- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 6 April 2011
I want you to know upfront exactly what I think of the bakfiets, so I will begin this review with my conclusion: the bakfiets is simply the most sensible, useful and utilitarian bike I have ever ridden or can imagine. While I only had it for a few weeks, it was almost instantly integrated into my life and enabled me to do more by bike than I thought possible. Does that conclusion sound too emotive? Let me explain.
Since the invention of the bicycle, people have been trying to move things (other than themselves) around by bike. Front racks, rear racks and panniers are common, as are baskets, seat bags and trailers. Most of the solutions to the haulage problem that we see in Australia are modifications and additions to “normal” bikes and while they work, they work to a limited degree.
The Dutch have had the cargo problem solved for a long time with the ‘bakfiets’; the box bike. As you can see from the photographs, it’s an apt name – it’s a bike with a box on the front. However, what you may not see in the photographs is that it is in fact two bikes: it’s a standard van Andel bakfiets and, with a simple flick of a switch, it’s a bakfiets with an electric motor in the front hub – an e-bakfiets. Both incarnations of the bike have their own characteristics and this review explores their commonalities and differences.
The first thing you notice about the bakfiets is just how different it is from the majority of bikes you see on Australian roads. The rear half of the bike looks like a typical “Dutch style” bike or English roadster. It has a step through frame, sprung saddle, swept back handlebars and is painted a classic black. The saddle and handlebars can be adjusted to suit almost any adult rider, the chain is fully encased and the rear wheel has a fender and a skirt guard. The bike comes with front and rear hub dynamo powered lights and you shift gears with a grip shifter on the right hand grip. The bakfiets is designed to be ridden by anyone while wearing normal clothing and shoes; it’s designed for comfortable cycling.
The Van Andel bakfiets and a very happy passenger.
The front of the bakfiets is what turns heads and elicits comment. Where the front wheel would be on a “normal” bike, there is a plywood box with a small wheel at the front (the front wheel is a 20″ wheel, which are often found on BMX style bikes, while the rear is 26″, often found on mountain bikes). The box is about 40 cm deep, is 72 x 45 cm at the base and flares out to 1 m long and 63cm wide at the top, which is only fractionally wider than some mountain bike handlebars. The floor of the box has a non-slip rubber mat and there is a small fold-down seat at the rider’s end with two three-point harnesses to hold two smallish children or one slightly larger one.
The bakfiets is surprisingly easy to ride. I say surprisingly because “How does it handle?” was the question I was most often asked. It’s a fair question; the bakfiets is a big bike, it has a wheelbase of 190 cm and weighs 35kg, but it doesn’t feel like that when you are riding it. The bike uses an 8 speed Nexus hub and provides enough of a gear range that I could haul significant loads up hills and cruise the flats at 25+ km/h. Being heavy, and heavier still when loaded, the bakfiets can build up significant speed going downhill. The front and rear hubs have integrated roller brakes, which most local cyclists (including myself) would not be familar with. These adequately modulate speed and provide reliable stopping power. Obviously, the greater the load and speed, the longer it takes to stop, but I never felt a lack of confidence while braking even with some serious momentum behind me.
The large main centre tube of the bakfiets is low to the ground giving it a low centre of gravity and making it dynamically stable. You would be hard pressed to notice any sort of handling difference between a rolling bakfiets and any other “upright” bike, but the low clearance may pose problems when navigating over sharp speed humps.
At low speeds, particularly when starting from stationary and when carrying a load, the bakfiets was tricky to handle. The rider’s position on the bike doesn’t lend itself to redistributing your weight to compensate for the roll of the bike and I frequently found myself putting my foot down to stabilise the bike while I had another go at getting started. I got better at doing this the more I rode it and I suspect it would have been just a matter of time before I did it without thinking.
Despite the front wheel being very far in front of the rider, the bakfiets has a tight turning circle and there is no hesitation between my moving the handlebar and the front wheel turning. I found the bakfiets dexterous enough to navigate most of the traffic furniture on my routes around Sydney, from pedestrian chicanes in the middle of the road to the ever annoying hoops and bollards found on cycleways. The only obstacles that stopped me would have also blocked a tandem, a bike trailer or even a twin pram – this is not the fault of the bike, rather it’s the fault of the path designers.
