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Family Biking: How straps can unlock your bike’s carrying capacity

Posted by on October 23rd, 2018 at 7:58 am

Desk on a bike!
(Photos: Madi Carlson)

This week’s post isn’t about family biking per se, but kids often come with lots of stuff to haul around. And since parenting helps unlock one’s ingenuity — family biking goes hand-in-hand with strapping loads of crap to our bikes.

Our Family Biking column is sponsored by Clever Cycles.

➤ Read past entries here.

This also isn’t a plug to get a cargo bike so you can carry big things — although cargo bikes certainly make carrying big things easy — all bikes are great at carrying more than just their riders…or instead of their riders: one of the best things about any bike is its ability to transform into a dolly/hand truck. It’s fairly easy to pile heavy and/or bulky things on your bike and walk alongside, pushing. The day we moved to Portland (most of our stuff came in a 16-foot PODS moving container) I still had a lot of stuff to bring with us via bus-train-light rail-bus so I used my folding bike as a luggage cart.

Any bike can double as a hand truck.

Bicycles-cum-luggage-carts don’t necessarily need straps of any sort and the beauty of using your bike in this manner is that you can do so in the spur of the moment when you see that six-foot-tall cat tree at Southeast Sherman and 30th (why do so many people abandon perfectly fine cat trees each fall??). But for carrying things while pedaling, having straps/tie downs of some sort is a big help.

Uou can compensate for lopsided loads by leaning slightly to the opposite side and it usually just takes half a block to get used to the weight.

And a quick note on safety: just as you are likely aware in terms of your clothing, take care not to have anything positioned such that it might get caught in the moving parts of your bike. When using your bike as a hand truck it makes sense to hang things from the handlebars, but this isn’t so safe when riding when items swinging into your spokes will cause a crash (when you’re walking your bike things don’t swing as much and if they do make contact with your wheel, they won’t do much more than make an unpleasant rubbing sound). Attach things snugly and make sure your tie downs don’t have dangling loose ends. Then tie stuff anywhere that doesn’t spin when you pedal: front rack, rear rack, top tube, handlebars, even to your body!

Bikes are such great stuff carriers that you don’t even need your cargo weight evenly distributed side to side. Of course it’s easiest if you’re balanced, but you can also compensate for lopsided loads by leaning slightly to the opposite side and it usually just takes half a block to get used to the weight.

Rope to the rescue.

If you have an old inner tube, you already have the perfect tie down. Cut that sucker through near the valve and you’ve got a stretchy rope that’s easy to tie. And regular old rope is great, too. Have you heard that saying “If you don’t know knots, tie lots!” I first heard it from a competitor in the 2016 Disaster Relief Trials who creatively attached a trailer to a bike share bike.

An assortment of bike straps.

If you don’t have inner tubes or rope, or want to get something more task-specific, I have some favorites to share:

➤ 1. Yuba Utility Strap
This nine-foot long strap has a strong buckle. I got mine in my competitor goodie bag at the 2013 Disaster Relief Trials, but they’re also available at column sponsor Clever Cycles. And your local hardware store will have very similar utility straps of various lengths and colors.

➤ 2. Surly Junk Strap
At about four feet long (120cm), this narrow strap is strong and great at securing cargo without so much tail to worry about getting caught up in spokes. I purchased mine at Metropolis Cycles.

➤ 3. John’s Irish Strap
Available at Rivelo, this pretty strap is three feet long and plenty strong. I’m even wearing one as a belt right now.

➤ 4. Gear Ties
Whereas I used to use bungee cords exclusively, I’ve gotten away from stretchy straps as evidenced by my first three favorites and Gear Ties are my current most favorites. I don’t know where to buy the longer ones locally so I order mine online. Gear Ties are like industrial-strength pipe cleaners (side note: I’ve used regular pipe cleaners to attach things to my bike, too, since I always have decorative pipe cleaners attached to various places on my bike–very handy). I’ll share a Gear Ties example below.


➤ 5. Cargo net
Did I just say I don’t like stretchy things? I lied. I love cargo nets! I used one to contain Pixie, our family dog in her basket. They’re terrific for keeping things in baskets, for attaching big things to rear racks, and in a pinch will hug a bulky item to any spot on a bike you can find purchase for the four hooks. They’re available at most bike shops, but can also usually be found at big box stores in the automotive or motorcycle aisle.

➤ 6. Bungee cord
Bungee cords come in all lengths and widths, are available in all sorts of stores, and are generally easy to attach to various parts of your bike, like racks and seat rails. Children love playing with bungee cords and parents love worrying about kids putting their eyes out with bungee cords. Bungee cords replaced stuffed animal friends as favorite playthings for both my kids for a time. And the only one who accidentally got popped in the eye was me. So be careful, but they’re great for lashing things securely to a bike.

