Category Archives: Xtracycle

Destinations: Blue Heron Bikes

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys.

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys. It’s not safe crossing the Bay.

I’ve been disappointed for years now that San Francisco has no family/cargo bike shop. Things are certainly better than they were a couple of years ago, when we started looking for our 2-kid hauler, but shopping around for a family bike in the city still involves a lot of “around”: wandering from bike shop to bike shop, none of which are necessarily on the same transit lines (and none of which, pretty understandably, have any parking for cars.)

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let's ride some bikes!

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let’s ride some bikes!

Back in 2012, it was a no-brainer to tack a train ride to Portland for cargo bike shopping onto our summer trip to Seattle to visit my mom. At the time Portland had three cargo bike shops that seriously considered the needs of family riders. Last year, however, I started to hear from other families about Blue Heron Bikes in Berkeley, which opened shortly after we returned from Portland in 2012. They said it was a real family bike shop. They were right.

These people think of everything.

These people think of everything.

We didn’t make it over to Blue Heron until early 2014, but it was worth the wait. Having visited a few family bike shops already, we knew what to look for: kids’ bikes, cargo bikes, and a Lego table. Check, check, and check.  (Clever Cycles in Portland, which represents the pinnacle of family bike shops in the United States, also adds a large play space, inexpensive rentals of many of the bikes it sells, and FREE DIAPERS IN THE BATHROOM to that mix, but this is the result of years of practice.)

Hi, Rob!

Hi!

I no longer patronize bike shops that give me attitude—and anyone who’s walked into a typical bike shop with kids will know what I’m talking about here—so the other critical attribute of a family bike shop is being nice to anyone who walks in the door.  I’m no longer the best judge of that personally, given that my husband likes to walk into bike shops and announce, “This is my wife and she writes a blog about family biking!” However on our first visit to Blue Heron about half a dozen novice family bikers stopped by, and Rob (the owner) and his staff were lovely to all of them. Those poor families also had to endure us talking their ears off about the bikes they test-rode, but you can’t blame Blue Heron for that. Check Yelp for the many five-star reviews from people who showed up on other days.

The family bike corner

The family bike corner

What kind of bikes can you get at Blue Heron? Lots of bikes: they stock Bromptons, Bullitts (sent down from Splendid Cycles), EdgeRunners, and Yuba Mundos. I’ll admit that Bromptons aren’t usually considered family bikes, but that’s how we ride ours, and Emily Finch is now hauling four kids on a Brompton + Burley Travoy, so I think they qualify. Blue Heron also has some quirky stuff like a Japanese cargo bike that they’ve rigged with a rear child seat.  I haven’t ridden that bike, because I figured we’ve tried their patience enough. My kids wanted to ride all the bikes they had in front, and my son announced afterward that he wants a mountain bike. My daughter cried all the way home about our decision to not buy her the purple bike she rode while we were there, because “It’s near my birthday!”

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

The kids did not stop with the bikes in their own size. They also asked to ride the Bullitt with the large box, so we did, and I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should upgrade to that box since. And they also wanted to ride the EdgeRunner. The last EdgeRunner I had ridden was a pre-production model, but the 2014 EdgeRunner was significantly more awesome. We loved that bike. I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should get an EdgeRunner either. We’re going to try the assisted version next, and hopefully a Kinn Flyer and a Workcycles Fr8 too (more reviews!)

Although Blue Heron is located on the Ohlone Greenway in the flats, which makes for lovely test rides, Berkeley is not without hills, and they will also assist your family bike. They had BionX versions of a number of the cargo bikes they sell ready for test rides. Fortunately they didn’t have a BionX EdgeRunner in stock when we were there or we might not have escaped without buying another bike.

There's a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids' test rides

There’s a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids’ test rides

From my perspective, Blue Heron has only one dreadful, depressing flaw, and that is that it is in Berkeley. Getting to Berkeley is an all-day commitment for us, even now that our kids are older. However I understand why families in San Francisco are making the trek across the Bay. Getting a cargo bike from Berkeley to San Francisco is a real adventure—one dad took his new Bullitt on BART, which meant carrying it on the stairs, and another family rode theirs down to the ferry to get it home.  I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to that kind of adventure, but we’ve been there twice now and I have no doubt that we’ll return.

For us, a trip to Portland was the only way to compare the different possible bikes we could have bought. We wouldn’t have to make that same trip now. I’m glad we did go, of course, because if we hadn’t we would never had met the family biking crew in Portland, and we would have had to wait much longer to ride our bike. This is difficult and unpleasant to imagine. But if we were looking now, we’d start in Berkeley.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, Bullitt, destinations, family biking, travel, Xtracycle, Yuba Mundo

Even yet more San Francisco family bikes

It’s been a while since I posted about some of the bikes we see around town, which is misleading because I see more family bikes every day. Red Bullitts are so thick on the ground that I think they might have their own gang. Who knew that going with a blue Bullitt would be so passé? And I’m still trying to get a picture of the CETMA I see near our son’s school sometimes, but the dad riding that bike is just too fast for me. In the meantime, there are others.

This Surly has the motor on the front wheel, along with the clever wheel lock.

This Surly has the motor on the front wheel, along with the clever wheel lock.

The most common family bike we see is an assisted longtail, like this one. The EdgeRunner made a big splash in SF, but there are also a lot of pre-EdgeRunner Xtracycle options running around the city. I liked this assisted Surly because I thought the front wheel lock was a clever addition. The family riding this bike parked it outside the Jewish Community Center while we were there for an event with only the wheel lock, so they didn’t need a rack. I thought that was tempting fate when I first looked at it, but realized that without the need for a rack, they could park right in front, in full view of the security guard standing at the door. The bike was still there after our 3-hour event, and I saw it parked there again a week later, so it was evidently safe enough.

Bakfiets short from My Dutch Bike, which I am discouraging my daughter from climbing into when this photo was taken

Bakfiets short from My Dutch Bike, which I am discouraging my daughter from climbing into when this photo was taken

This Bakfiets short belongs to our neighbor up the hill, and is well-known in the city because the owner works for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition, which is a totally awesome organization to which we donate an increasing amount of money every year. I am grateful for their tireless efforts to create world-class bicycle infrastructure here, and that infrastructure is a big part of the reason that I get the opportunity to photograph many awesome family bikes. Thank you, SFBC! I tell all my friends to join! The Stokemonkey (now back in production!) is a recent addition, which made it possible to ride up the hills around here with kids on board. I was surprised that she reported that it is kind of noisy, given that I had heard it was silent. But if it kills the hills, it’s probably worth it.

Cannondale tandem hanging out at work

Cannondale tandem hanging out at work

This Cannondale tandem appeared recently at the bike rack at my office. It’s been there every morning for the last few days at least. It looks like it might be set up for two adults, or maybe an older kid. I’m surprised it has so little carrying capacity—just one rack for two people? But maybe as kids get older you end up hauling less crap around as parents. That would be something, wouldn’t it? I like big bikes (and I cannot lie) but the prospect of being able to ride a lighter bike one day… I admit, this has some appeal.

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Filed under advocacy, Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

The underrated Kona MinUte

The same bike, but different

The same bike, but different

Although I have some issues with our original cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, they are mostly along the lines of “this is a good bike that with a little bit more effort could have been a GREAT bike.” If I were a betting person, I would bet that the MinUte is a product that is only really loved by one person at Kona, which as a company seems to focus more on what another family biker once referred to as “the weed market.” I wish this were not the case, but in the meantime, Kona pioneered the first American midtail, and what a great idea that turned out to be.

So I was very disappointed to learn that Kona is discontinuing the MinUte at the end of 2013. I recommend the Yuba Boda Boda to parents looking for an assisted midtail in San Francisco (that’s mostly moms), with the usual caveat about Yuba’s lower-end parts. I recommend the MinUte to parents looking for an UNassisted midtail in San Francisco (that’s mostly dads), with the usual caveats about the MinUte’s historically horrible brakes. There a couple more midtails out there, but to date I have not yet ridden a Kinn Cascade Flyer, so I can’t comment on anything but its smokin’ good looks one way or the other. And the very sturdy Workcycles Fr8 is not appropriate for our hilly neighborhood, plus it is too heavy for bus bike racks on local transit, so it loses one of the key advantages of owning a midtail. On the other hand, if you live somewhere flat, the Fr8 is the only midtail specifically designed to haul three kids, one of whom can be in front, which is delightful.

