Alternatives to the Automobile

Bike Trailers

Bike trailers are really nifty. You can carry 100 lbs or more of cargo in a trailer, and if the hitch is well-designed, you won't feel a lot of difference in the bike's handling and balance. Of course you'll feel the extra mass on the hills :-) but not that nasty unstable sensation that comes when you overload the panniers or rear rack, or hang heavy stuff on the bars.

A Digression: Cargo Bikes and Cargo Trikes

There are alternatives to a conventional bike trailer. For example, the attention-getting (and pricey) Long Haul bike made in Oregon. Our local bike delivery service, Pedaler's Express, has bought one of these and is using it; but at 72 lbs and $2100 with the lockable, weatherproof container, it's beyond the athletic prowess and the pocketbook of the average consumer wanting to haul groceries.

A slighly different design concept is the Bilenky Cargo Bike at about $1900 US.

For a less pricey approach check out the bizarre and fascinating Free Radical, a frame modification that lengthens your wheelbase and adds cargo carrying capacity to any conventional MTB frame. It's modular, not super heavy, and very flexible; but it does make your bike longer (a problem if you want to use bus bike racks or other fixed-size storage or transport options for the whole bike). I have one of these now.

Here are some larger/heavy-duty purpose-made cargo bikes:

Advantages and trade-offs of cargo bikes/trikes are: the bikes have a narrower road footprint than a bike plus 2-wheel trailer; the trikes are wider, but more stable than a bike plus trailer; there is no concern about the trailer overturning; in some cases the load is in front of the rider where you can keep an eye on it; there is no fussing about with attaching and detaching the trailer; the cargo bed is an integral part of the bike and hence harder to steal; and in the case of trikes the three-wheeled platform is so stable that very large objects can be carried which would unbalance a trailer.

Disadvantages are price, weight, and size, also the lack of modularity: you can't break these vehicles back down into regular bikes for pleasure or commute riding. The Free Radical is an exception here -- you can remove it, but since each reconfiguration means changing the length of your chain, it sounds like a greasy job. Storage is also an issue, as bikes this big can't be taken inside the house or up stairs. At Lightfoot Cycles you can see a novel method of storing a big cargo trike: vertically, sitting on its tailgate. They also make some narrower-footprint trikes, but warn that some practise and experience is required to know how far these can be pushed without capsizing on tight turns.

Now, back to our main subject: Bike Trailers. Here is a list of a few cargo trailer manufacturers, in case you'd like to take a look around the marketplace before reading my opinions:

Just to prove that not all bike trailer manufacturers have company names starting with B: If you know of some other trailer makers with web pages, please send me the URLs. (Note that I make no representations about the quality or applicability of any trailers other than the ones I myself have tried.) Some of these trailers are available as kits -- for example, Equinox will sell you just a frame, if you like, and you can build your own custom trailer starting with that.

I've actually owned 3 mass-production trailers. The only one I actually use routinely is my new Winthers Donkey, a splendid design from Denmark. It merits its own full-length separate review, which you can get to by clicking on the link. Aside from the Donkey, I've tried out two other (US-made) trailers. One I disliked enough to return it; the other required major modification, and I still use it very seldom because of its size and inconvenience.

The Big Burly Burley

I got a Burley child trailer some years ago. The Burleys are very well-made, being basically a light tubular alloy frame with cloth stretched over it. For a while I used the trailer as shipped, then I got tired of the cloth part (it was well adapted for hauling kids, but I wasn't hauling kids). I stripped it down and built a wooden deck for it, and it's now a large flatbed trailer (see picture of converted Burley in use).

The Burley hitch is quite a clever design. It requires no modification of the bike (unlike the BoB trailer hitch which requires replacing your rear skewer, and some other hitches which require permanent mounting h/w on the bike frame or axle end). It's an ingenious clamp for the rear frame triangle, and fits every bike with a more or less normal rear frame configuration. I even mounted it successfully on an Iacocca e-bike.

The Burley tows well, is light for its size, and the folding tow bar is particularly praiseworthy, but of course mine is now a flatbed and not a "wheelbarrow". If I want to carry a lot of folded cardboard to the dump for recycling, for example, it's a pain to get it bungee'd down onto the flatbed, and a wide floppy load like cardboard tends to shift around and interfere with the wheels (ouch!). I wanted something a mite smaller, but with a deep cargo container. Also something a little more casual (less messing about with bungees and straps and the clever hitch mechanism, something I could just throw stuff into and go).

The Burley is also big -- way big. Well, that is, it's big by shopper standards. To folks like the Bikes-At-Work company, who haul sofabeds and refrigerators for a living, a Burley is pretty small potatoes. But for me, since I don't have a garage, keeping a trailer this size in the house is a bit of a challenge, and carrying it up and down flights of steps (even folded) is a darned nuisance. It's all relative :-) Despite the fundamentally good frame and hitch design, the Burley is just a bit much for everyday use, for routine shopping, post office, and other errands.

Killer Lizard: The Gecko

So I decided to buy a Bykaboose Gecko, a folding trailer which looks rather like a canvas wheelbarrow. The Gecko is deep, shaped somewhat like a Victorian hip-bath -- perfect for hauling large, funny-shaped, loose, or floppy loads! -- and I had seen a Bykaboose on someone else's bike and liked it.

Alas, I returned the Gecko after assembling it and thinking about it for a few days. The original Gecko was collapsible; the frame holding the canvas could be folded down rather like a pram hood or an accordian, so the trailer became flat and easily stored. The modern version, with some engineering improvements for stability and strength, has lost the quick folding capability. You now have to remove both wheels to fold it up.

Since the wheels are retained by 6mm hex cap screws, washers, and springs, this is not the sort of thing you want to do in a hurry, out on the lawn, in the rain :-). Also, the tow bar on the Gecko does not fold under like the Burley design, so the trailer is pretty darned big when assembled. If you have a garage or other large storage space, it would be great; for me, it couldn't be made practical.

Apart from the non-folding (or I should say, non-trivial folding) aspect, I was favourably impressed with the Bykaboose design and workmanship. I would not disrecommend it on any other grounds than "nuisance factor" and easily-lost parts when folding.

The Bykabeese come with rain covers. The Gecko is very capacious -- as trailers for individual/domestic use go. Its sibling the "Newt" is a smaller and less bathtubby model. Both models sport reflective safety striping and I believe both have a built-in internal pocket for papers or other small items. The Gecko hitch requires mounting a small bracket on one side of the bike's rear axle. After that, hitching and releasing is trivial, with a flexible rubber flange on the tow bar and a sprung (and tethered) retaining pin.

If Bykaboose would make a Gecko that is really folding (my standard of "folding" is a Brompton or a Burley trailer, meaning it had better not take more than 30 seconds to fold and unfold, and no untethered parts to lose), I'd buy one like a shot.

I Can Dream, Can't I?

The perfect bike trailer, imho, would fold down flat and be towable in that configuration. In fact, ideally when folded it should be robust enough to carry cargo as a flatbed (gee, then I could own just one trailer instead of 2!). As well as accommodating oversize loads, the tow-folded feature would reduce wind resistance when deadheading home after a delivery run.

Many months later I finally found what I believe to be the best trailer available; even though it doesn't fold, I am delighted with it and have made only slight modifications (built my own hitch for the bike). Please check out my review of this trailer. It's a winner!

Please write to me if you have bike cargo trailer recommendations or horror stories!
De Clarke