Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Forward progress in snow

When we were thinking about buying Nihola #1 two years ago in Denmark, we had really basic questions that we never got a good answer for before we tried for ourselves, such as the possibility of cycling up hills.  Turn out hills are harmless, so now we've moved on to snowy, icy hills.  Is that possible?  (I can imagine that the risk of not being able to get up hills in the winter would be a huge barrier to someone who didn't already own two cargo bikes before arriving at the hills in question.)

I have Nihola-ed around in Oslo since last February so I know a bit of the answer already, but unlike then, I now need to get my kid up 70m of steep elevation climb in the morning, descend 175m (in a bit over 3km), pedal 7km farther to work, then repeat going the other way.  Its actually a bit of a question if this is going to work all winter.

It snowed maybe 10-15cm (4-6in) on sunday and monday a week ago.  The first thing I did was to go out there with the summer tires on, and no weight on board.  (We were trying to go get a pizza.)  Turns out a Nihola configured in this way can hardly move on flat fresh-snow-covered ground, but getting a 20kg kid to sit on the cargo rack enables respectable hill climbing.  (Putting weight in the box has no potential to improve forward traction.)

So that brings me to the first lesson of driving a Nihola on ice and snow.  Put weight on the back tire, lots of it.  Everything that you are carrying should go back there, with the possible exception of kids.  I would agree if someone were to declare its pretty stupid to have a big empty box in front, while everything is hanging off the rear rack with bungies, but at least the big empty box keeps the machine from falling over.  (There is actually one kind of trike available in Copenhagen, Sorte Jernhest, which is front wheel drive with rear steering.  So anyone who is really bothered by empty cargo boxes and full cargo racks can go buy one of those and find peace.  Best of luck on the snowy, icy hills.)

The second thing to do is lower the pressure in the rear tire.  How much depends on lots of things, but in a difficult situation it can go really low, just enough to keep the rim off the ground maybe 1cm when loaded.  That is only advisable at low speeds.

The final magic is to fit a tire with helpful tractive properties.  I am under the impression that aggressive tread (knobby) is a good idea on a Nihola because the three-wheel balance enables some digging, and studs are essential if anything is to be accomplished by the tire once it digs through the snow cover.  For climbing on ice, the more studs the better, but studs really aren't going to do much on a hill unless you have first added some weight on the back tire, and set an appropriately low pressure.

Friday, December 6, 2013

A little day tour in late November

Winter is late in Oslo.  Its December and I haven't gotten out the studded tires for the Niholas.  But perhaps that is not so impressive; a Nihola has three wheels so a bit of ice is not likely to cause anything surprising to happen.  The other weekend, we even took a little day tour (maybe 25km on significant hills) in lovely sun with a bit of snow and ice on the ground.

Out on a little tour in November with a bike, a Nihola, and two kids
There are a few things to note in order to minimize problems with this.  First, there should be a good load on the rear tire, in this case, several liters of water and hot tea, kilos of tools and random junk, and sometimes a running bike.  It also pays to keep the tire pressure a little on the low side.

Oh, and the kids can get really cold sitting there so bring all sorts of warmth accessories.  We brought an old blanket, a foam mattress for the floor, and left the roof at home.

Anyway, its kind of interesting to spin a tire on a trike.  Its more of a curiosity than it would be in a car, because you're sitting right there looking at the tire and the road, everything is fairly quiet, and you can really feel the interaction of inertia, tire and ice.  Often enough I am going along and start slipping (with the back tire), make it a bit farther, then start sliding backwards and either use the front brake to stop the backwards slide, or just slide into an area of traction.  The idea is then to plot a new course for the back tire, avoiding the ice.  It isn't necessarily helpful to get off and push, because probably you can't do any better on foot than on the pedals.  However it can sometimes be useful to move the rear sideways, onto a better surface.  While this is all going on, you can have a calm chat with the kids.  Lets all sing the praises of three wheels.

But that is kind of off topic.  On this little tour we took, I found only a small area that was icy.  There was also one good climb where I was happy to use the 15 gear-inches ratio, and which also was on snow, ice and gravel.  I could feel the tire slip here and there, but things went well enough.  So the studded tires are sitting in the basement, for now.

Adjusting the front brakes

We got our yellow/orange Nihola around the 1st of May 2012.  I don't know how far we've driven it, but it didn't start getting intensive use until the middle of September 2013, when it was fitted with an Olso-appropriate gearing system.  Since then, the front brakes have seen serious use most days of the week.  I think few Niholas ascend or descend a hill so steep, in their entire service lives, as the hill that ours does each working day.  As the weeks passed, it became clear the brakes were getting a lot weaker.  Almost certainly, the cause was the cables stretching (but the drum brakes can also wear).  So, the question is, how does a person tighten the front brakes on a Nihola?

The brake lever has no adjustment.  Down by the wheels, each brake has what appears to be a standard Sturmey-Archer drum brake cable adjustment mechanism, but its hard to access and nearly impossible to adjust.  Its also partly covered by a rubber part presumably designed to keep water out, which is itself hard to get out of the way.

The cable adjustment mechanism of the left wheel, wedged against a significant piece of metal
On a normal bike, those would be the only two options.  On a Nihola, however, an adjustment can also be made right above where the single cable from the brake lever is split into left and right cables for the brakes.  Two 10mm wrenches take care of the problem (although its not as nice looking once the little rubber cap is too high to cover the threads).

