Monthly Archives: May 2015

We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is a mid-drive, which tend to be powerful. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that made me wonder a little about the build. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist [note: see comments below as this motor has since been upgraded]  is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. It is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the assist could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, it kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know. [Note: see the comments below, the MPF assist on this test bike has since been upgraded to the Bosch, which is both more powerful and noisier according to commenters.]

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.

 

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.

 

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Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle