Bakfiets can have three wheels, and some tips about (cargo) cycling with children in the Netherlands

Those of you who read my first post will know that my decision to buy a two-wheel cargo bike, rather than a three-wheel one, was simply based on: theoretical research, sort of untested vague assumptions, wild guesses, and so on (well, I am an economist after all).

Despite the trust I normally put in my research findings, I was still very eager to try a trike, well, you know, simply to have a confirmation that I was indeed right. The plan was to hire one in London any time soon. But, in the meanwhile, we decided to spend our Easter holidays in the Netherlands, obviously with some cycling included. So I spent quite a lot of time looking for places to hire a cargo bike (obviously, being the Netherlands, it could only be a two-wheel one…), possibly electric, while looking at maps and possible not too daunting cycling tours. The issue was to match possible destinations with cargo bike hire possibility (not as numerous as I thought, apart from Amsterdam), and that was quite complicated.

The location

I had shortlisted the area around Delft, Leiden and Lisse for the trip, in order to cycle along the tulips fields, given the season. But no electric cargo bikes around there, and not that many non electric cargo bikes either, it seemed. Fine, I thought, after all the Netherlands is a flat country, and that’s why people cycle etc., so no absolute need of electric propulsion. Once a suitable accommodation was found in Delft, wonderful city, home of the Vermeer Museum and impressive cycle infrastructure, the only options in the area seemed to be at the train station in The Hague, or a cycle hire shop in Haarlem, but both did not seem too practical to reach the tulip season epicentre Keukenhof Park.

But then, a twist in the story. While the website of Easyfiets in Leiden did not show any bakfiets available (it does now), another sort of search engine showed availability at the same shop, simply mentioning ‘Bakfiets/boxbike’. So I sent them an email (but did not ask exactly what type of bike it was), and I could book a bakfiets/boxbike for the day.

The bakfiets

We took a short train ride in the morning to Leiden and walk to the cycle hire place.  To my surprise, their bakfiets was a three-wheel one, an oldish Babboe (but the surprise of finding it with electric assistance did not materialise). Their reaction to my “I’d like to use it to take my children to Keukenhof and back”, about 40 kms, was a simple “it should take you about two hours each way with that” with no particular change in their facial expression. That was the reaction I wanted (well, sort of), not knowing much about the route (the research on that particular bit had not been so thorough, as you’ll appreciate if you keep reading). They also provided us with a map (very simple, with a lot of numbers indicating the way to take at each cycleway junction), and off we went (although for precaution my partner took a bike with a child seat, so to avoid the temptation to offload one of our children and offering him or her for adoption at a dairy farm, in case the weight became too unbearable).

The route

I said ‘off we went’ but things were not that easy to begin with (and neither later on). The first challenge was a quick test without the children in a car park. No problem, although I could see that the handling was quite different than for a two-wheeler. The bike was indeed a bit old, but seemed ok. I have always said that no more than three speeds are ever needed for urban cycling, and that bike had a whopping five! The second main challenge was to understand where to turn first so not to loose the route on the map straight away (we sort of succeed in that), the third one, after about 5 minutes riding, was to climb the Windmill bridge (not as easy at it seems as the centre of the bridge is basically a triangular prism, so for a split second the cargo bike was actually flying as no wheels seemed to be in contact with the ground…).

Once the bridge had been conquered we continued, and we soon realised that it was not easy to keep track (both on the map and the signal posts) of the little numbers indicating the directions to take at each cross road. We also realised that Google maps can be useless. How did we notice that? Well, after about 45 minutes we were still in Leiden and basically still somewhere around the train station (a beautiful example of modern architecture though). Progressively, we noticed changes in the urban environment, and that was the sign that we were managing to get out of town (in case you were wondering Leiden has about 120,000 inhabitants, so not a metropolis). Up to that point, cycling was ok, although mostly on red strips of paint rather than properly separated cycleways. Cars in town were giving us enough space, as my children (but not us) were wearing helmets in the box, a clear sign we were foreign tourists getting lost. That also worked a bit at those complex cycleway crosses, where we had no idea where to go, and other people on bicycles and mopeds (I’ll tell something about mopeds later on) did slow down and pass around us without showing too much discontent.

However, separated cycleways arrived fairly soon and were really impressive. Some run between lines of houses, to continue then in the middle of fields full of colourful flowers. Once in those cycleways, and finally out of town with no cars or lorries around, we could finally reflect on both the route (we were somehow going in the right direction but probably we had already added 10kms to the trip….) and the bakfiets.