Center brake cable adjustment on a Nihola, with rubber cap moved well out of the way

More about Reelights on Niholas

I thought I should add a bit to the topic of Reelights on a Nihola.  I had noticed that the rear blinker (SL620) wasn't flashing at walking speeds (which is also pedaling speed on a particular hill I drive up most mornings) so I added a third magnet, and that solved the problem.  It seems to flash at just about any speed, it seems to quickly charge up its capacitor (for flashing when stopped), and I can't think of any downside except that I had to find a third magnet.

Reelight magnet and generator on a Nihola.
Magnet placement is actually a little bit important.  My wheels are 36 spoke, so two magnets can not be spaced evenly (unless mounted off-centered on the spokes).  Three magnets can be mounted at even intervals (while all being mounted centered), which is what I did on the Nihola.  However unequal spacing can actually be a good thing with a flashing Reelight, because the light often flashes right when the magnet passes the generator, and if the magnets arrive at uneven intervals, the light flashes less evenly.  But it gets better than that, because the light also appears to try to flash according to a timer.  The precise way that power-pulses and the timer interact is hard to determine, but I mounted three magnets on my wife's commuting bike as well, at highly unequal intervals, and it seems to give a nice semi-random flashing pattern at biking speed.  (And it also flashes at walking speed.)

Three magnets at a good speed, I'm guessing 25 km/hr, gives almost continuous illumination on a Reelight SL620.  It still flickers and does random-looking things, but a human eye wouldn't perceive it as getting dark.

Anyway a final bit about mounting the generator on a Nihola.  The steel frame in the rear is fairly thin, and proves somewhat less than ideal grip to the Reelight generator.  Its not a big deal, but a few times I've had to adjust it to keep it from rubbing on the magnets.

Friday, November 15, 2013


Its getting good and dark in Olso now, with rain and fog and not really snow or ice yet.  I've still been driving a Nihola to work as its the easiest for for me to get my son to and from his daycare.

Lights.  By default the Nihola has little metal tabs on the top of the wheel wells which are suitable for mounting bike lights that conform to what appears to be an obsolete standard.  In other words, there are tabs for which you will have a hard time finding lights.  There is also the possibility of putting lights on the baggage rack (if installed), on the seat post, or the handlebar (although the handlebar would be hidden behind the rain cover, when installed.)

The tab mounts above the wheel wells are located below the top of the cargo box, so lights on those mounts are not visible from the opposite side of the trike.

The Nihola store sells little lights for the wheel-well-tabs in white and red, powered by 2x AAA's, and a person would have two of each, ideally.  I have two types of these lights, one is bright and focused while the other is more of a marker light, presumably with improved battery life as required by a Danish law from 2012.  (Both may have had the Abus brand but I've never seen them for sale online.)  I think its a real shame lights fitting those mounts are hard to find, because I also have 3 or so plastic mounts for that standard which can be placed anywhere on a bike, and I have maybe 9 lights that fit all these, so I can easily move them around between bikes and locations as batteries weaken.  Yay for standardization.

A brighter, more focused red with a dimmer, unfocused white.
Anyway because of the problems getting these lights, on one Nihola I drilled holes in the front mounting tabs which I can use to mount any sort of fork crown compatible light.  I put some inexpensive 0.5W lights powered by AA batteries on.  They stand up kind of goofy-looking but I think that improves their visibility.  On the baggage rack of the same Nihola I also installed a Reelight SL620 (flash with backup), which is worth spending some more time on.

A fork-crown light mounted on a Nihola.
Reelight is probably the best supplier of battery-free lights for a Nihola.  Their top model (RL720) has a 2 meter cord for the front light according to Reelight (via an email), so the generator should be mountable on the rear wheel, while powering a light mounted on the tab above a front wheel.  This is probably the only dynamo headlight option for a Nihola.  I'm pretty happy with my battery front lights so far, so haven't tried this out yet.  I also am not sure I want to drive a semi-powerful headlight all summer, and there is always the concern when using a hulking cargo bike/trike in the winter that it might not be possible to go fast enough to properly illuminate a dynamo light.  But anyway, they also make stand-alone rear lights for a baggage rack or seat post which are quite effective without adding any perceptible drag.  As I mentioned before, I have one on the baggage rack of a Nihola.  This is usually my only rear light, but when its dark and rainy I like to turn on a supplementary battery-powered rear light or two, which sit on the mounting tabs.

So thats the story of lighting for Nihola.

On our two (soon to be three) regular "Danish-style" commuter bikes, we have a Dynanmo hub and various Reelight models.  No battery lights.  Add full fenders, hub gears and robust tires, and we're ready to go day or night without screwing around.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Postal cargo trike

While in Denmark I had an idle moment in the presence of a postal Nihola.  The postal service in Denmark has purchased perhaps a couple of thousand of them.  Its an interesting design, and the parts that they didn't change from a regular Nihola are interesting to note.

A postal Nihola is mostly a standard model with a different front end.

Basically the front is swapped out for a float-loading platform, there is some modification to the frame where the rider steps over, and the rear has a gargantuan cargo rack bolted on.  They use an electric-assisted derailuer system, with what looks like an above-average motor, rim and tire.  But importantly, the rear frame and steering are hardly changed from a regular "little" Nihola.

The rear rack is epic, and the frame is modified for a lower stand-over height.

Also interesting is that they didn't go with a classic box box trike like Christiania.  They have a small number of such trikes already, and apparently did not find them to be the right choice.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Flats, continued

So its great to save the world by riding a bike, but flat tires are a bit of a barrier that it seems cars have more or less gotten past, while bikes have not.