When at rest, the bakfiets sits on a four pronged stand that rotates up and locks behind the box while riding. It’s easy to engage and disengage with your foot and while deployed it holds the bakfiets stable enough for kids to climb in and out of the box. If you’re leaving the bike alone, a key operated AXA Defender lock on the rear wheel will keep it safe enough to allow you to go and have a coffee or get the kids from their classroom, but I wouldn’t trust it as a serious theft deterrent.
When I was told I would be testing a bakfiets I was instantly excited; I had wanted to ride a bakfiets since I first saw them years ago. What I wasn’t expecting was having the chance to ride a pedal assist bike. Pedal assist bikes have motors which only operate while you are pedalling. You need to put in a rotation or two of the cranks before you feel the motor kick in and when you stop pedalling the motor stops working. As the name suggest, these type of motors are meant to assist you pedalling, they don’t turn your bike into an electric motorcycle.
A motor in the front hub to assist your pedalling
The bakfiets had a factory installed 24V, 180W motor capable of turning at 175RPM and assisting at speeds up to 25 km/h. The battery that comes standard with the e-bakfiets is a 24V 10Ah Li-ion battery, but the particular bike I rode had the battery upgraded to a 14 Ah one (which means it will last longer between charges). A complete battery recharge will take about 6 hours.
The battery slides into a slot on the custom rear rack, the motor is operated via a key near the battery (just below the seat), and the motor speed can be controlled via a panel on the handlebars which also shows battery life. You can adjust how much assistance you receive with a simple press of a button.
When you ride the bakfiets in pedal assist mode you can really feel the motor assisting you (though you can barely hear it). One or two pedal rotations is all it takes to get the motor going; there’s no gradual build up, the power is just there. Taking off up hill at traffic lights, for example, once you get the balance right, is ridiculously easy with pedal assist. Hills, both steep and painfully long, are mercifully eased and headwinds are tamed when using pedal assist. This doesn’t mean that the rider isn’t doing any work, they most certainly are, rather it means that you will be able to do more for the same amount of work or at least do what you are doing with less effort.
To market, to market to buy two weeks worth of fruit and veg.
The main selling point of the bakfiets isn’t its utility as a bike or an e-bike, it’s the ability to haul loads. The box on the bakfiets is rated to carry 80 kg and the rear rack is rated to carry 50 kg; this is in addition to the weight of the rider on the bike. During my time with the bakfiets I transported (among other things): children (my two youngest together and my eldest two each on their own) and their school bags; children and a pile of bike parts (such as wheels, fenders and a frame); and two weeks worth of fruit and vegetable shopping from the markets for a family of six hungry vegetarians.
I used the bike with and without the motor, in both modes I had no problems moving up to 65 kg worth of cargo in the box. Apart from finding it a little tricky to get started with a load, the only problem I found while riding loaded was that if the load shifted while in motion it threw the balance off. I learned quickly to make sure the load was secure and the kids learned quickly to sit still while the bike was in motion.
That the bakfiets can move everything I put in it is the main selling point of this bike for me. Most of the cycling I do is utility cycling: I ride to get from place to place. About 85% of the kilometres I travel each year are by bike and when I do drive a car, it is usually full of kids. Most of the solo driving I do is to carry groceries from the fresh food markets or the supermarket. I do this because I simply can’t carry very much on a bike. The bakfiets means I can do more; while I had the bike I was able to completely eliminate all of my solo driving. While moving loads with a bike is possible, moving loads with a bakfiets is practical.
Thumbs up for a well thought out vehicle
Finding problems with the bakfiets is hard since it is built around a bike paradigm that has evolved out its shortcomings. There are two operational points, however, that need to be thought through when using the bakfiets.
Changing a flat tyre on a bakfiets is more involved than changing a flat tyre on a regular bike. It’s obviously not impossible, but it does require more time and more steps to do it. It also requires some additional instruction since you need to be able to disconnect and reconnect the Nexus hub on the rear or the motorised hub on the front. You also have to deal with the logistics of getting the wheels off of the bike to change the tube – the front wheel is easy since it is slightly elevated when the bike stand is engaged, but the back wheel is a bit more tricky. Re-learning the old skill of patching a tube without removing the wheel would be the best option here.
