drum roll please…
my new kid and crap hauler, a Joe Bike.
I don’t know if I’m quite ready to give the bike a full review since I’ve only had it for three weeks now and we were in Europe for ten of those days. I’ll give a brief overview now and then update after I’ve ridden in the rain and in a couple of months, the snow.
In mid-September I went down to Indianapolis to test ride a Joe Bike at Indy Cycle Specialists. The owner of the shop, Bob, partnered with Joe Bike to bring these Bakfiets facsimiles to the midwest. He rides one himself with his two young daughters in the box and is really committed to the brand.
Before heading down to Indy I had ridden a few different front load cargo bikes similar to the Joe Bike. Both the DeFietsfabriek 996 and Workcycles Bakfiets long, while handsome and very well made, are really only appropriate for people 5’3” or taller. I was almost able to ride both comfortably once in the saddle but mounting and dismounting were cumbersome and leaning the bike to get a toe down at stops was harrowing. I also test rode a Babboe City which had a lower steering mechanism and box than the Workcycles or Defietsfabriek and handled fairly well despite the bad press (check out the comments) they receive. The frames and wheel sets on the Babboe are made of cheap materials to keep costs low so it’s yet to be seen what kind of longevity these bikes will have. I’ve also test ridden a couple of Harry vs. Larry Bullitts. One had a steering dampener installed and the other was stock. The stock one handled bizarrely and was completely different than the other front loaders described above but the one with the steering dampener installed handled like a dream and had zero front end wobble. The Bullitt has a more aggressive riding position than any of the upright cargo options. It’s also made of aluminum so the weight is a solid 25lbs less than a bakfiets. These features combine to make a fast and precision handling machine.
If money were no object I would have bought a Bullitt and converted it from a derailleur to an internally geared hub. But, the $3,000 price tag is significantly more than I am able to spend. So, it was time to branch out and look at a couple of inexpensive options. That’s cargo bike inexpensive of course, not real word inexpensive. There is really no way yet to get these beasts cheaply since the market in the US is somewhat niche. My friend Steven Vance predicted that 2011 would be the year of the cargo bike and it does seem that some of the larger companies are taking notice of this growing demographic. Trek and Surly have marketed their own long tails so it’s only a matter of time before a large US manufacturer decides to offer their own take on the classic Dutch bakfiets. Mass production will likely bring down the quality of these bikes but it will also lower the price point enough to put them within reach of many families.
No, I do not have Bullitt money, but I can scrape up enough for a Chinese built frame with some nice quality US assembly and components. Enter the Joe Bike. The base priced versions of these bakfiets come pretty skimpy with crappy Kenda tires, no fenders or chain case/guard and an uncomfortable vinyl seat better suited for hemorrhoid relief than hours in the saddle. However, the deficiencies end there and all these things are easy enough to change so it’s worth it to me to do some of my own upgrades in order to save the $1,500 dollar price difference between a Joe Bike and a Workcycles. Unfortunately, you can no longer order a reasonably priced Joe Box Bike, because I got the very last one they had in stock and it now looks like they will begin building their frames in Portland and will be charging $3,000+ for 2012’s models. Indy Cycle Specialists still have two available though for around $1,800.
A few months ago, I decided that my life would be eternally incomplete until I came into possession of a Nuvinci n360 continuously variable transmission. I called a million shops around Chicago to see if they carried any of the commuter bikes fitted with the hub. I figured I’d have the best shot at finding a Breezer Infinity at On the Route or another Breezer dealer but no one in a fifty mile radius seemed to have one of these hubs available for test riding. Currently the hub is priced quite high if one is looking to buy one on its own to build into a wheel ($350) but is more reasonably priced when bought as part of a complete bicycle. I had originally intended to buy a Nuvinci and then build it into my Madsen bucket bike. Chicago’s winter wreaked havoc on its drivetrain last year and I couldn’t imagine going through another winter with the risk of parts failing. But, at $350 alone for the hub I knew I’d never see my investment back if I upgraded the Madsen. The rear wheel on the bucket bike is also only 20” so it isn’t as though I’d be able to easily remove it and put it on another bike upon selling.
My next step was to find a new cargo bike that already had a Nuvinci built in to it. That search brought up only one; Joe Bike.
I’ll be doing an entire post dedicated to reviewing this hub in the coming days but want to spend a bit of time going over the bike more broadly.
Unlike my Madsen, the cargo on the Joe Bike is carried up front. The capacity and weight limits on this new bike are one third of what I had with the Madsen but after more than a year of use I never came close to utilizing the Madsen’s capability and when I had the rear bucket loaded significantly (150+ lbs) I found the bike difficult to balance at stops and slow speeds. The front box on the Joe Bike is similar to that of Workcycles Bakfiets short, though I believe the Joe Bike’s box may be a couple of inches more narrow which helps with squeezing between cars and making tight turns. It will comfortably fit two children until about 8 years old. The box is fitted with a folding bench and two 3-point harnesses. Both the box and the belts are handmade in Portland.
Joe assured me that the marine quality wood of the box was thoroughly sealed for Pacific Northwest weather but it does seem a bit thirsty to me. I am going to wait until a couple of months riding in inclement weather before deciding whether to reseal the box with polyurethane.
Though machine built, the wheels appear to be of good quality. The spokes are heavy gauge and the rims are Sunlite in a lightweight aluminum. The front chain ring is the smallest I’ve ever had on a bike at maybe 30 or 32T which will make fitting an after market chain guard challenging.
The bike came standard with a front dynamo light though the rear light is a battery powered LED.
After a scary situation during my test ride when my kiddo’s foot got lodged into the rear spokes while she was riding on the rack I had Joe throw on a pair of skirt guards for free with my order. I would have preferred that they be color matched vinyl but these bobike ones have been effective in keeping her extremities out of the wheel so I’ve got little to balk at here. A rear wheel lock also came standard. I’m not sure the make of the lock but unlike other wheel locks I’ve had on three bikes, this one allows for the removal of the key when in the unlocked position. Typically the key is locked in the “ignition” position while the lock is not in use and the key is only removable when the lock is engaged. On the few occasions when I’ve forgotten to remove the key from other locks I’ve been nervous about it being stolen while I’m away from the bike only for me to return to an immobilized rear wheel. Paranoid? Maybe. Impossible? Not in Chicago.
It also comes with a killer 4-point kick stand. My Madsen had a wide set two foot version that was mostly fine but could be nerve racking when the bike was parked on uneven ground or muddy soil/sand. This stand however wouldn’t budge if a procession of elephants marched into the box. This photo also shows the steering arm. I have no idea how that works so just pretend that I describe its function here:
and that’s how Bakfiets steering functions. Woo, now that that’s over, check out this brass bell.
Ding, ding, happy trails.