts without that security level. We have a bag we use and soon we’ll just be running a Bullitt with a tub and a tarp to work the adhock jobs we can do with it.

    For us certainly the best work bike out there. Our 8 freight has disintegrated several times, snapped forks, frame and just about every other bit, saying that it is nice to ride!

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    • I actually love riding 8 Freights, I prefer them to Bullitts as a ‘domestic’ user.

      We have the new mass-production model on test at the mo, and I’ll write something up about it in the New Year.

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      • Will said:

        The 8 freight is good for sure, up to speed quickly and quick to ride, but it needs major TLC! I hope the new model is good, but I wished they’d drop the mono fork on the front and try to sort some standard rear hub/axle configiuration.. oh and some brakes…

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      • The mono thing is Mike’s take on how to make it light. He’s a monomaniac, you might say! :-)

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      • Will said:

        ours snapped off at the bottom of what we call 40mph hill… I was personally amazed the hub brake was able to deliver enough power for that too happen! There’s a balance between custom parts and mainline stuff that we feel is really important. We’re launching a community cargo bike scheme and are going to be using Bullitts, they look cool and they can take the hammer better.

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      • My honest opinion is that they are great for domestic use. Riding one always makes me smile, which is not to be underestimated. I haven’t ridden too many bikes that make me smile every time I get on.

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  2. Mick Mack said:

    Hi Bill, nice one mate. I ride a Clockwork – for over a year now – here in Bristol and they’re very reliable. I don’t do anywhere near the mileage you guys do, but I clock up a fair bit given it’s very hilly here. I use an aluminium box that is light enough for me and whilst I can understand Ben’s decision to ditch his bespoke bin, I carry a lot of flowers for florists – pretty, light and people enjoy my delivery given the nature of the product – which just wouldn’t work in a large canvas bag.

    In retrospect, for the same price, but fitted with a Rohloff hub and very similar spec and design all over and an aluminium or steel frame – although I’ve heard they might flex too much carrying loads – is this one – http://www.pedalpower.de/produkte/lastenraeder/img/img.php?bild=lhsch7.jpg – from pedalpower.de – might have been a better option. I have ridden an 8freight. I found it strange in terms of steering, though as you say, very light. I had heard that there were lots of problems with frames snapping but that this has been put right with a new design – the crew up in Cambridge – Outspoken Delivery – use them almost exclusively, so they must be pretty good. They are also using the Cycles Maximus trike, a stalwart of the British rickshaw scene. I understand from people over here in Bristol that the Maximus team will be back in production in Bristol in the New Year, which is brilliant news. Going from couriers to Logistics requires a scaling up of the whole market for cycle transport and it will happen.

    In July in Cambridge we set up the European Cycle Logistics Federation – http://federation.cyclelogistics.eu/ – to take this message to the big boys – UPS, DHL, DPD, FEdex, TNT. – http://www.vogelvrijefietser.nl/hetblad/2012-11/artikel/bakfiets-sneller-dan-bestelbus
    It will happen. We have the Chartered Institute of Logistics and Transport on board.

    Our basic message is, let’s get the delivery vans out of the City Centre and get as much stuff onto bikes as possible. It’s all obvious stuff really, but changing habits takes a little more time, as we all know.

    More cargo-bike stuff I say. Cheers Bill.

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  3. Adam Ef said:

    Not a courier but we’ve had a Bullitt (also in Bristol) for a couple of years now for transporting 2 kids on the schoolrun (box sides and seat fitted on the front) plus family shopping (rack and panniers added as you always need more space no matter how much you have!). Our lives are totally adjusted to depend on it now. Not sure what we’d do without it. Keep having to modify the box to be slightly wider as the kids grow though.

    http://adamef.tumblr.com/post/25844669243

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  4. Mick Mack said:

    Sorry, that link to pedal power gives you their derailleur option; Ooooops! Check out their catalogue – http://www.pedalpower.de/kataloge/tandemkatalog/upload/katalog_2012_web.pdf page 24/25 plus the electric assist Bullitt at http://www.urban-e.com/en/

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  5. Martin said:

    Hi Bill
    As an occasional trailer user (I’ve got a Carry Freedom Y Frame), I’m curious as to the advantages of a cargo bike – I’ve never tried one but I’d imagine they’re somewhat harder to ride/park etc, and the Bullitt looks to have a similar capacity to my trailer. Perhaps you’d rather have your load in front of you where you can keep an eye on it in case someone makes off with it at a red light :-)

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    • The big advantage over a trailer is that rolling resistance is lower (the extra wheels slow the bike down), and also the handling is far superior. It’s also more convenient to park a cargo bike than a bike with a trailer. In my opinion, it’s easier to ride a cargo bike than a bike with a trailer.

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      • Martin said:

        Fairy nuff, must have a crack at one some time. I have to admit that going down a steep hill with a fully loaded trailer can be a bit interesting. Though I think I’ll stick with something that’ll fit under the stairs!

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    • Adam Ef said:

      I’ve found that I don’t notice the weight nearly as much as I expected to when I load up the Bullitt. Something to do with the load being in the middle of the bike (between the front and rear wheel) and also low down helping anchor the bike to the ground, and also adding momentum once you’re moving.

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      • Martin said:

        Similar experience re the weight with a trailer. Then you reach an uphill and remember it’s there. I’ve discovered that a “flat” road near me isn’t quite as flat as I’d thought. Oh, and speed bumps can be interesting…

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      • Good to hear your experiences of cargobikes in london Bill. Encouraging to hear that wear and tear is not just my problem!

        For big blue bike , the switch from box to bag was essential as we reguarly cycle 10 miles for one job including a few hills and road sections where you need to push along without becoming swamped by cars.
        We also had a few incidents where the item went through the lid of the box but we couldn’t get it out again!
        Obviously security is the main issue that we get asked about and whilst the bag can be locked we can understand those companies who can’t switch to a bag for reasons of security.
        What I’m trying to do with cargobikebags.wordpress.com is develop products that specifically target a problem and help other companies who have found similar issues. Our first product aimed to save weight and add carrying capacity.
        Its great that cargo bikes are becoming more popular in the uk and we think innovative accessories will help the market for them develop.

        If anyone has any questions about our bags then they can contact me directly on info@bigbluebike.co.uk

        Thanks

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  6. Johan said:

    I am 6’5″ (195cm) and wonder if the bullitt would suit my hight?
    I plan to have the bullitt alubox with 45kg of cargo, would handeling still be good?
    Thanks in advance if you answer my questions :).

    Like

    • The height and the weight should not be a problem! Best of luck.

      Like

  7. Adam said:

    Hi Buffalo Bill, very informative, thank you – I am mildly surprised however, at the amount of damage you’ve reported. It makes me wonder what sort of max weights you have running on your average run. Even considering that the couriers themselves treat the bikes as tools (and not their personal pride and joy). I will acknowledge however that aluminium fatigues far quicker than steel; but still. You should be charging Larry vs Harry for the kind of product stress-testing which you’re running. Have they been charging you for the replacement parts?

    Cheers
    Adam

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    • I wouldn’t call it damage, just normal wear. As I said, mostly well within expected wear.

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      • LVH claim a 100Kg topweight; I’ve never taken that much myself and rarely above 50Kg but I did ride with 80Kg once and I wouldn’t want to do that regularly on these bikes. The Bullitt is a working bike and in my case not for picking up a few bags of groceries once a week or taking the kids to school in the morning. I’m usnig it, it’s a tool. And much as I love cycling, it’s my job and I’ve been riding for more than 40 years and never driven a car, I still see them primarily as a tool… for conviviality no doubt.

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      • Adam said:

        Well I enjoyed it for your blatant and matter-of-fact review of the machine. I am still very much buying one. There aren’t many cargo bikes no wider than a vanilla road bike and only weighs 24kg. For me it is perfect. My short list included a Surly Big Dummy (none of us can really talk to each other with that; as in myself and two young sons), a Workcycles FR8, which is the same as the Big Dummy except one of the boys CAN sit in front and have a chat…..but leaves the poor person riding in back alone. And other cargo tub bikes are far too big/heavy.

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