From helping with the school run to carrying the weekly shop or walking the dog, people find cargo bikes a boon for making living life easier locally. Cargo bikes come in different shapes and sizes and can weigh anything from 20 to 40 kilos; cheaper ones are normally heavier. On top of that you might put another 30-40 kilos of children, dog food, cement or whatever on top of your beast of burden, so getting the right bike and the right gearing for your local terrain is critical. A non-electric cargo bike can work really well even fully loaded if you live somewhere flat, but start to add hills and growing children and you begin to need help.
The emergence of decent electric motors for bicycles come at a time when the number of manufacturers of cargo bikes is at an all-time high. This is obviously a good and exciting thing: Helping you do more by bike are what the cargo or Utility bikes are all about, and an electrically assisted cargobike can flatten the hills and shorten distances. The advent of reliable and powerful e-bike systems has been a game-changer for the cargo bike. You might find you can ditch that second car!
The cargo bike isn’t a specific thing. There’s a wide range of bikes available, both in terms of their design and their price. Cargo bikes in the UK come in four main styles.
Box bikes (or Long Johns)
These two wheelers are probably what springs to mind when someone says ‘cargo bike’ to you. They have a front wheel that’s moved forward, with a low slung box in front of the rider. The steering is operated via cables or a linkage. First made in the 1920s in Denmark it is perhaps the most useful load lugger and most are capable of carrying two kids or a big supermarket shop.
Two bikes spin this on its tail by putting the box at the rear: the Madsen (no longer made), and the Mike Burrows 8 freight. The advantages and disadvantages are well-argued, but the consensus is that box forward is the preferred style because you can see your cargo. That’s especially important if your cargo is kids or dogs: it’s nice to have eye contact.
Longtail (or Beavertail)
Imagine a conventional bike with the rear wheel pulled back a bit, with a longer rear rack. This is originally an African load-carrying design, made popular by a group of young men in San Francisco who created the xtracycle and the Yuba Mundo (from a German design).
The longtail can take plenty of cargo in custom panniers, or you can strap stuff to the extended rack. It’s the most versatile bike for carrying two children once they are able to sit in a child seat, and you can easily carry another adult too. In between a normal bike and a longtail there’s the midtail Min’Ute from Kona, which is just that little bit longer for carrying more shopping.
Three wheelers generally have two wheels at the front. The best ones come from the continent, especially Denmark and Holland. Those trikes come at a premium but they still remain popular, and at lower prices there’s a range of Far-East-built models. Once you’ve stopped moving, three wheels are obviously a lot more stable than two, which makes a trike very good for market stalls and ice-cream bikes. Learning to ride a trike takes a bit of time: the steering and cornering feel is very different to a two-wheeler because you can’t lean into the turn (with the exception of Danish bike builders Butchers & Bicycles who do a cool crank drive electric leaning trike)
There are delivery trikes made in the UK by Maximus and Iceni with two wheels at the rear and one at the front. These are primarily used for Pedicabs and by delivery companies.
Whatever you’ve got!
The fourth style of cargobike blurs the line: many bikes can be pressed into service as cargo bikes. It could just be your daily ride with a rack on! We are used to pannier racks at the front and the rear but the porteur style rack – where the front rack is attached to the frame rather than the fork – is a way of adding a flexible platform on which to place a laptop bag or a few bits of shopping.
Because the load is separated from the steering it doesn’t affect the handling as much, and the rack gives useful extra capacity but without adding to the bike length or much to the weight. Winora, Civia, Soma, Omnium and Bicicapace are some of the companies currently making porteur-style bikes.
On top of the choice of cargo bike style, there’s also a decision to be made about what kind of drive system to use. There’s three basic options.
Front wheel hub motor
Front hub motors are the cheapest to fit, and they can be retrofitted to more or less anything. However, they’re not so good at pulling a weight up hills at anything but their optimum speed. What tends to happen is that as you slow up a hill, the motor give you less push/pull. And the last thing you want is to run out of oomph halfway up the hill back home! Front motors can also struggle for grip if you have a bike that’s heavily weighted towards the rear.
Rear wheel hub motor
Rear hub motors usually work with a derailleur gear system which is light and commonplace. Derailleurs can give you a good range of gears and the motor working with the derailleur is usually more efficient. Most of your weight is over the motor, too, and the steering of the bike isn’t affected. Rear hub motors are relatively easy to fit so they’re ideal for retrofitting to a cargobike. The Canadian Bion-x system is the perhaps the most utilised of these.
The main disadvantage of a rear hub motor is that they do not allow for you to use a hub gear system like the Shimano Alfine, who strengths include low maintenance but also allowing you to shift gears when stopped, which can be a big bonus when riding a heavy bike that might stop suddenly in top, and not be able to shift gear without moving.
Mid motor (crank drive)
This is becoming the norm for good production cargo bikes, as well as more expensive e-bikes generally. The motor sits in a specially designed frame where it replaces the bottom bracket, driving the chainring directly. Mid motor systems are generally smooth, powerful and a pleasure to ride. The main manufacturers are currently Bosch and Shimano, with other manufacturers eagerly trying to gain a foothold in a growing market. Mid motors will work with any gearing system including hub gears, with Bosch generally matched very nicely with the Nuvinci N380 infinitely variable hub drive and Shimano Steps motor using Di2 technology with its Alfine hub.
Retrofittable mid motor
If you have a non-powered cargo bike with a standard bottom bracket you can still retrofit a mid motor system to your existing ride. The two main systems Sunstar and Bafang and both are capable of propelling you and your load up the steepest of hills. Either system fitted to Shimano Nexus, Alfine or Sturmey Archer Hub gears can cause you problems because shifting under load will stress the gearbox and can damage it irreparably; for that reason Shimano’s Di2 hub gears, when integrated with a Shimano or Bosch mid motor, will ease off the power when shifting. For retrofit crank drive systems it’s a good idea to play safe and budget for a Nuvinci hub straight off the bat; these hubs don’t have set ratios and work really well with a mid motor.
The choice of mid motor cargo bikes available in the UK at the moment is limited but fortunately what’s around at the top end price wise is good, each with their own character and strengths.
Battery choice is also important for any style of motor, although unlike the motor it’s something that you can easily upgrade as your ownership continues. When buying a e-bike you tend to be limited to what comes as standard, although some manufacturers are now adding the option of a range of battery sizes so that you can spec the bike according to your needs. A bigger battery means that you get a little extra range with a little bit extra weight, although the extra bulk is not really an issue on a heavy cargo bike.
The general rule of thumb with all things battery is that that the higher the number the further your potential range. The battery is the most expensive single part of the bike, though, so extra range costs more money..
E-bike batteries range from around 200Wh to over 600Wh in size. For a cargo bike you really want a minimum of 400Wh, which will take you 20-25 miles, less on hilly or heavily loaded rides. Lots of owners are not going to need a massive range anyway: the school run might just be a few miles, and the nearest supermarket isn’t usually far away.