Category Archives: reviews

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

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

We tried it: Ridekick electric assist child trailer (prototype)

This kind of thing is my problem.

This kind of thing is my problem.

[Note: As of April 2014, release of the Ridekick child trailer has been postponed to 2015.]

When I thought about getting back on the bike after my injury, I thought immediately about electric assist. We live on a big hill. I was surprised that I could get up part of it on the Brompton by myself when I tried riding for the first time last weekend. But a little more experimentation made it clear that I wasn’t able to ride up all of it. This is better than I’d expected, but still: not useful. It doesn’t help much to go partway up the hill. And when I tried to walk the bike up the hill instead, it made the pins in my leg ache so badly that I had to lie down. This was predictable but still unwelcome.

Spotted near work

A mid-drive spotted near work

What’s more, it’s not very useful to be riding again if I can’t pick up and drop off a kid occasionally. I figured I would get my strength back eventually, but in the meantime I needed a better solution. Option one is a new mid-drive electric-assist bike, but that’s really expensive for short-term use and depending on how much strength I got back, could potentially be overkill in the long term. Ideally I wanted a temporary assist that I could stick on the Brompton, which is basically the only bike we have that I can use right now given my limited strength and range of motion. I did try getting on the MinUte, and technically it’s possible, but it wouldn’t be safe yet with a kid on the deck. I can get on and off the Bullitt, but it’s too heavy for me to ride for the time being.

Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!

Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!

I knew what I wanted, but unfortunately I didn’t know of any temporary, immediate on-off electric assists currently in production. At least, I didn’t until a blog reader pointed me to the Ridekick trailer (thanks David!) The only Ridekick currently on the market is a small cargo trailer with an electric assist built in. It was cute and it looked like it would do what I wanted, but when I went to their website, I saw that they were taking pre-orders for what looked like my rehabilitation holy grail: an electric assist child trailer.

This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.

This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.

Although I’m not the world’s biggest child trailer fan (hard to see in city traffic, don’t always fit in urban bike lanes, won’t make it up many San Francisco steep uphills, can be terrifying on many San Francisco steep downhills, we prefer to have the kids in front), we had been considering getting a bike trailer for travel, and for upgrading our one-kid bikes to two-kid bikes on occasion. The trailer also has the advantage of offering weather protection, just like the Bullitt, but in a far more portable package. The Ridekick assisted child trailer also seemed way more promising than an ordinary trailer because with an assist we’d no longer have to worry about drag on the bike.  The pull of a weighted trailer can really be a problem on hills and in strong winds, both of which San Francisco has in abundance. And if the assist were up to it, I could attach it to any bike and make it up hills with one or both kids even in my reduced state.

So I wrote to Ridekick, hoping against hope that the child trailer was close enough to production that I could get one by August. The answer was no. But they were coming to San Francisco in August with the prototype to look for venture capital funding, and would I like to try it? Yes!

This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.

This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.

We met Dee and Mark from Ridekick in Golden Gate Park.  They are great people. The prototype trailer that they brought is built up from the same Burley Bee model that we rented last year when we visited my mom in Bellingham. To my surprise, the assist doesn’t really intrude into the trailer’s cargo space. There’s a lithium ion battery with an on-off controller attached, about the size of a hardback book, that slides into the rear cargo compartment and that’s basically it. There is a throttle attachment that they Velcro-tied onto our handlebars, and then strung the wire for it back along the frame with more Velcro ties. It clipped into the wire coming from the motor at the rear wheel bolt, which is the same place that the trailer itself attaches. For novices like me: a Burley trailer attaches with a hitch plate that is threaded onto the same bolt that holds the rear wheel onto the bicycle frame. The trailer frame has a drop-in pin that goes through the hole in the hitch plate, with a back-up strap that loops around the bicycle frame in case it fails. Ridekick estimates that the trailer can go about 15 miles on a charge, depending very much on local conditions (how much weight and how big a hill?)

Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.

Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.

"Oh, if I must."

“Oh, if I must.”

My kids hadn’t ridden in a trailer for a year and were thrilled to get back in one. They also brought a friend. For our first test ride, we attached the assisted trailer to the Kona MinUte and then Matt took the two 7-year-olds for a spin through Golden Gate Park.

Something I may not have mentioned before is that Matt is less enamored of new bike experiences than I am. He mostly just treats all the experimentation I do like my weird hobby. He’s not big into optimizing his riding experience. The first bike he got was the Kona MinUte, and when it was stolen, he bought another one just like it. I got him a new pannier for Christmas one year when he complained that the ones that come standard on the MinUte were not office-appropriate (definitely true), but he has never used it. When we got the Bullitt he said for two months that we should have replaced the car instead, although he has since come around. So Matt was actually pretty grouchy about coming down to Golden Gate Park on a Saturday morning for “another bike thing.” He had had other plans.

It is in this context that I say that Matt loved the Ridekick child trailer from the moment he started riding with it. Generally neither of us is a big fan of throttle assists (the kind that go when you push the button, whether you are pedaling or not), but in the context of pulling well over a hundred pounds of weight behind the bike, the throttle assist is extremely appealing, especially at intersections. At steep intersections it is sometimes impossible for us to start a heavily loaded bicycle, even with the BionX, because the BionX doesn’t kick in until your speed exceeds 2 mph. Although Golden Gate Park is a little thin on steep hills—its grades top out at about 12%—Matt took it on a moderate hill, probably 10% grade, behind the Conservatory and had no trouble hauling both 7-year-olds up. When you’re riding with an assisted trailer, you don’t have to feel like you’re dragging an anvil.

It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.

It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.

When he came back I took our daughter for a solo turn around the park on the bike. Despite the fact that I was on the MinUte, which is a huge hassle to get on and off for me at the moment, I loved the Ridekick child trailer too. It resolves a lot of child trailer problems all at once. There’s no drag from the trailer unless you want to work harder. When you get tired, you can have it push you along for a little while. Taking breaks like this, interspersed with pedaling, got me up the same hill behind the Conservatory that Matt had ridden. That felt amazing! And it’s something that is currently completely out of reach for me on an unassisted bicycle.

There is probably a limit to the Ridekick’s capabilities. We have the advantage that we are using to riding up hills, and so we just need an extra boost now and again when we have extra weight on the bike. Even I, in my reduced state, tended to use the assist for a while, then pedal solo for a little bit, then repeat. My guess is that a weak rider could burn it out on the steepest hills, given that Matt has overheated the BionX on the steeper hills in our neighborhood occasionally. We’d have to ride with it a lot more to be sure. Then again, how many families really deal with hills like ours on a regular basis?

In the world of trailers, which tend to be useful but not that fun, the Ridekick assisted child trailer is a killer app, both useful AND fun. Normal trailers drag, and pulling them can be exhausting. As a result, even though most cargo bikes ride like tanks, cargo bikes are a lot easier. Still, in a situation where one parent drops off and another one picks up, you’d need two cargo bikes (which is exactly what we have now, but that’s a big commitment to start). But an assisted child trailer? Awesome! The assist means that riding is not a chore, it could be passed between parents’ bikes as needed, and it can keep the kids warm and dry, all for a (suggested) price of a single unassisted cargo bike. And as a rehab tool, it would be amazing.

If we could have, we would have bought it on the spot. But there is only one in the entire world. Our kids were crushed. “Can we keep it, please?” our daughter begged. “It goes fast! Can we keep it?” Alas, no.