So, we have just been visiting Denmark the past couple weeks, and we got there by using the Oslo to Copenhagen ferry.  The price to take a cycle on board... a cycle of any size.... is negligible after the price of the humans.  So we just load up two cargo trikes and pedal over to the ferry, and the next day we pedal off again in a new land.  Mindful of the risk of flats, I packed two fresh new tubes for those troublesome front tires.

We did maybe 150km a week going around town on a Nihola and a borrowed bike without a problem.  Then on the way back, we got two flats on the same tire within a few kms.  While on the way to the ferry to leave the country.  This was of course a front tire, on the right.  Not usually high pressure, not unusually heavy load, the same Schwalbe Marathon Plus 20" tire that has been there all along.

Small metal object, sharp on one end.

Nice sharp bit of glass.

There was a silver lining on this.  I found that we have a lock that works great for lifting the front tire.  Just set the parking brake and use the lock as a leg, in this case under a front corner of the box.

Using a lock to hold the flat tire off the ground while the repair is made.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Gearing basics

I think its safe to say that appropriate gearing on a cargo bike/trike is more important than the gearing on a lightweight bike.  The following gear chart can go a long ways towards finding a good gear ratio.  I started making it shortly after we got our first Nihola and have been using it ever since to choose sprockets.

A bike gear ratio chart with 19 gearing systems and wheel combinations.

The green lines are what I believe are official default Nihola ratios.  Red lines are the ratios I have personally put some distance on.  Some of the grey lines are from commuter bikes I have ridden, and others are just there because they have something to show.  There is even a road bike.

The most important thing to see is that a particular gear hub can appear multiple times because the front and rear sprockets determine the output ratios in combination with the hub itself.  The Nihola company and I disagree on what sprockets are appropriate to fit.  I think they are choosing ratios that make it impossible for normal riders to get any use out of the highest gears.  (I don't consider racing downhill to be useful.)  Lower ratios can always be put to use.

Another important point is the "range" of a gearing system, that is, the highest ratio divided by the lowest ratio and expressed as a percentage.  For an SRAM P5 of Shimano Nexus 7 this is about 250%, for a SRAM S7 or Shimano Nexus 8 / Alfine 8 this is about 300%.  A bigger range means a bigger difference between the fastest and the slowest gears.

It is possible to fit a derailleur gearing system on a Nihola, possibly even with multiple chainrings in front.  This can provide a huge gear range at a reasonable cost, but can leave the rider in a difficult situation because ratios can only be changed while moving, and its easy to end up not moving when trying to take on a steep hill.  The Danish post office has a couple thousand derailleur-electric Nihola postal trikes which seems to be working well for them, but they aren't climbing mountains.

In my opinion, the best general-purpose gearing system for a Nihola is a Nexus 8 or Alfine 8 with the standard 38-tooth sprocket in front, and something like a 24, 23 or 22 tooth sprocket in back.  A strong rider will run out of gears when empty on flat ground, but that should be at least 25km/hr which is tolerable for a cargo trike, in my opinion.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Cake, curbs, and paint

Three items for today's post.  First of all, when carrying cream cakes in a Nihola, don't let them bounce around in the bottom of the cargo box.  Put something soft under them.

Ohh, thats a sad thing to see.

Next up, and unrelated to the cakes, I have determined that a good low gear ratio allows some really nice curb climbing even while loaded.  Without any particular effort, I drove something like 40kg of kids and crap up the curb shown below.  I'm estimating it was 5 inches.  Go slow, one wheel at a time, at perhaps a 45-degree angle, but steer into the curb at the moment of climb.

Finally, the paint quality of a Nihola.  I don't know anything about paint really.  I'd say that the quality seems to be pretty good.  It is thick and evenly applied.  I have seen no defects in the paint of either Nihola.  However I have been able to damage it many times.  In particular, the top rim of the box is easily hammered by metal objects being carried, which quickly takes care of paint.  Secondly the front-bottom edge of the box can easily be run into things; a nice rock will also take care of paint without trouble.  The third issue is on the dropouts.  This is the biggest and most annoying problem.  Here I have seen large flakes come off, and it seems to be impossible to avoid damaging the paint if the wheel needs to be removed.

For our black-framed Nihola I got a small can of black paint which I use for touch-ups.  The orange-framed Nihola just gets treated real nice, but the dropouts have now started their inevitable journey towards large scale paint loss (and re-touching).

Paint loss has started.

Advanced paint loss, loose chips removed, prior to a quick sanding and painting.

On the positive side, it seems the frame (especially around the dropouts) does not rust aggressively.  I imagine that nearly all of the many thousands of Nihola owners in Copenhagen ignore it completely.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Commuting 2

I've been commuting on my bike most days the past two weeks because one of our Niholas is temporarily out of service (more on that later).  This morning while driving my regular commute I noticed that, despite the somewhat low inflation on my 622-37 tires, my bike was trying shake the meat off my arms.  Hmmm, the Niholas don't do that.

On my way home, after having picked up my son, I had the chance to drive over some roots on a little path, using my bike.  I wasn't looking to drive over roots, they just happen to be on the path, and the path is very narrow.  It turns out that I had driven over the same roots this past Friday with the Nihola and actually hadn't really noticed them, but on the bike they were impossible to overlook, very bumpy.

Its interesting to switch back and forth between bike and trike, it brings the differences into focus.  This is a bike with 622-37 tires, not some skinny racing slicks, and not even inflated to a level any performance biker would tolerate, but in many cases it rides rough compared to the Niholas.

