Cargo Without the Car
by Robert Allen
Another time. Another war. And Americans were asking themselves “Is this trip really necessary?”
Supporting the troops during the Second World War meant more than slapping a sticker on the car. It meant thinking twice before driving that car.
Years later, I remember hearing my grandparents and parents asking the question, even as cheap gas and Detroit muscle were making car use as reflexive as breathing for most Americans.
The question seemed quaint then. It’s not so quaint today.
Another war. Uncertain oil supplies. Climate change. Gridlock. Obesity. Take your pick. There’s more than one reason to begin questioning the necessity of car trips.
The bicycle provides an obvious way to make unnecessary many trips that once were made in a car.
But many of us who already use a bicycle to get ourselves to work or around town now and then still hop in the car to haul groceries or other household goods. We’re willing to carry ourselves on bicycles, but get flustered by the challenge of carrying much else.
A few years ago, I began rediscovering the types of bags and racks I knew as a kid, relatively modest ways to carry a few things on a bicycle. As a recovering racer, it’s taken me a long time to overcome the racer’s weight fetish for the sake of such practicality.
But the payoff of using even a modest bag or rack is an immediate improvement in the enjoyment of almost any ride. Having a place to shed or acquire layers of clothing helps cope with changing weather, and this stretches the riding season. Food, maps, tools, a spare inner tube or camera are pretty handy to have around.
A decent sized bag, basket or rack means a rider can suddenly run more errands. But even the big old saddlebag on my three-speed quickly reaches its limit, long before I can cross a grocery run off the necessary list.
The real limit, though, is only of one’s imagination. A growing number of riders are finding ways of increasing their carrying capacity to a point where the car is much less necessary in their lives.
One such rider is Michael Lemberger, a Madison graphic artist who currently is adding a second Xtracycle cargo bike to his family’s stable. A little over a year ago, Lemberger converted one of his bikes using an Xtracycle kit. He’s now converting another bike for his wife Gloria, a ceramic artist.
The conversion kit moves the rear wheel back 15 inches, stretching the bike to accommodate an impressive array of bags and carrying surfaces. The extra length has obvious benefits, while allowing a rider to carry wide loads without hitting the load with his or her heel on the backstroke of the pedaling motion.
Lemberger has carried many bags of groceries on his “long bike”. He’s come back from building supply centers carrying everything from insulation to two-by-fours. He’s added some handlebars to his rig so his 7-year-old daughter Olive can enjoy riding in back.
For the sake of a photograph, he strapped on two 55-gallon barrels (though sanity took hold before we tried to fill them up to truly test the manufacturer’s suggested weight limit).
An Xtracycle’s claimed cargo capacity is about 200 pounds. Add a rider and the total ballast you might try to pedal up a hill would be about 400 pounds. Lemberger hasn’t tested that limit, though he says a loaded Xtracycle is surprisingly stable.
Xtracycle kits are available in some Madison shops, as is installation services for the less mechanically adventurous. You can learn more at www.xtracycle.com. Or check out www.rideyourbike.com/xtracycle.html for a gallery of longbike riders carrying amazing loads.
Of course, there are other ways to increase your bicycle’s carrying capacity. Many riders, from long-distance touring cyclists to local grocery haulers, favor any of the increasingly sophisticated trailers on the market. Visit www.bikesatwork.com for one Iowa maker’s take on trailers.
One advantage of a trailer is that you can disconnect it easily to lighten up your machine when not carrying cargo.
Another advantage is that trailers keep the weight of the load off the bicycle, allowing the bike to use much lighter wheels than would be required for carrying heavy loads. Lighter wheels help a bicycle feel much more responsive because light wheels have less rotational weight for a rider to propel. This is why racing bike builders, while always concerned about the overall weight of the machine, go to especially extreme lengths to shave grams off the wheels.
Lemberger, however, likes the feel of two wheels. He believes two wheels, even if relatively heavy wheels, create less rolling resistance than the four wheels of a bicycle and trailer rig.
Of course, trikes are yet a third option, allowing a large cargo carrying space behind the rider between the back wheels. See some classic workhorses as www.worksman.com.
Two, three or four wheels, isn’t the issue. There are many ways to increase self-propelled carrying capacity and decrease reliance on motor vehicles. People in other parts of the world, especially where cars aren’t even an option, are well familiar with many cost-effective options.
At about $400, an Xtracycle kit isn’t exactly cheap. But if it decreases your reliance on a car enough, it will pay for itself rather quickly.
Lemberger isn’t a purist. He and his family of three still own a car. “We’re not car free,” he said. “But we’re car-light.”
Of course, that puts them far ahead of many of us, including your author. And this is what got me thinking of that quaint old question about what trips truly are necessary.
Reducing dependence on the automobile is more about attitude than equipment. It also requires a certain degree of fitness and physical abilities that are not universally shared.
But for those with the needed physical abilities, which includes a vast number of today’s car addicts, a real commitment to reducing auto use will inevitably carry with it the benefit of increasing fitness. Increase fitness enough and you, too, could be testing yourself to see how much cargo you can haul up that hill from the grocery store.
Don’t start out with bags of cement or 55 gallon barrels. Think about smaller errands carrying items you could fit in a small bag or even a large pocket.
“You have to wonder how many car trips are made that could be done on a bike or by walking,” Lemberger said. “There are an awful lot of car trips made to return a DVD or a library book.”
Are those trips really necessary?
Allen is a commuting and recreational bicycler who lives in Middleton.
Yes, that's me, riding down the street with two empty plastic 55 gallon drums strapped to the Xtracycle. Such an unusual sight that I've gotten a call from a reporter at another, larger, mainstream local paper. I'll post something about that article after it runs.
I've also been confirmed as the official family eccentric, a title I wear with pride.