For years I’ve been getting around Luton on an old BMX, a primitive and simple bike that has required little maintenance and is easy to move through our mid-terrace house when not in use. But it’s knackered. It can’t carry anything. The kids’ bikes are now bigger and better than mine, and they want to go on longer rides than you can do on a BMX. It’s time for an upgrade – though my wife has made that argument for about a decade.
It has taken me a long time to find a bike to replace it. I wanted a cargo bike so I could take it shopping or carry tools or a picnic. Cargo bikes tend to be pretty big though, and my house is small. I hadn’t found the kind of thing I was looking for, except in e-bike form at prices I couldn’t afford. At one point I was telling a friend that I just wanted a basic cargo bike like the postman used to ride. And it occurred to me that since the Post Office don’t use them any more, those very same bikes must be available somewhere second-hand. I googled it, and found the Elephant Bike.
The Post Office used cargo bikes for over a century. As working bikes on a daily round, they had to be robust, low maintenance and capable of carrying a decent load. An ideal bike was designed and built for them by the British firm Pashley. It was called the Mailstar and there were thousands of them in use around the country.
Changing mail patterns made bikes less convenient for postal workers, with more parcels and fewer letters. As it became more impractical in an age of internet shopping, the Mailstar was phased out from 2010, despite petitions to keep it. Rather than scrap them, 25,000 bikes were collected and donated to Cycle of Good. Most of them were shipped to Malawi, where they have been refurbished and sold on through a local social enterprise called Bee Bikes.
The remaining 5,000 ex-postal bikes are refurbished to order by a social enterprise employing ex-offenders in Stoke on Trent. They are sold as Elephant Bikes, and customers buying them in the UK support the twin operation in Malawi.
Since an ex-postal bike was what I wanted, I was delighted to come across this story and I ordered one. I’m very pleased with it, and with its three gears it’s a threefold improvement on the BMX and the challenge of Luton’s hills. If you want an Elephant Bike yourself, there’s a limited stock and there won’t be any more of them once they’re gone. You can order one here.
Two final points. One is that it would be great to see postal bikes return, perhaps with some electric assistance. The Royal Mail has to reach net zero by 2050 just like every other business in the UK. E-trikes have been trialled and I suspect that they will make a comeback in some form, particularly in cities.
And what became of the BMX? I put it out the front of my house with a post-it note that read ‘free – you could win Olympic gold on this bike’, and it was gone in ten minutes.