I carried this box for my friend because it was too big to fit in her car.

➤ Ratchet straps (not pictured)
I find ratcheting tie downs more trouble than they’re worth. They come in two pieces which makes for double the opportunity to loose part of your carrying system and I can never remember how to detach them when I want to unload. In the photo above the dragging strap makes it clear I didn’t attach the straps correctly, oops. I have friends that swear by then, but I’ve given mine away. Feel free to sing their praises in the comments section.

‘Tis the season to carry brooms and rakes around.

I like to sweep debris (pine cones and leaves) off my favorite paths to keep them safe for my kids and me. I generally carry big broom around on the cargo bike, but regular bikes are terrific at carrying long, skinny items. I know crossing guards who carry their flags on their bikes this way and I think all bike polo players carry their mallets strapped to their top tubes. A bike with a straight top tube is particularly good for this, but when I did a test run with my broom yesterday I discovered it’s not at all necessary:

Gear Ties up close.

The green Gear Tie is the only one holding the broom to my top tube; the black Gear Tie is attached to my seat post and the orange Gear Tie clings to my seat rail. You’ll just need to mount and dismount carefully if you don’t have a straight top tube and aren’t used to swinging your leg that high. I like to bring my foot up over my top tube, but you can also hike your leg up over your handlebars and around if the broom blocks you from swinging over the back of the bike. If the broom isn’t too heavy for tilting your bike, lean your bike towards you to make it even easier to reach your leg up and over the top tube to mount.

I could not have walked like this, but biking was A-OK.

Having a bike along also makes it easier to do the carrying yourself versus walking. Unless you’re on a completely upright bike, your canted torso makes a great platform for stuff with your handlebars and saddle helping keep you a stable table. We used to join a large post-Christmas tree bonfire each year in Seattle and the majority of riders strapped their trees (even big ones!) to their backs. Frankly, I felt like I was cheating by using my cargo bike. Recently I carried one of my kids’ bikes home by strapping it to a backpack with a Surly Junk Strap. It wasn’t comfortable and I don’t want to do it again, but I rode the flat mile home just fine.

The cargo strap attached the little bike to my backpack so I could strap it all to my back.

Lots of friends with trees on their backs.

Have you carried something impressive on your bike? What’s your favorite cargo strap? Please share any insights in the comments! Thanks for reading.

One last fun shot: two free bookcases on my bike.

Remember, we’re always looking for people to profile. Get in touch if it sounds like fun to you. I’d especially like to feature families of color so please get in touch or ask friends of color who bike with their kids if they’re interested in sharing their stories. And as always, feel free ask questions in the comments below or email me your story ideas and insights at madidotcom [at] gmail [dot] com.

— Madi Carlson, @familyride on Instagram and Twitter

Browse past Family Biking posts here.

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  • Avatar
    9watts October 23, 2018 at 8:10 am

    You are intrepid! A beautiful and inspiring rundown of cargo lashed to a bike.

    I shudder to think what you would manage to drag home if you borrowed or built a (cargo) bike trailer 😉

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      Gary B October 23, 2018 at 9:32 am

      Seriously. Seeing that last picture with 2 desks, I may have blurted out “Madi is my hero.”

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    • Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist) October 23, 2018 at 3:16 pm

      Ha ha ha, I have! I have my own Haulin’ Colin trailer hitch and used to borrow a friend’s trailer.

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    Dawn October 23, 2018 at 9:18 am

    Crazy! And awesome.

    I would like to add a warning about bungee cords…the risk is real. My husband nearly lost his eye in a bike bungee cord accident when he was trying to load an oversize item onto his rack. The best words he ever heard were “the good news is…the globe is intact” following a scan to determine the extent of his injury. He was legally blind in that eye for about two years while it healed and then later suffered from a detached retina (maybe or maybe not related to the old bungee injury). Be careful out there.

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      Gary B October 23, 2018 at 9:31 am

      Agreed. I much prefer the rubber strap version (aka rubber tie downs or tarp straps, like these ) to bungees. They stretch much less and are stronger, which means 1) they work better and more securely, and 2) they are far less dangerous.

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        9watts October 23, 2018 at 9:34 am

        Interesting. We should get together, exchange our surplus, our rejects. I dislike those rubber straps perhaps even more than you dislike bungees.
        Not all bungies are created equal.

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    Gary B October 23, 2018 at 9:35 am

    I’m new to the cargo bike world, which thus far pretty much carries just my toddler and groceries. But I have been using a bike cargo trailer for a few years. Can’t beat the simplicity of it, even though it’s not nearly as handy as just attaching things to your bike. I’ve carried about 150 lbs of gardening goodies in it (bags of soil and compost) and also, with a custom harness attachment point, worked pretty well for my 80 lb German shepherd.

