Monday, October 31, 2011

The Everyday Spooky

Low Light, Cycling
I am going to be honest here: I considered doing a contest or a funny story for Halloween, but I am just not in the mood.

After a few days back in the US, I have to admit that cycling here has required some major re-adjustment on my part. Having initially set out with the same relaxed attitude I'd acquired after only a couple of weeks in Vienna, I immediately experienced a "welcome home" reminder consisting of close-calls with doors flinging open, drivers refusing to yield when I have the right of way, the works. Cycling here is spooky. Having not ventured abroad for over a year prior to my recent trip, I guess I've managed to trick myself into forgetting that.

Once in a while I write about how much conditions have improved here in Cambridge and Somerville since I began cycling in Spring of 2009. But just as often I question myself: Have they really improved that much, or have I just become more aggressive, less sensitive, and more willing to accept risks in response to the reality of how (bad) things are? Probably a bit of both, and it's so difficult to see objectively. Coming back from Las Vegas a month ago, cycling in Boston seemed like paradise. Coming back from Vienna, it seems like a war zone. 

While I maintain that I am "not an activist," of course I care about cyclists all over the world having safe and pleasant travel conditions. Everyday cycling should not be a scary experience, and some day I hope it won't be. 

Saturday, October 29, 2011

The Grass Is Greener... On the Marsupial Bicycle Bag

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
With the gloomy weather outside, this seemed like a good time to feature the most unusual pannier I have been asked to review so far: the Grass Shopper from Marsupial Bicycle Bags.

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
I received this pannier shortly before leaving for Vienna, so I took it with me and tested it on Jacqueline.

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
If you are wondering whether this is what it appears to be, the answer is yes: The pannier is constructed from Astroturf (single piece, folded and riveted).

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
Made in England, these bags can be purchased directly from the manufacturer online, with prices starting at £50.

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
The Grass Shopper is available with a variety of (faux) flower attachments and matching inner linings. I chose the poppies with the red lining. The bag arrived with the flowers in a little packet inside, and an envelope full of green zipties, requiring a bit of DIY. I felt like a kindergartener engaged in an arts and crafts project as I sat on the floor with my housemate arranging the poppies and attaching them to the bag. The nice thing about doing this yourself, is that you can spread the flowers into any configuration you want and every bag will look a bit different. 

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
The Grass Shopper is available in one of three configurations: as a pannier with hook attachments (the version I got), as a pannier with strap attachments, or as a KlikFix compatible front basket. The hooks on my version are plastic and very similar to the ones Basil uses. Some racks' tubing diameter will be too thick for these, so be aware.

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
Inside the bag is an expandable waterproof lining that can be pulled closed with a drawcord.  There are no compartments, as it's intended as a shopper. The interior was spacious enough to swallow my workbag whole with room to spare.  

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
An optional shoulder strap attaches via plastic hooks. A leather tab in the rear can serve as a tail light attachment.

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
To be perfectly honest, I am not entirely sure how to "review" this bag. It is obviously meant to be a fun item, for those who are into colourful and quirky accessories. In that respect, it certainly succeeds. Me, I prefer a more classic style, but I know plenty of women who'd love it. From the standpoint of functionality, the choice of materials actually makes a great deal of sense: The bag is waterproof and durable. However, as a bag intended to be a shopper, I felt it was missing handles. The shoulder strap didn't quite do it for me, as it would start to slide out of adjustment and expand (lengthen) when the bag got too heavy. I would also suggest replacing the currently offered hooks with the R&K KlikFix system, which is compatible with a wider range of bicycle racks. 

Marsupial Bicycle Bags, Grass Shopper
When I rode around Vienna with the Grass Shopper, it was a great hit with the cycling ladies, and before I left I gave it away to a local reader who fell in love with it. Marsupial Bicycle Bags are a fairly new business and I wish them the best of luck with these fun and cheerful bags. The choice of flowers and the attachment customisation options are nice, allowing the owner to put a personal touch on their bag. It's difficult for me to judge whether these are too wild to appeal on a large scale, but they will certainly brighten up a gloomy day in an instant. Not a bad idea for long urban winters.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Winter Follows Me Around

Snow in October?...
When I complained about the unseasonably cold weather in Vienna, the Co-Habitant comforted me with tales of 60 degree temperatures back in Boston. Imagine my dismay when I came home to this. 

