Box bikes good for kids and groceries, even eggs: bakfiets review
I was confidently biking on the bakfiets when I realized that I should take the bike out for a proper test by going food shopping. I promptly drove it on to the local, granola Karma Co-op, parked the bakfiets on its sturdy double kickstand, locked its integrated lock, and purchased a load of groceries that I'd normally find challenging to take home on my smaller bike. It was just too easy.
And since I now had all these groceries, I would have to also drop them off at home. I was a bit worried for the eggs over some potholes, but everything survived the drive.
A week ago Curbside kindly let me borrow their short and long bakfietsen (literally translated as box bikes but this variety with the two wheels and a box in the front is specifically known as a "long john") for the day. Curbside is importing the bakfiets from Workcycles in The Netherlands (though the frames supposedly come from China so maybe you could try to cobble together your own bike if you can import your own frrames). What comes is a quality cargo and child-friendly bike that is sure to divert eyes (mostly by people who cannot understand how such a big bike can move) for the $3000 price (reasonable if you think about how many taxi rides you'll avoid over your lifetime).
I first took the "short" bakfiets out for a spin. This bike is quite nimble despite the wooden box on the front. It can still carry a kid and groceries on the front (80 kg according to Workcycles). I forgot to measure the bike, and the Workcycles website doesn't specify the length, so let's just leave it as shorter than the long bakfiets but longer than a regular bike.
This bike rode nicely on Bloor and the comfortable side streets of the Annex, but it was too easy for me. I've just had too much experience with similar cargo bikes so I went back to take out the long version.
After much struggling with store manager Eric Kamphoff to extricate the long bakfiets from the display window - almost crashing a whole display during the effort - I managed to get it outside for a spin. The fact that the long bakfiets was in the window is a testament to how it is still a niche product in Toronto, despite the ubiquitous nature in The Netherlands, with thousands of mothers carting their kids around and even participating in bakfiets races.
Even with two large bags of groceries, the box was mostly empty enticing me to go back and buy more stuff just to keep my veggies from getting lonely. It would probably have been better to take a small box from the store, but there you go, you get a real test of how the bike holds up to my laziness.
After dropping the groceries at home and seeing that, amazingly, none of the eggs had broken, I decided to see how the big bike could deal with the downtown squeeze, the typical situation for the downtown cyclist who is often faster or slower than car traffic, squeezed up against the parked cars.
Witness that the box is actually about as wide as my shoulders so at moderate speed I found it easy to get past the slow traffic. Below a certain speed it gets harder to keep the bike pointed straight ahead, given just how far forward the small wheel is in front. The trick, of course, is not to go too slowly.
Some other features
Typical of Dutch bikes, the entire chain is covered - a real advantage in keeping ones' pant legs clean and dry. The drawback is that it's a lot harder to take the rear off in order to change a flat inner tube. A friend and owner of a bike store recounted to me how it took him the better part of an hour to change the tube and tire on such a bike. It helps quite a bit the bikes come with the top of the line, virtually puncture proof Schwalbe tires. It's also commendable that Workcycles has made it easier to remove the tube by having the frame come apart near the hub. I wasn't able to test this feature.
The bike comes with a seven speed internal hub, which should get someone up most hills (I didn't test it up to St. Clair). And it comes with drum brakes (much more common in Europe), which seemed to be quite responsive. With a heavy load one wants to have strong brakes. Drum brakes don't stop as strongly as disk brakes, but they are certainly better than the v-brakes that I've tried on another cargo bike.
Another common feature on Dutch bikes is the built-in lock. The key dangles from the lock as you ride and only requires that you push down on a lever and turn the key to lock the bike as you shop. For short trips this might be all you want: the lock is somewhat sturdy and the bike is bulky which may dissuade thieves. But overnight you should invest in a good u-lock. It's an expensive machine!
The bike is equipped with front and rear LED generator lights. I didn't test them out since it was broad daylight, but they do look nice and sturdy.
A big selling point of these bikes is how they become essential tools for urban families. It's the tool they never knew they needed until they got one. Not having a kid of my own, I had accompanied a couple friends who had taken their bakfiets and kid to the "Blessing of the bicycles" at Trinity-St. Paul's on Bloor. You can see just how roomy it is and can easily fit a baby in a car seat. For older kids the bike provides a seat with simple straps to secure them. A lot of people like how they can see the kid at all times, where a kid trailer can seem more invisible. Kids that are too small for a bike seat, can be secured into a car seat which is secured to the box, much like you see in the photo. (I'm sure people will mention the safety of the kid, but realistically this kid is likely just as safe as one in a car.)
The bakfiets as a bike category is interesting and I'm sure we'll slowly see a lot more of them in Toronto. As of now, the Workcycles bakfiets is your best bet for a ready to purchase long john. There are a couple guys who make them as a hobby, and one custom bike builder in Guelph, True North Cycles. There are also a smattering of builders in the US, but I don't know how to get my hands on them for reviewing.
If anyone wants to me to review other cargo bikes feel free to arrange for me to try them out.