Life is like a wheel… and it will run your ass right over if you don't pay attention
I'm responsible for the day-to-day operations at my place of business: Leland-West Insurance Brokers, Inc. We do classic and exotic car insurance all across these United States. I'm also an avid auto enthusiast, a born again cyclist (i.e. an ebiker) and participate in medium and long range CMP and NRA sanctioned rifle competitions.
You thought the last post on LED strip lights for a Larry vs. Harry Bullitt was a quickee? Lets be even quickee-er for this followup.
This post is a continuation of this one where I did the full description of how I added low-power-consumption LED strip lights to my Larry vs. Harry Bullitt… In less than an hour and with no wiring skills. No skills at all in fact.
I Moved The Switches & Batteries
I could stop right there with that heading and just show off a couple pics, but lets do a little better than that.
When we last left off with this little project, I had put together a neat set of working strip lights in a very short time. However, since I just slapped it together, there was one glaring omission: The on/off switches for the lights were inside the cargo bay, just sitting in a little unsecured bag.
Considering the Bullitt is a really stable ride, this was not such a big deal. But I shouldn’t need to go into the cargo bay to turn the lights on. Gotta fix that.
That little bag was already there, holding the battery packs for my two front-wheel-mounted headlights. So it wasn’t much of a stretch to just toss in the USB power bank for the strip lights, and run the on/off switches over to it. While we are at it, we’re going to move and secure the power packs for those lights as well, and eliminate this little brown bag completely.
As you can see in Figure 1 above, I lined my cargo bay with a sort of 1-piece tub of super-dense closed cell foam. It is bolted down at the rear but nowhere else. Its easy to just pull the ‘tub’ up and run the wires underneath it, back to the cockpit.
Lets Keep It Simple
This is going to be real easy: I already have a handlebar bag. It holds my front motor controller. That bag is not right for this job, but it is also a MOLLE bag, so I can easily attach additional bags directly to it. I had a small, cheap bag in my leftover parts pile. It will hold the power packs for both the head and strip lights, along with the strip light power switches.
Now we need a way to connect the wires up front to the batteries in the bag. Since they are nothing more than USB 2.0 plugs on both sides, I used simple USB 2.0 extension cables. The ideal length is 2 meters and these can be had from Amazon via their Amazon Basics USB 2.0 cable in a 2-meter length. Its possible to use USB 3.0 cables, but those are quite a bit more expensive versus the 2.0 cables that run about $5 each. I needed 4 of them.
I connected one to each of my four plugs at the front. Two to the headlights and two to the strip lights. Then run the cables along the floor back to the rear… bulkhead or whatever its called.
From there, run the wires up the bulkhead, out of the cargo bay and up into the handlebar bag. For the top portion, I zip-tied the 4 cables together for the sake of a neat appearance.
There is a fair bit of extra cable, which works to my benefit as it let me route the cables into the bag at precisely the point where the zipper opens it. I bundled the wires together with some non-permanent velcro ties; again for neatness’ sake.
Inside the bag, the battery packs line the bottom, ends-facing-up, so I can plug directly into them.
The USB on/off switches from the strip lights are stuffed in here rather than getting creative and surface mounting them on the bag via the MOLLE webbing. My thinking is I want them kept out of the elements.
Batteries and wiring are secure and out of sight.
Switches are easily accessible.
There is more than enough room in the bag, which is only half full at most.
Batteries are convenient to pull out when bike is left outside at a shop and I pull everything not nailed down and take it in with me. It is just as convenient to reconnect upon return.
One Last Thing!
My LED strips have an extension soldered onto each of them from the factory. They were originally 1.6M long and both, at the same point in their length, have a visible solder joint where they were extended. Since this is open, unsealed solder, thats an open connection. I’m not sure if a bad thing would happen if water ended up bridging the gap between those bits of solder, but lets not find out. I used a narrow bit of that same 3M mastic sealing tape I described in the original article to cover that connecting point and waterproof it.
That little strip of tape makes no difference in the appearance of the light when its turned on.
Should you use blinking lights? Steady lights? Bright lights? Daytime lights? Here’s what I do and why.
This is the companion article to Which Front Bicycle Lights Should I Use? Some of the background information and discussion of specific lights is covered in depth there and only peripherally referenced here. For best results start with that article and move on to this one afterwards.
… And Whats The Best Way To Use Them?
Just like in the companion article on front lights, I can’t tell you what the best lights are, or what the best lighting scheme is. What I can do is describe – as a daily commuter who has been refining his lighting setup slowly but surely for years – what I do and why. Use this as a guide to help pick out what you want your choices to be.
Lets skip right to the good part. You can read the background info below if you feel like it.
All light choices have been in use in all weather … except sub freezing sleet/snow. I live in California and while it gets down to freezing, thats about it. Rain but no snow.
Use a pair of lights that display steadily. Either on the seatstays if you don’t have a rack, on your rack supports or best: out wide on your wideloaders.
Where legal to use, add a blinking light (that does not blink steadily, but rather blinks in a varying pattern). Put it dead center in the back, between the two steady lights.
Do not try and use lights that piggyback power off of your ebike battery or controller unless you have electrical skills and the desire to truly build something tailor made.
Do use USB rechargeable lights. Invest in a powered (plugin) USB hub and set aside one day per week (assuming 2x daily commuting use) to charge up all your lights (I use this one).
Pick lights that can be used as daytime running lights – use them on every ride day or night. So that means you want bright ones.
As described in that post, the best blinkers are the kind that use irregular, or ‘interruptive’ blinks.
Lights In Use or Worth Mentioning
I am using three different lights these days, and thought I would also mention the cheap ones that got me thru a few years of commuting safely, as well as another that turned out to be something of a dud.
This is now my favorite all-around go-to light for the back of the bike. It really shines (see what I did there?) as a steady light, but one of its many modes is as an irregular/interruptive blink that is very different from the Bontrager Flare RT described below. Is it better? Possibly not but if you find these lights on sale (as in: ebay) and you are willing to wait for delivery they are half the cost of the Bontrager light. Even at full price on Amazon they are significantly less expensive than the Trek/Bontrager light.
I made a short video showing the blink pattern below. My cell phone camera was unable to catch the fact that the inner and outer halves of the square are blinking alternately, so there is that added differential that is visible to the naked eye but not the camera.
This is probably the best-researched rear light on the market. Is it the best? Blinkwise, definitely maybe. Mounting-wise – definitely not. I certainly do like the one I have on my Surly Big Fat Dummy, but I had to get creative to get the thing mounted. The issue is its designed – pretty much exclusively – to be mounted on your seatpost under your butt. Thats great if you have no rear rack, or no saddle pouch under your seat for your tools and tube repair stuff.
Essentially, I used these parts to mimic an angled seatpost (the Flare RT mount is offset to point straight back behind the bike – assuming the seatpost is at its usual slant). If I had a normal bike rack I would have likely needed more tape (to build up the mounting surface for the Handlebar Bob to glom onto) and attached it to an existing rear horizontal surface of the bike rack.
In terms of the light it provides, it is strictly a blinkie, but it is one that is visible from a considerable distance without being particularly bright – In absence of brightness it provides a tightly focused beam that is visible from longer distances. I’m not sure if this is ideal in a busy urban environment, but it surely is in a rural setting.