Although it is not a company that is focused on the kid market, Kona does some things really, really well, and one of them is gearing. The MinUte is geared like a mountain bike, so yes indeed you can haul your 50+ pound kid up really steep grades on this bike. And with an aluminum frame, the weight of the bike isn’t fighting you all the way up those hills. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other cargo bike with the same weight+gearing advantage currently on the market. RIP, MinUte. If you’ve been thinking about getting one, you’d better hustle.

Rosa Parks family with a very stylish 2013 MinUte tricked out for kid-hauling

This very stylish 2013 MinUte belongs to a Rosa Parks family and is completely tricked out for kid-hauling

The things that irritate me about the MinUte would probably be irrelevant if the family cargo biking market hadn’t taken such great leaps in the last few years. Now you can buy a bike that comes with kid-carrying parts designed for the bike. Workcycles, Xtracycle, and Yuba will not let you down on this front, and that makes their bikes inherently more appealing for a parent picking up cargo biking. Getting a MinUte involves some kludging that feels a little old-school now. If you live near our bike shop, Everybody Bikes, or one like it, they’ll do that for you, because they’ve set up so many of these bikes already, but otherwise you’re on your own. Kona does not have a standard set of stoker bars for kids to hang on to, wheel skirts to keep feet from being trapped in the spokes, or pegs for foot rests. If you buy a MinUte from Everybody Bikes they’ll set up you up with all of these things on request, and it will look really good too, but that’s their initiative and not Kona’s.

But we live in a hilly neighborhood near this particular bike shop, so it’s not just us on a MinUte: we have neighbors with MinUtes as well, and one family joins us at Rosa Parks every morning—how cool is that? For parents with one kid or two widely spaced kids, a midtail is probably the best kind of cargo bike. Granted, you don’t really need a cargo bike with only one kid, but it can be handy—I find a midtail less unwieldy than a bike seat with an older child, plus you can carry more non-kid cargo. Matt likes the MinUte’s carrying capacity so much that he plans to keep riding it after our kids are on their own bikes. Assuming, that is, it is not stolen again after Kona stops making them, which would break our hearts.

And as mentioned, most midtails can go on a bus bike rack, or on Amtrak using their standard bike racks. Score! Lifting them up to a bus bike rack is not without its challenges—the MinUte, which is the lightest one I’ve tried to put on a bus, is definitely a lot of work to position, but eh, there are lots of heavy bikes in the world, and in my own personal case, my arms are not the weak link.

This neighbor DIYed a nice kid seat with a wooden back, which is drilled directly into the wooden deck.

This neighbor DIYed a nice kid seat with a wooden back, which is drilled directly into the wooden deck.

When we got the replacement MinUte, we learned that Kona had not ignored all of the issues that came up with the first year’s model. The MinUte now has a much nicer centerstand than before, only a fraction narrower than the best-in-class Ursus Jumbo at half the price. Kona now allows you to swap out the standard wooden deck for a plastic deck with holes predrilled to hold a Yepp seat. I’ve been told that the standard brakes are better. The bags are still not so great, but hey, they are included in the price of the bike, so it’s hard to complain too loudly about that. Again, it’s really more a good thing that could have been great.

We will miss being able to tell people where they can buy a MinUte like ours—although the Bullitt gets the most attention, all our bikes are kid-haulers, and as a result they all get noticed. I wish Kona were willing to jump into the family market wholeheartedly. The MinUte fills a niche for families in hilly cities and I’m not sure there’s another bike out there yet that can do the same thing. But Kona is discontinuing the MinUte, so I will have to hope there is something new in the works.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, Kona, Xtracycle, Yuba, Yuba Boda Boda

More bikes I have seen

Surly Xtracycled Karate Monkey with Stokemonkey electric assist--so many kinds of awesome!

