Right around the same time I bought this new fixer-upper house, I bought a special piece of equipment to help make the project more efficient.
With the new house a five minute walk from the old one, commuting time was not an issue. But with the hundreds of trips carrying tools and materials required for a project like this, I didn’t have the right vehicle.
On foot, although I try my best I am simply not badass enough to drag a table saw and miter saw along with a stack of 2x4s for much distance down the street. My old Burley bike trailer will easily carry a load of cordless tools or a few weeks worth of groceries, but does not have the capacity for real construction work. But my construction van, a 1999 Honda Odyssey with seats removed and a plywood floor, is overkill for minor daily hauling. This is a luxury construction rocket, a leather-appointed 220 horsepower Rolling Cavern. It is well-suited to carrying thousands of pounds of goods or people on multi-state voyages at 75MPH, but I would be a wasteful car clown if I used it to haul a tool belt and a compressor up and down the small hill in old-town Longmont*.
So with your entertainment in mind, I acquired this extremely large and badass bike trailer from a small Iowa builder called Bikes at Work:
These things are highly configurable due to the modular design. Lengths range from 32 to 96 inches, width is 19 or 27 inches, back wheel can be mounted in various spots to accommodate an overhanging load up to about 15 feet (such as a canoe), and you can even get a Duallie version with two wheels on each side that will roll 600 pounds.
I picked the longest 96A model but skipped the “wide” and “heavy” options since this still provides plenty of space and I figured 300 pounds is plenty of capacity. The empty weight of my 96A is 47 pounds – very trim given its size.
The idea was to test both the trailer and myself over the duration of my fall/winter/spring construction season and see how well we perform together (measured by just how much duty we take away from the big Honda). And I can now say that the results are very positive. A few shots of the trailer in action:
Note that for some of the loads pictured above, I used the trailer in bare form – no load floor. But for strapping down smaller items, you’ll want to cut and mount in a piece of 1/4″ to 3/8″ plywood to create a flat surface more like a pickup truck. Another option is to just get a few 17-gallon Rubbermaid bins with lids – the trailer is designed to hold these perfectly and they barely need to be secured.
What I Like About This Trailer
These Bikes at Work trailers are solidly made and trouble-free. That would make them ideal for the owner of a bike-based business that needs performance without maintenance downtime. There is also some nice Bling in the form of well-finished fenders and a beefy curved aluminum hitch arm.
The trailer shipped with a bountiful set of the best bungie cords I’ve ever used. Plenty to strap down almost everything, although you’ll want some racheting straps if you are carrying really awkward items (like last week, when I brought my gas barbecue up from the old place:)
A trailer like this also comes with some unexpected prestige. People tend to smile when they see you riding by, the unfortunate drivers of jacked up F-250 farm trucks stare in envy, and cool people inquire earnestly about the features. In mid-December, I was strapping down a Christmas tree and a bunch of ABS drain pipes in the Home Depot loading area as a crew of bearded carpenter/snowboarders was preparing their own cargo for a work trip to Vail. They strolled over to see the setup.
“Kudos Dude, that is awesome”, was their assessment. And while I had become pretty accustomed to the trailer by this point in my ownership, the comment reminded me that yes, it is pretty awesome to be able to carry large stuff around town without a car or truck.
Things That Could Use Some Improvement
The most glaring problem with Bikes at Work stuff is that it is expensive. At $750, my 96A trailer cost me more than twice as much as my bike. Financially speaking, I’d need to displace at least 1500 miles of van driving before this trailer pays for itself, and this will take me about 5 years given the current rate of use.
On the other hand, a more casual carpenter or homeowner could use a trailer like this to completely replace a pickup truck or SUV, and live with only a small car (or no car at all) in which case it would pay for itself instantly. When I finally finish building my current house, I may sell my own van and reap the life simplification benefits.
Plus, measuring the benefits of biking in strictly financial terms is a foolish exercise. We are comparing sitting on your ass pushing some power-assisted pedals and levers to pulling some fucking major appliances up a steep hill using the power of your own bulging quadriceps. This is the difference between a slow passive death and a long vigorous life. Obviously, any time you can replace driving with cycling, there is some powerful winning involved.
The other thing that really needs re-engineering is the Bikes at Work hitch connection system. They provide a sturdy welded stainless steel bracket that clamps to your bike frame, but installing and removing it is a fussy and haphazard affair. Let us compare their hitch installation to the excellent one that comes with a Burley brand kid trailer by taking a look at this picture:
Although “several minutes” sounds like a fussy thing to whine about, it is a significant issue for me because I switch between the two trailers (and riding with no trailer) on a daily basis depending on the size of my cargo. Luckily, with the power of Welding, I can create a new hitch for the big trailer that installs quickly. I’ll update this article once I get it built.
A Clever Upgrade
The obvious drawback of a huge cargo trailer is the huge amount of human energy required to pull it any significant distance. This isn’t much of an issue for me, since my building supply stores and the recycling yard are all within 3 miles of my house, and the elevation gain from the lowest point in town to my house is only 100 feet. But for larger cities or those days when I’m in a rush and tempted to drive instead of cycling, an electric bike conversion kit** (or a complete electric bike) would make an ideal companion for a trailer.
A Frugal Do-it-Yourself Alternative
Close inspection of the Bikes at Work trailer reveals that it looks an awful lot like a half of an aluminum extension ladder, with a hitch and axle bolted on. While not completely trivial, a handy person could make a trailer like this by combining an old ladder with some reused and reinforced parts from a Burley trailer. In fact, one reader wrote in to share his own photos of such a project here. Or you could mix various home-sourced parts with components from Ebay or the Bikes at Work parts list. Complete trailers also very occasionally show up on Craigslist, but as a very niche product, this is a rare occurrence.
My hope is that as we move the United States further towards its inevitable future as a Badass Utopia, everyone will need a good bike and a trailer or two. Pickup truck sales will drop by 95% as they return to farm-only use, and bike trailer prices will drop as the market grows.
* I can only imagine how embarrassed people must be to use one of these Odyssey behemoths to drive 50-pound kids to school, and yet it seems to be the most popular vehicle for this task.
** I’ve been pondering the systems at EBikeKit for inclusion in a follow-up science experiment. I even contacted the company with the hope of getting them to send me one for evaluation purposes so I can share the results with you here. But they never wrote back. If some of us click that link to let them know how interested Mustachians are in learning about electric bikes, it might get their attention and they could send me an email :-)
Update: that did the trick. Company founder Jason Kraft got in touch right after publication to rave about an unprecedented rush in traffic to his site. Thanks Mustachians! Now we have some great plans in the works for an E-bike experiment in August, when I get back from the upcoming trip to Canada.