How Much Can You Carry on a Bicycle?

Xtracycle with a load of bamboo.

How I transported the 8-foot poles for our new trellis.

We’re overdue for an update on our car-free Los Angeles lifestyle experiment, but one thing that has made it possible is the cargo bike I’ve had since 2006, the Xtracycle.

Xtracycle pioneered the “longtail” bike, essentially a bike stretched out in order to accommodate large panier bags. My Xtracycle was an add-on to an existing mountain bike. Xtracycle and their competitors now sell complete longtail bikes. Tom Vanderbilt just wrote a good article for the Wall Street Journal, “Cargo Bikes: The New Station Wagon,” looking at a number of different cargo bikes.

Coinciding with the Wall Street Journal article was a cranky editorial in a local rag by “futurist” Syd Mead (designer of Blade Runner and Tron and chief thoughtstylist behind the Playboy Land Yacht). Mead says,

While the bicycle has many virtues, it also prompts people to go overboard. It’s often lauded as the transportation of tomorrow and the savior of cities. It is not. It is called transportation. It is not. That’s because the bicycle is not, strictly defined, a transport device. Ever try to carry a watermelon on a bicycle? (Yes, it can be done, but how much else could you carry?)

watermelon2

How much else can you carry on bike? On a recent trip, in addition to a watermelon, I picked up a gallon jug of vinegar, a 12 pack of toilet paper (no we have not yet switched to a corn cob on a string–I might be the world’s smuggest blogger, but you pick your battles), 12 cans of sparkling water, a jumbo box of kitchen trash bags and a few other items.

Xtracycle fully loaded with groceries.

Here’s another grocery store trip. And the haul being inspected for self righteousness by the cats:

IMG_0102 copy

The Xtracycle easily accommodates four heavy grocery bags. If you bring some bungee cords, you can carry even more (cat litter!). I can load up a full grocery cart and transport home just as many items as we used to in the car.

Longtail bikes handle just like regular bikes. Their long wheel base, in fact, makes them more stable. And I’m always surprised at how easy it is to climb hills even with heavy groceries.

One need not be car-free to enjoy a cargo bike. For many years Kelly and I shared a car. The Xtracycle was a big part of making that car-light arrangement work. When people ask if urban homesteading saves money, the first thing I point to is the cargo bike, not the chicken coop.

The problem? Cargo bikes are not nearly as sexy as the Playboy Land Yacht. That’s a problem I’ll get to in a future post.

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52 Comments

  1. At least on Safari, selecting “Notify me of followup comments via e-mail” results with an incorrect captcha error (no post).

    • Hey! The spam filter held your first comment for approval because it was link heavy–so that’s why it did not appear right away. I’m not sure about the catpcha error. We’ll look into it. Thanks!

  2. Even with a regular bike and panniers, you can carry quite a lot, but I learned the hard way you can overload a rack–I ended up with my panniers on the side of the road. Riding always beats driving!

  3. How would you liken the balance to fully loaded normal panniers on the back rack of a normal bike? When my Arkel 42s are super heavy my bike’s front end just wants to tip sky high, but I generally don’t carry THAT much heavy stuff… I imagine this is how people manage touring, by balancing the back end with front tire panniers.

  4. Oh also, I would love to hear your opinions on bike trailers ! I’ve been trying to look into one, with a solid bottom.. Can’t quite haul bunny litter, clay, or bags of soil on my bike.. I have a tricycle that someone added a lovely wooden platform/back to, but oh god is that thing top heavy and not meant for graded streets or even turning.. :P

  5. Mead says a bike is not transportation? Where has he been? Millions of people use bikes for transportation. He just did not understand to balance the watermelon with a jug of vinegar, one on each side so you did not fall over.

    With all the environmental potty talk on your blog, I was shocked to see tp. When are you going to face the challenge of giving up tp? I hear that Canadian old-growth forests are cut to give us tp, but my source could have been wrong.

    I don’t understand how you peddled with the poles on the side.

    • Okay, I was being silly in the second paragraph. Since you do so many more environmentally positive things than I do, I guess it was only clear to me. Obviously, I was too subtle or something.

  6. That is impressive! Looks like you are now the official food shopper. (And it looks like you have a Trader Joe’s someplace near. I am jealous!) But I would be scared to do that on the streets of SoCA. But maybe you will start a trend and that trend will make it safer.
    Blessings and good vibes to you. :)

    • It does have the distinctive look of a Trader Joes haul, doesn’t it? All the plastic is a little appalling, but this is what happens when you skip the farmers market because you’re afraid of the sun. Truth in advertising: sometimes we go to the farmers market, sometimes we go to the Armenian supermarket, sometimes we eat out of our own yard, and sometimes we go to TJ’s!

