Category Archives: reviews

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

The Xtracycle bike shop and cafe

The Xtracycle bike shop and cafe

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 (next time I’m in Portland, though), 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 for some reason this design doesn’t seem to have 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.

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 experience test-riding this bike is here.

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 have 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 fantastic 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). Stick a Follow-Me Tandem coupling on a midtail and it could be the only family bike you ever need. 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.

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 because it wasn’t released yet (but I’d love to when it shows up in the Bay Area). 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. It went into a tiny production run in Fall 2012 (30 bikes) and lists for about $2,000. More are on the way 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 a cheap knockoff of the Bakfiets, listing at around $2,000 instead of $3,500. I don’t know much about this bike. It no longer appears to be available in the United States, which explains why I didn’t ride it. Reviews suggest that it’s a poor hill climber. There are also concerns about the parts not being particularly durable. (This is the “no free lunch” problem.) And here’s a 2013 updated review from bikeMAMAdelphia.

Bakfiets: Our experience riding this bike 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. (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 is currently collecting orders, which he’ll begin filling 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.

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. 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. Best of all, it comes with an integrated mid-drive electric assist. For parents living in hilly locales, this bike is like a dream come true. The problem was that 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, I am delighted to eat crow, because the Urban Arrow is now available in the US: read about bikeMAMAdelphia’s test ride! Originally Rolling Orange was selling the assisted version for $4,300, however the price has since increase. Here’s a 2013 update on life with the Urban Arrow, again from bikeMAMAdelphia. Word on the street is that this bike is painfully hard to get–they come to the US every once in a while in shipments of six bikes, which sell out immediately.

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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Filed under family biking, reviews

Last bike standing

Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call: decisions, decisions

In August we rode a lot of cargo bikes trying to find the one that would work for us. We wanted a car-replacement cargo bike that could take two kids and their gear up and down some of the steeper hills of San Francisco. We had headed to Portland to try every plausible option in the multiple shops catering to family bikers there. It felt like a charmed trip, a no-lose proposition.

But by the middle of our week in Portland I was feeling depressed. I had spent much of the day wobbling through the streets of Portland with all the grace of a concussed bumblebee on the rental Bullitt. Matt had dumped the kids on the way home on the rental Big Dummy. It was miserably hot. We had tried every reasonable two-kid hauler we could find, and we still couldn’t figure out what to get. There were other bikes we might have tried given more time, like the forthcoming Xtracycle Edgerunner or a CETMA Largo or the incredibly elusive Urban Arrow (no one can tell me whether this bike even exists), but for various reasons these bikes were unavailable for at least the next few months. And even if we waited there was no guarantee we’d like them.

In hindsight it sort of surprises me that at that point we didn’t bail and decide to buy another car. We had lived without a car long enough at that point that it didn’t seem like the answer (it’s not). I did seriously wonder whether we should just ditch the idea of getting a big cargo bike and stick with the MinUte (short answer: no). For a moment it seemed appealing because we liked the MinUte, we could both ride it without dropping our kids, and it could handle the hills. But as an everyday ride for  our two older kids: no way. When kids scuffle on a midtail deck it’s like a cockfight: there’s no place to run. Trying to ride with them on the MinUte sometimes works beautifully but often means making a City CarShare reservation. Having to do that once a week is not expensive compared to owning a car (about $6 per trip–unbelievable! the same as Muni fare!) but it’s a hassle. And we still get stuck in traffic and have to figure out where to park. For the sake of our sanity, we’d all rather be riding a bike.

To make living without a car workable right now, and for me to manage shuttling two kids around while still making it to work on time during Matt’s overseas business trips, we needed a bike I could use to carry both kids at once. After riding all those bikes, there were four that we believed could work for our situation (to recap: two kids ages 3 and 6 in different schools, steep hills, heavy car traffic). Two were front box bikes and two were longtails.

These are all great bikes, and all of them can be made into serious climbers with an electric assist. I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a family bike (and not just them). All of them make appearances in San Francisco. Of those four, we ruled out the Metrofiets and the Yuba based primarily on size and hassle factor. The Metrofiets is one of the longest front loading box bikes—we loved the space in the box on that bike, but pushing it out into intersections made us nervous even on quiet Portland streets, and parking it would be a challenge in San Francisco. The elMundo is short, but the bars sticking out from the sides in the back made the bike wide enough that it was difficult for me to feel comfortable navigating in traffic when I rode it. In addition, given the demand we’ve placed on our bikes in San Francisco (sometime I will list all the parts on the MinUte that we replaced after they broke due to the hills, crappy pavement, and dirt of San Francisco—thankfully under the first year’s warranty) we would only have considered buying the Mundo as a frame kit, building it up with much better parts than come stock, and upgrading the weaker eZee assist to a BionX. That seemed like a lot of work for a bike I hadn’t fallen in love with.

Splendid Cycles was right: the two bikes that seemed like the best bet after we’d ridden many bikes were the Big Dummy and the Bullitt. Both bikes could carry both kids and both bikes could handle the hills we threw at them. Both of them were narrow enough to handle tight squeezes, either on the move or when parking on the sidewalk. The Big Dummy was easy to ride and despite my initial concerns about weight limits, we saw ample evidence that people could take two older kids up hills on it (and sometimes three). But the kids were in back where we couldn’t talk to them and we kept dropping the bike. The Bullitt was a better climber, and allowed us to keep the kids in front and separated. But we were still having trouble with the steering.

I started considering stupid decision rules. Like: all the bikes I’ve owned start with the letter B! Breezer (RIP), Brompton, and Bridgestone (the mamachari). I should get the one that starts with the letter… shoot!

But then I remembered the advice that guided me to the Brompton, a bike I’ve never regretted getting: buy the cool bike. The person who wrote that was advising people to buy the bike that they most wanted to ride, even if it was impractical. But neither of these bikes was impractical. We couldn’t lose. So the next morning I loaded up the kids and got on the bike I most wanted to ride. We took off without a wobble. It felt like flying. It felt like a miracle. We bought the Bullitt.

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

We tried it: Surly Big Dummy (with and without BionX electric assist)

Matt takes three kids for a spin on our rental Big Dummy at the Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call.

Over the last year I’ve had the chance to ride a Surly Big Dummy multiple times, both with and without an electric assist. Our friends from school have lent theirs, and Family Ride has let me use her incredible pink Big Dummy for long rides in Seattle. And twice I’ve ridden a BionX assisted Big Dummy from Splendid Cycles (the first electric-assisted bicycle I ever rode), once for a day and more recently, for a week. The Big Dummy makes frequent appearances in family biking communities in the hilly cities of the northwestern United States.

The Big Dummy grew out of the Xtracycle platform. Xtracycle pioneered the longtail bike concept in the United States with the development of the FreeRadical, which is a longtail attachment that can be fitted to virtually any bike, even a folding bike (useful for people who want cargo bikes, yet live in small apartments with limited storage space—preassembled versions are sold by Warm Planet Bikes in San Francisco). I met someone while commuting home last year who claimed he was riding with one of the first FreeRadicals ever sold. He had his daughter on deck in a child seat, but he had the bike for over a decade. The original wooden deck looked a bit battered but it was working fine.

Biking with Brad shows off a Big Dummy at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

Xtracycle’s system is open technology. Surly was the first company to turn Xtracycle’s FreeRadical attachment into a complete bicycle frame. The advantage of having the longtail as part of a complete frame is basically the same advantage of having a complete cargo bike rather than a bike and a trailer, although less dramatic. The FreeRadical is really a separate part, so it’s harder to carry as much weight, and the bike can flex, particularly on hills. Flex means that different parts of the bicycle no longer move in the same plane, which can be disconcerting; under challenging enough conditions, the frame can even break apart. Typically flex is not a big concern for people commuting to work on bicycles, because they’re traveling relatively slowly and they don’t weigh that much. But put a hundred extra pounds on the back of the bike and head up or down a steep hill and suddenly you do have a problem.

Because we live and work on San Francisco hills and want to carry kids whose total weight is approaching 100 pounds, we were discouraged from riding an Xtracycled bike on the grounds that it would not feel stable—70 pounds is apparently where people start to feel the flex, and our kids together weigh more than that. This concern includes Xtracycle’s Radish, which is a bicycle frame attached to a FreeRadical; purchasing a Radish is mostly a way to get a FreeRadical without already owning a donor bike. However there are many San Francisco families in flatter parts of the city who are very happy with Xtracycled bikes. One family we met attached their FreeRadical to a tandem bike after their kids got too big for the Xtracycle to carry them safely. However they report that the Xtratandem is extremely tiring to ride.

The issues that kept us from seriously considering the Xtracycle FreeRadical/Radish are much less significant with the Big Dummy. Because the bike is a complete frame, it has far less flex. Getting a Big Dummy would also allow us to feel solidarity with our family biking neighbors to the north, because these bikes are all over Seattle. And although getting a Big Dummy so I could feel like I have something in common with other family bikers is arguably sort of pathetic, getting the same gear as Family Ride actually has real merit as a decision rule, because she rides everywhere.

