Posted on 27 February 2018
In 1998 Niels Holmes Larson (Ni-ho-la, yes, it's true) was at a bike show in Copenhagen. As an engineer in a city that had rapidly grown its cycling culture and infrastructure since the late 1980's he was interested in the bicycle itself; and whether better engineering could close down barriers to create more cycling adoption. An article in a Copenhagen newspaper proved he wasn't the only one thinking the exact same thing. In the article the writer wrote of the same bicycle show, saying that 'bicycles would only be able to compete against cars when they could transport two children and groceries at the same time.' And so, Nihola was borne.
Henry Cutler, a bicycle designer and commentator in the city bike world once remarked that he could never figure out why the Danes prefer riding three-wheeled bikes for cargo and groceries and the Dutch two. Our hunch is that bicycle infrastructure came much later to Denmark than Holland, and the three-wheeled always felt safer when there wasn't always a bike lane to keep you safe. In a continent that is also rapidly paving new bicycle infrastructure, that argument feels close to our North American hearts.
Interestingly, it was the Danes who invented the two-wheeled cargo bike that the Dutch love so much while the Dutch (or the British) invented the three-wheeled cargo bike that the Danish love. The story of Nihola is not unlike the story of brands like Babboe or Urban Arrow in Holland.
FROM CHRISTIANA TO COPENHAGEN
Building a revolutionary cargo bike for non-revolutionary people
Niels Holmes Larsen with his invention
Like the Dutch three-wheeled cargo bike, the Danish two-wheeled cargo bike was never invented exclusively for kid carrying, but rather industrial use - in the case of Copenhagen: fast courier deliveries throughout dense cities (something Copenhagen's Larry vs Harry brand has resurrected with their Bullitt Bikes). It was in 1999 that a Dutch man by the name of Andreas Van Andel co-opted the two-wheeled Danish cargo bike and modified it for kid-carrying in the Netherlands. Before that, kid-carrying in both Holland and Denmark was done by using three-wheeled cargo-bikes that were ultimately designed for heavy bulk-cargo deliveries. Unlike a regular bike or two-wheeled cargo bike, these bikes lacked independent steering, they required you to steer the heavy front box by 'swinging' it left or right, a design you can still see with Dutch designs like the Babboe Big or Babboe Curve.
The cargo bikes that Niels Holmes Larson saw at the bike show were the typical 'steer-the-box' cargo bikes from heritage brands like Denmark's Christiania. Christiana is named after the island of Christiana, located in central Copenhagen, a car-free island of anarchists and free-thinking radicals who needed something to carry not only kids, but firewood, groceries, and building supplies. Not surprisingly, Christiana bikes used the same industrial 'steer-the-box' design as its heavy Dutch cousins. The Christiana cargo bikes weren't designed for safety and agility in Copenhagen city streets, it was designed for performing short-distance errands in the car-free hippie oasis of Christiana.
ZERO LEARNING CURVE
Just hope on and ride
Cargo bikes aren't just for kids, they're also for the dogs
Niels Holmes Larson knew that cycling infrastructure was spreading far outside the island of Christiana and into the entire city. These city dwellers didn't necessarily live 'car free' but needed something in the city that was more efficient than a car, whether that meant cutting through gridlock, cutting fuel and parking costs, and the kind of door-to-door connectivity that no streetcar or bus system could possibly provide. Many people in Copenhagen who were driving were doing so not because they wanted to, but because their car could carry groceries and kids better than a bike, and was certainly easier than riding a heavy cargo bike designed for radical car-free lifestyles like the Christiana islanders.
The problem with many cargo bikes, as we discuss in our Cargo Bike Face-off is that many involve some sort of learning curve that make you question you and your children's safety. A two-wheeled bike is strong on handling but feels less stable at slower speeds. That's fine in a dedicated bike lane where you only have to compete with other cyclists (like the Netherlands), but can be scary if you haven't mastered the learning curve when sharing the street with cars. Likewise, a three-wheeled cargo bike like the Babboe Big (or the Christiana) feels remarkably stable but they're heavy and you have to throw all of your weight into the steering, making the bike less efficient when you are in the bike lane.
A Nihola bike has practically zero learning curve, and that's why its the best-selling cargo bike in Denmark today. It truly does compete with the automobile in dense city centres, and it makes a ton of sense. A Nihola cuts through gridlock, doesn't require parking, and feels safe in-and-out of the bike lane.
Stability, handling, and Lexan Plastic
Independent steering. You steer the bike, not the kids.
But, the word 'safe' needs unpacking. By 'safety' we mean maximum stability and maximum handling. Any bike riding in the city needs to be stable yet also handle high-contingency situations with an agility that doesn't compromise stability. Nihola is the only cargo bike that successfully accomplishes both. On a Nihola, only the front wheels steer the bike, not the whole box (just like a car!). The steering feels light, requires no 'swings' of the box or body, and has a tight steering-arc so you can handle the tight ninety degree corners of a city safely. Like all other city bikes we sell, the frame is powder coated with a rust-resistant primer to make it a four-season bike and the gears and brakes are all internal to decrease maintenance.
The other concern with safety is for the precious cargo itself. All cargo bikes uses some sort of impact-resistant shield that protects the children in case of an accident. Traditionally, this material was wood, as seen today on bikes like Babboe, Van Andel and many (mostly Dutch) others. Nihola was the first cargo bike company to move away from wood by using Lexan plastic, the same stuff used in hockey rinks to sustain massive body checks. This lowers the Nihola's weight without compromising cargo safety. Most three-wheeled cargo bikes weigh in excess of 130lbs, whereas a Nihola Family comes in at a mere 70lb, a 45% weigh reduction. That's a huge advantage if you have any hills or are going longer distances.
FOUR SEASON RIDEABILITY (OR STORABILITY).
Made for winters on the Baltic Sea or Lake Ontario
Made for winter. Rides well in snow too!
Perhaps the best thing about Nihola is its amazing resale value. We've had customers buy a Nihola for $4500 and resell it six years later for $4000. This is because they're remarkably durable and hold their value. Like all other city bikes we sell, the frame is powder coated with a rust-resistant primer to ensure durability in four-season outdoor storage and the gears and brakes are all internal to ensure longevity and lower maintenance.
There are many models. The Family tends to be the most popular since it can handle a small family of two kids plus groceries while the new 4.0 model can take four kids plus groceries. Then there is the Dog model that turns the front panel into a fold-down ramp so a Dog can walk inside and out easily. The Low is an exciting model for those looking for an adult-trike but don't want the rear wheels in the back (since they always seem to fall into potholes or run into stuff). The Rehab is built for handicapped children and young adults and was built around the truly amazing Panda seat from Danish company R82. The Flex is designed to carry a person in a wheelchair and uses an on/off ramp that's remarkably simple to use. And finally, there's the Poster Bike, used for high-impact brand activations.
How Nihola stacks up against the competition
Unlocking gridlock in style
How does Nihola compare to other bikes? In terms of handling only the Babboe Carve comes close, since the Carve copies the Nihola's independent steering but adds in the same tilt capability found on the Butchers & Bicycles. But, a Carve is twice the price, partly because it has tilt steering and partly because it comes already equipped with a Yamaha e-assist system. The Butchers & Bicycle also has independent steering but unlike the Babboe Carve, you can't turn it on or off, it's always on. This too, costs twice the price. Below the Nihola sits the Babboe Big and Carve. The Big comes in just over $3000, significantly less money than the Nihola but also less of a multi-tasker. And, once you add the rain-tent to the Curve you're very close in price to the Nihola Family (which already comes with the rain-tent).
Do you need tilt-steering? The question is one of use. Brands with tilt-steering like Butchers & Bicycles speak to the development of Copenhagens bicycle infrastructure since the 1980's. The Nihola is built for those short distance errands that constitute 90% of a city dwellers journeys. The Butchers & Bicycles was designed for the glorious car-free bicycle highways that stretch far out into Copenhagens suburbs. So, if you have a longer ride on dedicated infrastructure (or have great handling skills) tilt-steering is awesome, but to most it's unnecessary, especially given the cost premium. Yes, if you go around a corner at high speed a Nihola can go up on two wheels. Nihola would ask why you're going around a corner with kids in the box at high speed. Fair point.
Pedal-assist, an easy add-on
The Nihola 4.0 - Pedal assist ready
The biggest question we have is whether you can make a Nihola into an e-assist bike, and the answer is yes. However, unlike Babboe, Urban Arrow, Bullitt or Butchers & Bicycles - all of whom use mid-drive e-assist systems - the Nihola requires use of a rear-drive kit that installs easily. This has advantages and disadvantages. The disadvantage is that all rear-drive systems put the engine in the hub, right where your low-maintenance internal gears are, so you have little choice but to replace the internal gear system with a derailleur system. Mid drive systems put the motor inside of the pedals, permitting the use of internal or derailleur systems. However, mid-drive systems all use lithium-ion batteries that tend to be less stable in extreme cold and hot conditions, something we face in the four-season Northeast. The rear-assist we put on a Nihola is made by Bionx, a global leader in rear-drive e-assist and based in Guelph (they're owned by Magna International, so they're the real deal). These systems use Lithium Maganese batteries - even better - that are much more stable, meaning you don't lose battery juice when its really hot or cold.
So, why Nihola? Because its the lightest and most affordable cargo bike on the market and also the safest, because it's independent steering provides realtime city agility and stability. The Lexan plastic box can sustain impacts of up to 40km/hr and the whole bike is built for perpetual outdoor storage, from the thick powder coated frame to the internal gears and brakes. It's a solution designed for people in dense urban cities with developing cycling infrastructure who want a transport solution that can take kids and groceries but feels safe on and off the bike lane. In this respect it might be the most barrier-free and safest-feeling cargo bike for North America.