We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

Over a year after our return from Copenhagen, we finally got to ride a Christiania.

I knew coming in to our cargo bike test rides that we weren’t going to be buying a tricycle. If there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is that trikes can’t handle steep hills. But we wanted to try all the cargo options, if only to get a basis for comparison. Also, we had really, really wanted to rent a Christiania while we were in Copenhagen and no bike shop we found would let us.

One kid plus a backpack does not test the capacity of the Nihola.

In Portland, however, it was easy to test-ride a trike, because Emily Finch offered us the chance to use their family’s Christiania when she learned we were coming to Portland. How sweet is that? She herself rides a Bakfiets, but her husband got the Christiania when he was new to riding. While we were at it, we rented a Nihola from Clever Cycles (Clever Cycles is amazing). Matt and I each rode one for a few miles from the shop to the Hawthorne shopping district for lunch, then we switched off and headed back.

This is about as far forward as you want the weight in the cargo box to go.

Tricycles have a reputation for being more stable than bikes among new riders, which is only half-true. Trikes are statically stable and dynamically unstable (whereas bikes are statically unstable and dynamically stable). When trikes are stopped they rest on three wheels, like a footstool with three legs. For this reason you’ll never see a trike with a kickstand. They have a single hand brake with a parking latch, and coaster brakes. When trikes are moving, however, they are unstable. They sway and shimmy. My father-in-law, who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley, explained this to me as partially a function of the third wheel. All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement. Add a third wheel and you increase that instability by 50% (my summary of his explanation elides a lot but is much shorter).

This guy with no legs whizzed by us on a hand-powered delta trike. Impressive and depressing at the same time.

Whether you will like a trike depends on whether you expect to be stopped or moving most of the time. It also depends on a lot on how fast you want to ride. We found that the top speed of a loaded tricycle was only slightly faster than brisk walking (although it was much less effort). Given this pace, it was tiring to think about taking it for a ride longer than a mile or two.

I would rule out a tricycle if facing any hill steeper than a speed bump. This isn’t because they are poor climbers, although they are, in fact, terrible climbers. I radically redefined my definition of a hill while riding these trikes to: any incline whatsoever. More distressing was that even in the fairly flat environs of southeast Portland, while going down mild hills in the Christiania at maybe 5 miles/hour, I experienced shimmy for the first time. And it scared the crap out of me. A shimmying bike starts to tremble uncontrollably and stops responding to attempts to steer, swinging wildly across the road. Slowing down the trike helps, but good luck getting much braking power from coaster brakes and a single hand brake. The Nihola handled the hills better. I would say it was roughly comparable to a very heavy bike with bad brakes.

The Nihola on the move

On the flats, however, a trike offers a pleasant and meandering ride. If you’re not in much of a hurry, it can be quite pleasant to putter along. The trikes came with chainguards and fenders but not lights. You never have to get out of the saddle at stops, which is a nice break if you do a lot of stop-and-go riding. Riding posture is bolt upright. Trikes are heavy and can carry a lot of weight, and you don’t really feel that (unless you’re going uphill, in which case you TOTALLY feel it, it’s like dragging an anchor). In a place like Chicago or Copenhagen, I can imagine that a trike could be an appealing option. They can, however, be slow to start at intersections after a full stop. At Clever Cycles they advised that we stand up on the pedals and use our body weight to get them started, and this was good advice.

Both the Nihola and Christiania are tadpole tricycles with two wheels and a cargo box in the front rather than delta tricycles with two wheels in the back. Our kids liked the trikes and couldn’t wait to ride them, but they couldn’t climb into them by themselves. Our son could almost make it into the Christiania trike, but it nearly fell forward from his weight when he tried. This was an unexpected downside of the tricycle experience. We had assumed that trikes were always stable while parked, but they can actually fall forward. After that we lifted both kids in ourselves, placing them toward the back of the cargo box, which was between all three wheels.

