If you want, the bakfiets can take the place of a car. That’s what it does. You don’t need to live in a place without hills. You don’t need Dutch cycling infrastructure (although I wouldn’t turn it down). You need only a fair amount of urban density and the patience to ride a bike more slowly than you would otherwise without the box. After that, the bakfiets does all the work.
“Bakfiets” is a compound Dutch word which translates literally to “boxbike.” It’s a generic term that can describe any number of cargo bikes you might see in the Netherlands. This particular bakfiets is a modern version of the Northern European freight bicycle known as the Long John, characterized by a load carried low and forward of the rider, with a small wheel at the front. Maarten van Andel designed this version in Amsterdam in the early part of the 2000s in order to bring what is traditionally a commercial bike down to the scale of the family.
It’s built by Azor Bike in the Netherlands, is exported by WorkCycles in Amsterdam, and comes to the States through a handful of dealers, most of whom are on the West Coast. I got mine from the good people at Clever Cycles in Portland, OR, who were very kind to extend their remodeling sale to me. No dealers currently on the East coast, but the Dutch Bike Co. of Seattle and Chicago is advertising plans to open a shop in Brooklyn sometime later this year.
The bakfiets is heavy-duty but it’s not cumbersome. For eight feet of bike, the ride is remarkably balanced whether loaded or not. It rolls like a locomotive on tracks. It puts your toddlers to sleep. On your first ride, don’t look at the front wheel, look where you want to go and you’ll have it figured out before you turn around. The steering is exceptionally sensitive and that can take a little getting used to, but everything else is just like riding a bike.
The bottom bracket is low and the seat tube is angled back, which puts the rider in a very comfortable position, one in which she is sitting upright and can easily place a foot on the ground without getting out of the saddle. It’s lovely whenever you stop, but it’s especially beneficial if you ever lose control—getting a foot on the ground to regain your balance becomes a reflexive act. The upright position and high handlebars also means the rider supports no weight on her hands, leaving her upper body free to relax.
It is made to live outdoors, day and night, all year long and for many years. Very few people in Amsterdam have the space to bring a bakfiets indoors, so they are chained to racks and railings and left to fend for themselves. David Hembrow has a video tour of the Azor factory, which at the 2:55 mark shows the salt and steam bath they use to test durability. The wood is marine grade. The bike is engineered to last like a tank. Have at it.
Above are all the hallmarks of a Dutch bike: a skirt guard to keep dresses and overcoats from tangling in the spokes; an o-lock, bolted to the frame—its steel ring immobilizes the rear wheel when the key is removed; a fully enclosed chaincase; fenders; an incredibly bomb-proof rack, smartly designed with the tail light mounted underneath so you don’t accidentally snap it off.
The hub is a Shimano Nexus 8-speed attached to a 17-tooth cog. I had assumed I would want a larger cog for a lower gearing overall but I have learned that even up the 6% hill from the grocery store, the bakfiets will go no faster than it does, no matter my cadence.
The brakes are drum brakes, not disc. That means the entire propulsion system is internal and the weather will never affect the bike’s mechanics (except for maybe frozen cables). On my Raleigh in the rain, the chain attracts dirt like a magnet and the caliper brakes need to clear the rims of water before they can really slow things down. On the bakfiets, that’s not the case. It’s more like a car, in which everything important is shielded beneath the hood.
The Dutch ride side-saddle all the time, so their racks have to be exceptionally strong. The most I’ve yet to strap on is a double stroller and I forgot it was even there once we got moving. The bakfiets comes with an elastic made to fit in the slot welded to the rack, but any bungee hook will work there. It’s wide and long enough to accommodate whatever you can balance on top of it.
A bike built to transport this much cargo needs to be rock solid when loading and unloading. Accordingly, the kickstand is more like a built-in repair stand. Here’s how it works. (1) With the stand down, the bike goes nowhere. Kids can climb on it. Heavy loads can be put in, taken out, and shifted around without any movement. I’ve even parked it on a slight lateral decline with no problem. (2) To bring the stand up, grab the handlebars from the left side and push the bike forward. The stand swings back on its hinge and the front wheel touches the ground. (3) Pull the leg of the stand up with your hand (or foot) and (4) engage the latch. When it’s new, the pad that keeps the stand from rattling (far left, bottom photo) is stiff. You’ll need to pull hard to get the stand to catch. As the pad wears, it gets easier to do it with your foot.
