As I mentioned in my review of the Bullitt cargo bike, the company I work for had previously had a different cargo bike. That bike was the 8 Freight, designed and built by Mike Burrows. For those of you that don’t know, Mike Burrows is one of Britain’s most innovative designers, and probably the best bicycle designer of the last 20 years.
His most widely known design is possibly the Lotus ‘super-bike’, which was used by Chris Boardman to win the 4000m pursuit at the 1992 Olympics. His most widely ridden design is definitely the Giant TCR. Mike is an inconoclast, i.e. he is a destroyer of previously widely held dogmas. He prefers recumbents to the coventional diamond safety bicycle and disdains such things as traditional cycle fitting, happily slaying sacred cows such as KOPS:
Unsurprisingly, when Mike applied himself to the ‘problem’ of designing a bike to carry loads, he didn’t bother with tinkering with existing designs. The conventional cargo bike, commonly known as the long john, is a diamond frame with the front cut off, a load-carrying platform inserted, and the forks tacked on the front end, steered via 2 complete head-tubes and head-sets and several flanges, bushings and a long connecting strut from the rear-most head-tube assembly to the fork.
Mike’s design reverses this, as Mike has no experience of, and little interest in, complicated steering mechanisms, but is fully conversant with long chains from his work on recumbents. He also made the fork mono-blade, and rear wheel single-sided, to keep fabrication costs and weight down. This makes the 8 Freight unlike any other bicycle I have ridden, as the rear wheel is significantly off-set from the track of the front wheel. The head-tube angle is steep, around 80 degrees on the test model, and I have never really got my head round the rake and trail of the fork, but suffice to say it is extreme.
The advantage of having the rider at the front is that it avoids the wheel lock problem of the long-john design, which occurs when you turn the front wheel far enough to one side and the steering-link strut fouls the mud-guard (or tyre) of the front wheel. This configuration handles very differently to a conventional long-john; you don’t bank the bike round corners, you steer it. The rider isn’t aware of the off-set of the rear wheel; instead, when the bike is turning, there is a pronounced sensation of side-ways, as opposed to circular motion. However, as with all unfamiliar bikes, the rider quickly becomes accustomed to the unique handling characteristics.
The massively over-sized frame tube is, of course, very strong, and therefore well able to take a lot of weight. My own personal record is well in excess of my own body weight (which is around 75 kilos), and users have reported successfully carrying fridges and the like. The handling under load is excellent, with stability seemingly increased as the bike is weighted.
My initial experience of the 8 Freight in a commercial setting was mixed. We had a number of problems with the bike, most of which stemmed from two things: the box that we fitted, and the tyre pressure that we used.
Mike’s slightly despairing comment about the box was something along the lines of ‘you put a great big heavy box on my lovely light cargo bike’! The box was probably too big, and over-stressed the load rack, and this, combined with over-inflating the tyres, caused a number of failures in the tubes of the rack.
The tyre pressure was also significant. At the recommended pressure of 40 psi, the Big Apple tyres wallow a bit. This gives the rider the sensation that some considerable portion of their energy is being wasted. It therefore seemed logical to inflate the tyres over the recommended pressure, and make the ride a little quicker.
This was a mistake, of course. At the correct pressure, the tyres provide some suspension of the load, and lessen the dynamic forces operating on the cargo rack. It’s impossible to say for sure, but there seems little doubt that over-high tyre pressure contributed to the failure of the tubes in the cargo rack. I should add that at no point did the massively over-sized main tube show any signs of failure at all.
This neccessitated a number of repairs by Mike, and some modifications to the cargo rack tubes. The constant need for repair was frustrating for both ourselves and Mike. Also inconvenient was the uniqueness of some key parts, such as the derailleur hanger and the front wheel, which were fabricated or modified to Mike’s design in Norfolk by Mike himself.
All of these problems led us to end our use of the 8 Freight after 15 months, despite our experiment being a qualified success, proving to our customers that cargo bikes can provide effective commercial delivery services. So it was somewhat surprising that we were offered an 8 Freight on trial, although it was a pleasant surprise. The 8 Freight we were given was a new model, made in Taiwan from 7000 series aluminium. Mike had not been able to use 7000 series aluminium for his ‘home-made’ 8 Freights, not being in a position to buy alumunium in sufficient quantities. I’m not sure if the 7000 series is of a thicker guage than that obtained by Mike, but it is supposed to be stronger.
The design has not been fundamentally altered, so the handling, weight and so forth are all more or less the same. As we had been asked to test the bike precisely because we had more or less destroyed the previous model, we fitted the same size box as before. This time, however, we were careful NOT to exceed the rated pressure of the Big Apples. We used the bike over 6 months, including the very busy Christmas period.
Sax, probably our strongest and fastest cargo bike rider, was on it during the Xmas period. This is about as stern a test of a cargo bike I could imagine, for 2 reasons – one, he rides a cargo bike quicker than most people ride their standard singles; two, he is almost entirely mechanically incompetent, regarding bike repair as an ageless mystery practised by sorcerers (in our case, a sorceress – our cargo bikes are maintained by Nic Hamilton at Look Mum No Hands).
Overall, the test bike stood up well. There was no sign of failure in any of the tubes in the rack, which was the important thing. We did have some problems with the derailleur assembly, but this is inherent to the design, as opposed to manufacture. If you want internal gears, you probably should be looking at a different design. As I mentioned before, one of the positives of the long-tail is the lack of a complicated steering mechanism, and superior manoeuvrability. Another positive is that with the load behind, it is possible to fit a bigger box to the 8 Freight than to most long-johns, as the load will not interfere with the handle-bars.
I am told by the guys who supplied the bike that the one-off parts will now be mass-produced, so there should be greater availability of spares. The price is likely to be pretty competitive, especially for such a light bike. Is the 8 Freight a genuinely viable commercial cargo bike, as opposed to an over-sized shopping bike? In my opinion, yes. If you can get over the ‘wierdness’ of the handling, it is a fun bike to ride, and, in my opinion, actually more comfortable and stable than a long-john. Furthermore, I find it to be a bike with a very, very high smile factor, i.e. I almost can’t help smiling when I ride it. And the guys at Outspoken Delivery, Cambridge have been using the ‘old’ 8 Freight for years, albeit with a smaller (but still large!) box.