One big negative of the Flare RT is it does not hold a charge during a period of inactivity. When taking the above pics, I tried switching my light on – to make a blink video like I did with the Blinder Square – and it was dead as a doornail. The light did recharge but the Knog lights sitting next to it – for just as long of a time unused – fired right up and worked fine.
As noted in the article on front lights, I am using a couple of these on the front of a couple of bikes as front blinkers, and they might be overkill. The same is true in the back. I bought these before I found the irregular blink mode of the Blinder Squares, and before I had some time to evaluate the light. I am using it with its full 330-degree arc enabled, and in its short, sharp, intense ‘day flash’ mode. That may be ideal for daytime, but as winter commuting is here now I need to shift to one of its softer-transition blink modes for what is now a morning and evening commute in the dark.
At $125 for a pair of front and rear Big Cobbers, this is a very expensive light (the Amazon link above is – at time of publication – the best price you are going to find for a pair of them). This light is an excellent option, but its lack of an irregular blink – and the inability to add one in via the mode designer app – is a weird omission that makes the half-the-price Blinder Square or the Bontrager perhaps a better value.
These lights have many modes, and while I could use them as steady lights, I don’t. Two Big Cobbers in the back replacing the Blinder Squares on my cargo wideloaders – plus a third blinking in the middle – would be ideally visible… but at a cost that makes a trip to the emergency room a bit less expensive. If money is no object, these behemoths with their 330-degree light throw are as good as it gets.
I used these on many bikes over a period of three or four years as both a side steady and a center blinkie. They are rated for 120 lumens, but those are Chinese marketing lumens and not standard ANSI lumens. These lights are bright, but they aren’t any 120 lumens.
At less than $13 each, they are cheap. They have enough battery capacity that they last an entire week of daily use (my standard for convenience is to charge once per week; charging all lights in my office garage via a USB hub). Lastly, having had them sitting on the back of one bike or the other for years in all weather commuting, grime and crud did not seem to faze them – even if the flimsy rubber cover over the USB charging port comes off (which it did on about half of them).
Bottom line: These are good, cheap, dependable lights. You get way more than you are paying for here (especially compared to the Blitzus I tried to upgrade into below). Of the 9 of these lights I own, only one went dead recently after three years of service. Not bad for $13.
The reason I spent the bucks and replaced them with Knog Blinder Squares is … the Knogs are bigger, brighter and more visible in broad daylight. This is where these lights fall down. They are visible in bright summer sunlight, but they more or less blend in with the bike rather than jumping out at you. The Knogs are similar… but they are a bit brighter, and more is better during the daytime. The added safety is worth that price to me. In addition to that they are notably larger and more visible at night and twilight.
I am listing this one as an example of what I considered to be a failure. Its a halfway decent light, but its not up to the task of daily use. I tried these out as an upgrade to the Night Provision lights. Just like the Night Provisions, I used them both for steady and blinkie lights.
On the plus side:
At $16.95, its still cheap.
It claims 168 lumens, which is more than the 120 of the Night Provisions. However once again these are Chinese marketing lumens and not ANSI lumens.
It is physically larger for a further improvement in visibility over the Night Provisions.
It uses exactly the same mount as the Night Provision lights, which gives me spares just in case.
On the minus side:
Battery life at the more useful, brighter levels is poor
Battery life from one light vs. another bought at the same time varies – some would last for half as long as another bought at the same time.
I’ve had one die on me soon after putting it into service.
The soft rubber battery cover can easily come off and result in a failure from water spray (a second failure in addition to the one that died for no reason).
In the end, these lights provided a minor improvement in visibility but battery life sucked and they were not reliable. For an occasional ride to the grocery store on a nice evening every once in a while they’d be fine. But nothing more.
Spreading Them Wide
Here’s something I have been doing that may or may not have any scientific basis. I asked myself what kind of light arrangement are drivers accustomed to seeing? Well … they see the taillights on other cars. And those consist, generally, of two steady lights, at the same height from the ground, spread widely apart. So I set out to try and replicate that layout as closely as possible.
In pre-dawn commutes I have come across recreational cyclist diehards out on their morning rides. Since I’m a fast ebike I’m able to approach and pass them fairly easily. In that overtake, where the two of us may be alone on a rural, dead-straight road with few or no street lights, I have personally experienced the issue that studies show blinkie lights suffer from when used alone: You know the bike is there because you can see the blink, but its really hard to figure out how far away it is or how fast its going until you get right up on it and light the rider up with your headlights.
For this reason, I want steady lights – in visual stereo to aid in motion tracking as much as possible. Admittedly that ‘stereo vision’ benefit is not a lot, but you do what you can.
I am of course also putting a blinkie in the center which is not something you see on a car. But that is a function of being a 2-wheeled bicycle sharing the road with 2-ton, 4-wheeled ICBMs crewed by inattentive pilots who – often as not – regard a bicycle as an annoyance unworthy of sharing the same road.
Is this the best way to do it?
Beats the hell out of me. With any luck – and I haven’t been hit from behind yet after almost 40 years of commuting in the saddle – I’ve given myself a fighting chance to keep the tire tracks off my back.
I knocked this project out in maybe an hour, start to finish. I’m doing the same with this quickee explainer post.
There is a Part 2 followup to this article detailing some improvements. See it here.
What It Is
Not too long ago I saw someone show off some LED strip lights lining the front and bottom of their Larry vs. Harry Bullitt. Since I am fooling around with and writing up bike lights recently, I thought this looked pretty cool, so I decided to spring a few bucks to do a simpler version of the project myself.
What I Did
I have a reputation for not taking the easy way out, with careful planning and meticulous execution.
None of that happened here. I just slapped this sucker together, kind-of. Actually the way it went down … I was mocking up a couple different layouts in the garage, a light bulb went off for a simple setup, decided “how tough can it be?” and from there did the complete installation in under an hour.
I will probably pretty this up at some point but for now I’ll just enjoy what I have and see how I like it as-is. Before I get into the strip lights themselves, I need to back up a step and describe a mod I made awhile back that led me directly to lining the side panels rather than doing the usual and lining the frame.
M6x25mm stainless socket cap screws with washers (2).
I wanted to use the big countersunk washers and screws on all of the attachment points, but the front two don’t have enough room for the washer to fit so I just used standard socket caps.
Pictures of the parts installed will do a better job of explaining how this all came together than writing it up:
The spacers add 8mm of width and the skinny washers sandwiching it together give a bit of extra strength. They also add about 2mm total for a roughly 1cm widening of the panel mounting on each side (so 2 cm total width increase). The countersunk washers and screws give a nice flat facing, with broad contact to the mounting bracket. The socket caps worked fine too, so the expensive option of the countersunk washers can be considered optional although I think its a nice touch, and prefer the facing to the cargo area be nice and flat.
I could have gone a lot wider as you can see if you explore the site linked above, but that would spoil my ability to use my LvH tonneau cover. As it stands its tight but it fits.
On To The Light Show
So… coming into the game this is what I bought:
4000k LED Strip Lights If you want something to match your typical bicycle headlight, choose a strip with a 6000k color temp. I decided to go a little warmer and it turned out to be a good choice, although I didn’t know why this was yet.
