Hacking The Humble Roadster Bicycle

Think of bicycles, and your first mental image could be something pretty fancy. Depending on which side of the sport you favor, you could end up thinking of a road bike or an MTB, maybe DH, CX, BMX, TT, tandem or recumbent.

But for people in most parts of the World such as Asia, Africa and South America, the bicycle conjures up a very different image – that of the humble roadster. And this simple, hardy machine has spawned innumerable hacks to extend its usefulness and functionality by enterprising people with limited means. For them, it is not as much a means of transport, as a means for livelihood and survival.

The Dabbawallahs

Mumbai’s population is estimated to be about 20 million with a density second only to Dhaka, Bangladesh. For scale, that’s about a third of the whole of UK, and half of all of Canada. Just delivering food to all these people is no mean feat. Enter the Dabbawallah, a uniquely Mumbai profession whose existence helps most Mumbaikars eat on time.

Late in the mornings, a Dabbawallah goes about house to house collecting the tiffin boxes (“dabbas”, essentially lunch boxes) on his roadster bicycle, and then delivers it at the nearest train station. The dabbas are then sorted, aggregated and taken to their destinations, where another Dabbawallah does a similar job of delivering them to their owners. Repeat in reverse in the late afternoon, and by evening all dabbas are back to their homes. Based on what I see every day when I bike commute to work, these folks carry anywhere between 40 to 50 dabbas on each bicycle. The bike rear rack, called a “carrier”, holds dozens of sturdy hooks, as does the front handlebar, for holding the dabbas. No other vehicle in Mumbai is capable of performing this task as well as the roadster can, and only very recently have some Dabbawallahs been able to “upgrade” to Mopeds. While a little bit quicker, these Mopeds can nowhere carry as many dabbas as the roadsters can.

The Knife Sharpener

I’m not sure if this is a common sight in other places, but out here, we used to have a lot of them cycling around the streets of towns and cities all over. Unfortunately, they are becoming increasingly rare, and I nowadays spot just one or two during a month in Mumbai. To do their job, they need to roam the streets and go house to house asking if people want to sharpen their kitchen knives. The roadster allows them to cover a much larger area compared to walking. But the roadster also doubles up as the sharpening machine. A bike stand over the rear wheel allows the bike to be propped up so it stays upright. The sharpener loops a piece of twine between a large pulley in the rear wheel and a small one fixed on the top tube. The small pulley drives the grinding wheel. The sharpener then sits on the rear rack, and pedals away while sharpening the knives over the grinding wheel.

Transporting Goods

roadsters are commonly used in many parts of the world for transportation, with local variations. For example, in my neck of the woods, plywood is a widely used material when people are furnishing their houses. The last mile delivery, from the plywood shop to the house, is done using a roadster. The sheets range in size from 8’x4’ down to 6’x3’ (yeah, the Imperial system still persists in Architecture related activities here). How do you get such large sheets on the bike? All you need is a small “J” hook attached to the chain stay of the bicycle. The sheets are then placed resting on the “J” hook and the drive side pedal. The delivery guy just walks the bicycle to his destination. With minor hacks to the bicycle, locals are able to move large volumes or weight of cargo – coconuts, loaves of bread, large stacks of eggs or bunches of (live) chickens, children’s toys and more. The Milkman and the Postman on roadster bicycles are a common sight, even in Mumbai. There’s nothing that can’t be moved on the roadster.

Gas Cylinder Delivery

This is by far, the scariest cargo bike hack I’ve ever seen. Not everyone here has piped cooking gas, and a large percentage of homes receive cooking gas cylinders. These are delivered on three-wheeled trikes. The rear triangle and drive train from a roadster is mated to a cargo cage officially designed to hold four or six cylinders. There’s just one brake, activated by pushing a foot lever on the seat tube, connected to the rear wheel. An empty cylinder weighs about 15 kg and a full cylinder is 30 kg. To reduce trips from the warehouse to the consumers, the delivery guys load anywhere from 12 to 16 cylinders on the trike. All told, they’re pushing a weight in excess of 400 kg, with just a puny pair of brake shoes to stop them. It’s always a sight to see these trikes being driven on the narrow, crowded streets of Mumbai. Sometimes, they use bicycles, loading five to six cylinders weighing almost 150 kg.

