The Madsen is unlike any other bike on the market I’ve ever seen. It is like a reverse box bike, with the box in the back instead of the front. A longbox rather than a longtail? The Madsen has been reviewed before, by more experienced riders than we are, and on a newer model to boot. But we got to try riding a (first generation) Madsen for a day or so thanks to the generosity of The Main Tank, who loaned hers to us during our stay in Seattle, so I thought I’d write about it anyway.
Before we went on our trip, I sent a list of every cargo bike I could find to my brother-in-law, who then looked up all their specifications and told us which he thought we should seriously consider. He was fascinated by the box in back design of the Madsen. He was less impressed by the quality of the components. This is the way it is: less expensive cargo bikes have lower-quality parts. Whether that matters depends somewhat on the conditions in which you ride. San Francisco is hard on bikes, and so this is something that’s come to matter a lot to us. Like a lot of people where we live, we have spent a fair bit of money upgrading our original cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Most of that went into replacing the brakes. We are tireless and tiresome evangelists on the subject of hydraulic disc brakes. If we got a Madsen it’s likely we’d end up spending a fair bit of money upgrading parts on it as well.
The Madsen is a fun bike to ride in certain conditions, it is inexpensive enough to be a good entry-level cargo bike, and riding it is much less hassle than hauling a trailer.
The Madsen is a bike I had only ever seen in Seattle, although I recently learned one family has one in the East Bay and another family will soon be riding a Madsen with BionX in San Francisco courtesy of The New Wheel. Davey Oil pointed out not long ago that cities have certain family-bike personalities and he was dead on. Seattle has Madsens and Surly Big Dummies (at least 5 of each at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call). Portland has child trailers, trailer-bikes, and box bikes: Bakfiets and Bullitt and Metrofiets. San Francisco has commuter bikes with child seats, trailer-bikes, family tandems, Xtracycles (even an Xtracycled family tandem), and in the last year, a spate of Yuba Mundos and elMundos. But you almost never see child trailers here.
The pros of the Madsen:
- The Madsen’s rear box can hold four kids (!) with seatbelts on two benches. This exceeds even the recommended load in the box of a Bakfiets (although people have been known to put four kids, and then some, on a Bakfiets as well). If you only have two kids, they can sit across from each other and get some space if they are prone to fighting. In addition, forward-facing kids aren’t shoved into the butt or back of the rider, thanks to the length of the box. This is a minivan-replacement.
- The box can also hold enough groceries to handle the needs of the once-a-week suburban family shopper, with few hassles about oddly-shaped items, balancing the load or packing it into bags. It’s like the trunk of a car: you can just toss everything in there. This is an advantage of all the box bikes and it is significant.
- The Madsen bucket is integrated with the frame, so going downhill doesn’t mean being flung back and forth by the weight in the rear, unlike when riding a normal bike with a trailer. This was a relief. The Madsen also has a front disc brake, which makes going down hills safer.
- Kids like riding in the Madsen, probably because the view is good. They sit up high enough to get a view and they’re not squashed against the rider.
- The kickstand is very stable. It’s easy to load kids in and out of the box with it down.
- The Madsen has a 20” rear wheel, which makes it an excellent candidate for adding a rear hub motor with high torque for climbing hills. When I talked with The New Wheel they said they were very excited about the potential of a Madsen with BionX in San Francisco. However if you do this, it would be a very good idea to upgrade the brakes to get back down the steep hills you would then be able to climb.
- The step-through frame makes this bike very accessible to even the shortest of riders, and easy to ride in a skirt. The bike has both fenders and a chain guard, thankfully. You can add a front rack for cargo that you don’t want kids to handle.
- The price is on the low end for cargo bikes, currently running $1,150 to $1,750 on their website, depending on how popular a color you choose. At the end of the year Madsen tends to have big sales on their bikes, and the price can drop to $1000.
The cons of the Madsen:
The Madsen is a terrible climber, with only nine gears on a rear derailleur. It wallows. Riding this bike uphill was miserable. It was a relief that I rode it while Biking With Brad, who has a BionX assisted Big Dummy and is a very nimble rider, and who reached over and actually pushed us up a few of the steeper hills. Although this bike is a great candidate for electric assist, it’s unlikely to make it up any steep hills unassisted if something ever happens to the motor or battery.
- A bike with a heavy load in the rear can be unstable while walking the bike, starting, and stopping. I dumped my kids twice, fortunately on grass both times (they’re fine), but it freaked them out and I had a little panic attack about hurting them and potentially damaging a bike that had been loaned to me.
- The rear kickstand is a hassle to put up and down. It’s under the bucket, meaning you have to get off the loaded bike to engage it. After dropping the bike I had issues with this.
- The Madsen I rode was very wobbly at low speeds, particularly while starting. The front tire did not track straight. Biking with Brad said that when he asked the Madsen makers about that, they said that some of their bikes were like that and some weren’t and they didn’t know why. Uh, okay.
- The rear box is split across the center because the rear wheel runs underneath it. That means that the box is really more like two narrow boxes side by side. On the up side, no fighting over leg room by kids sitting next to each other. On the down side, they don’t have a ton of leg room left to fight over. Moreover, some larger bulky items that seem like they should fit in the box won’t really fit.
- Like a bike trailer, the Madsen is easy to catch on corners and needs a lot of room to maneuver.
- While riding, the box is really noisy, even with kids inside to dampen the echo somewhat.
- There are no holes in the bottom of the box, which means that stuff can collect down there (falling leaves, garbage, water) that’s tough to get out without putting the bike on its side. If it were my bike I might drill holes in the bottom so I could hose it out and so that it wouldn’t flood in the rain, because…
- Madsen has apparently been claiming for years that they’re planning to release some kind of rain cover, but no sign of it yet. Both trailers and other box bikes have covers for carrying kids in cold and wet conditions.
When I first looked at the Madsen it seemed to have many of the same pros and cons as a trailer, but riding it made me realize it’s actually very different. Compared with the mountain bike + trailer we tried, it was much harder to go uphill and much safer going downhill. The Madsen held twice as many kids, while the trailer was much less likely to tip. The trailer had better weather protection, but the Madsen was more fun for the kids on a sunny day because they could see more. A trailer is quieter. However if you like the color pink or buy at the end of the year, it is possible to buy a Madsen for less than the cost of a bike plus a trailer, assuming that you don’t already have a bike.
I felt no real desire to get a Madsen after trying it, although it was fun to ride for a while. It was too much of a struggle on the hills. I got the sense that a number of families in Seattle who started with Madsens eventually moved to Xtracycles or Big Dummies. I think the Madsen would be best for hauling kids who are younger than mine (ages 3.5 years and almost 7 years) in an area without significant hills. However, older kids and hills are the sticking points for most of the cargo bikes we tried, so this isn’t a complaint that’s specific to the Madsen. Overall, the ages of our kids and the local terrain make the Madsen a poor choice for us. So while this is clearly the right bike for some families, it’s wasn’t right for ours.