Posted on 04 May 2022
The Global Cargo Trike
Cargo bike buyers tend to be avid researchers, which is something we love, because it takes a lot of research for us to import a cargo bike brand ourselves! As we've remarked elsewhere, each brand we carry needs to meet or exceed our strict standards. First, they must be brands that are trusted in their home market. That's why we visit Denmark and sit in cafes, watching bikes go by and taking careful notes. But that's not enough. We also look at those same cargo bikes parked on the street and assess their wear and tear, determining which bikes can suffer ans survive a series of Northeast Canadian winters. Second, we try the bikes out to ensure a high level of safety, stability, and handling. We also want to see good, adaptive design that reduces annoyance or friction and can offer modular design as the family grows. Third, the brands we sell need to be leaders in the market. We don't want to import the copy-cat brand, we want to import the innovators who are asking the right questions, and who will continue to move the market forward. Finally, we only import brands that can support an export market. These have to be brands that have the balance sheet and scale to support their bikes an entire ocean away if or when something goes wrong. We've seen enough Kickstarter brands with great ideas but no balance sheet to support their own longevity. No thanks!
On this score, Winther hits the mark. They are well loved in Denmark, incredibily well-engineered and have been building their bikes since the 1930's, also in Denmark. We often like to compare Winther to Urban Arrow. Both are brands that revolutionized the cargo bike market by introducing modern materials and advanced engineering that made cargo bikes work better in the real world. Urban Arrow did this with the two-wheeled market, and Winther did this with the three-wheeled market. Like Urban Arrow, Winther was the first cargo trike brand to start using lighter weight aluminum frames. Cargo trikes can get heavy once you load them up, so the lighter the cargo trike is from the start, the better! Aluminum is about 30% lighter than steel and it's also naturally rust resistant, so it's great for outdoor storage. And, like Urban Arrow, Winther was the first brand to move away from heavy wood boxes to lighter-weight boxes that were also significantly more impact-resistant. Finally, Winther uses high-quality, brand-name motors from globally recognized companies who take after-sales service seriously, no matter where you are. That's important.
Winther might be a newer brand in the North American scene, but it's one of the oldest cargo bike brands in the world, producing their bikes in a little town called Silkeborg on the Jutland Peninsula in Denmark since the 1930's.
The nice thing about our research trips in Denmark is that they require ample time sitting at cafes and observing what people ride. This helps answer the question: is the brand we're interested in a trusted and well-loved product?
In Copenhagen, there are two brands seen nearly every two seconds; one is Winther and the other is Nihola. And both are brands that we import! Of course, you might also come to Toronto and see what people ride, and comment that many people ride some pretty ill-equipped (and often junky) bikes. Would that be a good indication of what makes a good bike or not?
The difference between a market like Toronto and Denmark is that Denmark is such an established bike city that nearly all bikes are genuine city bikes or cargo bikes, not ill-equipped mountain bikes unsuited for but stuck with the task of urban riding. But sure, there is always some junk - even in Denmark. That's why we walk through town, looking at cargo bikes on the streets and assessing their condition. Most cargo bikes in Denmark are stored outside, so it's easy to see which brands are investment-grade and which ones are fundamentally disposable. Both Nihola and Winther take that investment-grade quality seriously. Our walks through Copenhagen reveal hundreds of Winther bikes, all stored outside year round in Nordic climates, and all looking in very good shape.
With that research under our belt, we then proceed to visit the factories where we see the bikes being made and get a chance to try them out! (It's a pretty fun job).
Danish versus Dutch Trikes
Readers of our Cargo Bike Faceoff have probably learned that when buying a trike, stability is just as important as handling. Often when we as consumers buy things, we tend to put one thing primary and the other thing secondary. But, when buying a cargo trike both stability and handling are equally primary.
Why? Well, stability is fairly obvious. A cargo trike is always more stable than a cargo bike, and that's because there are three wheels self-balancing on the ground rather than two wheels constantly back-to-back like a regular bike. But the problem with nearly all cargo trikes is that they tend to suffer from very poor handling. And, there's a further problem! Bikes that do tend to have good handling also tend to reduce box storage size to gain that advantage. So, how to win on all fronts? It's a tricky one!
Readers of our blog might have learned that the Danes seem to all ride cargo trikes, while the Dutch ride cargo bikes. Our hunch is that because Holland has had bicycle lanes much longer than Denmark, the two-wheeler has always been preferred since a Dutch cyclist rarely competes for space with cars. In Denmark, the cargo bike culture emerged more in the 70's and 80's. These cyclists needed something far more stable that could compete in the same space with cars (like most North American bike infrastructure today), but for the same reason, it also had to have remarkable handling (because we all know what it's like to scoot around cars who park in the bike lane). That meant that the Danes had to take the Dutch trike design and redesign it into a lightweight, highly maneuverable platform.
Because Dutch cargo trikes aren't really used much in Holland, they also don't receive a lot of innovation or design. Not surprisingly, Dutch cargo bikes are heavy. Like really heavy. The wooden box on a Babboe Curve, for instance, weights nearly 70lb. That's the same weight as the entire Danish-made Winther Cargoo!! Now, it is true that this weight can be eliminated with the help of an e-assist motor, but the heavier the bike, the more battery you burn through and the more range anxiety you get.
But, the real issue with weight is handling - which is fundamentally a matter of safety. What Dutch cargo trikes share with Winther is their use of what we call "pivot steering" or "box steering." This type of steering means that the entire box steers, not just the wheels. To say it again: the wheels are bolted to the box and the entire box - wheels included - steers on a pivot located underneath the box. This type of steering means that the rider literally 'swings' the box left and right to steer. Now, pivot steering is highly reactive and has great handling. That is, unless the bike is heavy. The heavier the box, the heavier the steering. And the heavier the box and the more stuff you put in the box (kids, dogs, groceries, etc), the less safe handling you get. Thus, a Babboe Curve at 150lb + kids is one heavy bike to handle. The Winther Cargoo at 70lb + kids is easy to handle. And, like the Babboe, it has a ton of space - but is much, much lighter.
Winther Versus Nihola
Talking about space is the perfect way to introduce our next topic: Nihola versus Winther.
Now, we've mentioned that we've seen as many Winther's as Nihola's riding around Copenhagen. So, what's the difference? Why would someone buy a Winther over a Nihola? It's a good question!
If you've done any research on Nihola you'll know that a Nihola bike doesn't use pivot steering. Instead, Nihola uses independent steering, which means the wheels turn and the box stays pointing forward - just like a car's front axle steering. In many ways this is preferable, but there is one major problem with independent steering - and that's the amount of box storage it eats up. It swallows a ton of steering space on each side of the bike that could have otherwise been box space. That's why the Nihola 4.0 bike for four kids has to build space lengthwise rather than widthwise, and the 4.0 is one very long bike (so long it requires a kickstand so that it doesn't tip while kids are jumping in). Even on a regular Nihola Family model, customers have noticed that the boxes are pretty cramped for two kids, and that two older kids often don't fit. The Winther doesn't have this problem. It has tons of space. Enough to sit two adults side by side (if you really wanted!)
But, what about handling? Our experience with customers who try the Nihola and the Winther is that both love the high-reaction steering that each bike has. But, for those who need space, the Winther is the surest bet. With room for four kids, the Winther is the perfect ratio of stability, handling, and storage. That's where Winther has an edge on Nihola, big time.
Another reason we love Winther is the design of the box. Like Urban Arrow, the box on a Winther is an engineering masterpiece that allows for a series of plug-and-play seating configurations. There are single seats and double seats, and there are baby seats and adaptors for Maxi-Cosi car seats - all of which install in minutes. There is something very highly engineered about the entire Winther bike, and we weren't surprised when we found out that Lars Molmberg, the engineer who made the Bullitt cargo bike, is also behind the Winther. Lars is pretty much the best cargo bike designer on Earth right now. Like the Bullitt, the Winther is designed with an eye to frictionless user experience and also takes overall frame construction and part selection very seriously. So much of this is about cable-routing, how bolt holes line up perfectly, and overall ease of repairability. Like the Bullitt, the Winther is a mechanic's dream to work on. And we can't say that for all brands!
The final reason Winther has an edge on Nihola? Well, this is a big one. Get ready ...