I chose this set of lights because it was a longer 1.5M (just in case), it used 3M adhesive tape for mounting – these kinds of lights are infamous for coming off after exposure to weather – and it had a simple, switch-free USB plug.
Inline LED Switches I thought when I bought the parts that I might not use switches at all – I would just plug and unplug my lights from the power bank I planned to use (more on that later) or use the power bank’s on/off switch to do the same job without extra parts. If I had been thinking I would have bought the white ones to match the USB wire coming off the strip lights.
0.4″ (10mm) -wide 3M VHB Double-SidedTape VHB – aka “3M red body tape” is a weatherproof, super-durable rubber tape available in a variety of widths and thicknesses. The bigger stuff can literally be used to stick smaller body panels (trim pieces and such) permanently to a car. Most modern car badging uses this stuff to stick on the vehicle make and model logos. Its strong and weatherproof. I had a roll already in my garage. Use the link above to get yourself some.
My idea was to lay down the VHB on the bike frame, and then stick the lights to the VHB – essentially: stick tape on the lights to tape on the frame. It’ll never come off.
Anker 13000 mah USB Power Bank I already had this power bank in a drawer. It has two USB output ports and works perfectly to power both strips. Looks like it will last for a full week (I recharge all my stuff once a week).
I started out trying to rig something up by running a USB extension up the steering tube to the handlebars where I have a bag already. I could have mounted the switches on the bags. This meant I would need to run the USB connections from the lights from the rear of the frame, and hiding that connection wasn’t going to happen since the light strips only bend on one axis. Plus I’d be gaining two more wires running up the steering tube and more visible wires are never a good thing.
While I was pondering that, I realized I had an overhang created by my side panel extensions. This gave me a rubberized surface to stick my base layer of VHB, which will only make for a more firm connection. Also this would bring the wiring up further away from the ground, splashes and shield it from ground impacts.
After poking at it a bit more from this panel-mount angle, I realized I could run the power connections from the front, directly into the front of the cargo box. Since I already had a small bag located there holding two power banks for my lower front headlights, I could just add this to the bag that was already there.
Dang thats good enough to just get it done in a few minutes. I can mess with cleaning up the wires later if I feel like it. And so, here again I’ll use pictures to show the install result:
You can see the light strip is sitting directly on a ‘bed’ of thin black rubber. That is the 3M VHB, which I laid down first as a complete strip, front to back. From there I peeled and stuck the lights atop that. Since I was sticking sticky tape onto sticky tape I had to be careful to get it right the first time, but it wasn’t difficult. The light strip can be cut at specific, marked spots along its length and it was easy to do that.
You can see on each end there is a rubber cap. This is 3M 2229 mastic electrical sealing tape. Essentially its tape-shaped rubber goo. You cut a thin strip of it and lay it over what you want to insulate. Then you work it a little like clay until its formed into a shape that gives you a watertight seal. Mastic is one of those things everyone should have in their tool box. There is a thinner version – 3M 2228 – that is commonly available in big box hardware stores in the USA (much cheaper than found on Amazon).
And yeah I know that bag just sitting there is kinda cheesy, but it was already there holding the power for the two fork-mounted headlights. Thats a spot where my lock is always sitting (in that black bag) so its not taking up space I use for anything else.
Whatsit Look Like Turned On?
Well, before you scroll down to see the pics, know this: The camera gives you a false impression of how bright it is. It is nowhere near as blindingly bright as you see in the night time pics, and its brighter than it seems in the daytime pics.
At night, mounting the strips on the panels – which thanks to the mods I did create a narrow overhang ideally suited to mounting these lights – the effect is to light up the frame as if it was a billboard. Its bright and legible and really cool looking. The camera makes it look like its a blinding washout of light and thats the camera, not reality. Also, the 4000k warm color temp I chose meshes perfectly with my green frame. Different color frames (Moondog – navy blue – comes to mind) might take better to a 6000k color temp, and I bet Pepper (hot red) would like 3000k better than 4000k.
The bike jumps out in the night, which is the idea insofar as visibility in traffic is concerned. Also, the lights face downwards and illuminate the ground in a nice big circle around me. Thats useful to me in a minor way (whatever I smash into will be brightly lit up), but also helps increase my visibility to oncoming and overtaking traffic. The forward facing lights provide a minor benefit to illuminating the road close up.
During the day, the effect is minor but on a cloudy day the bike does look a bit ‘brighter’ from the side, and for sure the forward facing portion of the lights provide a daytime running light effect. On sunny days? No idea I just did all this last night.
As near as I can tell, power usage is minimal. I was unable to dent the battery in my testing and trials. We’ll see how that goes after a week of daily use.
Down the road, I may play around with USB extensions and move the switches back towards the rear – I can run them behind the padding that lines the box – so I don’t have to open the tonneau to switch the lights on. I have a couple extension cables and smaller power banks without a job that may work well in this regard. We’ll see. For now this is quick and dirty and pretty slick.
I can’t tell you what the best lights are, or what the best lighting scheme is, but I can describe what I do, and why. Hopefully this will give you a better idea of what you want to do yourself.
This topic is very much like the “Which Bike Lock?” article I didn’t want to write. “Which bike lights?” is another question that comes up soooo often, and is written about so much, I didn’t feel a need to pile on. But like with the bike locks, I find myself drawn into discussions on the subject. So here’s my take on
How to create an ideal beam pattern
Safety and the actual science that backs up lighting choice.
But First… Executive Summary
Lets jump to the conclusions right off the bat.
Whether I mention it individually or not, all of these lights can survive weather. And dirt/dust/mud being kicked up and onto them from a tire.
Use a couple of small, steady lights to give a nice wide beam pattern close up, and a third, long, narrow one to reach further out. Overall, you should create a shape for urban use that is an elongated pear with the wide part being closest to the bike.
Where legal to use, add a blinking light (that does not blink steadily, but rather blinks in a varying pattern) to minimize a SMIDSY incident. Separate it from the steady lights as much as possible: If its close to them, the steadies will wash out all but a crazy-powerful blinkie.
Do not try and use lights that piggyback power off of your ebike battery or controller unless you have electrical skills and the desire to truly build something tailor made.
Don’t go apeshit and come up with a powerful lighting system that needs its own li-ion battery pack (assuming you are running on city streets… have at it on trails).
Do use USB rechargeable lights. Invest in a powered (plugin) USB hub and set aside one day per week (assuming 2x daily commuting use) to charge up all your lights.
Pick lights that can be used as daytime running lights – use them on every ride day or night. So that means you want bright ones.
DO NOT focus the lights straight forward. Its tempting but bike lights do not have cutoffs and will blind drivers. Focus the core of the beam to the pavement in front of you. Close and far as described below. This article has some excellent “good vs. bad” graphics on light focus. In that article they arrive at a similar result I do but with a very expensive single layered beam.
OK thats out of the way. Now lets get to the reasons why I said all that.
To blink or not to blink?
Pass a bunch of cyclists day or night in the USA and chances are good they have a ‘blinkie’ on the front. Oftentimes thats all they have. Is that a good idea?