Transporting Humans

Everyone’s probably seen trike “Rickshaws” popular in Asia. Takes two or three adults or a large bunch of kids (ferrying them to/from school in small towns).

Every example here involves people struggling to eke out a living, so the bicycles don’t get any fancy gear drive trains to help make things easier. In most cases, it is just a rusty chain turning a dry sprocket, with a single brake if it’s a trike. But the roadster is such a hardy machine, that it takes a lot of abuse before it gives up the ghost.

The bicycle is likely one of humankind’s best inventions, and the simple roadster is not just a vehicle to get from one place to another, but a whole lot more to millions of people around the world. Check the video below on Burundi’s Biking Bananas. The situation is exactly the same across most of Asia and Africa as shown in the video.

65 thoughts on “Hacking The Humble Roadster Bicycle

  1. I love seeing hacks with limited resources creatively executed!
    I’m surprised that here stateside bikes aren’t that common for transportation.
    Where I live its almost entirely stolen children’s BMX bikes used by drug dealers for cheap transportation. There are very few creative hacks there.

    1. Even tho I’m in my 40s and haven’t been able to see my ribs for 15 years, I could easily pedal the 8 miles to work. But only if there were bike lanes or even sidewalks between home and work. Which there are none. It’d be either ride on the highway or sketchy 2 lane rural roads with no shoulder. Both options are a deathwish as well as I would be a nuisance to thousands of motorists every day if I dared.

      I know this wouldn’t work in Americas largest cities, but in a city as small as where I live you rarely see anyone on sidewalks. But occasionally I’ll see someone cycling in the street impeding traffic, I know it’s the law not to but I’d prefer to see people ride bikes on the sidewalk. Safer for the guy pedaling, traffic keeps flowing, sidewalk gets some use.

        1. Now that’s a thought – would it be possible to run a bicycle rickshaw “taxi” service in New York, to avoid the medallion system? Do the existing taxi laws apply to human propelled vehicles?

          1. AFAIK, the medallion rules don’t apply to rickshaws, which you find in New York. They’re not even rare. In fact, you have limos (“black cars”), and a whole second system of taxis (they’re green and I’ve seen them uptown; don’t know anything else about them). I live in LA now, and we got some very nice bike lanes for a ~15 block stretch of Venice Blvd, and you wouldn’t believe the hue and cry from some locals. It’s as if that third lane were their favorite relative.

      1. I don’t see where your comment ties in with the post, but I’ll play along….

        I see more motorized vehicles than bicycles impeding traffic. The answer is not more cars. I drive and ride my bike to work depending on the day (~12mi). It takes the same time by car or bike. When I drive, I don’t see a single bike in the way and I still spend half the commute at 0mph. I know it’s painful to follow a bike for 10 seconds at 15-20mph until it’s safe to pass, but let’s remember, 15mph is waaayyyy faster than 0mph while waiting your turn in line at the backed-up traffic light. Let’s encourage more people to ride bikes so we don’t have to sit through so many red lights.

          1. Can’t tell if you’re being sarcastic. In a free, non-third world country, we should be allowed to travel however we want to. Nobody is forcing anybody out of their car. Let’s be adults and share.

          2. Alex, unfortunately we have some green-party people in the city government, which are very much against cars and destroy driving lanes or parking spaces in favor of bike ways. Often in places where you have not much more than 3 bikes/week.

          3. Interesting you note that since after going through the trike files I have on my computers… most are either internal combustion powered designs or what I was planning to do with the design I was working on since seemed more cost effective than the Rohlof Speed Hub… use a Honda 1000W generator, I used to have that was stolen, with an electric motor hub. I was also planning on a newer design using a 150cc crotch rocket to make more of a T-Rex faster fuel efficient design that would be freeway legal.

