Posted on 14 March 2016
About six years ago we were in Amsterdam's Jordaan district discussing cargo bikes with our friend Henry from Workcycles. At that time we were importing Workcycles, but we were also feeling the pinch of ordering full containers, mostly in the form of low margins and high holding costs. We still love his bikes, but we were developing a wandering eye.
It may seem strange to introduce Workcycles into a discussion of Babboe (they have had some battle royales over the internet, but seem to have made peace), but for us the two are intertwined. In fact, much of our decision regarding Babboe was based on a very revealing thing Henry once said. We were talking about Dutch bikes versus North American bikes and he said that even the lowest quality Dutch bike sold at Blokker (which is like Walmart) is better than many of the bikes a North American store will build, tune and sell. And, you know what? He's right.
If you were to go to a mountain bike race in North America you would generally see a good assortment of pretty decent bikes, some very high end, some lower end, but usually all good. You could trust that these consumers had made good judgements and that there was a passionate industry behind these judgements making things better and better.
That's not true for the city cyclist here in North America. Last year we went to Montreal and decided to do a little test. We would count how many cyclists biked by and how many bikes were deemed to be in need of replacement. Replacement, not repairs - there's a big difference. Of the 350 cyclists we counted over the course of one hour we judged 62% of bikes were death traps, and we don't mince our words. You could not trust that there was a passionate industry of city bike makers nor a terribly aware consumer. For a famous cycling city, this is sad.
Flash to Holland. Even the crappiest looking bike is 30-50 years old and running just fine. They build em' good. That means as discerning buyers we can actually trust what many Dutch people ride as a smart judgement choice, and that means we can also discern where we are being elitist or where we are being quite happily pedestrian. Is it our job to look for the Land Rover or the Honda? Well, both really - and that's what we're building towards. So, we like the idea of importing elite cargo bikes, but if our goal is to help build a bike culture then we need good quality, reliability and excellent after-sales service. So, we created a test. We called it the cafe test. After visiting factories and talking to planners we would sit at cafe and watch what the Dutch actually rode. And all we saw were Babboes, Babboes, Babboes, Babboes, and Babboes. We got the message pretty quick.
Visiting the Babboe plant helped as well. Unlike many other companies (although this is changing) Babboe has always been what we call export-ready. That's our term for a company that can support a market beyond their home market, and can do so with good design, great logistics and after-sales service. What makes Babboe truly export-ready? It flat-packs into three boxes (Workcycles has just done this is well, and we will revisit!) that allow us to fill up a container with three times more goods. That's explains why a Bakfiets.nl at our competitor sells for $3400 while our Babboe City sells for $2750. Both have galvanized and powder coated frames, both use the same internal gears and brakes, and both use marine-grade plywood that is water and rot resistant. (The bent plywood on the Babboe is much pricier, easier to replace and reduces bruising with its soft edges). The difference is price, and that price all comes down to shipping.
When buying a Babboe the difficulty is always the question of one wheeled versus three. A typical customer beelines for the three-wheeled Curve or Big, thinking it more safe due its glued-on-the-ground stability. And it is safer, from the point of stability. However, in the name of due diligence we ask the same customer to try the two-wheeled City. They're not so sure. It seems less stable. Yet, if you go to Holland nearly everyone rides a two-wheeled if they're carrying children and a three-wheeled if they're carrying freight (curiously, it's the exact opposite in Denmark - go figure).
Every time our customer comes back amazed at the City. The response is always the same, "I didn't know that it would be so stable, and I love the steering." But, that doesn't mean they buy it. If stability is your first concern, the Big or Curve hold the trump card. However, what the City reveals is that safety also feels like handling. The City is remarkably stable. It keeps weight very low and displaces it over a tremendously long wheelbase. It's the closest thing to having three wheels. Where it trumps the three wheel is its independent front steering. That makes it feel like a regular bike. To steer the Curve or Big you must pivot the whole box. There's nothing wrong with that unless you prefer a Chevy Suburban to a Volvo XC90. Both are safe, one just has a bit more zip.
And what if you want both maximum handling and maximum stability? We've confessed our elite tastes in cargo bikes here, and while we've struck up a new conversation with Workcycles we decided that before we jump into his flat-packed cargo bike we should first answer the question of handling and stability with a product that does both well. And that's Nihola. It's 70lbs instead of 130lbs, and features a very simple hydraulically damped steering system that keeps the box point straight and the wheels pointing where you like. And, God bless those Danes because what we call elite tastes they just go out and buy. Do the cafe test in Copenhagen and its just Nihola, Nihola, Nihola, Nihola, another Nihola, Nihola...