Getting started: riding a very big bike

Among the most frequent questions posed by people encountering a Bakfiets for the first time is: “Is it difficult to ride?” It is a sensible enough question (“Did you make it yourself?” is not really that sensible a question) because, let’s face it, this is no ordinary bike and, for anyone who might be tempted to put a couple of kids and all their accompanying paraphernalia in a nice big box on wheels, it is a fundamental issue.

My usual response is to offer a simile that I was given when I went for the initial test drive: “It’s a bit like driving a van when you’re used to a car.” It is a good analogy. It feels a bit odd at first but after ten minutes or so on the road you have forgotten how big it is. The turning circle is bigger, you have to be a bit careful going through gaps and it feels a bit of a handful to manoeuvre at slow speeds but before you know it you are enjoying the new sensations of sitting up high with a new perspective on the road and your fellow traffic-makers.

Getting your hands on a Bakfiets for the first time puts you on a learning curve and the entry point is taking it off the stand. For parents carrying their precious cargo, this stand and the solidity of the parked position is one of the Bakfiets’ most endearing features but it presents the first test of technique. Standing to the side of the bike with your hands on the handlebars, you push the bike away from you and, once the bike is down on its wheels, you aim a deft toe to lift and stow the stand up under the box. A reassuring click tells you it is securely home. Step through the frame into the saddle and, as long as you have remembered to adjust the saddle height, you are ready to roll away.

The best approach to getting the hang of riding a ten-foot-long bike is perhaps adopting a highly concentrated version of when you first learned to ride a bike of any description. Scoot for a few yards to get a feel for the balance, pedal warily with a bit of wobbling as you get used to the sensation of steering, this time with wide bars and a front wheel a good distance away from you, and then gradually relax into the ride as you gain confidence in your ability to remain upright. All this can be condensed into a few hundred yards up a quiet street and will take only a minute or two. After ten minutes you may find that leaning back in the saddle is the most comfortable and elegant way to enjoy the ride, and after fifteen you may well be hooked. Live with it for a couple of days and you begin to wonder how you ever managed without it.

Once you are used to this new riding style you will begin to notice what it is that makes it so enjoyable. The high bars and the relaxed geometry of the frame mean that you are sitting very upright but the saddle is generously – hugely – proportioned to make this a very comfortable position. The twist grip gear shift makes changing through the gears very simple and the seven-speed Shimano hub means that you should have few problems when the road throws a hill at you. Hub brakes front and back do the stopping but it is noticeable that hubs are never as sharp in their braking action as blocks on rims. However, they give no cause for alarm once you are used to their slightly spongy feel. While you are never in danger of locking a wheel, they work as well in the wet as the dry so you can have confidence in your anchors.

Having always ridden with a traditional crossbar, I was initially confused by the step-through frame but once I had overcome my habit of swinging a leg over the back of the saddle rather than in front of it I began to warm to this most understated method of getting on board. The step-through approach makes hopping on and off the Bakfiets simple and swift, something I appreciated when I realised how often I would be stepping down to tackle the many bits of highway design and road furniture best taken at a walk, particularly while I was getting used to this new vehicle. With a Bakfiets you will find that routes may have to be plotted to avoid the low barriers and chicane posts designed to slow bikes in shared spaces; some may prove just a little too tight for something this size. There will also be plenty of three- or four-point turns as you turn the Bakfiets on a narrow pavement to head back the way you came, or to manoeuvre your new best friend into a parking space where secure locking points can be found.

Another of the questions you will encounter is whether the positioning of the cargo in the box affects the ride. Like most people who ask the question, my initial assumption was that putting a weight on one side or the other would alter the balance of the bike and would require the pedaller to compensate for this load. In fact the positioning of the load has very little effect and the precious cargo can sit on either side of the seat (there are two sets of seatbelts on the bench seat) without altering the handling of the bike.

Having enjoyed the ride and reluctantly come to the end of your journey, it is time to pull the Bakfiets on to its stand. This requires a bit of heft in order to rock the weight of this big unit – along with whatever you have got in it – on to its feet but, once there, it is rock-solid for loading and unloading, clambering into and out of, or just sitting on while you wait for your heart rate to drop.