          4. “independent from the weather” is either sarcastic or clueless, and every person who’s riding their bike or taking the train is making your auto commute faster and safer.

      2. There are some bike friendly communities in the U.S. Madison WI is one that comes to mind I’ve experienced transportation development specifically for, maker spaced to build and there are others. Michigan has some trails dedicated though they’re not so city integrated for transit throughout the state yet… at least from my experience though I do recall Detroit, Grand Rapids and some other communities having bicycle ministries/centers with fabricate or repair resources. Colorado is about the only state I’ve seen fairing recumbent trikes/bikes on the road… that was around Colorado Springs. You can get your not only medical cannabis delivered too on bike if I recall in some places in the U.S. also.

        1. I’ll dig up the files that I have for my tandem trike (cargo/tandem/racing like with more rear storage) that I started designing to use a mountain bike frame and pair of forks with shocks with a recumbent racing style trike front end seating that mounts to the neck of the rear frame. The vision was to make more versatile for hauling, touring and living off of. Interesting timing since the B-17 reference regarding foam cutting for that project got me thinking about my fairing design again and for the spray skirt for the canoe. I think it was the Honda Spree’s or Elites that someone turned into a trike that used the strip foam fairing design method… if not some other low drag bike/trike.

          In regards to bike routes… did find some other references and looks like there are more resources on Google Maps to show U.S. routes and maybe even World routes:

          Plus I forgot Google Maps has the option to choose a bike route also.

          1. @JustWandering: Thanks for the flashback to 2012 reminder. They were one of my inspirations among others when searching Google images. You reminded me of two interesting systems which are worth noting for designers… the internal gear hubs for the cranks and wheel… plus adding another freewheel into the design if you’re going tandem.

            These two were in the plans (must have been in the mobile office that was stolen. Thankfully, what I have in the link was in an email on the cloud):

      3. When I was 10, a friend and I tried to get a bike path here, I’ve never heard of an earlier attempt locally. That was 1970, about 1984 I realized it was the wrong path.

        Relevant is that we were going to a hobby shop so I could buy a telegraph set, so I could learn morse code, in anticipation if getting a ham license, though at the time Canads required you to be 15 or over, so it was in the future. A telegraph set was not useful, I needed to hear more code, nobody I knew, knew how to send it.


      4. I cycle 50 to 100mile a week commuting to work (in the UK) depending on the train station I get off. I’m nearly 52 and my ribs are more than evident. Been hit by a car,van or (closest so far) a skip lorry is a daily thing you have to deal with. I can cycle 5 to 6 miles on my bike faster than any car you care to name during rush hour traffic and assuming I haven’t been killed by someone in vehicle who couldn’t be bothered to slow down for me because I wasn’t on the pavement (sidewalk) I will take that as a win. During rush hour cyclist do not slow the traffic down in my experience they are all moving at least 3 times faster than motor vehicles.
        I do have a car by the way it is just easier to train and cycle to work every day even though it is more expensive.
        Try it and your ribs might make an appearance.

      5. People in the middle of the United States have believed it is their god given right to drive gasoline powered vehicles since 1950 and will do so until the planet is burnt to a crisp, rather than see their tax dollars go towards alternative transportation or slow down for 20 seconds to pass a cyclist. Which, ironically most of it is flat and would be excellent for bicycle travel. Yes, I realize that bicycle travel is not perfect for every single scenario in every person’s life, so please don’t point all these out.

        1. The climate alarmists try to bring us back at the level of third world countries. Unfortunately we have this problem even more in Europe. A bike is a sports device, only really poor people have to use it for transportation.

          1. Cars are also sports devices; Only people with a steady income can afford to buy and maintain one. A bike is a perfectly acceptable mode of transportation, and it is a basic human right to be able travel on public land(roads) in any mode we see fit. It’s a depressing reality if the only way we are allowed to see the world is from the inside of a tin can.