The pros of the Big Dummy:

  • The Big Dummy is very easy to ride. There is almost no learning curve; the first time I got on one I just started riding. The first time I rode one with my kids on board was a little trickier; when they get excited, as they always do when trying out a new bike, they jump around a lot. Dynamic loads are much more hassle than static loads. But nonetheless I managed it pretty quickly, and by quickly I mean less than a block. It also corners pretty neatly, even when laden, although with a load all longtails are going to swing out a little wider.
  • The Big Dummies we’ve ridden have really nice components, which make them a pleasure to ride. Shifting is instantaneous, braking is fast and effective, and the bike rides smoothly.
  • The Big Dummy can climb! Family Ride has taken me up the hill to her place a few times now; it’s a long and moderate grade of ten blocks or so. In March, riding that hill on her unassisted bike with my kids was no problem, although I wasn’t breaking any land speed records, and for most of it I didn’t need the lowest gear. In August, when it was significantly hotter, I wilted. She had my son and her youngest on Engine Engine Engine while I had her oldest and my daughter on the Big Dummy, and they dropped me like a lead ingot. It never gets hot in San Francisco. But I made it eventually.
  • On this trip I really started to notice the difference between fast cargo bikes and slow cargo bikes. These are relative terms; no cargo bike is going to go fast by the standards of a road race. The Big Dummy is a fast cargo bike. I really noticed it when I was out with Biking with Brad and Family Ride, both on their Big Dummies, while I was riding the Madsen, which is definitely not a fast cargo bike. When I rode a loaner MinUte in Seattle with my kids and Family Ride was back on her Big Dummy, we could cover serious territory. Maybe I should learn to relax a little and enjoy the ride, but I decided instead that I like the fast cargo bikes.
  • Yes, that is a pinata. I am not worthy to hang out with these people.

    It is astonishing what you can pack on a Big Dummy (this applies to the entire Xtracycle line). The standard bags on the bike, which are called FreeLoaders, fold flat when not in use, expand only as much as needed when loaded, and can carry more than the trunks of many cars the way that Family Ride packs them. She said she got compliments on her loads from homeless guys with shopping carts. Now I have something in common with Seattle’s destitute. Two kids, dozens of pool toys, a large bag of snacks, four towels, a change of clothes for four kids? No problem. Two kids, two kids’ bikes, a piñata, another large bag of snacks, and various other odds and ends I’ve forgotten? Also no problem. Xtracycle, like Yuba, has side bars to keep a heavy load from dragging on the ground or to act as footrests, but they are optional and detachable. I would never use them in San Francisco because I hate having extra width behind me while negotiating narrow bike lanes (personal preference), but they would be useful in other locales. We also liked the FreeLoaders more than we had expected when we rode the Big Dummy in Portland, although unlike a box bike, you do actually have to load them; it’s not throw and go. Oh the humanity.

  • When using the BionX assist, the Big Dummy made us feel like we had cycling superpowers. Normally riding a cargo bike means accepting that even without the kids on board we’ll be slower than everything else on the road, except maybe people on crutches, if only because the bike weighs a lot more. The apartment in Portland we stayed in for the week was almost six miles from where we wanted to be most of the time, because there was an international tree climbing competition in the neighborhood that week (Portlandia!) and basically everything in the city was booked. So we had several evenings when we stayed out later than we should have and had to book back all that way with two tired kids. On Portland’s neighborhood greenways, which allow bikes to go for dozens of blocks without hitting a single stop sign, we could crank up the BionX assists and make it home faster than we’d ever dreamed. “Wow!” Matt yelled at one point, “You know those times when you’re running late and wish there was some magic way you could get there on time? NOW YOU CAN!” Also, being able to hit the throttle and make it through busy intersections with no drag from cargo could be worth the price of an electric assist all by itself. I love the BionX. I would sell our car for one. Oh wait, we already did that. Never mind.
  • Like the Mundo/elMundo, the Big Dummy is pretty short for a cargo bike at about seven feet long, and when not fully loaded with packed bags or the Wide Loaders, it’s also the same width. It can be parked at ordinary bike racks. Bumping it up onto a curb is not a big deal. We ride in the city and this kind of maneuverability is very appealing. As with all cargo bikes except possibly midtails, carrying it up stairs is a complete non-starter, so some kind of walk-in parking is a must. But as with the Mundo or Bullitt, almost walk-in parking would probably be okay with the Big Dummy.
  • Three kid party on the Big Dummy! And that’s my son riding his first geared bike alongside.

    Like most of the longtails, it’s possible to carry three kids on this bike by putting an infant seat on the front and two kids on the back, with or without child seats. As with the Mundo we have on occasion piled three kids on the back of Big Dummies but this is more of a “riding with friends” than a “riding with siblings” kind of thing. Riding packed tightly on the rear deck of a bike with friends is a nonstop party. Riding packed tightly on the rear deck of a bike with your sibling(s) is an opportunity to get payback for whatever imagined slights happened earlier in the day.

  • The Big Dummy is designed to use the Xtracycle line of accessories , which can be overwhelming but is also fantastic. In addition to the extremely cool bags, the child seats that attach to the deck (Yepp) are very swank; they are rubberized with drainage holes to shed water easily, and very nap-inducing for tired kids, although unfortunately, like all rear seats, they are not very nap-friendly once the kids actually fall asleep, as their heads loll forward and they jerk awake, etc. New accessories like the Hooptie give every kid on the deck a handhold. People who like carrying even more stuff can attach an actual Side Car. The catalog is too deep to do justice to here.
  • Unlike many cargo bikes, the Big Dummy comes in multiple frame sizes to fit shorter and taller riders. Just like with t-shirts, one size fits all means that for most people the fit is not going to be great. So you can adjust the seat, but the handlebars may still be too close or too far away, or it can be hard to stand over the top tube. With this bike, fit shouldn’t be a problem.

The cons of the Big Dummy:

  • The kids in back are behind you, by design. This is less fun than having the kids in front, and it means it can be hard to intervene during arguments. With two kids on a longtail the fighting is nowhere near what it can reach on a midtail, with the kids right on top of each other, however. I don’t mean to imply that my kids fight all the time; they actually get along very well. It’s just that the fights stick with me, plus they can totally ruin a ride.
  • Even more than other longtails I have ridden, it is hard to hear the kids in back. A conversation I attempted to have with my daughter on one ride illustrates the problem. “Mommy?” “Yes?” [car passes us with a SWOOSH] “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t hear you when the car passed. Can you say that again?” “Okay. Mommy?” “Yes?” SWOOSH. “I am so sorry. I missed that again. Could you please say it one more time?” “Okay. Mommy?” “Yes?” SWOOSH. ARGH!
  • The stock kickstand on the Big Dummy is dreadful. It is barely better than the kickstand on a commuter bike. We both hated that we couldn’t trust the bike we rode in Portland to hold any cargo unless one of us was holding it upright. It made loading the bike without two adults around nearly impossible. There is an excellent solution: the appallingly-named aftermarket Rolling Jackass centerstand, which deploys with a hand control on the handlebars (sheer genius!) and releases when the rider rocks forward. The Rolling Jackass is the best longtail stand I have ever seen, the only stand even in the same league as the Bakfiets/Bullitt stands, and I would not get a Big Dummy without it. Too bad it costs $350, not including installation. Xtracycle also sells a KickBack center stand for $150. The Rolling Jackass is better.
  • Even with the Rolling Jackass-enabled Big Dummy (I feel like a mean drunk throwing around all these ridiculous product names), my three-year-old daughter could not get herself onto the bike. This isn’t necessary but it’s nice when the younger ones can get in and out by themselves.
  • The Xtracycle line of accessories focuses on stuff that attaches to the longtail, and pretty much ignores the front of the bike. Surly isn’t traditionally a company that’s focused on the cargo biking community, and thus the Big Dummy does not have a standard front basket or rack. There are all kinds of aftermarket front baskets and racks, but almost none are frame mounted, like the Yuba Bread Basket. Frame-mounted baskets can carry more weight and loading them up doesn’t knock the bike off balance. Having no option for a front frame-mounted rack or basket is an annoying oversight on the Big Dummy. Yuba is on a real tear when it comes to developing desirable family bikes because of accessories like the Bread Basket.
  • There is no rain cover or sun shade for kids riding on a Big Dummy. Some handy parents have developed their own using plumbing supplies and sewing machines. The Yepp seats have lots of holes to use as attachment points. I’m not a handy parent.
  • Classical scholars among us will recall the story of Milo of Croton, who taught himself to carry a bull using progressive resistance training, lifting a calf every day from the day it was born until it grew up. At which point he killed and ate it. I digress. I thought of Milo because of the difference in my experience riding the Big Dummy in March versus in August. Together, my kids were ten pounds lighter in March. I had a lot more trouble getting the bike uphill in August. Some of that was the heat, but it was easier when I swapped out my oldest for Family Ride’s oldest, who is several pounds lighter. I began wondering whether being able to carry my kids at their current weights and beyond was the kind of thing I could work up to, or whether they were already near the limit of what I could reasonably carry on the bike. My go-to source for questions like “how much can the bike REALLY carry?” is the excellent summary of cargo bikes by Joe Bike. It said that the Big Dummy was stable with loads on the back up to 100 pounds. Hmm. With my kids plus their gear, we were already at the 100-pound mark, with years of riding to go. An electric assist would make it easier, but was I going to be pushing the bike beyond where I should? I have already broken one bike. That’s how we got here. On the other hand, I saw some riders, including my own husband, carrying three kids on the Big Dummy for short trips at least, and together those kids surely weighed more than 100 pounds. So this was hard to assess.
  • We dumped the kids on the Big Dummy when we lost control of the bike trying to start on mild hills. I did it on Family Ride’s bike. My son ended up with a bad scrape. After he saw the blood, he insisted on riding Engine Engine Engine for the rest of the day. I felt horrible. Matt, showing far more foresight, dumped the kids and the bike on some grass alongside the road, and they were shaken but fine. For some reason bikes with the weight on the back are much easier for us to tip. Sure, everybody does it sometimes, but twice in one week was a little more often than I like to admit.
  • The Big Dummy has a high top tube rather than a step-through frame. I hesitate to call this a con because the top tube is what makes the frame strong and there are different frame sizes so it should fit even shorter people. Yet even the smallest frame could be an issue for people closer to the five foot mark (not us), because at some point you’d have to lean the bike to swing a leg over the top tube. That would be a recipe for disaster with two kids on board, and as noted it’s not possible for kids of all ages to get on by themselves after the rider gets on.
  • Like most of the cargo bikes we tried that were not the Bakfiets, the Big Dummy lacked many of the accessories that commuting easier. The bike we rode in Portland had fenders, but no lights or chain guard. Family Ride has wired her Big Dummy with dynamo lights, but has struck out trying to find a chain guard. I bike to work in dress pants several days a week. I want a chain guard. It does not seem like that much to ask.
  • The Big Dummy is one of the more expensive longtails at $2000 for the base model we rode without assist, $3500 with the BionX assist. You get some very nice parts for that price and I don’t think it’s unreasonable, but it is still almost $1000 more than a Yuba Mundo. The accessories we’d want for hauling two kids (child seat, bags, etc.—the Xtracycle Family package, plus stoker bars for the oldest) looked to run about $650. A Rolling Jackass center stand would add $350. So an assisted Big Dummy set up to haul our kids and groceries would total about $4500 (before adding dynamo lights).

