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

21 responses to “We tried it: Madsen

  1. Great review. It’s the best bike for us at the moment (live somewhere mostly flat, have small kids, price), but after riding it in Seattle I can see why it might not be the best choice for somewhere hilly, without assist at least. I totally agree about the unsteadiness while walking the bike. The only times I’ve almost dumped the kids have been when I was walking it and they got a little wiggly. Perhaps it’s just because I have wimpy arms (but strong enough to eventually right the ship before spilling them entirely). I have even convinced our school crossing guard that’s it’s safer to let me ride slowly across the street rather than walk the bike. Parking is a hassle because it’s tough to get close to a bike rack, especially with the front rack and the need to overshoot a bit and then engage the kickstand. Funny about the drainage holes. My second year model has none, but my friend Jenni’s newer one has some. We could drill some, but since we get little rain and live in a condo with no access to a hose to hose the bucket out, we have left it as is because the bucket does make a great cooler for an outdoor party when filled with ice. Glad I didn’t get one of those mysteriously wobbly bikes. I wonder if that has to do with the noise too, because I don’t find ours to be noisy at all. Am I rambling yet? 🙂

  2. Julie

    Great review! I think a lot of the problems with the first generation Madsen have been at least improved since. The frame geometry changed, making it less wobbly. In particular, the bucket sits lower, which makes it much more stable (though still very much tippable while walking). The noise issue was dramatically improved as well. Getting close to a bike rack *is* a pain, but with the front wheel lock I feel pretty good about just getting close enough to tie up with a cable lock most of the time. I’ve swapped out the handlebars (for something more upright) and replaced the disk brakes with Avids, and I hacked a way to put lights on the back of the bucket, but everything else is pretty much stock. I’m hoping against hopes that the rain cover is finally ready for this fall/winter.

    My mom was in town last weekend, and I tried taking her plus one kid with me on both our Big Dummy and the Madsen. The Madsen was far and away more stable with that size load in it. I felt unsteady the whole couple of miles (on trails) that I had her on the BD, but we rode ~15 miles on the Madsen, uphill and in the road, without any trouble at all.

    We’re one of the families had a Madsen and got a BD, but I wouldn’t say that we decided the BD was a better bike for us. We just hit the point where we needed both parents to be able to carry bigger kids, and without a car that meant a second cargo bike. My husband rides the BD and loves it. I can tolerate the BD when I have to, but am much more at home on the Madsen. I’ll borrow the BD when I really have to race across town and up hill with a kid, because the weight difference is noticeable, and I’ve thought a lot lately about changing my bike as my kids (now 6 and 2.5) get bigger, but I’ve finally decided that the Madsen IS still the right bike for me. I like that I can pick up friends from school with the 4-kid capacity, and I like that I can take the benches out and let them sit in the bottom to sleep comfortably. I imagine that a lot of those advantages would also be true of a Bakfiets, but I’ve been told they’re harder on hills than having the load in the back (thoughts?) After the Seattle CBRC, I’m totally sold on an e-assist to extend my range a bit, but the pros of the bucket still outweigh the cons for the forseeable future.

    • Thanks! There are some things I didn’t mention because I knew they were first generation, like the loose handlebars (disconcerting). I’m glad to hear that your version is less noisy and less wobbly.

      I suspect that the Madsen handled your mom better than the Big Dummy because the weight is closer to the ground; it’s the same advantage as a long-john/wheelbarrow style bike like the Bakfiets. This is part of the reason people who add electric assists to bikes usually advise the take-over-a-water-bottle-cage battery placement rather than putting it on or under the rear rack. As far as the hills go, I don’t think it’s as simple as weight in front v. weight in back. The Bakfiets is bad on hills, but the Metrofiets, which is a similar style, handles them much better. Part of that is riding position and part of it is design and weight, and it’s not clear to me how to assess how well a cargo bike will handle hills other than by trying it out loaded. I do think the proximity of the weight to the rider matters a lot; this is part of the reason a cargo bike is easier to ride up hills than a bike plus trailer, and also why, if my kids are getting along, it’s relatively easy to get them up hills on the MinUte. (However if they’re fighting it’s virtually impossible.) In recognition of this Splendid Cycles moved the Yepp seat on our rental Big Dummy as far forward as it could go and still leave room for my son to sit in front, which meant we still had about a third of the deck open in back. When we rode the Mundo the Peanut Shell was way too far back, at the very end of the deck, which made the bike sway when my daughter was riding solo.

      I hear you on the increasing wobbliness of the Big Dummy with heavier loads. I noticed the difference for me just between riding the Big Dummy in March and riding the same bike again in August, when my kids had put on a few more pounds. It got easier again when I switched out my oldest for Family Ride’s oldest, who is almost 10 pounds lighter. My husband didn’t notice it so I think the upper-body strength of the rider matters as well; and I’m guessing gradually building up to greater weights as the kids grow rather than jumping onto the bike every six months like I did is also a big help. Still, of all the bikes we rode, the Bakfiets was the most stable, even though it was unfamiliar.

  3. Thank you for writing these reviews! We live in Portland and are looking to buy a cargo bike for me (my husband rides a Big Dummy), and your reviews have been very helpful!

