Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

Our two-year anniversary of Bullitt-ownership was yesterday. I had ambitions to write a post last year about our first year of riding, but then Totcycle did it for me. I basically agree with everything he wrote, so why bother saying the same stuff over again? “The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved.” I mean, that pretty much covers it. I have no way of assessing how far we’ve ridden on the bike (see below), but based on the mileage on our less-ridden bikes I would be shocked if it were anything less than 4,000 miles, and unsurprised if it were far more than that.

This setup never gets old, evidently.

This setup never gets old.

The specs on our bike ended up much like those of the Totcycle bike (but ours is blue): SLX 3×9, hydraulic disc brakes, standard LvH panels and seat. This is a lightweight and narrow setup that can go pretty much anywhere that a normal bike can go, which has a lot of value in a city of tight spaces. And although our climate is not rainy like Seattle’s, the rain cover is what sold our kids on the bike. It is a year-round greenhouse that protects them from cold and wind—this is San Francisco, so there’s not really that much cold, but there is definitely a lot of wind. One difference is that we added Supernova dynamo lights: to say we have zero regrets would be a massive understatement. That headlight is bright enough to effectively light a dark road in Golden Gate Park for the Bullitt and both kids’ bikes in front of it. We never worry about riding at night.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

I heard from someone a while back that he got the impression that the Bullitt was unreliable. This is so far from the truth that I laughed, but I suspect it is the hazard of occasional blogging—our life wanders on, and is punctuated by posts in which Something Happens. We did have a few hitches in the beginning, which related to stuff we stuck on the bike. Some of our accessory choices worked out well (the BionX assist, dynamo lights) and some did not (Patterson cranks). But the bike itself: bombproof. We love this bike. It changed our lives.

To get it out of the way, I’ll cover the things that went wrong first. They’re in three categories: (1) the Patterson cranks; (2) BionX; and (3) vandalism.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards.

First, the Patterson: When I got the bike, I really wanted a chain guard to protect my work pants. These are tough to include on a bike that has multiple front chain rings. Instead, Splendid suggested trying out the FSA Metropolis Patterson two-speed internally geared crankset. For the time that it worked, this was an awesome addition. We loved it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with the conditions here. We broke it twice riding on crappy streets, in the “speed bump with a deep crack in the asphalt on the other side” scenario that is pretty much a daily experience for us. We know to slow down for these on our regular routes, but on unfamiliar streets it was easy to hit a surprise divot at speed while loaded down with 100 pounds of cargo. The Patterson crankset just couldn’t take that kind of abuse. After the second breakdown and time-consuming repair, we swapped it out for a standard front triple, which cheerfully swallows whatever San Francisco can throw at it.

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

In the meantime, I learned to embrace a more San Francisco style of dress anyway, most importantly the ubiquitous look of skinny pants paired with dressy shoes. I grew up in Seattle, where “cute shoes” meant Birkenstocks, Merrells, Doc Martens or something chunky with thick straps from the Keen oeuvre, the kinds of shoes that make San Franciscans wince and scream, “My eyes!” So this shift involved a learning curve for me. But I can testify that it is an extremely bicycle-friendly way to dress. (I doubt this is a coincidence.) Happily we put MKS Grip King pedals on the Bullitt, still my favorite pedals ever, and they make it easy to ride in even the most ridiculous shoes. (I’ve heard reports that the Grip Kings sometimes get slippery in the rain, but here in California, which is still being ravaged by the worst drought in state history, that hasn’t been a question I can answer one way or the other.)

Second, the BionX: Our maintenance issues with the BionX have involved the good, the bad, and the stupid.