And the bike again

So, about the bakfiets. Well, yes it was stable, but turning was not that straight forward, and often I felt like it was going to tilt sideward, especially when the ground was a bit inclined side way. It wasn’t about to do that, absolutely not, but it is apparently a feeling other people also have on trikes (most probably those not very good at it, a bit like me). I moved my bottom a lot on the saddle, and tried to balance my shoulders to sort of keep my body and the bike right (if you think that is not an elegant description it is because the manouvre itself was not elegant at all…). My children did enjoy it though (the bike not my bottom movements on the saddle), and despite needing more than 3 hours to reach our destination, they kept chatting, laughing and showing a tiny bit of interest in the fields full of flowers (in the middle of nowhere, when we suddenly saw a motorway on one side, and a train station on the other, a McDonald appeared between the two, and that also helped to keep the children in good spirit…).

In order to keep them further entertained, I also described the beauty of both the countryside and the cycling infrastructure while moving slowly towards our destination. I am not sure they were really listening. At times, we were overtaken by people on e-bikes. As my legs were starting to feel the weight of the bike and the children (3 and half, and 6 and half year old, about 40kgs together…), the blatant lie that the Netherlands is a completely flat country, the stress of not being completely sure all the efforts were taking us in the right direction, and the sudden realisation that if there are windmills everywhere it is because it is very windy, I asked them to listen to the ‘noise of happiness’ (that sweet zzzz that an electric motor gifts to the soundscape). I don’t think they were listening to that either.

The tulips

The visit to Keukenhof was interesting albeit a bit expensive. And in a very unDutch way you can almost park your car or coach in front of the entrance (if there is a space) but the cycle park was a good distance away (obviously three hours pedaling on an old baker’s bike had a bit of an effect on my legs). The children did enjoy the playground inside but, for the little one especially, it was quite frustratring not to be able to snatch not even one of those beautiful flowers of all colours.

The way back

The directions on the way back were somehow easier to follow, thanks to a multitude of signs saying ‘Leiden’, and the route was completely different. Less separated cycleways, more quiet (but windy) routes along canals, windmills, railway lines and farms. The former were much more crowded than those on the way in, and I needed time to realise that signs did say that small motorcycles were allowed on the tracks. It was not pleasant at all being overtaken at high speed, and I wonder what would happened if the same rule applied to the cycleways of my city in Italy as well (a hint, absolutely nothing but speeding mopeds on the cycle routes).  The latter were indeed nice, but a couple of farm lorries really passed us a bit too close and too fast for my taste. My partner also had a go at the trike. She found it very difficult to manouvre, and a speeding moped made her swerve into a bush (children were safe in their box).  Another very small but very steep bridge over a canal presented a real obstacle though, and in no ways I could make the cargo bike flying as in the previous one…so both of us had to push the bike and make it slowly pass the edge. I started to tire a lot, and the last 5/10 kms were a real nightmare, as I really did not have much more energy left in my legs (sometimes I had the impression that there was a bit of marketing involved in the indication of distances to Leiden, you know, like making you believe you are much closer than you actually are…). Even offloading the little one and giving it to my partner did not make much difference, and I think I was really struggling to keep 10kph.

Local delicacies

What kept us (and my legs) going was the destination, the best pancakes restaurant (Oudt Leyden) in the Netherlands (in accordance with Lonely Planet), which we finally reached after about 3 hours (the way back took almost as much as the way in, despite being much shorter, approx 20 kms rather than 30, due to fatigue). The biggest pancakes you’ll ever seen, and a memorable meal for all of us involved, so highly recommended. After a short ride to the cycle hire shop, and yet another climb of the now mythical Windmil Bridge, we returned the bikes, and after a shortish train ride we were back at home in Delft [for those who are interested, the following day I was relatively fresh and only my right knee was a tiny bit sore…]

Final considerations about the bike

So, perhaps 50kms without a proper map was not the best way to test a three-wheel cargo bike for the first time, so don’t be put off too much by my experience. I still think that my choice of a two-wheel cargo bike was the right one. But I am still quite keen on trying a trike again, perhaps a newer version with electric assistance (so if anyone out there has one and wants me to write about it I’ll be happy to do so…).

