Monday, June 6, 2016

Music in the Distance: Impressions of a Heavy Commute



I have had a demo Bike Friday Haul-a-Day on loan for the past month and have used it quite a bit over that time. As explained in its introduction, my typical use case scenario for a cargo bike is not so much heavy loads as awkward ones: things such as ladders, tripods, pieces of furniture, large parts of bicycles, oversized canvases, hardware supplies. Carrying some of these things on the long-tail can look cool (the ladder was an especially big hit around the neighbourhood), but it's so easy and has so little impact on the cycling experience as to make it entirely unremarkable. Less visually impressive, but more physically noticeable is carrying a seemingly ordinary load that is actually heavy. Today I managed to accomplish that with a simple trip to the supermarket.

It was one of those days when we were suddenly out of everything, and particularly everything heavy - from laundry detergent and cleaning supplies, to potatoes and grains and various beverages. I think in fluids alone I must have bought 20kg worth of stuff. And then there was the week's worth of groceries. The cargo bags swallow all this so easily, that it really does not look like much. But by the time I emptied the contents of the shopping trolley, the bike was so heavy it was hard to roll up over curbs when navigating my way out of the car park.

Of course, as anyone who's tried a cargo bike knows, it is much easier to ride it loaded than to walk it loaded. So it was with some relief that I set off. I am not sure how much weight I had on the back of the bike exactly, but I am going to guesstimate close to 50kg. At just over half the Haul-a-Day's capacity, that's not even remotely impressive. Nevertheless it is more than what I'd normally carry. And on the 8 mile ride over rolling hills the difference was noticeable.

I did not feel it immediately. Starting and stopping on my way through the town - with its busy main road and myriad of roundabouts - the bike was totally cool with the weight: no hesitations, no wobbling at slow speeds. This made for confident handling in tight traffic. Once out of the town and on rural roads though, I immediately hit a series of hills and that's when the weight made itself known. On rollers where I've gotten used to making it most of the way up from the previous descent's momentum, the bike would run out of steam much sooner than it had with lighter loads, necessitating an immediate switch into low gears pretty much at any hint of an incline. This was fine, as there were plenty of low gears available. It just made the rollers slower-going than usual.

On longer drags at steeper gradients (I have a nice 14% climb as part of my commuter fun), I was also able to - for the first time since riding the Haul-a-Day - feel the weighted long tail "wag" (flex?) behind me and, at the same time, the front end of the bike start to "wander" (lift?) a bit, in a way that was unsettling at first. But after a few seconds I got used to the sensation. I was still in full control of the bike and was not even close to running out of gears to push it up the incline, and being aware of this soon calmed me. The handling and feel of the bike were just different - which, carrying all that weight uphill, perhaps should not have come as a great surprise!

Once the road flattened out, the trip became blissfully normal again. On flats, with the bike going at speed, I could not feel the weight of the long tail at all. I was also using the same gearing as I normally would.

However, before long, I began to notice a strange and entirely novel thing. It was not a sensation of weight, but... what was it, a sound? Yes, a sound. Like chimes, or a soft sort of harpsichord chamber music. I could not tell where it was coming from. It seemed to be floating in from the distance at first, drifting toward me in waves - now muted, now louder. Then suddenly it seemed to surround me. The day was hot and I had spent the morning in direct sunlight, pushing a heavy bike uphill. Could this be a symptom of heat stroke? As if to encourage that notion, the music picked up, humming and chiming hauntingly as the mountain view ahead glazed over with humid milkiness.

Pulling over onto a gravel shoulder, I stopped the bike to wipe my forehead and get a drink of water. A warm breeze blew as I walked around the rear of the long-tail. And bending down over the cargo, I saw, with amazement, where the strange music was coming from.