Surly Xtracycled Karate Monkey with Stokemonkey electric assist–so many kinds of awesome!

Now that I am getting out and about more, I can continue my effort to catalog every unusual bike in San Francisco. There are more interesting hobbies, I’ll admit, but it entertains me (my other hobby is the even more obscure effort to catalog every word that means its own opposite, e.g. sanction).

This bike isn’t a kid-hauler, which is my favorite kind of bicycle by far, but it could have been (update from a more observant friend: yes it is! check out those stoker bars). I was not familiar with the Surly Karate Monkey before I saw this Xtracycle outside a café one weekend morning. But check it out: it’s a Stokemonkeyed Karate Monkey! That’s an awful lot of monkeys on one bike. It must own the hills. I couldn’t tell whether the box was a battery backup, but this bike looks like it gets around. The sticker references a shop in Seattle. You’re a long way from home, monkeys.

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Filed under electric assist, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Where the family bikes are

Family bikes like circus arts.

Family bikes like circus arts.

We tend to spot interesting bikes in the morning. I’m not sure why. I almost never get pictures because we’re booking to school, but last week was a particular doozy. One rainy morning I passed a recumbent bike that not only sported six poison-frog yellow Ortlieb panniers (with the rider in a matching jacket), but actual jingle bells. And almost every morning I also see some of San Francisco’s significant homeless contingent, or as I sometimes think of them, “self-supported locally-touring riders,” with each bike hauling not only a sleeping bag and a duffel bag but at least two full garbage bags of recycling. Matt found a generous collection of family bikes at the acrobatic center where he took our son this weekend.

Where I hit the motherlode (aside from our son’s school, of course) is Rainbow Grocery. Last Friday I took the day off after a particular grueling week; and instead of heading to work after school drop off I went to Rainbow. On the way in I saw our friends’ Big Dummy, probably because they joined us in car freedom last week, and together we checked out all the other family bikes locked up.

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

The first was one of the many ad hoc family bikes around the city. This bike was immediately familiar, though, because I’d already talked to the mom about her bike while we were riding on the Panhandle. I really liked the seat she’s screwed into the rack, which I’ve never seen before, and I would love to find another because it looks like the perfect addition to a midtail deck. Her kid is apparently still pretty small, but trustworthy enough to hold on to stoker bars. I asked her about footrests, because there aren’t any, and she said that she always keeps panniers with a kid on board, and her kid’s feet go inside. Personally I’d use a sturdier rear rack, but then again my kids are bigger.

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

The second bike that pulled up while I was there was a longtail I’d never seen before, a Fraser Pack Mule from Southern California. I asked the dad riding it and he said it was custom, purchased long before the Surly Big Dummy hit the market. I was really impressed by the integrated back support on the deck. And  although it is evidently usually a single-kid hauler he said that he sometimes carries both of his kids on this bike as well (as long as they’re not fighting, a caveat that’s all too familiar). They live on a hill, but he left the bike unassisted because he has to carry it upstairs to park it, and wasn’t sure he could handle hoisting another 20 pounds on top of an already heavy cargo bike. How cool is this bike?

Anyway, I think I need to figure out a way to get to Rainbow Grocery more often on weekday mornings.

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

These are the ways we ride to school, continued

EdgeRunner, Mundos, trailers, trailer-bikes

Rosa Parks parents rolling in: EdgeRunner, Mundos, Boda Boda, trailer, trailer-bikes

Last year I wrote about some of the bikes we saw at school drop-off. We have a new bike to take our kids to school (the Bullitt) but the big news for us this year was the group of new kindergarten parents on bikes. They outnumber all the rest of us put together. When we were first assigned to Rosa Parks in 2010 I never would have guessed that these families would be coming two years later.

This year’s kindergarten parents came riding multiple Yuba Mundos, and at least two of them are assisted (it’s still San Francisco). There is a bike with a trailer, a real rarity in San Francisco. There are a couple of bikes with trailer-bikes for kids, and an eBoda Boda. And joining them in 2013 is a brand new assisted Xtracycle EdgeRunner.

