Tag Archives: electric assist

We tried it: Riese & Müller Packster 60

The Packster 60

The Packster 60

Over the winter break, we got the chance to test ride one of the recent new entrants in the front-loading cargo bike market, the Packster. The New Wheel in San Francisco loaned it to us while the EdgeRunner was getting a tuneup. Thanks, New Wheel! This is the first front-loading cargo bike they’ve stocked. Back when we were shopping for a family bike, the front-loading options were pretty limited, at least in the United States: a Bakfiets.nl (inappropriate for San Francisco hills, as are all of its European knockoffs); a Metrofiets (fun bike, but oversized for our needs); and a Bullitt (what we ended up getting.) Since then, we’ve tried out new entrants like the Urban Arrow and not-exactly-bikes like the Butchers & Bicycles tricycle, and been unable to try some of the new ones like Douze. And there have been various now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t attempts to enter the market, which have permanently put me off reviewing bikes that are not yet in production. It’s still a pretty thin market.

The Packster 60 is one of two Packsters; there is also a Packster 80 (bigger,) and a similar model from the same company, which is higher-end and more expensive, called the Load.

Riese & Müller is a German company, and the bikes have Bosch assists, which are also German. The Jewish half of our family has been slow to make peace with German cars, and Bosch did not exactly win their hearts and minds during World War II either, however in the last decade or so there has been something of a rapprochement, enough of one, at least, that no one was scowling at the prospect of seeing their grandchildren on a German bike. Personally, while I have continued lust in my heart for the German postal and baker bikes, I have found most of the assisted bikes from Germany to be unsettlingly large and sort of overwhelming. Until last week, I guess I should say. My feelings about the Packster in six words: German engineering applied to a bicycle.

What I like about this bike:

  • In short: German engineering. This is a term that can mean different things to different people. One of the most obvious indications for us was when I was riding with the kids and my daughter complained that we were going “too fast.” And I thought, “What do you mean we’re going too fast, we’re going maybe 9-10mph.” Then I looked at the controller and realized we were actually booking along at about 17mph. It’s the German way. When I was an exchange student in high school my host father was driving on the Autobahn and I said something about how I thought people were allowed to drive faster, and his daughter looked over at me and said, “We’re going 180kph.” Which we were. I had mixed feelings about this for a while until I got back on the EdgeRunner and realized I didn’t feel the speed on the Packster because the bike is pretty impervious to external shocks. The suspension fork on the front wheel helps with that. It glides over rough pavement. The parts don’t rattle. The frame doesn’t twitch. Everything is stable. I never noticed the shifting or the pedals. We just rode, and the bike didn’t get in the way. It is subtle, but once you’ve experienced it, it’s hard to go back. I could spout a bunch of details about the quality of the parts, but why bother when that stuff is on the company’s website. The parts are awesome. Everything works better than you would expect. It’s great.
  • Here we are loaded up: two kids, groceries, and my stuff.

    Here we are loaded up: two kids, groceries, and my stuff.

    The front box is great, wide enough but not too wide. We still haul our two kids in the standard Bullitt box, which is narrower on rainy days. Four years ago I would not have imagined that this was possible with them now at the ages of 11 and 7 years, but what did I know? It can be done and it’s what they want. That said, there was way less drama about “get your ELBOW out of my FACE!” with both of them in the wider Packster box. And although I was initially concerned that the wider box would interfere with our ability to get through tight spaces, it’s not so wide that it limited our mobility much. Front loaders in general are fantastic because it’s easy to talk to the kids and see what they’re doing.

  • Quick release adjustment on the seat (there's a similar one on the handlebars)

    Quick release adjustment on the seat (there’s a similar one on the handlebars)

    The Packster has a number of features to help riders of various heights feel comfortable. These include a low step over (nice in general, necessary if you want to do something like put a child seat on a rear rack) and quick-release adjustable height handlebar stem and seat post.

  • NuVinci gearing on the right

    NuVinci gearing on the right

    The integrated NuVinci gearing and Bosch middrive assist work together seamlessly and go pretty much anywhere. (For some reason Bosch ranks its levels of assist from lowest to highest as “Eco,” “Tour,” “Sport,” and “Turbo” instead of the more logical 1-4 range. It is annoying and non-intuitive. Hindu-Arabic numerals were good enough for Brahmagupta so they’re good enough for me, and thus I will refer to the assist levels by numbers from here on out.) I’ve ridden an EdgeRunner with the infinite NuVinci + Bosch middrive assist before and didn’t have a good experience, probably because (I learned later) Xtracycle is shipping those bikes with a front cog that it is the wrong size for climbing. I have been informed by more than one person that swapping it (which many bike shops now do as a matter of course) makes a huge difference. And I thought that the Butchers & Bicycles trike I rode had that combo but it turned out to be a different assist. Anyway, this time I understood what the fuss was about. This combination makes for an incredibly smooth experience in which you can gear down and power up to go up hills, and gear up and power down on the way back down. Even with two kids on the bike I was able to shift down and stay at a level 2 assist to get up moderate hills without (a) slowing down enough that I worried about tipping or (b) feeling like I was going to pass out or (c) both. After that success, I took the Packster (unloaded) up our old preschool hill, a hill that has tacoed the rear wheels of at least two unassisted bikes hauling trailers, and that many assisted bikes have failed to scale. For that, I needed to use level 4 and gear way down, and it was not exactly effortless, but I could have done it with a kid on board, and Matt could do it with two kids. The Packster says: veni, vidi, vici.

  • Here's the box with seat cushions and restraints.

    Here’s the box with seat cushions and restraints.

    Do you have range anxiety when you think about riding an assisted bike, worrying that you’ll ride to one end of town and find you’re out of battery power? If so, this is the bike for you. The Riese & Müller front loaders can accept a second battery, meaning that whatever the normal range of the bike (typically 20-35 miles, depending on load and terrain), it can be doubled. That second battery isn’t free, of course, but for people with long commutes, or people like us who sometimes find ourselves riding distances beyond what we’d ever initially imagined, it could be worth it.

