Monday, September 26, 2011

guest post: fifteen miles on the bakfiets

I am so very pleased to introduce Full Hands' first guest blogger, David, my neighbor and a cycling papa. My hope is that in the next year, you'll be hearing from a number of guest bloggers discussing their families' bikey adventures. Cheers to David for being the first to actually take me up on my offer to contribute.  And thanks to David and his wife Kristin for being another local family to own more than one cargo bike, helping make the Full Hands crew feel a little less nutty....

My name is David, and along with Kristin and our daughter L., we are a two-cargo-bike family. We own a Surly Big Dummy with Peapod child seat and a Madsen Bucket bike. We have had the Big Dummy since March, and I primarily ride for commuting to/from work and for short trips around town. We've racked up a bit over 500 miles on the Dummy so far. We got the Madsen just about a week ago but it already feels normal to have two cargo bikes. Kristin is the primary rider on the Madsen, and she prefers it over the Dummy for lower step-through height, more upright riding position, and lower perceived center of gravity.  Kristin has used the Madsen for taking L. to play group and for similar trips. L. is pre-verbal, so we do not have her opinion on her riding experiences.

This past weekend was the “Moving Connecticut Day of Action” and there was a gathering on the New Haven Green. As part of this gathering, Kidical Mass wanted a representation of family bike / cargo bike options. We had Xtracycles and a Christiania trike and some trailers and a Madsen. Sara was generous to lend out her bakfiets as part of show and tell, and we got to try riding it for the weekend.

With me being used to the Big Dummy, I didn't think I would be surprised by the long wheelbase on the bakfiets, but it truly is a long bike. Turning the bike around is a little different than what I've come to expect from the Big Dummy for two reasons. The bakfiets has hard stops on the steering to prevent you from oversteering and dumping the bike over. This is a good idea, but in practice it means you cannot steer the bike as hard as you would sometimes prefer for making a tight radius when parking or backing up. The second difference is that the Dummy has a handle on the front of the deck, and when I'm trying to negotiate a tight spot I just grab the handle and drag the rear wheel wherever I want to repoint the bike. In retrospect, I just realized there is a handle near the base of the seatpost on the bakfiets, and I could probably use that handle to get the same effect.

Once rolling, more differences, and some similarities arise. Kristin especially noticed with the Madsen that the large plastic bucket acts as a speaker, amplifying the noise of potholes. You do get used to the effect but it's noticeable the first few rides. The bakfiets had the same properties, although not as substantial because the wood does deaden the vibrations. And then I realized that when riding the bakfiets on the second day I stopped hearing the sound. It turns out we had been carrying u-locks on the bottom of the bakfiets and Madsen, and when I stopped carrying the u-lock I stopped getting the loud bonk on the bumps. We will try putting some cloth between the u-lock and bucket with the
Madsen and see if this reduces the bump noise.
Photo credit: Maria Tupper
At speed, the bakfiets remote steering is intuitive if you can relax enough to let the bike teach you. If you carry enough speed into the corner you can do some subtle leaning, but you also have to do some steering. I did a lot of minor wiggling back and forth while I first felt it out, and by the end of the second day riding, it felt natural. The internal-geared 8-speed hub was more than enough for around-town use for fairly flat to minor hills.

On my second day of riding I gave myself a bakfiets challenge. New Haven has a neighborhood referred to as Science Hill (a lot of Yale science labs are housed there). I decided to try riding up Munson, onto Prospect, and down Edwards. I do not know the actual altitude gain and loss or the grade, and will leave that to somebody with GPS skills. I started uphill from Winchester in fourth or fifth gear. Just past Mansfield I was down to third and soon went down to second and first. By the end of the hill I was cranking as much as I could in first and doing a lot of weaving. The bakfiets can climb hills, but I recommend going around instead.

I did this in sandals on flat pedals, with no toe clips as a realistic test of the Dutch bike experience, where people bike in their everyday clothes. Now we were ready to go down Edwards, which is about the same slope, with glassy smooth pavement. The bakfiets does not have a speedometer, but we were over 20 mph. The Shimano drum brakes front and rear did a splendid job of bringing the bike to a smooth halt at the bottom. Something not entirely unexpected happened with the steering at high speed, and there was a noticeable shimmy. The shimmy is not in any way a dealbreaker, and in normal usage I never noticed this.

We rode up the Orange St. bike lane en route to East Rock Park, and got some smiles. Riding cargo bikes, we are used to getting laughs and smiles and waves. Riding the bakfiets brought this experience to a higher level. I believe this is due to the front-box design where people can spot a very different bike, compared with our Dummy and Madsen, where the front of the bike looks 'normal' to oncoming traffic or casual observers. We had people wave, we had people point, and on the ride back from the park, we had somebody come alongside in a car with the passenger shooting an iPhone video while saying 'that's one cool bike.' When parked we would get questions, and a lot of people assumed the wooden box meant we had made the bike ourselves. Almost home, a kid yelled that he wanted to try a ride in the box.

We also got to experience something very practical about having the cargo in front of the rider. On the way back from the park, L. started crying. My first instinct was to pull over. Then it occurred to me that I could reach her pacifier without having to stop, and this calmed her down. I had already placed her sippy cup and her snack container on the bakfiets seat bench, and by having her in front I could see if she was tempted to throw them overboard. It was really great to try the bakfiets for a weekend.

Photo credit: Domingo Medina