A year and a half ago I tried a Bakfiets at a friend's bike shop in Vienna. These iconic Dutch cargo bikes are available in two lengths and the one I rode then was the short version. Now a bike-friend in Boston has acquired the Bakfiets Long, and I've had a chance to ride that as well. Aside from the larger size, I was curious how a bike like this would translate locally. Compared to the center of Vienna, our part of Boston is both hillier and less bike-friendly. Would I feel comfortable mixing it up with car traffic on a bike like this? What about cycling up the inclines I regularly encounter even on shorter commutes? These are the aspects of the bike I mostly focused on this time around.
To recap: The term bakfiets (plural: bakfietsen) literally translates to "box bike." The modern incarnation of this front-load hauler was designed by Maartin van Andel of bakfiets.nl. Those machines branded with the Workcycles name have been outfitted with upgraded components by the Amsterdam-based concern, but are essentially the same bikes (you can read about the Workcycles version of the bakfiets here). The steel frames are manufactured and powdercoated by Azor. Prices for complete bikes are in the $3,000s range, depending on options.
A handsome plywood box sits low upon the extended frame, between the rider and the 20" front wheel (the rear wheel is 26"). There are essentially two head tubes, connected by a linkage system. In my previous write-up readers requested shots of the steering linkage, so I made sure to get them this time.
Here you go.
As the rider turns the handlebars, the steering is activated through the linkage and the front wheel turns.
Like most traditional Dutch city bikes, the bakfiets comes equipped with fenders, a full chaincase, dress guards, and a rear rack.
Dynamo lighting with standlights is included, front and rear,
as well as enclosed roller brakes and hub gearing (Shimano Nexus 8-speed with twist shifter).
The handlebars are mildly swept back.
The long cargo box is about 100cm x 60cm at its widest points, tapering from back to front. It is rated for 80kg (176lb), in passengers or cargo.
Many of those who purchase these bikes do so to transport small children. There is a little folding bench in the box for this purpose. The bench fits two, though the box itself is rated to fit 4 (I believe a second bench can be installed for those who plan to do this).
The bakfiets can also function as a work bike, hauling anything from huge loads of groceries, to heavy industrial supplies. In Europe I have seen these in use by professionals such as florists, caterers, construction workers, and sculptors, just to name a few. For those who use the bike in that capacity, a waterproof cargo cover is available. Unlike the structured, canopy cover for transporting children, the cargo cover stretches flush over the box.
The bakfiets owner - known online as "cycler" - has had it for just over two months now and uses it about twice a week as a supplement to her main city bike. On her blog, Biking in Heels, it has been a sort of recurring joke how much stuff she'd often end up carrying on her bike - thinking up various creative, but sometimes precarious ways to secure it all. After years of this, cycler decided to take the plunge and buy a cargo bike. She test rode a few and felt immediately at ease with the Dutch front-load model. So bakfiets it was. She ordered the bike directly from Workcycles in Amsterdam, powdercoated silver and dark orange to her specs. In fact, its purchase is partly to blame for inspiring her to ...drumroll... open up her own local bike shop. But more on that another time.
I've ridden cycler's long bakfiets twice so far. First in her presence on some neighbourhood MUPs. On a later occasion I took the bakfiets away and rode it on my own along my local commute route, mostly on streets without bike infrastructure.
On both occasions, I arrived on my Brompton folding bike, which I typically ride front-loaded, like a mini cycle-truck. In a sense, switching to the bakfiets felt like riding a much larger and heavier version of the same bike. Of course in many ways they are wildly different - but the front end handling is not dissimilar. Particularly with less weight in the front, the steering is quick and light, requiring a gentle touch. Once you get used to that, the bike feels natural and intuitive to control. When making turns or adjusting its line of travel, the bakfiets is surprisingly nimble. Having the front wheel so far in front does feel disconcerting at first, but becomes natural once you get used to it. Some riders report that the linked steering takes getting used to, but I did not feel any effects specific to the linkage system. Others have described that the bike does not lean easily on turns, but I find that it leans fine. Overall I suspect that a rider's first reaction to the bakfiets depends on their riding style, inherent sense of balance, and the kinds of bikes they are already accustomed to. Some find it intuitive right away, others need practice.
