[An updated review of the 2014 model is here.]
A few weeks back we headed over to Xtracycle’s World Headquarters in Oakland to take a test ride of their new EdgeRunner. This was a difficult bike for me to write about because first, our test ride was really short, and second, it’s not really in production yet and so some of the decisions about how it will look when it’s really for sale have not yet been settled. It doesn’t feel totally fair to compare the EdgeRunner to bikes that are actually on the market, but that’s all I’ve really got, so what can you do? Update in January 2013: The EdgeRunner is now available.
The EdgeRunner is an innovative take on the longtail bicycle. Longtails are bikes with a long rear deck that allows you to seat a couple of kids or a grown-up, or to hang cargo off the sides. They offer a particularly good way to carry long loads like lumber, ladders and Christmas trees. Historically the longtail bike pioneered by Xtracycle with its FreeRadical involved essentially sticking an extra piece of frame between the front and rear wheel. Other people have written about the history of these bikes far better than I could. It was a neat idea, allowing people with ordinary bikes to turn them into cargo-hauling monsters, and people figured out pretty quickly that kids could be cargo too.
Unfortunately as used in San Francisco, the FreeRadical addition often had issues with flex. People I’ve met with FreeRadicals have, almost without exception, stuck them on mountain bikes scored for virtually nothing on craigslist. This hasn’t always made for the most stable combinations; when these bike are loaded up, particularly in hilly terrain, they can feel like they are going to twist apart. I’m informed by shops that build Xtracycles thoughtfully and with new frames, rather than by using the cheapest available donor bike, that they are far more reliable that way. But to address the inevitable urge to build a cheap cargo bike with whatever can be found lying around the garage, Xtracycle has developed an upgrade to the FreeRadical, the Leap, which is still coming soon, and probably worth waiting for. I digress.
The first innovation designed to address concerns about flex was the development of the Surly Big Dummy, which I’ve written about before. The Big Dummy frame is a single piece, so the flex issues pretty much disappear. The Big Dummy is an improvement on the FreeRadical for people with two older kids and other unusually heavy loads, or who live in areas with big hills (which basically describes us). However the bike is more heavy and more expensive and Surly, as a company, seems to be mostly uninterested in the family market, which is kind of annoying.
Another issue that arose to some extent with all the longtails is that the rear deck is pretty high for carrying kids, particularly as they get older. This is a design issue that has unfortunately been recapitulated with the newer midtail bikes. My suspicion, which is not unique to me, is that most designers weren’t really thinking about kids as cargo when they imagined what people were going to do with cargo bikes. They imagined non-live cargo, like groceries, that could be hung from either side of the deck, and that would keep the bike’s center of gravity low. The traditional way to carry kids is on a long-john style bike like a Bakfiets, and there’s no question that once you master the linkage steering, having the kids down low and in front is much easier. But this option isn’t cheap, and longtails can also be used to carry kids and often have better range in hilly American cities.
As a result longtail parents have kids sitting on top of the deck, and having their weight up high can make the bike feel unstable, particularly on starts. The other issue we’ve discovered is that taking bikes with a higher rear deck downhill can be unnerving, because when we turn the rear of the bike will pitch away from the turn like it’s going to roll over thanks to all that kid weight on the deck. I feel this pitching even when riding our Kona MinUte, a midtail, which has a shorter deck. The pull is worse with longtails because the deck is longer. (I’ve found that dads, who typically have more upper-body strength, tend to notice this less than moms, who typically have less. It bothers me a lot. Matt notices it but it doesn’t bother him as much.)
So enter the EdgeRunner, which essentially reverses the long john design. Long johns aka front-loading box bikes aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” have a small wheel in front, then a cargo platform/kid box, then the rider, then a bigger wheel in back. The Madsen and now the EdgeRunner have achieved some of the same stability by flipping that around: big wheel in front, then the rider, then the cargo platform/kid box, then a smaller wheel in back. With the heavy load near the smaller wheel, the center of gravity is lower and the bike is more stable.
Anyway I really liked the idea of putting the deck down low over a small rear wheel because my kids are getting bigger and it is increasingly hard to handle them on a traditional longtail here in hilly San Francisco, where sharp turns at the bottoms of steep hills are a fact of life. But I’ll admit that when I first saw pictures of the bike I thought it was really ugly. (Sorry, Xtracycle!) The good news is that in person, the bike looks much more attractive. The photos don’t do it justice.
Advantages of the EdgeRunner:
- The low deck makes the kid weight much easier to control. I never felt like I was going to tip this bike. By comparison, we dumped our kids on both the Surly Big Dummy and the Yuba Mundo, and close calls were even more frequent. (I didn’t get a chance to bomb down a steep hill and turn at the bottom because my test ride had no hills, but based on the feel of the ride I suspect that it would be more stable in this situation as well.) Both kids also found it very easy to climb on and off the deck given how much lower it was to the ground than a traditional longtail deck.
- The bike is designed from the ground-up for electric assist. I used to worry whether I’d be judged for riding an assisted bike, but even my primary care physician advocates it. For carrying older kids in San Francisco he said my choices were either an assist or performance-enhancing drugs, and we both agreed that the assist was the superior choice. It is really a lot of work to haul that much weight around, particularly in cities that are unfortunately still designed for cars, with destinations spaced far apart and roads that take the most direct route rather than the most level one. I’ve met dads who power through these conditions with willpower, training, and a lot of sweat, but their strategy doesn’t appeal to a wide swath of parents. Besides stability, the other advantage of a smaller rear wheel is that a hub motor has a lot of torque and increased climbing power. I can’t comment personally on the assisted EdgeRunner because I only rode the unassisted version. But the principle is sound and the testimonials from others sound compelling.
- The EdgeRunner feels light for a longtail bike. I’ll note that this doesn’t appeal to everyone; Wheelha.us complained that it felt like the EdgeRunner was wobbling and shimmying on their test ride. I perceived the same thing as springiness and bounce and I liked it. Matt was somewhere inbetween. I suspect that this is one of those preferences that relates both to your strength and how much familiarity you already have with a heavy bike. But the EdgeRunner is easier to park than other longtails because it’s easier to move around, bump it over curbs, and so on. I wouldn’t want to carry any of these bikes up a long flights of stairs, but hauling this bike up a couple wouldn’t kill you.
- Xtracycle has put nice components on this bike, and in combination with the stability of the rear deck, the EdgeRunner had the shallowest learning curve of any longtail I’ve ridden yet. I was a little wobbly at the start because I’d been riding the Bullitt all week, and it is tough to switch back-and-forth from linkage steering. But I got the feel of the EdgeRunner in a few pedal strokes. The bike also corners really well for a longtail.
- Bike goes fast. My kids, riding on the back, were split on the appeal of this; my daughter thought the bike was “too fast” while my son urged me to go faster. I didn’t perceive the bike as being particularly fast, weirdly, although objectively-speaking I was moving at a pretty good clip.
- The EdgeRunner has good acoustics. One of the disadvantages of the Big Dummy from my perspective was that it was very hard to hear my kids on the back. Like the Yuba Mundo, the EdgeRunner is better; I could hear them talking (and sometimes that’s enough that I can intervene before they start fighting).
- The Xtracycle accessories all work with the EdgeRunner, and the Xtracycle accessories are hot. I was worried that the lower rear wheel would mean that a packed FreeLoader bag would drag on the ground, but there’s actually a reasonable amount of clearance there. The EdgeRunner is usually shown with Xtracycle’s new Hooptie, which on its wide setting can fit around a Yepp child seat. Xtracycle has a two-child seat cushion for the
deck, and we also got to try their experimental new one-child cushion that fits in front of a Yepp seat (the World HQ has all the cool toys). The modular accessories mean that this bike can carry little kids, big kids, and other kinds of cargo, often simultaneously. The Xtracycle centerstand is also pretty good; it’s not as slick as a Rolling Jackass, but it’s stable enough that my daughter could climb up and down on the EdgeRunner and under the Hooptie like it was a jungle gym, and it disengages when you lift the front wheel off the ground, which means you can just lift the wheel and go.
- The EdgeRunner has a lower top tube to make it easier for shorter riders to climb on and off with kids on the back, and comes in two frame sizes rather than one-size-fits-all.
- Supposedly the bike is a good climber (according not just to Xtracycle but to a Rosa Parks dad who test-rode one in the Oakland Hills, although he greatly preferred the assisted version), but given the short and level test ride I took, I can’t speak to this personally.
- Xtracycle has made a big commitment to family biking. You see this in the accessories and on their website, which shows you how to use them. I heard it when I was talking to them, as they talked about developing a front rack and a Hooptie-based rain cover and a Hooptie-based bicycle towing attachment. We got to try their new seat cushions and my kids stacked up the various different kinds of footrests sitting on the shop shelves. And they were completely unfazed by my kids doing this (unlike me). We have bikes made by manufacturers whose commitment to family biking is half-hearted or nonexistent, and having to figure stuff out on our own or have our bike shop rig something up using their best guess is frustrating. We have friends with Madsens, which are really truly family bikes, and they do not have kind words to say about the rain cover that’s always coming “next year.” The Big Dummies are great bikes and compatible with the Xtracycle accessories, but Surly seems to be more interested in the cargo angle than the kid angle. One of the reasons I tend to suggest that families new to bikes go to Xtracycle or Yuba when they ask me for recommendations is that these companies have your back as family bikers. Even if there’s not an accessory or a bike that fills an obvious need now, you can rest assured that they’re thinking about how to get something to market. That kind of support is priceless.