Snow in October?...
Snow, in October! I went for a 25 mile ride wearing layers of wool and a down vest, my nose running the entire time. 

Snow in October?...
The sun helped me warm up, but even as late as mid-morning there were some icy patches on the Minuteman Trail, and cycling over slippery wet/ frozen leaves was especially treacherous. 

Snow in October?...
But I realise that I've reached a level of being comfortable on the bike where I will actually cycle over slippery leaves and frost-covered brickwork intentionally, just to see what happens. So far, nothing. Once my rear wheel skidded a little, but that was all. I am trying to develop a feel for traction on a fixed gear bike, so that I can be more confident once it starts snowing properly... but I am not sure I understand it.

Snow in October?...
Last winter the transition from riding a roadbike almost daily to not at all was very difficult for me, and I am trying to mentally prepare myself this time. I had been counting on at least another good month of cycling before the snow, but apparently nature has other plans and I will have to adapt (i.e. get the trainer out from under the bed). Of course I will still keep cycling for transportation, but last winter that did not feel like enough. What are your winter cycling plans?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Which Bike for Long Rides?

Randonneur Flying, Hanscom AFB
After I wrote about completing my first 100 mile ride on an upright bicycle with an internally geared hub, I've received emails from readers asking to elaborate on the difference between doing long rides on a roadbike versus an upright bike. Previously, I had written that I prefer to ride a bicycle with drop bars for rides longer than 30 miles, and that I prefer to wear cycling clothing on long rides. Yet here I was riding 100 miles on a city bike wearing street clothing. Did I change my mind? Am I saying that roadbikes are unnecessary after all?

The short answer is that I think it's all a matter of context. I never did - and still don't - claim that one type of bike is categorically "better" than another. Instead, I think that any cyclist would benefit from considering their specific set of circumstances, preferences and abilities - and planning accordingly. Here are just a few factors that I think are worth taking into account:

Having experienced both, I cannot stress enough how different it is to cycle on hilly versus flat terrain. There is a reason why I did not attempt a 100 mile ride on an upright IGH bike in Boston (and don't plan to), but was comfortable doing so in Vienna: With Vienna as the starting point, it is possible to choose a fairly flat route along the Danube River. Starting from Boston, there is no direction I could possibly go in where I would not encounter hills. Based on past experience, I know that to cycle in hilly New England, I prefer to be on a derailleur-geared roadbike with drop handlebars, and to wear cycling-specific clothing. And based on past experience, I know that the same degree of cycling-specific preparation is not necessary for the flat Danube cycling path. In fact, I regularly encounter cyclists there who are in the middle of a cross-country tour, riding upright bikes laden with panniers. It works for them, as long as they do not deviate from the river trail. On the other hand, I almost never encounter cyclists riding anything other than roadbikes in the hilly areas outside Boston.

Of course, your definition of flat vs hilly could be different from mine. After all, there are those who complete Paris-Brest-Paris on upright bikes. Essentially, only you can know whether you would be comfortable tackling a particular route on an upright bike - bearing in mind that climbing one hill on the way home from work is not the same as climbing hill after hill over the course of a long ride.

Not all cycling is the same, and a "100 mile ride" does not really describe anything other than milage. Do you prefer to ride fast or slow? Do you have a time limit in mind? Do you plan to take frequent breaks, or to cycle with as few interruptions as you can manage? On the upright bike, I did my 100 mile ride in 10 hours including breaks (8.5 hours not including breaks). Had I been training for a randonneuring event or even taking part in a charity ride, that kind of timing would be unacceptable. I knew that I had all day and was fine with cycling at a leisurely pace, so none of that mattered. But had I wanted to cycle faster, I would have chosen a roadbike even on flat terrain.

At least for me, speed also informs my clothing choice. When I cycle fast and in a roadbike position, I tend to get overheated quickly. For that and other reasons (fluttering, chafing), I prefer to do fast rides wearing cycling clothing, whereas for slower rides street clothing is fine. Again, your experience here may differ.