This the the Big Dummy we rode in Portland, looking very staid in comparison to its siblings in Seattle.

The Big Dummy is a great bike, but it didn’t completely sweep us off our feet (a turn of phrase one could use literally in this context). I assumed coming into our cargo bike test rides that we would ride a bunch of bikes and a clear and obvious choice would emerge. And I thought it was most likely that bike would be the Big Dummy. This didn’t happen. The Big Dummy could clearly work for us, but we had some nagging concerns.

Our experience riding the Big Dummy made me wonder about riding it on the hills in San Francisco. In Portland, even Matt had to crank up the assist to the highest level to comfortably make it up the biggest hill we found when he had both kids on board. And there are much steeper hills than that in San Francisco, and the kids are getting bigger. However it was really hot in Portland (100 degrees) and we nearly passed out from that alone. It will never, ever be that hot in San Francisco. It is a major news event when it gets to 80 degrees here. And families in Seattle are obviously getting their heavily loaded bikes up some serious hills. And I got an unassisted Dummy up some of those hills with two kids on board when it was cooler. So maybe this wouldn’t be a problem.

Five kids on two Big Dummies. Who wouldn’t want to join this kind of party?

Another issue that bothered us was that we both dumped the kids. If it had been just me, I wouldn’t have worried as much. But Matt has much more upper body strength than I do, as well as more experience with heavier loads, and we did not expect that that would happen with him. We both felt very wobbly on the front loading box bikes but we never dumped the kids. We both felt confident on the longtails and yet we kept dropping the kids. I had no idea which issue would be easier to resolve. Stuff like this can really mess with your head.

I suspect that it is unsatisfying to read: “We tried a dozen cargo bikes and after several days we still didn’t know what to buy.” I know that it was incredibly frustrating to experience it. Yet we did eventually choose a cargo bike.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews

We tried it: Yuba elMundo

I didn’t manage to get good photos of the elMundo I rode, so here’s a nice-looking Mundo. Imagine a battery behind the tube holding up the seat and you’re mostly there.

I have said before that Yuba is the Ikea of bicycle manufacturers. This sometimes gets taken as a slur against Yuba, but I intend no disrespect. Ikea meets a market demand that no one previously realized was there: at certain points in their lives, people want cheap furniture that looks decent. Yuba realized there was a market demand that no other manufacturer was meeting directly: inexperienced riders wanted inexpensive bikes that could carry a bunch of stuff.

Xtracycle pioneered that market with the FreeRadical longtail extension, but there are some limitations to their model. The first is that the FreeRadical will fishtail and flex under weight (that means you feel like the bike will fall apart while riding it loaded, even if it won’t—although with sufficient weight, in difficult conditions, it actually might). The second is that installing it onto an existing bike frame, or for that matter even understanding how it works, requires a certain baseline level of comfort with bicycles. Xtracycle attempted to address the second problem with the release of the Radish, but as the Radish is simply a FreeRadical attached to a bike frame, there are still problems with flex. They addressed the problems with flex by partnering with Surly to create the Big Dummy, which uses a solid frame, but that bike is substantially more expensive, and offers some complicated choices. Having talked to a lot of inexperienced riders, I can attest that although the Xtracycle line of products is incredible (seriously, it’s awesome), it can seem very confusing.

Enter the Mundo. Yuba keeps it simple. (I rode a Mundo for a couple of weeks earlier this year and reviewed it here.) For $1200 you get a bike with a strong frame that can carry massive amounts of weight, mountain bike gears to climb hills, fenders for foul weather, and a lot of cargo and kid-carrying options (these cost extra). Hitting that price point means that Yuba has made certain compromises: there is no free lunch in the world of cargo bikes. For one thing, the bike is heavy, and even with a lot of gears, getting up steep hills involves major-league suffering. Thus Yuba created the elMundo, the electric-assist version of the Mundo.

I found riding the elMundo fascinating. If you’ve read my review of the Mundo, most of the reasons the Mundo wasn’t the right bike for us are still an issue with the electric assist version.  The elMundo is not our future bike. However our situation is somewhat unusual, and after riding the elMundo I think that unless there is a sea change in what other manufacturers are doing, it will soon dominate the family/cargo bike market.  That is in large part because Yuba has created a bike that is simple enough, cheap enough, and capable enough that it is drawing in people who had previously never imagined that they might commute by bike with their kids. There aren’t a lot of choices to make with the Yuba line, and that can be a good thing.

The pros of the elMundo:

  • Longtails ride a lot like normal bikes. The learning curve is minimal. I’ve gotten comments that I harped excessively on getting used to a bike in my reviews of front box bikes, but I think it’s important for people to have a sense of how long that might take, or they will rule certain bikes out the first time they get on them. (There are multiple attempted reviews of the Bullitt, for example, that essentially say: “Yuck, I couldn’t ride it.”) The elMundo is no exception to the general “easy to ride” rule; although of course it gets tougher with the kids on deck because they squirm and that can mess with balance.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo can carry major amounts of weight without the bike feeling unstable or fishtailing. Yuba claims that you can carry over 400 pounds of cargo on the rear deck. A very nice (although somewhat out of date) summary of cargo bikes from JoeBike notes that cargo bikes can usually safely carry rather less weight than their manufacturers suggest, and other bike shop owners have told me the same thing. However the Mundo line is still rated to carry twice what other longtail bikes can.
  • Unbeatable price! The elMundo lists for $2600, basically the price of a Mundo with the assist thrown in at what must be very near manufacturer cost. There is no other electric assist cargo bike I have heard of that approaches this figure. For example, the hopefully-soon-to-be-released Xtracycle Edgerunner, which looks to be a very nice assisted longtail, is supposed to list for $3500. That’s a good price for an assisted cargo bike too, but it’s still almost $1,000 more than the elMundo. Novice riders in particular are extremely price-sensitive.
  • The elMundo, like the Mundo, has good acoustics. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but having the kids behind you instead of front means that you can’t see what they’re doing. Being able to hear them reasonably well as a rider helps smooth the ride (kids, left unobserved together, will eventually fight). Plus it’s entertaining. You as the rider still can’t be heard by them, but it’s better than nothing.
  • The elMundo has a good kickstand, which now comes standard (the older versions of the Mundo had the better kickstand as a more expensive option). Poor kickstands are legion among longtail and midtail bikes. Putting live weight on a bike is different from putting dead weight on it, and having a decent kickstand is critical to being able to load the bike safely with two younger kids, or being able to add cargo to a bike with kids on it (and kids come with a lot of stuff). You can’t put the kickstand down without getting off the bike, but the bike is unlikely to topple while parked.
  •  The electric assist, which works using a twist-throttle on the right hand grip, is very simple to operate and powers smoothly up mild to moderate hills. The further you turn the throttle, the more power you get from the motor. I always overheated getting the Mundo up San Francisco hills, which was extremely undesirable given that I commute in work clothing. The elMundo is better.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are relatively short for cargo bikes, at just shy of 7 feet, and that means that they are much less painful to park and store. Although the Mundo is wide in back, you’ll be able to fit it into a normal bike corral if you roll in forward. However you will still need walk-in parking, or close to walk-in parking, and there is no way you could carry the bike upstairs. The Mundo takes up a lot of room at the conventional San Francisco “bike rack”, which is a parking meter, but it won’t completely block the sidewalk as a Bakfiets or trike would.
  • The elMundo (as well as the Mundo) can take an infant seat on the front, which makes it possible to carry three kids (two on the deck, one in front) with minimal squabbling.
  • The elMundo can carry a lot of cargo in addition to kids. Yuba’s Go-Getter bags, which are Mundo-specific panniers on the rear rack, are gigantic and don’t sag because they are supported by the side beams on either side of the rear wheel. If you don’t like the Go-Getter bags, you can install Xtracycle FreeLoaders (this would be my choice). The optional front Bread Basket is frame-mounted. It takes some getting used to, because it doesn’t turn with the bike’s front wheel, but that frame mount means that it can carry a lot of weight. For example, friends with an elMundo bungeed a 16” kid bike with training wheels to it last weekend. We carried a week’s worth of shopping on a Bread Basket.
  • The Mundo and elMundo have some nice design features. For example, the side beams that stick out on either side of the rear wheel can be used as footrests for riders on the deck or as a way to easily haul a second bike. The bike is accessible to riders of a range of heights with an adjustment of the quick-release seat. A front wheel stabilizer to keep the bike from toppling due to the weight of the front wheel is standard. The deck and optional foot boards are made from bamboo; very pretty. The color choices (orange and black) are more attractive than most. And if you don’t have much storage space, the Yuba can be balanced “standing up” on the back of the frame (photo here), assuming that you don’t have a child seat on the end of the deck.

The cons of the Mundo:

  • The eZee electric assist on the elMundo is underpowered. I had heard reports that it failed on steep hills, which I believe. It struggled on moderate hills, slowing substantially on the longer ones, even with no kids on deck or other cargo. (My definition of a moderate hill is roughly 10% grade, which is maybe atypical but is consistent with San Francisco topography. However note that the bike was unloaded.) Ultimately I climbed hills faster by turning on the assist for a while, then turning it off and pedaling for a bit, then turning it on again, etc. This worked but did not improve my mood. A BionX assist is much more efficient and did not struggle at all on comparable grades, even with a two-kids-and-all-their-gear load. However a BionX assist is substantially more expensive, and a BionX rear wheel is only rated to carry 220 pounds. Given that safe cargo weight limits on longtails can be exaggerated this might not make much practical difference. However several hundred dollars in price difference for a BionX assist is not trivial.
  • The eZee battery is very wide, and that means that the elMundo has lost the Mundo’s front triple ring, because there is not room at the back for the chain to run freely with three front rings. The elMundo has only seven gears in the back instead of the 21 gears on the Mundo (3 in front x 7 in back). Converting a Mundo into a elMundo costs ~$2000 at San Francyclo, more than the $1400 price difference between the two bikes at purchase, in part because of the parts swap on the front ring.
  • The eZee assist is a throttle assist rather than a pedal assist. (There are after-market eZee assists that have a pedal-assist option, and evidently at least one person has put one on a Mundo, but I’m focusing on the stock elMundo.) This is a personal preference, but I am much happier using a pedal assist, in part because the effort of pedaling is multiplied when riding instead of replaced. When I turned the throttle on I stopped pedaling, and this made riding the elMundo feel like switching between a bike and a moped.
  • Front hub motors like the eZee are somewhat noisy. The sound of the motor, when it was on, negated some of the good acoustics I liked when riding the bike unassisted. The motor wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as after-market mid-drive motors—the one I tried was like a Vespa—but it was louder than manufacturer-installed mid-drive motors like the Panasonic, and I found even that mild rattle vaguely annoying when I tried it.
  • The Mundo and elMundo both have cheap parts. What that means from a practical perspective is that they can be less than fun to ride at times. There is mild rattling while the bike is moving and I noticed bad pavement more than usual (and this bike was better maintained than the Mundo I rode earlier in the year). When I tried to shift gears, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. That probably wouldn’t matter much to me if I lived in Chicago, where people can ride for hours without changing gears, but I live in San Francisco, and I rarely ride for more than a few minutes without needing to shift. Having ridden bikes with better components, and discussed these issues with the shop, I feel confident that this is not my incompetence; instead, it’s that the stock gearing uses cheap parts. Similarly, the stock brakes on the elMundo are terrible. Not only is there a rim brake on the front wheel, the rear disc brake was weak and slow to stop the bike, even when it was unloaded (the Madsen has a similar setup, which I also disliked, but the brakes on the Madsen worked better; I have no idea why). Again, maybe a San Francisco-specific issue; I am paranoid about bicycle stopping power.
  • The elMundo felt sluggish. This is difficult to explain, and I doubt that I would have noticed if I hadn’t spent a few weeks riding many other cargo bikes. However after that my conclusion was that some bikes like to go fast (Big Dummy, Bullitt), and some bikes want to go slowly (Bakfiets, elMundo, Mundo). I felt like I was constantly fighting the elMundo to get up to the speed I wanted to travel.
  • When I rode the Mundo, I had issues with the side loader bars that stick out from either side of the rear wheel. In many ways these are very handy, because they provide nice footrests and support the Go-Getter bags. However for me their width was frustrating on city streets in narrow bike lanes. I was never sure whether I could thread through pinch points in traffic, particularly at intersections when cars move to the right curb and block half the lane. With Go-Getter bags the problem is exacerbated, as they’re so big that the width of the bike in the rear then becomes almost 36 inches, wider than most bicycle trailers. For this reason, I thought that the Mundo, when I rode it, was more of a suburban or small city bike than a big city bike.
  • From a parental perspective, riding with the kids in back is less fun than riding with the kids in front, because you can’t really talk to them. Moreover you can’t easily break up fights. Technically there is room on the back deck for three kids (and the Mundo/elMundo can certainly handle the weight) but putting three kids in close proximity like that is like putting both of our kids on the deck of our Kona MinUte: sometimes we get lucky and they get along swimmingly on a long ride, and sometimes they start smashing helmets in less than a minute, at which point we have to walk the bike.
  • With a longtail loading the bike is more complicated than it is with a box bike. Box bikes don’t have any issues with, say, a mega-pack of toilet paper. However if you ride a longtail there’s always going to be some repacking with bulky items.
  • My daughter, who is three, can’t climb up to the deck and into the child seat unassisted. It is useful when kids can load themselves onto the bike, although this issue is less critical given that the elMundo has a good kickstand.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are very difficult to walk while loaded and to start up an incline while loaded without tipping over. I dumped my kids on the Mundo, and given time, the same thing would happen with the elMundo. Although I often feared dumping my kids with the front box bikes, it never actually happened. Longtails are less stable than box bikes.
  • The top tube on the Mundo and elMundo is fairly high. That’s part of the reason it can carry so much weight without complaint, and that’s no small thing, but I suspect that shorter riders would have trouble getting on and off the bike for this reason. It involved more contortion than I would have liked and I’m 5’7”. Update: Check out the comments below for a nice discussion of how a 5’2″ rider gets on and off the bike.
  • Like most of the longtails, the elMundo comes without any of the commuting accessories that make bikes easier to ride in a lot of situations.  Although fenders are standard, there is no chainguard, there are no dynamo lights, and neither one appears to be an option. Adding a child seat is $170, the Go-Getter bags are $130 each, the front Bread Basket is $130, stoker bars for an older kid are $60, and seat cushions for the deck are $30 per kid. Getting the bike to the point where it can carry two kids and a reasonable amount of cargo would cost a fair bit on top of the list price of the bike.  And there is no rain cover for the kids. And I’d still have to tie up my pants.

When I rode the Madsen, I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be comfortable riding it in San Francisco without substantially upgrading the parts. And frankly that seemed like too much work given that there were other choices. The same is true for the elMundo. Yuba sells a frame kit, and it is possible to buy that and build it up with much higher-quality parts: better brakes, better gearing, better tires, probably dynamo lights, a stronger assist, and so forth. I suspect that would resolve many of my issues with the elMundo: it could stop quickly, could climb hills better, wouldn’t resist shifting gears, and probably wouldn’t be as sluggish. The question is how much that would cost.

BionX Mundo. Nice!

Some parents at our son’s school recently bought a customized Mundo with excellent parts that had been returned to the shop by another customer.  The shop (Roaring Mouse) had also installed a BionX assist. It is a beautiful bike and they have zero problems climbing San Francisco hills—I saw the mom at Sunday Streets last weekend pedaling casually up to Alamo Square—but they said that their bike was quite expensive even though the price had been significantly reduced because it was a customer return. I suspect that a Yuba Mundo/elMundo upgraded to the point that I’d enjoy riding it would cost at least as much as a Surly Big Dummy. At which point I have to ask: why not buy a Big Dummy? It would be a lot easier.

And yet. I am picky about these issues because I live and work on steep hills in what I am told is the second hilliest city in the world (and this is not a competition you want to win). My situation is not typical, perhaps not even in San Francisco. I see a LOT of Mundos and increasingly, elMundos, in the city now, primarily in the Richmond and the Sunset. Families who live in these areas and commute to local schools and/or along the Wiggle have no need for a bike that can scale steep hills. There are few serious grades in those parts of the city, the streets are wide and mostly empty of moving cars, and they can rent a car if they want to go to the Randall Museum. I would be surprised if families who live on Nob Hill or Potrero Hill could make an elMundo work for them without serious after-market modifications, but there are lots of families who don’t need to go those places.

The elMundo is cheap and its parts are sufficient for most riders. This bike makes it easy to take up commuting by bike with kids, and in flat cities, the same is true of the Mundo. There are no complicated decisions to make, riding it is painless, the bike is inexpensive, and it will get most people where they need to go smoothly. This is why I think the elMundo will be a category-killer.

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

We tried it: Wallaroo

Hello, Wallaroo! My son became so enamored of straddling the top tube of bikes that he began trying it even on bikes that lacked a top tube.

The Wallaroo is one of two family-carrying vehicles in the Winther lineup. The Wallaroo has two wheels, while the similarly-designed Kangaroo has three wheels (another tadpole trike). We don’t have enormous faith in the hill-climbing capabilities of trikes, so we weren’t torn up about the fact that we were unable to try the Kangaroo because no one had it in stock. (This is my last box-bike/trike review from our Portland trip, by the way, from here on out it will be longbikes.)

A huge caveat here: Matt was the one who actually rode the Wallaroo. I was getting a little fried with all the test-riding, had accumulated a lot of bruises, and was feeling wobbly enough after switching from bike to bike all day that I was questioning my ability to get the kids home on our rental bikes. I saved my last burst of steam for trying out the Ecospeed electric assist. (It was wild. I’ll write about that later too. My posting backlog is daunting.) If Matt had been blown away by the Wallaroo I would have ridden it myself, but early spoiler, I guess, he wasn’t.

Squeezing out the door (a tight squeeze, even in the cargo bike shop). It was hard to get a good shot of the kids or the box itself once they discovered the covers.

When I first saw the Wallaroo last spring it impressed me. It looks like a bike with the trailer mounted in the front instead of being hauled behind it. Seriously, it looks like someone popped the compartment off a bike trailer, yanked the front wheel forward on the bike, and dropped the kids in the space created. But on closer inspection the compartment is actually much nicer than the one on an ordinary trailer, as it has a hard floor and padded seats for the kids, as well as a pretty classy set of five-point restraints. I’m guessing that this is because a cargo bike can haul a lot more weight without complaint than an ordinary bike pulling a trailer can.

The Wallaroo was built using the Bullitt platform, with some modifications. The first is that the bike is almost a foot longer, and the second is that it’s a step-through frame. Learning to steer it has some of the same issues that arose with the Bullitt. However we looked at the Wallaroo after a couple of hours of Bullitt-riding, so that wasn’t as much of an issue as it might have been otherwise.

Because the Wallaroo is a box-bike, it has all the same issues as most of the others: it’s tricky to park and hard to lift. Walk-in storage would be a must.

The pros of the Wallaroo:

  • The child cabin is seriously swank. It’s padded and cushioned and has very nice five-point restraints. The floor is hard plastic rather than fabric, so it won’t sag. There is both a rain cover and a sun cover and they fit tightly; this is a weatherproof box that can hold kids for a long ride. Two kids have a lot of elbow room. The trike model has removable seats that can be used at the destination.
  • The quality of the child compartment is echoed in the components of the bike. The bike shifted smoothly and braked gracefully and generally had all the parts that make a bike nice to ride and that I sometimes don’t notice until I get on a bike that doesn’t have them, and I say, “Oh yeah. I miss the nice components.”
  • The Wallaroo is a good climber for a box-bike, as it’s built using the Bullitt platform and made of aluminum, although something about the increased length and width, and possibly the step-through frame, seemed to reduce the bike’s nimbleness relative to the Bullitt. What’s more, this is a bike that can be assisted (with a switch-out of the bike’s original internal hub and replacement of the stock brakes with hydraulic disc brakes) and will then climb any hill pretty easily.
  • My kids were fascinated by the novelty of a box bike with molded seats, and the box is built with a low-step platform so even little kids can climb up by themselves. This is often useful. Mine did just that and started playing peek-a-boo with the various covers, then insisting we zip them up, unzip them, etc.
  • The step-through frame makes the bike accessible to even the shortest riders.
  • The Wallaroo has an excellent and rock-solid centerstand (which appears to be identical to the Bullitt centerstand). It can pushed down with one foot while the rider is on the bike, and the bike can be rocked forward to release it.
  • Like other box bikes, there’s room behind the rider for a trailer-bike or a child seat, although I suspect in bad weather there would be fighting over who got to sit in the weather-protected front and who had to deal with the rain in the back, and a trailer-bike would make this rig reeeeeally long.
  • Front loading box bikes can carry a ton of weight without the rider much noticing, and they cruise over rough pavement and potholes. The Wallaroo is no exception.

The cons of the Wallaroo:

  • Like all the front box bikes, the Wallaroo has linkage steering, where the front wheel, which is way out in front, is linked to the handlebars through a mechanism under the box. This can be hard to pick up (harder for some people than others; harder for me than most, it would seen). Even after a couple of hours of practice on the Bullitt, Matt found the starts very wobbly. This is unnerving with two kids on board.
  • The Wallaroo on the move

    Like the Metrofiets, this bike is almost nine feet long, and all the length is in the front. That means that you have to push the bike way out into the intersection to spot oncoming cars. With the Metrofiets, I missed cross-traffic twice when I tried to compromise between pushing the kids out into the street and being able to see better, and started heading into the intersection with when a car had right of way. This is an unpleasant experience, and it’s worse with the Wallaroo than the Metrofiets because the Metrofiets has a bigger front wheel (24” v. 20”). With the Metrofiets the part that you worry might get run over is only the wheel, not the kids’ feet.

  • The child compartment, because it’s not open at the top or sides, compromises one of the main joys of riding with kids in a front-loading box bike. It’s actually not particularly easy to have a conversation with them or to see what they’re doing when you’re on the seat. Sitting on this bike in the store, I found myself trying to lean way over to the side to check on what they were doing in there. Much like a bike trailer, a fight inside could escalate pretty far before you knew you needed to intervene.
  • The ultra-plush child seats take up a lot of room, meaning that there is very little space for any other cargo in the box. Moreover, there’s no way to squeeze a third kid in there—only two-child families would want this bike. There is a briefcase-sized pocket behind the seats themselves, but it wouldn’t hold a grocery bag. With the BionX assist there is a rear rack (with this bike, because it has so much weight down low and in front and a step-through frame, Splendid Cycles uses a rack-mounted battery, even though that would make an ordinary bike tippy). So shopping would have to be done either without the kids—pile up groceries on their seats—or using panniers.
  • Despite the fact that this bike is clearly designed as a kid-hauler, with a step-through frame and fenders, some of the features that make these kinds of bikes so easy to ride were missing: the Wallaroo had no lights and no chain-guard (the Kangaroo trike has a chain guard). These could be added but they’ll cost extra. I don’t know why all these options aren’t packaged with the bike; it’s difficult to imagine the rider that wouldn’t want them, it’s not like the weight difference matters on a gigantic cargo bike, and manufacturers get better prices than individuals on parts like these.
  • This is a very wide bike at 31”, which makes traditional bike parking a non-starter. It would not fit through our basement door, which is 27″ wide. In addition, it’s longer than any of the other front-loading box bikes. In a city, there will be noticeable limits on where this bike can go. Some of the narrow older bike lanes in San Francisco would be difficult to navigate.
  • Like all the front-loading box bikes, the Wallaroo is expensive relative to some other cargo bikes. The model with roller brakes, which I personally would not trust within San Francisco city limits, is $3400. Adding hydraulic brakes and internal hub gears with a wider range raises the price of the bike to $3800, and the BionX-assisted version runs $5200.
  • Even more than the Bakfiets, this bike is single-purpose. You use it to haul kids—not infants, because there isn’t an obvious way to put children who can’t yet hold up their own heads in the seats—until they’re old enough to ride by themselves. I couldn’t think of a practical use for the Wallaroo beyond this. Traditional box bikes stick with an actual box, because it is versatile enough that you can put other stuff in there (groceries, furniture, Christmas trees). Even traditional bike trailers for children convert to other uses more easily. So this is a bike you would get for a few years of child-hauling, and then sell it and move on.