It's all about the e-assist. And a good e-assist has everything to do with long term reliability. Winther uses big-brand e-assist motors from Shimano, whereas Nihola uses aftermarket kits. The kit that we use on a Nihola has great specs, with a big battery, big torque, and lots of power, but it doesn't have the same up-front quality as a Shimano system, nor the same after-sales service. If something goes wrong with the Nihola motor, it can take weeks to diagnose as we replace parts to find the problem. The problem will get fixed, but not quickly and not without its fair share of pain and frustration. If something goes wrong with the Shimano motor, you can be guaranteed that every bike shop around the globe can rapidly diagnose the issue with parts on hand very quickly. In short, an electric assist is only as good as its after-sales service. We have been pushing Nihola to move in the direction of Shimano, Bosch or Yamaha motors systems, but we haven't convinced them yet.
Winther versus Black Iron Horse
There is one other company, also out of Denmark, that is worth noting - and that's Black Iron Horse. Like Winther and Nihola, Black Iron Horse is out to find the perfect ratio of stability, handling and storage. Their methods, while completely sound are, we admit, somewhat eccentric. Like the Nihola, the Black Iron Horse also has independent steering, but unlike the Nihola, this wheel steers behind the rider. Yes, that's right, the Black Iron Horse uses rear wheel steering. This may seem controversial, but there's a reason!
With rear wheel steering the Black Iron Horse is still just as stable as any other trike. But now there are no limitations any more on box size. Black Iron Horse can essentially build a box the size of a Winther (or larger) without front wheel steering being a design headache. It's really clever, but it also takes your mind a minute or so to get used to. We've all grown up with steering in the front, and it can take a second to readapt the muscle memory - but really, only a minute (seriously!). That said, the handling is spectacular. Better than a Nihola. Much more precise. There's a reason rear wheel steering is used on super high end sports cars.
But, our experience is that many people who want to buy a cargo trike aren't looking for a sports car. Most often they just want a minivan: something that carries a ton of stuff, handles well and isn't fast, but isn't slow either. Something efficient. That's where Winther sits. The handling might not be as sensitive or high performance as a Nihola or Black Iron Horse, but it still feels perfect in traffic. You can load it with a ton of stuff, you can get to where you need to get efficiently, and you have all the handling you need to stay safe in the city. It's the Danish minivan, and it could be your minivan too!
As we've shown, the Danes have been true leaders in the cargo trike market. Each brand has taken the traditional Dutch trike and at the very least made it much, much lighter. Winther innovated with lighter box and frame materials, while Nihola and Black Iron Horse took handling to the next level. And each brand continues to innovate. Winther is designing bikes for business; Nihola is innovating by creating bikes for wheelchair users and the elderly; and Black Iron Horse is basically designing mini-schoolbuses that can ferry kids from home to school! For a country of just six million people, they are design heavyweights!
But Winther is probably the most storied of all Danish brands. Winther started in 1932 and has been building kids and adult bikes ever since. It was in 2005 that they launched their first cargo bike, about twenty years later than Nihola, but like Nihola they make these bikes in Denmark - from frame welding to final assembly.
And that's where leadership matters. More and more, we are seeing companies prey on the gullibility of North American consumers with flashy websites that cover up true leadership. This is even happening in Denmark. Brands like Denmark's Triobike, for instance, have launched their brand by offering what appear to be direct copies of Bullitt two-wheelers and Winther three-wheelers. These bikes are produced in Asia and are marketed with slick websites and clever graphic design. These are the kind of bikes that you won't often see in Denmark, despite being a Danish brand. Why? Because they cannot compete against higher quality brands that also happen to be more established. That's why we suspect they move to markets where cargo bikes are relatively unknown. It should be mentioned that Triobike are so disliked by other bike companies in Denmark that our Bullitt dealer agreement says that if we were to carry Triobike, that we would lose our dealership immediately. No one likes a copycat.
In sum, when you buy a Winther you buy a truly Danish product designed to be serious, investment-grade quality. Your bike is backed up by a company that has proven itself in a marketplace for nearly a hundred years and has the balance sheet to easily support bikes outside of Europe and beyond.