Category Archives: electric assist

Our new cargo bike: Hello, EdgeRunner

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They're kind of wusses.

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They’re kind of wusses.

People who see us around San Francisco may have already noticed that we have added a new cargo bike to our stable. Around when school started, we got an EdgeRunner. It’s fantastic.

I realize that we are in a fortunate position in being able to buy a second cargo bike outright. When we sold our minivan in 2012, we got enough money from it to buy two assisted cargo bikes. So we used about half of that money to buy the Bullitt, and we saved the rest for some vague future transportation need. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d want to replace our car eventually, and figured the money we saved could be a nice down payment if it came to that. Two years later, we’ve found that we are just fine with renting cars for our very occasional driving trips, and have no desire to own one.

However we were feeling that it would be very helpful to have a second 2-kid capable cargo bike. The construction work in our garage smashed up the mamachari (RIP, mamachari), so we were suddenly down a bike. With two kids going to the same school for the first time this year, we were in the new position of wanting each parent to be able to pick up and drop off the kids together—before, we could split up because each of them was going to a different place at a different time. That was way more complicated, but it also meant that riding around on one-kid-hauling bikes wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, our son had become a strong enough rider that he was ready to go to school sometimes on his own bike. The problem with that was that the kids take a bus to their after-school program, and there are no bikes allowed on the bus. So if he was going to ride, we needed a way to get his bike from the drop-off at school to the pickup at after-school.

One option was to assist the Kona MinUte—because both kids are too heavy to haul around unassisted now—but it was a tight fit for two kids even when they were smaller, and left the question of how to haul our son’s bike unresolved. If you’re in the bike-on-bike-hauling business, your best bike is a longtail. We had taken enough test rides over the years to know that our favorite longtail, by a long shot, was the EdgeRunner. So around the time school started, we headed to The New Wheel to buy a BionX EdgeRunner. They were our bike shop of choice because they know so much about assists—anyone can take care of an unassisted bike, but having an electric assist-focused shop to maintain our bikes is an enormous luxury and it would be crazy not to take advantage of it. Also they are very nice. Even though we have to cross town and haul up serious hills to get there, which is not fun with kids when an assist is on the fritz, it is worth the effort.

This is Davey Oil's stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

This is Davey Oil’s stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

Because I’ve gotten particular about certain things over the last couple of years, we put some unusual accessories on the bike as well. I credit G&O Family Cyclery for these particular specs, which I tried and loved on one of the EdgeRunners I rode while visiting Seattle to compare the BionX to the Stokemonkey. Specifically, we added a frame-mounted front rack and Rolling Jackass (very regrettable name) center stand from Haulin’ Colin in Seattle. The front rack was a huge pain to install, given that no one in San Francisco had done it before, and almost made me wish I’d flown my bike to Seattle instead of having the rack put on locally. But the payoff was a massive front basket (I have a Wald Giant basket zip-tied to the rack) that is independent of the steering and absolutely rock-solid, and that has easily swallowed loads like: my work tote, both kids’ backpacks, a clarinet, and a bag of groceries, with room for more. Finally, the EdgeRunner’s tiny rear wheel meant that I was getting a much bigger boost from the assist, which in my still-weakened state, meant that this was going to be my primary ride for a while.

The transition to riding the EdgeRunner with both kids was not without its issues. Our son doesn’t ride his own bike every single day, because he tends to go at a maximum speed of 7mph, making even my normal pace look like road racing. When we leave home on the later end of normal, we have to stick him on the trailer-bike to make it to school on time, and that means I’ll end up carrying both kids home in the afternoon. Although both kids easily fit on the EdgeRunner’s deck, for the first two weeks sharing the deck they fought so relentlessly that I actually found myself yelling, “I can stop this bike right here!” I am happy to report that this was a short-term problem—they eventually settled down, and now they usually have pleasant conversations sitting face-to-face during the times that they share the deck. The only remaining annoyance is that our long-legged son will drag his feet on the ground sometimes, which acts as an unwelcome extra brake and does his shoes no favors. He’s getting better about this.

Loading up my son's bike for the tow.

Loading up my son’s bike for the tow.

There are compensations. The biggest is that when he does ride, it is laughably easy for me to tow his bike to work in the morning, and to his after school program in the afternoon before riding home. It has definitely reduced our load and is improving his stamina (and although he doesn’t like to admit it yet, he’s in a much better mood when he rides to school and back home). The bike can also haul unusual loads that were formerly pretty tricky. When I had to pick him up from school a couple of weeks ago because he’d gotten sick, I had no trouble towing the bike while he was nodding off on the deck. That kind of doubling-up has historically been the Bullitt’s weakness.

Our daughter is our primary deck-rider, though. The EdgeRunner deck has a bit more space for a kid than the Bullitt, but it is also uncovered. This has led to some complaints about having to experience weather, and some excitement. We have a Hooptie around the deck, and given our daughter’s personality, that was a smart move. She treats the deck as a combination small room and performance space, and kind of does what she feels like doing back there. Sometimes that’s lying down flat to take a nap. Sometimes that’s standing on the deck on one tiptoe while holding onto my shoulders. Sometimes that’s leaning waaaaaaaaay over to one side to check out something on the ground (at which point I once again feel a sense of gratitude for that low deck, because I can feel her doing it but it doesn’t dump the bike). The EdgeRunner is our mullet bike: business in front, party in the back. Our daughter has been a frequent flyer in the hospital emergency department since she was less than a year old, thanks to her try-everything attitude , which means that we have more experience assessing what constitutes a serious physical risk to her than we ever wanted. I’ve learned not to worry about her shenanigans, because her balance is excellent, she’s corralled by the Hooptie, our route consists of quiet streets and protected lanes, and I’m usually riding at (much) less than 10mph behind my son. However I definitely get a lot of drive-by parenting. I mean that literally. People in cars pull up next to us and tell me to tie her down, sometimes pointing to their own kids strapped in 5-point restraints in car seats as examples. I am already so over this. And I have begun to wonder, from a philosophical perspective, what it says about us as a society that our kids spend so much time literally tied down.

I digress.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now. These are the racks at my office.

Riding an EdgeRunner is also fun because it makes me to feel like I joined a club. Although it gets a lot of attention from people who don’t ride bikes, it is definitely the bike of choice among San Francisco parents (along with the Yuba Mundo). As one might expect, most of them are BionXed up as well. There are two EdgeRunners on the Panhandle riding to school most mornings, and I see a blue one just like mine almost every day, coming the opposite way on Post Street after I’ve dropped off the kids. There sometimes yet another EdgeRunner, with a Yepp seat, parked at the racks at my office. After a couple of years riding the Bullitt, which raises eyebrows wherever it goes and has tourists snapping photos, the relative obscurity of riding an EdgeRunner is a nice change of pace.

Most importantly, it does what we need it to do. The addition of the EdgeRunner means that Matt and I can each ride a cargo bike that can haul both kids, and/or their bikes, wherever we’re going. Even though the BionX is not the most powerful assist you can put on a bike, we have used it to get up the hills of Bernal Heights with both kids on the deck. That’s steeper than we ever hope to go on a daily basis. And with the regenerative braking it has crazy-range–I sometimes feel as though I’ve returned home with the same charge I had when I left.