Bringing the stand down is done by releasing the latch with your foot. After the stand has dropped, pull the bike back to set the feet on the ground.
What can the bakfiets carry?
Children, of course. Junk. Boxes. Groceries. Rugs. A couch, a tree, a Christmas tree, and certainly then Mrs. Claus, or, even, everyone. Quite literally anything that marginally fits in the box or can be strapped to it or to the rack. You won’t win any races on the bakfiets, but you will get your things where you want them to go and you will do it without thinking. On a regular bike, you have to consider what’s most important on a grocery run and leave the rest for the next time. On the bakfiets, you can get the whole week’s shopping for four people in one trip, just as you would in a car.
It’s not a particularly expensive bike, as bikes go (it costs around $3000; compare that with an $8000 racing bike) and it’s a very good practical value for how much it can do. It’s ultimately no comparison to the cost of a car. No bike is. Even the cost of the most expensive utility commuter won’t get you a terribly decent used car. In fact, after totaling the cost of car insurance, property taxes, gas and maintenance, as a replacement for a car the bakfiets begins paying for itself after roughly twelve months (and that’s not even including car payments).
What else does it do well?
a. Bench and harnesses. Fits two kids (convenient for twins!) and straps them in against squirming. Probably will last until they’re four or five, at which point you can get a second bench to mount mid-box or somebody can sit on the floor. It flips up when not in use.
b. Pedals. Grippy like a rat trap, only without the teeth. Friendly to cheap flip-flops.
c. Step. It’s this kind of detail which demonstrates just how refined the design of this bike is. The walls of the box are angled in just enough to create a lip out of the bottom panel. It’s a step for a child to lift himself into the box.
d. Full chaincase. No chain maintenance, ever. No greasy pants.
e. Drain holes. One in each corner so when you leave it out in the rain, you don’t have to cycle home with 20 gallons of water.
f. Generator and generator tab. Even though the bike comes with a Shimano dynohub, which powers the lights as you pedal, the fork is made with a tab to accept a bottle generator. You have options. (Maybe this is a stock fork which finds its way onto bikes without the Shimano hub?)
g. LED head lamp. Plenty bright for city riding. A nice, even beam. In addition to steady on, it has an auto setting which will switch the lights on when the sky gets dark. (Auto sensors on bike lights are really more gimmick than useful. They don’t activate until the sky is very dark and I want my lights on well before that time of night. Plus, this one picks up overhead streetlights so your lights go on and off as you pass under them.)
h. O-lock. Standard equipment on any Dutch bike. I have never understood why they are completely absent here. They’re perfect for locking up quickly during short stays. Much easier than chaining up to something, but you don’t want to rely on it overnight.
i. LED tail light. Stays lit for a few minutes after you stop.
Finally, the rain cover. It’s necessary if you have kids and want to use it all year. Not only does it protect from the rain, it also keeps out the wind and warms the inside like a greenhouse in the winter. It’s not quite a hassle to put on but it’s certainly not the easiest thing to negotiate when loading two toddlers. It fits tightly against the box and is fixed by four thick elastic loops. Its skeleton is two curved plastic strips: one runs the length of the cover in the middle and the other forms the arch near the handlebars. You might expect that you could unhook one of the rear corners and flip the cover up and over in order to unload a kid, but the plastic ribs make that a little awkward. You basically have to take it most, if not all of the way off. It’s unfortunately not a hatch.
G & R and I went for a Sunday morning ride this past weekend. I didn’t get any pictures, but they were out after the first ten minutes which I consider to be as positive a review as any. We’re looking forward to a lot of trips and picnics along the bay as the weather turns (if it ever does!) as well as runs to the museum, to the farmer’s market, to the doctor, to nana’s and babu’s, to the grocery store, to pick up dry cleaning, to visit friends, and just to ride. We’ll let you know how things hold up over time.
Filed under: bakfiets, Dutch, Useful Things | 7 Comments
Tags: Azor Bikes, bakfiets, bicycle, bike, Clever Cycles, drum brakes, Dutch, dynamo, internally-geared, long john, WorkCycles