Got a Brood to Haul?

He appeared like a bee returning to a hive: one lone rider on a stretch-bicycle sporting a wooden cart forward of the handlebars. I followed him in, knowing full well he would lead me to my destination: a meeting with the owners of Clever Cycles, the newest purveyors of practical cycling in Portland.

Their flagship product is the Bakfiets, a Dutch-built cart bike designed to transport anyone or anything that doesn't weigh more than 200 pounds, not counting the rider. The Dutch swear by them. When the bikes made their debut in 2001, around 200 of them populated the streets of Amsterdam. Today, there are close to 15,000 Bakfietsen in that city alone.

"It's the minivan of Amsterdam," said Clever Cycles co-founder Todd Fahrner.

Fahrner--who has never owned a car, except, he admits, one small truck he bought in 1992 for a cross-country move, but sold as soon as its purpose was fulfilled--is best known for his Stokemonkey: a pedal-cranked electric motor that lends a powerful assist to the long-wheelbase Xtracycle bikes. He still makes the motors, but has now ventured into the business of selling these curious Dutch designs. He and his partner, Dean Mullin, have opened what may be the first Bakfiets dealership on the West Coast. In just four months, the pair have sold what they describe as "a container full" of bikes, which retail for $2,500 each. Not a huge price tag, if you embrace the philosophy that these vehicles can and do replace the automobile.

"I've hauled trees in them," said Mullin, a recovering commodities broker who one day logged off and hopped on his bike to spend six months just riding. After that, he and his wife looked for an alternative to the car for transporting their two young children. He says their Bakfietsen have replaced their cars and most of their other bikes.

"We had tried a lot of other options," he said. "We tried four-person bikes and they were just way too heavy." With (Bakfietsen), you don't have to think about it."

Mullin is talking about the very simple design of the Dutch bikes. For starters, the hub gearing system is nearly maintenance-free while being easy to use. And the chain is totally enclosed so it can't stain your trousers or chew on the hem of your skirt. Further, the roller brakes are impervious to weather.

"The things you expect to be there are always there," he said.

Beyond the mechanics, the bikes offer generous accommodations in the forward cart, which comes with a detachable, arch-top rain cover.

The Bakfietsen that find their way to The States are slightly different from their European counterparts. The Yankee models sport eight speeds, compared to the three and in many cases only one over there. "Their bikes don't have to be designed for hill-climbing," Fahrner said. "I think over there a hill equals a stiff breeze."

Fahrner and his family took their Bakfietsen on an extended ride near Hood River, in north central Oregon, a moderately hilly region. He said the bikes were able to pull it off just fine. "They're built a little heavier than most bikes," he said. "But they handle well and actually become easier to operate with added cargo."

Fahrner said he finds it funny when prospective customers ask for a spec sheet on the bikes. "It's funny, because it is what it is," he said. "It's very straight-forward. It's a practical bike meant for practical use."

Mullin's economic mind makes a good argument for the practicality of buying a Bakfiets. He compares the retail price to the cost of ten fill-ups of a standard-size SUV.

Hopes for sales are high and their plan is to spread the gospel of practical cycling. They believe cities in the United States could embrace the bike just as Amsterdam has.

"Of course, we're drinking from the Kool-Aid," added Fahrner. "But we're doing something that really nobody has done in the U.S. and we think Portland's the place to do it."

Fahrner said there are rumors of other Bakfiets shops opening in Seattle and San Francisco--two other pedal-friendly towns--but the real goal is to get cargo bikes into the hearts of the populations of the cities that aren't already drinking the Kool-Aid. And judging from how much fun Gwen had not only on the bike but in tinkering with it as well, that goal may be attainable.

Fahrner agrees. "We don't sell the bikes," he said. "The kids sell the bikes."

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