  4. Shannon

    There is a least one family in San Francisco with a Madsen – Milo and Solomon’s parents. Check ’em out in the second photo here: http://miloandsol.blogspot.com/ They live just off Mission Street in Bernal Heights, and sometimes I see them riding past Precita Park on their way home from preschool over on Bayshore Blvd. After reading your Madsen post, I am more impressed with their daily ride than ever before.

  5. By the way, Jenni and I were curious about the uses for the tube around the bucket on your loaner Madsen. What all do they use it for?

    • Hi! The Madsen is my partner’s primary kid-hauling bike and the tube around the bucket is just an old inner tube we use to secure kid bikes and other unwieldy loads. Nothing all that fancy or exciting. 🙂

  6. I’m loving this series! The suspense is killing me 🙂

    The low speed handling and ability to adapt for hills are a lot better on the 2.0 madsens. But overall I think of it as a better bike for “younger families” (babies throu preschoolers) or grand multips in flatland. Older kids do better on the more versatile long tails, I agree.

    While an xtracycle is our main family whip these days, I do miss the social kid fun, nappability, and and ease of loading that the Madsen has. When it’s focacta battery gets fixed it’ll be back in full rotation. I like having both.

  7. kristin kellner

    I recently saw a man and his son riding a Bullitt in San Francisco’s Presidio. I am totally obsessed now. Thank you for these reviews. I realize we should probably try renting some differnt bikes before committing as we have never even tried family biking.

  8. Hey I have a Madsen! I found your blog while googling Madsen and electric assist. I’ve been thinking about adding a little more power to the bike so I can go a little farther around town. Anyway, I’m in a small town in Florida and everything I need to do is within a five mile radius. Not a lot of hills, but the one significant hill in my neighborhood is a blast to go down, but miserable to go up.

    There definitely needs to be some kind of sun cover for this bike. My two year old daughter and I have farmers tans! Notice I said 2 year old. I’ve pedaled with 5 and 7 year old cousins piled in the back and developed tendinitis around my ankle and limped around for a week. I’ve subsequently bought a pair of sturdy-soled bike shoes and that’s made all the difference!

    Other things… I’ve decorated the interior of the bucket with bumper stickers. I’ve got a cell phone holder on the handlebars with a little portable speaker hanging off it so I have tunes when I ride. My dad and I call my bike the Dump Truck, lol!

    And yes, I drop off and pick up my daughter from preschool on our bike. I pull up in the car line in between umpteen Suburbans, Escalades, and Armadas. They can eat my dust! ;-D

    Thanks for giving the Madsen a try and covering it in your blog!

  9. Jenn

    I ride a Madsen with a BionX all over Mountain View and Palo Alto. Without the battery she’s a boat, but with it I can pass the commuters on the way to preschool and still stop for groceries on the way home. It’s not the swishest cargo bike (I read blogs like yours and dream about my next one) but for the price point and the age of my kids (2 & 4) it’s just right.

  10. Frances

    Best bike solution for our family of four (3 and 5 yr. old). We are up in Toronto and have found the bike invaluable for getting around. Even picked up the Christmas tree in 5 minutes with it. Stable, comfortable, easy to clean and the kids love it.

  11. 312Mom

    Hi. I have been looking for an affordable cargo bike in my area, and found a used Madsen for sale. You refer in this post to “first generation” Madsens, but what year was the first generation? The one I found is a 2010. Also, do you have any suggestions for the right/a good price for a 2010 Madsen between individuals (a la Craigslist). We are casual riders in a flat area so I think it might be a good choice for us if I can get a bargain. Thanks!

    • I don’t remember the year that Madsen changed its design, but if you check the Madsen posts on Totcycle he notes the timing. As far as a good price–no clue! Definitely less than a new bike on sale (check REI for that price) and less still if it really is first generation. However if the previous owners upgraded parts that’s also something to consider.

  12. Kandie Alter

    So glad to find this review! I sold my Big Dummy when I was pregnant because my hormonely-fueled fear and insanity made me think I’d never put my precious cargo on a cargo bike. I know: who’s the Big Dummy?! I kick myself over and over again for letting it go because my now 4 year old cargo and I are obsessed with cargo bikes and we just saw the Madsen this weekend. I’m curious about ths size. I’m 5’11” and had the large BD frame which was fine but I’m wondering if the Madsen will be a comfortable ride for my big girl self. Any thoughts on the frame size?

    • I haven’t ridden a Madsen for a while, but at my 5’7″ it didn’t feel too small, and we have a friend who is over six feet tall and likes riding hers. The advantage of a one-size-fits-all would be that the stepover is easier when you’re taller. If you are near an REI, many locations stock them now if you want to take a test ride.


      This is more an update for people who stumble on this thread in 2019. The Madsen now has an electric assist. I live on a hill with about a 500 foot climb and have been commuting with two kids for a couple weeks now. I am getting used to the gearing and electric assist combination, particularly when going up hill. I have taken my kids on a few “joyrides” up a local Canyon with a 1000-1500 feet of climbing and it is a true joy. The bike isn’t perfect, but it is great.

  13. David Hannigan

    We’ve had a Madsen since 2011 and love it. I’m 6’2 and have no problems with the size. The step through frame makes it easy to get on and off, especially with little ones moving around in the back. We’ve stuffed it with kids, groceries and loaded up boogie boards, beach chairs, coolers and it has handled all of it well. We did replace the seat, as I found it rather flimsy. That may have to do more with my 240lbs vs the seat. We use the bike almost every day outside of the winter months. It’s a memory maker for our family.

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