Disadvantages of the EdgeRunner
- I say this about all longtails, but it’s nicer to have the kids in front. You have to pay for that, literally, because front-loading box bikes are more expensive than longtails, but having the kids in front is better. You can talk to them and they can talk to you. There is less fighting.
- For all longtails, including the EdgeRunner, weather protection is either do-it-yourself or planned for some unknown future date. That really limits the conditions where people are willing to ride with kids unless they are pretty handy. Freezing sleet storm? Not appealing on a longtail. By comparison, the kids are oblivious under the rain cover of a front box bike. Longtails are still not fully developed as kid-haulers.
- The EdgeRunner is not inexpensive. The unassisted model lists for $2,000 and the assisted model for $3500. You get nice components and great design for that price and you will enjoy the ride. Moreover this is the kind of bike that can replace a car. But there are few people for whom money is no object, and a lot of new riders tend to be surprisingly price-conscious for people who would casually drop five figures on a car. But if you’re not totally sure it’s going to replace a car, these price tags can be scary. We sold our car before we bought a bike, so problem solved, but other people make different choices.
- The low deck has some disadvantages. The main one that came up was that when my daughter complained that the bike was going too fast, my son (who is now seven) responded by dragging his feet on the ground to brake the bike. It was a very effective technique, and he found my annoyance so entertaining that he did it for much of the ride. Bike no longer goes fast. So with older kids, adding footrests is definitely not optional, and for intractable kids, this bike might not ever be the right choice. I would not buy this bike without personally testing whether adding footrests would keep my son’s feet off the ground most of the time.
- Although the FreeLoaders didn’t drag on the ground as I feared, it also isn’t possible to pack them with the same devil-may-care attitude that is possible on a Big Dummy. The EdgeRunner is unlikely to hold the same volume of cargo as a Big Dummy or for that matter, a Yuba Mundo, simply because the deck is lower and there is less space to hang stuff off it. Tradeoffs!
- My kids loved the Hooptie, and it’s really cool, but on the wide setting I would not feel comfortable riding with it around San Francisco (I didn’t get to try the narrow setting). Like the support bars on the Yuba Mundo, it is so wide that I would feel nervous navigating around the city’s narrow bike lanes and traffic pinch points. Unfortunately many of the best accessories (Hooptie, Sidecar) turn the EdgeRunner (and for that matter the Big Dummy) into a bike that’s most appropriate for smaller locales. In defense of Xtracycle, these accessories are at least optional and not built into the frame. However I would find it frustrating to be able to get these accessories but know that I couldn’t use them safely. Not a problem for residents of smaller towns, but a problem for me.
- Because this was a demo model, the bike we rode wasn’t the bike you’d buy. But: I found the shifters weird. They grew on me a little, because they shift perfectly, although with a slight delay, but they don’t allow you to see where you are on the rear derailleur, which was frustrating. Updates: I wasn’t sure what would come standard at the time, but the assisted EdgeRunner comes with a front headlight, and everything else should be obvious from a review of the website and/or a test ride. It does not appear to have fenders stock.
Overall, I liked the EdgeRunner. The lower rear deck made the bike incredibly stable and the light weight made it fast. The fact that it was designed with hilly terrain in mind makes it really appealing in San Francisco. Although I’d want to ride it again before considering it seriously, with both an electric assist and with some kind of footrests for my son, there was nothing about it that struck me as a deal-breaker. By comparison, the Yuba Mundo frame was too wide and heavy for our needs (and the elMundo was under-assisted), and the Surly Big Dummy, with its higher rear deck, felt far less stable. And on both of those bikes we kept dumping the kids. They’re the right bikes for other families, but they weren’t the right bikes for us.
Every family has specific priorities in shopping for a bike. Where we live and with our family, having a bike that can handle hills and that offers the least risk of dumping the kids are big priorities, and those are the reasons that our main kid-hauling bike, until very recently, was a midtail. The EdgeRunner appealed to me because of the stability of the rear deck and its hill-climbing focused design. We’re not in the market for a longtail bike; we like our Bullitt for the two-kid hauling errands (and we’ve purchased more than enough bikes this year anyway, thanks to having to replace a stolen bike). But if we were in the market for a longtail bike, I would be holding out for the EdgeRunner.