In some parts of the world (Germany comes to mind) its illegal for a bike to have blinking lights. So be mindful of your local laws when considering blinkies.
Going back many years, cyclists in the USA began relying heavily on blinking lights. In part I suspect it is because scientific studies have shown blinking lights improve the ‘conspicuity’ of an object traveling down the road by a significant margin. Here is one of the most-often-cited ones, associated with snowplows. The very first scientific study was a different snowplow study in Denmark. While it was available for reading at one time, it seems to have disappeared off the internet. For years it was all there was, in terms of scientific evidence, to justify a blinking light.
However, time has passed. There has been movement away from blinking lights (in scientific literature, not so much in cycling circles) for a number of reasons:
Blinking lights when used on their own makes it tougher for the driver to track you and estimate your speed.
Blinkies can create a ‘moth effect‘ (fascination complex) which can cause, for example, drunk drivers to fixate on a blinking light and drive right into it. This effect may be written up as unproven – as it is in the link above – but more recent literature cite studies that demonstrate the effect exists, even if they still remain unable to fully quantify its impact.
While there is specific, detailed research that acknowledges the above and also notes the increase in conspicuity delivered by a blinkie, there is no coherent research that correlates blinkies’ effects with actual increased safety (i.e. reduced injury rates in control population vs. population blinking at you).
Blinkies just plain piss people off. Lets admit it: We all know this coming into the game, and we know why.
What a mess. The thing that clearly makes me more noticeable to speeding, inattentive missiles on wheels also makes it more likely I will get run down by one? Maybe?
I decided years ago that if steady, bright, lights are the de facto standard – what people are used to seeing, and are essential to tracking my motion – then I wanted those. Also, because of that conspicuity thing (I still can’t believe thats a real word), I wanted a blinkie to go along with the steady light. So, the blinkie makes me noticeable and the steady light gives me a decent shot at being trackable – and more easily avoided – by sober or drunk eyeballs as they speed towards me. Plus of course having a steady forward light lets me see what I am running into and over, which helps.
As for the pissing-people-off part, I consider that a benefit because thats how I roll.
OK I’m kidding about that.
More seriously, we live in an imperfect world and my lighting choices can’t be all things to everyone. I have to choose personal safety over politeness so the blinkie is in the mix.
The fact is, I was t-boned by an inattentive motorist in late 2017 in a classic SMIDSY where the driver – who I made eye contact with – looked through me and not at me, it turns out. That driver accelerated from a dead stop right into me despite my being in a bike lane, traveling relatively slowly and having three steady, front-facing headlights during evening rush hour (it was still daylight). I asked myself afterwards “what the hell more can I freaking do to get these morons’ attention?”
Not much, really. My answer was to add a blinkie. I just didn’t have any more spaghetti to throw against the wall than that.
Here's a detailed look at the SMIDSY risk, and how to actively avoid it, beyond passive methods like a blinking light.
What kind of blink?
All blinks are not created equal. Most traditional blinkies do so at a steady rate. But modern lights have been developed after recent study that use an asymmetric type of blink (Trek calls this effect an ‘interruptive blink’). The idea is that a non-steady blink is superior to a steadily repetitive one. All of my blinking lights use this form of non-steady/variable/asymmetric/interruptive blinking, and I consider it a required feature of blinkies. This severely limits the number of lights I consider for use since most do not offer this feature.
So now you know what my basic layout for lights should be: Steady lighting and blinking lighting, together. What else matters here?
Battery (Power Source)
Please note, what follows in this section applies to the general consumer. There are some very smart and capable people out there in the world who can build their own custom lighting systems from scratch. For those people, none of what I’m saying just below applies.
I see some people with ebikes fixating on using lights that wire into their existing ebike main battery or controller system. This is not a lighting quality decision, its a convenience decision where the rider is trying to consolidate his or her recharge efforts. I think this focuses on the wrong thing: convenience rather than safety.
I prize a proper beam pattern more highly than I do charging convenience. After all the point of lights is their output, which might just keep me alive and un-maimed. Everything else is a distant second.
Going that route also means the number of choices available goes way down. Maybe to only one option. Not only that, it means wires. Wires running from the front light, wires running to the back. Ebikes can be a maze of wires and zipties as it is. I’m not making that any worse with more wires.
Most often, people ask “what light should I buy? Singular. I have given up on finding one single bike light to completely light up whats in front of me.
And believe me, I’ve tried:
Instead, I pick a variety of front lights that each do different jobs. Usually a couple of wide beam lights, focused a hair to the side and down a tad more than I’d go if they were my sole front light. Then I add in a narrow center beam of some kind, focused a touch further out and illuminating dead center whats in front of me. The net result is a long pear-shaped beam that gives me good coverage of the ground in front of me. To ensure I don’t run face first into something well-lit, I have that center beam reaching out some distance. But not so far out or overly powerful I am blinding oncoming motorists.
Worth special mention is the fact that up close, wider is better. This is something I learned over time, and thankfully before I hit anyone. I have had some real shocks using long, narrow beams that show me a clear path, but then I whiz past a pedestrian or some motionless bystander having a smoke in the dark. I had no idea they were there until I passed right by them.
To keep that from happening, I started using my closer-in ‘sidecar’ beams, for lack of a better term and they solved the problem. Sure I have a bunch of lights on the front of the bike, but they are pointed in different places and for a specific reason.
Over time, I have reduced the cost of this approach. Its still not cheap, but its not as godawfully expensive as it used to be.
Brightness (daytime running lights)
I run my lights day and night. At night to see and be seen, but also in the day to be seen by motorists. For this reason, all my lights are relatively bright. I do not, however, blind oncoming traffic by focusing the beams straight ahead. Rather, I try to focus to a useful distance on the ground, which lights up what I am rolling over in the dark. With multiple beams doing this work, I can leave them individually set to their lowest level, which lets me wait awhile to need to recharge them. My standard is one day each week (Friday) I pull all my lights off and recharge them in my office garage.
I have done a variety of front light setups with the above in mind. Lets look at some, along with prices:
The Blitzu Gator is a cheap little light that is surprisingly good. It has a nice, broad beam that you can use as a solitary light if necessary, at its higher settings. I set it on low intensity and its good for a week’s commute riding. If I ride in a park, beach or rural area with no streetlights, there are two higher output settings that give me all the forward peripheral light I could ask for.
At under $16 each these are a great deal. They are also easily removable so when I go to the store – and pull everything off the bike that is not nailed down – they are easy to pop off and back on again.
I first purchased a pair of these little Gator lights when I was looking for a pair of lights for a bike and did not want to spring $100+ for another pair of Niterider Luminas. These are not anywhere near as good as the Niteriders, but then again they are also a small fraction of the cost.
The Victagen bicycle headlight is a relatively common design sold under many names. Its 3000-lumen peak output is not to be believed, but if you have been shopping for lights you already know most lumen claims are baloney. In this case, the light uses two Cree bulbs that are *rated* for 1500w each, which is not the same as them actually putting out that light level. Still, in conjunction with the two Gators, this light works great as a part of the team.