At the kindergarten end of the yard it's bike-central

At the kindergarten end of the yard it’s bike-central

I catch these parents sometimes when I’m riding up Webster from the south, and we make a little bike convoy. On occasion my son has reached over to the deck to zip up another kid’s open backpack while we talk. Parents and teachers in cars wave to us at stop lights, and we wave to families walking to school from the bus stop.

Bikes with yellow jackets

Bikes with yellow jackets

The kindergarten parents are such a cohesive crew that I am seriously considering replacing my beat-up, broken-zippered windbreaker with one of the day-glo yellow ones that they all seem to wear so that I can look like part of their posse. And historically I have not been a fan of day-glo yellow.

Hey, Boda Boda.

Hey, Boda Boda.

After drop-off I sometimes ride with another family whose route to preschool mirrors my route to work. On the rare occasions that I leave our son and head out before school starts, I have spotted Rosa Parks families coming down Post Street in the opposite direction as they head to school.

Some of the families with older kids are in transition. The third and fourth graders are moving to their own bikes, or sometimes a kid’s bike hitched to a parent’s bike with a TrailGator (there is still a lot of traffic in the city). Our son’s love of the Bullitt’s rain cover has temporarily postponed his desire to ride his own bike, at least while it’s cold and rainy, but I’m sure this will change as he sees more and more kids riding on their own.

Rain? What rain?

Rain? What rain?

Riding our kids to school on our bikes is still not typical, but at Rosa Parks it’s not exceptional either. The neighborhood infrastructure for bikes isn’t more than a bit of paint, but evidently this is enough. There are traditional bike lanes and sharrows on some of the streets near school, and drivers are used to looking out for bikes. Every morning there is a row of them parked along the fence at drop-off, in addition to the bikes like ours left at the actual racks.

All aboard!

All aboard!

I remember reading about families with in other cities with neighborhood schools that organized regular walks and rides to school and thinking, at the time, how unrealistic it seemed for San Francisco, with its citywide school lottery. I was sure that it would never happen here, with families coming from all directions and every neighborhood. But who really knows what creates enough critical mass to form a bike community? I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

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Filed under destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Xtracycle, Yuba Boda Boda, Yuba Mundo

More family bikes of San Francisco

There is no shortage of "traditional" family bikes like this Xtracycle, though.

There is no shortage of “traditional” family bikes like this Xtracycle. This was the first Rolling Jackass center stand I’ve seen in San Francisco, though.

Riding a giant family bike around San Francisco can at times feel outlandish. I feel that way most often when I’m having trouble parking the Bullitt. There are also occasional moments when I have to stop on a hill and am unsure whether I’ll be able to successfully start again (this problem is not unique to the Bullitt but feels scarier with both kids on board). And then there is the general reaction when we’re out: it’s uniformly positive, but there’s no question that riding a bike like ours around is still unusual enough in San Francisco that we get a lot of attention. Fortunately we are not completely alone out there. In the last few weeks we’ve seen at least three other family bikes that are at least as interesting.

Stoked Metrofiets at Golden Gate Park

Stoked Metrofiets at Golden Gate Park

One family has been riding a Stokemonkeyed Metrofiets with a FollowMe tandem for far longer than we’ve had the Bullitt. With that Stokemonkey I don’t doubt they can climb tougher hills than we can. We saw them at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s family day, and again at Golden Gate Park the other weekend. Their bike is even wider and longer than ours is, and it hauls more too.

This bike wins the "most modifications" award.

This bike wins the “most modifications” award.

Last night we saw this incredible Burley tandem with kid-back cranks on the stoker seat, a Burley Piccolo trailer-bike, and a BionX assist like ours. The bike itself looked very familiar, but the last time we saw the family we know riding it, it didn’t have the BionX. We’re still not sure whether it was their bike with a recent upgrade to electric assist or another family’s bike—meaning that there are two Burley tandems like this in San Francisco, which is possible although perhaps not likely—but it’s an impressive setup.