Despite the lovable nature of a Bakfiets, there are, it must be said, a couple of things one has to remember. As already mentioned, the brakes are trying to handle a significant weight so it is worth taking a cautious approach to slowing and stopping; nothing to be alarmed about but the stopping distance chart for this bike (remember the diagram on the back of the Highway Code? You won’t be doing 70mph) is a bit longer than for your carbon-framed, disk-braked mountain bike. The other issue is manoeuvring the bike while you are walking it round obstructions, parking or preparing to move off. Unlike conventional bikes, the Bakfiets’ centre of gravity is well below saddle height, which makes the Bakfiets very stable to ride even when laden. However, this is a heavy bike which means that you to make sure that you don’t let the weight get away from you when you are moving it about in a confined space. The trick is to hold the weight of the bike between you and the wheels. In practice this means you need only to keep the bike angled towards you as you walk it, being particularly careful when reversing not to run over your own feet, which can be painful for you and a bit scary for the passenger. Were you to let the weight get beyond the wheels the whole bike could tip and the weight would make it difficult to hold on to once it got away from you. But this is not going to happen. Unless you’re as cack-handed as me. And then it would only happen once.

With these minor caveats taken on board, you are free to enjoy the ride and enjoy it you will. The Bakfiets is no ordinary bike and it does take a bit of getting used to but with a couple of short journeys under your saddle you will be looking for any excuse to take it out for a spin and wondering how you ever managed without a bike that can carry a week’s shopping, a bag of sand and a daughter all at the same time.

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Why would you want a Bakfiets?

I first saw a Bakfiets cargo bike in Amsterdam a few years ago and it struck me as a practical and oddly elegant solution to the problem of carrying children or large loads around a city without the bother of a car. Having no children and quite a few bikes already, I gave it little further thought until 2010 when we took delivery of a daughter. As this new cargo got more mobile and increasingly heavy, it began to dawn on me that a Bakfiets might be just as good an idea in Oxford as Amsterdam.

Oxford is a cycling town and lots of people carry children around on bikes. Rear-mounted seats are the most popular but there are is also a significant number of trailer bikes — where a frame with bars, saddle and a single wheel are fixed to the main bike’s seat post — and quite a few trailers — where an independent trailer with two wheels and a cover is attached to the bike.. Having never ridden a bike with kids on board, I studied these options carefully over a number of months but all seemed less than ideal. I discounted both the trailer bike and full trailer options on the grounds that I would be uncomfortable having my precious cargo dangling behind me in the traffic. I thought I was also likely to spend more time than was sensible checking that she was still on board rather than concentrating on the road ahead. The rear-mounted seat was an option but the passengers I saw installed in such seats never appeared to have much of a view, particularly once the pedaller in chief had put on a backpack to take up what little room was available between the nose of the passenger and the backside of the rider. In addition, none of these options showed any sign of being much fun, whether you were pedalling or sitting; laughter was noticeable by its absence.

Forward-mounted seats, whether on the handlebars or crossbar, are rare in the UK but they struck me as rather more sensible, offering both peace of mind  and the opportunity for interaction. Plenty of Dutch companies offer such seats but my mouse kept wandering back to the Bakfiets. I dismissed it, of course — it would be ridiculous to spend that much money just to ferry a daughter around when you have already invested in all those slings, prams and buggies — but the more I looked at it the more sense it made. Living in the city and working from home, I don’t need to own a car (the last one was written off while it sat stationary outside the house by a Polish articulated truck) and I do have a garage. You cannot carry much shopping on a pram, even less on a buggy, and sooner or later someone is going to get sick of being pushed around and want to walk, rendering any journey a feat of endurance for both of us. If I needed any further persuasion, my mind was made up by a quick look at the interest being earned by the meagre savings already being hesitantly earmarked for  another bike.

I took delivery of my Bakfiets long cargo bike in July 2012 and can report that both captain and cargo are enjoying the experience enormously. What I thought might be something of an indulgence on my part has become an essential, used daily for the multiple trips to nursery, shop and park, whether just up the road or down into town. We’ve got used to being pointed and waved at, and the only thing to delay us now is stopping to talk to people who want to talk about this strange but loveable bike.