Evidently Ridekick has gotten a fair bit of interest from parents who would like an aftermarket kit to assist their existing trailers. This doesn’t surprise me, but they still don’t even have the basic model in production. Ideally they could find a partner with an existing child trailer company (e.g. Burley, Chariot, Wike) and add the assist option to their standard product lineup. I’m sure there is sufficient demand.

This trailer is so much fun!

This trailer is so much fun!

How cool is the Ridekick assisted child trailer? It’s so cool that if it had been on the market when we started riding with our kids, we might never have gotten cargo bikes. Even with my misgivings about the width of trailers versus bike lanes and having the kids behind me in city traffic instead of in front, having a trailer that could glide up hills, as well as being able to swap it between bikes, would be worth compromising in other areas. I have zero regrets about getting cargo bikes, especially given that the Ridekick child trailer isn’t actually available yet, but an assisted trailer would have been a much lower stakes way to ease into family biking, and it would travel well. I could be biased by the fact that this trailer allowed me to ride up hills that I couldn’t have otherwise attempted, but I loved the Ridekick.

 

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, Kona, reviews, San Francisco, trailer-bike

We tried it: Xtracycle EdgeRunner (prototype)

The Xtracycle bike shop and cafe

The Xtracycle bike shop and cafe

[An updated review of the 2014 model is here.]

A few weeks back we headed over to Xtracycle’s World Headquarters in Oakland to take a test ride of their new EdgeRunner. This was a difficult bike for me to write about because first, our test ride was really short, and second, it’s not really in production yet and so some of the decisions about how it will look when it’s really for sale have not yet been settled. It doesn’t feel totally fair to compare the EdgeRunner to bikes that are actually on the market, but that’s all I’ve really got, so what can you do? Update in January 2013: The EdgeRunner is now available.

The EdgeRunner

The EdgeRunner is an innovative take on the longtail bicycle. Longtails are bikes with a long rear deck that allows you to seat a couple of kids or a grown-up, or to hang cargo off the sides. They offer a particularly good way to carry long loads like lumber, ladders and Christmas trees. Historically the longtail bike pioneered by Xtracycle with its FreeRadical involved essentially sticking an extra piece of frame between the front and rear wheel. Other people have written about the history of these bikes far better than I could. It was a neat idea, allowing people with ordinary bikes to turn them into cargo-hauling monsters, and people figured out pretty quickly that kids could be cargo too.

Unfortunately as used in San Francisco, the FreeRadical addition often had issues with flex. People I’ve met with FreeRadicals have, almost without exception, stuck them on mountain bikes scored for virtually nothing on craigslist. This hasn’t always made for the most stable combinations; when these bike are loaded up, particularly in hilly terrain, they can feel like they are going to twist apart. I’m informed by shops that build Xtracycles thoughtfully and with new frames, rather than by using the cheapest available donor bike, that they are far more reliable that way. But to address the inevitable urge to build a cheap cargo bike with whatever can be found lying around the garage, Xtracycle has developed an upgrade to the FreeRadical, the Leap, which is still coming soon, and probably worth waiting for. I digress.

The first innovation designed to address concerns about flex was the development of the Surly Big Dummy, which I’ve written about before. The Big Dummy frame is a single piece, so the flex issues pretty much disappear. The Big Dummy is an improvement on the FreeRadical for people with two older kids and other unusually heavy loads, or who live in areas with big hills (which basically describes us). However the bike is more heavy and more expensive and Surly, as a company, seems to be mostly uninterested in the family market, which is kind of annoying.

All aboard! Also, free apples at Xtracycle

All aboard! Also, free apples

Another issue that arose to some extent with all the longtails is that the rear deck is pretty high for carrying kids, particularly as they get older. This is a design issue that has unfortunately been recapitulated with the newer midtail bikes. My suspicion, which is not unique to me, is that most designers weren’t really thinking about kids as cargo when they imagined what people were going to do with cargo bikes. They imagined non-live cargo, like groceries, that could be hung from either side of the deck, and that would keep the bike’s center of gravity low. The traditional way to carry kids is on a long-john style bike like a Bakfiets, and there’s no question that once you master the linkage steering, having the kids down low and in front is much easier. But this option isn’t cheap, and longtails can also be used to carry kids and often have better range in hilly American cities.

As a result longtail parents have kids sitting on top of the deck, and having their weight up high can make the bike feel unstable, particularly on starts. The other issue we’ve discovered is that taking bikes with a higher rear deck downhill can be unnerving, because when we turn the rear of the bike will pitch away from the turn like it’s going to roll over thanks to all that kid weight on the deck. I feel this pitching even when riding our Kona MinUte, a midtail, which has a shorter deck. The pull is worse with longtails because the deck is longer. (I’ve found that dads, who typically have more upper-body strength, tend to notice this less than moms, who typically have less. It bothers me a lot. Matt notices it but it doesn’t bother him as much.)

So enter the EdgeRunner, which essentially reverses the long john design. Long johns aka front-loading box bikes aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” have a small wheel in front, then a cargo platform/kid box, then the rider, then a bigger wheel in back. The Madsen and now the EdgeRunner have achieved some of the same stability by flipping that around: big wheel in front, then the rider, then the cargo platform/kid box, then a smaller wheel in back. With the heavy load near the smaller wheel, the center of gravity is lower and the bike is more stable.

Headed out on the EdgeRunner

Headed out on the EdgeRunner

Anyway I really liked the idea of putting the deck down low over a small rear wheel because my kids are getting bigger and it is increasingly hard to handle them on a traditional longtail here in hilly San Francisco, where sharp turns at the bottoms of steep hills are a fact of life. But I’ll admit that when I first saw pictures of the bike I thought it was really ugly. (Sorry, Xtracycle!) The good news is that in person, the bike looks much more attractive. The photos don’t do it justice.

Advantages of the EdgeRunner:

  • The low deck makes the kid weight much easier to control. I never felt like I was going to tip this bike. By comparison, we dumped our kids on both the Surly Big Dummy and the Yuba Mundo, and close calls were even more frequent.  (I didn’t get a chance to bomb down a steep hill and turn at the bottom because my test ride had no hills, but based on the feel of the ride I suspect that it would be more stable in this situation as well.) Both kids also found it very easy to climb on and off the deck given how much lower it was to the ground than a traditional longtail deck.
  • The bike is designed from the ground-up for electric assist. I used to worry whether I’d be judged for riding an assisted bike, but even my primary care physician advocates it. For carrying older kids in San Francisco he said my choices were either an assist or performance-enhancing drugs, and we both agreed that the assist was the superior choice. It is really a lot of work to haul that much weight around, particularly in cities that are unfortunately still designed for cars, with destinations spaced far apart and roads that take the most direct route rather than the most level one. I’ve met dads who power through these conditions with willpower, training, and a lot of sweat, but their strategy doesn’t appeal to a wide swath of parents. Besides stability, the other advantage of a smaller rear wheel is that a hub motor has a lot of torque and increased climbing power.  I can’t comment personally on the assisted EdgeRunner because I only rode the unassisted version. But the principle is sound and the testimonials from others sound compelling.
  • The EdgeRunner feels light for a longtail bike. I’ll note that this doesn’t appeal to everyone; Wheelha.us complained that it felt like the EdgeRunner was wobbling and shimmying on their test ride. I perceived the same thing as springiness and bounce and I liked it. Matt was somewhere inbetween. I suspect that this is one of those preferences that relates both to your strength and how much familiarity you already have with a heavy bike. But the EdgeRunner is easier to park than other longtails because it’s easier to move around, bump it over curbs, and so on. I wouldn’t want to carry any of these bikes up a long flights of stairs, but hauling this bike up a couple wouldn’t kill you.
  • Xtracycle has put nice components on this bike, and in combination with the stability of the rear deck, the EdgeRunner had the shallowest learning curve of any longtail I’ve ridden yet. I was a little wobbly at the start because I’d been riding the Bullitt all week, and it is tough to switch back-and-forth from linkage steering. But I got the feel of the EdgeRunner in a few pedal strokes. The bike also corners really well for a longtail.
  • Bike goes fast. My kids, riding on the back, were split on the appeal of this; my daughter thought the bike was “too fast” while my son urged me to go faster. I didn’t perceive the bike as being particularly fast, weirdly, although objectively-speaking I was moving at a pretty good clip.
  • The EdgeRunner has good acoustics. One of the disadvantages of the Big Dummy from my perspective was that it was very hard to hear my kids on the back. Like the Yuba Mundo, the EdgeRunner is better; I could hear them talking (and sometimes that’s enough that I can intervene before they start fighting).
  • The Xtracycle accessories all work with the EdgeRunner, and the Xtracycle accessories are hot. I was worried that the lower rear wheel would mean that a packed FreeLoader bag would drag on the ground, but there’s actually a reasonable amount of clearance there. The EdgeRunner is usually shown with Xtracycle’s new Hooptie, which on its wide setting can fit around a Yepp child seat. Xtracycle has a two-child seat cushion for the
    This is the sweet little one-child cushion that fits in front of the Yepp Maxi (or whatever Xtracycle calls it).

    This is the sweet little one-child cushion that fits in front of the Yepp Maxi (or whatever Xtracycle calls it).

    deck, and we also got to try their experimental new one-child cushion that fits in front of a Yepp seat (the World HQ has all the cool toys). The modular accessories mean that this bike can carry little kids, big kids, and other kinds of cargo, often simultaneously. The Xtracycle centerstand is also pretty good; it’s not as slick as a Rolling Jackass, but it’s stable enough that my daughter could climb up and down on the EdgeRunner and under the Hooptie like it was a jungle gym, and it disengages when you lift the front wheel off the ground, which means you can just lift the wheel and go.

  • The EdgeRunner has a lower top tube to make it easier for shorter riders to climb on and off with kids on the back, and comes in two frame sizes rather than one-size-fits-all.
  • Supposedly the bike is a good climber (according not just to Xtracycle but to a Rosa Parks dad who test-rode one in the Oakland Hills, although he greatly preferred the assisted version), but given the short and level test ride I took, I can’t speak to this personally.
  • Xtracycle has made a big commitment to family biking. You see this in the accessories and on their website, which shows you how to use them. I heard it when I was talking to them, as they talked about developing a front rack and a Hooptie-based rain cover and a Hooptie-based bicycle towing attachment. We got to try their new seat cushions and my kids stacked up the various different kinds of footrests sitting on the shop shelves. And they were completely unfazed by my kids doing this (unlike me). We have bikes made by manufacturers whose commitment to family biking is half-hearted or nonexistent, and having to figure stuff out on our own or have our bike shop rig something up using their best guess is frustrating. We have friends with Madsens, which are really truly family bikes, and they do not have kind words to say about the rain cover that’s always coming “next year.” The Big Dummies are great bikes and compatible with the Xtracycle accessories, but Surly seems to be more interested in the cargo angle than the kid angle. One of the reasons I tend to suggest that families new to bikes go to Xtracycle or Yuba when they ask me for recommendations is that these companies have your back as family bikers. Even if there’s not an accessory or a bike that fills an obvious need now, you can rest assured that they’re thinking about how to get something to market. That kind of support is priceless.

Disadvantages of the EdgeRunner

  • I say this about all longtails, but it’s nicer to have the kids in front. You have to pay for that, literally, because front-loading box bikes are more expensive than longtails, but having the kids in front is better. You can talk to them and they can talk to you. There is less fighting.
  • For all longtails, including the EdgeRunner, weather protection is either do-it-yourself or planned for some unknown future date. That really limits the conditions where people are willing to ride with kids unless they are pretty handy. Freezing sleet storm? Not appealing on a longtail. By comparison, the kids are oblivious under the rain cover of a front box bike. Longtails are still not fully developed as kid-haulers.
  • The EdgeRunner is not inexpensive. The unassisted model lists for $2,000 and the assisted model for $3500. You get nice components and great design for that price and you will enjoy the ride. Moreover this is the kind of bike that can replace a car. But there are few people for whom money is no object, and a lot of new riders tend to be surprisingly price-conscious for people who would casually drop five figures on a car. But if you’re not totally sure it’s going to replace a car, these price tags can be scary. We sold our car before we bought a bike, so problem solved, but other people make different choices.
  • The low deck has some disadvantages. The main one that came up was that when my daughter complained that the bike was going too fast, my son (who is now seven) responded by dragging his feet on the ground to brake the bike. It was a very effective technique, and he found my annoyance so entertaining that he did it for much of the ride. Bike no longer goes fast. So with older kids, adding footrests is definitely not optional, and for intractable kids, this bike might not ever be the right choice. I would not buy this bike without personally testing whether adding footrests would keep my son’s feet off the ground most of the time.
  • Although the FreeLoaders didn’t drag on the ground as I feared, it also isn’t possible to pack them with the same devil-may-care attitude that is possible on a Big Dummy. The EdgeRunner is unlikely to hold the same volume of cargo as a Big Dummy or for that matter, a Yuba Mundo, simply because the deck is lower and there is less space to hang stuff off it. Tradeoffs!
  • My kids loved the Hooptie, and it’s really cool, but on the wide setting I would not feel comfortable riding with it around San Francisco (I didn’t get to try the narrow setting). Like the support bars on the Yuba Mundo, it is so wide that I would feel nervous navigating around the city’s narrow bike lanes and traffic pinch points. Unfortunately many of the best accessories (Hooptie, Sidecar) turn the EdgeRunner  (and for that matter the Big Dummy) into a bike that’s most appropriate for smaller locales. In defense of Xtracycle, these accessories are at least optional and not built into the frame. However I would find it frustrating to be able to get these accessories but know that I couldn’t use them safely. Not a problem for residents of smaller towns, but a problem for me.
  • Because this was a demo model, the bike we rode wasn’t the bike you’d buy. But: I found the shifters weird. They grew on me a little, because they shift perfectly, although with a slight delay, but they don’t allow you to see where you are on the rear derailleur, which was frustrating. Updates: I wasn’t sure what would come standard at the time, but the assisted EdgeRunner comes with a front headlight, and everything else should be obvious from a review of the website and/or a test ride. It does not appear to have fenders stock.  
Matt takes the EdgeRunner out for a spin.

Matt takes the EdgeRunner out for a spin.

Overall, I liked the EdgeRunner. The lower rear deck made the bike incredibly stable and the light weight made it fast. The fact that it was designed with hilly terrain in mind makes it really appealing in San Francisco. Although I’d want to ride it again before considering it seriously, with both an electric assist and with some kind of footrests for my son, there was nothing about it that struck me as a deal-breaker. By comparison, the Yuba Mundo frame was too wide and heavy for our needs (and the elMundo was under-assisted), and the Surly Big Dummy, with its higher rear deck, felt far less stable. And on both of those bikes we kept dumping the kids. They’re the right bikes for other families, but they weren’t the right bikes for us.

Riding off with my son's feet off the ground, for once.

Riding off with my son’s feet off the ground, for once.

Every family has specific priorities in shopping for a bike. Where we live and with our family, having a bike that can handle hills and that offers the least risk of dumping the kids are big priorities, and those are the reasons that our main kid-hauling bike, until very recently, was a midtail. The EdgeRunner appealed to me because of the stability of the rear deck and its hill-climbing focused design. We’re not in the market for a longtail bike; we like our Bullitt for the two-kid hauling errands (and we’ve purchased more than enough bikes this year anyway, thanks to having to replace a stolen bike). But if we were in the market for a longtail bike, I would be holding out for the EdgeRunner.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, Xtracycle

We tried it: Yuba Boda Boda

Hey, Boda Boda!

There are some new entries in the land of midtail cargo bikes. For the last year we’ve been riding the Kona MinUte, the first of these, and until pretty recently, the only bike in its class. Then it was stolen. That totally sucked. But given that we had to replace it anyway, we took a hard look at the two other midtails on the market now, the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer. Happily for us, Yuba, which is here in the Bay Area, let us ride one of their Boda Bodas for a while last month. Thanks, Yuba!

For background, midtail bikes are a new-as-of-2011 variation on longtail cargo bikes. As the name implies, they’re shorter. Instead of a long deck that can hold 2-3 kids, they offer a short deck that can hold 1-2 kids (as always, the number of kids you can successfully pile on the back of a cargo bike depends on their mood). The disadvantage of a midtail bike is obvious: it can carry less stuff and fewer kids. But there are payoffs for the reduced payload. Midtails look and feel like normal bikes; people who are nervous about handling a big bike will be more comfortable on a midtail than on a longtail. I have never dropped either the MinUte or the Boda Boda with the kids on board and I doubt I ever will. Midtail bikes can also be put on a bus bike rack and on Amtrak for longer trips. And it is a kind of bike that transitions easily from dropping off kids to riding into the office, which is how Matt used it.

Yuba moved into making a midtail bike with some major innovations. Although we liked our Kona MinUte, Kona is not a company that’s made much of a commitment to the family biking market, and that can be annoying. Yuba, on the other hand, cares very much about families. They created the Boda Boda explicitly to carry both kids and cargo, and it shows. The other big innovation is that they developed the Boda Boda with an electric-assist option integrated into the design. The only other cargo bike I know that was developed this way was Xtracycle’s EdgeRunner, a longtail. If you’re riding a cargo bike over a lot of hills or long distances, both these bikes should be on the short list.

The Boda Boda looks wildly different than the MinUte, even though they were both apparently designed by the same person. Putting them side by side in our garage made it very obvious that the MinUte was meant to look like a mountain bike, while the Boda Boda was meant to look like a cruiser. The Boda Boda looks friendlier and has a step-through frame option. Weirdly, the Boda Boda also looks bigger, although it is not in fact bigger. It was a strange and entertaining optical illusion.

Advantages of the Boda Boda:

  • This is an extremely easy bike to ride, both with and without kids aboard. The Boda Boda looks and feels like a beach cruiser, with wide handlebars and a relaxed and upright ride, but has massively increased carrying capacity. We had some friends who were only occasional riders try it, and even when it was loaded they took off without a wobble. This is common to some extent with all midtails, but our loaner Boda Boda had an advantage over the MinUte: a step-through frame. Even shorter riders could get on and off with contorting over the top tube or round-housing a kid sitting on the back deck.
  • The Boda Boda is a slender bike that can move easily through traffic. It has the same kind of rear supports as the Mundo, which are handy because they can hold up the bags or be used as footrests for older riders, but they are much narrower than the ones on the Mundo (as are the bags themselves). A Mundo with the Go Getter bags packed is three feet across, wider than many bike trailers, and it can be nerve-wracking to ride one in San Francisco’s narrow bike lanes and heavy traffic—as a result, I sometimes see Mundos riding on the sidewalk, even though this is illegal in San Francisco. The Boda Boda’s Baguettes, even fully packed, still lie pretty flat and make it possible to weave the bike through pinch points without a second thought (Baguettes can apparently be used on a Mundo as well, by the way).
  • It is very difficult to dump the kids on the Boda Boda (this is true for all midtail bikes). I never managed it, which is more than I can say for the longtails. The weight on the back is so close to the rider that it isn’t hard to handle.
  • The Boda Boda can easily carry one kid, or two kids if they’re in a good mood. The best application for this size of bike is to either carry one kid and a friend (siblings are more likely to fight) or for parents who have two kids and two bikes and are riding with them separately most of the time (that’s how we used our MinUte).
  • Happily, this bike is lightweight for a cargo bike. That means that although it’s not easy to carry, it’s possible. After seven straight years of lifting my kids overhead I have pretty decent arm strength, so needing to carry this bike up a few stairs wouldn’t intimidate me (unless I needed to carry a young child at the same time). However, the much heavier assisted bike: out of the question.
  • It is not appalling to ride this bike up hills. I have been riding a lot with an electric assist lately, because I don’t enjoy walking into meetings covered in sweat (both the campuses where I work are on the top of steep hills). As a result I was slightly depressed by the prospect of riding the unassisted Boda Boda around the city. Although the Boda Boda was, from my perspective, under-geared (see below), it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. I was able to follow a friend who was riding my assisted mamachari and who had my daughter on board up a moderate hill without major effort. Frankly I think riding with the assist has made me stronger. But still, credit to the Boda Boda.
  • It took less than 30 seconds to load the Boda Boda on this rack. No wobbling on the ride either (which involved going up and down steep hills at speeds I’d prefer to forget).

    The Boda Boda fits on a bus bike rack, even a small rack like the one on the university shuttles. One evening when my son forgot his helmet at pickup we rode the shuttle home instead of riding. One of the reasons I really like the midtail size is the ability to do stuff like this instead of being stranded. I wrote once about flipping the front wheel to put the Kona Minute on a bus bike rack; we did the same thing with the Boda Boda. The bike is light enough that lifting it to the rack wasn’t a problem (note that this was the unassisted bike, which is ~15 pounds lighter than the assisted bike). And it definitely impressed the other shuttle riders. “What a great design!” The Boda Boda fits on the rack slightly better than the MinUte, actually, because it has smaller 26” wheels.

  • Yuba has designed some nice accessories for this bike. Unlike a lot of cargo bikes, it has a chain guard. Most of the other accessories are not included in the base price of the bike, but they are probably worth the money. The Baguette bags in particular impressed me; they hold a lot more than they look like they would, and still lie flat against the bike itself. The deck and running boards are bamboo, and they look classy. Some of the standard Mundo accessories, like the front basket and the seat cushion for the deck, also work on the Boda Boda.
  • Many cargo bikes are one-size-fits-all, but the Boda Boda (like all three midtails now on the market) comes in two different frame sizes. This is very nice for shorter and taller riders who report that some bikes are really one-size-fits-most rather than one-size-fits-all. The smaller size has a step through option.
  • Although I rode the unassisted version of the bike, Yuba designed the Boda Boda with the expectation that many people would want an electric assist. The assist system they chose, which is made by BionX, is excellent (the same one we have on our Bullitt). The deck is designed to hold the BionX rack-mounted battery underneath and it’s unobtrusive. For people in hilly cities like ours, this feature, in combination with the excellent accessories and light weight, makes the Boda Boda unbeatable for the family with one child.
  • I often call Yuba the Ikea of bike manufacturers because they make cargo bikes at very approachable price points, and the Boda Boda is no exception. The unassisted Boda Boda is $1000, and the assisted version is $2700. By cargo bike standards, these are excellent prices (the assisted version seems like a particularly good deal). The Kona MinUte has the same base price (and the bags are included, but unfortunately the MinUte bags kind of suck) and is also a good deal, but as noted above Kona is not a family-focused company and there is no integrated electric assist system. That might not be a problem if you have a family-oriented local bike shop, but could be frustrating if you don’t.

Disadvantages of the Boda Boda:

  • This is not specific to the Boda Boda but to its class: like many parents, I prefer to ride with my kids in front of me rather than behind me.  You can see them and talk to them and it’s altogether a better experience (it also feels safer to me, probably because experience suggests I’m less likely to dump a front-loading bike). Realistically, however, the kids in front option is expensive. If you have the money, by all means get a bike that puts the kids in front, because it is fabulous. But most people don’t walk into family biking yelling, “Money is no object!” Also you could never get a front box bike onto a bus.
  • The Boda Boda is really a bike suited for carrying one kid regularly and no more than that. Yes, it is possible to put two kids on the back of a midtail, maybe even three for a short ride. Yes, there are probably siblings in this world who could ride that way regularly without trying to kill each other. However such kids would be exceptional.  I’ve been able to ride a MinUte for almost an hour without my kids fighting on occasion, but more often the ride gets cut short when they start smashing helmets. So the Boda Boda is really a bike for a one-kid family or for a family where both parents ride and split up the kids, or where only the youngest needs to be hauled.
  • The Boda Boda is under-geared for San Francisco. It has eight speeds and they were not enough for riding around our neighborhood loaded and unassisted. Yes, I could climb moderate hills, but trying to get up the steep hill to the main campus on this bike left me dripping with sweat. However, this wouldn’t be an issue with the electric assist version.
  • More expensive cargo bikes come with better parts, and cheaper bikes come with parts that are less good. The Boda Boda comes with many of the same parts that are on the Yuba Mundo, which where we ride would mean making several upgrades, either all at once or over time as various parts on the bike broke. In defense of the Boda Boda, it is a much lighter bike than the Mundo, so the riding experience with those components was much better than on the Mundo (in particular, using rim brakes felt less like flirting with death). Also in defense of the Boda Boda, we had to do the exact same thing with our MinUte, which is also built with cheaper parts. The components may not be an issue for an occasional rider or for someone riding in less demanding conditions.  However I had the chain drop off the front ring twice while riding the bike, and it was a huge pain to rethread given the chainguard.
  • I suspect that Yuba had a price point in mind building this bike, and that was: less than the Mundo. As a result, the standard Boda Boda is pretty stripped down if you want to haul a kid on it. The stock kickstand is totally inappropriate for loading kids, the bike lacks fenders, there aren’t stoker bars or footpegs for a kid riding in the back, and the bags are not included. There is an optional center stand appropriate for loading kids, plus bags, and so forth, but the costs of these upgrades add up and should be kept in mind. The bike I rode, incidentally, came with Baguette bags, which have a neat center outside pocket where my seven-year-old son could tuck his feet, and I definitely think they’re worth the money.  However I suspect that many parents would appreciate a “family package” where the obvious upgrades were bundled together.
  • The Boda Boda is still somewhat in development, and the accessories designed to carry kids are not yet perfected. The Boda Boda deck is much higher than the Mundo deck, so the Mundo stoker bars are too low for kids to hold. When my daughter (three years old) tried using them she was frustrated that she had to stick her face into my butt. My son, who can stay on by himself (although he prefers having stoker bars) simply ignored them.  If Yuba doesn’t come up with stoker bars for the Boda Boda, it would be better to have a bike shop rig up something.  Similarly, foot pegs for smaller kids like my daughter, who couldn’t put her feet into the bag pockets, are apparently not available.
  • I learned recently that some accessories are not compatible with putting the bike on a bus rack. Many San Francisco transit services, for example, don’t allow you to load bikes with front baskets on the bus racks. Normally I would suggest putting Yuba’s Bread Basket on to increase the Boda Boda’s carrying capacity, especially given that it can be tough to use the rear bags if you’re carrying a younger kid in a child seat on the back (Yuba’s Peanut Shell is compatible with the Boda Boda). But for anyone planning to put this bike on the bus, definitely check with the local transit agency first, because the Bread Basket cannot be removed without tools.
  • As with all of the longtail/midtail bikes, there isn’t really good technology yet for covering up kids in bad weather on the Boda Boda. People have jury-rigged rain covers and bundled up kids, but this is one area where front-loading bikes really shine: most of these bikes come with covers.
  • I found the deck on the Boda Boda really high for carrying kids (this is also a problem on the MinUte, which has bigger wheels). On a longtail, this can make the load less stable, meaning you’re more likely to dump the bike and scrape up the kids. On a midtail like the Boda Boda dumping the bike is extremely unlikely; that’s an advantage of the short deck. But there’s still a cost to putting weight up so high. Where I feel the most unstable on midtails and longtails with kids on board is turning at speed (especially at the bottom of a hill), when these bikes will pitch away from the turn like they’re going to roll over. This feeling is very unpleasant, and is much less likely to happen with the load lower down. Yuba built a high deck so there would be space to hold the BionX rear-rack mounted battery. However the Boda Boda would feel much more stable if both the deck and the battery were lower.

There’s been a lot of mugging for the camera lately. My son liked riding the bike. Hence the scary face, I am told.

Overall, I was impressed with the Boda Boda. It looks cute and easy to ride, and it is. That might sound trivial to people who already ride regularly who are considering a cargo bike, but for people who aren’t already riding bikes, it’s really important. The Boda Boda is very accessible.

I liked this bike so much that the electric assist Boda Boda is now what I recommend when San Francisco families with one child who are new to riding bikes ask me what bike they should get. So far two of them have gone for it (knowing that they’re probably going to have to upgrade some of the parts along the way).  Overall, for parents looking to start bike commuting with a kid, the Boda Boda is an excellent choice.

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

Cargo bike pocket reviews

Bikes lining up at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

We have tried riding a lot of family bikes over the last month, and for that matter, the last year. We didn’t try everything, although it sometimes felt like it. There are a lot of bikes left that could work for other people. I learned after reading Totcycle’s excellent review of midtails that it’s possible to review bikes you’ve never even ridden so: here goes!

Hard to categorize family bikes (that we have actually ridden)

There are some other configurations out there as well: Family Ride has a Bianchi Milano commuter bike fitted with both a front seat and a rear seat. However that kind of setup starts to get a little difficult once the combined ages of the kids get above about six years. Furthermore, a bike like that is going to need some aftermarket accessories: a decent center stand to keep it from falling over and some way to carry non-kid cargo (like diapers and snacks) are two big considerations.

Cycle trucks

A cycle truck doing a headstand at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

Cycle trucks are bikes with a huge front-end loader that allows people to carry a ton of stuff there. Cycle trucks are similar to a normal bike with a frame-mounted front rack, but typically they have a smaller front wheel too. I don’t hear much about cycle trucks for family biking, as they’re mostly used as delivery bikes. However for one-child families, a cycle truck can be a neat way to haul a bunch of groceries and gear using the front rack/basket, with a younger kid in a front seat behind the handlebars, or an older kid in a rear seat. I could also  imagine putting two (younger) kids on a cycle truck, one in front and one in back, although you’d want to be careful about weight and balance.

Civia Halsted: The Halsted is recommended as a one-kid hauler by Joe Bike, who wrote an excellent summary of what it can do. I also recently learned there’s a family, bikeMAMAdelphia, riding with the Halsted and a cute little boy in a front Yepp seat. This bike looks like a lot of fun, and seems as though it would be good for city families given its relatively petite size. We didn’t take a test-ride because we didn’t make it over to Joe Bike but we knew we wouldn’t be getting one regardless because given our kids’ ages it would be a one-kid bike. The Halsted seems to run about $1,200.

There are some other cycle trucks out there, but this design hasn’t taken off as a kid-hauler in the way that other cargo bikes have.

Longtails

Family Ride carries my daugher and her youngest on her iconic pink Surly Big Dummy

Longtails are the bikes I see most often hauling kids and cargo here in these United States. They are competitively priced relative to most box bikes (e.g. “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows”) and most of them can handle hills, which feature prominently in the terrain of many West Coast cities, including mine. They look like normal bikes and ride like normal bikes except that someone streeeeeeetched the back out so they can be used to carry cargo and kids in the extra space between the rider and the rear wheel. Two kids can fit on the rear deck with enough space to limit fighting, and there’s also room for a front seat for little kids in the front. Reviews and links are in alphabetical order by manufacturer.

Kona Ute: The Kona Ute is the elder sibling of our first cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Unlike the MinUte, the deck is long enough to hold two kids with breathing room. We could have managed a test ride of this bike through our local bike shop, but we ultimately didn’t because friends and acquaintances that had ridden it with kids all said that the rear deck is so high that the bike never really felt stable. Only people over six feet reported getting comfortable with it. As a cargo bike, with the load down low in the panniers, the Ute is apparently fantastic. However we didn’t find anyone who’d stuck with the Ute as a family bike long-term; they’d all switched to other bikes, most frequently the Big Dummy or the Mundo. There are great prices on this bike on secondhand, which may be worth investigating for tall parents. List price is $1,300.

Sun Atlas: The Sun Atlas is the cheapest of the longtails (cargo bikes are generally not cheap) at an astonishing price of less than $700. We didn’t take a test ride of this bike for two reasons: first, we didn’t make it to Joe Bike when we were in Portland and no one else had it in stock, and second, the components, as one might expect given the price, are not great. San Francisco is pretty hard on bikes and we have replaced many parts on the Kona MinUte already (brakes, wheels, pedals, tires, derailleur guide) due to local conditions. This has grown tiresome given that Matt needs to ride that bike almost every day, and the days he doesn’t need it, I usually do. We knew that we wanted a bike this time that wouldn’t constantly need to go to the shop. But for people who live in less difficult conditions or ride less frequently, this could be a good option. Carfree with Kids considered this bike, and there are discussions of it on the websites of Joe Bike and Clever Cycles. Note that there appears to be some disagreement as to whether it would work for shorter riders.

How to spend a Sunday afternoon: Meet friends from school, ride around on cargo bikes.

Surly Big Dummy: Our experience riding this bike is here. There are so many other reviews of this bike on the internet that I didn’t bother to sort through them.

Trek Transport/Transport+: Trek recently released the Transport and Transport+ cargo bikes; the Transport+ is sold with an electric assist. It has a very interesting rear bag design that looks as though it can carry quite a lot of stuff, but with those side loader bars this bike appears to be even wider than the Yuba Mundo. Trek specifically states that the Transport is not designed to carry passengers, not even on a child seat. We didn’t look for one to try because we wanted a bike to carry our kids.

Put a FreeRadical on it, Portland.

Xtracycle FreeRadical/Radish: The Xtracycle FreeRadical isn’t really a bike per se but a longtail attachment that can be added to an ordinary bike. It is the ancestor of the American longtail. The Xtracycle Radish is a FreeRadical attached to a donor bike for people who don’t have one of their own. We didn’t seriously consider a FreeRadical because they are reported to be unstable above about 70 pounds of weight and our kids together weigh more than that. They also have a reputation for flex on hills, and there are a lot of those where we live. But for people in flatter locales (which is, okay, basically everyone) or with younger kids, or a single kid, this is a very cost-effective way to start family biking. Plus it gives you access to the many wonderful Xtracycle accessories. The Xtracycle catalog is so extensive and complicated that I have trouble figuring out how much stuff costs though. Davey Oil keeps promising to write more about his beloved Wheelio, a Japanese mixte bike that he Xtracycled. Car Free Days has written for years about their Xtracycles, which did in fact make them car-free.

Xtracycle EdgeRunner: The Xtracycle Edgerunner (link goes to the Momentum review) is the first bike that seems to have been developed specifically for families who are riding in very hilly terrain. Thank you, Xtracycle! Our first experience test-riding this bike is here. Later I wrote an updated review of the 2014 EdgeRunner. The verdict: the EdgeRunner is a category-killer, the best longtail we have ever ridden.

Yuba elMundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Yuba Mundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Midtails

Our MinUte chats up some other school bikes at one of the courtyard racks

As of 2012, three companies had developed a new kind of cargo bike: the midtail. (Okay, update in December 2012: the first midtail was really the venerable Workcycles Fr8. At first I’d classified it as a longtail, but it is short enough–although much too heavy in its kid-hauling incarnation–to fit on a bus bike rack, so I’m now calling it a midtail.) The first American midtail was the Kona MinUte, and it was enough of a hit that two more companies have now developed similar designs: Yuba, a company in Sausalito developing heavy-duty family bikes, and Kinn, a new startup in Portland making only a midtail. As the name implies, midtails are like a longtail, but shorter. The big advantage of the shorter length is that (most of) these bikes are transit friendly: they can fit on a bus bike rack or Amtrak (given some maneuvering). The best place to learn about these bikes is Totcycle’s outstanding summary.

If your kids are widely-spaced, say more than three years apart, you could fit an infant seat on the front of a midtail and put the older one on the deck behind. Then when the little one outgrows the front seat, the older is likely to either be riding solo or riding a trailer bike. Or you might be able to swing a couple more years with one on the front using a Leco top tube seat (which–fair warning!–is not suitable for all bikes). The midtail, which has much more cargo-carrying capacity than a normal bike, also appeals to non-parents looking for a normal-looking bike to haul groceries and other loads that would otherwise require attaching a trailer.

Our first bike was a midtail, the Kona MinUte. Like all midtails it can carry one kid on the rear deck (two kids can fit there too, but only if they’re in a good mood). The rear deck can also be fitted with a child seat for younger kids. We’ve never found a seat necessary once our kids reached three years, but your mileage may vary, and there are seats for older kids if so (the Bobike Junior or Yepp Junior). Adding a seat cushion is a nice touch.

Kona MinUte: Our experience riding this bike is here. Kona can’t decide whether it’s going to keep making this bike or not. As of 2014, they are not producing it, but recently promised to resurrect it. I’ve posted a few times about our MinUte; it is an underrated bike, in large part I think because of Kona’s indecision about whether or not they really want to be in the cargo/family biking market.

I'm embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

I’m embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

Workcycles Fr8: The Fr8 is a European midtail that has the capacity, unlike most of these bikes, to carry an child in front that is over the length/weight limit of a normal front child seat. The front seat mounted to the top tube is a saddle, and really best for kids old enough to balance. A big advantage of the Fr8 is the ability to keep two kids separated and still carry a bunch of stuff (the Fr8 accepts standard panniers and has a huge front rack), or to carry three kids after adding two rear seats. However this is a Dutch bike designed for the flat flatlands of the Flatherlands and it weighs 75 pounds, reportedly can’t go up more than a mild hill, and isn’t recommended for an electric assist. (There is evidently a lighter version coming recently or soon called the Gr8.) We live in San Francisco: there is no way. I still feel like I should have ridden this bike when we were in the shop, and I regret that I didn’t. It was 100 degrees that day and we were just so tired because we’d already ridden a half dozen other bikes that morning. If I lived someplace flat I would not have skipped trying this bike, even though the base model costs $2,200. It looked indestructible and is supposed to have a very smooth ride, and there are a lot of nice features like lights, a full chain guard, and fenders included in the price. Mamafiets wrote a nice review of the Fr8.

Yuba Boda Boda: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Kinn Cascade Flyer: We didn’t try this bike in 2012 because it wasn’t released yet. The Kinn is a gorgeous midtail based on a mixte frame, which means that the top tube slopes down toward the seat so it’s easier to step on and off. There are some very clever features on this bike: part of the deck rotates out 180 degrees to hold wide loads or make a better seat; it has a lockbox integrated into the rear deck, the passenger footpegs are adjustable, and it appears to have bars below the deck that will hold standard panniers. The Kinn is the only midtail that allows the attachment of a Follow-Me Tandem. Regrettably, it was made by tall people and has huge wheels, like the MinUte, so may not be the best choice for shorter riders. We still have yet to ride it, because it is a hard bike to find. It went into a tiny production run in Fall 2012 (30 bikes) and sold them for about $2,000; a second small production run followed in 2013. The extra cost gives you those clever design features, nicer parts, and a bike built in the USA.

Box bikes

Our son is almost four feet tall and he still fits on the Brompton with me.

Most parents love front box bikes, aka long johns, aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” because the kids are in front where you can see them and talk to them. When we first started thinking about biking with our kids this didn’t seem like an important consideration. The more we rode with them the more we started to care. I ride the Brompton, which has a front child seat, in places that I probably shouldn’t (it’s not a great hill climber) just because I love having my kids in the front. I can see them and they lean back and look at me. They get a great view and are much more engaged in what’s going on. And my son will sometimes throw his arms around mine to hug me while we’re riding the Brompton and shout, “I LOVE YOU, MOMMY!” I have no words. I will keep him on that seat until he’s taller than I am.

See what I mean? You can put all kinds of stuff in a box bike.

So: front box bikes are cool. They’re also really good haulers, because they have a cargo box. You can carry stuff in a box bike that would never fit in a car, like bookshelves. Front box bikes are also expensive relative to longtails, and most of them have virtually no hill climbing capability. So that’s a bummer.

Babboe: The Babboe is similar to the Bakfiets in looks, listing at around $2,500 instead of $3,500. This is evidently a very popular bike in the Netherlands, and they are planning a roll-out to the US in September 2014 (online at least). Here’s a 2012 review from a family in Ottawa, and a 2013 updated review from bikeMAMAdelphia. These reviewers suggest that the price difference may reflect to some extent what comes standard on the bike (e.g. the Bakfiets comes with a rear rack, the Babboe does not) and the quality of parts (e.g. saddles and tires), but many families are happy making those kinds of compromises for a more affordable price–the same kinds of decisions come up in shopping for longtails as well.

Bakfiets: This is the bike people think of when they think about family box bikes. Our experience riding it is here. There are many other reviews of this bike out there, but one of the best I found was written by a father on the one-year anniversary of getting the bike.

Bullitt: Our experience riding this bike is here. It is one of the rare front-loading box bikes that can climb hills. (This is the bike we bought.)

Four kids pile into the Largo. It was hard to get them to take turns.

CETMA Margo/Largo: I really wish I’d tried this bike too. There weren’t any in stock at the shops we visited (and for that matter, at the shops we didn’t visit). I did see one at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call, and the kids loved it. They were piling four at a time into the box and riding around. The pros of the CETMA, from what I’ve read, are that it offers a very stable ride, can climb at least moderate hills, and that it’s relatively easy to add an electric assist, at which point it can climb steep hills. What’s more, the frame splits into two parts, making the resulting package small enough to transport easily. The CETMA costs $2,850 for a complete bike, although this price does not include the box, which sells for $300. When you add in all the extras you’d get on a Bakfiets, like lights, chain guard, fenders, seatbelts, and so forth, it’s probably comparable. However much of the bike can be customized, because all CETMA bikes are made by one guy who formerly lived in Eugene but recently moved to California. As a result, he stopped producing bikes in June 2012 and began filling them again in October 2012. This meant that we would have had to fall for this bike very hard, because getting one would involve a long wait indeed. Without a test ride that wasn’t going to happen. That said, one of the reasons we got the Bullitt was that its narrow profile made it easier to ride on the busy streets of San Francisco, and the CETMA bikes are definitely not that narrow. I found a video review from one happy customer (but: six months to get the bike!) and a written review from a less-happy customer.

[updated] Christiania 2-wheeler: This is a dark horse box bike that I had never even heard of until I read the comments on the original post. One mom riding a Christiania wrote an extremely detailed review of the bike, as well as how it works for their family, with some great thoughts on similar bikes in its class as well.

Gazelle Cabby: Clever Cycles used to stock the Gazelle Cabby, but they didn’t have one when we visited and no one else did either. The Cabby is distinctive in part because it has a fabric rather than a wooden box. The box actually folds up from the top, and with the top edges together it can be locked with stuff inside, which is pretty neat. In addition, the folding box means that the bike can be made very narrow, which makes parking it much easier. However I wonder about the durability of the fabric of the box, and like most box bikes it’s slow and supposedly hard to get up hills. It is a Dutch bike so it comes with lights, a chain guard, fenders, and a rear wheel lock. When it’s in stock Clever Cycles sells it for $2,800. Family Ride has ridden the Cabby twice (1, 2), and a couple of other families have written up their impressions as well. And in 2013, bikeMAMAdelphia weighs in again with a test ride.

Metrofiets: Our experience riding this bike is here. It can handle hills.

Shuttlebug (and Joe Bike Boxbike): These made-in-Portland bikes are no longer in production.

