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Report: With kids and cargo

With all people’s kit and caboodle, cargo bikes are taking over our towns and cities. But can they really completely replace cars? How does a modern packhorse fare in the day-to-day madness of nursery school, work, shopping and leisure? The personal experiment.

@Björn Hänssler

My driving licence gave me total freedom. In the Eifel back country, a car was the key to a totally new world that was hard to reach without one. Now I, Christian Pauls, editor with MOUNTAINBIKE magazine, have been living in the city for 15 years and am starting to ask myself: Can I live entirely without a car? With a family and two children?

The country bumpkin in me has his doubts. Major doubts. However, nowadays I tend to associate cars with congested roads, discussions about particulates and driving bans. For some time, I have been growing dissatisfied with cars. However, there’s a problem: bikes have not yet become as prevalent in my chosen home city of Stuttgart as they have in many other cities. But this growth has been gaining momentum since the advent of E-Bikes, a ‘green’ mayor and a ‘green’ state government. Momentum in the right direction.You have to climb 200 metres from the centre of Stuttgart up to the top of the valley basin in which the city lies. That’s no longer a problem with an E-Bike, which is why I have been wondering for some time whether it would be worth buying a cargo bike.

With its electric motor, a cargo bike would also easily get around in a topographically challenging city like Stuttgart. Our children Matilda (4) and Emil (2) need to be constantly ferried around, something we normally still do by car. In the morning we’re off to nursery school and the daycare centre, fortunately, both of which lie on my route to work. But the children also need to be driven to mini-gymnastics and to music lessons, and we also need to transport large shopping items. We also want to take the children on outings into the countryside, and finally anyone opting to forego a car completely also needs to consider transporting DIY materials and many other larger purchases by bike.

This is the challenge I set myself. A personal experiment. By way of a test. Would I really manage it? Load up, get set, go! My colleagues at KARL ordered a set of wheels for the next few months for me from Riese & Müller: the Packster 60. Boasting space for two children, a Bosch electric drive and an impressive 1,000 watt hours of battery power, it should be perfect for the daunting ascents within the Stuttgart basin. A word up front: anyone considering buying a cargo bike should really test one first. Our loan cargo bike costs a hefty €6,928.40 – complete with a host of accessories. No one should or can make a decision about such a high investment figure from a catalogue. Everything needs to be just right. And you can only check this by testing the bike.

@Björn Hänssler

The personal experiment

As the Test Editor of MOUNTAINBIKE, it didn’t take long to get to know the motor of my new family ‘carriage’ and we’re getting along famously. After all, the Bosch Performance Line CX with 75 newton metres is also fitted to many electric mountain bikes. It proves very reliable on the approximately 20 kg mountain bikes and seems to be one of the most powerful on the market. So could it also convince me on a 40 kg cargo bike with a maximum load capacity of 100 kg? And are parts like the gears and brakes able to handle the heavier weight? These are questions that immediately wrack my mind as a tester, but which essentially are only peripheral aspects in this personal experiment.

@Björn Hänssler

The initial focus this time is on the cargo bike’s suitability for everyday use with a family. From its small front wheel to the long wheelbase and large wooden box, my two kids meticulously inspect the cargo bike. “It looks quite comfortable”, comments Matilda, looking at the red bench seat in the wooden box. The two climb on for the first test run without needing much persuasion. Slowly, I lift the heavy bike from its stand. 

“Really wobbly”, comments Matilda, as I rather tensely try to keep my balance. When setting off on the flat, it helps to set the motor to a low level of assistance, by the way. Then the bike doesn’t immediately shoot off. But quickly, I change to turbo mode and the roller-coaster ride begins. Emil shouts with glee. By contrast, Matilda has become suspiciously silent. There’s not the slightest peep from her. “Matilda? Are you OK?” I ask. “Don’t ride too fast, Daddy!” she shouts, holding onto the box with both hands. We’re not even going at 20 km/h – and the motor switches off at 25 anyway. No need to worry, as indicated by Emil’s constant giggling.

“Speed means safety”, applies especially to this kind of cargo bike. The 185-centimetre-long bike rides very quietly and can be easily steered when it’s moving along briskly. Nonetheless, you first do need to get used to the wobbly feeling when you’re at a standstill. When my wife Johanna was riding the bike, it once even toppled over with the children sitting in it when it was at a standstill. Nothing serious happened. Both sat firmly belted in and well protected in the box. Speaking of safety, this is an issue that has concerned me since we have had the bike. Especially when you have to switch from the cycle path to the road, as is so often the case in Stuttgart. The children sit low down in front of you in the box – on a car, this is the area you would call the crumple zone. This shows once again that significantly more needs to be done with regard to bike safety in our towns and cities.