We came late to having two big cargo bikes, but it’s been working well for us. Having two kids in the same school has allowed our schedules to ease enormously, and having two big bikes to haul them and their bikes around as needed makes it easier still. Our son may be slow when riding his own bike, but we’re still beating our old car commute times. I’ve heard a lot of people say that having a box-bike and a longtail is the perfect two-cargo bike situation. Based on our experience so far, I’d have to agree.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, commuting, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

Our two-year anniversary of Bullitt-ownership was yesterday. I had ambitions to write a post last year about our first year of riding, but then Totcycle did it for me. I basically agree with everything he wrote, so why bother saying the same stuff over again? “The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved.” I mean, that pretty much covers it. I have no way of assessing how far we’ve ridden on the bike (see below), but based on the mileage on our less-ridden bikes I would be shocked if it were anything less than 4,000 miles, and unsurprised if it were far more than that.

This setup never gets old, evidently.

This setup never gets old.

The specs on our bike ended up much like those of the Totcycle bike (but ours is blue): SLX 3×9, hydraulic disc brakes, standard LvH panels and seat. This is a lightweight and narrow setup that can go pretty much anywhere that a normal bike can go, which has a lot of value in a city of tight spaces. And although our climate is not rainy like Seattle’s, the rain cover is what sold our kids on the bike. It is a year-round greenhouse that protects them from cold and wind—this is San Francisco, so there’s not really that much cold, but there is definitely a lot of wind. One difference is that we added Supernova dynamo lights: to say we have zero regrets would be a massive understatement. That headlight is bright enough to effectively light a dark road in Golden Gate Park for the Bullitt and both kids’ bikes in front of it. We never worry about riding at night.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

I heard from someone a while back that he got the impression that the Bullitt was unreliable. This is so far from the truth that I laughed, but I suspect it is the hazard of occasional blogging—our life wanders on, and is punctuated by posts in which Something Happens. We did have a few hitches in the beginning, which related to stuff we stuck on the bike. Some of our accessory choices worked out well (the BionX assist, dynamo lights) and some did not (Patterson cranks). But the bike itself: bombproof. We love this bike. It changed our lives.

To get it out of the way, I’ll cover the things that went wrong first. They’re in three categories: (1) the Patterson cranks; (2) BionX; and (3) vandalism.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards.

First, the Patterson: When I got the bike, I really wanted a chain guard to protect my work pants. These are tough to include on a bike that has multiple front chain rings. Instead, Splendid suggested trying out the FSA Metropolis Patterson two-speed internally geared crankset. For the time that it worked, this was an awesome addition. We loved it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with the conditions here. We broke it twice riding on crappy streets, in the “speed bump with a deep crack in the asphalt on the other side” scenario that is pretty much a daily experience for us. We know to slow down for these on our regular routes, but on unfamiliar streets it was easy to hit a surprise divot at speed while loaded down with 100 pounds of cargo. The Patterson crankset just couldn’t take that kind of abuse. After the second breakdown and time-consuming repair, we swapped it out for a standard front triple, which cheerfully swallows whatever San Francisco can throw at it.

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

In the meantime, I learned to embrace a more San Francisco style of dress anyway, most importantly the ubiquitous look of skinny pants paired with dressy shoes. I grew up in Seattle, where “cute shoes” meant Birkenstocks, Merrells, Doc Martens or something chunky with thick straps from the Keen oeuvre, the kinds of shoes that make San Franciscans wince and scream, “My eyes!” So this shift involved a learning curve for me. But I can testify that it is an extremely bicycle-friendly way to dress. (I doubt this is a coincidence.) Happily we put MKS Grip King pedals on the Bullitt, still my favorite pedals ever, and they make it easy to ride in even the most ridiculous shoes. (I’ve heard reports that the Grip Kings sometimes get slippery in the rain, but here in California, which is still being ravaged by the worst drought in state history, that hasn’t been a question I can answer one way or the other.)

Second, the BionX: Our maintenance issues with the BionX have involved the good, the bad, and the stupid.

The stupid is that over a six-month period Matt dropped two controllers and shattered them, which is why we have no idea how many miles we’ve ridden this bike. The controllers are not a cheap part to replace. The bike shop glued the third one into place on the handlebars, so it couldn’t be removed, and since then: problem solved. I recommend this strategy to the butter-fingered BionX users among us.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

The bad is that in the first year we owned the bike, we broke a dozen spokes on the rear wheel. Twice. I really wish BionX had indicated that on a cargo bike or in seriously hilly terrain, the rear wheel is going to need much thicker spokes. We only found this out after the second set of spokes broke, after complaining about it to The New Wheel. They knew immediately what our problem was, which is the advantage of having an e-assist focused local shop around. So on round 3, we replaced the spokes with monster ones, and again: problem solved. Not expensive, but definitely annoying. I have heard other people report the same problem. Probably best to ask for extra-thick spokes from the start.

The good is that we are evidently the luckiest family in family biking, because last week, the Bullitt’s battery died. It ran out of juice and stopped recognizing the charger. And at that point we had one week left on our original two-year warranty. We took it to The New Wheel, which told us that BionX would honor the warranty and almost certainly send us a brand-new battery. Score! In the meantime the shop gave us a loaner battery to use. So we ride on.

An early ride with many more to come

An early ride with many more to come

Last is the vandalism. While this is a hassle, it’s not specific to the Bullitt, and I guess it beats having a bike stolen outright, which is what happened with the MinUte. Once the saddle was stolen in Japantown. It made getting the bike home a total PITA. When Matt took our son to a Giants game, rowdy fans broke a support on the rain cover, which led to a week of relentless griping by the kids while we waited for a replacement. And then there is the problem of drivers treating the front bucket like a garbage can. One woman actually threw a coffee cup into it from her parked car as Matt was riding by. These days we keep the rain cover on almost all the time.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger where we live since we bought our bike.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger since we bought our bike.

And those are the problems we’ve had. They sum up to one bad decision on a crankset, one instance of poor communication from BionX about spokes, and two dropped controllers (sigh). Given that we were coming to full-time cargo biking cold, in terrain that is much more challenging than was typical for family biking at the time we started riding, I figure we’re doing reasonably well. Sure, it would have been great to have had more information about the spokes and so on, but in the meantime we’ve had two good years of riding. The rest of the time the Bullitt has spent in the shop has been basic maintenance: we replaced the chain this summer, and we take it in every six months or so to have the wires checked and the BionX software updated. Most recently, we had the speed at which the BionX kicks in lowered to 0.5kph from its original 2mph. That resolved one of our biggest complaints with the assist, which was difficult hill starts. They are no longer difficult.

The Bullitt+Roland

The Bullitt+Roland

We worried that the narrow box would be too narrow, but it lasted longer than we dared to hope. Of course our kids have gotten bigger, and now that they are almost-9 and 5, it is tough to squeeze them both in the box (although they are willing). We now use the trailer-bike almost all the time. Our daughter is still getting used to the pre-8am kindergarten start-time, so she will doze in the box on the way to school while our son rides the trailer-bike or his own bike, depending on his mood and what time we got out the door in the morning (he is not a fast rider). Having just one kid in the box has given us some new cargo capacity, and that’s been fun. We won’t haul them to school on the Bullitt forever, but for now it’s still a good kid-hauler.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

So many ways to use a cargo bike

I still adore shopping by Bullitt. We’ve rented cars with trunks that are smaller than that front bucket. We just throw stuff in (groceries, carpets that need to be cleaned, the cat carrier, the table tennis set—with both kids too) and go. I have carried three kids on the Bullitt and Matt has carried four, and that was without the trailer. Granted, I would not do this on steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that a BionX Bullitt will not handle, at least not yet. We hear that the new BionX D system will change that, and given how much use we still expect to get from the Bullitt, we will almost certainly upgrade to that system when it is released. In the meantime, even our two-year old system gets us where we need to go.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

We feared that getting rid of our car would involve sacrifices. We were surprised that it has not, really. We still rent cars for weekend trips sometimes, but we’re always relieved to drop them off again. I didn’t think our monthly transportation expenses were unreasonable three years ago, but they dropped substantially when we sold the car, and that helped us buy our condo last year. I assumed that bike commuting would take extra time, but we have been surprised again and again at how much time we save. With the assist on high I can cross town to pick up a sick kid faster than I have ever been able to drive, because I don’t have to worry about traffic. Although my injury last year messed with my fitness, in general over the last few years we’ve been in good shape, a big switch from the first couple of years of parenthood. And I was pleasantly surprised that once you learn to ride the Bullitt—I had issues with the learning to ride it part—it stays with you forever. I got back on it after four months bed-bound and it was like I had never stopped. Furthermore, to this day, the Bullitt remains the only box-bike I have ever ridden that I can refer to as “nimble” (and keep a straight face).