  7. My fiance and I are soon moving out of his mom’s house (where we have access to her car) to another city. The only modes of transportation we will have are our bikes and scooters. We plan on getting an xtracycle extension for a mountain bike that we own that both of us can ride. Luckily the city we’re moving to has plenty of bike lanes!

    I really do recommend scooters for people that want to/have to be car-less. My Genuine Buddy 125 gets over 90mpg (I end up paying about $3 in gas every week or so) and insurance is about $200/year. Since the engine is 125cc (it can go up to about 50mph) I had to get a motorcycle license, but it has been incredibly useful for getting to places that are out of the reach of bikes. I can fit a good amount of stuff underneath the seat and have recently been looking for a good box to attach to my new rear rack. Beyond that you can also get a front rack and put a basket on that. While I haven’t tried xtracycle scale carrying on my scooter yet, I’ve seen some impressive examples of scooter grocery shopping.

  8. I’ve seen folks in Mexico carry a very impressive amount of cargo on regular bikes. One that stands out was a guy pedaling along with a lawnmower strapped to the back. I also saw a man on a tricycle riding on the highway with a pot of food cooking on the back. A BIG pot. Motorcycle loads are similarly impressive. I once saw a family of five riding a small motorcycle through the city. Where there’s a need people find a way.

  9. Another thing: speaking as an motorhome owner for many years, that Playboy Land Yacht is a wretched design. Tiny windows, a front end that minimizes space. Come one. Any decent motorhome does better than that. That was something that would’ve look really cool coming out of the 1960s, before the GMC motorhomes came out.

    • I think the windows are tiny to hide the swinging activities that were projected to take place inside the land yacht. But seriously, you are right–bad design.

  10. Racing bike variation – commuting without panier or backpack:
    – Left back pocket of jersey: Breakfast (PB&J)
    – Center back pocket of jersey: Phone, wallet, underwear and socks
    – Right back pocket of jersey: Two pieces of fruit
    – First bottle cage: water
    – Second bottle cage: lunch (soup, stew, pasta etc.)
    Keep a towel and clothing at work to reuse day after day

    • I heard about this–thanks for the pics. Portland, as usual, is ahead of the curve–though there are a few bike based EMTs here in Los Angeles. The thinking is that they will be able to get through gridlock faster in an emergency like an earthquake.

  11. The 8 foot poles aren’t safe regardless of how experienced a cyclist you are. Esp side loaded and not even on both sides. Turning would be dangerous. I know cos I’ve tried and abandoned such foolishness.

    I don’t care what you put in the panniers, the bike was designed to carry weight that way.

    • It was a bit dodgy, but I took it slow and my trip was a short and straight shot. As you say, loading on both sides probably would have been smarter.

  12. My 1947 Schwinn CycleTruck frame mounted oversize
    basket- 4 shopping bags of groceries and 20lbs charcoal.

  13. GREAT post.
    You don’t need corncobs to substitute for toilet paper. Cut old sweatshirts (best) in to squares and wash them after use. Easy peasy, you’ll excuse the expression.
    And, I’d recommend you buy a Sodastream, then you can make your own bubbly water.

    • Thank you for that suggestion! And home carbonation is one of the projects that is on the list. A friend of mine who owns a restaurant has a nice way of hacking a Sodastream to accept large reusable tanks. One of these days I’ll get around to doing that project and blogging about it.

  14. Pingback: How much can you carry on a bicycle? | Ediary Blog

  15. The largest load I ever carried on a bike was the full battery pack for an electric Sebring Vanguard CitiCar – 750 pounds of lead acid batteries!

    The bike was a military surplus (from a closed US Army base in Sacramento) Worksman front load tricycle. If the army thinks bikes are good enough for their logistics transport, I think that certainly trumps a “futurist” who seems to be having trouble with his words.

    As a side note, the bike in question was finally sent off to a farming collective in Nicaragua as part of a bike drive by local bike shop. After all of the time the US Army supported rebels trying to overthrow their government I thought the irony of a bicycle marked “US Army” serving on a farm collective in Nicaragua was too good to pass up!

  16. What is in the box with Gorgonzola printed across the top? Cereal? Gorgonzola- flavored breakfast cereal? Dishwasher soap, gorgonzola scented? I must know!!

    When I was a kid I went everywhere on my bike and carried some impressive loads – I remember balancing a gallon of milk on the handlebars. What I wouldn’t have given for a simple set of panniers!

    • Those are Gorgonzola flavored crackers. They don’t last long once they get home.

  17. A friend of mine reckons he got a mattress back from the store using only a bike. Dunno if it was single or double (can’t imagine it could have been double!): he pushed it and the bike along and balanced the mattress on the pedal.

  18. I would love to bike everywhere. I would. My body would be absolutely cut in about 5 months if I biked everywhere.

    I live in rural suburbia. NOT bike friendly. In fact, not really small car friendly, either! I would LOVE to put my 3 year old in a special pull along covered thing (what are those things called??) and bike everywhere but I have serious anxiety and worry about being run over on the country/city roads by all the giant trucks and SUVs that populate my city’s roads. And that worry only exists after I have seen accidents and watch people not looking for cyclists and start freaking out.