On the street I use it on its lowest setting. This preserves battery life and is still plenty bright for city use. It has an aluminum casing and two 18650 cells inside that make it relatively heavy, but also gives good battery life. Its digital (percentage-remaining) readout is constantly on so you’re never wondering how much power is left. There are two higher settings useful if riding without streetlights helping out.
A third, square center light is a little forward flood. It is handy on rural trails to light up the landscape ahead – just barely enough to be useful. Not something you want to use with oncoming traffic, but helpful on pitch-black trails.
Despite its heavy weight, the screw-down mount keeps the light from jiggling. It charges with a readily available USB C cable and contains an output plug so you can use it as a power bank for your cell phone if necessary.
I consider this Victagen light the natural, low cost successor to what was my preferred buy in this class: The Niterider Lumina, which I still use on a few bikes. Luminas typically go on sale around the end of the year but even so they come in at double the cost of one of these Victagen lights (as of today I own 5 of them, so I’ve saved quite a bit).
The Knog Blinder Front Square. Look closely at Figure 2 above and you will see a yellow square, on the front of the rack, just above the tire in the lower right corner of the picture. Thats my Knog Blinder, run as a blinkie – in variable blink mode – and set as far away from my steady lights as I can get it. the Knog lights come with a number of modes pre-programmed, and some of them can be set up custom via an app that connects to them and allows you to come up with your own pattern (I did not need this as one of the pre-programmed patterns sufficed).
Knog is an Australian company that specializes in bicycle lighting. What they sell is sophisticated, capable … and expensive. Still, they have become my default standard for rear lighting (both steadies and blinkies. I will cover rear lights in a separate article) and, in a couple of different forms, are my chosen light for front blinkies.
The best price on these lights is not found on Amazon. I get mine from seller Abaxo on EBay. I own maybe a dozen of these Blinder lights – front and rear versions – spread across several bikes. For now, I will only discuss the Front Blinder Square. The Amazon link I am using for one front and one rear is a pretty good price, though. And if you follow my lead, you may want to pick up at least one of those deals. But you’ll need to also read my rear lighting article to see what I am using, and why.
2Fat’s front lighting (recent past)
My use of the self-contained Victagen, and the Knog Blinder, is fairly recent. Formerly I used a pair of different lights – across several bicycles – that are worth mentioning.
My favorite light from a narrow, long beam standpoint is not the Victagen. Its this light, which is reasonably priced, Perfectly bright for street use at its lowest setting, and VERY bright on ‘hi’ for rides thru the park. The beam is also very narrow and very sharp-edged, so it makes a perfect long-reach beam that does not blind oncoming traffic. It has a big battery pack so it can go easily 2 weeks without recharging. The mount on this light is unusual in that it is very sturdy, adaptable and not subject to breakage over time. Why did I replace it? Because it requires a special USB cable to charge and over the years I have managed to lose all but one of them (I have four of these lights, two of which are mounted on the forks of the Lizzard King, and can be seen at the top of this page and in the next example below).
I have tried buying USB cables that match the cable ends required of the light and no dice. There’s some kind of unique wiring in the cable that a generic cable does not have. And the charge cables are not available separately. Without its special charge cable its a paperweight, so I moved away from using these.
Worth noting: You can solve the charge-cable issue by switching to a power bank such as this small $25 model from Anker, which I have done successfully. It gives a further advantage of having even greater capacity than the original factory pack, and charges with a standard cable. Trouble is it adds $25 to the cost of a $32 light, and these power banks overload if you try and plug two lights into one bank, so you have to do one per light. You have to really want this particular light beam to go this route.
Before I decided to spring the big bucks on the Knog Blinder Front Square, I used this little Night Provision front light for a few years. It is highly water resistant even if the rubber plug cover falls off (happens about half the time). Its battery life falls within my magic 1-week window, it is rated for 120 lumens which seems optimistic. It is usable as a blinkie in the day, and it is cheap at under $14 each. Here again I used the rear version of this light x 3 in the back of my bike before I went to the Knog Blinders. And again I’ll discuss those separately in a future post.
Unlike the Knog Big Cobber that you can see below on the Lizzard King, this little light is not bright enough to be mounted between or anywhere near your steady lights, and must be mounted low and away from them to be visible.
The Lizzard King’s front lighting
This one turned out a little weird, but thats largely due to the unusual nature of a frontloader and partly because, as described above, I have a couple of those extra-tight-beam lights not doing anything.
Due to the unusual configuration of a frontloader cargo bike, its not unusual to see a single light mounted on the fork bridge, relatively low given the 20″ wheel size. I tried adding a special mount on the bridge to put a light in that spot, and for reasons unique to my bike it didn’t work well. With these versatile mounts, this particular light is a perfect fit to mount on a semi-round fork blade, and since they have to go on the side, two of them to balance out the beam was an easy – and for me, cost-free – choice.
For the upper lights, I used what I once considered to be the best self-contained light on the market: The Nightrider Lumina. I have three sets of these. Two of them are the full sized Lumina 900 and a third is the smaller Micro 750. I’ve also owned lower-powered versions of both form factors going back many years. Of the two, I prefer the smaller Micro as they balance better over the handlebars.
The beam patterns on the Luminas are excellent. Their mounts have an internal ratchet that let you inch their focus right or left by a hair to widen their spread. Again they last my magic standard of a week without a recharge, and they can be at their lowest power level when used as part of a team effort. One drawback: The mount that is sold with them is junk. You have to spring for the upgraded screw-clamp mount they sell separately, and this adds another $11 to the cost of each light.
Lastly they are sturdy and water resistant. Easy to remove and re-attach, they make great standalone flashlights, especially when working on a flat tire at night on the side of the road.
BUT… They aren’t cheap. When the Victagen-style lights came onto the market, with their similarly sturdy casings, rich feature set and strong mounts… for $25 a pop. Well, you can see why I jumped ship.
The Big Cobber can be tied into their app, and before you think that an app for a bike light is stupid, it isn’t for this light. Using the Knog app, you can set the light to ‘eyesaver’ mode, which disables it across 1/3 of its 330° arc of light. Three Hundred and Thirty degrees. If you don’t run eyesaver mode, you are going to get this thing blinking in your face. I found I needed to use eyesaver AND to tape over the top part of the light because even though those LEDs were not firing, there was still enough backwash from what was running to annoy me. Once I did that, its a near-perfect light. I am using the short, sharp, intense ‘day flash’ mode with eyesaver.
And it sure isn’t cheap, either. With that said, its the best fit for the bike I have it on, so it stays. This is a VERY sophisticated and high quality light, so if what it does works for you, you’re not going to be disappointed.
The Surly Big Fat Dummy’s lighting
What I did here was unusual given the front rack on this bike, along with the inverted suspension fork that has no bridge to affix a blinkie down low.
Victagen Dual Beams
You have seen these used earlier. Since I ride multiple bikes, I keep a set of lights permanently on each rather than swapping them around. This is where using lower-cost but still effective lights pays off. I found putting two of them off the front edge of the rack induced too much shaking (you can still see the mounts, at top right and left on the front). So I built up the sides of the rack with silicone tape and hung them off those. It was easy to angle them so I have a continuous swath of light in front of me and there was no need for a separate, long-range steady beam. For a blinkie, I have…
The Knog Big Cobber
With no way to properly separate the blinkie from the steadies thanks to the use of thhe Wren Inverted fork, I needed a bright badass blinkie to keep it from being washed out. The strong Knog light is that light, and once again has been set to ‘eyesaver’ mode and taped at the top just like the other one on the Lizzard King. Its worth noting this light puts quite a bit of its output straight down onto the ground which still magnifies my visual presence to some degree.