And a big shout-out still to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids' play area at their new shop!)

A big shout-out goes to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which first had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids’ play area at their new shop!)

We owe it all to the Bullitt. What can I say? It even made us homeowners in San Francisco. It was the right family bike. We bought it at a time when there wasn’t much advice about buying bikes like these to be found. It was Splendid Cycles in Portland that imagined Bullitts could be a real family bike in the United States, and we were lucky to find them and right to trust them. We were making our decision blind, and we hit the jackpot. I recognize a Bullitt isn’t right for everyone—some people are too short, some places are flat enough that the bakfiets is a better fit, and it costs a mint—but we have zero regrets. I know that our kids will age out of being carried on the Bullitt, and being pulled by it, but it’s hard to imagine our outgrowing this bike. There is always something more to haul.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike

We tried it: Urban Arrow

As promised, the lede in 6 words:

Like Bakfietsen? You’ll love Urban Arrows.

Check it out: Redwood City has Urban Arrows and sunshine, too.

Check it out: Redwood City has Urban Arrows and sunshine, too.

I have had a couple of recent conversations with cool bike people recently that brought up something that has been in the back of my mind for a while. My feeling is that the family biking market is still pretty nascent and as a result there are mostly two kinds of bikes out there.

On the one hand you have the macho bikes. The view of family biking by companies that make these bikes ranges from, at best, detached bemusement (e.g. Larry v. Harry, which developed some basic kid accessories like a child seat and rain cover, but has never seen any need to mention them on its website or anything), to disinterest (Kona—“oh, you can carry kids on a bike?”—and Brompton, which as a company seems unaware of the aftermarket Pere child seat), to outright hostility (e.g. Surly and its new kid-unfriendly Big Dummy deck, Trek and its no-kids-allowed Transport). But to their credit, these companies put a lot of effort into (relative) nimbleness. In the universe of cargo bikes, these bikes are lighter, have better parts, are fitted with gears that can handle hills, and are safer and easier to ride in challenging conditions, by which I mean any conditions other than a flat street on a sunny day. (Okay, I exaggerate. But still.) And these bikes can go fast. Relatively speaking.

On the other hand you have the land yachts. These bikes are definitely family-friendly. They offer awesome kid-carrying capacity (even for large families), provide multiple ways to haul stuff/other bicycles as well as kids, and often have user-friendly accessories like integrated lights, step-over frames, upright seat positions, rear wheel locks and internal hubs. On the other hand, they typically weigh a ton and have a limited gear range and weak stock brakes, making them a challenge to ride on anything but the mildest of hills. And they are slow, even in the let’s-face-it-cargo-bikes-are-tanks class. I include in this category Madsens, Bakfietsen, Yuba Mundos, and every tricycle and unassisted mamachari I have ever seen or ridden.

The cargo bike market reminds me a bit of the car market in the 1960s. You could buy a station wagon (so practical! so massive! so slow!) or you could buy a “sporty” car, and hope for the best as you stuck your kids in a homespun “car seat” or harnessed them to long straps above the rear seat that offered a non-trivial strangulation risk. My mom hauled us around in a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair for years in those harnesses, because my parents believed in buying older used cars and keeping them until they literally fell to pieces decades later.

There are exceptions, and I have ridden some. On the longtail side, Xtracycle’s EdgeRunner is both family-friendly and nimble. On the box bike side, Metrofiets customizes almost all the bikes they make, so they can be tailored to weird cargo and/or families large and small, plus they start out as more-than-decent hill climbers and can be turned into awesome ones.

And there is the Urban Arrow. Thanks to an integrated electric assist, Urban Arrow turns a bike that is completely land yacht in character into something with many of the capabilities of a macho bike.

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

The Urban Arrow is a hard bike to find, let alone to test-ride, and the only people we know who have one bought sight unseen. Fortunately for us, Motostrano in Redwood City imports them, and will allow test rides whenever it gets orders in, if you get on the wait list. Motostrano is an interesting shop. From the outside it’s all posters of scantily-clad women draped over motor scooters, which definitely gave me pause. On the inside it offers a huge selection of assisted and unassisted commuter bikes (plus other kinds of bikes that I don’t care about, FYI). And they had boxes and boxes of bike stickers that they handed over to my kids. Pasting those stickers all over their clothes and helmets completely obsessed both kids while we learned about the Urban Arrow, and made them happier than anything else they did all weekend. We were glad that we made the trip down, which was, frankly, a not-inconsiderable hassle.

What I like about the Urban Arrow

  • First, the Urban Arrow is a box bike. Not everyone loves a front-loading box bike, but I do. It’s easier to talk to the kids, it’s simple to protect them from bad weather, and the kid seating is elegant. It’s also much easier to walk front loaders than longtails because the weight is near the leverage of your arms. There is a reason that people think of—in the words of one family friend—“those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” when they think of family biking.
  • Footrest visible on the upper right, deck with drain holes, padded seat

    Foot cut-out visible on the upper right, deck with drain holes, padded seat

    The Urban Arrow’s child-hauling and commuting setup is unbelievably swank. The box is made of styrofoam [update: it’s not styrofoam, it’s expanded polypropylene, which is evidently better–see comment below] and forms a sort of roll cage in the event that you drop the bike. The manufacturer cut out step-holes in the front to make it easy for kids to climb into the bike, and the thick styrofoam serves as an arm rest on both sides. The bench seat, which had plenty of butt-room for my 8-year-old and 5-year old, is padded (there is an optional second bench seat if you have more kids than I do). The center stand has the same rock-solid design as the best-in-class bakfiets. The bottom plate has multiple holes for drainage. It has integrated front and rear lights and the wires run through the frame so they can’t be dislodged. The chain is enclosed, so you could easily ride this bike without incident while wearing palazzo pants. For that matter you could ride it in a maxi-skirt, because it also has a step-through frame. The battery sits unobtrusively under the bench seat. It comes with fenders and an Abus rear wheel lock. It shifts seamlessly using a Nuvinci n360 internal hub. Although the Urban Arrow normally comes with roller brakes, Motostrano automatically upgrades them to disc brakes. The bike we rode did not have a rear rack, but they are available.

  • This bike looks so classy. I felt like I should have dressed up to ride it. To me, a Bakfiets, with its wooden box, looks practical, but not exactly stylish, while our Bullitt looks fast and sleek. But the Urban Arrow looks… polished, to the extent you can say that about any cargo bike.
  • Considering all the features packed into it, the Urban Arrow feels shockingly light. I expect big bikes to be heavy bikes, and realistically, it is in fact a heavy bike, tipping the scales at 99lbs/45kg. However people who ride Bakfietsen tell me their bikes as weigh about that much, and that’s without an electric assist. Both the aluminum frame and the styrofoam box are shaving a lot of heft from this bike, and with cargo bikes that’s all to the good, especially given that most people are going to throw at least twice the weight of the bike itself in the box, and then push it around.
  • The Bosch motor--note that while there's an occasional visibly wire, most of the wiring is run through the frame.

    The Bosch motor–note that while there’s an occasional visibly wire, most of the wiring is run through the frame.

    The Bosch electric assist is a fully-integrated mid-drive. It is also fully enclosed, so there are fewer worries about loose wiring, and it’s designed to work with the bike’s gearing. Mid-drive assists are powerful, although not silent. As usual with this kind of assist, I noticed a slight clanking as the chain ran through the motor, but it wasn’t offensive. The Bosch is a pedal-assist in the legal sense; turn it on and the bike just sits there, but as soon as you turn the pedals, the assist is immediately there. It won’t start without you making a (mild) effort. The controller offers three speeds, and the feeling of the assist ranges from “slight tailwind” at the lowest setting to “strong tailwind” at the highest.

  • Not everyone loves this, but it has a super-upright posture, for a great view of traffic. And it’s virtually impossible to slouch. My mom would always hassle me when I was growing up to “sit up straight!” My mom wants you to ride this bike.
  • At $5400, this is a competitively-priced assisted box bike, although I certainly would not call it cheap. An unassisted Bakfiets is now running about $3750. An assisted EdgeRunner longtail, comparably accessorized for hauling kids, would run $4700 in San Francisco. That price difference is not trivial, but it’s not outrageous either.

What I don’t like about the Urban Arrow

  • The Urban Arrow is a really big bike. Matt and I both rode it, and we realized quickly that it would not be a practical commuting bike for us in San Francisco. Matt was vehement that he would never even consider riding it on Market Street, which has a semi-random bike lane layout and many, many people competing for space in it. It would be more of a ride-in-the-park bike for us. And it is big in both dimensions—width and length. Size was a deal-killer for us when we test-rode a Metrofiets as well, and it’s a large part of the reason we’ve been hauling 2 kids (and sometimes squeezing in more) by Bullitt for almost two years—the Bullitt is narrow. If we lived in a smaller city, or a place with wider streets, or rode different kinds of routes, we’d have no problem with an Urban Arrow.
  • On a related note, turning and parking the bike is a production. It is possible to make a big bike with a (relatively) tight turning radius. This is not that kind of big bike. It is probably impossible to make a front-loading box bike that is easy to park at a standard bike rack. We bought a front loader anyway, because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages from our perspective, but it can be frustrating. However if you live in a less theft-prone municipality that we do, you could just park it without using a rack by relying solely on the rear wheel lock.
  • All front loading box bikes are tricky to learn to ride, because of the linkage steering. We don’t have many issues with that after riding ours for a couple of years, but on a new-to-us model, we’ll still always wobble off the start. It seems safe to assume that it would be worse for someone who had never ridden this kind of bike before. The Urban Arrow has one advantage in this class, however, and that is that the box blocks the view of the front wheel (watching the front wheel is bad, it will confuse you and make you dump the bike).
  • I have no idea why that controller is sitting in the middle of the handlebars. Awkward.

    I have no idea why that controller is sitting in the middle of the handlebars. Awkward.

    I found the handlebar layout very odd and somewhat frustrating. The brake levers required a big stretch to reach and pull. I have large hands and long fingers—my ability to span a ninth is part of what made me a competent pianist and organ player in my youth—and so this is nothing I have ever experienced before. These parts could be swapped for smaller ones, but given that this is a bike marketed to both women and men, and women typically have smaller hands, I found it bizarre. In addition, the controller for the assist is located in the middle of the handlebars, instead of near one hand, so to turn it on or change the level of assist, we had to take one hand off and reach over. That’s annoying and it also feels like a safety risk. Even if the controller were moved closer to one hand [see comment below; this can be done], its design is such that it would be difficult to operate by thumb.

  • This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    The Urban Arrow has what those in the bike business would call Dutch geometry, which basically means that you’re riding the bike in roughly the same position that you would be in while sitting in an office chair. I am comfortable riding this kind of setup but it is not something that Matt likes, and we share all the bikes, and so we must compromise.

  • Caveat: San Francisco-specific concern. Motostrano told us that the assist would not be able to handle San Francisco’s steepest hills, even unloaded, but could not specify what kinds of grades it could climb. We had hoped to figure it out by simply riding up some hills ourselves, but unfortunately for us, Redwood City is as flat as Kansas. Furthermore, the Dutch geometry makes it impossible to bear down and crank up a hill on your own power. That’s because your chest will whack the handlebars—which is what happened when I tried to go uphill while test riding a Bakfiets. Hauling up hills on your own power is supposed to be a non-issue, because the bike has an assist, except that we were told that the assist might not be sufficient where we ride. And then it would be an issue.
  • Speaking of hills, I found the brakes slow to respond. I assumed that it was just that particular bike and suggested to Motostrano that they tighten the brakes, but they said that they’d noticed it on all of the bikes they had built. They believed that it would settle after the bike had been ridden for a while. I would love to hear confirmation of that from someone who’s actually experienced it.
  • The Urban Arrow would be almost impossible to get up to higher speeds. For quite a while this is something that I didn’t care about at all. However as time passed and we became more confident on cargo bikes, the appeal of one that can rocket along (relatively speaking) on occasion grew. It is useful when, say, the kids lock themselves in the bathroom and we end up leaving 10 minutes later than planned. The assist is not designed for speed either, but rather for steady help in the background. A BionX, in contrast, will match your effort, so you can use it to start fast and build up speed quickly. (This is fun, although BionX systems have their downsides.) Some bikes are just always going to be on the slower end—that’s just how they’re made—and the Urban Arrow is one of them. If you’re not compulsive about getting places early, this may not rank as high on your list of concerns as it does on mine.
  • Last but not least, this bike is ridiculously elusive . There are only a few shops in the country importing them, and there is a lot of unmet demand, so getting an Urban Arrow almost always involves a deposit and a wait list. We have only seen two riding around San Francisco (which is one more than anyone I know in any other city has seen—except, I presume, Portland), and at least one of those was shipped from New York. Motostrano said they were able to get all the bikes they had ordered so far in a time period between 1-3 months, which is a big improvement over the waits I heard about last year, but is still non-trivial. And if you want to do a test-ride first, count on doubling that wait because whatever bike you test-ride will be a bike that’s already been sold.
See, a foothole--there are so many nice details like that on this bike.

See, a foothole–there are so many nice details like that on this bike.

So the Urban Arrow: not the right bike for us, but definitely a cool bike. It reminded both me and Matt of the Bakfiets, but upgraded. It was like a Bakfiets that had gone on a makeover show: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

I find that people tend to have a sense of what they want in a bike, even if they can’t always articulate it. There are macho bike people and land yacht people. If you are the former, this isn’t the right bike for you (and you know that already). If you are the latter—assuming that you don’t live on Twin Peaks—it’s probably the most perfect cargo bike ever made.

 

 

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

A series of family biking events, 2014 edition

There is a lot to do if you are interested in family biking, mostly in San Francisco but also beyond. Here’s everything I know about this summer so far in date order—and don’t miss the good stuff at the end.

July 13th (11am-4pm): Richmond Sunday Streets

We went to Richmond Sunday Streets last year—this was a great event for kids to ride their own bikes because it was car-free all the way from Golden Gate Park to Clement Street. We had no worries about cross-traffic for miles.

July 19th (11am-5pm): Fiets of Parenthood and the Disaster Relief Trials, Portland, Oregon

We are finally going to make it to Fiets of Parenthood, which will be held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on July 19th. Come to compete or to test out cool cargo bikes—Splendid Cycles claims they’ll have a Bullitt with the new extra-torquey BionX D system to try. There is also a new class in the Disaster Relief Trials, the non-competitive Replenish division, as well as the competitive classes competing for time (we are so not doing that). To participate in Replenish you have to haul a non-pedaling passenger (no tandems). Our California contingent will be easy to spot, as we’ll all be on child seat-equipped Bromptons. Go Grizzlies.

August 24th (11am-4pm): Mission Sunday Streets

Our first Mission Sunday Streets in 2012

Our first Mission Sunday Streets in 2012

Mission Sunday Streets is the first we ever attended and it’s always the most crowded, but it’s no less awesome for that. We usually hightail it to Dynamo Donuts first thing in the morning, then turn around and return at a more measured pace. Our bikes are easy to spot if you’re looking for us.

September 2nd (10am-11am): How would you make buying and using a cargo bike easier? A conversation with Vie Bikes at Koret Playground in Golden Gate Park (look for the sign near the Carousel)

Vie Bikes is a new company formed by three San Francisco cargo biking parents intent on making it easy as pie to find, buy and use the best cargo bikes on the market. Among other things, Vie will offer month-to-month leasing, and built-in quarterly service that comes to you. Vie is planning to launch in San Francisco in the coming months, and expand in to new cities thereafter. Stop by Koret Playground to talk with Vie’s founders, including long-time Hum of the City reader Kit Hodge. Vie is looking for feedback from both people who have cargo bikes and people looking for them regarding key aspects of our service.If you went through the process of shopping for a cargo bike again, what would you change?If you’re in the process now, what are you finding challenging? Be part of shaping a company that will transform cargo bike use across North America. RSVP to info@viebikes.com. Can’t make it but want to weigh in? E-mail info@viebikes.com with your thoughts. We’ve known Kit for a long time and were very excited about the idea of a cargo bike leasing company, which is both totally novel and totally cool. I hear there will be sample bikes to check out as well.

September 14th (11am-4pm): Western Addition Sunday Streets

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Western Addition Sunday Streets is one of my favorites because a large section of it goes through neighborhoods rather than a major commercial strip. It’s also much less crowded because the route hauls people up over Alamo Square, so beware. We usually start at Chili Pies and Ice Cream and wander over toward Japantown.

The final two events are only relevant for Rosa Parks families, but if you are such a family (or you’d like to be eventually), please feel free to join our community even before school starts.

July 12th and August 16th (11am-1pm): Rosa Parks Incoming Kindergarten class family potlucks

Family bikes round up in the lower courtyard. Incoming kindergarteners can meet and play with each other and their future teachers. These are fun events—at the August potluck, classroom assignments should be out as well. We may miss the August potluck because of our Camp Mather trip, but we’re going to try to make it to both. Hope to see you there.

Happy riding this summer.

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Filed under Brompton, destinations, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Xtracycle

We tried it: Xtracycle EdgeRunner (assisted and unassisted)

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

In 2012 I rode the prototype EdgeRunner. It was a hard bike to review because it wasn’t really in production yet, so a lot of the specifics were unsettled. I liked it, but that review does a lot of blah-blah talking about longtail history as a result of my uncertainty about the ultimate production model.

Since then I’ve had the chance to ride real EdgeRunners, both unassisted (at Blue Heron Bikes) and assisted (both stoked and BionX, at G&O Family Cyclery). These are much easier to review, although I suspect my reviews will always be long reviews (not to mention they’re all my personal opinions and other informed observers may differ, YMMV, etc.) For those with shorter attention spans, here is the 6-word summary I’ve promised for all reviews going forward.

EdgeRunner: Best longtail ever. No contest.

I’ve mentioned before that my first impression of the EdgeRunner, when it was just a picture on the Xtracycle home page, was: “Wow, that is one ugly bike.” Let me officially eat crow: in person, the EdgeRunner is lovely. And it is awesome to ride.

What I like about the EdgeRunner:

  • The EdgeRunner feels like riding a regular bike. Cargo bikes, as a class, are the minivans of bicycles, and in general that is reflected in their handling and speed. They are typically a lot of work to ride. However the EdgeRunner is about as close as you can get to a cargo bike that rides like a normal bike without violating the laws of physics. (Our Bullitt is similarly nimble, but obviously, as a front loader, it is nothing like a regular bike.) This is a bike that a novice rider can pick up and ride with a minimal learning curve. That said the first test ride on any cargo bike should be sans cargo, especially live cargo.
  • The EdgeRunner is stable. My biggest concern in the past with longtail bikes (and the Madsen) has been that we both ended up dumping the kids. All that weight on the back of the bike can be very difficult to control while holding the handlebars in front—and neither Matt nor I is particularly lacking in upper body strength. The EdgeRunner’s big innovation is a smaller rear wheel (20”) which means the deck can be a few inches lower, and those few inches make a world of difference with respect to handling. Over the last year I became very cautious while walking a bike with my kids on it because on occasion my bad right leg would twist right from under me without warning. I was so confident while walking the EdgeRunner that I did things I probably should not have done, like walk into a shop holding the bike up with one hand and pushing the door open with the other. Yet I never felt that the bike would tip, and it never did. The lower deck also means that the EdgeRunner can take downhill turns at higher speeds. On longtail bikes with higher decks, the weight on the rear pulls against the turn, and it genuinely feels like the bike could tip over. This is not a concern with the EdgeRunner. The smaller rear wheel is truly a game changer.
  • This is a lightweight bike (relatively speaking—no cargo bike is truly lightweight). As a result, there is less of it to haul around. There are two places you can really feel this: when trying to go up hills, and when trying to start from a dead stop. These are also the two places where I feel the most vulnerable while riding—other traffic often fails to appreciate the slow starts endemic to cargo bike riding, and going up hills is its own horror story—the slower you go, the more the bike wobbles. Although there is sometimes a tradeoff to be made with respect to the weight of the bike and how much you can haul on it, happily the EdgeRunner also swallowed the weight of both my kids—now much heavier than they were over two years ago when we first went cargo bike shopping—without complaint.
  • The Xtracycle accessories are the best longtail family biking kits I have ever seen. In terms of family and cargo biking innovation, Xtracycle is unmatched. The deluxe models sold by most family bike shops even come with dynamo lights, which is nothing I’ve seen before on any non-European family bike. The deck is now designed to have Yepp seats pop directly in, while older kids can be corralled by the adjustable Hooptie (no need for stoker bars). The Xtracycle bags (recently upgraded) can haul almost anything, and do particularly well with long and skinny things that are tough to dump into a front loader. Add in various cushions and foot rests and the SideCar to haul cargo and this is an astonishingly versatile bike.
  • Longtails are easy to park. As much as we love our Bullitt, it can be a bear to park at normal racks, despite the fact that it is the skinniest front loader of them all. The EdgeRunner, like all longtails, can be bumped over curbs and at worst, will stick out a bit more than usual from a bike corral. This is a much more flexible way to travel than with a box bike or a trailer.
  • The parts are not crappy. To get cargo bikes down to price points that keep inexperienced riders from choking in disbelief, there are often compromises made with respect to the quality of the parts. This can be very scary indeed when it comes to, say, brakes, because a bike that is carrying 100 extra pounds is not a bike that should be skimping on stopping power. There are various models of EdgeRunner and the quality of the parts improves with each increased price point, but even the cheapest models do not compromise basic safety.
  • The EdgeRunner comes in multiple frame sizes. This matters less for me personally, given that Matt and I are similar heights and right in the middle of the size range that bike manufacturers consider normal. Other people are not so fortunate. Having different frame sizes expands the range of people who can ride the bike—and it means that more petite people aren’t trying to push a bike that’s heavier than they need.
  • The EdgeRunner is compatible with multiple assists. Lots of bikes can handle a range of aftermarket electric assists, but none more than the EdgeRunner. We tried the EdgeRunner with both the BionX and the (throttle) Stokemonkey, but it is also, at the moment, the only bike that can use the brand-new pedal assist/pedelec Stokemonkey. (When I say “pedal assist” I am using the EU legal definition, meaning an assisted bike that will only move if you are already pedaling. Although there are other definitions, this is the one that most people I speak with intuit when they hear the term pedal assist.) This gives a fair bit of freedom to find the kind of assist that works for whatever terrain and loads you’re hauling, or maybe more importantly, the kind of assist that’s supported by a local bike shop.
  • The EdgeRunner is relatively inexpensive. No cargo bike that can safely carry my kids could ever be called cheap. Extra parts and engineering are required to turn a basic one-person bicycle into a cargo bike. The base model of the EdgeRunner is $1500—this bike doesn’t have accessories or an assist, but it will get the job done. The deluxe EdgeRunner with a family kit (Hooptie, center stand), dynamo lights (totally worth it), upgraded brakes, and a BionX assist powered for San Francisco hills is $4700 at The New Wheel in San Francisco, and comparable elsewhere. In comparison, in 2012, when we priced a Big Dummy, the base model was $2000, while an assisted Big Dummy ran about $4500—but that was without dynamo lights or a Hooptie. Currently a base model Yuba Mundo is priced at $1300—$200 cheaper, but also much heavier. (A BionX Mundo with comparable accessories to a deluxe EdgeRunner is too complicated for me to want to price.)