If you plan to cycle in a group, large or small, it is worth taking into consideration what types of bikes the others will be riding. If everyone else will be riding a roadbike, chances are that you will not be able to keep up on an upright bike. If everyone else will be riding an upright bike, it is an entirely different story. I did my 100 mile ride alone, so there was no issue of keeping up with others.

Everyone's idea of "comfort" is different. Some have back, neck or shoulder issues that make it difficult to ride a roadbike. Others report being in extreme discomfort after too much time on an upright bike, finding that their weight is not distributed sufficiently, or else the handlebars don't allow for enough hand positions. To a great extent, these things also depend on a specific bicycle's geometry. That is why it is also important to build up to longer rides - so that you have some warning at what point a particular bike becomes uncomfortable. I knew that I could ride a Bella Ciao bike for 30+ miles without discomfort, and I decided to take the chance. After 100 miles, I did find the limited hand position insufficient and tried to wiggle my hands around as much as possible to compensate - which more or less worked, but was not ideal. Less weight on my butt would have made me more comfortable as well, though lowering the handlebars helped.

I know that many of my readers simply do not like roadbikes and do not like the idea of riding in cycling-specific clothing - so they want to hear that it's possible to complete long rides on an upright bike while dressed "normally." If that is your situation, that's fine. Simply start with that premise and take it from there. If you live in a hilly area but aren't a strong enough cyclist to tackle the hills on an upright bike, then it could be worthwhile to travel to a flatter region in order to complete the ride: Do some research and then take the train or drive to a suitable location, if that's what it takes. Why not?

I love all kinds of bicycles and am excited by the myriad of possibilities out there for different cyclists, different types of terrain, and different riding styles. From relaxed family touring along river valleys on upright bikes to pacelining up mountains on aggressive roadbikes, anything is possible. And I think that's great. If you have any tips based on your own experience, please do contribute. What is the longest ride you've ever done, and on what bike?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Low-Trailing and Didn't Even Know It

Jacqueline, Augarten
From the first time I rode a vintage Steyr Waffenrad in Vienna two years ago, its handling impressed me as unusual; categorically different from other classic city bikes I've tried, vintage or modern. Despite being large and heavy, the bicycle is extremely maneuverable. The cycling paths in Vienna are narrow and twisty, often requiring cyclists to make tight turns. I can do so on this bike at speed, without much effort. I cannot make the same turns on my Gazelle at home, or even on my roadbikes, in the same easy manner. Additionally, the bike feels easy to control and "place" when going downhill. In the summer of 2010 I rode it up an then down a small mountain on the outskirts of town via a winding road. I thought I'd be riding the brake the entire way down, but the bike was able to follow the curve of the road with extreme precision.

Jacqueline, Augarten
On the downside, I have already mentioned that the front end handling at slow speeds takes getting used to, requiring a very light touch. When I first start riding this bike after a long absence, it shakes so much that I always wonder whether the front wheel is loose. Then my body adapts to the handling and the shaking stops. Weird how that happens, and I even tell myself "Don't worry, remember that if felt the same way last time and then you got used to it." An hour later, I am invariably convinced that it is the best-handling bicycle in the world.

Jacqueline, Augarten
While I've felt these things on Jacqueline from the beginning, it was only later that I made the connection between these characteristics and low-trail geometry. I asked Wolfgang, the bike's owner about it, and while he does not recall the exact figure, he does believe it is a low trail bike. He also agrees that the Steyr Waffenrad bicycles have unique handling compared to other seemingly-similar city bikes. As someone whose cycling experience ranges from the velodrome to climbing the Grossglockner, he prefers this model as his own city bike and owns at least half dozen of them from different decades.

Jacqueline's being low trail would certainly explain why I was not surprised by the handling of the Randonneur we made: having already gotten used to some of the same characteristics, I now considered them within the range of "normal."

Unlocking Jacqueline
I will be leaving Vienna soon, and Jacqueline has already been returned to her owner. Wolfgang has an extra Steyr Waffenrad frame that can be mine if I want it, and I've been toying with the idea of building one up to see how it rides in Boston. I don't know though, it almost seems "wrong" somehow, as if Jacqueline belongs in Vienna. Of course the Boston version would be Jacqueline II... Funny how every now and again I think that I'm "done" with experimenting! But I do need to learn how to measure a bike properly - including angles, rake and trail.

On a side note: For anyone interested in pictures of Vienna's city center, I've posted some here - to give you an idea of what I meant earlier by the white Historicist buildings.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Kicking Back, Old School Style

Jacqueline, Crankset
When I wrote about the modern Sturmey Archer Duomatic hub last week, a reader pointed out that vintage coaster brake hubs have "more 'backlash' - so you have to rotate the pedals further before engaging the brake." I had noticed this as well after switching back and forth between bikes with modern coaster brake hubs (SA and Shimano) and vintage ones (SA and Sachs). 

My preference is for the older style. The position my legs tend to be in when braking with the older hubs feels more comfortable. And it is also more convenient to start from a stop: It is easier to arrange the pedals in the correct position when there is more "give" before the coaster brake is engaged.

I am sure there is a good reason why current coaster brake hubs are made so that they are quicker to engage. Anybody know what they are, and the history behind the change?

Sunday, October 23, 2011

100 Miles on the Danube

After more than two years of meaning to but never quite working up to it, I have finally completed my first "century" - a 100 mile ride. It didn't exactly happen as I had envisioned it, but it happened nonetheless. And it was certainly memorable.

The bike you see here is what I rode: It is a Bella Ciao Neorealista with a 7-speed hub, front and rear caliper brakes, Brooks B17S saddle, 700Cx35mm Delta Cruiser tires, Berthoud fenders and MKS touring pedals - lent to me by Citybiker in Vienna (thank you!). I decided to try the ride on this bicycle, because it seemed the safest bet of the available options - the others being borrowing a cool roadbike from Wolfgang, or riding Jacqueline. With the roadbike, it generally takes me a while to "dial in" the positioning, and I had no time to experiment. With Jacqueline, I was worried that she might be too heavy and too old for such a long ride. So I took advantage of being able to borrow the Bella Ciao, which seemed to be somewhere in between as far as positioning and also had the benefit of modern components. I felt that I knew what to expect with this bike, since I have a similar one at home and have ridden mine for 30 mile stretches at a time. We lowered the Neorealista handlebars for a more aggressive posture, but otherwise nothing was altered. I was not sure that I'd actually be able to do the ride, but the plan was to go as far as I felt comfortable.

Bella Ciao Neorealista, Zimbale Saddle Bag
I had brought my Zimbale saddlebag from home and attached it to the bike before I set off. I have no pictures of myself during the course of this ride, but I was wearing pretty much this: wool tights, wool dress, 3/4 length wool overcoat, legwarmers, ankle boots with 2" heels, a hat, and (not pictured) gloves and a scarf. From the forecast I knew that the weather would be cold, mostly in the low 40s. In the event that I got too warm, I planned to take off my coat and attach it to the saddlebag with a bungee cord. In the event it got even colder, I packed an extra sweater. I also packed a pair of padded wool cycling shorts, in case my butt started to hurt on the way back. Aside from that, I packed battery-operated lights, a bottle of apple juice mixed with mineral water and salt, my camera, phone, bank card, cash, notebook, pen, and a packet of Ibuprofen. I did not bother taking a map - since I would simply be following the Danube cycle path.

Before I go on, I must warn you that my photographic documentation of this ride is disappointing. I passed some gorgeous spots, but it wasn't practical to stop and take pictures if I hoped to maintain momentum. So all my photos were taken during food-break stops, which did not necessarily coincide with the scenic moments. I am also disappointed that I do not have a single photo of myself during this trip, as a memento - but I was too cold to mess with the self-timer, and my camera is difficult for strangers to operate.

Vienna, Nussdorf, Cyclists
My trip did not begin according to plan. I had wanted to set off at 7:00 in the morning, but got delayed and was not able to leave until 10:00. With such a late start, I considered postponing to a different day - but my schedule was already full, so this was my only chance to do the ride. I went, making sure the batteries in my lights were fresh. The Danube Canal path is right around the corner from my flat, and within a minute of leaving the house I was on it. I sped through the urban part of the path, and within 15 minutes I reached the junction where the Danube Canal meets the Danube River proper.