The seat tube angle on the bakfiets is quite relaxed and the handlebars high, placing the rider in an upright position. But the "cockpit" is not as tight as it is on some Dutch city bikes (i.e. the handlebars are unlikely to hit your thighs on turns). A low bottom bracket combined with the slack seat tube allows for full leg extension while pedaling and easy toe-town stopping while remaining in the saddle.
One thing that is consistently said about the bakfiets is that it feels weightless in motion even when loaded, and I think that's an accurate assessment. The bike is not fast, but on reasonably flat terrain it is easy to propel forward, without any sensation of pushing or struggling. It just kind of floats as you pedal, boat-like. Henry of Workcycles attributes this quality to weight distribution: Because the box sits behind, rather than over the front wheel and fork, the weight is kept very low to the ground and does not affect steering. With a design like this, the weight is effectively part of the downtube.
With a large heavy package and some other items thrown into the box, I rode the bakfiets on a 4 mile loop along the Cambridge/ Somerville line, mixing with car traffic most of the way. As far as stability - both in motion and at starts and stops - I did not experience any problems. The bakfiets was very easy to keep upright and, steered with a light touch, it felt downright relaxing to ride. After gaining some confidence, I began to play around with the steering. It felt like the only thing that could make this bike fishtail was the expectation that it would fishtail. But really it wanted to ride where I pointed it, and was very responsive to changes in course. So even if I did make it fishtail intentionally, the wobble was easy to correct. Just a few minutes into the ride I felt like I had excellent control of the bike. Riding with weight in the box does not feel any more challenging than without. And steering the long-box version did not feel any different from my recollections of the short version.
The main difference really between riding the bakfiets and other bikes I am used to, was that I had to be cognisant of its size - mainly the width - when passing cars and making maneuvering decisions. While surprisingly maneuverable, it is simply a big bike with a wider turn radius than what I am used to (including the Xtracycle long tail). For instance, on the same street I can make a U-turn on the longtail easier than on the bakfiets - though possibly with practice I could become more proficient at the latter.
As far as hills... Geared low, the bakfiets handles reasonable inclines well, retaining its momentum and that easy floaty feel. But as soon as I tried it on a real hill (say an 8-10% grade spanning half a mile - Spring Hill for locals) - it just refused to keep going at a certain point, even in 1st gear. I have seen bakfiets owners stand up and mash on the pedals furiously to get over short hills. But on longer hills on the outskirts of town, I imagine this could get exhausting for anyone but the strongest of cyclists. Me, I would need a cargo bike that could go long distance reasonably fast and get me up a 14% grade without standing, so a bakfiets would not be the best choice. But for those whose commutes are limited to flatter, shorter routes this would not be an issue.
Over the past couple of years, I have spotted 6 distinct bakfietsen in active use around the greater Boston area. That is actually an impressive number, considering there has been no local dealer. Whenever possible, I've talked to the owners about their bikes. The general feedback is that they love the comfortable ride, the hauling capacity, and how easy it is to dump things into the box without having to secure every item. Those who have children have said their kids prefer sitting on the little bench in front to sitting on the back of a longtail (some families have both types of bikes, or have switched from one to another). On the downside, storing and parking the bakfiets can be a challenge given its size, as is maneuvering it along the sidewalk. And then, of course, the hills: "Not the best bike for hills" is the consensus.
I enjoy the way the bakfiets rides, and I think that it looks adorable. By all accounts it is a tough, all-weather transport machine that holds up well in rough conditions and retains its value well when sold used. For many it is a car replacement, which more than justifies the cost. As far as transporting substantial cargo, the bakfiets is just one of several ways to carry similar amounts of weight - the others popular options being long johns, long tails, and box trikes. Which method a rider finds preferable will depend on their circumstances - including handling preferences, terrain and other factors. As I've mentioned before, I love seeing more cargo bikes in our city, and I welcome cycler's new addition. Full picture set here.