Like a lot of people, the pandemic has got me thinking about how I get around. Because we live in the middle of Frankfurt, a car never made sense for us, so we did everything either or foot or by tram and train. That worked well enough for us, but it always meant there were some limitations. Carrying large, heavy objects like crates of drinks or furniture was difficult, and we were limited by the places public transport can reach. What we needed was something that could get to any location in the city and carry a full load of shopping. So, we got a cargo trike.
I’ve now had the trike for a few weeks and racked up around 250 km. Some people have asked me how it is to ride, so here are my thoughts. I’ve split it into the technical stuff and the actual ride experience – if you just want to know how the bike handles, click here to skip the statistics.
The technical bit
Bear in mind that I’m writing this review as someone who can ride a bike, but has barely used one for a decade or more. There are a few different kinds of cargo cycle, and I took a couple for a test drive. There are two-wheelers with a box between the handlebars and the front wheel (“long john” bikes), three-wheelers with “tilting” suspension so they handle like a regular bicycle (the one I tested was the Butchers & Bicycles Mk1-E, which is eye-wateringly expensive), and classic tricycles with a box between the front wheels. The weight of the freight box made the tilting bicycles very difficult to handle, so I opted for the Babboe Curve Mountain. Having three fixed wheels means you don’t need to worry about tipping over (most of the time – see below).
This is an electric “pedelec” type cycle: it comes with an electric motor that gives you extra pushing power when you turn the pedals, but won’t move without some pedaling on your part. By law, the motor cuts out at 25 km/h (15.5 mph in the UK) – you can go faster manually, but not much faster. When travelling fast, you can feel the drag from the large cargo box – the fastest I’ve managed to get it to empty on a flat empty road is about 28 km/h (17 mph). An experienced cyclist might be able to go a bit faster, but you’ll never get up to racing speeds.
I also went for the “Mountain” model. This one has a slightly larger battery, a more powerful motor, and a “continuously variable transmission” – instead of switching between numbered gears, it lets you choose any gear ratio you want smoothly. This is pretty nice when building up speed on a clear cycleway or when trying to find the right balance of speed and power on a steep hill. It also lets you change gears while stationary (although sometimes the “lower” gears are hard to find when stopped). Downside is that the CVT causes more friction than other kinds of gears – although you don’t notice this with the motor on.
With the Mountain model, I seem to get around 80-95 km (50-60 miles) on a full charge, although that includes a wide range of different cycling behaviours. Rolling along a flat road with an empty box with the motor in power-save mode gets a lot more range than cycling up rough, hilly paths fully loaded with the headlights on. For what it’s worth, the trike’s control unit estimates X km (X miles) in the lowest power mode, and X km (X miles) in the highest power mode. Standard mode, it estimates 79 km (49 miles). Even if the battery cuts out, you can cycle with foot power alone. This is not too difficult at low to medium speeds, although you will probably have to walk it up hills.
Finally, given that the battery holds 400 Wh, it costs about 0.13€ (£0.12) to fully recharge on our electricity tariff. This means that you’re effectively paying around a tenth of a cent per kilometre (or a two tenths of a penny per mile) – less if you pedal more. A petrol Ford Focus costs about 11 pence per mile (7 cents per km), making the car about 50 times more expensive over the same distance.
The ride experience
To the supermarket
In Frankfurt, we’re lucky to have a fairly good cycle lane system, so my first test ride was down to a big supermarket off the main road, with cycle lanes all the way there and back. On good quality paved surfaces with the motor on, the trike absolutely flies along, fast enough that you don’t feel too exposed to car traffic. Rougher surfaces – brick pavements or potholed tarmac, for instance – give a bumpier ride and need you to go a bit slower. The worst bumps – badly laid drain covers or tree roots – need you to slow down a fair bit if you don’t want to be thrown around. Because the front wheels are smaller than regular bike wheels, bumps are a bit rougher, and getting it up a full-height kerb takes a lot of effort.
The box easily fits a full shop (although one thing I did realise is that on this model there’s no way to lock the box, making it a bit annoying if you’re making multiple stops – there are other bikes out there with lockable boxes), and thanks to the motor, you barely notice the weight. The hairiest bit of this ride turned out to be the parts of the cycle lane on the pavement where the surface tilts to the side (crossing the entrances to petrol stations and drive-thrus, for instance). A regular bicycle would barely notice these, but a fixed three-wheeler tilts with the road surface. It didn’t tip over, but it was a bit uncomfortable.
The biggest annoyance turned out to be the very last step: small front wheels and a heavy box make it almost impossible to get it up any kind of stairs, even with the help of the motor. Luckily we have secure parking spots in the front, but I would not recommend buying any kind of cargo trike if you don’t have a garden, garage or parking space that you can reach without stairs.
To the park
Germany just recently changed its laws to allow adults to ride in the boxes of cargo bikes, so we took advantage and Dove hopped in the box for a trip to the park. The Curve is designed to carry up to four toddlers, and there are bench seats with child harnesses. In the Mountain, the front bench can be removed but the back one can’t, because the battery is attached to it. I think the non-Mountain version has fully-removable seats, because the battery is located elsewhere on that model.
Even the weight of an extra adult is no problem for the motor or the brakes – we had no problems going up and down the hills of our local park. Gravel and sand tracks take slightly more power, but still aren’t any trouble. The trike will handle grass, but the ride is very bumpy – it will never compare to an actual mountain bike, but on grassy hills it actually seems to handle better than a city bike would, because the extra wheel gives it extra grip and balance at low speeds.