My commuting bike, totally out of place in the land of sport commuting that is Oslo.
Wandering off topic...

Interestingly, this bike is a reputable Danish name sticker on some soulless multinational corporate asian-made bike.  It costs half what a Nihola costs, if we don't add options like child seats to the Nihola that the bike clearly doesn't have.  But this isn't actually as favorable to the bike as it might at first seem.  The Nihola is made in Denmark, built to order, you might even meet people who assemble it.  Every part is quality and likely to last.  To contrast, the bike is sold a chain store that shovels crap in bulk.  The spokes on mine started rusting within weeks, the kickstand failed, every last piece of plastic has failed in three years, and the handles have creaked since day one.  They even outfitted it with a poorly-sealed gear hub.  (On the positive side, the tires are great.)  Anyone who didn't want to fix a bike themselves would have thrown it in the trash already.

A Nihola might actually have a lower cost per km as a commuter than a typical name-brand Danish street bike, if you are careful with your options on the Nihola, and maybe a bit unlucky with the bike.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Tight Spots

The design of the normal passenger-carrying Nihola represents an interesting set of tradeoffs between internal volume and the space it needs.

Consider the barriers that guard the entrances to many a bike path in Oslo and Copenhagen.  Often enough a series of rocks are used, set just over 90cm apart, which is fine for a Nihola.  A more advanced solution is an offset pair of metal gates, fences, or concrete blocks.  There is generally not a straight path through, so to pass between them and onto the path, generally a cyclist (or baby-wagon-pusher) needs to zig-zag.

Today I took a pictures of my Nihola navigating between one of them near where I live.

Park anywhere...
This one leaves no more than a couple centimeters of clearance between the right tire and the front corner on the way down, and just before starting this turn, it is necessary to be within a few centimeters of the fence with the left tire.  (Uphill is easier because its possible to put the left tire onto the plants before turning between the gates.)  This is not an unusual situation.  An unusual situation is either: 1) having room to spare or 2) not having enough room at all.  This is true in both Copenhagen in Oslo.  Must be some kind of standard.

The special Oslo wrinkle on this is that the two of these nearest where I live are both on steep hill sections.

There is another one of these a few km away that I can only navigate with the perfect approach angle, and only if I don't have pannier bags installed.  The clearance is that tight.  On the positive side, it is easy to turn a Nihola by lifting the back (so long as there isn't something heavy on the cargo rack).

The interesting thing here is that if the Nihola had a square box of the same length and width, it wouldn't fit.  In many gates, the strangely rounded shape is essential.  But what about other types of cargo carriers?  I can only speculate: the long cargo bikes have a problem with length and turning behavior but are narrower, the box trikes rotate the whole box, which is probably helpful for tucking in those corners.

Also interesting is the doorway pass-ability of a Nihola.  It seems that standard doorways can be navigated with just a small bit of steering of the tires.  Its easiest to pull the Nihola forwards through tight doors in my experience.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

A Morning Tour

I took the two kids on a little Nihola tour before lunch on Sunday.  Two kids, a running bike, a plastic trike, snacks, water, spare clothes, rain clothes for everyone, spare footwear for the kids, a saw, a bucket and my usual heavy bike toolkit.  Its nice not to wonder how everything will be carried, or what it will weigh.

Of course since I'm writing about it, I pondered the weight anyway, which I estimate to be about 45kg of stuff, children included.

So off we went without much of a plan.  I wanted to go over to the next "mini-valley" (Mærradalen) and have a look at a tree we had seen fallen over across a path.  (An excellent opportunity for socially acceptable destruction.)  Getting over there means climbing and descending hills.  Now, some people have said trikes are no good on hills.  That might be true if a person doesn't need to carry anything, and indeed a lot of the bikers in Oslo aren't interested in carrying so much as a fender on their bikes.  But I have children, and we're carrying stuff.  Trikes are awesome on hills.  (Awesome in a slow, steady kind of way.)  We climbed and descended our way over there.

So we went to the tree, cut it apart, and made some little tree swords, which went into the Nihola with everything else.  Off we went to the next destination.  My son spotted a path going off from the main path.  Imagine yourself there on a two-wheeled cargo bike, 45kg of crap in the box, you can either go on the nice wide path, or the smaller one that disappears into the trees, at the bottom of a valley.  So we went on the smaller path.

Starting a little climb into the unknown. Going back down, with the scout returning to report.
The little path had some rocks on it.  I didn't think it was so bad, but I did pinch-flat a tube in front, as I later discovered after the patch I applied didn't stop the leaking from the second hole.  Thankfully I carry a tire pump.  (Obviously, right?  Why not.)  So the hill got really steep.  My son jumped out and pushed.  We cleared the first hill, descended a hill, and then came to an even steeper hill.  More pushing.  This was getting a bit epic, with stalling, coasting backwards, and a slipping rear tire.  I got small blisters on my hands, such was the force I applied on the handlebar, while trying to force the pedals around.

Then we stopped for a while to pick raspberries and look at big fat brown slugs, before we came to the next hill.  As befitting any respectable story, this hill was even steeper, and my son wanted to go up it with the Nihola.  So we started.  He pushed, I pedalled, and little sister sat in the box.  Maybe 1/3 of the way up little sister had to get out.  We continued.  Maybe 1/2 the way up, I couldn't turn 21 gear-inches on a trike with less than 10kg of stuff in it, and a ~20kg boy pushing.  And to be perfectly clear, not being able to turn the cranks on a trike doesn't mean going slow enough to loose balance.  It means forward movement is impossible.