  • Do you worry about your pants catching in the chain? I used to until I realized that I could just wear skinny pants all the time. Matt and I both ride enough that we tear through the crotches of our pants pretty regularly, so it didn’t take long to resolve that problem. However the Packster has a belt drive, so I could probably wear palazzo pants if I owned this bike. Belt drives have other advantages as well: smooth operation, longevity, no rust and no need for lubrication (I could wear white palazzo pants), and reduced weight.
  • Front, with suspension and an outstanding light

    Front, with suspension and an outstanding light

    There are really great accessories, and most of them are included in the price of the bike. The wired front and rear lights are incredible. I don’t often have a chance to test ride bikes at night, but because this one stayed with us for about a week, I did, and the throw on the front light of the Packster is the best I’ve ever experienced; it lit up exactly the section of the road I needed to see to get around. The kickstand is sprung so that it’s easy to release down, and ranks in the stability range of the Bakfiets.nl, making it almost impossible to tip over, even when three or four kids swarm it. Because the stand uses an enclosed frame, you can also lock it to a ground puck through the kickstand—we recently started locking our bikes to floor pucks in the wake of several hot prowl thefts of cargo bikes from garages in our neighborhood. It has a rear wheel lock, which is of course totally inadequate as a primary lock here in San Francisco, but is enough in combination with another lock to discourage many bike thieves. The pedals and saddle are nothing special, but they’re perfectly adequate. If you are so inclined, you can add three-point restraints and a cushioned bench seat to the box (the bike I rode had these.) There is also a rain cover available. Although: no bell!

  • Locked to a floor anchor through the kickstand: this is cool.

    Locked to a floor anchor through the kickstand: this is cool.

    Thus far, the Packster is the only cargo bike I’ve ever been able to bunny hop onto a curb. I usually would never even attempt such a thing, but while I was riding the bike back to the shop, I got stuck behind two broken down buses, which had led to an epic traffic meltdown. After waiting a few minutes in the completely stopped car traffic, I figured I had nothing to lose by trying to drag the bike onto the sidewalk and walk it past the buses. I could barely believe it when the front wheel popped right up over the curb and glided up to the sidewalk. My bet is that this is related to the suspension on the front fork, but who cares why it works, the fact that it did work was totally awesome.

  • The Packster is surprisingly easy to park for a front loader. I was edgy when The New Wheel handed it off with a standard U-lock, which can be problematic for our other big bikes. However my cargo lock had gone with my bike to the shop for a tune-up, so I didn’t have a choice. While the Packster has a pretty hefty frame, the rear of the bike is pretty lean (the loaner had no rear rack, but I don’t think a standard rear rack would add any volume here,) so we had no trouble backing it into almost any rack or parking meter to lock up. The usual caveats apply about trying to lift it up a flight of stairs, though, meaning: no way. Yet combined with its ability to hop over curbs, the Packster is shockingly maneuverable for a long john.
  • This is a very clean look, and easy to operate as well.

    This is a very clean look, and easy to operate as well.

    It looks cool. Although I try not to get hung up on aesthetics, there is value to having a bike that I look at and say “I want to ride that.” I was particularly impressed by the way all the wiring has been corralled in front. In the past I have referred to the advice I once read to “buy the cool bike.” I think liking your bike is especially relevant for cargo bikes, which are sometimes kind of big and intimidating, and are used to haul loads that understandably may give people pause. In my case, that’s two squirming kids who are old enough to make their own fun, often by fighting with each other. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and my sense is that bikes with curvy frames seem friendlier than sharp-edged bikes like the Packster, but after years of drive-by parenting I’m actually not interested in looking any more approachable than I already do. Anyway, I found myself wanting to ride this bike.

What I don’t like about this bike:

Nice controller, oh look, we cracked it.

Nice controller, oh look, we cracked it.

Almost everything on the list of things that I didn’t like about the Packster could be summarized as first generation issues, meaning that they’re either aesthetic or correctable annoyances. One of the ones that hit us on the second day was the fact that this particular bike looks interesting enough, particularly loaded up, that people around us could be, frankly, jerks. When I was riding with the kids in Golden Gate Park I tried to ride to a bike rack to park, but was stopped by a guy standing in front of me on the street to “get a closer look at the bike.” I answered a couple of his questions, at which point he stopped talking and just stood there staring at us (as mentioned above: I’m already way too approachable.) Then I said, “I’d like to get to the racks over there!” He said, “Oh!” and stepped back, and then just as I started riding again, STEPPED RIGHT BACK OUT IN FRONT OF US. And because I am evidently way too nice a person I didn’t run him over, so instead we all went down. My kids started screaming, the guy immediately vaporized, and the controller cracked. I’m sorry, New Wheel. Anyway, I put this problem in the same category as vandalism and I hope anyone who happens to buy the bike will mow him down for me next time.  And generally: beware of looky-loos.

  • As always, I note that there is a learning curve for bikes with linkage steering. Don’t look at the front wheel, look at your destination. I can’t tell anymore how easy or hard it is to pick up the steering on a particular make or model, because once I mastered it on the Bullitt I had no trouble with any of the others. Some lucky souls pick it up right away, some people (me) struggle for a few days, and how quickly a person picks it up seems completely unrelated to experience riding other bikes, so who knows. The possibility of dropping the bike on a test ride is real and it’s something to keep in mind. I expect that owning a bike shop that sells front loaders offers a real challenge to one’s equanimity during test rides.
  • Similarly, the turning radius on all front loaders is pretty terrible, what with the long wheel base, and this bike is no exception. Tight U-turns are a thing of the past.
  • It may be hard to see, but this is too much reach.

    It may be hard to see, but this is too much reach.

    At several points while I was riding I wondered if Riese & Müller had a single woman test ride this bicycle before bringing it to market, or even a non-German person, by which I mean a smaller person. Although there are signals that it’s intended to be accessible to people of a range of heights, including the low step over height of the frame and the quick releases to adjust the seat and handlebar heights, one miss that stood out for me was the huge reach required to reach the brake levers. I felt uncomfortable going down steep hills for this reason and for a woman, I have long fingers; I could reach a tenth on the piano back in high school, an advantage that kept me playing far longer than my talent supported. Dialing that back to a shorter reach is something that any bike shop that wants to sell this bike to moms should probably do (and I know it can be done.) Similarly, the box is a sort of origami structure held together by what I assume (based on what my neighbor stores in our shared garage) is a motorcycle tie-down strap. The ratchet (cam?) that secures it is placed at the back left of the box. This is perfectly positioned for anyone who is swinging a leg over the top bar to hit their right foot on it as they dismount. Several times. Ouch. I presume that the (tall, German) men who designed the bike were always lifting their leg over the back of the bike to dismount so this never came up for them. I learned to pull back on the dismount after a while, but it kind of ticked me off.

  • So many times I hit that thing on the dismount

    So many times I hit that thing on the dismount

    While the kickstand is rock solid and goes down to support with a mere touch of the foot, it can be tricky to get back up. What’s supposed to happen is that you push the bike forward and it snaps up automatically. What actually happens depends on what type of surface happens to be under the bike. When we were on rough asphalt, the kickstand gripped enough that it popped right up. When we were on smooth cement, like on the sidewalk, it sort of dragged along and wouldn’t go up without riding for a while, or without me sticking a foot under it to nudge it before I got on. I suspect that applying some kind of grip tape on the bottom of the kickstand would provide enough friction to resolve this, but as is, it’s finicky.

  • Incredibly stiff and annoying rear wheel lock

    Incredibly stiff and annoying rear wheel lock

    Although the Packster mostly rides like a dream, the wheel lock and battery attachments are very stiff. I like having a rear wheel lock but I loathed trying to operate this one so much that I almost gave up on it. It was bizarre because the U-lock I was using was also made by Abus and was easy to operate. Yet only the fact that I did not actually own the bike combined with the high levels of bike theft in San Francisco made me endure messing with that wheel lock. The plug attachment for the battery is also persnickety and hard to connect. Similarly, the quick release adjustments on the handlebars and seat post, while awesome in principle, are not particularly intuitive or easy to operate. I felt a weird dissonance between the times that I was riding the bike (this bike is great!) and the times that I was getting on the bike, getting off the bike, or locking up the bike and charging it (this bike is so annoying!) Some of this may be the fact that it was just unboxed and not everything is working smoothly yet. My experience with the older Abus U-lock would support this hypothesis, however although the battery plug seems designed to be annoying.

  • Note that at this level, we were constantly doing a helmet v. handlebars contest

    Note that at this level, we were constantly doing a helmet v. handlebars contest

    While the bike itself sometimes assumes a tall rider, the accessories are sized for the littlest kids. We did not have the rain cover on the bike that I test rode, which is just as well, because I could tell just by looking at the photo that older kids like mine would not fit under it. My daughter’s attempt to try the three-point restraints left her laughing maniacally at how impossible it was. While my kids appreciated the width of the box, their legs were a bit cramped. The box is a bit shallower than we’re used to as well, so although it was possible to put both kids and a pile of groceries in the bike, we weren’t breaking any maximum load records. And because I didn’t figure out how to make height adjustments until I returned the bike (see above), the handlebars and brake levers struck their helmets when we were riding together. At the highest height point there’s clearance for tall kids (and short adults) but I couldn’t get it there when we had the bike. Overall, the length and width of the Packster 60 is roughly comparable to the Bullitt, but the standard box is shorter, shallower, and wider, although the Packster 80 would presumably be longer.

  • The model I rode was better sprung for riding unloaded than loaded, which was interesting. This is pretty nitpicky, because the ride is great regardless, however the handling improved when it was unloaded; in this it is unlike our Bullitt. When I returned the bike to The New Wheel they mentioned that Riese & Müller supply stiffer springs that could be installed in front that would probably reverse this, making the ride better loaded than unloaded. If I were planning to use this bike for heavy loads (and why get it if not?) I would want to make that switch.
  • The Bosch middrive assist is not silent. The higher levels of assist are extremely not silent. I had a boyfriend in college who later went to law school and after he graduated he took a job at a big firm and decided to buy an “affordable” sports car with his new salary, a Mazda Miata. As we still hung out at times, I rode with him in it occasionally and thus I had the opportunity to experience why it was an “affordable” sports car: the engine noise was like a chorus of howling demons. By comparison, the Bosch at level 4 I would classify as more like the whining of a moderately annoyed demon. For a bicycle, it’s pretty loud; relative to cars, it’s not offensive, but relative to other bicycles, it’s a Miata.
  • Occasionally, the general awesomeness of the ride was interrupted by a weird thunking sound from the gears on hill starts. It never persisted, and it didn’t happen often, but it was unnerving.
  • Last and certainly not least, this bike, like all front loaders, is pretty expensive. The version I rode is priced at $5900, which does include the lights and whatnot. However the kid accessories like the rain cover and so on are extra, as is a second battery; I can’t price those accessories as the bike just came out so I couldn’t find them listed.

Things I can only speculate about:

  • As always, with a new bike on the market, I can’t speak to reliability. That said, this is not a one-off manufacturer, the parts are all pretty high-end, and German engineering has a reputation for reliability, recent exceptions like Volkswagen notwithstanding. Personally I wouldn’t feel any real concern.
  • I’m not sure how well the Packster would handle a fully loaded start on a steep hill, although it is great starting from zero on moderate hills, and for those living outside of San Francisco, that’s probably more than enough. After I dumped the bike my kids were not eager to get back in the box for extended test rides, so the steepest hills I rode were all without them on board. Our usual bikes are BionX assisted, and we use the boost buttons to make the steep uphill starts. As a comparison I tried making a steep start from a dead stop with the assist dialed up to 4 and the gearing down low, and the Packster took off pretty fast. However where we live, I’d want to test ride it with the kids on board before I felt completely confident. If that’s relevant, The New Wheel has the Packster I rode sitting out in front and available for test rides at 420 Cortland Avenue in Bernal Heights.

I realized how I felt about the Packster when I rode back to the shop to pick up the EdgeRunner and they wheeled it out. The EdgeRunner is super-practical and maneuverable, but I admit, although I am fond of it, it looked like a beat-up warthog next to the shiny new Packster, and also, I realized once I started riding it that it squeaks and rattles a bit at higher speeds. These are not things that I noticed about it before I rode the Packster.  It is unquestionably true that the abuse we put our bikes through is a big factor in that. Nonetheless, I curse my lost innocence.

We’re not in the market for a new cargo bike, and I am increasingly longing to return to the days of solo biking. So the question I ask myself when I test ride is more along of the lines of who it would best serve. It would serve a family like ours, it turns out. So I asked myself whether I would want it as a replacement for one of our cargo bikes in the (not unlikely, actually) event that one was stolen. It’s a close call. The Packster and Bullitt ride differently, both in appealing ways, however the Packster climbs more smoothly than our BionX assisted Bullitt (the middrive Bullitt may be different), can be upgraded to have double the range, is less expensive (assuming a single battery,) and the slightly wider box would probably eke out a year or so more of carrying two older kids at once. Thanks to the belt drive, I could wear wide-leg pants, should I ever be so inclined. I’d have to live with noise from the middrive on the hills, and plugging in the battery would irritate the crap out of me, but these seem like acceptable tradeoffs. The answer at this point, weirdly, comes down to the rain cover: our kids wouldn’t fit under the Packster’s rain cover. This is probably the closest miss ever for a bike I’ve test ridden. The rain cover would stop me from buying it, unless Riese & Müller come up with a better one. For families with smaller kids though, or hardier ones, it’s a fantastic choice.

 

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

We tried it: Yuba Spicy Curry    

Lately my reviews have been slowing down. This is not an accident. My kids, now ages 10 and 7, are getting big enough that I’m increasingly distant from the range of kids normally carried by bike. Our son will be starting middle school next year, and for multiple reasons will be on his own bike then. Plus, after years of reviewing, I have dropped my kids on unfamiliar bikes often enough that they can be understandably wary of trying out new models with me. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure how many more family bike reviews I can really do. This is a shame, because my son in particular is now experienced enough with various family bikes that he offers a helpful and fairly unusual perspective on what’s it’s like to be a kid passenger on different kinds of family bikes, when I can convince him to do it.

Boy on bike

Boy on bike

Anyway, late in 2015 I managed to coax my son onto Yuba’s Spicy Curry for a test ride. Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before rents and sells family bikes to those of us in San Francisco, was having an open house where families could try all the bikes. We had tried most of the models they stock already, because that’s what I do for fun, but we had yet to try the new Yuba.  I joked at the time that this was the only spicy curry that my son would ever try, which was one of those jokes that is actually less funny because it’s true.

(Aside: if you live in San Francisco and ride with kids, or want to, Vie is incredible—they will bring test bikes and child-sized helmets and kid seats to your home to try! There’s no need to get cranky kids across town and hope their mood will allow a test ride. I wish they had been around when we were shopping for our bikes, but alas, no such luck. Once they asked if they could advertise on this blog, which I would support except for the fact that no one can advertise on this blog, because my job considers that a potential conflict of interest, which is a bit of a reach but not a point worth arguing. So consider this my unpaid endorsement.)

The Spicy Curry is a different kind of bike for Yuba. In the past, I’ve had mixed feelings about the Yuba offerings, which are undeniably inexpensive, but that managed to hit those price points by making some compromises that make me uncomfortable when hauling kids in a hilly city like San Francisco. For example, their base models of the Mundo and Boda Boda did not come with disc brakes, which for the terrain we ride is frankly unsafe when carrying a kid or two. The Mundo in particular felt as heavy as a cargo ship or a 1970s land yacht, which on the one hand meant that it could move major weight, but on the other hand  meant that getting it started from a stop could be miserable. Thus for years I considered Yubas to be flat earther bikes, and kind of resented that because some of their family biking accessories are fantastic.

The Spicy Curry, in contrast, was built from the ground up as an assisted cargo bike for hills. It is very different from their other models, from my perspective in a good way. I have been kind of regretting promising 6-word reviews of all the bikes because at times inspiration does not strike, and then I delay writing the review, and that is exactly what happened in this case. Anyway, here’s the best I could do.

Yuba Spicy Curry: small, lightweight, value.

What I like about the Spicy Curry

  • The Spicy Curry is designed as an assisted bike, and has a pedal assist mid-drive electric motor included as standard. I am an unabashed fan of pedal assists, which work seamlessly without requiring riders to mess with
    Mid-drive assist for the Spicy Curry

    Mid-drive assist for the Spicy Curry

    stuff on the handlebars much. Twist throttle assists that require my hand be engaged for the assist to be engaged mean that I have one less hand available to deal with other stuff going on, and with kids on the bike there is always other stuff going on. Plus I like to be able to signal with either hand. The mid-drive assist is the up and coming style of cargo bike assist, after a long spell in which the only mid-drive options in the US seemed to be the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Stokemonkey and the ridiculously loud, powerful, and heart-stoppingly expensive Ecospeed, both of which required a knowledgeable after-market installer. An advantage of a mid-drive assist is that it works with the gears, so that the experience is less like getting a boost and more like finding that you are simply a very strong rider all of a sudden. Another selling point for mid-drives is that they are typically have a lot of torque, meaning that they can conquer hills that make other assists burn out, and they don’t typically cut out the power when the ride gets steep. (Our old BionX system would sometimes overheat on steep hills with both kids in the box, although the new BionX D on our Bullitt does not.) The battery sits neatly under the rear deck. The controller is pretty intuitive.