Urban Arrow: The Urban Arrow is a fascinating take on a front box bike. In 2014, we finally had the chance to ride it for a review. It has a lot of interchangeable parts, so the bike can switch from being a family bike with seats for kids to a cargo hauler with a locked box. It’s also possible to swap out the entire front end and turn it into a cycle truck. Unusually, it comes standard with an integrated mid-drive electric assist, so it is capable of handling hills. However when we were looking it wasn’t available in the US, and given the long lead time (it had been “coming soon!” for three years) I assumed it would never be. As of March 2013, the Urban Arrow is now available in the US: read about bikeMAMAdelphia’s test ride! Here’s a 2013 update on life with the Urban Arrow, again from bikeMAMAdelphia. This bike has become easier to find in the US as of 2014, but it’s still pretty elusive. Note that there have been reliability issues with the first-generation Daum motors, and a couple of shops have reported that Bosch’s support for the second-generation motors has been somewhat spotty. Buying from a trustworthy shop is critical for all assisted bikes. 

Winther Wallaroo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Tandems

This is a tandem for grownups, but you could put kid-cranks on it.

Tandems are fun! Okay, we’ve never ridden one, but they sure look fun. One friend rides a triple tandem with his daughters to school. Car Free Days just rode two tandems down the West Coast as a summer vacation. My kids are very excited about the idea of tandems, because riding a tandem would allow them to pedal, which they think is cool. Tandems are also interesting because as a couple of people have now pointed out to me, they have solved the cargo bike braking issue. Modern tandem bikes typically have two sets of brakes: hub brakes to slow the bike and wheel brakes to stop them. Both are controlled by the captain (the rider steering, who usually sits in front, although not always). With two sets of brakes, it’s possible to slow and stop a heavily loaded bike without the brakes overheating, and with a backup system you’re less likely to launch off the edge of a hill if one set of brakes doesn’t have enough stopping power by itself. When I learned that I was even more excited by the idea of a tandem bike. However a weakness of these bikes is that they’re not great for carrying cargo (they usually hold a set of standard panniers at most, plus whatever riders want to carry on their bodies). In addition, for situations where one person gets off one place and another gets off somewhere else, like our commute, it would be weird (and heavy) to haul around an empty bike. On the up side, with everyone on board and pedaling, they’re supposed to go really fast.

This is Shrek 2.

Bike Friday triple tandem: The PTA president at our son’s school and his partner bought a Bike Friday triple tandem on eBay to take their daughters to school. It is big and green, so they call it Shrek 2. My kids go nuts for this bike. ALL kids go nuts for this bike (except for their girls, who are used to it). They offered us the chance to ride it for a couple of weeks this summer while they were away and I was so excited. However our daughter, at age three, is still too small to fit on the bike and so we decided to wait until she was taller (otherwise there would be meltdowns when her brother could ride and she couldn’t). We had hoped to try riding this bike in 2013, but unfortunately I was hit by a car, and while I was incapacitated they swapped it for an Xtracycled tandem. The advantages of a triple tandem bike are pretty obvious: a parent can take two kids somewhere and get help going up hills, plus the kids are excited to help pedal and don’t get cold because they’re doing some work. Plus the coolness factor is off the charts; practically everyone riding in San Francisco recognizes this bike. A downside is that the bike is really long. I have no idea what a triple tandem would cost new; it was custom before they scored it on eBay.

Buddy Bike: The Buddy Bike is another Joe Bike production. It allows special needs kids to ride in the front of a tandem bike holding onto the handlebars. But because the handlebars are quite long the parent in back is really controlling the steering. This is such a lovely idea, although it’s a specialized market. We didn’t try it because our kids don’t fit the profile and because we didn’t make it to Joe Bike (which I am really kicking myself about as I write this).

Circe Helios family tandem:  I heard about the Circe Helios from a blog reader. It’s a longtail! It’s a tandem! It fits on public transit! It’s not available in the United States! [update: Yes it is! College Park Bicycles in Maryland is now importing the Circe Helios. They say it is in stock but have no details or prices on their website, which is bike123.com.] The Circe Helios has 20” wheels, in part to keep the length down to public transit compatibility (I’m not sure whether it would really fit on a bus rack, or just British trains). The back end can be switched from a long tail that holds to two child seats and cargo to a tandem seat with room for a rear child seat (and cargo bags). The stoker seat in the rear can be adjusted to carry any size rider from about a three-year-old to an adult. A couple could buy this bike and keep it through two kids learning to ride, then switch back to riding it solo as a longtail or as a couple in its tandem form when the kids grew up. It’s a lifelong bike.

Outside of Counterbalance Cycles, where we did not try riding a tandem.

Co-Motion PeriScope: When we were in Seattle we had the chance to try a Co-Motion PeriScope at the very friendly Counterbalance Bicycles, a shop located right on the Burke Gilman trail. Co-Motion makes tandems noted for their hill climbing chops. I spent a lot of time convincing my son, who was in a very grouchy mood after falling off a BMX bike he’d been riding, that he wanted to try this bike. It was very disappointing when we discovered he was still about an inch too short to reach the pedals. The Co-Motion is a sport tandem not set up for commuting in any way; it didn’t even have fenders. But it looked like it would go really fast. I like that. We will return to Seattle again; my mom lives up there. When my son is taller, we will ride this bike. The model we almost tried cost about $3,000.

KidzTandem: The KidzTandem is a kid-in-front tandem bike that Clever Cycles sells. Having the kids in front on a tandem has the same advantages as having the kids in front in a box bike. We were very excited to try this bike, even though no one seemed optimistic about its ability to climb hills, and the review I found agreed. Unfortunately Clever Cycles had just sold the only one they had had in stock (“This has never happened before!”) It costs $2,000 and eventually they’ll get another one in stock. I think you can rent it when that happens, and Clever Cycles has very reasonable rental rates.

My husband: “That Onderwater is the goofiest bike I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

Onderwater triple tandem: In one of those weird twists of fate, Clever Cycles did actually have a family tandem in the store, the Onderwater triple. It had been custom-ordered for another family and was already sold, so it wasn’t a bike we could test ride. It’s not a bike they usually stock. The Onderwater triple, like the KidzTandem, puts the kid in the front. Chicargobike has an Onderwater that they’ve written about. Like most of the Dutch bikes there are lots of creative ways to carry kids on this bike; in addition to the front stoker seats (up to two), there is an optional jump seat that can be attached in front of the parent, and it’s also possible to put a rear child seat on the back. So you could have up to five people on one bike, and three of them could pedal (no, Dutch families don’t wear helmets, thanks to all that protected infrastructure). Like all the Dutch bikes, it comes with all the goodies: lights, fenders, chain guard (on a tandem, no less). Like all the Dutch bikes, it weighs a ton and you couldn’t get it up a serious hill even if you were being chased by a horde of ravenous zombies. The triple tandem is a custom bike so pricing is unclear. [Update: There is now an Onderwater tandem roaming the streets of San Francisco--a dad riding his kids to school. He said that they make it up moderate hills.]

Tricycles

Matt is looking for a route that doesn’t have anything approximating a hill because we’re riding trikes.

We rode a couple of trikes, the Christiania and the Nihola. There are other trikes on the market (Bakfiets makes one, plus there’s the well-reviewed Winther Kangaroo, Family Ride rode the Triple Lindy, etc.), but I’ve never given them much thought because trikes are totally impossible on hills and we live in San Francisco. I think that they could be fun in flat cities.

Somebody stick a fork in me: I think I’m done for a while. Did I miss anything? Please let me know in the comments!

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