The Ultimate All-Weather Cargo Bike
Author: BEN PARKE
Cargo bikes are awesome. They make hauling things like groceries, kids, a Christmas tree, you name it, possible, all without having to use a car. AAA’s most recent report estimates the average cost of owning a car in the US to be $12,000. Per year! Given that cost, and the average length of drive most of us make, you can see why cargo bikes are becoming more popular. Who doesn’t like to save money, right? I live in Minnesota where for 6-8 months of the year, a cargo bike would be a great car alternative. Those other months? Not so much. It gets pretty cold here. What those of us in less weather-friendly areas need, is a cargo bike with some weather protection.
Introducing… the velomobile! Now hold up. Before you say “that’s not a cargo bike”, hear me out. You’re probably looking at this thing and thinking it’s some space-age rocket ship with wheels or maybe Amazon’s latest drone delivery system, or some sort of really aerodynamic race machine. You might then be surprised to know that originally velomobiles were intended as a car alternative. The earliest velomobile was a 4-wheeler designed by Charles Mochet for his son which was further developed into the velocar, eventually with a small gas-efficient engine. It wasn’t very aerodynamic though and not much happened with the idea until the oil crisis in the 1970’s brought about the People Powered Vehicle. Due to design deficiencies, not much came of this idea either. The first really functional velomobile was the 1983 design by Carl-Georg Rasmussen, the Leitra. From there things have developed over time through designs like the Cabbike, Alleweder, and Quest, to modern models like the Bülk. The development has been driven mainly by the European market which valued speed and lightweight design above all else. And that’s how we arrived at things like the Milan SL, which while incredibly fast, wasn’t necessarily the most practical bike for daily commuting because it needed a lot of space to turn around and was a bit too low to the ground. However, here we find ourselves once again with really high gas prices, increasingly erratic weather, and a desire to save money and do more for the environment. Suddenly a practical all-weather human-powered vehicle looks a little more appealing. And that’s exactly what the Bülk was designed for.
Now a velomobile doesn’t look like it has that much cargo space, but sometimes looks can be deceiving. This is the Bülk velomobile, the best selling model currently, and one of the most practical and efficient velomobiles ever built in my opinion. There are multiple spots in the Bülk for cargo starting with the area over the rear swingarm with this nifty shelf, and the area to the left of the rear wheel well with a surprising amount of storage space. Then there’s room under and to either side of the driver. If that’s not enough space, you can also install cargo pockets on either side of the nose in front of the wheel wells. All told, I can get a week’s worth of groceries in. I’ve carried my trumpet, briefcase, and winter coat and pants plus shoes with more than enough extra space. Definitely enough room for daily commuting and even for camping trips. The best part is everything is completely isolated from the elements.
But what about larger items, like kids? The majority of velomobiles can be outfitted to haul a trailer. In fact, the Bülk has an accompanying cargo trailer going into production soon. It’s a really nifty design that can be pulled behind while walking, pushed through a grocery store, and has a ridiculous amount of cargo capacity. Its stability while being hauled behind a fast-moving velomobile is pretty impressive. While it can’t haul kids, there are plenty of trailers that can, all of which can easily be attached to a velomobile. A bike that can be a cargo hauler, a daily driver, and a weekend speed machine is a pretty remarkably flexible bike.
Of course you can haul a good bit of stuff with a traditional bike and trailer, and obviously with a cargo bike without having to mess with a trailer at all. So what advantages does a velomobile offer? First, hauling cargo doesn’t slow you down. Assuming all your cargo fits in the velomobile, aside from a bit more weight to accelerate down the road, all those bags of groceries and stuff won’t stick out into the airstream like a giant wind brake. Even the accompanying trailer doesn’t cost much more energy. That means you’re able to maintain your cruising speed with less effort. Compared to other bikes I’ve ridden, I find I can go almost twice as fast in the Bülk for the same amount of effort. Second, handling is really stable. You’ve got three wheels and a very low center of gravity. No energy is wasted on staying upright because the bike does it for you. Third, visibility. Yeah, a velomobile is low to the ground, but unlike small furry animals that run across the road wearing fur coats roughly the color of pavement, a velomobile is a refrigerator-sized vehicle, generally painted bright colors, running bright lights all over the place that has a way of attracting attention. You thought celebrities got followed by Paparazzi? Try riding a velomobile in traffic. You have not experienced popularity until you’ve ridden a velomobile.
Fourth, crash safety. You’re surrounded by a protective carbon fiber shell that takes the brunt of the hit should some clueless driver manage to miss the giant speedy refrigerator-sized object on the road. Models like the Bülk are packed with thoughtful safety features ranging from hold-down points over your shoulders that prevent you from flying out of the bike to front and rear crumple zones, a padded headrest to reduce the chance of whiplash, and a seat that is designed to help reduce the transference of the impact from a rear-end collision. Finally, all your cargo plus you and the important parts of the bike like the chain are fully isolated from the elements. This is what drew me to velomobiles in the first place. I hate being cold and wet. With a velomobile all the heat your body puts out when exercising is kept inside the shell in cold weather. The air intakes can be closed off to retain heat. While your road bike buddies are suffering indoors on the trainer in their pain cave, you get to enjoy the lovely sparkly winter scenery. Should you get caught out in the rain, you can equip yourself with a handy wiper blade and anti-fog window inserts, all while staying warm and dry. In the summer, the open cockpit and air intakes provide more than enough breeze to stay comfortable. In case you’re wondering about e-assist, that’s an option too for the ultimate in riding quickly and efficiently. Because a velomobile can go fast with so little effort, you get a lot more mileage out of the battery.
So with all these advantages, why is the incredibly versatile velomobile not more popular? I think it’s primarily that people just don’t realize they exist or how incredibly practical they actually are. When I bought my first velomobile it was just for cycling outdoors in cold weather. I didn’t intend to use it in place of my car. That wasn’t even on my radar. I actually started commuting by velomobile just because I enjoyed riding and wanted to do it more often. That helped me start to realize just how many car trips I could replace with the velomobile until I reached the point that I discovered I actually didn’t even need a car. In fact, the other day I went to start my car and discovered it had sat so long unused that the battery had died.
If you’ve been thinking about getting a cargo bike, I’d encourage you to take a serious look at velomobiles. I’ll add some links down in the description to more information about the most popular models, and also a list of dealers. If you’re in the US and interested, drop me a line at my email below. I’d be happy to tell you more about velomobiles and even help you order one of your own.