  • Riffing on the EdgeRunner before it, the Spicy Curry has a low rear deck over a 20” wheel. Originally longtail cargo bikes simply extended the frame of the bike at standard height. That was fine if the loads were tied down at wheel level as intended. However when parents figured out that kids could sit on those decks things got hairier, as that put a lot of (live, squirming) weight way above the frame. Longtails and midtails with high rear decks are tippy (meaning that I have dropped those bikes with the kids on board) and feel like they’ll roll right over if you take a corner too quickly. Putting weight on top of a lower deck is much more stable, and makes it possible to carry more weight safely.
  • The Spicy Curry, unusually, seems designed for shorter parents. It felt like the frame had been shrunk by 10% or so. I can’t remember ever riding a cargo bike like it before. The only model that seems even vaguely comparable is the extremely adjustable Haul-A-Day, which can be tweaked down for shorter riders as well as extended out in multiple dimensions for taller riders. The Spicy Curry has a low top tube, making the frame kind of step through-ish, the height of the frame is low, and there is surprisingly little distance between the seat and the handlebars. This wasn’t the greatest setup for me personally, as I am what the bike industry considers to be “normal” height, however I’ve noticed for some time that shorter riders, who are disproportionately mothers, sometimes have trouble managing “one size fits all” cargo bikes or even the smaller versions of cargo bike frames, which honestly don’t necessarily suit short people as much as they suit people who are slightly shorter than “normal.”
  • Transportation accessories come standard on this model. In this case that means that the Spicy Curry comes with full fenders and permanent, hard-wired lights that run off the main battery. These features are still unusual on US bikes
    Front headlight

    Front headlight

    across the board, despite being totally expected and normal on European and Japanese bikes. Given that no one is racing bikes that are clearly designed for transportation (those readers familiar with the Pixar oeuvre can say along with me that “race cars don’t need headlights!”) these things should be standard on cargo bikes. So I salute Yuba for including them.

  • Yuba makes and supports a range of nifty family and cargo hauling accessories which can be attached to this bike. That includes a large frame-mounted front basket, the Bread Basket, an early and excellent Yuba innovation. Another neat Yuba innovation is the Ring (for once a descriptive name that does not aim for cutesy but land directly on saccharine), which can be used as handlebars or a back rest for kids on the deck. Yepp seats can be latched on the frame for younger kids, and there are seat pads available as well as stoker bars or the two-kid corral (very similar to the Xtracycle Hooptie, probably not accidentally) that Yuba labels Mini Monkey Bars; as the name implies this version is smaller than the Monkey Bars developed for the Mundo (see above). There is also a set of side bars called the Carry-On, which appears to be designed to carry large flat loads or provide footrests for kids. (Yuba also sells a variety of bags for its bikes that don’t seem to last long; I would say that this area is not their core competency.) These accessories all cost extra money, but no rider would want or need all of them at once, plus the fenders and lights are included, and that makes the prospect of making the bike a kid-hauler somewhat less daunting.
  • Although Yuba has not historically been known for investing in great parts, this model raises their quality substantially. The bike has eight gears, which don’t provide huge range but don’t really need to given that it’s an assisted bike, and shifting is smooth. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard and stopped cleanly on our test ride, which included some decent hills with ~60 pounds/27 kilos of my son on the rear deck. The handlebars, saddle, pedals and so on were all unremarkable from my perspective (I am not especially picky about these things). The tires are Schwalbe Big Apples which, although not as puncture resistant as Marathons, offer a cushy ride. This is not the older, creakier style of Yuba. The bike rides nicely and makes clean turns. There is no chain guard but given that there is only one ring on the front the potential clothing damage from this is less risky than it could be.
  • The Spicy Curry is lightweight for an assisted cargo bike at 55 pounds, making it lighter in fact than the original unassisted Mundo. (Yuba lists the weight of the Spicy Curry right on its splash page, which is the kind of thing manufacturers only do when the bike is not outrageously heavy.) While I wouldn’t want to carry it up a flight of steps every day, it’s easy enough to bump it over curbs, and hauling it up and down a few steps here and there or grabbing the deck to move it around an obstacle wouldn’t kill me.
  • Like all longtail bikes, this model is relatively easy to park, as it can use a standard bike rack without much maneuvering. As much as I like our Bullitt, I admit that it can be tricky to snuggle it up to some bike racks or to parking meters.
  • The neon green color does not photograph well in my opinion, but it is surprisingly attractive in real life.
  • Last but not least: value, value, value. The list price of the Yuba Spicy Curry is $4,300, which although not cheap, is less expensive than most other assisted longtails. I mean, there are cheaper models out there, but they weigh more, which cuts into range, and the parts are not as good. And we have learned from hard experience that there is a certain level of parts quality below which it is not safe to go on a family bike.

What I don’t like about the Spicy Curry

  • Things than are positives can also be negatives: the Spicy Curry frame seemed small enough that I felt cramped on it. I am 5’7”/170cm and ended up squeezing my arms in to ride the bike, given that the
    You can sort of see the tight clearances here.

    You can sort of see the tight clearances here.

    space between the seat and the handlebars was so much smaller than on other bikes we ride. I talked to riders taller than I am who tried the Spicy Curry and ended up hitting the back of their thighs on the rear deck or their heels on the frame when pedaling. That didn’t happen to me but I can see exactly how it happened to them. This concern would rule the Spicy Curry out for us if we were looking for a new cargo bike (we are not.) While a smaller frame is great for people who’ve had difficulty handling larger bikes, there’s an obvious tradeoff here.