The stupid is that over a six-month period Matt dropped two controllers and shattered them, which is why we have no idea how many miles we’ve ridden this bike. The controllers are not a cheap part to replace. The bike shop glued the third one into place on the handlebars, so it couldn’t be removed, and since then: problem solved. I recommend this strategy to the butter-fingered BionX users among us.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

The bad is that in the first year we owned the bike, we broke a dozen spokes on the rear wheel. Twice. I really wish BionX had indicated that on a cargo bike or in seriously hilly terrain, the rear wheel is going to need much thicker spokes. We only found this out after the second set of spokes broke, after complaining about it to The New Wheel. They knew immediately what our problem was, which is the advantage of having an e-assist focused local shop around. So on round 3, we replaced the spokes with monster ones, and again: problem solved. Not expensive, but definitely annoying. I have heard other people report the same problem. Probably best to ask for extra-thick spokes from the start.

The good is that we are evidently the luckiest family in family biking, because last week, the Bullitt’s battery died. It ran out of juice and stopped recognizing the charger. And at that point we had one week left on our original two-year warranty. We took it to The New Wheel, which told us that BionX would honor the warranty and almost certainly send us a brand-new battery. Score! In the meantime the shop gave us a loaner battery to use. So we ride on.

An early ride with many more to come

An early ride with many more to come

Last is the vandalism. While this is a hassle, it’s not specific to the Bullitt, and I guess it beats having a bike stolen outright, which is what happened with the MinUte. Once the saddle was stolen in Japantown. It made getting the bike home a total PITA. When Matt took our son to a Giants game, rowdy fans broke a support on the rain cover, which led to a week of relentless griping by the kids while we waited for a replacement. And then there is the problem of drivers treating the front bucket like a garbage can. One woman actually threw a coffee cup into it from her parked car as Matt was riding by. These days we keep the rain cover on almost all the time.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger where we live since we bought our bike.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger since we bought our bike.

And those are the problems we’ve had. They sum up to one bad decision on a crankset, one instance of poor communication from BionX about spokes, and two dropped controllers (sigh). Given that we were coming to full-time cargo biking cold, in terrain that is much more challenging than was typical for family biking at the time we started riding, I figure we’re doing reasonably well. Sure, it would have been great to have had more information about the spokes and so on, but in the meantime we’ve had two good years of riding. The rest of the time the Bullitt has spent in the shop has been basic maintenance: we replaced the chain this summer, and we take it in every six months or so to have the wires checked and the BionX software updated. Most recently, we had the speed at which the BionX kicks in lowered to 0.5kph from its original 2mph. That resolved one of our biggest complaints with the assist, which was difficult hill starts. They are no longer difficult.

The Bullitt+Roland

The Bullitt+Roland

We worried that the narrow box would be too narrow, but it lasted longer than we dared to hope. Of course our kids have gotten bigger, and now that they are almost-9 and 5, it is tough to squeeze them both in the box (although they are willing). We now use the trailer-bike almost all the time. Our daughter is still getting used to the pre-8am kindergarten start-time, so she will doze in the box on the way to school while our son rides the trailer-bike or his own bike, depending on his mood and what time we got out the door in the morning (he is not a fast rider). Having just one kid in the box has given us some new cargo capacity, and that’s been fun. We won’t haul them to school on the Bullitt forever, but for now it’s still a good kid-hauler.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

So many ways to use a cargo bike

I still adore shopping by Bullitt. We’ve rented cars with trunks that are smaller than that front bucket. We just throw stuff in (groceries, carpets that need to be cleaned, the cat carrier, the table tennis set—with both kids too) and go. I have carried three kids on the Bullitt and Matt has carried four, and that was without the trailer. Granted, I would not do this on steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that a BionX Bullitt will not handle, at least not yet. We hear that the new BionX D system will change that, and given how much use we still expect to get from the Bullitt, we will almost certainly upgrade to that system when it is released. In the meantime, even our two-year old system gets us where we need to go.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

We feared that getting rid of our car would involve sacrifices. We were surprised that it has not, really. We still rent cars for weekend trips sometimes, but we’re always relieved to drop them off again. I didn’t think our monthly transportation expenses were unreasonable three years ago, but they dropped substantially when we sold the car, and that helped us buy our condo last year. I assumed that bike commuting would take extra time, but we have been surprised again and again at how much time we save. With the assist on high I can cross town to pick up a sick kid faster than I have ever been able to drive, because I don’t have to worry about traffic. Although my injury last year messed with my fitness, in general over the last few years we’ve been in good shape, a big switch from the first couple of years of parenthood. And I was pleasantly surprised that once you learn to ride the Bullitt—I had issues with the learning to ride it part—it stays with you forever. I got back on it after four months bed-bound and it was like I had never stopped. Furthermore, to this day, the Bullitt remains the only box-bike I have ever ridden that I can refer to as “nimble” (and keep a straight face).