I rode without stopping past all of my favourite spots in the countryside along the river and did not take a break until I approached the outskirts of Tulln - a town about 25 miles from the center of Vienna. Things were going well so far: It was cold, but sunny. I was only very slightly tired and nothing hurt or felt uncomfortable on the bike. It was around 12:00 noon, which meant I'd been cycling at 12.5mph on average for two hours straight. So far, so good. I stopped at a cafe with outdoor seating, and had a huge bowl of soup while looking at ships making their way along the river. The sunshine made everything look gorgeous. 

Near Tulln
My plan was to continue on the Danube cycling path until I reached the town of Krems - a beautiful place in the Wachau valley. At this stage I was exactly half way. Unfortunately, this was the last time I would see nice weather during my ride.

Almost as soon as I got going again, the sunlight faded and the temperature fell. The change was sudden: One minute, everything was bathed in a golden light, and the next the landscape was grim. I was finding it difficult to warm up, even though the mostly flat route meant that I was vigorously pedaling the entire time (no hills means not only no climbing, but also no coasting!) I kept hoping the sunshine would return, but it only got more overcast as I continued cycling. 

Fields and Hills, Road to Traismauer
And then, things got worse: A milky fog descended over the valley. In the middle of the day! Just after Tulln, the Danube path veers away from the river for a few miles, cutting through woods and farmland. The landscape now looked washed out and dingy. Visually I did not mind it, and even found the idea of cycling all alone through fog and desolate fields romantic. But it was difficult to keep warm. The freezing fog was penetrating all my wool layers and getting into my very bones - a deep chill. And then the wind picked up. I pedaled harder and kept my head down.

Villages, Between Tulln and Traismauer
By 1pm, it became clear that the weather was not likely to improve. It was time for a change of plans: Krems was too good to see for the first time in such bleak light. Instead, I decided to go as far as Traismauer (a town 10 miles closer), and make up the missing miles by getting off the Danube path and doing a longer loop through some of the villages set back from the river. In doing so, I was also hoping to find a cafe that sold hot drinks, as all the ones along this portion of the Danube cycling path were closed for the season. 

Barn, Near Tulln
As far as navigation went, it was not difficult to make my way through the villages. There were signs everywhere announcing what the next village was and which direction to Traismauer. But it was extremely depressing. In good weather, I think the villages would have looked cute. But under overcast skies and enveloped in fog they looked abandoned and sinister. There were very few people out doing any kind of farm work and the few places of businesses that existed were all closed - even though it was a weekday.

Country Highway, Near Traismauer
I passed though the centers of five or six villages before I finally found one with a functional cafe - which was on the side of a sort of country highway leading to Traismauer. After I drank 3 cups of tea and rested a bit, I spoke to the waitress and learned that this was in fact the only road leading to Traismauer. Hitherto I had been cycling along small village streets, but this was a big road with an 80km/h speed limit. I decided to go ahead and brave it.

Country Highway, Near Traismauer
My companions during this stretch of the trip were mainly trucks and tractors. The trucks went very fast. The tractors went very slowly. The odd sportscar would occasionally zoom past as well. We all got along and I never felt endangered. My stamina, on the other hand, seemed to be nearly depleted and I had barely even cycled 60 miles. Please do not underestimate what I wrote earlier about a flat landscape meaning that you don't have the opportunity to coast. Pedaling the entire time, I was starting to feel like a mechanical doll.  Traismauer was further away that I'd realised, and it felt as if I were cycling on the edge on that highway forever.

Traismauer, Austria
But finally, I was unmistakably there: This town was surrounded by a medieval wall and I cycled right through the gate. 

Traismauer, Austria
At one time there must also have been a moat. Now it was reduced to a sort of stream along the back part of the wall, with a modern bridge going across. 

Traismauer, Austria
Under normal circumstances, I might have been excited by Traismauer. But now I just felt depleted. The cold weather, the fog, the lack of sunshine, the non-stop pedaling with the wind in my face - it had all beaten me down. 