  • Speaking of tradeoffs, the tradeoff for a low deck that makes the bike less tippy is that taller kids like my son can drag his feet on the ground, which will slow the bike down whether you want it to or not, and can also do serious damage to their shoes. We have this issue on our EdgeRunner and while he’s gotten better about keeping his feet up, there have been moments. Also, it is not my idea of a good time when he loses a shoe outright doing this, which always seems to happen in terrifyingly wide intersections with short light cycles. I hear some people have both more and less cooperative kids than mine, which may be relevant here.
  • I found the handlebars were set very low on this bike, making for a pretty aggressive racing-style riding position. I like to ride upright when I’m noodling around town, because it allows me to see over the top of normal cars (unfortunately not SUVs). It was not really possible to get this kind of view on the Spicy Curry we rode. I’m pretty sure you could get a stem extender to bump the handlebars up a couple of inches, and it would be worth it. I’m not sure why the bike is set up this way, though, given that in almost every other way it’s designed for transportation.
  • Although many of the Yuba accessories are great, the kickstand that comes with the bike is crappy and unsuitable for real loads. It’s a side kickstand rather than a center stand, so you would need to hold the bike up when loading or have it tip over. There is an upgraded center stand you can pay extra for, but I can’t imagine anyone not needing it, so it’s annoying that it’s not standard.
  • The mid-drive assist on the Spicy Curry does not have a quick start or boost button, which can be nerve wracking when starting on a hill. This is pretty common with mid-drive assists generally and not unique to this bike. Nonetheless it made me edgy on certain parts of our ride. There are various points on my regular commute where it’s not possible to stop where it’s flat, and before we upgraded to the new BionX system there were times when we had to hop off the (fully loaded) bike and walk it over to places where we weren’t fighting gravity to get started. Ultimately I was able to start on every hill we rode with the Spicy Curry but there were some uncomfortable moments when I felt unsure, and this was with one kid rather than both. I suspect that this is one of those “only in San Francisco” issues but it comes up frequently for us.
  • Like all mid-drive assists, the Currie motor on the Spicy Curry is not silent. It’s not bad for a mid-drive but you’ll definitely know when it’s on.
  • To my surprise, my son managed to accidentally trap his arm in the space between the two bars on one side of the Mini-Monkey Bars on this bike. He is skinny like a skeleton and because he has no body fat to squeeze it
    The third time he stuck his arm in there I took a picture.

    The third time he stuck his arm in there I took a picture.

    actually took some panicked maneuvering to get him free. Then of course he did it twice more on purpose, don’t ask me why, I don’t know why my kids do this stuff. At least the next two times I knew I could get him out without disassembling the bars. Anyway, I would be wary of this and if I owned the bike I would probably tape a pool noodle or two over the bars to keep it from happening again. The spacing seems unfortunate on these and I hope it changes in future models.

  • Also to my surprise, my son complained about vibrations from the motor when riding on the deck of the Spicy Curry. As a rider I didn’t notice it, and this is not something I have heard from him before, but it bothered him enough that he commented on it more than once. When I asked him about other mid-drive bikes we’d ridden, he said the issue was unique to this bike. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. He can be idiosyncratic. At a minimum, if we were in the market for this bike, I would be sure to spend more time test riding to make sure he didn’t find it so annoying that he would start a bike-riding strike.
  • As with some other longtail cargo bikes, it was difficult to hear my son talking on the rear deck, and he sometimes had trouble hearing me. I don’t know why this is more of an issue on some models of longtail bikes than others. It wasn’t the worst we’ve experienced but it could be annoying. This problem can of course be resolved by getting a front loading bike instead, but those are much more expensive.

Things I’m clueless about and some hearsay

  • I’m not sure just how steep a hill that the Spicy Curry’s assist can handle. At one point before my son joined me I found a steep hill (they’re never far away in San Francisco), “street grade over 18%” according to the SF Bike Coalition map, and figured I’d give it a go. I made it about a quarter of the way up before starting to wobble and losing my nerve. It’s possible that the assist could have handled it but I had slowed down enough that I was afraid I would lose control of the steering and topple over. Of course it was sunny enough that day that a bunch of neighbors were out enjoying the weather in deck chairs on the sidewalk, and after checking to see that I was okay they all laughed at my ambition. I suspect this is a situation that would not be relevant for something like 99% of riders, who don’t face this kind of hill daily, or may even ever. It makes for a funny story, though.
  • I didn’t ride the Spicy Curry long enough to get any sense of its range. Like most assists I’ve seen it claims that you can ride 20-35 miles on a charge (depending on terrain and load). Given that the bike is pretty light for an assisted cargo bike this stated range doesn’t strain credulity.
  • I have no idea how reliable this bike would be in the long term. This is a new model for Yuba and in general bikes seem to be a bit wonky at the margins in the first year of production, and then in future years the manufacturer cleans up whatever issues arose. Yuba has been around for a while so I wouldn’t be concerned that the company is going to disappear.
  • In the hearsay zone, the mid-drive motor is made by Currie (hence the name Spicy Curry), which produces e-bikes as well as motors, and the e-bikes seem to have something of a hit or miss reputation with respect to longevity. Thus if I were interested in buying this bike I would get it from a shop that I could count on to fix any problems that arose.
And here it is again.

And here it is again.

Overall I think that the Spicy Curry fills an interesting and under-appreciated niche. My sense is that it is targeted to shorter parents, whom many manufacturers have neglected. That’s not a good fit for our family but I can think of several families we know that would find it very appealing. In addition, it seems to have found a sweet spot with respect to the price relative to the quality of the parts. Although this bike isn’t designed for a rider like me (I felt like I was too tall, or maybe too long-limbed, which is not something I get to say often) it is designed for local conditions, and riding it changed my perception of Yuba for the better. This bike isn’t for everyone, but honestly it’s nice to see that there is enough of a market for cargo bikes now that manufacturers can begin to specialize.