I had bought six glass bottles of mineral water. As they stood together, snugly, in a wine box, the breeze circled around them, making a magical chiming sound. The breeze also blew through the flat bladed spokes of the wheel I had tied to the top of the cargo rack (I had stopped by the bike shop to get the cassette removed, as I don't have the right tool), making a sound that was not unlike a harpsichord. The two separate noises harmonised together exquisitely, forming such a distinct melody it was difficult to believe the music was accidental. By the side of the road, with the Queen Anne's Lace swaying around me, the effect was uncanny. The bike was making music to lighten our heavy commute.



29 comments:

  1. Within the past couple of weeks, at the grocery store, I saw a woman pushing her fully loaded touring bike up the short steep hill which exits from the parking lot onto the street. She had bulging front and rear panniers and stuff strapped to the top of her rack. I don't see many tourists at the store so I quickly loaded my bike and hoped to catch her at the stop sign before she departed in order to ask her about her journey and get a glimpse of her bike and set-up. We did met and chatted through two changes of lights. Her bike was nice and she loved it but turns out she was not touring at all, just doing her grocery shopping and she pointed to the extra large box of laundry detergent stopped to the top saying 'I usually don't carry laundry detergent when I tour ;) '….. She just uses her bike to do everything and finds it very accommodating for the dozen or so miles she needs it for daily. I've never tried a long tail but your description, above, makes it sound like a touring bike. Bikes are incredibly versatile, aren't they?

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    1. Having once ridden a touring bike loaded with a similar amount of weight (as I had on the Haul-a-Day this morning), it is not an experience I'd like to repeat. By contrast, on the long-tail that weight was barely noticeable 90% of the time. If one's clever, creative and fit enough, pretty much any bike can be used to do pretty much anything. Still a well-designed purpose-fit bike is a useful, beautiful thing.

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    2. I do remember photos of that touring excursion. IMO, the bike, and the equipment were not a proper touring set-up and you were still inexperienced. Some day you should test touring bikes. Really, as you say, the weight is not noticeable unless one spends the entire day going up and down hills and bikes designed for loads are certainly better.

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  2. I experienced the effect of the additional weight on the bike going up hill last night! Unfortunately it was around my waist not on the bike! - Mas

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  3. That sort of accompaniment sounds pretty pleasant. Akin to the wind in the rigging of an open cockpit airplane or a sailboat underway, it indicates that you are moving around and interacting with the world.
    Sure beats the Raleigh Rattle, eh?

    I have a very strong desire to try one of these bikes.

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    1. Do you see many Bike Fridays in your neck of the woods?

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    2. I have seen a black Haul-A-Day ridden down my street fairly recently with a little kid on the back, as well as a couple of Tikits a couple miles away in Minneapolis. According to Bike Friday, there is apparently a dealer in St Paul.
      I am sure that they are more rare in your bit of the planet than in mine!

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    3. Indeed! Especially when you consider the local meaning of "rare" (= weird, eccentric).

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    4. (Way Up Nort' Dere accent) Ooh, yaaah, yaaah, You bet! (/Way Up Nort' Dere accent)

      I can almost see the sly smile on your local's face as they call something "rare".

      Going to see if a Haul-A-Day is available for a test ride this weekend.

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  4. Looks to me as if one of those cargo slings is about the size of two large panniers, would that be accurate?

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    1. It's hard to compare, precisely because the slings are not fixed bags as such - they are hugely expandable. If hard pressed to give an equivalent, I would say at least 3 large panniers each, when maximally expanded.

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  5. That rear rack looks twisted in relation to the angle of the seat, handlebars, and front rack platform. You've got a lot of weight on the left side, is that pulling it down compared to the right?

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    1. Actually the right side was heavier, even though the left was fuller. Not sure why the rear looks twisted, but it could be the camber of the road.

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  6. I have carried 50kg up a 14% grade. In San Francisco. Everyone stopped what they were doing and snapped my picture. The peanut gallery cheered me on. It was a spectacle. Of course at the time I weighed about 82kg myself and the bike with its racks weighed about 14kg. I was lifting a smaller fraction of body weight than you. You are so casual about this. Having a suitable bike does help, what you are doing remains extraordinary. Strong like bull.