Traismauer, Austria
I circled around the town, then followed the signs to the train station. I am not proud of it, but yes - at this point I decided to cut my trip short and take the train back. It was already 3 pm and the most direct route home was over 40 miles. I didn't think I could handle it. At the station I learned that the next train to Vienna was not until 8:20pm, which was a long time to wait around. I decided to get something to eat while thinking about what to do next.

Traismauer, Austria
Turned out that I wasn't so much tired as just very hungry. Once I inhaled whatever it was that I bought at the food stand, my attitude suddenly improved and by 4pm I was ready to get back on the bike.

Traismauer, Austria
My plan now was to cycle the 15 miles back to Tulln - on the Danube cycling path and not through the villages this time - and see how I'd feel once I got there. The trains in Tulln ran more regularly, so if I was tired or did not want to continue in the dark, I would then take the train the rest of the way back. 

Fields, Road to Traismauer
Energised by the nutritional infusion, I pedaled enthusiastically for the next hour. Just as the light was fading, the sun started to come out and the fog dissipated - but it was late and I really wasn't able to stop and capture the beautiful scenery. There is a stretch at some point where the cycling path interrupts entirely, and cyclists must transition to the road for 2-3 miles. The route is signposted, but these signs are very small and have no provisions for being seen in the dark. The scenario I wanted to avoid, was cycling through this stretch once it had already gotten dark. 

But of course, that is exactly what happened. I raced against the sunset, but despite my best efforts ended up cycling on the road with car traffic in rural darkness - squinting to find the signs instructing where to turn in order to get back onto the cycling path. It was just past 6pm now and there were lots of cars on the road - going quite fast, which was scary. I was starting to despair, when I noticed what was obviously another bicycle tail light in front of me. It was an elderly man, cycling with a sack of turnips strapped to his rear rack. I called out to him, asking if this was the right way to the cycle path. He replied that it was, and gestured for me to follow him. We "pacelined" for the next mile or so and then I followed him through an opening in the fields and we were on the Danube path. He then waved and turned around, and I realised that he'd gone out of his way only to show me how to get back on the path. I yelled "Danke vielmals!!" and waved wildly. This was my only interaction with another cyclist during the course of this ride.

Once in Tulln, I kept on going. It was already pitch black and my legs already felt as if someone else was controlling them, so it seemed I could just keep going this way. The last 20 miles of the trip felt like a trance. My headlight beam, the shadows of tree branches, the sounds of howling coming from the woods and the occasional lights of ships along the Danube felt like a dream. My wheels turned and turned and my feet pedaled and pedaled in as high as gear as I could manage. It wasn't a bad feeling, like an out of body experience. But I remember thinking "Hmm, I probably won't be able to walk tomorrow."

By the time my shaking hand retrieved the house key from my coat, it was almost exactly 8pm: 10 hours after I left. I had spent a total of an hour and a half taking breaks, which means that my average speed was 11.75 mph. I think that's not too bad for being on an upright bike and riding dressed as I was. I assumed that I would collapse upon coming home, but then a friend rang up and invited me for a drink. I went, and ended up staying out until midnight. The next morning I woke up at 8am and, to my astonishment, felt fine. I cycled around the city for transportation all day just as I normally do. There was hardly any evidence that I had ridden 100 miles the day before. My right shoulder was sore, and my sit bones were just a tad sensitive. However, there was no pain in my legs or knees, and I had plenty of energy. I expected to be wrecked, and this was almost anticlimactic. 

This trip was not how I'd imagined completing my first "century." I was riding a city bike bundled up in an overcoat, the weather was horrible, and the countryside was at its bleakest. But I found the experience fulfilling, beyond just checking off a box. I relished the feel of being self-sufficient - not in the safety net of a group ride or a companion's presence, but alone in the middle of nowhere, amidst a stark landscape in a foreign country, and feeling as if I did not need to worry, because I was on a bike and could therefore do anything. It's what cycling is about for me. And I think I'm ready for a longer ride. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Another Basket Case

Bella Ciao Neorealista, Basket, Fountain, Vienna
A few days ago I borrowed a 7-speed Bella Ciao from Citybiker, and since I had my laptop bag with me I had to find a way to transport it. We looked for a basket that did not require complex installation and found one into which my bag could be stuffed, albeit with some effort.

Nantucket Bike Basket via German Importer
I was amused to notice that this basket is from the American manufacturer, Nantucket Bike Baskets, but rebranded by the German distributor Liix. Ah, globalisation.

Vienna, Secession
As a transport solution this setup worked well enough for the short trip, to the extent that my bag did not fall out and the handling of the bike was only mildly affected. But the experience made me remember the problems I have with handlebar-mounted baskets: (1) they tend to slide sideways along the handlebars, even when the basket is empty, and (2) when going over a bump, they bounce against the headtube.

Basket Slippage
For me this presents a dilemma, whereby one must choose between installing complicated (and heavy, and ugly) hardware to prevent the movement, or leaving it as is and cycling with a basket that is constantly sliding and bouncing. The later is annoying, but the former is a hassle. For this reason I like having a basket mounted on a front rack best, but a front rack does not make sense for every bike. I also realise that some just prefer the simplicity of a handlebar-mounted basket that can easily be attached and removed. In Vienna I do not often see cyclists with baskets attached to the handlebars via straps, and I think that is because of the cobblestones: Riding through some parts of the city, the bouncing would be unbearable. But I do see this method of attachment in Boston sometimes (though mostly on bikes that look like they are used for very short trips) and in photos from other countries.

Bag Stuffed into Basket
It occurred to me that if there were another set of holes in the back of the basket, toward the bottom, then a third strap could be fitted around the headtube and perhaps this would solve the problem. The design would be like a saddlebag in that regard, which has two straps on top to go around the saddle railings and another on the bottom to go around the seatpost. Has anyone ever tried this with a handlebar-mounted basket? I like the elegance and lack of commitment in attaching a basket via straps instead of clunky quick-release systems, decalleurs and the like. But for me, it needs to be practical - no sliding or bouncing.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Bakses and Bakses! Trying the and the Christiania 2-Wheeler

Bakfiets, Heavy Pedals Shop
My stint in Vienna this time around is turning out to be very bike-heavy, so to speak. But I am not complaining!

Wolfgang Höfler, Heavy Pedals
During the year I've been away my friend Wolfgang and his partners have opened up a cargo bike shop, Heavy Pedals, and it's stocked to the gills with the likes of Bakfiets, Christiania, Larry vs Harry, Monarch, Winther, Nihola, Yuba Mundo, XtraCycles and, of course, the inhouse-designed Truck. I can't possibly try them all in the course of this trip, but I was very keen to at least finally try the classic Dutch bakfiets.

Bakfiets in Vienna
And here it is - so, so beautiful with its elegant lines and shiny wooden box. While I can appreciate modern designs, I remain a sucker for the classic stuff.

The 2-wheel cargo bikes come in two sizes, and the one I tried is the short version - which, mind you, is still large enough to transport two children. I cannot find the exact weight rating, but it is over 100kg (220lb).

Bakfiets, Box
The box includes a folding bench with two sets of seatbelts and optional cushions. This can be removed if you plan to transport cargo and not children.

The frame is steel and the complete bike is rather heavy. There is a very sturdy and wide fold-down kickstand that clicks into place when both down and up.

Bakfiets in Vienna
The rear wheel is 26" and the front is 20". It comes equipped with a full chaincase, dress guards, fenders and lighting.

Bakfiets with Rain Cover
An optional rain cover is fairly easy to attach and remove. A non-human cargo version is also available.

Bakfiets in Vienna
Of all the cargo bikes on the market, my readers are probably most familiar with the classic Dutch bakfiets - meaning, literally, "box bike" - which has been imported into the US for several years now, and has been reviewed by others. The most typical bakfiets is the two wheeler with a wide wooden box in the front, like the one pictured here. It is an old design and several manufacturers make modern-day versions - including the reviewed here, Workcycles and Babboe. One thing I would like to know is whether these manufacturers order the frames from the same source or make their own, so any insider information is welcome. As others have already written about these bikes at length, I will not go into elaborate detail about their construction and history here, and instead will focus on my impression of the ride quality.

