Tag Archives: seattle

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.)


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.


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!



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.


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

Return to Seattle: Snow day!

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick trip up to Seattle. I was technically there to present a poster, but given that it was an evening session, I got to sneak in lunch with my mom and some time with Family Ride before getting back on a plane the next day.

The conference was massive, but I learned enough from the discussants who stopped by that my poster was outdated by the time my session finished, which I count as a huge success, because (a) I learned something and (b) I didn’t have to carry the poster home. Win-win!

This is what winter looks like in Northern California.

This is what winter looks like in Northern California.

Madi had offered to bring me a bike, which was awesome in principle but seemed scary in practice, mostly because I am such a wimp about being cold and it was freezing in Seattle. Like: the temperatures were below freezing. Yeargh, are you kidding me? But after she towed a spare bike over on her iconic Big Dummy I couldn’t really skip the chance to take a ride. Also it would have been embarrassing to wimp out. Luckily I had thought to insulate myself to Michelin Man proportions, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. We rode down to the Washington Bikes Bike Love party, where I had occasion to remember that there are lots of people who ride bicycles without children perched on them. Their bikes looked fast.

And then we rode back to the hotel and while we were riding IT SNOWED. I RODE IN THE SNOW. It was, by riding in snow standards, totally pathetic, a few flakes rather than the mega-dump that hit Seattle just a couple of days later. But I suspect that I’ll never have occasion to ride in any kind of snow ever again, so this will have to do. Snow is pretty.

I plan to use this experience to build up all kinds of cold weather cred back here in San Francisco. Our local bike shop owner complains that half his customer base won’t even ride in the fog, which in this neighborhood means that they’re using alternative forms of transportation something like 350 days of the year. I ride in both fog and snow, because I am hardcore like that.

An infinite series of air kisses go to Madi, the best host in all of Seattle, for making me look so much tougher than I actually am, and to Jen at Loop Frame Love for reminding me that grudgingly riding in snow in Seattle is still the epitome of cool in California. I couldn’t have asked for better company. This was a very short trip, but I’ll be back. I’m taking the kids to see their grandmother for their spring break in the first week of April while their dad is in Australia. And I’ll be back for yet another conference, without the kids, from April 17-20. (This is a ridiculous number of trips to take to one city in three months, but I promised my mom I would visit her before my next surgery, applied to multiple conferences in Seattle to make sure that I could deliver, and then had papers accepted at all of them.)

Look out, Seattle family bikers: I know how to ride in snow. Now nothing can stop me from visiting the already-famous G&O Family Cyclery.


Filed under destinations, travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pros of the Big Dummy:

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

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

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

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

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

The cons of the Big Dummy:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews

We tried it: Madsen

My kids didn’t want to ride a bike until they saw it and said, “Oh, okay, it’s a cool bike.”

The Madsen is unlike any other bike on the market I’ve ever seen. It is like a reverse box bike, with the box in the back instead of the front. A longbox rather than a longtail? The Madsen has been reviewed before, by more experienced riders than we are, and on a newer model to boot. But we got to try riding a (first generation) Madsen for a day or so thanks to the generosity of The Main Tank, who loaned hers to us during our stay in Seattle, so I thought I’d write about it anyway. And here’s a 2014 review of an assisted Madsen from a family of six!

Before we went on our trip, I sent a list of every cargo bike I could find to my brother-in-law, who then looked up all their specifications and told us which he thought we should seriously consider. He was fascinated by the box in back design of the Madsen. He was less impressed by the quality of the components. This is the way it is: less expensive cargo bikes have lower-quality parts. Whether that matters depends somewhat on the conditions in which you ride. San Francisco is hard on bikes, and so this is something that’s come to matter a lot to us. Like a lot of people where we live, we have spent a fair bit of money upgrading our original cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Most of that went into replacing the brakes. We are tireless and tiresome evangelists on the subject of hydraulic disc brakes. If we got a Madsen it’s likely we’d end up spending a fair bit of money upgrading parts on it as well.

The Madsen is a fun bike to ride in certain conditions, it is inexpensive enough to be a good entry-level cargo bike, and riding it is much less hassle than hauling a trailer.

My son could self-load, my daughter could not.

The Madsen is a bike I had only ever seen in Seattle, although I recently learned one family has one in the East Bay and another family will soon be riding a Madsen with BionX in San Francisco courtesy of The New Wheel. Davey Oil pointed out not long ago that cities have certain family-bike personalities and he was dead on. Seattle has Madsens and Surly Big Dummies (at least 5 of each at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call). Portland has child trailers, trailer-bikes, and box bikes: Bakfiets and Bullitt and Metrofiets. San Francisco has commuter bikes with child seats, trailer-bikes, family tandems, Xtracycles (even an Xtracycled family tandem), and in the last year, a spate of Yuba Mundos and elMundos. But you almost never see child trailers here.