Of course, like everything else on the bike, the problem of flat tyres has been carefully considered and the bakfiets comes standard with Schwalbe marathon tyres which are probably the most puncture resistant tyres in the world. If you do happen to get a puncture and successfully patch it you can re-inflate the tyres using a mini-pump conveniently located on the rear rack.
The second sticking point with this bike is somewhat related to the first. While the bike has been carefully and sensibly designed to be as “bomb proof” as possible, what happens if the bike becomes un-ridable, for whatever reason? With my road bike, I can take the wheels off and it will fit into the back seat or the boot of even the smallest car – the bakfiets obviously won’t. Transporting the bakfiets would require a car trailer, ute or truck and two people to lift it if it couldn’t be rolled on. While this is unlikely, it was a concern I had; I decided that I could always get a tow truck if I needed to.
Being a suburbanite, I have several shopping centres with a 5 km radius of my home; such proximity, even loaded, was no real test of the bakfiets. Several times each year I volunteer as a in-ride mechanic for the big charity bike rides. I usually load up my bike with tools, clothes and food, ride from home to the ride start, work on the ride and then ride home again. I decided to do one of these rides (the Sydney Gear Up Girl ride) with the bakfiets, and because she hadn’t been with me for one of these rides, I took my six year old daughter in the box. Actually, to be exact, I had my daughter, blankets, a pillow, wet weather gear (yes, it rained), changes of clothes, food, and a barbie doll in the box.
With the battery fully charged, we set off at 3:30 in the morning for our little epic. The built in dynamo powered lights on the e-bakfiets were quite adequate for street riding at night, but since we would be on unlit paths I needed to supplement them with something stronger. To give the motor a thorough test I had it on full power for the trip to the start line. While the route was generally flat, there were some sharp hills and bridges but the real struggle was against the very serious rain laden winds coming off the water as we rode around Botany Bay. Having the pedal assist meant a much easier ride than I would have had on my touring bike and it must have also been a smooth one; my daughter fell asleep after 10km and didn’t wake until the start of the charity ride. She lay wrapped in her blankets in the box as securely as if she were at home in bed.
The trip down (approximately 60 km) consumed only 60% of the battery power and I managed to do it at an average speed of just under 25km/h. For the return trip, with better weather and no need to hurry (I was working on the way back home), I rode without the motor. The total distance ridden for the day was just over 120km and I could have easily ridden for another few hours.
This trip really surprised me; I was expecting the bakfiets to be useful as a cargo hauling bike, but I never expected it to be such a good touring bike. I spent around 8 hours in the saddle that day and certainly didn’t feel it immediately after or in the following days. I had an relaxing ride, my daughter enjoyed herself (and the attention she got as the girl in the box bike), and my love affair with this bike deepened.
Bakfiets are excellent vehicles for families with a few small children, people who want to ride with their pets or those who want to do some comfortable road touring. The box can be customised with extra seats, a weather shield and even a doggy door. The bakfiets is designed to last a lifetime with a minimum of maintenance required; the kids you’re transporting in it today can transport their kids in it in twenty years time.
Along with the domestic applications, there are a range of commercial possibilities; any business that needs small goods delivered over short to medium distances would likely do better with a bakfiets than with a car, ute or truck. Take the box off the front and replace it with a more customised cabinet and you have a great service trade vehicle (I know of a photographer in the states who uses one, for example). Comparatively low initial cost, almost no running costs, no registration, no parking problems, no emissions: no excuses.
Since I began with a conclusion, I will conclude with a beginning. When I picked up the bakfiets for the review, Maurice, the owner of Glow Worm cycles who distribute the bakfiets in Sydney, expressed his regret at having to lend it to me. He had a pile of boxes that he needed to deliver and he used the bakfiets to run them around the city, he even delivers customers bikes with it. He said he was missing it already. Now that I have ridden one, I know how he felt.
Bakfiets are available in Australia through Dutch Cargo Bikes. The Sydney distributor is Glow Worm Cycles who also specialise in electric bikes and conversions. The bakfiets retails for around $3150, with the e-bakfiets priced at around $5000 depending on the electric conversion kit used. Other bakfiets bike options are available as are a range of acessories.
This article is over; I’m trying to sleep here