I make no apology for my vocal loathing of cars. They ruin everything, everywhere, all the time. The catastrophic contribution of their production and use to the climate emergency is but the tip of a monolithic iceberg of ills that they inflict upon our ailing planet, and human culture and society. This very much includes trendy, taxpayer-subsidised electric vehicles (EVs). Even among the most cringeworthy and myopic support pieces for this corrupt and murderous industry admit that EVs presently offer around a modest 30% CO2 reduction in the UK, which is cancelled out by the vile SUV fad.
When we moved ‘home’ to rural Norfolk from Italy in late 2018, we had no intention of buying a motor vehicle. By the following spring, we were over using buses (in the limited cases they existed) for transporting items that exceeded pannier and rack capacity and I bought a Burley Flatbed bike cargo trailer for around £190 (thru axle, flag and tyre upgrade not included). There are several good technical reviews of the product (GearLab’s is comparative and BikeRadar’s is for an older version but remains relevant) but this post is more from the viewpoint of how well it performs as a tool to facilitate a car-free lifestyle.
The Museo Mestieri in Bicicletta (the museum of professions on a bicycle) in Gubbio, Umbria beautifully demonstrates how not so long ago, before consumer capitalists cleverly persuaded us to trade our physical and mental wellbeing, our public space and our natural heritage for a pernicious myth sold on convenience and individual freedom, heavily loaded bikes were the workhorses of mobile professionals. Such is the pervasiveness of modern car culture that both friends and strangers routinely express disbelief and pity when encountering our loaded trailer. We’ve often tried, when declining offers of motorised ‘assistance’, to convince incredulous acquaintances that riding a bike is a pleasurable transportation choice we make gladly and freely, including when hauling gear behind us (perhaps even more so, with an added sense of satisfaction). This post attempts to supplement the drier, descriptive elements of a review with a sense of that trailer-assisted fun and utility.
Burley Flatbed summary
- Weight: 7kg
- Wheels: 16″/41cm alloy (two-wheel, packable design with push button quick release); common to Brompton and many kids’ bikes with readily available tubes and multiple tyre options
- Recommended maximum capacity: 45kg (around 108 standard cans of beans/128 330ml cans of beer; weight of tow bar at hitch should not exceed 9kg). Some users report greatly exceeding this without issue
- Modular design with spares and upgrades available
- Flexi-hitch rated at 3-5 years’ lifetime
- UK price (April 2021) around £203-270; shop around!
- Very lightweight yet strong, with huge capacity.
- Great pulling characteristics and effective, easy to operate ‘Flexi-hitch’ that allows the bike to be laid down and manoeuvred independently.
- Enormous flexibility offered by the open design and modular upgrades; even more so with some of the creative hacks found around the internet. E-bikes make this an even more attractive prospect.
- Easily foldable for travel; push-button wheel removal couldn’t be simpler or more convenient.
- All components are replaceable. The spares we’ve required (Burley thru axle, replacement wheel dust cap and spare Flexi-hitch) have been readily available in the UK.
- Stock 16/1.75 Hang Zhou Rubber Factory tyres offer minimal puncture protection. Although some reviewers have reported having no issues, I’d recommend upgrading them in urban, thorny and flinty environments (after experiencing a flat with a full load).
- Not supplied with a flag; I bought one online and fastened its holder with cable ties. This is only an issue for on-road use but some kind of pre-engineered attachment point would be a useful addition to the kit.
- Vinyl floor is obviously more prone to puncture than (much) heavier steel and plastic designs. We’ve had no issues with using a layer of cardboard for protection.
Observations in use
Towing the unladen trailer on well inflated tyres is barely noticeable and it tracks well (indeed, a child can pull it). A bike obviously handles differently with any loaded trailer. The conservative recommended speed limits are 15mph (24km/h) on “smooth, straight roads” and 5mph (8km/h) “when turning or on uneven roads”. I’ve reached downhill speeds of 25mph+ with heavy loads and experienced no issues at all. I guess I’d be more cautious if I still had the cantilever brakes of my previous utility bike. However, hydraulic discs stop the rig fine. Bouncing and noise are minimal over rough rural lanes. We’ve not used it off-road (but many have).
If money were no object, I’d also buy a single wheel ‘adventure’ style trailer for dragging lighter shopping loads on the singletrack sections of the Marriott’s Way and some of the rougher local lanes that resemble doubletrack. As it is, I make do by riding the bike over the central strip of mud and flint to allow the trailer to track either side or, on less extreme sections, bounce one trailer wheel along the rough stuff. Another option, which retains the capacity and flexibility of the flatbed design, is Burley’s 16+ wheel kit. The 16+ rims have an internal width of around 40mm (double that of the 20mm standard wheels) to accommodate fat tyres.
I can understand one school of thought that says flatbed trailers should be avoided for bikepacking due to the temptation to (over)load them to capacity. However, in the context of an expedition with the need for, for example, packrafting, scientific or climbing kit, or when basecamp equipment is needed, I wouldn’t hesitate to take the Burley Flatbed, assuming that singletrack and hike-a-bike would feature minimally.
The two-wheel, open design, optional kits and high capacity make this a supremely flexible tool for hauling just about any stuff you can persuade to stay on board. Although Burley produces a dedicated cargo net, I feel that good old broken inner tubes are a more flexible and secure means of keeping loads in place. I use a sheet of spare ripstop nylon left over from DIY tool roll production as a rain and spray cover. Looking through Amazon user reviews and Burley’s own website reveals that the Flatbed has been used to shift, among other things, bales of hay, doors, canoes, skis, a quartered caribou and hunting kit, and beach chairs, and it has been hitched to a penny farthing. I particularly love these accounts of using a fat bike to pull a dog and firewood and doing likewise through snow with the fat tyre and ski kits.
There is a trade-off between the minimal weight and the choice of vinyl as the floor material (and the usual compromise between mass and price). Two models for sale on Amazon at less than half the cost of the Burley have steel construction and weigh an impractical sounding 17 and 18kg. The cheaper Aosom Wanderer, with its plastic bottom and steel tubing, weighs almost 14kg. Our precaution of placing a flat, thick piece of cardboard over the bed has been effective so far, albeit somewhat inelegant. We often store it muddy and wet, with a cursory shake on the following use to remove the worst of the dirt. Elsewhere, I’ve seen mixed reviews ranging from easily punctured to virtually indestructible. It seems that, with appropriate care, it can deal with heavy duty use.
Weight isn’t just an issue in terms of rider fatigue — trailers put torque through dropouts, causing stress and, potentially, sliding axles. I haven’t experienced this with my beefy MTB-style dropouts but quick release users may be more likely to do so. Burley states that the balance point minimises torque at the hitch. Although the two-wheel chassis is inherently stable, without the need to balance loads that comes with a single-wheel model, I do try to load the heaviest items over the axle in order to minimise the weight on the tow bar.