The pros of the Madsen:

  • The Madsen’s rear box can hold four kids (!) with seatbelts on two benches. This exceeds even the recommended load in the box of a Bakfiets (although people have been known to put four kids, and then some, on a Bakfiets as well). If you only have two kids, they can sit across from each other and get some space if they are prone to fighting. In addition, forward-facing kids aren’t shoved into the butt or back of the rider, thanks to the length of the box. This is a minivan-replacement.
  • The box can also hold enough groceries to handle the needs of the once-a-week suburban family shopper, with few hassles about oddly-shaped items, balancing the load or packing it into bags. It’s like the trunk of a car: you can just toss everything in there. This is an advantage of all the box bikes and it is significant.
  • The Madsen bucket is integrated with the frame, so going downhill doesn’t mean being flung back and forth by the weight in the rear, unlike when riding a normal bike with a trailer. This was a relief. The Madsen also has a front disc brake, which makes going down hills safer.
  • Kids like riding in the Madsen, probably because the view is good. They sit up high enough to get a view and they’re not squashed against the rider.
  • The kickstand is very stable. It’s easy to load kids in and out of the box with it down.
  • The Madsen has a 20” rear wheel, which makes it an excellent candidate for adding a rear hub motor with high torque for climbing hills. When I talked with The New Wheel they said they were very excited about the potential of a Madsen with BionX in San Francisco. However if you do this, it would be a very good idea to upgrade the brakes to get back down the steep hills you would then be able to climb.
  • The step-through frame makes this bike very accessible to even the shortest of riders, and easy to ride in a skirt. The bike has both fenders and a chain guard, thankfully. You can add a front rack for cargo that you don’t want kids to handle.
  • The price is on the low end for cargo bikes, currently running $1,150 to $1,750 on their website, depending on how popular a color you choose. At the end of the year Madsen tends to have big sales on their bikes, and the price can drop to $1000.

The cons of the Madsen:

  • Not just for kids: Biking with Brad takes Family Ride for a spin

    The Madsen is a terrible climber, with only nine gears on a rear derailleur. It wallows. Riding this bike uphill was miserable. It was a relief that I rode it while Biking With Brad, who has a BionX assisted Big Dummy and is a very nimble rider, and who reached over and actually pushed us up a few of the steeper hills. Although this bike is a great candidate for electric assist, it’s unlikely to make it up any steep hills unassisted if something ever happens to the motor or battery.

  • A bike with a heavy load in the rear can be unstable while walking the bike, starting, and stopping. I dumped my kids twice, fortunately on grass both times (they’re fine), but it freaked them out and I had a little panic attack about hurting them and potentially damaging a bike that had been loaned to me.
  • The rear kickstand is a hassle to put up and down. It’s under the bucket, meaning you have to get off the loaded bike to engage it. After dropping the bike I had issues with this.
  • The Madsen I rode was very wobbly at low speeds, particularly while starting. The front tire did not track straight. Biking with Brad said that when he asked the Madsen makers about that, they said that some of their bikes were like that and some weren’t and they didn’t know why. Uh, okay.
  • The rear box is split across the center because the rear wheel runs underneath it. That means that the box is really more like two narrow boxes side by side. On the up side, no fighting over leg room by kids sitting next to each other. On the down side, they don’t have a ton of leg room left to fight over. Moreover, some larger bulky items that seem like they should fit in the box won’t really fit.
  • Like a bike trailer, the Madsen is easy to catch on corners and needs a lot of room to maneuver.
  • While riding, the box is really noisy, even with kids inside to dampen the echo somewhat.
  • There are no holes in the bottom of the box, which means that stuff can collect down there (falling leaves, garbage, water) that’s tough to get out without putting the bike on its side. If it were my bike I might drill holes in the bottom so I could hose it out and so that it wouldn’t flood in the rain, because…
  • Madsen has apparently been claiming for years that they’re planning to release some kind of rain cover, but no sign of it yet. Both trailers and other box bikes have covers for carrying kids in cold and wet conditions.

The Madsen got a lot of attention. One woman asked if we’d built it ourselves. Ha ha! No.

When I first looked at the Madsen it seemed to have many of the same pros and cons as a trailer, but riding it made me realize it’s actually very different. Compared with the mountain bike + trailer we tried, it was much harder to go uphill and much safer going downhill. The Madsen held twice as many kids, while the trailer was much less likely to tip. The trailer had better weather protection, but the Madsen was more fun for the kids on a sunny day because they could see more. A trailer is quieter. However if you like the color pink or buy at the end of the year, it is possible to buy a Madsen for less than the cost of a bike plus a trailer, assuming that you don’t already have a bike.