So I parked it there and took a picture.  My son thought this was all very nice.  We then went back and pushed it up the hill, which was quite some work for us on that slope.  I was worried about slipping and subsequently being run over.  I could see that the vehicles that drove up this hill had been leaving rubber on the exposed rocks.  (We can credit the nearby military installation, I suppose.)

Scaling the big hill. Finding a place for snack time.

So it was then snack time, and we went back home on a mostly paved path.  That is the story of our little pre-lunch tour.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013


I imagine that most serious bikers that try a Nihola, or other trike, will hate their first ride.  Trikes don't ride like bikes, they don't turn like bikes, they don't handle bumps like bikes.

It doesn't work to sit rigidly perched on top of a Nihola.  It doesn't tilt into corners or point upwards when navigating a side slope.  You tilt into the corners, you point upwards on side slopes.  At moments when the trike is about to do something dramatic, you need to get a bit off the seat and relax, so that the trike can do what it is going to do, while your balance is not upset.

Consider how a person can balance on a trike like the Nihola.  The contact points are the same as on a bike: hands, feet and seat.  However the trike moves in various ways dictated by the road surface, none of which have anything to do with whether you are leaning one way or another.   So you really ride on top of a Nihola, whereas you feel more one with a bike.  At first, a lot of the balancing work being done by the hands.  But the hands also steer the trike, and the steering feeds back into the rider's balance.  After some time, I learned to balance on top of the Nihola with a lot less help from my hands, and this is an essential skill for anyone who is going to anything interesting on one.

Take for example a speedbump that extends almost the whole way across a road, leaving insufficient room to sneak a trike (or trailer) by cleanly.  These are not terribly common in my experience (usually in Oslo the speed bumps give no special treatment to bikes, and usually in Copenhagen they leave a nice flat bike lane), but they are noteworthy.  Both my wife and I got a bit of a surprise the first time we ran over the edge of one of these bumps with a Nihola, with just a week or two of experience.  We were both sitting there on the Nihola, stiff like statues, and all the sudden the front tire encountered the bump.  The frame of the Nihola happily and mercilessly followed.  She says she just about crashed, I didn't quite have that experience, but it was a surprise anyway.  The problem was that the trike pushed its rider around, and the rider pushed and pulled on the trike trying to stay balanced, including pulling and pushing on the handle bars, upsetting the direction of the trike.  Conclusion: when navigating nasty stuff, get off the seat and relax.

A similar experience awaits when using a driveway to transit between a road and a sidewalk.  One tire is going to hit the slope first, and if the trike is moving at a good clip, there will be some dramatic road-surface-following going on.  Off the seat, relax, no problem.

When I'm riding around on a Nihola, I am comfortable enough to be a bit careless with balance, and sometimes I have to use my hands to save the day.  Its important at those moments to be able to use the handlebar as a balance aid without turning it.  Its just a skill to master like any other.  There main motion here is pushing sideways (i.e. cleanly left or right) on the bar, to avoid steering.  (Interestingly this motion is precisely what steers a trike like Christiania trike.)

I was not able to go very fast on a Nihola before I had developed a quiet upper body.  The problem was that I kept making steering adjustments without intending it, very likely while maintaining balance using the handlebar.  My first step was to concentrate on keeping my weight off my arms, but I graduated from that and now lean on the bar as much as I like.

Holding the handlebar in the center has a role to play with balance as well.  I find that doing this frees my shoulders to move more and opens the path to more powerful pedaling, up to and including standing up on the pedals.  But you can't do it before you get pretty comfortable with balance, because the hands have very little leverage to work with when they are right next to each other at the centerline of your body.  I'm still working on my pedal-while-standing technique and am not very smooth yet.

So if there is a conclusion here, its that there is actually a lot of balance involved in riding a trike.  People who think riding a trike is easier than a bike are being confused by the low speed stability of a trike.  Try doing something interesting, and there is a lot of skill involved.  And I'm not just talking about "you have to be good to not die if you pedal fast", I'm talking about skill that is required to do things that are safe.

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Today I flatted while out with the kids.  I think this is the 4th flat I've gotten on a Nihola since moving to Norway.  I got one flat in Denmark.  All 5 of these have been on the front tires.  The Denmark flat was a piece of glass I believe.  In Norway, once it was either rock or glass (can't recall), twice it was bits of sharp rocks, and this time the tube failed on a seam away from the road surface.  I wonder if it was a pinch; I was driving on a rocky path with both kids on board.  But it was on a seam, and I didn't notice any rim impact, very suspicious.

Anyway, fixing a front flat on a Nihola is about as easy as fixing a flat can be, as long as you have something to hold up the front of the trike.  In this case, it was a running bike.

Using a convenient running bike under the nose of the Nihola.

The tube can just be pulled out for most patching.

Don't know why the fronts appear so much more flat-happy than the rear, but now the score is 5-0 with fronts in the lead.  The four times that something came through the tire surface, it was small and sharp, and had probably been digging for hours.  Possibly the tires gather more sharp objects from the less-traveled sides of bike paths, but I am confident that at least 2/5 of the flats had nothing at all to do with pavement, while another 2/5 were definitely on-pavement events.  Also the reduced per-tire weight in front should help puncture resistance.  My best guess is that smaller tires generate higher forces on whatever they roll over, for the same reason that they ride rougher over bumps, thereby increasing the odds of a puncture.