If you have been counting lights, you will have realized my once-weekly recharge party at my office garage is something of an event. It is but it isn’t. I need to spend about 5 minutes pulling lights off and attaching them to …
My powered USB charging hub. I have two of these 10-port powered hubs. One at home and one at work. I usually only do this at work. Despite making the mistake of trying a much more expensive one, found these to be perfect.
So… skipping the failures and the mistakes, thats what I am using or have used for front lights, and why I’m doing them that way. What I use for the back dovetails neatly into my choices for the front, but you’ll have to read that separate article to see exactly how.
I never planned on building three different classes of cargo bike, but I did. What are their strengths and weaknesses?
As I write this, its been about two years since I received my first cargo bike in a box: A dirt-cheap $750 Mongoose Envoy. I planned from the beginning to completely tear it down and only use the donor frame. The Envoy is what you would call a midtail. Not huge, but still pretty big.
I found I liked the cargo bike concept so much, I wanted to go bigger. Next I built up a Surly Big Fat Dummy (BFD). That bike is as big as they come in terms of a side-loading (panniers) cargo bike. Its a longtail.
I ran around for about a year on the BFD, putting about 1600 miles on it. I used it for an everything-bike: cargo, shopping, commuting and even mild-difficulty offroad trails. As oversized as it was, I found it fun and practical and had no plans to leave it behind. I could have stopped here.
But I do love a project. Almost on a whim, in early 2021 I called a USA dealer for the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt and asked if they had frames in stock. They did. So I built a third, completely different kind of cargo bike: A frontloader. also commonly known by its Dutch name of bakfiets (“box bike”).
The Bullitt is my newest arrival in the stable … but I already have over 1300 miles on it. What does that tell you?
Which do I prefer, and why? What are the strengths and weaknesses of each? Where are the hidden gotchas? Being in an unusual position to have experienced them all directly, and to have them all still in front of me, here goes nuthin’:
I wanted a cargo bike without spending big money for one. I wasn’t sure I would like the idea. Cargo bikes are crazy-expensive. Cheaper ones are only really expensive. This one was downright reasonable.
In the DIY ebike community, a Mongoose bike is considered a great donor if you are looking for a strong, reliable frame as the foundation of a build. The Mongoose Dolomite borders on legendary in this regard. Great bones, so to speak.
The Envoy is exactly this. It presents as a low-cost bike complete with included big panniers and wideloaders, so it can effectively be put to work right out of the box. You can do exactly that, although some parts are in sore need of an upgrade (the brakes, in particular).
So in the end, I built myself a very capable bike with top quality components. Lets focus on the resulting platform advantages/disadvantages rather than getting hung up on those components. I wrote a whole series on that build so we can let it stand separately.
What Is It Good At?
If you are on a budget, this is perhaps the best way to start
A mid can be a lower cost to buy into. Cargo bikes are notoriously expensive so this may be a deciding factor. You can do as I did and buy into the Envoy as a donor platform; then upgrade incrementally as time and budget permits… but the frame is the frame so if you find yourself wishing for more capacity, thats the hard limit of a mid tail. Still, even after a complete rebuild with top components I ended up spending half or less of what a more grownup cargo bike would have cost me.
It has surprisingly good cargo capacity
This may be more true if you go and roll your own cargo bags the way I did. At about 77L each bag, my Great Big Bags are quite a lot larger than the ones included with the Envoy. Bags the size of what I built are darn near the biggest out there (Yuba makes 80L bags guaranteed only to fit their own bikes).
Big bags mean big volume, but not big weight capacity. Your wheels and frame will dictate that. Different bikes have different specs so be sure to find out what the bikes you are considering can carry, both for cargo and total system, which is the weight of the bike, rider and cargo. You have to do some digging, but Mongoose publishes a 130-lb maximum cargo capacity for the Envoy (they do not publish a system weight limit). They break it down to 90 lbs on the center rear rack and 20 lbs each for the wideloaders.
Reality is a pannier load will hang off the center rack and be bolstered by the wideloaders, so the lower number for the side rack is not worrisome. Especially since I added some extra bracing to enhance the wideloaders’ strength.
Speaking of strength, If you are looking to stretch any bike’s carry capacity, look to beefing up the wheels. In particular wider rims so you can fit larger tires.
Mongoose developers employed by the company who posted in internet forums at the time of the Envoy’s release stated these limits were not, strictly speaking, upper limits and represented what Mongoose had safely tested during product development. If I hadn’t done a bunch of research I would not have known this. So do some digging on Facebook cargo groups and look for online forum posts (this is true no matter what bike platform you are considering) for details and experiences on the bike you are researching.
I was carrying two double-wide sleeping bags and pillows so this is not the heavy load it appears to be.
It is not supersized
A midtail Is bigger than a regular bike, but its not enormous. Its a LOT easier to manipulate around a crowded garage. The mid-size nature of it also makes it easier to ride in tighter spaces. Please note that my midtail IS 8 feet long thanks to the 46″ longboard deck I put on the back. I highly recommend the skateboard deck as a cool mod, but remember moderation is not always a dirty word. My first, shorter 33″ deck may be a more sensible choice.
Given the limited garage space at the Envoy’s new home, I may pull off the 46″ deck (left image above) and go back to the original shorter deck. I’d need to re-mount it one set of rack bosses further inward. Or something.
Skinny, flatless tires, or mid-size? I stuck with the big poofy ones due to their increased load capacity and amazing difference in ride comfort.
What Does It Suck At?
Its not a truly heavy-duty cargo bike
…in the sense that its not the right bike to repeatedly, regularly use the kind of available extra space I have given the bike, with its upgraded panniers, front rack etc. If you are planning to go truly XXL on your cargo bike’s duty cycle, a midtail is probably not the smart choice.
Balance is a serious challenge
Balance while riding when loaded heavy can be a significant effort. The nature of a mid-tail bike means you are hanging stuff off the sides to carry along with you. As in: Panniers. Maybe even supersized cargo-bike-sized panniers (plus more bags on the front rack). When you start getting to be really serious about your loads then balance naturally becomes an issue.
I’ll bet balance under load is the reason Mongoose sells the Envoy with large – but inexplicably narrow – panniers. Only a lawyer working for the manufacturer could love a bag like that.
While I haven’t personally experienced this, I have heard many smaller women state that having kids on the back of their bike is not a great situation. In addition to kids being kids (squirmy and fidgety) their weight is very high up in back which can make the bike a challenge to safely balance when standing still. This is all dependent on the individual rider and the size of the child or children.
Does my mid-tail have a place in my stable?
Yes it does. I am lucky enough to have two homes, one of which is in a very hilly area where distances are short, the climate is mild and my shopping needs are lighter. Despite many steep hills its a lot easier place to ride a bike around. The Envoy is my shopping bike at that residence. Being smaller than the other two behemoths discussed below, it also fits better in my smaller available garage space.