    Boo. So I’ll keep my small car with it’s crazy good gas mileage and ride on the trails and such. Too bad they don’t open a Trader Joes on our bike trails!!

    And those Gorgonzola crackers are the bomb. Seriously addictive.

    • I’ve just recently bought a bicycle after about 15 years of not riding.
      My plan is to walk or bike within a 2 mile radius instead of using the car.

      I’m coming up on 65 so I have quite a learning curve going on. We live in a less that bike friendly suburb, but I’m determined.
      Last Sunday was a huge success(for me) I had a 20lb bag of cat food in the front basket and produce in the bag carrier(Paniers are on my to buy list)
      it was a struggle biking around all the cars but our area is flat so that is a plus.
      I do worry about bike/car interactions but I feel I have to take a stand somewhere to help my world.

      Marie

    • Hi Marie–Ride on! This website has some helpful info on avoiding car/bike issues: http://bicyclesafe.com/. And there’s a helpful book too–The Art of Cycling by Robert Hurst. Overall I think the health benefits outweigh the risks. Have fun and stay safe.

    • Those crackers are like crack. I really shouldn’t buy them. They counteract the calories lost while biking.

  19. I don’t know where that guy lives (by which I don’t mean just his house) – people move large stuff and large amounts of stuff by bike all the time.

    http://michaelbluejay.com/bikemove/

    http://bikeportland.org/2013/02/01/portland-bike-move-breaks-record-gets-national-attention-82489

    Me? I can put a watermelon in my bike basket and a handful of stuff in my backpack, and that’s about it right at the moment, but I’m looking at moving up to panniers to I can haul my stuff to work and back without falling over everytime I make a sharp turn.

  20. Hey,
    Nice ideas, but the dutch already have this stuff worked out! I live there for a while, and there is the good old fashioned “Bakfiets”
    http://www.bakfiets-en-meer.nl/wp-content/uploads/2007/09/workcycles-classic-bakfiets.jpg
    Or just going and piling stuff on your regular bike, although your method looks slightly safer than the second one… I carried a 40kg table and a chair on my bike from the furniture store to home there, not the safest ride ever though!
    Nice work.

  21. I moved house this year with my bike. Many, many trips though… The larger items I moved with a taxi. Thankfully I don’t have much furniture.

    I once rode for over 10km with a dismantled bike strapped to my messenger bag. The drivers on the road gave me a wide birth!

    I took my inspiration from a holiday in Vietnam, where people would happily carry mountainous loads on their push bikes.

  22. I wasn’t there, but I remember news stories about the bicycle transport of huge loads on the Ho Chi Minh trail. Of course they weren’t usually riding the bikes.

  23. We lived in China for a year and daily saw impossible loads on
    bikes, two and three wheeled. I once saw a half ton of rice on
    a bike, with a cargo platform on one side, and the old gent riding
    it was moving along rather well.

    On the famous Ho Che Min Trail our adversaries in Viet Nam would
    load 300 pounds or more on a bike and push it many miles in the
    dark of night, repeated night after night.

  24. I try to do a lot by bicycle and have converted an old single child trailer to a cargo trailer by removing all of the canvas and bolting a piece of plywood to the frame. 80 pounds (6 miles) of ‘groceries’ from the warehouse food store is typical (40# bag of dog food, case of beer, case of soda, etc). My record is 200# (7 miles) of scrap iron, steel, and copper from a remodel project https://www.dropbox.com/s/qsrfwcz22turjsf/re-bicycle.jpg

  25. I always tell my friends and family that my favorite game is “How Much Shit Can I Fit On My Bike”.

    When my brother and I lived together several years ago we both played the game and managed a lot. For instance 2 dudes, 2 bikes, 1 skateboard, and 20′ of rope managed to get a pilfered couch home to our apartment (a 2 mile distance) in just 35 minutes (very few inclines, luckily). Since then I’ve also hauled plenty of lumber, plywood, hurricane fencing, dog food, cat litter, insulation, etc… through traffic of course, because somehow that’s how it always winds up. :)

    I’ve always wanted an Xtracycle, but for now I’ve got the Topeak lock in/out rack bag with zip-out panniers and a hodgepodge of Mad Max style PVC, aluminum piping throughout and some moveable, adjustable metal basketry (Wal-Mart office supply stuff) on the front. I’m riding an Origin 8 mountain bike frame with 29″s, single-speed (geared for trails) and it tends to get top heavy so I’ve been making mods this week to distribute the load and to make it easier to carry shovels, spading forks, and water for guerrilla gardening expeditions.

    Awesome post!
    Cheers,
    Joel

  26. Pingback: How Much Can You Carry on a Bike Part II | Root Simple

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