 

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Yuba

We tried it: Juiced Riders ODK U500

Well hello, long time no see. Both the world and I have been busy, in my case innocuously. I have a new fall class with about 120 students, and thus have missed multiple anniversaries that I try to mention. It’s been over three years since we sold our minivan and two years since we were able to buy our condo with the money we’ve saved. It’s been three years on the Bullitt and that’s still great, and a year on the EdgeRunner with no regrets. But I digress.

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

Over the summer we had a chance to try the Juiced Riders ODK U500, a newish midtail. Our midtail, the Kona MinUte, was our first cargo bike. Since then there have been other midtails released, including the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer, during which time the MinUte went in and out of production. The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day was a midtail in one incarnation, but according to Bike Friday has now stretched out to longtail length. At some point I realized the cleverly-designed but much-too-heavy-for-San-Francisco Workcycles Fr8 was also a midtail. However I think it is fair to say that the midtail category has not exactly been wildly innovative, as the best-case scenario is pretty much that manufacturers keep producing the same bike.

My daughter wondering why we couldn't stop taking pictures already

My daughter wondering why we couldn’t stop taking pictures already

What makes a midtail? In our experience it’s a bike with a rear deck that comfortably carries one kid on the deck. We have squeezed two smaller kids on the deck of the MinUte, because I’m not so good with “boundaries,” but I learned that if you do that kind of thing with any regularity There Will Be Blood, literally. With a very little kid the frame is sturdy enough to handle both a front seat and the kid on the rear deck, so carrying two kids is not impossible, but that will work only for a limited age range. Anyway, the ODK is a midtail by my reckoning because my two kids would not even consider the possibility of getting on the deck at the same time.

We tried the ODK while visiting Seattle and the always-amazing G&O Family Cyclery. My only regret was that Madi of Family Ride couldn’t come out with us, because I would love to have gotten her thoughts. Anyway, the ODK is unusual in a few ways. Most notably, it is sold only as an assisted bike. Since my reviews are way too long, here is my new obligatory six word review for those who don’t want all the blah-blah.

Juiced ODK: the assisted midtail slayer.

What I like about the ODK

  • The ODK is designed for cargo. A persistent complaint that I have had about midtails is that their decks tend to be really high,
    Pretty stable, even loaded

    Pretty stable, even loaded

    which makes them tippy, especially when hauling kids. That’s less of a big deal on a midtail than a longtail, because the deck is shorter so there’s less fishtailing effect. It’s less of a big deal for the tall than for the short, because the relative height is lower and thus more manageable. However it’s not trivial. I am not particularly short at 5’7” (170cm) yet I notice the tippiness of our MinUte, especially on corners, when it feels like the bike wants to roll over. The Boda Boda and the Cascade Flyer are built with the same high deck. The ODK shaves several inches off by using 20” wheels and the handling with cargo, especially moving human cargo, is noticeably improved as a result.

  • The ODK has a step-through frame. It’s a really low step-through as well, meaning that this bike can easily be ridden by the short or less-flexible. I went out on a test ride with Jen of Loop-Frame Love who pointed out that this would be a fantastic bike for seniors, and I agreed. However it’s also nice for people who have a kid sitting behind and thus cannot swing a leg around the back. The lower the top tube, the easier it is to get on and off.
  • The ODK has an extremely upright riding position. Not everyone likes this, but I do because it helps me see over traffic. With a kid (in this case my daughter) in the back, it also makes me feel less like I’m sticking my butt directly in her face, which seems gauche.
  • The parts on the ODK are formidable on even the cheapest model. Cargo bikes usually carry loads that strain parts to their limits, so the quality of the parts matters more than it might for solo riders. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard (Tektro Dorado for those who care about details like that) and it is immediately clear that they have the kind of stopping power that is appropriate for a fully loaded cargo bike. The shifting is smooth (3 speeds; this bike is assisted and not designed with a big gear range as a result) and the steering is easy. I have ridden enough bikes now that I can tell within a few seconds of getting on a bike whether the manufacturer is trying to save money by using cheap parts: Juiced Riders is not.
  • There are a lot of cool accessories that come with this bike, which I am happy to see is becoming more common for assisted and family bikes. It comes with fenders and a wired-in rear light. It offers a frame-mounted front basket, which is deep enough that not everything would need to be bungeed down.
  • Like all midtails, this bike is short enough lengthwise to be very maneuverable. The ODK is even more so than most midtails because it has 20” wheels, which allow tight cornering. The ODK is also fairly narrow. Overall, this makes it a very easy bike to park at the kinds of dreadful racks that grocery stores, movie theatres, and parking garages seem to have installed sometime in the 1960s and never replaced. The San Francisco standard bike rack, aka the parking meter, offers no challenge for the ODK; our Bullitt, as handy as it is, usually needs some coaxing to snuggle up to a meter.
  • The assist on the ODK, which uses a motor on the front wheel and a throttle on the handlebars is very, very powerful. I have
    At the top of the hill, Jen's turn

    At the top of the hill, Jen’s turn

    learned with some practice that you can add some pedaling power with throttle-assists, although this is not necessary, particularly with this motor. It did not even slow down on the steepest hill we could find in the surrounding neighborhood, which although it did not achieve San Francisco levels of aggression was nonetheless very respectable. As a devotee of pedal assists I have gotten used to contributing noticeable effort on my commutes, particularly when I’m carrying heavy loads like the kids. It was kind of intoxicating to relax and let the motor do the work, pedaling at roughly the level of effort I expended the last time I rode a beach cruiser on the boardwalk. I have seen ODKs on some disturbingly steep hills in San Francisco and now I know why. I don’t think there is much it could not handle, except maybe the 41% grade of Bradford Street in Bernal Heights.

