Tag Archives: Portland

A series of family biking events, 2014 edition

There is a lot to do if you are interested in family biking, mostly in San Francisco but also beyond. Here’s everything I know about this summer so far in date order—and don’t miss the good stuff at the end.

July 13th (11am-4pm): Richmond Sunday Streets

We went to Richmond Sunday Streets last year—this was a great event for kids to ride their own bikes because it was car-free all the way from Golden Gate Park to Clement Street. We had no worries about cross-traffic for miles.

July 19th (11am-5pm): Fiets of Parenthood and the Disaster Relief Trials, Portland, Oregon

We are finally going to make it to Fiets of Parenthood, which will be held at the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry on July 19th. Come to compete or to test out cool cargo bikes—Splendid Cycles claims they’ll have a Bullitt with the new extra-torquey BionX D system to try. There is also a new class in the Disaster Relief Trials, the non-competitive Replenish division, as well as the competitive classes competing for time (we are so not doing that). To participate in Replenish you have to haul a non-pedaling passenger (no tandems). Our California contingent will be easy to spot, as we’ll all be on child seat-equipped Bromptons. Go Grizzlies.

August 24th (11am-4pm): Mission Sunday Streets

Our first Mission Sunday Streets in 2012

Our first Mission Sunday Streets in 2012

Mission Sunday Streets is the first we ever attended and it’s always the most crowded, but it’s no less awesome for that. We usually hightail it to Dynamo Donuts first thing in the morning, then turn around and return at a more measured pace. Our bikes are easy to spot if you’re looking for us.

September 2nd (10am-11am): How would you make buying and using a cargo bike easier? A conversation with Vie Bikes at Koret Playground in Golden Gate Park (look for the sign near the Carousel)

Vie Bikes is a new company formed by three San Francisco cargo biking parents intent on making it easy as pie to find, buy and use the best cargo bikes on the market. Among other things, Vie will offer month-to-month leasing, and built-in quarterly service that comes to you. Vie is planning to launch in San Francisco in the coming months, and expand in to new cities thereafter. Stop by Koret Playground to talk with Vie’s founders, including long-time Hum of the City reader Kit Hodge. Vie is looking for feedback from both people who have cargo bikes and people looking for them regarding key aspects of our service.If you went through the process of shopping for a cargo bike again, what would you change?If you’re in the process now, what are you finding challenging? Be part of shaping a company that will transform cargo bike use across North America. RSVP to info@viebikes.com. Can’t make it but want to weigh in? E-mail info@viebikes.com with your thoughts. We’ve known Kit for a long time and were very excited about the idea of a cargo bike leasing company, which is both totally novel and totally cool. I hear there will be sample bikes to check out as well.

September 14th (11am-4pm): Western Addition Sunday Streets

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Western Addition Sunday Streets is one of my favorites because a large section of it goes through neighborhoods rather than a major commercial strip. It’s also much less crowded because the route hauls people up over Alamo Square, so beware. We usually start at Chili Pies and Ice Cream and wander over toward Japantown.

The final two events are only relevant for Rosa Parks families, but if you are such a family (or you’d like to be eventually), please feel free to join our community even before school starts.

July 12th and August 16th (11am-1pm): Rosa Parks Incoming Kindergarten class family potlucks

Family bikes round up in the lower courtyard. Incoming kindergarteners can meet and play with each other and their future teachers. These are fun events—at the August potluck, classroom assignments should be out as well. We may miss the August potluck because of our Camp Mather trip, but we’re going to try to make it to both. Hope to see you there.

Happy riding this summer.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco, electric assist, destinations, Brompton, Xtracycle, Portland

Cargo bike pocket reviews

Bikes lining up at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

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

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

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

Cycle trucks

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

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

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

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

Longtails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Put a FreeRadical on it, Portland.

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

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

Yuba elMundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Yuba Mundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Midtails

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Box bikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winther Wallaroo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Tandems

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

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

This is Shrek 2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tricycles

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

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

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

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Filed under family biking, reviews

Last bike standing

Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call: decisions, decisions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here in San Francisco

There is always so much happening in the city that it is inevitable I will miss some of it. Earlier this week, I missed pi in the sky.

Where I would like to be this weekend is back in Portland, representing California in the Fiets of Parenthood. Instead I’m here in San Francisco. I have been told that Fiets of Parenthood was scheduled well after our school year started to prevent outsiders like us from successfully competing. This is laughable, and I’m sure they’re just saying that.Want proof?

For those poor souls stuck at home wistfully following the #FoP twitter feed like I am, I offer San Francisco’s take on Portlandia to pass the time: Catlandia.

(Hat tip to Bikes and the City for the Catlandia link.)

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We tried it: Wallaroo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pros of the Wallaroo:

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

The cons of the Wallaroo:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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We tried it: Bullitt (with BionX electric assist)

Hello, Bullitt!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pros of the Bullitt:

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

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

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

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

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

The cons of the Bullitt:

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

It was a party every day on the Bullitt.

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

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

[This is the bike we bought.]

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

We tried it: Metrofiets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pros of the Metrofiets:

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

The cons of the Metrofiets:

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

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

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

Gorgeous, but not necessarily making things easy.

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

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

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

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Filed under family biking, reviews