The front view from the Nihola

Both the Christiania and Nihola have seats for two children. The Christiania box is wider, with more elbow room. Given our kids’ sizes it was like sharing a love seat and they liked having that space. The Nihola is narrower but has a clear front, which improves the view for riders. There is arguably room for two more kids sitting on the floor in front of the seat, although this would be a very tight squeeze in the Nihola, and would probably lead to kicking and screaming in either trike on a long ride (but no one would take a cargo tricycle on a long ride). Both trikes offer rain canopies with a lot of headroom for kids as well. Having the kids in front is awesome. We have never had such great rides with them as we have with them in front. We could always hear what they’re saying and they could always hear us.

As one might expect, tricycles also need enormous amounts of space when parked, and reversing them involves something like 35-point turns.

Both tricycles are very wide, and as a result we stayed off busy streets with narrow bike lanes or sharrows, opting instead to follow some of Portland’s excellent neighborhood greenways on our trip. No way would I want to ride either trike in city traffic.

Both the Christiania and Nihola have internally geared hubs rather than a derailleur. Weirdly, they both shifted with a significant time lag, although it was more delayed on the Nihola than the Christiania. So we would shift gears, and I don’t know, the trike would think about that for a while? And then several seconds later the gears would change. It was strange and made going up hills (riding a tricycle on a hill of any kind TOTALLY SUCKS) even more unpleasant.

Riding the Christiania in the bike lane means using the entire bike lane.

The steering on the Christiania is bizarre and yet fun. There is a bar across the back of the cargo box and you shove it away from the upcoming turn to corner the bike (push left to go right). It takes a little getting used to at first but is very responsive. It feels kind of liberating to swing the bar from side to side. Whee! The steering on the Nihola uses regular handlebars, which made me realize immediately why the Christiania used the leverage of a wide bar across the box. It was difficult to get the Nihola to turn at all. At one point I took a speed bump a little too fast, rolled away to one side, and couldn’t straighten the trike before ramming into the curb. (Hitting a curb with a wheel isn’t dangerous, but it was annoying.)

The Christiania offers a lot of elbow room.

Overall, the Christiania was bigger and easier to steer, while the Nihola was marginally better on hills and has a neat clear front and thus a better view. However if I were forced to get one, I would pick the Christiania over the Nihola, because I would never take either tricycle anywhere that wasn’t flat anyway. These are very nice tricycles, and I’m delighted we had the chance to try them. For better or for worse, however, we live in a place where they are completely inappropriate, and we are unlikely to ever ride one again.

15 Comments

Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews, travel

15 responses to “We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

  1. GRJim

    “All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement.”

    Did he really say that? If so I need to check my head!

  2. Hum,

    You nailed the handling characteristics to a T. We rented one in D.C. for a week in the spring and it was wonderful to ride on the sidewalks and past and to so many museums and government sites with the kids and their bikes aboard. It was great being able to go pedestrian speed or stop with so much weight in the box and even pick up my wife from the conference she was attending. The internal hub and its ability to shift while stopped were extremely useful for this.

    However, any time we had to go down hill like say from north of the National Mall was fraught with fear. That trike wanted to go every which way but straight. We also had to check a few times a day to make sure that the brake cables had not fallen out of their guides rendering the front braking decidedly alarming. If they were not in perfectly, one front brake would pull harder than the other and the whole bike would pull to one side.

    It’s too bad because I’ve always had a crush on the Mexican cargo trikes made by Benotto that are super cheap and take tons of weight. I just know now that riding around in Seattle would equal constant jackknives.

    Los Angeles beach? sure. Chicago? perfect. Houston? great. D.C.? marginal. Seattle or San Fran? death trap.

    Love your site and I’m so glad we got to ride together in Seattle!

    • Thanks, Brad! Renting a trike in DC is a great idea. The last time we were there it was blazingly hot and we ended up walking and carrying them everywhere, with endless whining. A trike would have been so much better.

  3. essbee

    Trikes exist that do not have the problems you describe. However: cargo trikes they are not. Nor family bikes. Nor remotely practical in any other way whatsoever. I’d love to ride one, one day, provided I don’t have to pay for it.

    http://www.windcheetah.co.uk/clubsport.htm

    This is the “budget” model. The hypersport is a whole ‘nother ball game.

  4. I have had that slow-shifting experience on the bakfiets. I think of it as I put in the request for a lower gear and the bike fulfills that request when I am pedaling an appropriate speed for shifting. I can force it by standing up; somehow that changes everything. I’m wondering if you attempted standing up for hills like you did to start off?