Both Niholas are fitted with Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

As a Commuter

A winter commute near Copenhagen, before moving to Oslo.

A Nihola can reach a pretty decent speed on level ground.  I find 20-25km/hr to be sustainable for long distances, which is plenty fast enough in my world that top speed is not the limiting factor on commute time.  When my wife and I first got a Nihola we didn't see how anyone could go nearly that fast, this due to the way balance felt, but once we adjusted to the way a trike needs to be ridden it was no longer a problem.  So while in the beginning balance was my limiting factor, now strength is my limiting factor.

Also, while commuting strenuously on the Nihola with the SRAM P5, I find my knees become sore.  I believe this is due to the rather large steps between gear ratios, combined with the effort of moving the trike.  On mostly level ground 5th is a bit too fast and 4th is significantly too slow.  The SRAM P5 lovely hub, but a poor choice for trying to set cargo bike speed records.  I don't believe that I have the knee problem on our Nexus 8 Nihola, which puts 7th and 8th gears close together, and right where I need them.  (Without going totally off into a discussion on gearing, I should say that both trikes have a 24t rear sprocket and 38t front, lower than the "factory" ratio.)

So, how hard is a Nihola to pedal when its empty?  I'll start with some numbers.  On flat stretches, I mainly use 5th gear on the SRAM P5, giving 64 gear-inches with my sprockets.  On my commuting bike on the same sections, I use 6th gear on a Nexus 7, giving 70 gear-inches with my sprockets.  I pedal at similar rates on both machines, but work a bit harder on the Nihola.  Anyway using this I estimate my Nihola speed on flat ground is 90% of my bike speed.  Of course this isn't any racing bike: 28"-37mm puncture-resistant tires, nearly straight bar, Nexus 7 hub, full fenders, rack, cargo basket, dynamo lights, 16kg, dirty, various rattles...  So you could say I'm not fast on any bike, but not really slow on a Nihola either.

The amount of load seems to make little difference on level ground, but it makes more difference if the front tire pressure is low.  When there is unfavorable wind the Nihola drags more, but actually nowhere near as badly as I had feared before I tried it.  (But taking down the rain cover is important to minimize the drag.)  Up hills, the weight of the machine (32kg is the official figure) naturally slows a person down, but again its not catastrophic.  How about loaded, up hill and against a headwind?  Well, you'll be thankful you don't need to worry about balance.

The riding geometry is somewhat upright, but not overwhelmingly so, in my judgement.  Less upright than WorkCycles Cargobike, unless my eyes are playing tricks.  More upright than a Bullitt, but I'm sure that surprises no one.  Since moving to Oslo I have become a big fan of placing both hands in the middle of the handle bar, which I believe improves my body position and is helpful when pedaling hard.  I find this is more natural than doing the same on a bike, where doing such a thing harms my balance.

I find that a Nihola can be a comfortable commuter, but the road surface should be in decent condition and there should not be too many abrupt corners.

Friday, August 9, 2013


The Nihola can turn.  If we just concentrate on slow-speed manuevers for a moment, it is very well behaved.  I can't imagine tipping over at low speeds, on level ground.

The turning radius is kinda big, almost car-like (and worse for some of the extra-size Nihola models), but if turning around that way is too much work, you can get off and lift the back very easily, and pivot the whole thing on the front wheels.  Turning radius of zero.  This works extremely well due to the position of the front tires, which are positioned to take most of the weight of the trike and around 100% of the weight in the box, so it works great even with two kids and a pile of crap up front.  Just jump off and pivot 180 degrees, jump on and go again.  Point the wheels straight while doing this.  Also having a rear cargo rack is nearly essential, to provide a handle.  It also works badly when you put a heavy load on the cargo rack.

Turning on a side slope is less easy, sometimes.  Basically if the hill is too steep you can't balance on it.  Also note that its easier to balance when the nose points down the hill than when it points up, because when it points up, your weight is balancing over the one rear wheel.  The trickiest part of a turn on a side-slope is the part where you are pointing uphill, maybe 45 degrees offset from directly up slope.  Its an interesting thing that its actually easier to go straight up a hill than angled up a hill.  So all that said, it has to be a significant slope to pose a problem.  On such a slope, it might be easiest to get off and turn by lifting the back.

Turning by lifting the back is a really awesome feature, in my opinion.

A trike such as the Nihola needs to be slowed for corners.  There are a few places on my commute that I slow down much more than the bikes need to.  Still I suspect that it can be cornered faster than any other cargo trike, because lifting the inside wheel is not really a cause for much concern.  It just means you have reached your cornering limit, and should fix the situation before you actually do tip over.  Basically, you are driving an oddly balanced bike at that point.

I sometimes deliberately run the inside wheel over a curb or dirt pile or whatever so that I can straighten the curve out and conserve momentum.  If I take the corner correctly, the inside wheel has so little weight on it that this happens smoothly.  While often ridiculous, this is actually a very sensible strategy at a particular place where I enter a road from a sidewalk with a small ramp, and turn sharp right.  I can drive the inside wheel right off the curb, while the outside wheel drives down the ramp, and dramatically reduce the amount of left-right steering and associated slowdown.

So, what about the situation where a Nihola rider finds him/herself going too fast when a turn needs to be made?  Well obviously scrub as much speed as possible before the turn starts, squeeze especially hard on the front brakes because the back can't contribute much (unless you have heavy pannier bags or something back there), and might start to slide, which is an unwanted distraction at the least.  Also, hard braking and hard cornering at the same time will require that you lean a lot and hold on tight.  Braking while lifting a tire sounds like a bad idea to me.