And, when you get to where you want to go, the cargo box becomes effectively your portable picnic! Particularly for families with a few small kids, the trike would be perfect for an easy day out.
The sun had begun to set by the time we went back, and I switched the headlamps on. They’re nice and bright, and take their power straight from the battery. One weird thing to note is that they are mounted very low to the ground. This means they cast long shadows and make bumps in the ground appear steeper than they really are, so be careful on slightly rough lanes.
Finally, on the way back, we came across the first case of something that will be a bit of a theme for the rest of this review: cycling infrastructure that isn’t designed for cargo trikes. The bollards at the end of this path were just a little too close together for the trike (the box just fit, but the bumpers around the wheels were too wide). Oops.
To the village and countryside
To test the bike out on less urban roads, I cycled out to Höchst on the edge of Frankfurt. Its old town gives you a wide range of cobbled streets, from tiny pavers to huge uneven blocks. Unsurprisingly, they give a rough ride – I couldn’t tell if it was a rougher ride than a normal bicycle, but it was uncomfortable and loud.
I also went to the town market, which has a shiny new bicycle garage. Unfortunately, this doesn’t fit a cargo trike at all – the box is wide enough that it blocks adjacent spaces, and long enough that it blocks the lift mechanism for the upper level of the rack. Absolutely don’t plan on being able to use these.
From Höchst, I took the ferry across the river and cycled back along country lanes. This was surprisingly pleasant – in dry weather, at least, the trike rides along dirt tracks very smoothly. It takes a bit more planning to get past vehicles coming in the opposite direction, but the trike isn’t really much wider than a usual bike’s handlebars, and although you feel like you’re taking up more space, I don’t think it’s as bad as it seems.
One thing it definitely is though is longer, which caused trouble getting up this ramp to the bridge back across the river. I couldn’t simply wheel the trike up, but had to perform a kind of three-point turn on each twist. Thankfully, there is a “pushing assist” button, which helps wheeling it up steep slopes.
While I’m here, a couple of other notes on bridges: one is that the only time I’ve fallen off so far has been on a ramp like that – the motor can mean you go faster than you think up hills, and going into a tight turn threw me off the trike. Luckily, the step-through frame means you can land on your feet without getting tangled in the frame, and I was able to grab hold of the trike and stop it rolling over. In my experience, 15 km/h (10 mph) on a tight (2.5 metre radius) curve is enough to throw you, and I’ve felt unstable even on wider curves. You can’t lean into curves on a trike, so you need to take them slowly.
The other is that ramps like this, which combine shallow steps with slopes, are just useless. The trike is too heavy, even with pushing assist, to tackle the steps and the slope at the same time. I forced the trike up two or three steps before giving up here.
To the city
Since the lockdown, I’ve not really had the need to go into town, but this has also meant I’ve missed out on some of Frankfurt’s most delicious restaurants. Finally, I decided to try a trip into the centre to pick up some delicious Korean fried chicken.
Riding in traffic had been one of my biggest worries, but the extra size of the trike meant that I actually felt a bit more secure than on a normal two-wheeler. Car drivers seemed to recognise it as a vehicle (and its width made them less likely to try and overtake too closely).
Still, you are sometimes aware that you’re essentially unprotected, especially when the cycle lane just disappears and throws you into the swarm of coaches and taxis around the railway station.
Tram lines are a well known menace to cyclists, and having a wider wheelbase means there’s more chance of getting a tire stuck in one. Still, I’ve so far managed to avoid that despite some terrible cycleway-tramway interactions around Frankfurt.
The ride into town was mostly easy enough without anything else worth nothing, with one exception: to get a bike over the Eiserner Steg bridge, you need to use the lifts… and this trike certainly does not fit. Don’t plan on any route that needs an elevator.
Dealing with a puncture
On my next trip to the supermarket, I got unlucky. Just a couple of weeks after getting the bike, I managed to puncture one of the front tires. It was a “snakebite” puncture, which means that some kind of impact, like a kerb or a pothole, pinched the inner tube. I had two crates of drinks in the cargo box, and although the weight wasn’t that great (probably around 25 kg), perhaps a combination of the crate sliding to one side and a collision with the leg of a badly placed hand sanitiser dispenser in front of the bike rack was enough.
Because the trike is stable on three wheels, rolling it home with a flat wasn’t too bad, especially with motor assistance. I could even ride it, although that’s not a good idea because it can damage the rims. The downside is that the weight absolutely shredded the outer tire, meaning there was no hope of just patching or replacing the inner tube. I need to change both.
The tires are a bit unusual (20″ Schwalbe Big Apple in this case – the size is more typical of a children’s bike) and I had to order them online which left the bike out of action for a couple of days – it’s definitely a good to keep your own spares. When they arrived, I was a bit worried about how to change them – because of the trike’s weight, you can’t just easily flip it over. But it rolled easily onto its side, and the wheel change turned out to be quick and painless. In future, I’m keeping the tires inflated to a slightly higher pressure to make punctures like that less likely.
When I first got the trike, I was worried that I was leaving myself with an expensive white elephant. In fact, having a cargo trike has been surprisingly transformational, especially during a pandemic. I can go to any shop, run any errand, collect takeaway from any restaurant, and take Dove for a picnic in any park.
The one drawback is that a ride takes a little more planning than a normal bike route. You need to avoid kerbs and stairs, as well as narrow gates and passages, and finding a suitable place to park is a little more difficult. But if you’re looking for a urban transport option that manages to be environmentally friendly and reasonably fast, reasonably flexible and reasonably heavy-duty, an electric cargo trike might be just the thing you and your family need.