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      9watts October 23, 2018 at 9:40 am

      “it’s not nearly as handy as just attaching things to your bike”

      I think it depends on what you’re used to, what you hope to haul. I spent seven years lashing things to my bike, experimenting with racks and adapters to racks. I hauled a water heater balanced on the 6 o’clock pedal of my bike which I pushed home. But having switched to trailers fifteen years ago, I have not looked back. Trailers come in many flavors.

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    Noisette October 23, 2018 at 9:39 am

    Don’t forget the humble pedal toe strap as a common and easy to carry lashing device, You can even string several together for longer lengths. I keep a few in the bottom of the bags I use, so they are always at hand.
    And I feel obligated to second the bungee warnings, I know two people that have lost eyes to those suckers.

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    • Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist)
      Madi Carlson (Family Biking Columnist) October 23, 2018 at 3:18 pm

      Good point! I like using toe straps, but I’m not sure where one gets them (I’ve accidentally stolen them from bike shops who left them on while fixing stuff on my bike).

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        9watts October 23, 2018 at 5:36 pm

        “I’m not sure where one gets them”

        City Bikes?

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    Aaron K October 23, 2018 at 10:43 am

    Adding ski straps to the list of tools. Lots of holding power (sometimes too much), never fail, EZ to use –

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    Eric Porter October 23, 2018 at 11:31 am

    It’s hard to beat the classic “cam strap” for strapping stuff down. I’ve used tons of all lengths rigging for river trips and they usually live in the car or some in the bike bag. Andy & Bax have some cheaper options. The Voile Ski straps ^ are another classic item that lots of other brands are now rebranding as their own. It’s big for bikepacking now, but has been great for BC skiing for years.

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    Mike Quigley October 23, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    Must be flatlanders on bike paths hauling some of this stuff. Wouldn’t make it into the west hills or on most roadways.

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      Chris I October 23, 2018 at 1:24 pm

      Also works fine on quieter, residential streets in East Portland. As for the West Hills, I think that most people over there just load these items into their oversized SUVs.

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      Andrew Kreps October 23, 2018 at 9:27 pm

      Wrongo bongo. We do this everywhere, all the time. Hills are no object.

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    B. Carfree October 23, 2018 at 12:53 pm

    I’m not sure if it was brilliant or stupid, but when a friend needed to carry a couch six miles he enlisted me to ride behind him with the back end of this ten-foot monstrosity on the front of my “box bike” (trike with two wheels in front and a cargo section between them). The front of the couch was strapped to his rack. His girlfriend wanted to go along by sitting on the couch, but we both vetoed that.

    Fortunately, the next time we moved furniture it was all much lighter stuff that was easily put onto various bikes and racks.

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      Andrew Kreps October 23, 2018 at 9:27 pm

      Please tell me you have photos. 🙂

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        B. Carfree October 23, 2018 at 10:12 pm

        He put one up on FaceBook a couple years ago. The photographer caught my good side; the couch is between me and the camera.

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    Scott October 23, 2018 at 8:05 pm

    I dream of a cargo bike, but I can’t justify the expense when I have an eight-foot trailer from Bikes at Work:

    I mostly take it to the lumber yard, but I’ve also made several Home Depot trips with it. At the time, the trailer came with bungies that had plastic hook ends, something like this:

    They seem sturdier and safer than the standard bungies with a metal end.

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    Jim Lee October 24, 2018 at 8:27 am

    Bromptons rule!

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    Todd Boulanger October 24, 2018 at 6:09 pm

    Nice blue “kick-stand”!

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    KYouell October 25, 2018 at 11:26 am

    My favorite haul was our TV.

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    Ian Crozier October 26, 2018 at 10:54 pm

    I’ve been reading for about 10 years and I think this is my favorite post

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    Johnny Bye Carter October 28, 2018 at 10:52 pm

    I think the most I’ve carried on a regular bike with a standard rear rack was 2 inflatable boats and 3 camping chairs.

    Now I have a front Porteur Rack and put all sorts of heavy loads in it, though usually just groceries.

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    Cactus Joe Vega November 26, 2018 at 4:39 pm

    I have an assortment of tie-downs. Bungees, cinch straps (both with hooks and without), 550 cord and light carabiners. Most of my bungee cords are the adjustable type with plastic hooks. They let me secure the hooks then tighten down on the load. I also use a homemade flatbed trailer (was a kid trailer my wife found on the side of the road) and plastic totes and the cinch straps come in handy with the trailer for bulky items that might otherwise not sit well on the bike. I typically use my longtail and trailer for errands and grocery runs (my record is $300 of groceries in one trip) and next year will start using it to commute to work as well. 😉

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