I like being a pioneer, but not at any price. The reactions of many pedestrians who stop and stare at our little team as we go past shows once again that we are pioneers. Many are possibly also simply enjoying the happy faces of my children.

Cycling makes you happy. Emil, in particular, is so enthusiastic that one morning in the pouring rain he got me to take him on the cargo bike instead of in the car as I had planned to do on this exceptional occasion. With tears running down his face, he shouted out again and again, “Zoom, zoom”, pointing to his bike helmet.

Enough is enough, so I pulled on my rain trousers and quickly fit the child cover. So there then has been a little disillusionment with the constant ups and downs in Stuttgart and, personally, the Bosch motor is a little too weak for me. Particularly when I’m transporting a heavy load, such as a major purchase from the DIY store, the motor falters a little on steep climbs. By contrast, the rest of the equipment is first-class. Brakes, gears and even the lock supplied and the suspension fork – everything is just great.

The cargo bike also has a positive effect on my wife and me. I enjoy cycling to the shops much more and can now always park right in front of the door. My wife goes by bike rather than by car to take the kids to gymnastics. And even longer trips out into the country are twice as much fun. E-cargo bikes are a fantastic invention for living with children. And Matilda’s initial fear has long since transformed into great enthusiasm. Reluctantly, we are now returning the Packster 60 after completing over 600 E-cargo bike kilometres. Now it’s time to save up, as I could actually get used to living without a car.

6 Tips for more safety

As a cyclist, you are the weakest road user in moving traffic. These handy tips are intended to help you and your children to be safer on the road on your cargo bike

1

Wear a helmet

Even if it is not compulsory in Germany for cyclists – even children – to wear helmets, you and your children should wear one. Even if they are “only” travelling in the cargo area. And never forget that you are the most important role model for your children. Therefore, always wear a helmet!

2

Visible clothing

If possible, wear bright or even colourful clothing. In winter preferably even with reflective strips. Make sure that your children are also wearing high-visibility clothes. Drivers often leave even more distance when they see that you are transporting children with you.

3

Rain protection

If you plan to use the cargo bike to replace your car, then you will need to purchase a cover for your children and waterproof clothing for yourself. And don’t forget your feet!

4

Protection from the cold

In winter, both you and your children will need to wear an extra layer of clothing, otherwise it will be no fun at all. Gloves and a helmet cap, in particular, are essential for anyone riding.

5

Bike security

You also need a good lock – after all you need to be able to securely park your bike. Where possible, order a permanently built-on lock from the manufacturer.

6

Punctures

Always carry a bike pump, tools and spare inner tubes or a repair kit in a small bag and store it at the front of the box. Or even better, stick one half of a Velcro strip into the box and sew the other half onto the small bag. That way, your tools won’t be sliding back and forth. You’ll therefore be well prepared if you have a puncture.

1

Wear a helmet

Even if it is not compulsory in Germany for cyclists – even children – to wear helmets, you and your children should wear one. Even if they are “only” travelling in the cargo area. And never forget that you are the most important role model for your children. Therefore, always wear a helmet!

3

Rain protection

If you plan to use the cargo bike to replace your car, then you will need to purchase a cover for your children and waterproof clothing for yourself. And don’t forget your feet!

5

Bike security

You also need a good lock – after all you need to be able to securely park your bike. Where possible, order a permanently built-on lock from the manufacturer.

2

Visible clothing

If possible, wear bright or even colourful clothing. In winter preferably even with reflective strips. Make sure that your children are also wearing high-visibility clothes. Drivers often leave even more distance when they see that you are transporting children with you.

4

Protection from the cold

In winter, both you and your children will need to wear an extra layer of clothing, otherwise it will be no fun at all. Gloves and a helmet cap, in particular, are essential for anyone riding.

6

Punctures

Always carry a bike pump, tools and spare inner tubes or a repair kit in a small bag and store it at the front of the box. Or even better, stick one half of a Velcro strip into the box and sew the other half onto the small bag. That way, your tools won’t be sliding back and forth. You’ll therefore be well prepared if you have a puncture.

© by Motor Presse Stuttgart GmbH & Co. KG, 2019, Autor: Christian Pauls