And a big shout-out still to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids' play area at their new shop!)

A big shout-out goes to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which first had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids’ play area at their new shop!)

We owe it all to the Bullitt. What can I say? It even made us homeowners in San Francisco. It was the right family bike. We bought it at a time when there wasn’t much advice about buying bikes like these to be found. It was Splendid Cycles in Portland that imagined Bullitts could be a real family bike in the United States, and we were lucky to find them and right to trust them. We were making our decision blind, and we hit the jackpot. I recognize a Bullitt isn’t right for everyone—some people are too short, some places are flat enough that the bakfiets is a better fit, and it costs a mint—but we have zero regrets. I know that our kids will age out of being carried on the Bullitt, and being pulled by it, but it’s hard to imagine our outgrowing this bike. There is always something more to haul.



Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike

20 responses to “Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

  1. WTH, who throws a coffee cup into a bike!? I would have circled back and thrown it right back into her car! Horrible.

    We love our Bullitt, too. I’m hoping the rain cover still works once it gets cold again. The only issues I’ve had with mine are the wooden box and the rain cover mounts. I’m looking forward to when the boys are too big and I can just use it as a pickup truck.

  2. Herb

    I’ve had almost the exact same experience with my Patterson. In fact, I’m waiting for a new crank as I write this. In theory, the crank is lovely, but as one bike repair guy commented, “wow, this is way more complicated than you need.” So skinny jeans or rolled pants it is.

    Good to read the update…. Although, now I’m super paranoid about disconnecting the BionX controller!

    And the same shout out to Splendid Cycles! So much wisdom and knowledge!

    • Aw, that is disappointing news about the Patterson. It’s true though, skinny pants were a revelation for me.

      • Radio

        It’s ridiculous that there has not been a solution to having pants get greasy from exposed chains. This goes for all derailleur bikes, not just cargo bikes. No one new to biking is going to be willing to replace their entire wardrobe of pants just to keep their pants out of the chain and sprockets. Having to remember to roll up or strap pant legs is downright annoying. Anyone who is used to it shrugs it off as a necessary chore, but many will forget on occasion. This leads to dirtied pants or, if the sprockets are exposed, ripped pants!

      • I agree, I ripped my pants early on when they unrolled during a ride, and it annoyed the crap out of me. It is my good fortune to live in a city where skinny pants are so ubiquitous that I started feeling awkward wearing normal trouser cuts, so I had other incentives to switch, but my results are not typical. It would be great to see a chain guard developed for a front triple.

  3. Great 2 year write-up, we’re still in complete agreement. Our Bionx is still working well, but will occasionally pulsate under higher-demand assist, which seems to be helped by cleaning and gelling the connectors.

    Ours hasn’t had any maintenance except adjusting derailleur cables, replacing spokes I broke with the wheel lock, and fixing front and back fenders because the rear metal tab that connect to fender struts broke without any good reason other than hard living. Oh, and the fiberglass canopy struts tend to split/fray up front where they plug into the alu block. All pretty minor stuff for a workhorse bike. Time for that software update!

  4. I found your blog when searching for reviews of the Bobike Junior (there aren’t that many of them out there) as a way of dropping our 5 year old off at school. I was so intrigued by your Bullitt reviews that we rented one in Portland a few weeks ago and my goodness, my kids loved it! Unfortunately cost/storage space/lack of Canadian retailers make it an impratical choice, but it was seriously the most fun I’ve ever had riding a bike! And the looks and smiles we got from people while riding it around were priceless.