          2. >” Only people with a steady income can afford to buy and maintain one. ”

            Isn’t steady income kinda the aim, as in, everyone should have one? If you’re arguing for bicycles instead of cars, you’ve kinda failed as a society at that point.

          3. ICE or hybrid vehicles are also IMO a medicinal device somewhat for more hostile areas and maybe even a survival requirement that albeit was a luxury like most new implements… can in more dangerous environment provide medical value undeniably with heating or air conditioning… even air filtering.

            Now, in regards to a steady income requirement…; I’m going to go out on the having personally studied the lower socioeconomic income range more-so in the last 10yrs…, with no criminal activity involved methods… there are ways like salvage yards, junk yards, improvised hacks with salvage scrap yards or recycling center, free postings online or in print and even places where people donate vehicles to obtain a vehicle without a steady income.

            Technically, in the U.S. you can register your vehicle in New Hampshire to avoid the insurance requirement. Only pay for your registration and plates. Pay for insurance when you drive only if you have to have insurance in a state requiring insurance and only pay for gas and other maintenance expenses as needed. Therefore, I don’t think a steady income is required. I’ve even found some maker spaces or NSF labs have auto shop equipment, paint booths to paint and do body work.

            Might be a ministry area of opportunity for in the future in other parts of the world. Might even be able to integrate into a business model where the vehicle is used for income generation also for delivery or mobile service work for longer distance commuting needs.

          4. I forgot to add electric vehicles too. Those can be hacked together also without a steady income… albeit more challenging unless sourcing from other equipment components from what I’ve found. Might be more electric only vehicles in the salvage yards eventually… though I’ve never observed or for free to remove.

        2. As usual, it’s more complicated than that.
          When I was going to an office every day, I tried the bike and bus combo. The buses here in metro Denver have limited rack space for bikes, first comers get them. My commute bike-only would have been a solid two hours, and I would have needed a shower; American office workers are expected to smell like soap, not sweat. In the end, I took the bus when I could, drove the rest of the time.
          The irony in my case is that I dislike driving and would like to be able to bike to work. But these days I work from home …

    2. The big problem you run into is size. You’ll notice his references all come from extremely densely populated cities. You can ride a bike with groceries across a relatively large city without to much trouble. If you told every farmer in mid west US that he had to ride his bike 20+ miles to and from the grocery store and he’d only be able to carry enough goods to feed him for 2-3 days depending on family size. Well bikes just are no longer practical solutions. People used to produce some food themselves just to avoid this constant travel for food, that is no longer necessary so bikes are relegated to where they make sense. Densely populated cities.

    3. “I love seeing hacks with limited resources creatively executed!”

      Totally is impressive. Low tech high tech especially.

      Tragedy is the epidemic smuggling history of highly addictive substances that degenerated our economy into making buys and sells to flip stuff and not really producing as much… including agriculture and more home economics activity. Seems like more nuisance invasive paradigm of thinking in general issues up to leadership in government especially allowing for since positions and entitlements have been sacked in some venues.

      Neat article and range of examples for sure.

      1. As opposed to Beijing when I visited 13 years ago.
        I really expected to see a lot of bicycles on the streets, like I had seen in pictures, videos as a child.
        But about the only ones were the 3 wheelers the street sweepers (people/not machines) used.

    1. Top gear did an episode on this profession a long time ago (quite funny). The reason is 2 fold from my understanding (although I’m sure the author knows more then I).
      1. The wives often prepare the food and so there’s no guarantee it was ready when the husband left for work.
      2. So that the food is still warm when it arrives. State side people frequently either eat cold lunches, microwave leftovers, or go out to buy them. Having hot home made lunch delivered to work each day is a value apparently a lot of people there are willing to pay.

        1. Oh wow. That reminds me of my days riding the C-Trains in Calgary. (That video is way way worse, though!). I’d often have to wait for 2-3 trains to go by before I’d find one with space enough to squeeze on. I never wanted to be “that guy” who had a dangling bag that would cover the door sensors, preventing the train from leaving the station.

