Cargo Bikes. The Basics.
Remember those hours in your day when you sit in your car thinking you would rather be riding? Well now you can.
A few months ago, we finally bought our first electric-assist cargo bike. We went with the Surly Big Easy, a long-tail cargo bike with a long rear rack that can accommodate two passengers and lots of stuff. It’s big, it’s fun to ride, and it garners attention.
The first questions people usually ask when they catch us out and about are ‘wow, how far can you go?’, ‘is it fun?’, and if we chat a little longer ‘so what did it cost?’.
These bikes go far (about 30mi to 60mi per battery charge depending on several factors), and they are lots of fun for riders and passengers (as my son and his friends can attest). Electric-assist cargo bikes that are sold at local bike dealers cost somewhere between $3k and $11k depending on model, accessories, and components.
Doesn’t any bike carry cargo?
Yes, every bike does. The difference is that cargo bikes are specifically designed to haul stuff. Typically, at least 120lbs, but often much more. The Yuba Supermarché for example can carry up to 300lbs of cargo plus the rider. Due to their frame materials and geometry, well-built cargo bikes feel stable even with large loads. They offer ample space to attach racks, bags, and baskets.
Cargo bikes are commonly used by parents who want to be able to ride with their children. Messengers use cargo bikes. Delivery firms like UPS use cargo bikes. Even municipalities are starting to add cargo bikes to their vehicle fleets.
Electric Assist or Pedal Powered
Why did you go for an electric assist?
Because this region is hilly, and because the summers are hot, a high-quality electric assist was a no-brainer for us. Electric assist systems provide different modes of support that allow riders to choose whether they want an intense workout or a cruise without breaking a sweat (you still have to pedal, no matter what). Hauling loads and transporting passengers doesn’t only become easier, it turns into lots of fun.
There are big differences in motors and batteries. Quality and longevity increase with price. Talking to an experienced dealer and doing some research before deciding on a setup is helpful. The Surly Big Easy is equipped with the Bosch Performance CX motor and the Bosch PowerPack 500 lithium-ion battery. The combination was originally designed for e-mountain bikes. It makes it a versatile adventure bike that is great for everything from school runs to shopping to bike-packing.
Cargo Bike Types
Currently, there are three main types of cargo bikes on the US market. Each has its pros and cons, depending on what you want to do and where you want to ride.
Long-tail cargo bikes, regular two-wheeled bicycles with an extra-long, sturdy rear rack like the one we ride, have been around in the US for a while. Xtracycle came up with their first rendition, the FreeRadical, in the 1990s, but long-tails only really picked up steam when electric pedal assist motors hit the market a few years ago.
Long-tail Cargo Bike Pros:
- Carry 2+ kids
- Versatile, some ride really well on gravel trails
- Equipped with large bags and a front-rack, they can pretty much carry a week’s load of groceries
Long-tail Cargo Bike Cons:
- Kids are exposed to the elements. Some, but not all long-tails can be equipped with canopies, but they are a little less effective than the weather protection on front-loaders
- Once kids outgrow their child seat, they need to be able to balance and sit upright for the length of your trip
- Cargo storage is slightly more complicated than on a front-loader
Who are long-tail cargo bikes for?
This is definitely the right bike for adventurous riders who want to take their bike on single-track and/or camping in the backcountry. Bike-glamping is a thing now.
Long-tail cargo bikes are also great for people who want to transport 2 or more children and don’t want to go all-in on the price of a front-loader. Some older kids (5 years and up) prefer these bikes. They sit higher up and can feel slightly more on par with the grown-ups. Great to transport adult passengers, as well.
Mid-tail or ‘compact’ cargo bikes are a little shorter than long-tails and designed to replicate the feel of a normal bike, but they still come with a sturdy rack that can carry lots of cargo, one (or even two) little people plus the rider.
Mid-tail Cargo Bike Pros:
- Lighter and shorter than long-tails
- Can be transported on a normal hitch rack
- Easier to store
- Still have lots of carrying capacity, usually one person plus cargo. Can be amended with a kiddie trailer to pull additional children
Mid-tail Cargo Bike Cons:
- Kids are exposed to the elements (same as on long-tails)
- They need to be able to balance and sit upright for the length of your trip (same as for long-tails)
- Slightly less cargo carrying capacity than long-tail cargo bikes
Who are mid-tails for?
Because mid-tail cargo bikes handle very much like a conventional bike, these are great for smaller families or folks who are just getting back into riding. You can pull a second (and third) child (or pet) in a trailer if you wish to bring along the entire fam. Mid-tails are also great for folks who want to take their bike commuting to the next level. Different models accommodate different riding styles (from laid back to more aggressive). Storage bags make transporting work supplies and a change of clothing easy. Finally, mid-tails are great recreational bikes that can be transported to any of our multi-use trailheads on an ordinary hitch rack.
Front-loaders are the mini vans among the cargo bike family. With a box in front of the rider, they offer lots of storage and passenger space. In short, they give you and your family many reasons to leave your car at home.
Front-loader Cargo Bike Pros:
- Passengers sit in front of the rider and are always in sight
- They are well protected by the cargo box
- Fantastic for riding with passengers with special needs: Front-loaders can carry passengers that aren’t able to balance on the rear rack of a long- or mid-tail cargo bike
- Passengers are well sheltered. The box can be equipped with rain/sun canopies
- Cargo-carrying capacity is often similar to long-tails, depending on the model, but stuff is much easier to pack (just throw it in the box)
- Different box options allow for customization based on your needs
- Three-wheeled front-loaders make riding easy for people who don’t want to balance their load on two wheels, who want to transport adult-sized passengers or larger numbers of children
Front-loader Cargo Bike Cons:
- Front-loaders don’t ride as well as long-tails on desert trails (but they can still do it). If you’re planning to venture out on single track, a long-tail or mid-tail might be for you
- They are bulky – handling requires a bit of practice
- They are more difficult to transport and store than long- and mid-tails
- Three wheelers aren’t as streamlined, and as a consequence not as well suited to ride longer distances
- This is the most costly type of cargo bike on the market
Who should consider a front-loader?
If you want to transport two or more small children or a child with special needs, and you have dreamt to leave your car at home more often, this bike is for you. Weather becomes less of a challenge, because well fitted canopies shelter precious cargo from any condition. A week’s load of groceries can easily be stored, and many people have taken these bikes touring along paved roads. They fit one younger child and camping gear well.
The Price Tag
Looking at the price tag, you might wonder why you wouldn’t invest that kind of money in your next mountain bike. Remember those hours in your day when you sit in your car thinking you would rather be riding? Well now you can. E-cargo bikes make it possible. They have the power to turn your commutes into extraordinary adventures. You’ll never be stuck in the school drop-off line again.
Come test ride one at Red Rock Bicycle Co.
Questions to ask yourself when you’re considering buying a cargo-bike
What would you like to carry? People? Pets? Groceries? All of the above?
If you are planning to transport kids: how many, and how tall/old are they?
What weather conditions do you want to be able to ride in?
Will you be sharing the bike with somebody?
Where will you store the bike?
Do you currently ride a bike? What kind of riding do you enjoy?
Where will you be riding (on paved roads, are these roads busy, on gravel, on trails, …)?
How far will you be riding?
Do you want to be able to transport the bike by car? What car do you have?
What is your budget (consider bike plus accessories like child seats, bags, etc.)?
Text by Judith Rognli