Portland is truly a cargo bike lover’s paradise. Whether you want the legendary “bakfiets” from Holland, a less expensive version from China, a high-end custom version made in Portland, or a myriad of other locally available options, this town is a veritable cornucopia of cargo bikes.
New to the offerings are the whimsical creations of Tom LaBonty.
LaBonty — whose previous hobby was restoring muscle cars — now pours his passion into building custom cargo bikes out of found materials and garage sale bikes. A baggage handler at PDX Airport by day, the 39-year old Montana native was intrigued by a Worksman trike he saw being used by airline maintenance crews at the airport — so he decided to try and build one himself.
The trike turned out just O.K., but LaBonty’s big breakthrough came when a co-worker asked if he could build him a front-loader, “bakfiets-style” bike. “He gave me this old mountain bike and I just went for it. I quickly realized that the long-John was a superior design.”
That was last summer. Since then, LaBonty has made 14 more of them. Now he’s got business cards and he’s displaying them at Last Thursday on Alberta. But LaBonty isn’t doing this as a business, he simply likes building them and — as a recent convert himself to daily bicycle riding — he wants to spread the two-wheeled lifestyle to others.
LaBonty lives right next to Lents Park, just a few blocks from the I-205 bike path. Last Summer — as gas prices spiked and the nation seemed to have the collective epiphany that there are other ways to move around besides personal motor vehicles — LaBonty says he also came to a realization. “Muscle cars were my thing. But I realized it was just a lot of money, space, and time I didn’t have. And for what? Just to drive them around by myself?”.
That realization helped stoke LaBonty’s new interest in building cargo bikes. He beams when talking about how he takes his 5-year old daughter to school every day on one of his own creations. “Biking’s just fun. Driving to the store in the car. Not Fun. Biking to the store. Fun.”
LaBonty admits he’s “not a bike guy at all” but adds that he and his family are trying hard to drive less. “The thing with the car is that it’s just so darn convenient.” The cargo bikes make running errands much more possible, but the big game-changer will be when the new Green Line MAX opens up right around the corner.
When MAX opens (TriMet says mid-September), LaBonty plans to buy a family TriMet pass, let the tags and insurance expire on the family car, get a ZipCar membership and try to go completely carfree.
By that time, he may just have a nice little cargo bike business on his hands. With his mechanical aptitude honed from years of working on classic cars, LaBonty has figured out a way to take virtually any bike and convert it into a Dutch style front-loader.
“The idea is that people bring their existing bike to me, and I’ll build onto it.”
LaBonty has perfected the tricky spring-loaded dual kickstand and steering mechanism that are front-loader essentials. His bikes also feature scrap and re-used materials (he calls them “happy accidents”). For example; one of this cargo bins was made with left over heating duct material from a warehouse in his neighborhood, and the wooden cargo deck on another comes from a free pallet found in a pile down the street (one thing he doesn’t rely on scraps for is tubing for the main frame. LaBonty uses new stock because he wants to make sure it’s straight and reliable).
Other LaBonty touches include child seatbelts he makes himself from unclaimed luggage straps, cargo box edging made from old rubber garden hoses, and solar-powered lights attached to the bin.
Most of LaBonty’s sales so far (bikes range from about $300-$500) have come via Craigslist, including a guy from Aspen, Colorado who bought four of them for a local parade.
You can meet Tom and see a few of his bikes at this week’s Last Thursday on Alberta (look for him at around NE 28th). You can also contact Tom via email at tslabonty [at] hotmail [dot] com.
More info and photos in the slideshow below: