Tag Archives: hills

We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is the new Bosch mid-drive, which is a pretty nice piece of equipment. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that makes me wonder a little about the manufacturer. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. The Bosch is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the Bosch could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, the Bosch assist kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know.

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.

 

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.

 

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Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

We tried it: Faraday Porteur

It's not just a bike, it's also a coat rack.

It’s not just a bike, it’s also a coat rack.

Our kids are getting older, and as a result, I can imagine something that was previously kind of unimaginable, which is riding a bike that’s not actually a cargo bike. Late in 2014, this dream drew a little closer to reality, because Faraday Bikes was offering its bikes for a week’s free test ride to anyone who asked. And I asked. Poor Matt ended up being the solo kid hauler for that week, as I gleefully rode through the city childfree. He was glad to see it go, but not me. I have seen the future.

The Faraday Porteur grew from a concept city-bike to a Kickstarter campaign to a real company, a journey that is as desirable as it is unlikely. The Porteur is an assisted bike, and I first saw it in 2012 in a furniture store, as the company had zero connections to actual bike shops at the time. Checking out a bike in a furniture store brought home the inherent difficulties involved in buying any bike, let alone an assisted bike, without local bike shop support. The woman selling sofas had no idea how the bike worked and had lost the brochure. It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Now you can buy the Faraday Porteur in real bike shops, including locally at The New Wheel, which pretty much lives by the mission statement of selling not-crappy bikes. This does inspire confidence. Throughout it all, it has remained a bike unlike any other. Six word review?

Faraday Porteur: It’s the cool bike.

A long time ago, I was reading advice on what bike to buy. The article is now lost to the internet wayback machine, but it said that when you go looking for bikes, there is often the bike that you think that you should buy, because it’s the practical or affordable choice, and the bike that you want to buy, the cool bike, which is the bike you desire whether or not it’s practical or affordable. And the author said: “Buy the cool bike.” Why? Because you’ll ride the cool bike, and not leave it in the garage, wishing that you were on the cool bike. Your definition of a cool bike will change over time and in different circumstances. We are still in the stage of our lives where our Bullitt is the cool bike, although for most people, it might better be described as the “slack-jawed disbelief” bike. In general I think “buy the cool bike” is excellent advice. And I can say one thing for sure after a week on the Faraday Porteur: whatever its weaknesses (all bikes have weaknesses), EVERYONE thinks it’s the cool bike. Do I want this bike? Heck yes. I have lust in my heart for this bike. For my needs, it’s not yet perfect, but I am still in the kid-hauling years, so I figure they have time to work out the last few kinks for me. I know from talking to the company representatives when I dropped off the bike that some of the changes I would make are already in progress.

Charging in the garage.

Charging in the garage.

It is difficult to describe people’s reactions to this bike, but I will try. Like the Bullitt, the Faraday is not necessarily the best bike for shy people. For the week that I rode it, I was the most popular that I have ever been. I suddenly found my road-racing neighbor casually hanging out by the garage. Our block is surprisingly cargo-bike heavy, with an Urban Arrow to one side of us and a Frances on the other, but this particular neighbor, notwithstanding our mutual respect and fondness, views all our cargo bikes with what I would describe as fascinated horror. His interest is in road bikes, and he has lovingly rebuilt over a dozen of them, each of which cost more than our entire bike stable, and he rides them exclusively for athletic reasons. Yet every morning that I had the Faraday, he was there when I left home and arrived home, asking questions about it. “That is a really nice bike,” he’d say. On the last day that I had it, he took pictures. When I got to the office with the Faraday, I was far too paranoid to leave a loaner bike at the racks, so I rode up with it in the elevator and parked it in my office. And during that week, there were always, mysteriously, a half-dozen people who’d struck up conversations next to my office door around the time I came in and when I left, who also quizzed me about the bike. My more self-confident colleagues wandered into my office pretty much at will to ask questions about it. Heads turned when I was riding. When our cousins came down from the North Bay for the weekend, I had one of them try it and he yelled as he rode, “This is AWESOME! AWESOME!” I imagine this is something like your life if you are a supermodel. It would probably settle down in time, but it was absolutely fascinating. And yes, it was kind of gratifying.

Let’s be real: as a full-time cargo bike rider, I am biased to gush about any bike that is lighter than a Bakfiets, because for me, riding a normal bike is like suddenly losing 50 pounds, quite literally. However, I am not the only person who really, really likes this bike.

What I liked about the Faraday Porteur

  • The Faraday Porteur is beautiful, and I am as vulnerable to the allure of this bike as anyone else. Everything about it looks intentional. Even the wires match the frame. The handlebars support a controller for the assist
    Faraday pileup at the shop.

    Faraday pileup at the shop.

    as well as the usual collection of shifters and brakes and so on, yet it was the cleanest cockpit I have ever seen. Just looking down at it while riding was aesthetically gratifying. Yes, having a gorgeous bike is a luxury, and bikes don’t have to be lovely to be useful, but I can testify now that with a bike this beautiful and practical, I found myself making up useless errands to run so that I could ride it more often. “Sure, I checked the hold shelf at the library once today already, but I should check it again, because you never know.” I found myself dreaming up stuff like this despite the fact that we sold our car in 2012 and so we already ride our bikes everywhere all the time. I would cheerfully have ridden this bike all day long if I could have figured out a way to skip work and arrange child care.

  • The Faraday is extremely easy to ride, and intentionally so. The swept back handlebars are a comfortable width, the Brooks saddle (which is standard) is the choice of those who are picky about those things (I am not, but I like it too), and the gearing relies on a smooth-shifting internal hub that allows you to change gears even when stopped. I typically test-ride cargo bikes, and they all have learning curves to some extent, so maybe I’m overselling this, but it was just so fantastically simple.
  • This bike is both lightweight and balanced. This is probably my cargo bike experience talking again, but I could not get over how cool it was to be riding an assisted bike that I could pick up and carry up the stairs without a second thought. The balance of the bike makes this easier; the assist is on the front wheel and the internal gears are on the back wheel, so you can pick it up by the top tube(s) and it hangs evenly thanks to the equal weight on both wheels. This is not something that I have ever seen any other manufacturer of any bike worry about. It is one of the many thoughtful design features that made me think, “This is so obvious and yet no one has ever done it before.” Not everyone has the ambition to carry their bikes up the stairs, but being able to lift it up easily is also really handy for parking the bike in random places and tight racks that are normally completely out of the question for assisted and/or cargo bikes.
  • The ride is so smooth. Riding a bike in San Francisco comes with a certain amount of jostling, because many streets are poorly maintained. There are potholes galore, and riding over broken glass is a daily experience. On my normal routes, I now automatically hop out of the saddle at the worst points and even the kids know to brace themselves at certain intersections. Well, for one glorious week I said goodbye to all of that, because the Faraday eats potholes for breakfast. I was whizzing down McAllister through its endless ongoing construction one morning at full speed and barely even noticed the giant gaps in the asphalt. When I finally realized that I wasn’t getting bumped, I started aiming for them for a few blocks to prove the point to myself (sorry, Faraday, I’m sure that wasn’t great for the bike). God, it was awesome.
  • The electric assist, which is standard on the Faraday, is the smoothest assist that I have ever used. Also people don’t even notice it’s there unless you tell them. It is a pedal assist, and activated by torque, yet it feels different from traditional pedal assists because the motor is in front. What’s more, it is truly silent. The Faraday is frequently compared to Apple products, which is a fair comparison, because it doesn’t go in for a lot of unnecessary features: the assist controller is a physical toggle: Off/Low/High, and it shows a battery gauge, the end. You could use it blindfolded. When the assist is on, you feel like you are a superhero, but you can’t always feel it come on, because it never jerks, it just sort of slides into place as you’re moving along. I assume that they spent a lot of time developing this. It is another one of those thoughtfully engineered things that made me feel like the Faraday was almost a different species of bike.
  • This is an assisted bike, but you don’t need to use the assist. Typically an electric assist bike is carrying so much extra weight in the form of the battery and the motor that it can be unpleasant to ride without keeping the assist on at the lowest level. This is particularly true given that assisted bikes tend to be used to carry lots of stuff. However on the Faraday I found myself riding with the assist off most of the time. I flipped it on to go through big intersections and up hills, but kept it off when riding on flat streets or mild hills, because I didn’t need it. The Faraday staff wanted me to tell them, when the week was over, how much range I had been able to get out of the bike, and I was honestly unable to answer the question, because I spent so much time riding it with the assist off that I never ran down the battery before I made it home to recharge it, even after the couple of times when I forgot to plug it in overnight. I had range anxiety before I rode the bike, because the battery seems underpowered from the specs, but ultimately the issue never came up.
  • Although the Faraday is not billed as a cargo bike, it can easily carry a ton of stuff. Even back in 2012, when it was a Kickstarter campaign, it had a frame mounted front rack, so the steering wasn’t affected when you threw stuff in the basket. That front rack is still there, and it’s beautiful, bombproof, and laughably easy to take on and off. The only thing I would add to it is a matching cargo net, the best bicycle accessory ever, but mine sort of clashed with the white bike because it’s black. I was getting very picky about aesthetics after a week on this bike. They have a matching bungee cord for the front rack but a bungee cargo net is better. Faraday also offers a rear rack now, and if I were getting this bike, I would get neither or both, because putting just one of them on messes with the balance of the bike and makes it more of a hassle to carry. Who am I kidding, I would get both, the bike is plenty light enough to handle the weight and they’re so practical. The front rack can carry everything I needed in a workday. The rear rack would allow you to bring home a cart full of groceries as well.
  • This was my first experience riding a bike with a belt drive, and I am now a fan. No chain = no need for a chain guard. You can wear normal clothes and ride this bike.
  • The lights are integrated into the bike and they are always on when the bike is on, just like cars in Canada (and they stay on whether or not the assist is on). What’s more, if you decide to get the front rack, there is an option to mount the light on the front of it, so you can pile all kinds of stuff on the rack and still see where you are going. I found the lights to be plenty bright even for night riding on the unlighted paths of Golden Gate Park. This is a great commuter feature and much too rare, even on other assisted bikes.
  • The bike comes in different frame sizes, for those of many heights. At 5’7” I was, as usual, on the medium frame, but I have heard that people who are 5’4” can also ride that size, which suggests that the small frame may be suited to even the shortest among us. My road-racing neighbor, who is well over six feet tall, was really too tall to ride my medium frame bike, but I saw a similarly-sized rider at Faraday on a large frame.
  • How much does it cost? $3500. There aren’t really any options other than the front and rear racks that would change that price, and demand is such that it’s not likely to go on sale. For what Faraday is offering, which is an assisted bike made with exceptionally good parts, the price is reasonable. Yet like all assisted bikes that you would actually want to ride, it is definitely not cheap. (Unless you are used to buying expensive road bikes. Then you will laugh and tell me that it is a steal.)

What I didn’t like about the Faraday Porteur

  • I was terrified that it would be stolen. Seriously, I have never spent so much time worrying that I would lose a bike, and I don’t usually ride beater bikes. This bike is so appealing that the thought of leaving it at a bike rack gave me palpitations, and so I found myself making up errands only for situations where I could bring the bike inside or watch it from inside. I parked it my office most days, which doesn’t really bother anyone, but then I worried about it all through that week’s fire drill. Although, as mentioned, I have lust in my heart for this bike, one of my most serious reservations about the prospect of buying one is whether I would have the nerve to ride it and park it in many parts of this notoriously-bike-theft-prone city. This sounds kind of ridiculous as a downside (“I dislike that it’s so desirable”) but it’s a real issue.
  • In its current form, the Faraday is not a kid hauler. This is true even though with the new rear rack, it is entirely possible to put a Yepp Maxi on the back of the bike. However just because it is technically possible does
    Faraday with Yepp.

    Faraday with Yepp.

    not mean that it is a great idea. There are a number of issues that make riding with a Yepp Maxi kind of a non-starter. First is that the assist is really designed to haul one person (more on that below) and on steep hills, I suspect that it would be a struggle to carry a kid as well, even with the assist on high. Obviously for already-strong riders this isn’t an issue, but for many people it would be. Second is that the Porteur has a high horizontal top tube, so it’s designed to be mounted by swinging your leg over the back. With a Yepp seat on the back that’s impossible. I tried swinging my leg over the top tube as an experiment, which is how we get on and off our Bullitt and EdgeRunner, and it was, to say the least, not easy on this bike. The tube is just too high to make that move comfortable, and it kept clipping my shoe at the heel, which knocked me and the bike over a couple of times. With a kid strapped in the rear seat, that would be seriously scary. The Yepp Maxi actually having a kid in it raises a couple of other issues. Most annoyingly, the power button is placed right below the rider’s saddle, directly within reach of a Yepp-encased toddler’s hands. And the power button has a cool light that goes off and on when you press it. I don’t know any kid in the entire world who could resist turning the bike on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off as you rode, no matter how dramatically they were threatened. That makes having an assisted bike kind of pointless, and possibly dangerous. What’s more, the Yepp seat blocks the taillight, so riding with it at night would be a bad idea unless you clipped on an aftermarket light. It’s clear that the idea of adding a child seat is still very much in development at Faraday. They are developing a bike with a step-through frame that deals with a number of these issues at once. If I really wanted a Faraday as a kid-hauler I would wait for the step-through model or use a front seat (something like the Oxford Leco might work on this model).

  • The assist lacks pickup. This came up most often at intersections, when I really wanted a boost button. Honestly I didn’t feel that there was much difference between the low and high settings of the assist, so I would have preferred that the toggle be Off/On/Boost instead of Off/Low/High. And here is the San Francisco-specific concern: on steep hills, the assist felt underpowered, even with just me on the bike. I was very surprised, because this bike was designed in San Francisco, but on my first trip up Page Street (which I rode up from Market Street to Golden Gate Park, and which involves a surprising amount of elevation gain), I was working harder than I had expected I would. Honestly, I didn’t mind that much in the end, because it wasn’t overwhelming, and I appreciate having to work to go up hills sometimes. Exercise is healthy. However the assist is definitely not a hill-flattener. I was not particularly laden at the time, but if you added another 30-50 pounds of live child weight the effort involved would be even more noticeable. This for me is not a deal-breaker, but I definitely thought it was a missed opportunity.
  • The riding position on the Faraday is too aggressive for a commuter. The handlebars are too low. It was such a disappointment. When riding in the city it makes sense to be very upright, so you can see over the cars. That is why recumbent bikes in San Francisco are as rare as emeralds. Yet despite the swept back commuter style bars on the Faraday, I was hunched over riding this bike, like it was designed for a triathlon or something. A stem extender would be non-negotiable if I were going to ride this bike regularly (this is actually already in development for the step-through model at least, I saw it on the demo bike).
  • To my astonishment, I had occasion to test the fenders with more than my eyeballs, as I had this bike during the one week that it actually rained in San Francisco since forever. The rear fender is too short. I ended up with a stripe of mud on the back of my jacket to prove it (according to people in rainier locales, they are also too narrow). The fenders are bamboo, and beautiful, and this issue would probably never come up again for me personally, but if you live in a place where there is precipitation, you will want longer fenders.
  • Initially I blamed myself for this: I broke the kickstand, which is a Pletscher double. Then I found out that everyone who uses the Pletscher has broken theirs at least once. Some people have even broken multiple Pletschers. It’s a cool-looking kickstand, but given the quality of the rest of the parts, this bike should have something better. An Ursus Jumbo would be a much more solid choice.
  • Speaking of missed commuter opportunities, the Faraday has no bell. Yes, you can get an aftermarket bell, but on a bike where even the wires match the frame, not including a matching bell is a bizarre oversight. I really missed having a bell on a few occasions when I was nearly doored.
  • As mentioned above, the power button is poorly placed, as it is underneath the saddle. It’s horrible if you’re trying to carry a kid in back, who would mess with it, but it’s not great even if you’re not, as you have to dismount to turn the bike on if you forget to do it before you start riding. I did that a couple of times, as I was riding without the assist on so much of the time. I would realize that the lights weren’t on, or I’d hit a hill and suddenly, “Dang.”
  • The battery on the Faraday is enclosed in the down tube, so it can’t be removed for charging. For me personally it wasn’t a huge issue, because we ran outlets to our garage, and I just plugged it in there. If you keep your bike inside, which given the theft risk isn’t a bad idea and given the relatively light weight isn’t impossible to imagine, it’s also not a big deal. However there are several situations where this could be a real hassle. Moreover, the question of what to do when the battery needs to be replaced is unclear to me. The battery does have a two year warranty, which is about as good as it gets with assisted bikes. I would want to know more about this question before buying the bike.
  • Like all assisted bikes, at $3500, it is not cheap, even if it is a good value for the money.

This is not the time in my life when I would get a bike like the Faraday Porteur. However that time will come before too much longer, and I already want one. There are bikes that you ride, and even though they’re not perfect, you say, oh to heck with it, I want it anyway. I want to kick my kids off our bikes and get this bike. I loved the Faraday Porteur. It’s totally the cool bike.

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

Our kids’ bikes: Torker Interurban 20” and Spawn Banshee 16”

The bike that started it all.

The balance bike that started it all.

As our kids have gotten older, they’ve moved into riding their own bikes, as one might expect. Our son started riding on our venerable Specialized Hotwalk balance bike, which this summer finally moved on to live with our next door neighbors and their 2-year-old.

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

He jumped from there to a Jamis Laser at age 5, which worked for a while, but not as long as we had hoped, mostly because it doesn’t have gears and we live in San Francisco. After about a year of his resisting riding because he had to walk up the hills, we switched him to the Torker Interurban (20”) from The New Wheel when he turned 6, which has multiple gears, and he’s been riding that ever since (we sold the Jamis to a family in a flatter locale). After spending part of a summer at the wonderful wheelkids bike camp, he had the stamina and knowledge to take to the streets whenever he’s inclined. That’s less often than we might like, but he’s getting there. The Torker is lightweight, and he’s a lean and scrawny kid. Between that a reasonably wide gear range, he has little trouble pedaling that bike up to Alamo Square and back down again on the way to school.

Now

Now

Fortunately for us, our son by age 6 had reached a height that put him in the realm of kids’ bikes that are not uniformly terrible. In contrast, we found it very difficult to find good bikes in the 16” wheel range for our daughter. Local shops sell Linus kids’ bikes, but they are too heavy for the hills our kids ride, and worse yet from our perspective, come with training wheels [but see the comments below: there is a new local company producing a great 16″ bike, the Cleary Hedgehog, as of last month]. We didn’t stick our kids on balance bikes before they turned two years old so they could backslide when they got older to bikes designed to accommodate training wheels. All the 16” bikes we found also came with coaster brakes, which we wanted to avoid after our son’s hard experience. The coaster brakes in combination with a hand brake on his old Jamis confused him, “Hand? Feet? Hand? Feet?” and really slowed his ability to catch onto braking while riding. Plus we have heard more than one horror story about kids who had had their ankles caught in the cranks, and whose parents had to disassemble the bike to remove them. Our daughter stayed on the balance bike much longer than she probably should have as we looked for a better alternative.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

At this point, I should probably mention a brand of kids’ bikes that have gotten a bit of a subculture following in the family bike community, and why we didn’t get one: Islabikes (pronounced “eye-lah”). Islabikes makes some very nice kids’ bikes, although their 16” model comes with coaster brakes, which we did not want. The coaster brakes made it easier for me to decide not to buy one. There is a reason that I was trying to avoid Islabikes. While I try not to climb onto my soapbox too much here, I am not a fan of the Islabikes business model, which is to sell exclusively by mail. We typically buy our bikes and accessories from local bike shops.

The reasons we shop locally (for a given definition of locally) are complicated, but I will outline one of them here. Probably the most common question I get from other people is where they can test-ride the interesting family bikes we have tried, whether they are cargo bikes or kids’ bikes. And well, if you want to live in a world that has lots of shops in which to test-ride bikes, or for that matter, any shops in which to test-ride bikes, you have to support the local shops by selling to them and buying from them. I realize, of course, that new bicycle brands have to start somewhere, and I remember the difficult line that Xtracycle walked before its dealer network was well-developed, when it sold products both through local bike shops and through its website. But Xtracycle has always cultivated relationships with local shops, and now appears to sell exclusively through its dealers. Yuba appears to be en route to the same transition.

Islabikes, on the other hand, has no relationships with local bike shops. It sells exclusively online and the last that I heard, had no plans to change that model. I had qualms about supporting a brand that chose to cut out the biggest supporters of the riding that we do: local family bike shops. They are few and far-between and it’s not a hugely profitable business. I want to give them all the help that I can, because they help us, and because I’d like to see them survive, and because I’d like more shops to realize that ours is a market that is worth cultivating. So we spend our money at family bike shops, and on occasion, I write up the great experiences we’ve had at these places. I’m way behind on the latter, but these days I’m behind on everything.

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Finding a bike for our daughter, unfortunately, was looking as though it was going to be a “swallow hard and buy online” experience, though, because we couldn’t find a bike suited for our local conditions from a local shop. We considered an Islabike despite my reservations about the online-only sales and the coaster brakes (and about the fact that it only came in red; she didn’t want a red bike, her brother rides a red bike). Islabikes are in fact lovely bikes, viewed solely from a specifications perspective, as they are both lightweight and appropriately scaled. Our kids enjoyed test-riding them when we visited their factory at the post-Fiets of Parenthood party the company hosted in Portland this summer.

On the Spawn Banshee

On the Spawn Banshee

Fortune smiled on us, however, when I found a reference somewhere—I have forgotten where—to Spawn Cycles in Canada, which also sells excellent kids’ bikes. Better still, their 16” wheel bike, the Banshee, is sold with front and back hand brakes and no coaster brakes. They appeared pricier than other good kids’ bikes at first, but that was only until I realized that the prices were in Canadian dollars. Spawn Cycles sells its bikes online, which was good news for us given that they’re based in Canada. However the company is also developing a network of local bike shops that sell its products, exactly because it realizes that people want to be able to test-ride kids’ bikes. I liked the company’s attitude toward local bike shops and I liked the bikes. If we were going to buy a bike online, and it looked as though we were, I felt pretty decent about buying one from Spawn. And our daughter was thrilled to discover she could pick the color. Her new Banshee is pink. She was 5 years old when she started riding it, but could have managed it at age 4 if we’d found it sooner.

Spawn managed to get the bike to us within a few days, which I found impressive considering that it had to go through customs. Then we discovered that bikes purchased online, whatever the brand, come “some assembly required.” What can I say? We’d never bought a bike online before. Under normal circumstances the minor assembly work would have been no problem, but we had just moved into an ongoing remodel, and everything we owned in the way of bike tools was packed away… somewhere. Luckily, we share our building with a friendly guy who is really, really into bikes—and this is me saying that. He has a workshop set up in our shared garage for his own bikes, and volunteered to put our daughter’s bike together the same evening it arrived. Thanks again, neighbor! It took him about 15 minutes, but would probably have taken half as long if our daughter hadn’t been helping.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