    By the way the lockring tool you need is a $6 item. Get one, you want one handy.

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    1. I have definitely grown stronger in recent years, but honestly, the long tail bike with its low gearing makes a big difference. For a rider less acclimatised to climbing, it could mean the difference between being able to make it to the top at all, vs not. For me, it made the climb more "comfortable" - allowing me to do it without hyperventilating and getting drenched in sweat, as I would on most other transport bikes up that same hill, even with far less weight.

      I do think that a cargo bike design, in order to be considered successful, must accommodate cyclists with ordinary strength. Whether that means low gears, some rear-end-geo voodoo, or (gasp!) e-assist, there has to be something that makes it accessible. Now, going by the fact that I still had a handful of cogs left, I do think that the same bike could be ridden with the same weight and up the same hill by a considerably weaker rider. Which in my book is a good thing.

      In a somewhat related vein: What are your thoughts on loaded touring by novices? I mean, there are all these stories of people who have never toured, never carried weight on their bikes before, and aren't even especially fit, setting off with god knows how much stuff on their bikes and casually crossing mountain ranges. Always amazes me. It seems we can get used to anything.

      I have a Campy cassette tool, but that wheel was fitted with a SRAM cassette (not anymore). Still, good idea to have both.

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    2. Not so many stories from those who tour and fail. That happens too. Not so many stories from those who load up the supposed touring bike and either can't mount or can't waddle down the block. That happens too. I have seen an overloaded tourist on a racing bike go over the cliff. Landed safely in a tree and resumed his ride with minimal fuss. Most tourists I see in mountains are making walking speed whether going up or down and it does not look at all like fun. In the re-telling it becomes fun.

      I have carried a panic stricken injured man who weighed a hundred pounds more than I did down an eighty foot ladder. No rehearsal for that one. Many things are possible. Doesn't mean you would ever want to repeat them.

      From the information you are giving I will believe this is a very good and very successful design for a cargo bike. From the information you are giving you are very very strong.

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    3. Now that you mention it, I actually remember reading a very long blog post about a couple who prepared for a bike tour across the US (previous blog entries were spent discussing gear selection, routes) only to abort by the time they reached the suburbs. Would love to find it now. A short story collection of Failed Tours could be good fun, I think, and educational.

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  7. I would be interested in some discussion on what it is about the long tail design that makes heavy cargo more manageable. Is it because placing weight behind the bike, simulates having a trailer permanently attached? I for one have difficulty cycling with the panniers on my road bike overloaded and prefer using a trailer. But I seem to be in the minority here!

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    1. I do not have a deep enough grasp of long tail design to answer this question. But it is worth researching for future, and thank you for the suggestion.

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    2. One rule (not entirely followed in the photo, I see liquids at the rear) is to put the heaviest loads low and forward -- you want them between the wheels. Early on, I took a child for a ride on the back, and they proceeded to demonstrate this for me by sliding forward and backward on the deck, and the handling rapidly changed between just-fine and holy-crap, again and again.

      Rule of thumb once you have a little experience is that you can carry your own weight without too much trouble, and half your own weight riding no-hands. With passengers, if they are comfortable riding quite close to your backside the handling is much improved.

      Also, there is a peculiar process of adapting to the bike, and to each load, and it is not entirely conscious. One bad load, I transitioned from "not sure I can keep this in the lane" to "tracking a line" in the space of about a mile. I also have video of my first minute on my (large, heavy) longtail cargo bike after riding a smaller bike for a week carrying loads on a front rack. Amusingly, the hand feedback is initially wrong, but no-hands is fine: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fl6Xkc0fcQ4

      Trailers ride okay for me if they attach at the rear axle, but they're wide in traffic, can tip over, and if I'm commuting+shopping, require more planning ahead than is normal for me. A longtail is always there, adds stability, adds comfort, and can filter through traffic just fine. They're also a better match for the mix of loads I find myself carrying -- sometimes groceries, sometimes people, sometimes a bike, sometimes a ladder. Not many small children nowadays.