Riding a Bakfiets!
Put simply, I thoroughly enjoyed it. But you are probably looking for something more technical. Okay: Unlike the longtail I tried earlier, the handling of the bakfiets is peculiar. But the peculiarity is of the ridable variety. As in, you are riding it just fine and thinking "Gee, this feels different" - rather than toppling over because of the difference, as several of us did with the Larry vs Harry Bullitt. If you've ever tried a Brompton, that's what the bakfiets handling reminded me of the most. The front end is a bit wobbly (with the box empty), but entirely controllable. As Wolfgang put it, it handles like a more extreme version of a classic Dutch bike. Yes.

Finally Trying a Bakfiets
I am not sure why, but of all the cargo bikes I've tried so far, the bakfiets felt especially accessible. You can see in the pictures that I am cycling right on the road. It was actually difficult to photograph me, because cars kept passing from both directions and also from around the corner, ruining all the shots. But I felt pretty comfortable. There was no "learning curve" and by the end of my test ride I was ready to appropriate the bike for my own. This was very different from my experience with Danish longjohns.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
Speaking of Danish, I also briefly tried the Christiania 2-wheeler. Several months ago, I test rode the three-wheel version, but this is an entirely different kettle of fish. Despite being Danish, this cargo bike resembles a bakfiets rather than a longjohn. In size it is equivalent to the longer version of the bakfiets - large enough to transport 3 children.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
The bicycle is handsome and classic. I am not positive, but the box appears to be part plywood and part metal. Oddly, I can find almost no official information on this bike, even from the Christiania website, despite it technically having been out since 2009. If you can offer additional information, please do.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
Despite being larger, the Christiania is lighter than the bakfiets, because the frame is aluminum (as with the 3-wheel version). Both this bike and the bakfiets have welded construction and unicrown forks - as do all cargo bikes I've seen so far - which does not look too bad given their overall utilitarian look. With both bikes, I would generally like to learn more about where and how they are made, but am finding that difficult.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
This bike is equipped very similarly to the bakfiets, with an upright sitting position, rear rack, dynamo lighting and several gearing options. Differences in components include the sweep of the handlebars, the kickstand design, the chainguard in leu of full chaincase, and lack of dressguards.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
As far as geometry goes, the Christiania has a somewhat steeper seat tube than the bakfiets. The length of the seat tube is shorter, which means that a smaller person can ride this bike.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
The Christiania has a noticeably lower bottom bracket than the bakfiets. And the sweep of the step-through section of the frame is also different.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
For those who plan to transport children, a very cute and useful feature is the little door in the box with a latch, which the bakfiets lacks. This allows children to walk into the box instead of having to step over the side. A bench with seatbelts is included, just like in the 3-wheel version of the Christiania.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
There are no decent photos of me riding the Christiania, but I did ride it in the same way as the bakfiets. The handling was very similar, though with the Christiania there was a bit more front-end fishtailing. I assumed that this was due to the front being longer than on the short bakfiets model, but according to Wolfgang this difference exists even compared to the long bakfiets. Nonetheless the bike was entirely rideable and the fishtailing was nothing like what I had experienced on the Bullitt earlier. As with the bakfiets, I could ride the Christiania on the first try.

Christiania 2-Wheel Cargo Bike
As for how the 2-wheel version compared to the 3-wheeler, they are just entirely different creatures. The 2-wheeler is a bike and handles like a bike, whereas the trike requires you to balance differently and to slow down on corners instead of leaning. As I wrote in my ride report of the trike, I can see myself using it. But overall I prefer the two-wheeler.

Bakfiets with Rain Cover
Of the two bikes, I think the short bakfiets is the better choice for me - mainly because the size felt just right, and the handling felt more effortless. Also, the Christiania, with its little door, seems more oriented toward transporting children, which is not what I would need a cargo bike for. The bakfiets is heavier, but for me that would not matter much in a cargo bike. Of course, your priorities might be different on all accounts.

Heavy Pedals Cargo Bike Shop, Vienna Austria
As with my other cargo bike test rides, these were obviously fairly short and should be viewed as "first impressions" rather than in-depth reviews. But I think first impressions matter here, particularly for those trying to determine how ridable various cargo bikes are on the first try for someone who is not already accustomed to them. For me, the bakfiets and the Christiania 2-wheeler were quite ridable, despite the unusual handling. Many thanks to Heavy Pedals for the test rides!