    • Lamaia Coleman

      We own and use a Bobike Jr. also on a regular basis to take our 6 year old to school. We also found out about it here. When we bought ours (2nd hand) we had trouble installing it so it wouldn’t slip out of position on the seat post over time. The problem was fixed by wrapping the seat post with rubberized tape. Then we installed the Bobike Jr. and put two hose clamps on the seat post (still on the rubberized tape) just above the Bobike Jr. so that it couldn’t slide up. Now it works really well!

  5. Gorik

    Hi, I’m Gorik and I’m from Belgium. I’ve been reading your blog for a while now and I enjoy reading every single post. Thanks to your blog (and as well), I’m really looking into buying a Bullitt now, but I still have to convince my girlfriend, since it’s a serious amount of money and we are not confortable selling our car, yet. Since a couple of weeks, I’ve noticed the upcoming of the cargobikes here in my town. Unfortunately, there aren’t many bikestores that sell cargobikes (or even know anything about them) here in Belgium. And especially not Bullitts 😦

    Anyway, thank you very much for your inspiring and fun stories.

  6. Edwin

    Are you going to keep it now that you only have one kid using it regularly? That is what had us sell our boxbike…

    • We’ll probably keep it–the Bullitt was originally a delivery bike, not a kid-hauler, and it is so useful for carrying heavy loads.

      • Jay

        I don’t even have kids but I love my Bullitt, also note the first comment for this post.
        The one year anniversary of my Bullitt was last weekend! Not coincidentally the one year “anniversary” of finding your blog was maybe a couple of months before that. I had seen a picture of a Bullitt some where and, of course, I “wanted” one. Still, there is gap between wanting one and spending the price of one (even for non-assisted like mine), so I looked for comments from people who had “tried it”. Obviously it didn’t take long to find your blog. When I read your* comment about “buy the cool bike” my fate was sealed. I should mention that I already wanted the bike, I was just looking for an excuse to spend the money, I don’t routinely spend that kind of money on the advice of someone on the internet :-). (the Brompton** was , after all, much less money than the Bullitt!)
        I noticed that when writing about maintenance, neither you nor Julian mentioned brakes, is that because they are so routine and expected that it is not worth mentioning, or does the regenerative braking on the Bionix help enough that you haven’t had to replace the brakes? I replaced my rear rotor and put in my third set of rear pads for our “anniversary”, and the front is about due. I have about 3600 miles on mine. I ride in Seattle, which does have hills, albeit not SF hills. (Seattle also has G&O family cyclery, as you already know, but I thought I’d mention it again). While I don’t carry kids, I no doubt weigh more than you AND your two kids combined.

        * you do attribute the “buy the cool bike” to someone else, but their web site is no longer active, and I did read it on your blog.
        ** I’d have to give “Lovely Bicycle” at least as much credit for the Brompton as you ;-), not to mentioned the bike itself, which I did ride before buying, on the other hand, the first time I rode a Bullitt was just _after_ I wrote the check for it! “do or not do, there is no try”, “failure is not an option!”

      • Both Julian and I upgraded to hydraulic disc brakes. We have not had to do anything beyond what I consider routine maintenance. That basically means that we replace the pads every few months (this is routine for everyone in San Francisco) and take the bike in annually for a tune-up that includes a brake check with cable tightening, fluid check, etc. I’ve written about my paranoia with respect to brakes elsewhere: we’re pretty compulsive after a couple of scary incidents on the MinUte (which originally had terrible brakes). I don’t know if that’s normal elsewhere. We have not had to replace a rotor, though.

        I’m always glad to hear that people don’t regret buying Bullitts!

      • Update: This weekend we had to replace the rear rotor. Go figure.

  7. Oliver

    Do you know if wet can die an infant in a car seat, plus a toddler in the Bullit? Or how would you transport a baby plus a small child in the Bullit?
    I know that when they can sit, a Yepp is a good solution. But for the months before that, they need a car seat.

  8. Sam

    Thanks for this review! Do you have any advice on the Larry vs Harry factory box + kids seat vs the larger wooden ones? I have two kids under 4 (for now), but unfortunately don’t live near any place to try them out.

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