What I don’t like about the EdgeRunner:

  • With all longtail reviews, I make my usual complaint that they’re not front loading box bikes, which is sort of unfair and sort of not. I like having our kids in front—we can hear them better, we can intervene if they start fighting, and the weather protection is unbeatable. For us, the rain/wind canopy has been the thing that lets us ride in any conditions—there is a point at which our children (who are wusses, it must be said) will wail without ceasing if asked to ride exposed to the elements. I also like that with the front loaders you just throw stuff/kids in and go—there is no need to pack stuff carefully or balance the load. We have been known to shove the kids in and let them sort out where they’ll sit after we start moving. The Bullitt can take it. However to be fair, our front-loading paradise is not without its serpents. Front loading box bikes cost a lot more than longtails, and learning to steer them can be harrowing for some people (like me). However these things are in our past so I can now safely ignore them.
  • The Hooptie, as awesome as it is when the bike is on the move, can be a bit of a hassle on starts and stops. Our kids are capable of climbing to the deck of an EdgeRunner without assistance, but they can’t maneuver on and off the Hooptied EdgeRunner by themselves because the rails are too narrow for their helmets to fit through. We have to lift them over. I suspect this might be an issue for our son and his giant head even if he were un-helmeted. There are circumstances where this could be a plus, but mostly I found it a pain. Update! This issue was resolved with practice. After a couple more rides, they learned to swarm onto that thing like a jungle gym, with no help needed from me.
  • The lower deck of the EdgeRunner means that older kids—even my not-especially-tall 5-year-old daughter—can drag their feet on the ground and slow or stop the bike whether I want them to or not (not). Sometimes on our rides my son didn’t even realize he was doing it. It’s pretty easy to tell when it’s happening from the sound and the fact that the bike becomes hard to pedal, and to tell them to stop, but it’s annoying, and it’s not doing the soles of their shoes any favors either. I would definitely be investigating some kind of deck for their feet if we rode this bike regularly.
  • Xtracycle is still ignoring the front of its bikes. It is understandable that a company that started by creating a longtail extension would be focused on the back of the bike, but one place where Yuba’s innovation reigns supreme is the creation of its front frame-mounted Bread Basket. Xtracycle has yet to release a comparable front basket, and this is a stupid, annoying omission. Front baskets are incredibly useful, and it is a waste not to use the space above the front wheel on a longtail cargo bike.
  • Speaking of accessories, the stock EdgeRunner saddle is the most uncomfortable anvil I have ever had the misfortune to ride. I am not very picky about saddles, as a rule, yet I wanted to rip this one off and throw it into San Francisco Bay. It’s not a very expensive upgrade to change out a saddle, but my guess is that pretty much everyone will want to budget for it.
  • Although the EdgeRunner has a relatively low top tube, it was still a bit of a trick for me to get a leg over it. That is because my leg is still vaguely mangled. I have the advantage, at least, of being relatively tall at 5’7”. I imagine that it would be worse for someone shorter, even if that person were more flexible than I am (yet—I am getting better quickly). I don’t really see any way around this one—the top tube provides a lot of the stability I like so much about the bike. But it’s something to consider if you are short or inflexible.
  • With longtail bikes, you need to pack the bags and balance the load. It’s not necessarily a big deal, but when conditions are unpleasant, or when you need to make multiple stops (each of which involves loading and unloading the bike) it can be something of a hassle. Squirming kids are also more noticeable on the back of a bike—you’ll do better with this issue on an EdgeRunner than on any other longtail because of the lower deck, and for that matter, relative to a normal bike with a rear seat. But it’s no issue at all on a Brompton with a kid seat, or on a front-loading box bike.

Overall, these are not big complaints, and there are kludges or fixes for the things that bother me. For our kind of riding, the EdgeRunner is a category-killer in the longtail class.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now.

Would we buy an EdgeRunner? Will we? Well. Maybe?

My poor mamachari is essentially stroking out at this point. It was old and rickety before it got run over, and yesterday its power cord was crushed by the construction workers fixing the rotted wood in our garage. We had expected that the mamachari would be our second cargo bike until both kids were riding on their own bikes, but now I’m not so sure. And as much as we love the Bullitt, it would be far more practical to have a longtail and a front-loader than to have two front-loaders. So let’s say this is a question we’ve begun discussing seriously.

So I’m very glad that the EdgeRunner is available now, because if we do buy a longtail, the decision of which one to buy has become very simple indeed. There are reasons to buy other longtail bikes—the Mundo can carry extreme loads, and the Big Dummy can be more useful in certain conditions—but for the purpose of hauling kids around town, we found the EdgeRunner unbeatable.

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Filed under EdgeRunner, electric assist, reviews, San Francisco, Xtracycle

We tried it: BionX v. Stokemonkey

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

One of my colleagues recently taught me two great tricks. The first is to never use the word “but” when talking to people because it  always ticks them off. The second was that anything could be summed up in exactly six words. She writes six-word biographies for every graduating student in her program. It is amazing. Given that I am a chronic offender in the Too Long: Didn’t Read sweepstakes, I’ve decided to open all of my reviews with the six word summary. Here’s one now.

BionX: Easy to use

Stokemonkey: Powerful

I’m sure that the respective producers of BionX and Stokemonkey electric assists now wish that they could reach through the screen and punch me in the face. Good thing it’s a virtual world.

There are basically two heavy-hitters in the world of electric assists for cargo bikes. They are BionX, which is a rear-wheel assist (motor on the rear wheel hub), and Stokemonkey, which is a mid-drive assist (motor on the frame running through the chain). The Stokemonkey was out of production for a long time, and now it’s back. I had the chance to try both assists on the same bike, the Xtracycle EdgeRunner, while we were visiting Seattle over spring break, thanks to the lovely G&O Family Cyclery. G&O was the only shop I have ever seen that had both kinds of assists on the same model of bike, which I rode on the same hills on the same day, with both my kids on the back. It made for a near-perfect comparison. The kids ate a few crackers between the Stokemonkey ride and the BionX ride, but still.