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    3. While I don't think about it explicitly, unconsciously I do follow that rule. The reason you see those liquids at the back, is that there are even heavier liquids in the front!

      Interesting that even after being away from the bike for a week there is a process of re-adjustmet. Thanks for the video link; I shall go have a look.

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  8. How did the bike handle steep descents with a very heavy load? The heavy load surely must push the bike to some degree. Do I assume correctly that the bike had disc breaks? In the past I've cycled on a 1982 Miyata 1000 pulling a loaded B.O.B. The Miyata was equipped with cantilever brakes. It moves fine with a heavy load but is tricky when you dismount and mount with a heavy loaded trailer. If you mount/dismount from the left the heavy rear end wants to swing the front end to the right. Does the Haul-A-Day demonstrate this effect when mounting/dismounting? As I live just off CA1 I see many touring bikes (?) pulling B.O,B,'s. Just another solution/method.

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    1. {Don - seems I managed to accidentally delete your original comment, apologies! Found the text of it in the blog's innards and reposted.}

      I have not tried (and wouldn't want to) some of the truly steep descents we have here (20%+) on this bike. But 10-15% or so descents it handles surprisingly well. When the descent is long enough to give me time to notice nuances, I can sense a slight bit of fishtailing. But very slight. Overall, it is a comfortable experience, descending on this bike loaded.

      The disc brakes are more than strong enough. And personally I would prefer v-brakes.

      No swinging effect at all when mounting or dismounting. As mentioned in the post, the most awkward part of dealing with the loaded bike is attempting to walk it. Not sure whether it's the walking speed, or the fact that I'm beside the bike rather than on it, but the load can feel unstable and pull to one side - which NEVER happens when I am pedaling the bike, even at crawler speeds.

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  9. There is a very simple way to carry a wheel when riding a bike. It may seem redundant when there is a cargo bike at hand, but it is so very easy I would prefer it in any case. Hold the wheel you want to transport by your hip. Thread your belt through the spokes and under the rim. That's it. The wheel will hang straight down and not interfere with pedalling at all. You can carry a wheel on each side. You can carry a pair of wheels on each side, though they will clatter and there gets to be a clearance problem., Have done this for almost sixty years, completely trouble free.

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    1. My usual method for carrying wheels (it has happened more often than seems natural!) is to turn them into a backpack by threading a rope through the spokes, backpack-wise. You know? Works especially well for me, considering I do not own a belt.

      There are all kinds of fun ways to attach wheels (and frames!) to a (standard) bicycle's rear triangle. For example, this:
      instagram.com/p/6hi_zzj7kk

      But of course the long tail makes it easier. Plus you can add groceries.

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  10. Nice review. My only trial of a Haul-a-day was a few unloaded turns in a parking garage. I was tempted, and still am, but I already own a longtail....

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  11. I really find that with proper loading the weight disappears on level riding. Going up hill, one notices the grade! Descending is even trickier as speeds can induce a little wobble. So, good brakes, I use V-brakes and they work pretty well, should be regularly adjusted and maintained. Really, one finds that riding a long tail bike is pretty easy. I do notice a speed sacrifice, but I usually ride road bikes. Adapt the "I'll get there when I get there" approach and see what you and your bike can do. You will be surprised!
    Thanks for the blog V, I never know where your post will lead. Also, the comments can be very enriching, to say the least!

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  12. Hello, Velouria,
    This may be a bit of a non-sequitur, but I am curious if you are still riding your Brompton? What do you ride the most in the Irish country side?

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    1. Hi Eileen. Unless I have review bikes or project bikes that I am deliberately riding (this season in particular is full of them), or it is so windy that I can't ride an upright bike at all, the Brompton remains my main commuter.

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