You are a customer looking to buy a bicycle. Not just any bicycle, though. You have seen people around town with strange, large bikes which they use to transport not just themselves, but groceries, and children (emphasis on the plural there). Your neighbor just got one of these bikes to take her daughters to school and you privately admit to envying that active lifestyle.
So, after an information-gathering session disguised as gossiping with your neighbor, followed by a quick google search, you walk into J.C. Lind Bike Co., a respected Dutch city and cargo bike retailer in Chicago. Hence you begin your cargo bike journey. Your excitement is palpable as you ask questions and go for test rides. Eventually you return to the shop with your children and maybe your significant other. But after riding a heavy, durable Dutch bike pregnant with the weight of your kids, you make a sobering realization: it’s heavy, it’s slow, and you don’t feel safe riding by yourself (much less, with kids) in Chicago traffic.
Apart from feeling sorry for the poor saps at J.C. Lind who try to sell these boat anchors, you’re starting to have remorse about wasting your and the bike shop’s time and you want more than anything to back out of the sale. No, it’s not for you after all. You were mistaken. This water is too deep and you can barely tread water here, let alone swim, to finally use the titular metaphor. You also can’t believe what kind of superhuman abilities and/or insanity your neighbors are afflicted with that allow them to manage rolling such a boulder around town. Best to just climb back onto the dry shore, your dependable car, towel yourself off, go home, and put this desperate charade to rest.
Sadly, as an employee of a bike shop that sells Dutch-style city bikes and cargo bikes geared (hate that pun) particularly for families, I see this narrative play out almost on a daily basis. You would think I’d have some antidote for it by now, some way to reach out and stop it from happening. The truth is, I don’t, at least not yet. This very essay serves as my first attempt to prevent the pitfall so many would-be cargo bike owners unwittingly stumble into when first looking to buy a bike–the pitfall being that while you might have the dough and the will, you are unprepared to use a bike that requires a significant leap outside of your comfort zone as well as a not inconsiderable amount of riding experience and proficiency.
I strongly believe that riding a bike in the city with children as your precious cargo is the highest level of commitment and ability a bicycler can achieve. It is truly the 700-level course of bicycling, nay, the Ph.D. program. I’d say the majority of our potential customers have taken the 100 and 200 level courses but that was ten years ago and they probably missed a bunch of class and just downloaded the professor’s Powerpoint notes (and then missed the class reunion in fashion).
My hope is that I can supply the Sparknotes for the intervening classes. (My hope is that I can also sell you a useful, durable bike).
Before I begin, a brief disclaimer: my best efforts notwithstanding, you may read this all and give it another try, or another ten tries, and still not feel comfortable riding a cargo bike stacked with kids around town. Maybe it’s that your city’s not there yet in terms of infrastructure (show up at those advisory meetings, yo!) or maybe it’s just that you don’t have the coordination to feel safe doing it. <—No judgment here from us. At the end of the day, it’s up to you to establish your comfort level and choose how much you’re willing to push yourself out of that comfort zone. That’s not something I can teach you or sell you.
First, I think it’s empowering for people to recognize that those who are riding around town with their kids like Superdads and Supermoms (your neighbors, perhaps) aren’t actually special. That’s not meant to be demeaning. What I mean is, they weren’t genetically endowed with “cargo-biking, car-free” genes or something. They are normal people, just like me and you, their lives just happened to take a path that led to cargo biking before you. That should encourage you to press on. And from here on out, I think encouragement vs. intimidation is actually the name of this game.
I think the number one reason folks get into the cargo bike ocean about ankle deep and then get scared and jump out is pure intimidation. It’s the unfamiliarity of it all. This bike you may be looking at presents a series of challenges: 1) It’s expensive. We’re talking north of $2000. And that’s before tax! 2) It’s big, and you better have a good spot to store it. If it’s jussssst inconvenient enough to get to day in and day out, you’ll never use it. 3) It’s heavy. Like I said, a boat anchor. These bikes were designed specifically to take a pounding from the weight of an adult rider, kids, and miscellaneous cargo like groceries, and to do all that daily for a year or more without needing a tune-up. I bet your car can’t even boast that good of a record. And I bet your car is pretty darn heavy. And lastly 4) It can be kind of scary riding in traffic, especially with your kids on the bike.
But again, back to the intimidation, it’s all an illusion, the natural human instinct to preserve the status quo, nothing more. I think with the right encouragement one can learn to trust in that boat anchor and hold onto it for dear life. Assuming you can come up with an answer for numbers 1 and 2 (those are the ones we can’t help you with really), then all you (we) need to do is get you to a comfortable point with numbers 3 and 4.
So, the bike is heavy. With your kids on it, even more so. But, consider the positives: 1) it’s stable and not shifty or twitchy, due not only to its weight, but also its geometry, 2) A heavy bike is harder go really fast on. “But Keith, that’s not a positive!” Yeah, yeah, it may seem counter-intuitive, but riding in the city is wayyyyyy safer if you’re going between 10-12 mph. If you’re used to going 16+ mph maybe on the bike trail that’s one thing, but in the city you’re putting yourself at greater risk. If you recognize that, then you might be able to use the fact of the bike’s weight to assuage your fears about safely riding in traffic. Double Whammy.
Some customers make the point that their commute is eight miles one way, and that it’s just so far to go loaded up with all the weight on an already heavy bike. The coach in me can confidently say, “You can do this” And that’s not just because I want to sell you something. To borrow a line from Morpheus of the Matrix movies, “Do you think how strong, or how fast I am, has anything to do with my muscles… in this place?” Any perceived weakness you feel is just that, perceived. Your legs are the strongest, most efficient muscles for moving you, and bicycles are the most efficient way to move. You might get sore by the end of the day for the first week, I’ll grant you that, but afterward your body will find its new normal.
The only other issue is that you have to give yourself more time to get to where you’re going, whether it’s one mile or ten miles. Actually if it’s just a few miles away you most likely will be faster than a car. But for longer trips it will likely take you longer. Again, find that new normal. You’ll eventually figure out how long it takes you to get to the common destinations in your life and you won’t have to look it up on googlemaps every time before you go. Even at a slow and comfortable pace of 10mph I think you’ll be surprised with how much ground you can cover. Consider the fact that you are exercising while you’re doing this, and hanging out, rather intimately in fact, with your kids. For most parents I know that’s Double Whammy. See? Already we have TWO Double Whammies! You’re growing more and more confident, more and more at ease, I can see it in your face.
The last sticking point is safety, which I only brought up briefly. Starting with this article, I hope to continue writing on a variety of subjects, but I can assure you safety will feature prominently among them. If you haven’t ridden a bike very much in the city, we can educate you about the classic dangers and common situations you may find yourself in, so that you can learn from our experience and prevent them from occurring.
Route planning is key, you’ll want to take your time and plan ahead, sometimes trying out routes for the first time during low traffic days like Sunday. You want to be seen and heard, acting almost as if you are invisible. Having a good set of lights cannot be understated enough and a bell loud enough to command some attention is also a must have.
Maybe you’ll want to ride a Divvy bike with just you on it for a few months and continue to default to the car as the kid carrier (assuming you have a car). Divvy is great because there’s very little commitment. Pay as you go. Whatever you need to do to feel more at ease, we’re confident that you’ll get the hang of it eventually.
We see customers getting intimidated by this decision all the time. Whether it’s the big, new bike, the big, daunting lifestyle, the concept of being a pioneer, or even the price, we’ve seen it. But we’ve also seen the customers who’ve stuck with it, maybe took a little bit on faith, and those are the very same people out biking around town with their kids. Your neighbors. The cargo/family bike experts. We know because of them that this intimidation doesn’t last. It comes down to confidence. For those potential customers who are hesitant neophytes, we’ll do everything in our power to build your confidence. We’ll be your cheerleaders. We’ll be your mechanics. We’ll be your coaches. See? The water’s not that deep. Just put your feet down and see that you were tall enough to touch all along.