    • The riding posture on a trike made it pretty hard to stand up long, and it got jerky to pedal that way on hills, so the answer is: not much. With the coaster brakes kicking in whenever we pedaled evenly slightly in reverse, trying to stand up could easily lead to accidental braking, and that sucked.

      I didn’t notice the same delay in the shifting while riding the Bakfiets and Metrofiets, which have internally geared hubs as well, but we didn’t ride them on the same routes, so it’s possible that cadence was the issue. It’s very weird either way. I will remember your trick if/when I’m on one again though!

  5. Charlie

    I know this is an old blog entry, but have you ever heard of AtomicZombie.com? They have a delta cargo trike that can be made cheaply and easily. You can modify it to handle however many kids you need to carry, and gearing to match any hill you want to climb.

  6. I am selling my Nihola Family on Ebay now. Please refer anyone in North America who might want one. Thanks!

    140962133736 (Item #)

  7. Internal gear hubs respond faster to shifting if you ease up on the pedals (let it spin) as you shift. That isn’t really something you can do while pedaling uphill, but it works like a charm on flat ground and of course at a dead stop, which is why they’re so advantageous for city riding.

  8. Hi Hum

    First I love your blog, second i sell the Christianiabikes in Australia.

    It really sounds like the Christiania you tested was not set up correctly, the speed wobble is easily avoided, but it takes practice and more importantly that the rider accept and realize, this is not a bike it is a new vehicle on 3 wheels, with advantages and faults, I have sold a lot of bikes here to people living in very hilly areas and they all come back and say that after a while all is good.
    The slowness in gear reaction is also due to wrong set-up it can be many different things, but as on any standard 2wheeler with Shimano Nexus you will find it changes very fast.
    Even external gears will have some reaction time if you are riding up a steep hill.
    On the Christiania there is footsteps on both sides of the box for the children to use when climbing in to the box, they are behind the front wheels and I have seen adult people using them too, I can promise you the bike will not tip when using the steps.
    If you are not happy with the coaster brake all christianiabikes can be fitted with rollerbrake on the rear wheel too or disc brakes if you want that
    The 26″ Racer from Christiania comes with 26″ wheels and discbrakes front and back, often disc brakes are not so well suited for children transport as they brake fast, making it a bit uncomfortable for the passengers.

    It is not possible to compare a 2wheeler and a trike, as they as you (almost) mention ticks completely different boxes and cover different needs.

    A lot of my customers use their trike as a second car and go for long rides and even with 4 kids in the box they are able to go a lot faster than walking pace again it takes a bit of time to get used to use different muscles to ride a Christiania, but I can promise you that after a while you will be a lot faster, you must have seen some of the riders in Denmark go pretty fast…

    I’m sure if you had never seen a standard bike before and someone told you to ride that with a babyseat on the back in traffic, you would say no way that will ever happen.

    The trike is not wider than a double pram and only 10 cm wider than an adult wheel chair, so with a bit of training and confidence you will easily be able to ride in traffic and thereby use it a lot more than you after the short test think you will.
    One of the main advantages of the trike is that you can go slow, so are able to ride on sidewalks, in parks and school yards.
    It might all take a bit more time but the interaction and happiness you experience having the kids in the front by far makes up for that, sometimes you want to take the longer ride as it is so much fun…

    So try it again take your time and please take your father-in-law on a ride in the box…

  9. ike

    It is EZ to turn a trike around. place one hand one the box or handle bar and other hand on the seat or rear rack and lift the rear and spin the entire bike on the front wheels.

  10. Sue Beedoo

    Hi! I wanted to share that we just got a Nihola as a birthday gift and have used it on our 20 acre property and we love it! Our dogs love it, we use it for chores, and I put BionX electric assist on it which is amazing! I use the “generate” function to help charge the battery when I am pedaling and it gives me a great work out and slows the trike down when headed down hill. The assist function really helps when I am heading uphill but allows me to choose how much work I want to put in. It has been an amazing addition to our world and I have not had any of the problems mentioned. I mostly ride it on our dirt roads with some up and down hill sections. We love it :)

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