I felt no real desire to get a Madsen after trying it, although it was fun to ride for a while. It was too much of a struggle on the hills. I got the sense that a number of families in Seattle who started with Madsens eventually moved to Xtracycles or Big Dummies. I think the Madsen would be best for hauling kids who are younger than mine (ages 3.5 years and almost 7 years) in an area without significant hills. However, older kids and hills are the sticking points for most of the cargo bikes we tried, so this isn’t a complaint that’s specific to the Madsen. Overall, the ages of our kids and the local terrain make the Madsen a poor choice for us. So while this is clearly the right bike for some families, it’s wasn’t right for ours.


Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews

Homesick for the north, homesick for the south

Our first trailer ride

From Bellingham to Seattle to Portland: we have arrived, and so excited to see daddy again. I haven’t had much chance to update while gamboling around the Pacific Northwest mostly solo with two kids, but I’ve also been constrained by the constant barrage of fun. I grew up in Seattle and Bellingham and I was overwhelmed by homesickness. They are both really good places to ride bikes with kids.

So eight family bikers lock up together…

We stayed with my mom and rented a bike and trailer (the kids loved their first trailer ride). Then we stayed with the always awesome Family Ride and rode a Madsen, her pink Big Dummy, and a MinUte. We went to a Seattle Summer Streets and got to see Jen of Loop-Frame Love again. At the Seattle Cargo Bike Road Call my kids rode in a Cetma cargo bike and a Bakfiets and got chauffeured by Davey Oil around Gas Works Park in an amazing electric-assist trike. My son got to ride a handful of kids’ bikes and learned how to shift gears! Then we took an Amtrak ride south from Seattle to Portland. It is a good way to travel with kids, especially given that they seated us near the bathroom, which made it easy to clean up various spills.

Barbecue in Portland

Matt, although he is a committed Californian, loves Portland. He arrived before we did and went grocery shopping for us. Seeing the rib joint nearby, with its “Try our new vegetarian fare!” sign was almost enough by itself to convince him Portland should be our new home. We have seen many, many family bikes, mostly of the traditional variety with child seats and trailers, but I’ve always liked child seats on bikes. I’m coming around to trailers as well, at least in flat cities with limited car traffic.

My kids were the ones chanting “Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak! Amtrak!” in car #9 for most of the ride down from Seattle. I apologize.

We’ll be here for a week trying out even more cargo bikes, not to mention cargo trikes. The kids are so excited to see their dad again after a week away that I might even have some time to write about all that’s happened (and to answer a bunch of questions I’ve been asked in the comments).  In the meantime I hope everyone else is having a week just as awesome.

And I almost forgot: I just found out that San Francisco will be holding its first Kidical Mass on September 28th! Thanks so much, MizShan! The ride will meet at 6pm at the fountain at the southeast corner of Justin Hermann Plaza and head to Dolores Park. We will be there!


Filed under family biking, San Francisco, travel

North by northwest

Playing on the beach is on the agenda.

Tomorrow we are headed north to the Pacific Northwest. And by “we” I mean me and the kids, because my husband is going to China again (something to look forward to: even more bicycles in Beijing!) Whenever I can manage it, I like to visit my mom while he is away, because it keeps the adult: child ratio at 1:1, and because the kids always have a blast at her place. You’re the best, mom!

We had such a good time visiting Family Ride last time we were at my mom’s that we planned a stop in Seattle. Luckily for us, she was already planning a Cargo Bike Roll Call for August 11th, and so now we can attend—our first ever.

Although this is impressive, it is actually the kind of thing we’re trying to avoid.

And from there, we are going down to Portland to meet Matt after he flies back from China. When I was advised to stop using the Breezer as a kid-hauler, we had a bit of a mental kerfuffle about how to find a new cargo bike. We eventually decided that when Matt returned from China, we would all meet up in Portland, which has not one, not two, but THREE family bike shops that allow the kind of hard-core test riding that we want to do before making a decision. What’s more, after I went to Portland last spring and came back bouncing off the ceiling Matt decided he wanted to visit too. It’s arguably a waste of his frequent flyer miles, which could take us somewhere more exotic, but not changing time zones will be a relief.

The Brompton + IT Chair is a great short-hauler with an almost 2nd grader (but longer trips are a bit much).

Portland in August does not lack for cargo biking adventure. There will be a Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call when we’re in town on August 16th, and a Kidical Mass ride on August 18th. We’ll have just enough time to squeeze both in before heading home for the start of the new school year. We’ve packed our helmets and made our rental reservations. Excitement among the small is at explosive levels.

Updates here are likely to be sporadic at best over the next two weeks. But on our return, I will write up our impressions of the half-dozen or so cargo bikes we plan to ride. See you on the other side!


Filed under bike shops, family biking, travel