A Nihola will reliably understeer by lifting the inside wheel when asked to turn too sharply, but on some surfaces can be convinced to oversteer somewhat by using the back brake, together with the front brakes, a big steering input and considerable speed.  It is most easy to oversteer while simultaneously going down a hill, braking, and turning on a wet road surface.  Oversteer can quickly be corrected by straightening out the wheels and releasing the back brake.  I have never managed to do a 180, even in the snow, although I have certainly tried.  Probably just a matter of finding a suitable sheet of ice.

Some day I'll make a post about driving a Nihola in the winter, where I can go on about handling at the limits of adhesion.

Thursday, August 8, 2013


At 6:30 this morning dark clouds and thunder were rolling in.  This leads me to write about how a Nihola works in the rain.

Niholas of the child-carrying forms have steel frames, plastic box sides, and aluminum box floors.  The optional child seat is plastic with an aluminum bar underneath, with an optional removable cushion on top.  There is an optional rain cover made of strong fabric with plastic windows, supported by two aluminum bows.  The only thing here that is effected by standing around all day in the rain is the cushion; it will soak up water if the roof is not installed.  It dries out easily enough.

The roof itself appears to withstand any amount of rain for any number of days, so many people (maybe most people) in Denmark never remove it.  I think this is a poor idea.  The roof stands between the rider and any human cargo, making it harder to see or hear.  Its visually huge, it wiggles a bit on bad bumps, and it pushes around a lot of air to allow its passage.  The roof works on my mind, making the whole trike seem bigger, clumsier and slower.  It also gets ugly with time, getting bleached in the sun and stretched in the rain, and the windows can deteriorate.  I always take it down when its not actually raining (or unless there is some other good reason, perhaps to protect cargo in a parked trike).

So, its good news that it can be taken down and put up easily.  The supporting bows sit snugly on the floor of the Nihola, where they rattle only a little, because they flex slightly when being laid down, thereby holding themselves in place.  The rods can be removed while the seat is installed, but there isn't a lot of extra room for maneuver.  Cargo and children in the box makes it harder, but children cargo can sometimes cooperate and lift up their legs on command.  The roof itself can be folded or otherwise mashed under the seat without difficulty.  The process is easy, repeatable, and without surprises.

The bows in storage position.
The bows without the roof.
Roof up!

When the roof is up, the ends of the bows sit in small cylindrical holders in either side of the box.  There is nothing holding them in there except the roof.  They will wiggle themselves free if left to themselves, and probably they would be easily damaged anyway.  They are just aluminum rods, after all.  The rods and roof seem to reinforce each other somewhat.

We have two different models of the rain roof.  The more fancy one has a strap that allows the "front door" to be rolled up and held in place.  Otherwise, the door can be pushed behind the heads of child cargo without being rolled up.  It can also be draped backwards over the top of the roof, but the Nihola company advises against this, because it can apparently harm the zippers.  Better yet, the whole roof can be taken down.

The easy way to get the door out of the way.  Not recommended.

Lots of headroom.  Not a lot of options for partial openings.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Bad Pavement

The surfaces upon which a cyclist rides in Oslo are pretty rough.  I don't have a handy roughness-o-meter, but its easy enough to notice a crappy ride, and Oslo delivers.

First some background on bicycle infrastructure in Oslo.  There are hardly any bike paths that go even a few km without major interruption.  Bike paths appear and disappear with regularity.  Sometimes on one side of a road, sometimes on the other.  Sometimes a bike path is a line of paint in the main road.  Sometimes a bus/taxi lane doubles as a bike path, sometimes a trolley track.  Sometimes it appears cyclists are intended to ride on sidewalks.  Very often a bike path dumps onto a crosswalk complete with meaningful curb topography.  Last time, in fact make that just about the only time, that I rode along Ring 2 I just felt depressed.  I witnessed everything except the trolley tracks in maybe 4 km.

Oslo also has, in my estimation, a lot of damage to the road surfaces, especially ones that are less trafficked and therefore less important to fix.  Probably the winter does it.

My daily commute includes a bit of cobblestones, a heavy pedestrian zone, large rock paving blocks, bus lanes, trolley tracks, some smaller curbs and lots of broken-up pavement.  They love using blocks of stone sticking up as much as 1cm (I estimate) from the pavement on bike paths around road crossings.

I usually commute on a Nihola.  The standard puncture-resistant tires in front are 20x1.75 (47-406) Schwalbe Marathon Plus, and the tire in back is a 26x1.75" (47-559) version of the same.  The Nihola is of course a cargo trike, and exactly how it rides has a lot do with what is in the box, as well as the tire pressure.  Empty and with hard-pumped tires, hitting a bump (such as those embedded stone blocks) can make the front hop.  Light cargo (and the kid seat) can bounce around quite a bit.  The resulting noise can be a significant irritant, and the ride isn't great for the driver either.  (Its nice to have some form of padding in the bottom of the box.)

A trike generally suffers more from bad pavement than a bike.  The three tires follow their own paths over the bumps, making it hard to avoid everything.  The two front tires can transfer left and right pitches to the rider, and they can also work as a team to transmit bumps, shakes and shivers when they impact dumps simultaneously or nearly simultaneously.  The Nihola designers also made a particular decision that adversely effects its bump-handling: the front tires are set fairly far back.  This is a trade-off that helps the turning radius, stability and the box shape, but also has two significant effects on bump-handling: the wheelbase is fairly short so front-to-back pitching is intensified compared to a typical long cargo bike, and second, some amount of the weight is ahead of the front tires which exaggerates hops.