When riding back from school on the Bullitt recently back I saw another long john headed the other way with two kids on board. I was talking with a friend while we were riding and almost missed it, and I definitely didn’t get a photo, but it looked like a Cetma Largo? Unlike our bike, theirs lacked a weather cover, and the kids looked cold.

Outside nearly any family-friendly venue in San Francisco you'll find bikes like ours.

Outside nearly any family-friendly venue in San Francisco you’ll find bikes like ours.

Riding our smaller bikes around the city, though, we have plenty of company. I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party last weekend, and the racks outside the playspace were all occupied; we weren’t even the only family to ride to the party. Trailer bikes, child seats: we see bikes rigged with these all over the city, sometimes so many that the places we ride don’t yet know how to handle them. We still often ride the smaller bikes to new destinations largely because we’re not always sure we’ll be able to find decent cargo bike parking on our first trip.

What is it?

What is it?

And then there are the bikes I can’t figure out. At school lately I’ve been seeing a motorized bike. It looks like a moped and it has a gas motor, but the pedals turn, so arguably it’s a bicycle. It looks as though it was designed to carry two passengers. Does something like this belong at a bike rack? I have no idea. But there’s no question that the city’s infrastructure lags far behind the people using it.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Xtracycle

Xtracycle erumpent

Another EdgeRunner!

Another EdgeRunner!

Last week I spotted the first EdgeRunner I’d seen in the wild. I did a double-take last weekend when I saw it again at the Botanical Gardens. Except that it had different stoker bars. Given that stoker bars aren’t an accessory that people swap out casually, I realized it was an almost-identical EdgeRunner. This bike has been available for what, a month? And I’ve already spotted two? Evidently I’m not the only person who found it appealing. I think this one is a Rosa Parks bike, as I either saw it again or there is a third (!) EdgeRunner in our usual haunts–yesterday morning when I got to school with my son there was yes, a black EdgeRunner parked in the school yard. What’s more, we had dinner with friends last weekend, and the mom, who is in the market for a new family bike, is coveting the EdgeRunner as well.

On Monday, when we were walking with Matt’s parents to brunch, we spotted another Xtracycled bike heading up the hill the other way. Although it was moving fast, I realized it was a Cargo Joe, the folding Xtracycle, and given the speed it was ascending Mt. Sutro and the low hum it made as it went, it was clearly an electric-assist folding cargo bike. We puzzled over that one for a moment, but realized that here in San Francisco, there are thousands of people living in apartment buildings that lack dedicated bike parking (or any kind of parking) but do have elevators. In a hilly city of small spaces, there is evidently a previously untapped market for an assisted folding cargo bike.

We have missed our Bullitt sorely the last few weeks that it has been in the shop.  With it, we don’t need to organize our lives around not having a car. Riding the bike is always better. But not everyone can manage the parking demands and expense of an assisted front-loading box bike, and in San Francisco, which has so few families, the advantages of the front loaders are less widely relevant anyway. As I watched that Cargo Joe glide smoothly to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help thinking that I was seeing the future.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco, Xtracycle

The EdgeRunner has landed

Here it is.

Here it is.

Last week I heard from Clever Cycles that they had the new Xtracycle EdgeRunner in stock. And they have the pictures to prove it. On the way to work last week, I saw one parked outside a local bike shop. What a good-looking bike! When I test-rode the EdgeRunner at Xtracycle world headquarters, I wasn’t sure when they’d be in stores. They’re here now.

The EdgeRunner is the longtail we would probably buy if we were in the market for a longtail, which we totally are not, even though the Bullitt is in the shop for a while. 

Test-riding

Test-riding

The Xtracycle website offers the specs on the electric version (which I did not ride)—the assist is the latest from eZee and there are photos of the new system and new console. The total weight of the assisted version is, according to the website, an astonishing 65 pounds, which is less than many unassisted cargo bikes weigh.  And it comes with a built-in front headlight! I am seriously in love with Xtracycle for making lights on a cargo bike stock (even though they didn’t include a rear light).

I’m not in the market for another cargo bike, but I’m feeling the urge to take another cargo bike test ride. We’ll ride some hills this time.

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

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