Bike Friday Travel Trailer System Review
Last week we talked about how we liked the Family Tandem after touring for months. You can read about that here. While the bike performed well the trailer did not.
Depending on your opinion the capacity of the suitcases can be a benefit or a curse. I say curse because it lends itself to carrying a lot of gear sometimes unnecessarily. We had a tendency to haul more then we needed and we certainly felt it dragging us down on just about any size hill we encountered.
Before we bought the bike we looked at many reviews on the performance of the trailer. The overwhelming consensus we found was that it was not recommended. Most of the reasons being it was too wide and on narrow roads making it unsafe with fast traffic.
We figured those were small costs compared to the huge convenience the trailer packing system gives you with one way touring. After hauling the trailer for 2,000 miles and it breaking on us twice we have different opinions of it now.
Before we get to the big problem there were a few minor issues with the trailer that would make me think twice about touring with it again. These all boil down to one common theme: the trailer does not appear to be built to the same design standard as the bicycle.
After 2,000 miles of riding it is showing a lot of wear in a lot of places. Where the hitch connects to the t-bar the joint has become very loose. While it hasn’t broken or disconnected it is certainly on its way there.
Additionally, the holes in the suitcases where the axle bolts mount are showing signs of wear. The holes are getting bigger with every assembly and disassembly. Our fear is that they may become too large to be effective or worse yet, a crack may appear in the suitcase shell. Those Samsonites are sturdy, yes, but I am not sure they are bike tour sturdy.
The suitcases are water resistant but you cannot count on them to be water proof. It is just something to bear in mind when touring with them in inclement weather.
Finally, we never had a flat on our bike, but had several on the trailer tires. This isn’t a huge deal, but is an inconvenience. Each time we changed the tire we would find the cause of the flat was a small thorn or stick, something that would not normally penetrate a high quality tire.
In addition, the relatively un-common size of the trailer tires could make it hard to find replacements on tour. By the end our trailer tires were bald and in need of replacement. Our Schwlabe marathons on the other hand barely showed any wear.
***(Update 08/17/2011) A reader has pointed out that they do make 12 inch Schwalbe tires called the Big Apple. You can buy them from Amazon here. Bike Friday should start sourcing these.
None of these are deal breakers in and of themselves, but are observations we had. The trailer just doesn’t seem built to last.
If you have followed our touring diary you will know the circumstances of the trailer axle malfunctions. If not you can read about them here and here. It is a crucial piece of equipment when on tour and will stop you dead in your tracks should it fail. For us that meant a couple expensive nights in hotels because we were in places inappropriate to camp when it broke.
When you are on the road and you are riding a specialty bike like a Bike Friday you have to expect that parts can be impossible to get abroad. That said, in most developing countries you can get anything you need custom made as long as you start talking to locals. (We had a fun experience asking a welder to make us a custom rear rack when we were in Bali).
The need for special parts is a serious consideration when you are on tour, but our local dealer and even the people at Bike Friday assured us that they were well versed in shipping parts to people on tour where and when they needed them. Shipping may of course be costly, but they have a reputation for getting you what you need.
We trusted that it would all work out and thought, what could possibly go wrong on a bike tour anyway?
Before I go any further about our experience trying to get parts shipped to us abroad I want to say that this is only our experience and most people probably won’t have the problems we did. According to Bike Friday they have never had anyone break a trailer.
There was a defect in the axles prior to 2006, but that has since been resolved in the redesign of the part.
I don’t intend this to defame Bike Friday’s customer service as they had been outstanding domestically and sent us parts free of charge when the bike arrived not to spec. That said we won’t tour with the trailer again.
When the trailer first broke in Luxembourg we contacted Bike Friday immediately. Luckily we were returning to Switzerland in a few days where we could receive mail. We had planned to stay there for about five days which should have been ample time to get the part before we flew to Budapest.
As soon as it broke we emailed them with the subject “URGENT: broken trailer axle.” We sent this both to the general email form on the website and to our sales person asking for confirmation and giving them the OK to bill our credit card.
We didn’t hear back from them for two days and it was to ask us for our credit card. This was a little disconcerting because time was limited but we responded promptly and hoped for the best.
You can imagine our surprise when we got an email the night before we needed it to arrive asking us which trailer we had. We were pretty upset that through all of our contact and urgency with receiving it in time they had completely failed us.
They did have our records on file after all and should have been able to look that information up and drop it in the mail. We ended up starting our tour with the welded axle and took our chances. Three days into our Danube ride it broke again.
This time we decided to find a couchsurfing host who we could mail it to on our tour itinerary and see if we could work with Bike Friday to get another one sent. We started the whole process over again and found someone in Serbia to receive it.
Again the trailer axle didn’t make it. We learned as did our rep at Bike Friday that it is difficult to ship anything into Serbia. So I don’t fault them as much for not getting it to us the second time, but their failure to ship in time to Switzerland made us think twice about their reputation for getting you parts when you need them WHERE you need them.
It made me wonder about other cycle tourists who ride Bike Fridays with the trailer system and where they actually take their bikes. Part of our decision to get it was that we could tour one way with the suitcase trailer system. Given the problems we had with it, not to mention its awkward size for narrow roads, I’ll never travel with the trailer again.
I still think that the pack-ability of the tandem has its advantages, but instead of the trailer I would rather get smaller cardboard boxes to pack it in and put it on a plane that way. I could then ditch the boxes on arrival and find new ones when it was time to return. With enough tape and cardboard you can pack it well enough to survive a plane flight.
While this isn’t indicative of everyone’s Bike Friday experience it is worth considering if you are going to buy one and take it to places outside of the western world. You might also consider what parts would be difficult to find and carry extras if you are going to remote places. Our fixes came from the least likely places, the hotel maintenance man in Luxembourg and a coffee shop owner in Hungary.
One valuable take away lesson from this is that you will find help where you least expect it. By all means take advantage of the people you meet who speak English and ask them for help. You are likely to get what you need.