cargo bike

I went to the Hackney Cycling Showcase last Saturday, partly to catch Brian Deegan’s talk about the ‘light segregation’ scheme that he designed for Royal College Street (more about which in a separate post soon), but also to meet with Roman of London Green Cycles.

He was there to exhibit some of the many freight cycles and cargo bikes that London Green Cycles offer.  Here are some of them.  In front, the Bakfiets, which is probably the best known cargo bike in London.  Behind, the Omnium Mini, the bike with the big orange box is Bicicapace, with is a utility with capital ‘U’ and the last two wheeler is the Omnium Cargo, which is more or less a straight copy of the Bilenky Trashpicker.

I rode all of them, and they are all great bikes, fun to ride, and well-designed.  Surprisingly, my favourite was Bicicapace. I must be getting old.


8freightAs 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:

‘knee over pedal spindle’ (or KOPS) is the sort of
formula you might expect to find in chapter three of The Da
Vinci Code. It has no place in the real world.

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.

8 Freight cargo bikes.

Zero has used 8 Freights for several years.

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.

I think this title is silly.  Also, shouldn’t it be Best 100 Bikes? Or is it a play on the idea that every ‘real’ cyclist has a ‘best’ bike which only comes out for warm, dry Sundays? Either way, this book is more a catalogue of new bikes than a collection of the best 100 bikes ever.

It even has a pricing guide, expressed in relative terms of $ to $$$$$, where $ is less than $1000, and $$$$$ is more than $10 000.  There’s a Colnago CX in the book, and it scores $$$, so you can see that, for the likes of you & me, some of the content of this book is very much in the fantasy bikes area.

The choice of bikes is eclectic, with something for everyone to dislike (and like): folding tandem, electric assist cargo, Velorbis Arrow Gent’s bike, Surly Long Haul Trucker, the afore-mentioned Colnago CX, PK Ripper  … On the face of it, fairly comprehensive of the cycling spectrum, from the entirely functional Brompton to the as-yet unbuilt Intelligent Urban.  Ironically, these bikes appear in the same section, Folding / Innovative.

I am also slightly perplexed to find the Fuji Feather, a brakeless track bike, in the City / Utility section. Ok, it’s fitted with 36 hole hubs, 25c tyres and a 46-16 ratio (which, by the way, isn’t all that small a gear, and is probably a little too big for comfort), but does that really make it an ideal city bike?

After flicking through it a few times, I’m still not really sure what the point of this book is, though.  Is it designed to be an overview of the best bikes to be found anywhere right now, as the publisher’s blurb claims?  In which case, why are Bullitt not present in the Utility section?  For my money (or even if I’m spending someone else’s), Bullitt has to be best urban utility bike currently available, in terms of cost versus utility. If it’s stand-out, innovative design, then the Mike Burrows designed 8 Freight cargo bike should definitely be included, as there is no other mono-blade frame design even remotely like it, and Mike Burrows himself has come up with some of the most innovative bike design of the last 20 years, notably the Giant Compact Road series.

On the other hand, if it’s just straight-up bike pron, why isn’t, for example, Bilenky Cycleworks included?  Bilenky have been around for years, fillet braze as well as anyone, have come up with unusual designs, and have won multiple awards at the North American Handbuilt Bike Show.

Perhaps my sensibility is somewhat different to that of the author.  According to the publisher’s blurb, Zahid Sardar is a writer on architecture and design. It may be that I am not the target audience for this book.

Gripes aside, this book does have lots of glossy pictures of glossy new bikes, and the price is reasonable for 220 glossy pictures of glossy new bikes.  I would not describe it as a coffee-table book (do you know anyone with a coffee table? I can only think of one person, and she is over 60, and doesn’t keep coffee-table books on it) because it’s not hard-back and isn’t really big to be used as a murder weapon.

It does have a couple of pages of quotes from bike designers at the front which are worth a read.  A couple picked at random:

I love to see bikes becoming more popular as forms of transport rather than seeing them used only in races – Chris Boardman.

Cities are becoming myopic in their interest in cars. It is better to have vehicles that are more efficient – Bjarke Engels.

‘100 Best Bikes’, Zahid Sardar, Laurence King Publishing, ISBN 978 1 78067 008 9, £14.95