That all must sound awful.  Its not really awful, its just a Nihola is not really the best machine for traversing crappy pavement.

In response to this, I keep the pressure in the front tires fairly low when in commuting mode.  This is luxurious on the rough sections.  I like it better than my commuting bike (700C 37-622 tires).  They aren't so low that I notice the drag, but I'm not so fast anyway.  Personal preference I guess.  The main drawback of this is that I bump a front rim on an abrupt edge a couple times a week, but this hasn't resulted in a pinch flat yet.  Perhaps the thick rubber anti-puncture layer in the Marathon Pluses is controlling the pinching force.  I also try to pack my bag to handle a bit of bumping, leave the kid seat at home, and I try to remember to go a bit slower around those edges.  (Generally these are short curbs.)

Ambitious owners could change the tires for something slightly fatter, definitely at least 2" would fit front and back.  I would like to try some Big Apple Plus 20x2.15 (55-406) and 26x2.15 (55-559) some day.

Thanks to the one-piece frame, its also possible to unload one front tire on short notice by abruptly steering while leaning the wrong way.  This can be used to hop a tire onto a substantial curb, at some speed and without any harm.  Theoretically this could also be used to "float" a tire over a pothole, but it does disrupt the path of the trike a bit, so I don't do that unless I'm turning anyway.  This also doesn't work as well when loaded, because the center of gravity is generally lowered by cargo.

Tuesday, August 6, 2013


Justification.  Not for being an enthusiast for a type of cargo trike, but for having a blog about it.  Because the machine is sound, its the mind a person might wonder about.

I wasn't of course born on a bike.  I grew up with cars, in a place where biking was, and still is, a good way to die as far as I am concerned.  But times change and I moved to Denmark and started a family.

We planned on getting a car but it never happened.  In Copenhagen its easy, fast, safe and cheap to get around by bike, so we did.  We got a bike trailer for our first kid, and it was pretty awful (cheap though).  Right after the second kid arrived we were sufficiently committed to not buying a car that we realized we might want a cargo bike.  I say bike, but I mean trike.  Everyone carrying "cargo" in Copenhagen does it on a trike, except recently Bullitt has been getting some attention.

We ended up with a Nihola.  This is where the tale of being an enthusiast begins.  Being in Denmark we could go right straight to the main Nihola location and talk to dedicated mechanics and sales people, who were perhaps one and the same thing.  It has since become clear that they like to run the company on the principle that quality will sell the product.  No advertising, and it seems no particular enthusiasm either.  Happily they deliver the quality.

At the time a person could order a Nihola with a SRAM P5 hub (5 speeds) with foot brake, or its big brother the S7 (7 speeds) with a v-brake.  So the 7-speed option had a pedal that free-wheeled backwards because the rear brake was on the rim, whereas pedaling backwards on the 5-speed engaged the brake.  The sales guy suggested that the 7-speed was nice because it was easier to start moving when heavily loaded, because the pedals could just be spun around to a good starting point.  That was the whole sales pitch for a fairly expensive upgrade.  Much later we learned that they could install whatever gearing system a customer could desire, and at a reasonable cost, but they don't let anyone know.  Apparently it might confuse the customers.  I was basically told as much.

We got the 5-speed with the idea that if it didn't cut it, we'd want something more radical than 7.  The 5-speed delivered.  Soon I was taking the older kid out in the forest, driving on mountain bike trails, horse trails, mud, roots and rocks.  I wrote to the Nihola store I told them this was working great, they should maybe make a Nihola that was half mountain bike.  Wow were they not impressed.  Polite and professional, but totally not impressed.

Niholas are not great in mud, but they can take you to it.

The Nihola adventures continued.  I took the older child from Birkerød to Roskilde one day, was going to bike back too... but somehow the thumbscrew that holds the clickbox onto the P5's axle got lost, leaving me in 1st gear over 40km from home.  We biked from Birkerød to Ølstykke and back, down to Bakken and back, around Furesø, the list goes on.

One day I came up with the crazy idea of getting another cargo bike.  This was helped along because I broke the 5-speed hub trying to climb over an obstacle in the forest, and the process of correcting that problem perfectly was taking time.  We could no longer live without our precious cargo bike.  I actually wanted a Bullitt as a lighter faster machine for lighter faster work, but this was vetoed based on price and small capacity.  So we got a second Nihola, and the first one reappeared with a Shimano Nexus 8 with foot brake.

Niholas can be tent anchors.

We went on 3-day and 10-day family tours that summer (2012), two kids and two Niholas.  The kids made this challenging, but there were a lot of good times and I have fond memories.  I was very enthusiastic, but did not inform the Nihola people.  Life continued and both Niholas saw a lot of use.  I often commuted 10km to work on one.

Then we moved to Oslo, Norway, in February.  The conditions were challenging for a carless family in the winter, and aren't really easy in the summer, either.  There are interesting lessons being learned.  Well, I think they are interesting, anyway.  In fact they could have been really informative to a person like myself two years ago.  To learn anything from the Nihola company you need to know the question to ask.  I am unaware of any substantial owner-provided Nihola content online.  Why should I learn things and not share them?  What a waste.  So now I'm writing them down in the hope that a search engine can spread around a bit of what I have found.

Niholas can go places.