I have already written about other brands and types of assists—there are front wheel assists, like on the original Yuba elMundo, and other companies make both rear wheel and mid-drive assists. I’m concentrating on BionX and Stokemonkey because most people shopping for an add-on family bike assist end up choosing between these two, for reasons that center around power and reliability. Both have good odds of hauling a loaded cargo bike around, and they have the reputation of being the least likely to die within a few months of purchase (or immediately after the warranty expires). People who know a lot about electric assists may end up finding or hacking something better. Nevertheless your average rider wants something that does not require the patience and ability to read through and comprehend the forums on Endless-sphere. (Note: when I refer to “pedal assist” here and everywhere else, I am using the EU legal definition, meaning an assisted bike that will only move if you are already pedaling. Although there are other definitions, this is the one that most people I speak with intuit when they hear the term pedal assist.)

BionX

We have a lot of familiarity with the BionX, because it’s the system on our Bullitt. It has served us well, although it is not perfect.

  • How much does a BionX cost? $1800 installed by The New Wheel in San Francisco (SF-suitable system with 48v battery)
  • How much does a BionX weigh? 14.1 pounds including battery

What I like about the BionX

  • The BionX is easy to use. This is a set-it-and-forget-it system combined with a throttle. You can get a boost across intersections by pushing the red button (the throttle), or set a level of assist from 1 to 4 and feel super-powered as you blaze through the city. The pedal assist is the best of any electric assist that I have tried, and I have tried a lot of them now. The BionX was the first assist that I ever tried, and in a way it spoiled me for other assists, because it is truly intuitive to use. There is no learning curve. Anyone who has ever ridden a bike can master it immediately. Many people end up leaving the bike in a relatively high gear and using the different assist levels as gears, and this actually works pretty well.
  • It is pretty powerful. BionX systems come in different flavors, and we got the most powerful, with a 48v battery. It works well in San Francisco on our daily rounds, which feature a number of serious hills (Twin Peaks, Alamo Square, Lone Mountain) and various unnamed elevation changes that would qualify as hills in a less topographically challenging city. Families in Seattle, which has less steep hills yet is nonetheless pretty hilly, seem content with the 36v battery system. The cheapest and least powerful systems are probably best for handling stiff winds in areas with mild hills.
  • It requires minimal maintenance. There are people who will argue this point. The consensus from the bike shops that we patronize is that they use their assists in a different way than we do. We rarely use the throttle; instead, we use the assist levels to maintain a steady speed and effort level. We do not burn through power trying to race other riders. We have the shop check the wiring every few months. With one major exception, which is that we initially had spokes on the rear wheel that were too thin, which broke by the dozen, the system has not given us grief. We replaced those spokes with much thicker ones and haven’t had issues since.
  • It is silent. Lots of assists make a humming noise, or much louder noises. The front wheel assists I have tried definitely sound like motors, and the EcoSpeed mid-drive frankly sounds like a motorcycle. One of the reasons we like riding bicycles is the relative quiet and the opportunity for conversations with our kids, and so the noise of some of these systems was a deal-killer for us. This is not an issue with the BionX. It is the ninja of electric assists.
  • It has regenerative braking. This means that you can use the BionX system to slow (or stop) the bike and recharge the battery while going downhill. It is debatable whether regenerative braking adds much to battery capacity—there is loss in any system. In an area like San Francisco, where steep hills abound, careful route planning can actually mean you get some power from the regenerative braking, although this may not apply outside the city. It is inarguable, however, that using the regenerative braking through the motor saves a lot of wear and tear on the bike’s brakes. And it offers me a lot of peace of mind, given that we have had brakes fail in the past. I view the BionX regenerative braking like skydivers view a backup parachute.

What I don’t like about the BionX

  • Starts can be slow and difficult. The system is set up to kick in once the bike reaches 2mph. If you are trying to start a loaded bike from a dead stop on a steep hill, you may have trouble getting to that speed. This is particularly the case if, like me, you have a bad leg. Outside of G&O, which is on a moderate hill, I could not get started with both kids on board. I had to walk to bike to a level area. This is evidently something that can be modified—you can reset the controller so that the assist kicks in at a much lower speed [update: as low as 0.5 kph]. Now that I know this, it is high on our to-do list. That modification would help a lot, yet it does not change the fact that no matter what, the initial effort on the start is going to be human-powered. This is our biggest issue with the BionX. It was less of a big deal before I was injured.
  • It gives up on really steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that we cannot get up with a fully-loaded bike—the system overheats, which means it’s back to pure pedal-power at the worst possible time. For people outside of San Francisco, this may be no limitation whatsoever, because SF is the second-hilliest city in the world, also very windy, blah blah blah. This actually turned out not to be a huge deal for us. The system is powerful enough that it can handle most of our trips, and we prefer to take alternate routes for 18%+ grades whether we are riding assisted bikes or not. On the extremely rare occasions where there there is no alternative, there’s always transit or car-share.
  • The proprietary battery limits the range. Also it’s annoying. The BionX system is completely self-contained. It’s like Apple computers. You can’t get a battery any more powerful than the battery they supply. You can’t set up a backup battery to extend your range, except by carrying another battery and swapping it in, and their batteries are expensive. There is a big logo on it, which is irritating. However the main issue is that you have no way to control the range other than by picking one of their batteries: you get what you get. The range is not unreasonable, and it handles most of our needs, but there are times when we have to be sure to carry the charger and find a place to plug it in, or suck it up and accept that some of the trip home will be exclusively human-powered. Thankfully that is a much less painful prospect now that we no longer live on a steep hill.
  • The system can be finicky.  Matt has dropped two controllers and when you drop them, they break. In one case, the controller seemed to be fine but then the bike started jerking when the assist was on max, because it wasn’t really fine. Replacing the controller costs $100. Argh! The bike shop suggested that we super-glue the third controller in place. There is a certain amount of loose connection hassle with some of the controller parts—the wire to the regeneration system sometimes works loose, and so on. We have the wiring checked regularly and so we haven’t had those problems. I classify this in the same category as our constant brake checks. A certain amount of attention is required.

Stokemonkey

And then there is the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden a stoked bike for exactly one day, so I can’t offer an opinion that is nearly as informed, and for obvious reasons I have no idea about maintenance.

  • How much does a Stokemonkey cost? $1250, not including the battery (varies) or installation ($125 at Clever Cycles in Portland)
  • How much does a Stokemonkey weigh? 21 pounds, not including the battery

What I like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is incredibly powerful. I would go so far as to say it is virtually unstoppable. The chain or the frame will break before the assist gives out. This is not always obvious when you are riding, because weirdly, it doesn’t feel like it is helping. However I know that the ease I was feeling while hauling 100 pounds of my children up a big hill was not natural, especially with a broken leg. If I hadn’t been sure while I was riding the stoked EdgeRunner,  it became obvious when I rode the BionX EdgeRunner, because it took a lot more effort to get up the same hill. Neither was particularly hard, but the Stokemonkey was definitely easier. I doubt there is any hill that would overpower it. Maybe a vertical wall.
  • Starting on a hill is easy. When you push the throttle, the pedals start moving and the bike starts moving. Even with warning, it was hard to be prepared for this. However I had no fear of stopping mid-hill on the Stokemonkey. It cranks right back up to full when you hit the throttle. Starts are my biggest weakness, and so this feature was, for me, the Stokemonkey’s greatest appeal. It destroys all fear of hills. No matter what the incline, it will always start.
  • It is compatible with multiple batteries. If BionX is the Apple of electric assist, Stokemonkey is the Windows environment. You can wire any battery into it, or, if you are like me, your bike shop can do it. That is a cost savings, and there is also a learning curve involved—I have no idea how to pick a battery. Any shop installing the Stokemonkey should have a good idea though.
  • It is pretty quiet. It is not totally silent like the BionX, and I don’t think that any mid-drive assist could be that quiet, because mid-drive motors run through the chain and there is some noise involved with that movement. I found it unobjectionable. There is one exception to the generally quiet nature of the Stokemonkey. If it is installed on a box bike it will be pretty loud, because the noise of the chain will echo through the box.