We were right about the hand brakes. It took our daughter a couple of weekday evenings to learn to ride her Banshee, and after a week, she could gracefully feather her brakes to slow her descent down even San Francisco hills. Her bike is so light that although it is a single speed, she occasionally outpaced teenagers on mountain bikes while riding up the hills at Camp Mather. Our daughter has never been much of a walker, always begging us to “Carry me!” Now she doesn’t have to be. These days when we head somewhere within a few blocks, we walk and she rides her bike. She’s still working on the skills she’ll need to ride in the street like her brother can, but in the meantime, it’s legal for kids to ride on the sidewalk. Between that and the Roland, which is giving her practice on the streets on the way to kindergarten, we’re slowly transitioning to a new kind of family biking, with everyone on their own bike.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco, trailer-bike

A new bike in our fleet

It's also been a Muni-rific couple of weeks. Kids love trains.

It’s also been a Muni-rific couple of weeks. Kids love trains.

Summer is winding up, and it’s been fun. We’re having too much fun for me to write regular blog posts, anyway. I missed taking any vacation last summer, so this summer I’ve gobbled up three weeks in a row. We have been to Portland to Fiets of Parenthood, to Oakland for PedalFest, and to a different museum every day that we’ve been in San Francisco. On Saturday we are heading out of range of all electronics, except an archaic pay phone, to spend a week at San Francisco’s Camp Mather.

In honor of this upcoming trip, we finally bought our daughter a pedal bike. Kids at Camp Mather ride their bikes everywhere. She’s been old enough to ride on her own for a while, but I was frustrated by the difficulty of finding a 14” or 16” kid bike without coaster brakes. Coaster brakes delayed our son’s ability to stop on his own for months (Hand or feet? Hand or feet?) And I have heard enough horror stories about kids’ feet being caught in the cranks to last me a lifetime. She was getting big for the balance bike but we held out because we didn’t want her to hate riding. Our son, back in the day, tried to retreat back to the Hotwalk several times in frustration. He only really settled into riding on his own when we finally upgraded him from the Laser.

Check out those handlebars: front and rear brake! She can stop while eating a cupcake.

Check out those handlebars: front and rear brake! She can stop while eating a cupcake.

We finally found the right bike. Her new 16” bike has both a front and rear brake, but no coaster brakes, and it weighs 15 pounds. Our daughter got on it for the first time two weeks ago Friday and mastered riding it, as well as stopping on a dime, in less than 15 minutes. But she still couldn’t start on her own. So the next day we took her to Golden Gate Park for an hour, and she picked up the bike and rode on her own all the way back home. Sometimes she spins the pedals backwards for a bit starting up but it doesn’t stop her, obviously. Both kids have been tearing up the sidewalks around the neighborhood ever since. Last weekend she learned to ride moderate hills, feathering the brakes gently on the way down. Matt and I keep high-fiving each other for holding out for a bike without coaster brakes. I’ve been so busy following the kids around that I’ve barely had the chance to get on my own bike (adults are not allowed to ride on the sidewalk in San Francisco). The balance bike is dead to her.

I’ve focused mostly on cargo bikes but it’s probably time to write about the kids’ bikes as well. After we get back from Camp Mather, that is.

 

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Filed under family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco

We tried it: Urban Arrow

As promised, the lede in 6 words:

Like Bakfietsen? You’ll love Urban Arrows.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

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

What I like about the Urban Arrow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I don’t like about the Urban Arrow

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

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

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

  • This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

We tried it: BionX v. Stokemonkey

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

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

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

BionX: Easy to use

Stokemonkey: Powerful

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

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

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

BionX

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

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

What I like about the BionX

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

What I don’t like about the BionX

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

Stokemonkey

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

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

What I like about the Stokemonkey

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

What I don’t like about the Stokemonkey

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

The winner: everybody

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

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

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

 

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

Hills v. hills: San Francisco and Seattle

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Mugging for the camera at the airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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