          It makes me wonder, though – why aren’t double-decker trains a thing? Too many changes needed to existing infrastructure?

          1. “…why aren’t double-decker trains a thing?”

            Probably wouldn’t work for electric trains because of the overhead electrical lines. Also, not sure how the physics would work since the rail gauge is already narrow as it is. Making rail cars more top heavy is probably a bit dangerous.

          2. The issue is rather, that introducing double decker trains would simply attract twice the passengers. The problem is population density, not the trains.

            And getting on/off the second floor would be impossible

          3. We have double decker trains in switzerland for decades (IC2000, IR-Dosto and the new FV-Dosto). Nothing fancy, and they work on any regular train tracks, without any modification to the height of the electric overhead system, tunnels or other infrastructure.

          4. “why aren’t double-decker trains a thing?”
            Using Sydney (NSW, Australia) as an example, because they’re only suitable for longer-distance express trips. The whole point of DD is not to increase total capacity, but to increase *seating* capacity. For this reason the carriages have as much DD length as possible (everything between the bogies), so the only door positions are near the ends of the carriages. With only two doors per side per carriage, and with stairs acting as internal choke points, dwell time is usually *much* worse than is possible with SD, to the extent of reducing line capacity.

            Sydney’s had DD carriages for half a century, and it’s been a problem for a while. We’re now building a totally separate SD line, although there are both technical and political reasons for that!

        2. Wow. Trains aren’t a thing where I live, so I don’t know if this is already common, but just not in this video, or isn’t feasible or a good idea for reasons I don’t know. Why aren’t trains and stations designed so that passengers embark from one side and disembark out of the other side?

          1. They are. The system just goes hang when too many people are trying to get in, because they try to be clever and enter at the exit side “where there’s no lines”. Of course then, the whole carriage gets blocked and people can’t get in or out, but that’s third world logic for you. Everybody for themselves.

  2. The bolder side of bike hacking third world style is bolt together or the crudest welded 3 and 4 wheel transport mashed together from two or more frames. I would like to see more in that area. Outriggers and side by side pair-quad. I understand the Dutch have a very creative use of cargo bikes etc.

  3. I was expecting to find an article about putting preposterous stuff on your overpriced beach cruiser (like a POV display on your spokes)… instead, an article about real people using bikes. Well done.

    This year, in the warm weather I managed to ride all the way to work once a week (10 miles each way), and rode to the train station the other days, or brought a folding bike on the train. Toronto is growing their bike infrastructure, and has a pretty good bike sharing program. Some folks even bike in the winter.

    1. I like to bike as well, but adding 10 miles both ways takes an hour and a half extra time every day, and it’s exhausting if you want to do it quickly. If I’m not getting paid, I’d rather be doing something else.

      1. Biking the whole way (bike paths) was almost as fast as driving during rush hour, and faster than transit.What was that you said about time, again? The exercise was of course bonus.

  4. I cycled through Burundi on one of those banana bike in 2009 as well. On thing the video doesn’t mention (but you can just see it in the videos) is that most of these bikes have foot breaks. This is a really important feature as they (as most bikes in East Africa at the time) use rod brakes which are awful. The home-made foot brakes make it possible to travel like that.

  5. It is hard to believe that nobody here has mentioned Bikes Not Bombs yet:


    “Bikes Not Bombs uses the bicycle as a vehicle for social change. We reclaim thousands of bicycles each year. We create local and global programs that provide skill development, jobs, and sustainable transportation.”

    I double-dare anyone to find a more worthy charity

  6. “But for people in most parts of the World such as Asia, Africa and South America”

    Couldn’t at least find ONE documented example from “South America” … wherever “South America” is …

    Plenty of uses from Asian countries and that’s basically all …

  7. wow…only a troll could deny that the bicycle is the most efficient, adaptable form of mechanized land transport ever invented!

    @N , we have a similar group here in the UK: https://www.re-cycle.org/

    A classic hack: the cargo bikes used by the Vietnamese. How bad are those handlebar and saddle-tube extensions?


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