Is it an auto replacement?
Not quite. I still have and need a car to supplement this bike. If I wanted to pack 50 lb gravel bags home 1 at a time, I could use the bike. Or take the car and bring home 8 of them. The mid tail is good for maybe 90% of my local car trips.
Having loaded my midtail to the point where I was thinking I had maybe outgrown it, I wanted something bigger. In particular, the increase in ride comfort and quality when I went to plus-sized tires on the Envoy made it clear that fat tires – with much larger air volume and taller load-bearing sidewalls – were a big plus for a bike that carried a lot of weight around as its job.
One thing I have learned in my cycling life is that, where equipment is concerned, don’t take half measures. Its a lesson that has bonked me on the head time and again. At the time I figured this was one more of those hard-way lessons when I supersized to a fat longtail. The Surly Big Fat Dummy personifies the expression ‘Go Big or Go Home’. Thats what I was after: a rolling freight train capable of handling heavy loads.
What Is It Good At?
“Wow thats quite a bike.” “Dude that thing is cool.” “Jesus H. Christ what in the hell is that?” Allow for time to have conversations if you park it in a shopping center. Pull up a shopping cart to this thing and spend 15 minutes loading it and it will be a rare thing to get through that task without a passerby stopping to strike up a conversation. Also windows rolled down at stoplights. At 8 feet long, with wideloaders added, a skateboard deck almost 4 feet long and oh yeah the biggest tires and deep dish carbon fiber wheels… People notice, and they like it.
Don’t think this is unique to me because I have made the bike into a rolling spectacle. Fact is, cargo bikes in the USA are still a rare sight and many people have no idea what they are looking at.
I mean really big. There have been a few news stories over the years where someone blows a gasket, steals an army tank and runs amok on city streets, bulldozing over stuff, causing panic and generally doing the things we all wish we could do while stuck in a traffic jam. Riding a ginormous longtail is a little like that. You can pretty much roll over anything. Nobody feels compelled to step in front of you and it sure seems like you are sitting about a foot higher in the saddle than you would be on any other bike (you’re not but it feels like it). You’ve got a level of stability that just isn’t possible on any other bicycle, fat tired or otherwise thanks to the long wheelbase that crosses the county line.
Some of what I am colorfully describing here is specific to the Big Fat Dummy, but really the whole ‘big’ thing is true of really big cargo bikes period.
Steel is real, and the chromoly frame does have some flex in it to make your ride nice and comfy. This is not the bike for the super efficient cyclist to pursue the World Hour Record in. Its a bus. Even longtails made with stiffer alloy frames will get some flex into them due to the sheer length of the frame.
It can carry a lot of stuff
More than you can load into it. I branched out and expanded the carry capacity on my midtail with a front rack for two more panniers. Well, utilizing my Version 2.0 Big Bags, the longtail has more than 270 (Two Hundred and Seventy) liters of rear pannier capacity, supported with a 9″ wide floor integrated into the frame. PLUS the nearly 4-foot long aircraft carrier deck in back, AND the front handlebar basket. A front rack would be stupid overkill. Figure the increased carry capacity is the reason a longtail exists vs. a midtail. Do not bother considering one that doesn’t have the ability to carry a lot, as thats the reason they exist in the first place.
My record on this bike was actually on my first shopping trip. Four 36-paks of soda cans, two per side, plus some boxes of crackers and another 20 -30 lbs of bike lock and tools (mostly the big bike lock). When all was said and done, I was at a total system weight of well over 500 lbs, and those great big bags were filled out and full. The many-miles-long ride home was fortunately on a bike path with underpasses and almost no street traffic. And still it was very tense – not to mention slow going. There’s no way my midtail would have been able to handle that, even if I had bags big enough to do it.
What Does It Suck At?
Its. Freaking. Big.
If you don’t have plenty of parking space, you are screwed. Plain and simple. That means at home and any other place where you expect to regularly park this thing.
Broadening the above narrow point by a bit: Pick any problem you care to name associated with XXL size. A longtail has that. Will it matter to you? There’s the question. I have found that despite the size, the BFD is surprisingly nimble once I got used to it. Will your longtail of choice be so forgiving? Better do some in-depth test riding to find out.
It has all the balance issues of a midtail
Only those issues are magnified. Now… don’t get me wrong here. Lots of people ride these bikes and their worlds do not end. In fact the balance issues I am digging in on are just a fact of life for most cargo bikers. But this is likely because they simply don’t know any better as the next entry in this comparison is something of a rarity in North America, so almost nobody knows how much of a difference there is.
We’ve crossed over into the land of proper cargo bikes, and this is big money territory. Unpowered, the Big Fat Dummy listed for over $3,000 and thats before you put the motor in, or build your wideloaders or do anything else. The BFD is no longer in production, but the electrified Big Easy lists for $5249. Thats not expensive for a proper longtail that is manufactured with components you can expect to be reliable and long lasting, as well as a motor you can count on to actually work right under heavy load – both in hills and the flatlands.
Does it have a place in my stable?
Yes, but only because the one I own is a special type that includes bikepacking and trails in its toolkit. There is nothing I dislike about my longtail. Once you embrace the horror of riding a bike this size, it expands your idea of what a bicycle can be and what you can do with it. ‘Auto replacement’ starts becoming a reality for more than just moving yourself and your kids around.
If it weren’t for the fact that the Bullitt was a project that was calling my name, I would still be riding the Surly Big Fat Dummy day in, day out. Although I have configured it to be happiest on trails (and overland … where there are no trails) it is still perfectly usable as a commuter, as a go-to-the-store bike or even as a trail bike.
Is it an auto replacement?
At this size and carry capacity, it could be, easily. I have carried three fifty pound bags of gravel on it (one on each side and one on the top, center). I’ve loaded a full shopping cart. My child is all grown up now but if she were still small she could ride on the back. A longtail is pretty much an auto replacement unless you need to take long trips out of town.
I built it because I can. Honestly I did not need this bike. I wasn’t even sure I would be able to ride the thing. Or that I would like it. But I did know of the Bullitt’s reputation and the devoted following that all bakfiets riders seem to have for the platform. Plus I had an idea for a new approach to a two-motor AWD build that I wanted to put in play (Spoiler Alert: it came out freaking awesome).
What Is It Good At?
Nobody knows what to make of it, but everybody likes it. I get asked all the time if you can fit a dog in the cargo box and of course lots of people do that, I respond. Just like the longtail, people want to know all about it. Just yesterday a couple in a car next to me at an intersection wanted to know if I would build them one (sorry I already have a job).
Load carrying is nothing short of unbelievable
As in unbelievably easy. Mid- and longtails use big panniers. These have to be load-balanced, as of course they involve hanging stuff off the sides. That means as payload increases, balance is a progressively more difficult challenge.
Not with a frontloader. At all. You just don’t notice the load is even there at first. Seriously, thats no exaggeration. When I started out with my first full supermarket load on the Bullitt, I thought something was wrong. I rolled away from the curb easy as pie with no consequences whatsoever to stability or balance.
