How an E-Cargo Bike Can Be Life-Changing

A young family gets a Black Iron Horse, and has a mobility revolution.

man and child in Iron Horse
Not my son-in-law and granddaughter.

Black Iron Horse

My son-in-law Neil is a product of the city. He walks everywhere or takes public transit, but never learned to ride a bike or drive a car. This did not present a problem until his daughter Edie came along and nothing was easy anymore. He was pretty much dependent on my daughter Emma to drive when they went anywhere as a family. Emma doesn't like driving much and prefers to be on her Electra with a Swytch drive, often with Edie behind her in a seat. But that would leave out Neil.

We thought an e-cargo bike might be the answer to the problem: A tricycle design would be easy for Neil to learn, he could take Edie out without relying on Emma, and they could all go out together on family trips.

Nihola store in Copenhagen
A Nihola store in Copenhagen, Denmark.

Lloyd Alter

The original plan was to buy a Nihola trike; they are a well-known brand and I had seen families in them all over Copenhagen. However, cargo bike specialist Eric at Curbside Cycle in Toronto rolled out three different e-trikes out for us to try. The biggest variant among them was the steering mechanism.

In many cargo trikes like the basic Babboe, the wheels and the box all turn together with a pivot underneath. The Babboe box is made of marine plywood and is really heavy, so we tried the Winther Cargoo, which also had the traditional box-steering mechanism. I was only on it for a few minutes because it just did not feel safe on corners and that was with the box being empty—evidently the heavier the cargo, the worse the steering.

Next, we tried the Nihola. It has independent steering where the box is rigidly attached to the bike frame and the wheels turn separately, much like on a car. According to Curbside, "The independent steering means you don't have to steer the whole box (as you must do with competing companies). With a Nihola you feel glued to the ground yet able to react quickly to high-contingency situations."

The problem here is the box has to be narrower to allow room for the wheels to turn. As you can see in my photo above, they are quite far from the box.

loading up the iron horse
My son-in-law Neil loading up the Black Iron Horse for his first ride.

Lloyd Alter

Then we tried the Black Iron Horse. It is the same overall width as the Nihola but with a much wider box. It has rear-wheel steering, like a forklift truck. When I got on it, I thought I would fall over on the first turn. But this is not the case: It is actually incredibly stable when you get used to the odd feeling.

Designed by blacksmith Lars Leikier in Denmark, the Black Iron Horse website states: "The design offers revolutionary rear-wheel steering with up to 180 degree turns and unmatched stability. Thanks to Lars, maneuverability is no longer determined by the weight of the cargo." Watch the video and see them spinning on Copenhagen's Circle Bridge.

We were in a 20-foot wide back lane and I could do a complete turn without any trouble. It takes a bit of getting used to because it is really sensitive, but Curbside Cycle explains why this is particularly useful in North America:

"If you’re buying a cargo trike versus a cargo bike it’s probably because you prefer the stability of three wheels. But, if you’re riding in any North American bike lanes where the separation between cars and bikes is painted rather than a physical barrier, you also need accident-free handling—a bike with quick reaction times for left hooks, open car doors and cars changing lanes without signalling."

There is no such thing as accident-free handling, but the responsiveness is nice to have. The box is also tested to keep its cargo safe, designed to sustain impacts up to 25 miles per hour, and is made of 100% recycled plastic.

Neil with gardening supplies
Neil with gardening supplies.

Emma Alter

The gearing is an incredibly smooth automatic or manual Shimano e-system with an internal gear hub, hydraulic disc brakes, and lots of lights. The battery is 418 watt-hours, the motor is a 250-watt Shimano Steps with 60 Newton-meters of torque that meets the European Union pedelec spec and is more than enough power to move this bike when it is completely full of gardening supplies. The issue of the European 250-watt standard being enough is the hill I will probably die on, but really, this thing can move.

loaded up for calzone
Neil's e-bike loaded with calzone ingredients.

Lloyd Alter

So how life-changing is this? They have used the cargo bike every single day since they got it, going out as a family. But it is more than that. Neil has a small business making calzones and doing pop-ups around town. The one this weekend is in the East end, seven miles away.

The last time he did one, we babysat Edie while Emma drove all his supplies to the venue. This time, he is doing it himself using the e-cargo bike. He has never been so happy. Emma is happy; less chauffering. We're happy; less babysitting. Edie is happy; it is a lot more fun than being strapped into a baby seat behind your parents.

These bikes are not cheap, as they are handmade in low volumes in Denmark. You can buy a used car for $7,800. Come next January it probably won't be as much fun as it is going to be in June. But in the meantime, it will be replacing a lot of car trips. More importantly, it is bringing the family together in a way they hadn't thought possible. It is already proving to be life-changing.

There are dealers for the Black Iron Horse across Europe and Canada. For some reason, there do not seem to be any in the U.S. I have asked why and will update when I hear back.