The kids are doing something in there. It’s hard to tell what.

Ultimately the reason I didn’t want a Wallaroo was that it wasn’t what I look for in a box bike. My feeling was that if I’m going to pay the extra cost to get a bike with kids in the front, I want to be able to talk to them. I learned just by sitting on the bike in the store that that wasn’t really an option. However it wasn’t something I realized until I walked in with both kids and we all got on. Realizations like these are why we went to try out a bunch of cargo bikes in person. Now that we’ve done that, I admire the families who have purchased cargo bikes sight unseen even more. I would never have the nerve. Looking at a bike is so different from riding one.

I thought for a while about what kind of family this bike is designed for. I suspect that a lot of bikes and trikes that are designed with a child compartment like the Wallaroo’s are appealing to parents who don’t have much experience on bikes. They offer a way to get around that’s like pushing a stroller, but with dramatically increased range. I suspect for this reason the Kangaroo may be a better seller than the Wallaroo, as it is a trike, and inexperienced riders love trikes (at least in concept) for the promise that they can’t tip over (which is not totally true, but pretty true). For new riders who worry about safety, the seating in the Wallaroo/Kangaroo resembles car seats in a compartment similar to the back seat of a car, which can feel very comforting. We used to be those people. We’ve changed.

I think that this bike could work well for a non-urban parent (or one in a city with Amsterdam-level bike infrastructure) dealing with extreme weather conditions, long rides, and maybe some moderate hills. However in that situation, I personally would probably get a trailer before I got a Wallaroo, because it has more capacity for other kinds of cargo and could be used for trips out of town. Yet there are clearly parents for whom this is the right bike. But we have become people who ride bikes by preference, either alone or with children, in fair weather and foul. We have more confidence in ourselves and our bikes, and our children have become more adventurous than we could have imagined. They want to tell us about the birds overhead or the midday moon, to stand on the deck, and to reach over to play tickle fingers with other children. So the Wallaroo is no longer the kind of bike that would be right for us.

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Filed under family biking, reviews

We tried it: Bullitt (with BionX electric assist)

Hello, Bullitt!

While we were in Portland, we rented bikes from Splendid Cycles for the week. They knew the geography of San Francisco, and their suggestions were that we try riding a BionX-assisted Big Dummy and a BionX-assisted Bullitt. The Big Dummy was an obvious choice, beloved of hilly-city families up and down the west coast, but the Bullitt was a dark horse if there ever was one. The Bullitt is a serious cargo bike, the choice of San Francisco bike couriers, and it can carry a lot of weight. (Here is a great review by Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farms, whom we later met, and another from Wisconsin, and another from a dad in New Zealand.) However both a quick once-over and a detailed review by Totcycle made it clear that the standard Bullitt setup is so narrow that carrying two older kids at once in its box was improbable at best. One kid, sure: even my friend Todd has ridden in the box of the Bullitt, and he’s taller than I am. But two kids? Why couldn’t we rent a BionX-assisted Metrofiets or Winther Wallaroo?

You can actually fit a 3.5 year old and an almost-7 year old in the box of a Bullitt, but it’s a tight squeeze.

Joel at Splendid Cycles suggested that we could put a trailer-bike on a Bullitt for our son (rapidly approaching seven years old, and tall), and that appealed to him. There is also an alternative box built in Portland that holds two kids, which is about the size of a Bakfiets box. Joel encouraged us to give the Bullitt a try because, as he put it, the bike was “a hill-climbing monster.” But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to haul a trailer-bike every day. Given the length of the Bullitt, the combination would be like riding Family Ride’s Engine Engine Engine (bike + trailer-bike + trailer) everywhere we went. My son had another idea: he wanted to try straddling the top tube, like another kid at his school who rides a spare saddle that her dad sticks on the top tube of his mountain bike (see school bike #3 in this post). The Bullitt actually appears to be designed for that, with two footrests behind the box for a short passenger. However I was skeptical that our son would actually follow through. It was months before he would even get on the front seat of the Brompton. Once he did, he loved it, but I wasn’t going to buy a bike based on the hope that one day, before he grew up, he might like straddling the top tube. And even if he got on, I thought it was unlikely that he would be willing to ride that way for more than ten minutes or so.

This is an awesome way to ride with two kids if you’re used to a front seat. Conversation yes, fighting no.

I rarely have occasion to eat as much crow as I did that week in Portland for doubting my son’s willingness to ride what we ultimately referred to as the Bullitt’s jump seat. It was difficult to pry him off that top tube once we were confident enough to ride the bike with both kids on it. He rode it standing for multiple trips of 5-7 miles. All that practice on the Brompton IT Chair definitely paid off.

The Bullitt is the lightest of the cargo bikes we tried by a long shot (it’s an aluminum frame). Even loaded down with a cargo box, child seat, and BionX hub and battery, it weighed maybe 65 pounds.  That’s light enough that it is slightly more flexible than other box bikes when it comes to storage, as it’s not a nightmare to bump it up a step or two or onto a curb to park it, and it’s narrow enough to make it through any doorway with ease. And this is definitely not a bike I would feel comfortable leaving outside all night in San Francisco. Well, okay, actually there is no bike that would fit this description. But anyway, anyone who got this bike would ideally have walk-in parking. However, unlike the other box bikes, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it was almost-walk-in parking. Nonetheless it needs a lot of space: like the Bakfiets, the Bullitt is 8 feet long.

The pros of the Bullitt:

  • The Bullitt climbs like a monkey! I try to keep this a family-friendly blog, but OMFG! At first I was skeptical, because we did have a BionX assist on this bike, and that wasn’t a fair comparison to anything but the BionX-assisted Big Dummy we were also riding. So to test my perception I turned off the assist for a while. That slowed me down, but just to the speed of an unloaded regular bike. It was easier than the Big Dummy with the same load on hills, even using the same level of assist. With two kids on board and the assist turned off I could still get up the only hill of note we found in Portland during our stay, Alameda Ridge (a moderate but short hill roughly comparable to the western approach to Alamo Square in San Francisco), without dropping down to the bike’s lowest gear. I barely used the smallest front ring on the Bullitt while we were in Portland. With the BionX this bike was unstoppable.
  • Bike goes fast!  It felt pretty hardcore to drop road bikes while my daughter was leafing through the complete Curious George collection in the box in front of me. More than any other bike I’ve ever ridden, this bike wanted to GO.
  • According to a friend we saw in Portland who is not really that into bikes, “That is a sexy, sexy bike.” Like Totcycle, I wondered if I was cool enough to ride this bike. When I was having trouble with the steering on a hairpin turn one afternoon, I nearly ran over another rider. I yelled, “Sorry!” and he replied, “SWEET RIDE!” This proves that people in Portland are extremely nice. But this was a common response to the Bullitt even from people I wasn’t mowing down at the time. And people do very weird and wonderful things with the Bullitt in its cargo form, e.g. the Sperm bike.
  • The Bullitt may be 8 feet long, but it turns on a dime (assuming a competent rider). It cornered better than the Big Dummy, which is no slouch in that department either.
  • The components on the Bullitt are the nicest of any bike I’ve ever ridden. It was an experience that forever spoiled me for cheap bike parts. Hydraulic disc brakes (even though they needed adjustment on our rental bike) stopped the bike instantly, and shifting on the bike was as simple as thinking “I need to shift.” The handlebars are on a quick-release for different riders or steeper climbs. Like all the long johns, the Bullitt swallows rough pavement and potholes, but even in that very competitive group it had the smoothest ride of all the bikes we rode. The child seat was a tight squeeze for two kids but luxurious for one, like a leather armchair. The box had a sound dampened floor, so there were no echoes even when the bike was unloaded, and had slits along the sides so water and crumbs didn’t pile up. There are two different rain covers available for kids.
  • The Bullitt’s centerstand is almost as good as the best-in-class Bakfiets centerstand. It doesn’t rest on four points, so it isn’t quite as stable, but it is easy to pop down from the seat (even with a kid standing on the top tube in front) and pushing the bike forward releases it. Being able to prop the bike up without getting off is very useful on a loaded bike. Being able to trust it when you walk away (I’m looking at you, Kona MinUte) is even more useful.
  • The actual couch in the apartment might as well not have been there.

    The bike is very narrow (this is also a con). That means it can fit in small spaces, including bike corrals. Our rental apartment didn’t have space in the attached storage shed for two cargo bikes, so we wheeled the Bullitt through a tight hallway and parked it indoors every night. With the centerstand down, the kids treated it like a spare couch. They called it the Bullitt-fiets.

  • This is the point where I do my usual paean to the wonders of having the kids in front. It’s easier to talk with them. It’s also easier to keep them from fighting, although in their preferred 1-in-the-box-1-on-the-top-tube configuration there was no fighting.
  • Like other front box bikes, it’s possible to mount a trailer-bike or a rear child seat (or both) behind the rider which allows you to pile on more kids. The Bullitt can carry 400 pounds; weight is not an issue.
  • Box bikes have boxes; this one is no exception. With or without a kid in there you can throw all kinds of stuff in there willy-nilly, with no worries about weird load shapes or having to pack carefully. One kid can nap easily; throw a pillow in there and they’re out. (Two kids might if they’re tired enough not to hit each other when they get drowsy, but I wouldn’t count on it.)
  • Climb in, climb out. Climb in, climb out. Climb in, climb out. Joel and Barb at Splendid Cycles are VERY patient people.

    The Bullitt has the lowest box of any of the box bikes we tried, which meant that even our three-year-old could climb in and out unassisted (and she did). That was handy. Other people’s toddlers did the same thing when they walked by the parked bike, to my amusement and their parents’ mortification.

  • Thanks in part to the extremely low center of gravity (even the child seat sits at the bottom of the box), the Bullitt is hard to tip once you get moving, even with one kid lurching around inside the box after removing her seatbelt or the other one actually JUMPING UP AND DOWN on the footrests behind the box while a distracted parent is crossing an intersection. Or both of them doing those things at the same time. We had many occasions to be sorry that we had ever called that top tube placement “the jump seat” because our normally cautious son viewed that term as an engraved invitation. Nonetheless, despite some close shaves, we never dropped this bike, not even on difficult starts.

The cons of the Bullitt:

  • Like all front-loading box bikes, the Bullitt has linkage steering, so the front wheel is connected to the handlebars through an attachment that runs under the box. It seems in principle that once you’ve figured it out once, you’ve got it, but the Bullitt is not that simple. It messed with us. Splendid Cycles has a whole Bullitt tutorial where Joel goes out with new riders and coaches them through the first few blocks of mortal terror (for me, anyway), and it is both totally necessary and totally inadequate. The first few blocks with the Bullitt were awful. It was a bona fide miracle that I didn’t dump the bike (that and the fact that I have learned from hard experience to keep the seat way down on the first test ride of any bike).  Apparently many people are not so lucky. It must require serious reserves of zen-like inner calm to watch people take your expensive bikes out of the shop, panic as they lose control of the steering, and drop them on the ground every single day.
  • Seriously, the learning curve on this bike is painful. After the first day of riding, I thought, okay, I’ve got it now. So it made me feel wildly inadequate to get up every morning for the next few days and have to spend a few blocks learning to ride the bike AGAIN. I had my son run alongside the bike for the first block those mornings just to feel stable enough to put him on board. By the sixth day it was better. Six days? Almost three weeks later I’m still carrying an impressive set of bruises on my legs from those rides. I felt like I had a dysfunctional relationship with this bike: “I hate myself for loving you, Bullitt!” I assumed at first it was just my incompetence. Then we went to the Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call, where I talked to Josh Volk (see his review of the Bullitt above), who is super-nice. He volunteered, without prompting, that he loved his Bullitt with the passion of a thousand burning suns but it had a serious learning curve; he’d been riding bikes for years, and riding a Bullitt for three months every day, and he still couldn’t ride it no-hands. Granted, I have never even had the ambition to ride no-hands on a bike with my kids on board, but I found this conversation a little depressing. [Update: With hindsight it seems that a big part of my problem was learning to ride with two kids jumping around on the bike at the same time. Other people report getting comfortable with the steering far more quickly. Also, Josh can now ride no-hands, see the comments.]
  • The Bullitt is a narrow bike. This is a pro when you’re trying to squeeze through small spaces or fit into a normal bike corral, but a con when you’re trying to carry multiple kids. Both of my kids could fit in the box but like a trailer, fighting was inevitable after a while. If our son hadn’t fallen in love with riding over the top tube, this bike would have been a complete non-starter. You could probably fit two younger kids in there though. But with the box set up to carry kids, the Bullitt can’t carry as much as other box bikes, because the box is so much smaller. Take off the sides and you can carry almost anything, but then you have to worry about the kids tumbling off the side. There is the option of getting a custom two-kid box, Bakfiets-sized, built in Portland. But the sample box had no sound dampening, no drainage holes, and no rain cover, and is much less well-integrated with the rest of the bike. Plus you’d give up some of the advantages of a narrow bike. Still, a possibility.
  • Only relatively tall people can ride this bike given the height of the top tube. The recommended shortest rider is evidently around 5’4”, but I suspect you’d want a couple of inches more to feel really comfortable. I’m a little over 5’7” and had no issues other than the usual contortion over the top tube, which is comparable to the one on the Surly Big Dummy or Yuba Mundo, maybe a little lower. Matt, who’s a couple of inches taller, was also fine. But that’s us; not everyone is as tall.
  • Despite the many nice components on the Bullitt, it is set up a lot like a courier bike: there were no lights and no chain guard. It did have fenders. Lights are easy to add but cost extra. A chain guard is harder to manage with the mountain bike gearing we were using (and loved). There is an internal hub option that makes it possible to mount a standard chain guard. In a less hilly locale than San Francisco, going with the internal hub would be the obvious choice. But I often bike to work in dress pants and we do live in San Francisco.
  • The kind of mind-blowingly awesome components that came on the Bullitt do not run cheap. The list price of the bike we rode, which came with hydraulic disc brakes, mountain-bike gearing, fenders, a Brooks saddle (!), and the BionX electric assist, was $5400. Without the assist the bike runs $3100-$3800, roughly comparable to a Bakfiets. The bike we rode was on sale (scratch and dent after too many test rides?) for $4650, a screaming deal by comparison to list price. That’s not that far from the price of a good commuter electric bike like the Ohm, with the Bullitt having far greater cargo and kid hauling capacity. Nonetheless it’s a head-spinning chunk of change. We were in the fortunate position of having cleared far more cash than this from the sale of our minivan, so the price of every bike we looked at was affordable for us, but I don’t think our situation is that common.

It was a party every day on the Bullitt.

At the end of the week, I was surprised at how much I liked this bike. My kids found an unexpected configuration where they both fit easily on the Bullitt, and they loved riding it. I was used to riding the Brompton with my son in front, so having him standing over the top tube was no problem for me. He’d fit there for a couple of years to come, plus we could add his trailer-bike rack to it, and that would also allow us to carry standard panniers. But Matt, who does not take our kids on the Brompton, did not like carrying our son in front, and putting both kids in the box was not particularly fun for anyone. And although the Bullitt was a ton of fun to ride by the afternoon of each day, every morning it made me feel like I was relearning how to ride my old yellow banana-seat Schwinn on the day my parents took off the training wheels.

Should we get this bike in the expectation that when we were used to it, we’d get the payoff of laughing at every hill in San Francisco?  Would our son tire of riding standing up if we did? It would be great to have the cargo flexibility of a box bike to match our midtail, and we loved having the kids in front. But this was not the only box bike that would work for us, and it would be an unconventional choice to haul two kids. Yet although the Bullitt wasn’t a bike I considered very seriously at first, I found it hard to rule it out after riding it for a while. The Bullitt is just so… cool.

[This is the bike we bought.]

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Filed under bike shops, electric assist, family biking, reviews

We tried it: Metrofiets

“I want to ride it! I want to ride it!”

Oregon has a few homegrown box bikes, or at least did once. CETMA makes two cargo bikes that can be rigged to carry kids, the Largo (long) and the Margo (not long). However CETMA is moving to California and going off line for a while. Joe Bike used to make Boxbikes and Shuttlebugs, but doesn’t anymore. I realize I need to write yet another post (in my nonexistent free time, these cargo bike write-ups take forever): Bikes we didn’t try and why. There is also Metrofiets, a custom box-bike that appears to be a bigger operation than the other two.

There was, evidently, some controversy when the Metrofiets first came out, with claims that it was a knockoff of the Bakfiets. I can only assume that anyone who believed this has never ridden both bicycles, because although they look similar, they are so wildly different to ride that it was almost unnerving to try them back-to-back as we did. On a Bakfiets your posture is very upright, and the handlebars have almost an ape-hanger feel to them. On a Metrofiets everything is reversed, so you sit upright but everything is way down low. I had a little Goldilocks moment: “That bike is toooo high. This bike is toooo low.” Actually there are advantages and disadvantages to both postures, but seriously: you might get confused about which bike is which in the shop, but you’ll never have any doubt which one you’re riding.

Hanging out in Metrofiets. My kids view box bikes as couches; they kick back, get a little reading in, just relax, basically.

The Metrofiets is a box-bike, meaning that the kids are in front like they would be if you were pushing a wheelbarrow. As I’ve mentioned before and will probably continue to blather about ad nauseum, having the kids in front is awesome. The Metrofiets is one of the longest box-bikes we tried, at 8’10”, which the lovely people at Clever Cycles helped me measure, and then, because none of us could believe the Metrofiets was almost a foot longer than a Bakfiets, we rolled them right next to each other to check. It is. The box is also a couple of inches wider.