What I don’t like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is controlled by a throttle only. If you want the assist to kick in, you have to hold the throttle down. It did not take long for my thumb to get sore doing this. I might get used to it over time, but I doubt that I would ever stop finding it annoying.  There is not set-it-and-forget-it option with the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden enough assisted bikes to know that this is not really workable for us. There are too many hills and too many places where we need to take our hands off the handlebars to signal.
  • It is not pedal assist, yet you must pedal. Truly, the Stokemonkey is neither fish nor fowl. When the assist comes on, the chain moves, and so the pedals also move. You have be right there ready to move your legs. Even with warning, I kept whacking my ankles on the pedals on starts because I wasn’t ready for this. On the flip side, when you release the throttle, the pedals keep moving for a little bit on their own, so again, whacked ankles. Personally I found this a small price to pay for instant starts on hills, but still: ouch. Word from people who have stoked bikes is that you get used to this and adjust relatively quickly. In the interim, wear thick socks.
  • The learning curve is not insignificant. Using a Stokemonkey was described to me as being a bit like driving a manual transmission car. Amusingly enough this analogy came by way of Davey Oil, who does not drive. Nonetheless it is pretty accurate.  The bike will start to shudder if the Stokemonkey thinks you are in the wrong gear, and then you have to shift down to make it settle. My son, sitting on the back of the bike, noticed this immediately, and he found it both fascinating and disconcerting. “You need to shift, mommy!” In combination with the pedals whacking me in the ankles, it required a lot more attentiveness to the assist while riding than I was expecting. This comes at the price of paying attention to other things, like traffic. With this system I would need to spend time getting comfortable on quiet streets without the kids on board before I would feel confident taking it out on a daily commute.
  • The Stokemonkey is only really suitable for certain bikes, mostly longtail bikes. [update: I was wrong, modifications to the original statement follow.] Stokemonkeys are not appropriate for early-model Bakfietsen with roller brakes, or presumably any bike with borderline brakes, because the bike can then get up hills that it can’t safely get down. The mounting of a Stokemonkey is evidently somewhat complicated. This seems to be the case for a lot of mid-drive assists.

The winner: everybody

That was our experience, and to my surprise, it did not feel like a definitive win for either the BionX or the Stokemonkey. I had assumed that when I tried the Stokemonkey I would feel like an idiot for getting the demonstrably less powerful BionX (not that we had a choice at the time) and that I would immediately want to swap out to a Stokemonkey. Although I was really impressed with the Stokemonkey, I didn’t feel like it was a BionX-killer. Moreover, I have no good sense of what I would want when we get a new bike, which for various reasons is on the horizon.

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, and moreover, both systems can be tweaked/are currently being re-engineered. Grin is working on a pedal-assist, set-it-and-forget-it version of the Stokemonkey, suitable for EdgeRunners only, which [update] has just been released. This resolves my biggest issue with the Stokemonkey (and it means I could probably justify buying an EdgeRunner to myself). On the other hand, resetting the BionX controller to a lower start speed would probably resolve our issues with starts on hills, and San Francisco has a dedicated BionX shop that can handle any maintenance issues. In contrast, getting a Stokemonkey would be a long-distance operation for us. Moreover, BionX is releasing a higher-torque model suitable for super-steep SF hills this year. There isn’t an easy answer. On the other hand, there are no bad decisions to make here either.

In the meantime, I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to try both systems on the same bike (which is, incidentally, an awesome bike). Thanks G&O! Thanks Xtracycle!

 

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Filed under bike shops, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Hills v. hills: San Francisco and Seattle

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Last week was our spring break, and the kids and I headed north to visit my mom while Matt flew to Australia for work. This kind of thing is why I make no pretense that our car-free, zero waste schtick is carbon neutral. That said most of our travel is for business, and I believe I speak for both of us when I say that a tax on business travel that would ensure we did far less of it would be pretty awesome.

Anyway, we took the Brompton, which in circus-mode can carry both me and the kids. Flying with the Brompton was an unrelieved nightmare, due to Allegiant Airlines. They are dead to me. Their motto should be: “We will terrify your children.”

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Nonetheless it was nice to have the bike once we got to Seattle. However I was surprised to find that despite the photos I have posted, even people who know family biking were impressed that it is possible to carry two kids on the Brompton. It’s fun, although not something I would do regularly on long rides. And I asked my son to run up the hills because I’m not the rider I used to be. And this brings me to: hills. Seattle is a hilly city, but hills in Seattle are different than hills in San Francisco.

A lot of San Francisco was built on landfill, which means that there are large chunks of the city (e.g. the Marina, the Financial District) that are perfectly flat. San Francisco doesn’t have a fixie culture because everyone is a masochist. It has a fixie culture because it’s possible to live without ever leaving the Mission. However once you want to go somewhere else, it gets tricky. The hills loom like walls, and although it’s possible to thread the needle sometimes using routes like the Wiggle, eventually people like us who go to work in offices (in Laurel Heights) and have kids in school (on the other side of Lone Mountain) have to start climbing. And San Francisco hills take no prisoners. Once we load 1-2 kids on deck, even with an assist we’re working hard. So riding in San Francisco is often: la-la-la-la-OMFG-OMFG-OMFG-wheeee!-la-la-la, etc.

Seattle is hilly in a more consistent way. In comparison to the totally-in-your-face hills of San Francisco, Seattle’s hills feel almost passive-aggressive. They meander up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. I kept wondering where the steep hills were, because from my perspective there weren’t any. However the relentless low-key up and down is not the kind of terrain I’m used to riding and it wore me out (this has happened before—I got smoked by Madi from Family Ride on a deceptively mild-looking but seemingly endless hill in August 2012, while being fried by the equally foreign 80+F temperatures).

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

From the hill perspective, if riding in San Francisco is like occasionally ripping off a band-aid and screaming in agony, then riding in Seattle is like slowly peeling band-aids off by the dozen while feeling the adhesive tug on every single hair. Except that riding bikes is way more fun than that, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having to make an effort, it proves I’m alive and makes me stronger. I’m sure that if we lived in Seattle I would get used to Seattle hills and find them normal. Admittedly sweating on the way to work is a non-starter in my life, but this is why the universe has provided electric assists.

And speaking of assists, on this trip we stopped by the newly-opened G&O Family Cyclery, which had the Holy Grail of assist comparisons available for test rides: a Stokemonkeyed EdgeRunner and a BionX EdgeRunner. I love EdgeRunners (I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike) but had never tried an assisted version before. They are even better than the unassisted versions. We took the stoked and BionX EdgeRunners up and down the hills of Seattle, and if it wasn’t the same kind of challenge we face in San Francisco, it was still a fascinating experience.

My dissertation advisor had five mottos. One of them was, “Whenever you go away on a week of vacation, there’s always two weeks of work waiting for you when you come back.” Alas, this is painfully true, so coming soon: BionX v. Stokemonkey.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, EdgeRunner, electric assist, San Francisco, Seattle