Yesterday I had errands to do. I wanted to pick up a couple of 3/8 flare plugs at Plumber's Supply; get a loaf of Multigrain Sourdough at Rickards Bakery; go to the bank; pick up a piece of glass at the frame shop; get something at the hardware store; and get some coffee beans at the store. Where I lived for many years in NH, this would mean driving into Lebanon and West Lebanon, a round trip of 20-25 miles. Here down Island on Martha's Vineyard, where we live and work, I can do it in 5 miles. It's also flatter and warmer in the winter, so a bike is the perfect form of transportation. If I lived in a dense urban area, where everything is even closer, I could do it all walking.
As I mentioned in a previous post, close to half my carbon was in driving my car (currently a Honda Fit.) Here, the car may stay parked from week to week. In order for a bike to be a useful vehicle for transport and errands, I think it needs several characteristics:
- It must have enough cargo capacity to do your periodic food shopping
- It must have fenders and brakes that work in the wet weather
- It must have lighting.
For carrying cargo, we've traditionally had racks and panniers, and baskets. The trouble is that if you have something larger it's really hard to fit it easily on a bike. Bike trailers are one solution to this. But trailers add the drag of additional wheels. The Dutch have all manner of nifty, carry-a-boatload bikes called bakfiets:
This one has a rain tent to keep the kids or groceries dry. I've never ridden one. You can see that this one fulfills my other conditions - it has fenders and lights, and it looks like the brakes are enclosed drum brakes, that retain effectiveness in the rain. Makes sense for the Netherlands (heck, with climate change, it should have amphibious capability!) Meanwhile, on this side of the pond, we have bikes that are beginning to be known as cargo bikes or longtail bikes. This bike species began commercially with the Xtracycle. This is a tubular subframe that bolts on a mountain bike frame and adds about fifteen inches to the wheelbase, which enables the bike to take a pair of purpose-built racks and bags. Here's my Klein MTB set up with the Xtracycle free Radical kit:
All of a sudden what you can consider carrying on a bike expands considerably, and yet you know you are still on a bike that behaves predictably like a regular bike. You can use a bike you already have, or pick up an older MTB that is obsolete as a mountain bike but makes a great platform for a cargo bike.
I liked my Xtracycle a lot, and once I proved to myself this was a good option for a utility bike, the bike manufacturer Surly obliged the cargo bike fancier with a purpose-built cargo bike called the Big Dummy. Because the frame is fully triangulated it is stiffer than an Xtracycle. In the fall of 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession, retailers were cutting the price 40% on a Dummy frameset and I bit. Here's a shot of the bare bike:
It took me a while to shake down the build and decide what parts I wanted on it. I built it up to be a tank. The rear wheel, for bike connoisseurs, has a Phil Wood cassette hub. The front wheel has a German Schmidt Nabendynamo hub, which is the best generator hub available. Both hubs accept disc brake rotors, for major stopping power even in the rain. Planet Bike Cascadia fenders and a long mudflap keep me dry when riding.
The LED light revolution extends to bicycles, where we have very bright and very long lived lighting systems that pair with the generator hubs. My headlight is a Busch & Muller Lumotec IQ Cyo R. Both the headlight and taillight benefit from a capacitor built into the headlight, which gives about 4 minutes of light at a reduced level once the bike stops, so I still have light at a stop sign or when I get home. Lighting IMO is what transforms a bicycle from a recreational item into a means of transportation, because you can safely go places after dark. (A good place to buy bicycle lighting is Peter White Cycles, and he has a web page on which he has posted photos comparing the different headlight beams at night). A week and a half ago was the West Tisbury Town Meeting, and riding home at 10:30 pm was a short and exhilarating trip. I sometimes supplement my generator lighting with a phenomenally bright battery-powered taillight from Dinotte (NH made!) that can be seen in broad daylight from 1/4 mile away.
The Big Dummy can accept Footsies, which allow one to carry a passenger; the Longloader, for items like ladders and surfboards; and Wideloaders, for the heavier loads. Here's a couple of Wideloader loads on the Dummy:
In the photo above you can just make out that the tires are my pair of carbide-studded Nokians, for icy winter conditions. I put a pair on Jill's bike this winter for her commute, since the dirt roads ice up more than the paved ones, and her commute is mostly dirt.
Always carry a spare!
My six errands today took about an hour out of the middle of my day, including the riding time. Riding hardly adds more than 5 minutes to that trip (driving in the vicinity of Vineyard Haven is never very fast) and gets the heart pumping - it's a brief pleasure rather than a chore. I haven't kept careful track, but I'm pretty certain I have more miles on the Dummy than on the Honda since I moved here, if I only count miles on the Island. I still have many more auto miles all together, from the off-Island work forays, but on MV, the Dummy is king.