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?
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.
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 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.)
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.
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.]