But let me go through the advantages:

  • you can easily get lost by checking your Google maps on your phone while riding, especially being the only human being in a wonderful cycling way in the middle of tulip fields while proceeding at about 5 kph…
  • the box is bigger than in my two-wheel cargo bike, so children do seat more comfortably and you feel their movement less while pedaling
  • it is obviously more stable when still, and that is an advantage at traffic lights, especially when you are very tired

and the disadvantages:

  • probably not suited to long distance cycling
  • good to carry children and stuff, but not sure I would use it much on my own
  • slower than a two-wheel one, which is not necessarily bad, but sometimes it can be an issue
  • need a bit more practice than a two-wheel one to unveil the secrets of stability and directions

And I am sure there are plenty of people out there who disagree with all what I have just said, so please do get in touch.

And some tips about things to do with children

First of all, before reserving trip, accommodation and bicycles, I did spend a lot of time looking at package holidays. I am not sure they would have been all ok with young children, especially those with guided tours and more structured days. Above all, they seemed to be really expensive. In some cases I could see why (especially when they involved a stay at a different hotel every night), in most I could really not. The best selection was offered by Flexitreks, which are local to me as they are based in Brighton. But in the end, I decided to do all the bookings on my own, and while it did take time, it was considerably cheaper.

We travel by train from Brighton (England) to Delft (where we had accommodation through Airbnb), via London, Brussels and Rotterdam, and bought the ticket on the Belgian railways website, cheaper than on the Eurostar one  (and they give you the option of using the Intercity trains after Brussels). The Belgian site was a bit more user-friendly than the Dutch railways one, but prices and fare availability were very similar.

The first day we took the Tram n. 1 which goes all the way from Deflt to The Hague, and there we visited Madurodan (Holland in miniature).  That is a must go if you are in the area with children, and a very good way to introduce them to what the country is about (windmills, bicycles, cheese, canals, nice people and plenty of other wonderful things).

The second day was the one I described above. And, by all means, if you are in the Leiden area, do hire your bikes at Easyfiets, even the one I tried. Their main advantage is that you can bring back the bikes up to midnight, so much more flexible than plenty of other hire shops. Perhaps, as I said, if you have never tried a trike before, do embark in a shorter trip. On the third day the original plan was to hire e-bikes with child seats in Rotterdam and cycle to the Windmill area of Kinderdijk, but then we decided to stay in Delft (again, nothing to do with the state of my legs). We discovered plenty of interested things about Delft’s history and its strong connections with the Dutch Royal family. We bought some original Delftware,  did a boat canal tour and ate fried fish at the De Visbanken, where fish has been served since 1342! (as an aside note, forget wise urban planning and transport policies, the real reasons why the Dutch have created the best cycling environment in the world is that they need a way to burn all those calories they get from fried fish, potatoes and kroketten).

Where to hire cargo bikes?

I mentioned above some places where to hire a cargo bike in the region we visited (South Holland). As I spent quite a lot of time looking at cargo bike hire possibilities across the country, when I was considering a variety of possible cycle tours, I am going to put some sites here, hoping someone may find this useful (I am sure there are more options, but they were not easy to find, and a lot of websites do not have an English version)

So, cargo bikes are available:

  • in Amsterdam at Black Bikes (they also have a site in Utrecht) and MacBikes, but surely there are many others
  • In Nunspeet, not too far from Zwolle (I think) at Hoegen
  • At Nobel bicycle rental in Nes, Ballum or Hollom (and they also have an electric Urban Arrow cargo bike!)
  • At Haantjes in the Terschelling island (and they also have an electric one)
  • In Holten at Jam Stam (an electric cargo bike is also available there)
  • In Ouddorp at De Bever Verhuur (electric trikes also available)
  • In Sceveningen on the coast near The Hague at Du Nord Rijwielen
  • you can hire enormous trikes in Groningen, and some more normal ones here
  • trikes can also be hired in Utrecht
  • and I could not find any in Nijmegen, location of the latest International Cargo Bike Festival, but I am sure there must be some
  • and there are certainly more places, in other cities and areas as well, so if you know of some, please do add them in the comment section below.

Some other useful websites

These are some of the most useful websites I consulted when organising the trip (the links below take you to the specific page):

And that’s it. Thank you very much for reading this post. Any addition, correction, comment, very welcome.

All the best

Alberto

20 July 2017

All opinions expressed in this post are my own and I have received no incentive whatsoever from any of the companies, organisations or businesses mentioned above

Here you can read about me, this is a bit about my research, and here you can see my publications. You can follow me on twitter here

 

 

 

 

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2 thoughts on “Bakfiets can have three wheels, and some tips about (cargo) cycling with children in the Netherlands”

  1. Hi – A great article – I too remember the first time I rode with my sons in a cargo bike – round and around in one area to get the hang of it, before getting off. So glad you found Cycle Sprog useful. Look forward to reading more about your cycling.
    Karen

    Like

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