The Metrofiets is an American bike: designed in Portland, made in the Pacific Northwest, and built using U.S. steel. The Metrofiets guys, whom I kept messaging but missing in person, are incredibly nice, and I love that they are building this bike. It is intended to be sportier than the traditional kid-hauler. Portland is not without hills, and in a wild departure from the Dutch oeuvre, they actually imagined that people riding a bike like this might want to go up and down some of them.

The Metrofiets is largely a custom bike, and that has pros and cons and also makes assessing it significantly more complicated. It is also a very pretty bike, and I don’t think I would feel comfortable leaving it outside overnight, and I would lock it up very securely at any time of day in a city. Most cargo bikes weigh a ton, and this one is no exception, so once again if you got this bike, you would want some kind of walk-in storage.

The pros of the Metrofiets:

  • The Metrofiets is a box bike that can climb hills, and it has disc brakes. Finally! Having the handlebars down low (at first there was a real bear-on-a-tricycle feel to it) meant we could lean up into an incline. It is a heavy bike and won’t be setting any land speed records, but it’s not going to feel like a death march. The bike we rode had an internally geared hub with a more limited range, so it wasn’t set up ideally for going up steep hills, and thus we only rode on pretty mild ones. However there is an option with a lot more gears on a derailleur and the potential was obvious. This bike was actually one we could ride in San Francisco with two kids on board.
  • The Metrofiets was designed with the expectation that people might want to put an electric assist on the bike, and a lot of people do. Although Clever Cycles does not sell assisted bikes (right now), and Splendid Cycles had not yet sold an assisted Metrofiets, assisted Metrofiets are fairly common (given that it’s an uncommon bike) and can be purchased either directly from the company or from Bay Area Cargo Bikes.
  • Kids love box bikes (and so do I). My kids liked this bike a lot. However the box has higher sides than the Bakfiets box and the kids sit much lower; neither kid could self-load into this box.
  • The Metrofiets offers a very big box. The version we rode wasn’t set up with seatbelts, but it did have a bench, and seeing my kids on it made me realize that this box could comfortably hold two older kids side-to-side with a lot of elbow room. Although I was concerned that I would not be able to handle a wide bike, given that I’d had trouble with wide longtails, having additional width in front was not an issue for me because I could see it (however, we did have some concern as to whether this bike would fit through our narrow basement door). Kids, odd-sized loads: all of these would be no problem.
  • The cargo space is very modular; although some people use this bike for hauling kids, there were lots of other ways to use it as well: Metrofiets bikes hold a beer bar, a talk show, a coffee cart, and so forth. People have an awful lot of fun with this bike.
  • Like other box bikes, there’s room behind the rider for a rack or child seat or a trailer-bike, adding to its hauling capability and making it possible to separate squabbling kids.
  • The Metrofiets moves pretty nimbly given that it’s really a gigantic bike. It has a 24” front wheel, unlike most other box bikes that put a 20” wheel near/under the box, which apparently increases the speed somewhat. The steering is pretty responsive, and so it turned much more tightly than seemed possible at first. That is not to say it turned on a dime.
  • The frame, although not a step-through, has a lot of room above the top tube for shorter riders. The bike we rode came with fenders and dynamo lights, the kinds of things that decrease the hassle of getting on the bike.
  • There is an optional rain/cold weather cover (which I’ve only seen in photos).
  • The Metrofiets is primarily sold as a custom bike, which means that you can ask the builders to make it into the bike you want. Color choices are infinite, obviously, but more than that, you could ask for a second bench seat to pile in more kids, lap belts only, five-point child restraints, a locking bench, a keg dispenser: whatever. None of these things are likely to be free, but if you know that you want something specific, you can almost certainly get it made for the bike.

The cons of the Metrofiets:

  • Like all front-loading box bikes the Metrofiets has linkage steering, meaning that the front wheel isn’t directly connected to the handlebars, but linked to them by a mechanism running under the box. Linkage steering is not intuitive and on this particular bike, even though I rode it after two days’ practice, it took a while before I was able to ride without weaving wildly across the street (please don’t let me dump the bike, please don’t let me dump the bike…) It’s harder to learn than a Bakfiets and easier to learn than a Bullitt (which: argh!) But it’s fun once it’s familiar.
  • Even after you get used to the linkage steering, the Metrofiets tends to wander during a ride. The word that came to mind for me was “noodly.” The steering was noodly. When I came back to Clever Cycles they said that that word comes up frequently in test rides of the Metrofiets. For me this was a negative, but it isn’t for everyone; Matt (as well as many other people who try it) liked it. He called it “fish-heading” (as opposed to fish-tailing) and he said he enjoyed the way the bike tracked slightly back and forth like a sine wave while he rode, as catching the wave eased the turns. For me it was just weird.
  • The Metrofiets is almost a foot longer than many box bikes and all of that extra length is in front of the rider. This can be unnerving at intersections, because we had to push the bike way out into the road to see oncoming traffic and whether it was okay to start after a stop (and a couple of times I guessed wrong). It was extremely unnerving at busy intersections with a kid in the box. I didn’t think that an extra ten inches would matter that much before I rode the bike, but after I did I realized it mattered a lot. This would probably not be an issue in the suburbs and probably isn’t even a big issue in Portland, but it would often be frustrating in San Francisco.
  • The center-stand on the Metrofiets was the worst of all the box bikes we tried. It is way under the front box and not really accessible unless you get off the bike, hold the handlebars, walk forward while balancing the loaded bike, and then stab underneath the box with one foot for it. I asked Clever Cycles whether I was doing it wrong, because it was so frustrating, and they said no, that’s how it works. The stand itself is a very thick bent wire. It is hard to push down and it is not always clear when it’s fully engaged so that it’s safe to let go of the bike. To start riding, you can’t push forward to disengage it, you have to walk to the side of the box, raise it, and after that get on the bike.
  • The box is all wood, even the bottom, and like the Madsen, that meant it echoed while we were riding, even with kids on board as sound dampeners. The box also lacked drainage holes (I’m guessing they’d drill some of those for free though).
  • Like all the front box bikes this bike is very wide, plus it’s extra-long, and that makes it hard to park in traditional bike racks or even non-traditional spots. And as mentioned this is a big bike you don’t want to lift. People do lift it, there’s a picture of someone holding a bike over his head on the Metrofiets website, but I can’t see that being a daily thing.
  • No chainguard. Seriously?

    Although the bike we were riding came with an internally geared hub and had a single front ring, there was no chain guard. WTF, Metrofiets? Again, this is a custom bike so adding anything is possible, but that was an odd omission given the collection of we-make-life-easier included accessories like lights and fenders.

  • Front box bikes are expensive. Custom bikes are expensive. The total damage when you add the two together is sobering. The bike we rode was priced at $4200, and we would want to add an electric assist to that, which would set us back at least another $1400-$2000 (probably the higher end, because heavier bikes need more powerful assists). Not to mention the anticipated extra costs for adding seat belts for the kids and some kind of noise dampener for the box. And a chain guard.
  • The Metrofiets is primarily sold as a custom bike, and that’s a con as well as a pro. You can ask it to be built into the bike you want, but a lot of people who aren’t experienced (family) riders won’t know what they want. If you want to start riding with your kids and still have questions like “Does my 5-year-old need a child seat or can she just sit on the rear deck of my longtail?” (Answer: put her on the deck with a pair of handlebars to grab off the rider’s seat; cheaper, more fun, will last longer), figuring out which options you might want on a custom bike is overwhelming. Xtracycle really nailed some of the issues involved with family biking when it started offering kits for different kinds of riding on their website (one child seat, two child seats, dog, groceries, surfboard, etc.) By the standards of people who order custom bikes, we ourselves are marginal. We know a lot of the things we want and my job description is “researcher” but we don’t have the years of experience with bicycles that we’d need to get the most out of a custom bike. I can’t see myself redesigning the kickstand, for example, even though I’d want a better one.

Gorgeous, but not necessarily making things easy.

So, the Metrofiets. It started out as one of the very few bikes we knew was a real possibility when we started investigating cargo bikes. Sight unseen, the Metrofiets was my brother-in-law’s pick for us. It could handle hills, could easily carry two kids (and much more), and could be assisted. Having a box bike would be a useful complement to our existing mid-tail bike, the Kona MinUte. And because we had just sold our car and gotten more than enough from that to cover buying this bike and then some, the eye-popping price wasn’t impossible. Yes, I realize that we’re incredibly fortunate.

On the other hand, we had some concerns about the bike that we didn’t expect: the Metrofiets is awfully long in front which makes it feel less safe at intersections, it would likely be the most difficult option to park away from home, we both disliked the kickstand, and the steering would take more getting used to than we’d hoped.  Although the width of the bike wasn’t an issue while riding, it might not fit through our basement door. (At some point I realized it would be possible to ride around with our garage door opener hooked to a bike. It would be weird, but feasible, not to mention kind of funny; then again, maybe less fun after the novelty wore off.) Finally, getting this bike would require us to make some decisions about customization that we didn’t feel fully qualified to make.

After riding the Metrofiets I wasn’t left with a strong sense that this was the bike for us, but we didn’t rule it out either.

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Filed under family biking, reviews