It rides just like it does when its empty … until you hit the brakes. The laws of physics still apply and you have all the inertia of your extra weight load. But no balance penalty. And it feels like a miracle. On my longtail, when I loaded my 100+ lb Costco cart payload, I made it home rolling at about 8-10 mph… and that was too fast. Anything that got in my way like a pothole, small child or line of baby ducks… sayonara, sucker. No way could I make any sort of avoidance maneuver without crashing to the ground. No such problem with a bakfiets.
Loading it is the easiest by far
With a mid- or a longtail, you have panniers. My Great Big Bags are convenient, but they still have to be unstrapped, opened up, loaded evenly from side to side and then re-strapped to help support the load.
With a frontloader? Forget ALL of that. Its a great big open box. Just chuck your crap into it and go. Its also centered on the bike… so load balancing? Not something you care about anymore. Straps? Its a box. No straps. A lid, even? Entirely optional. My Bullitt is sized so the same great big duffel bag I used for the Great Big Bags 2.0 fits right into it: I can toss my stuff into the bag (which also eliminates rattling) and then lift it right out and carry it inside when I get home.
Do the math on that: its carry capacity is about half that of the longtail. In truth, you can stack stuff in the box higher so its not half, but its still a bit less. The increase in ease of carry and loading makes that loss of capacity worth it. Plus, I added a rear rack that lets me plug in a couple of 30L panniers, so I am gaining back still more of the capacity I lost vs. the longtail.
Its capable of as much range as you care to give it.
My under-floor battery box could have easily taken a bigger battery if I had cared to put one in. I thought 32ah of 52v power was plenty. My ass wears out in the saddle before the battery does.
Is it an auto replacement?
As much as a bicycle can be, yes it is. The frontloader gives you enough cargo capability to meet most reasonable needs, while adding in grab-and-go convenience and ease of use under heavy load, both of which are lacking in a midtail or longtail by comparison.
What Does It Suck At?
Steering takes some getting-used-to.
Its a little twitchy compared to any normal bicycle. You get the hang of it in about a day. In fact, switching from the Bullitt to any other bicycle is difficult. The first time I took 2Fat (a titanium-framed 2wd fatty) out after riding the Bullitt for a few weeks, I thought something was wrong with the bike. I was wobbling all over the place and couldn’t keep the bike straight. I had gotten used to the kind of subconscious correction necessary when there is a 20″ wheel 5 feet in front of you. You don’t realize its so different until you switch back to a normal bike. The solution is to make frequent switches back and forth to your other bikes.
Just like the longtail, a bakfiets is so big you had better have lots of space to park it. The Bullitt is just as long as my Surly but, thankfully, a lot narrower so there’s that at least. Parking this bike at a bike rack you have to park on one end or the other and face the bike sideways. Otherwise, you could end up taking the entire width of the sidewalk with the bike sticking out from the rack.
While the longtail tossed aside the whole idea of being budget-friendly, a proper bakfiets casts your budget aside by doing the breakup via text messaging. Its likely going to be brutal on your wallet. How brutal? An electrified Bullitt is going to run in excess of $6200. Probably you’ll be in for 7 grand by the time you have added in extras like a cargo box. Something like what I did? Well… thats more. Think thats how bad it gets? Price an electrified Riese & Müller Load 75. They start at over $9,000 and can be optioned up past $14,000. That $3,000 Mongoose build is starting to look a lot more attractive, right? Are less expensive options out there? Of course. But this bike is the apex predator of more than just crates and packages. Its coming after your wallet.
Does it have a place in my stable?
Duh. Why do you think I wrote this one up last? If you were reading above you already know how pleased I am with it. The Bullitt has become my commuter as well as my exclusive utility/shopping/runaround bike. You get used to driving around a bike that has a great big open box that you can just dump whatever into without a care for cargo management. Bunch of stuff come to the office from Amazon today? Toss it in and go. Need a three bags of cement at Home Depot? Do a curbside delivery order, have them bring them to you and toss them in (er… gently).
So given the choice to start over, which would I pick? Thats a tough one. Soon after I built the Bullitt and put it into service, I would have sworn it was the one bike to rule them all. But having lived with the Bullitt for a while and spent some time pondering what to do with the other two, it turns out I’m glad I have all three. And two garages.
The Frontloader Wins (city cargo bike)
If I need an on-road cargo bike+commuter, the Bullitt frontloader is the choice, hands down. The other two are not even close.
Thats not because of the brand or model of bikes in this informal competition. A bakfiets embodies a fundamental shift in the physics of cargo bikes that cannot be overcome by any bike that has to balance its load to the sides, with the rider further balancing the bike as it travels. A frontloader carries the load low – which is a big benefit all by itself – and centered, in front of the rider. The fanciest midtail or longtail in the world cannot overcome or even approach this inherent physical, mechanical advantage. Ride one once with a passenger or two bags of pea gravel and you’ll immediately, intuitively understand.
On top of that, a frontloader has convenience a mid- or longtail cannot approach. It is SO nice to just walk up, chuck your stuff into a big open box and go. No balancing, no fiddling with straps, no packing. Its just a big can on wheels. Since I do not have space issues with parking at home or at work, I don’t care that it needs a hangar to park inside. At stores, I can always find a parking space for it.
And… just because I don’t ride it on trails doesn’t mean its never done. You’ll find plenty who do this, although to be fair we’re usually talking about dirt roads on cross-country camping adventures, not an afternoon bombing down a mountainside. Do your research on your chosen bakfiets as some are more suited to off-roading than others.
The Long-Tail Also Wins (for trail-capability)
I have to say that most of my likes for a longtail stem from the Surly Big Fat Dummy’s unique properties as a fat bike. If we’re just talking longtail without the trails and wilderness capability, then I don’t see a reason to pick this platform over a frontloader.
But … If I need a bike that I can ride all terrain, where there are trails, or no trails at all, or on a camping trip where I ride thru the forest to gather firewood, or hump it up and down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, its the Surly Big Fat Dummy for me. 4.8″ to 5.05″ tires air’d down along with front suspension means this bike can go pretty much anywhere. It takes more time and effort to load it up, sure. But when the road goes away, the Big Fat Dummy is a BFD. Its fun. Its crazy big. It can climb insane grades. Did I mention fun? And it can also run on the street, but thats not its forte.
What it lacks vs. the frontloader is load stability. Its a major handful to balance compared to the frontloader, whose solidity cannot be overstated. If I lived in a rural area with dirt roads, something like a BFD or a Salsa Blackborow might be a necessary choice.
The Mid-Tail Doesn’t Lose
If I am short on space to park, I’m not quite up to muscling around a two-wheeled locomotive, my needs aren’t in the big leagues (and I won’t have buyers remorse when I realize I bought into a lesser example of the genre), then a midtail is the one to pick. Its capability may be less but so are its demands on your muscles and the square footage in your garage. And motorwise, with a strong mid drive giving you assist that will stand up to hills while loaded with cargo, its every bit as capable and powerful as the others, with all the range you could ever want, so long as you pay the piper and put in a battery big enough to match your needs.
So for better or for worse, thats my take on these three different cargo bikes. Hopefully you’ve found some observation or other useful in here amongst these ramblings to help you on your own search.