  • The battery options are scaled to a level that allows you to use a lot of assist for a long time. This is a bike that’s intended to be used assisted most of the time; I have seen bikes like this before but they tend to have limited range. The three battery options provide ranges estimated from 40 miles at the low end to 100 miles at the high end. I typically slice estimated ranges in half given San Francisco’s topography; even after this those estimates are very respectable. I rode the model with the biggest battery, and despite my going up and down big hills a few times with my daughter, then having a friend do the same thing, the battery didn’t seem to drop a single bar.
  • The ODK is ridiculously, laughably affordable for an assisted cargo bike. The version with the smallest battery is $2200, and that includes the fenders and the rear light (the front basket is extra). Especially considering the quality of the parts, this is an unbeatable value. Upgrading to the biggest battery adds another $1000 to the price, and that’s still a good price relative to its competition.

What I don’t like about the ODK

  • When you put the kind of battery that can give you 40 or 100 miles of range (maybe) on a bike, you make it really, really heavy. The ODK is really, really heavy. To Juiced Riders’ credit, they are actually willing to report the weight of the bike; with the smallest battery it comes in at just shy of 70 pounds according to their specifications. The version with the biggest battery, which I rode, weighed so much that I couldn’t even lift it. This is not a bike that could be put on an overhead rack or a bus rack, even though it is short enough to fit. It is not a bike that you could carry up the stairs. It is a bike that is, shall we say, permanently wedded to the ground. If you don’t have street-level parking, this may not be a good choice. On the up side, the bike thieves that break into garages with pickup trucks around my neighborhood might very well end up leaving this bike behind rather than risk throwing their backs out. So there’s that.
  • Aesthetics are admittedly in the eye of the beholder. However to this beholder, the ODK is a punishingly ugly bike. This is not
    Eh. Looks aren't everything.

    Eh. Looks aren’t everything.

    the kind of bike that will draw compliments from strangers. The ODK is built for practicality and value and it shows. I hoped with time it would grow on me, and have a certain “so ugly it’s attractive” kind of appeal. I regret to report that this did not happen. Even almost six months after my first exposure and even though I genuinely like this bike, looking at the ODK hurts my eyes. Even the controller is unattractive.

  • The ODK has a twist throttle assist operated by hand, not a pedal assist that operates as you pedal, and throttle assists are the kind of manufacturing choice that makes me question how serious a company is about commuting. Even during the test ride, operating the throttle was starting to hurt my wrist. This is admittedly a personal preference, but it’s less personal than my aesthetic opinion, because I suspect that a long ride on this bike could become unpleasant. There is a “cruise control” option, which I am sure would be fine on an extended ride on a multi-use path, however my longer rides tend to be city rides with a lot of stop and go. This issue isn’t insurmountable, as the ODK is inexpensive enough for an assisted bike that a bike shop with the right experience could convert this to a pedal assist at a price that would still make the ODK a good value. However it would be far better if Juiced made pedal assist an option, even if it were a more expensive option. Not everyone lives near an experimentally-inclined electric bike shop, it would be more cost-effective if the manufacturer did it, and it would not risk voiding the warranty. And it would be better for commuters, particularly commuters with kids, for whom every available hand matters pretty much all the time.
  • The 20” wheels on the ODK make the ride a little bumpy and slow; this is a tradeoff for the low deck and maneuverability. Any speed you pick up on this bike will be coming from the assist, and you will care about the quality of the pavement.
  • The ODK is not really designed for carrying kids. Apparently the rack makes it possible to mount a Yepp Maxi, which is good.
    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    A bike I saw, however, although set up with Yuba accessories for an older kid (probably a better fit for my daughter, age 6), which were nonetheless a little limited; foot pegs and wheel skirts were not available, for example. (I have had some concerns in the past about the quality of some of Yuba’s parts, but I definitely appreciate that they are all-in on the kid-hauling accessories.) Like our Kona MinUte, setting up the Juiced ODK for kid hauling requires some hacking and creativity, probably from a bike shop with experience with the bike and with these kinds of accessories in stock.

  • The ODK’s standard one-sided kick stand is pretty much a joke for a bike that is supposed to haul cargo, as with any load that wasn’t perfectly balanced it’s likely to fall over, unless it were windy, in which case it would definitely fall over. Juiced offers a center stand option that I did not get to try. Like hydraulic disc brakes this is the kind of thing that should be standard on cargo bikes.
  • Like any assisted cargo bike, the price point on the ODK is a big jump for people who are used to solo unassisted bikes. It’s a good value for what it’s offering, but it’s still out of reach for many families.

Things I’m clueless about

  • Juiced Riders as a company is new to me so I can’t speak to the long-term reliability of this bike, or the support that the company will offer. It’s a good sign that it’s invested in high-quality parts, and that it seems to be working with shops that have a good reputation. However there’s no way to know for a while.

Overall, I was impressed with the ODK. The midtail bike market has been pretty stagnant in the last few years and the ODK offers a lot of significant improvements for people looking for an assisted cargo bike. The lower deck and step-through frame alone are long-overdue innovations for midtail bikes. Because of its weight, its throttle assist, and the limited accessories for kid-carrying, it won’t suit everyone’s needs. Nonetheless I’ve seen enough of them around San Francisco now that it looks like they suit a lot of families very well. Within a minute of riding it I thought “this is the midtail slayer” because even though it has some obvious limitations, it fixes so many of the problems I have had riding other midtails. It might be ugly, but it can really haul.

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle, Uncategorized, Yuba

In and out

How my kids see me lately, in compost form.

How my kids see me lately, in compost form. Mostly sleeping.

There are times when everything goes well, and times when it does not. In the last six months or so, things have been pretty quiet around our place, because I have been dealing with a persistent and annoying bout of anemia.

Having my leg smashed into shrapnel was my personal introduction to invisible disability, where I suddenly understood that not everyone who looked able-bodied and took the elevator up and down a single floor was being lazy. Dealing with anemia has been my personal introduction to chronic disease, and I can’t say I’m a big fan. I’ve found spoon theory is a pretty accurate depiction. Spoon theory proposes the analogy that every activity in life requires a spoon, and that when you are dealing with chronic disease you get only a limited supply of spoons. Once you run out of spoons you can’t do anything else for the rest of the day. So for example, last weekend we went sea kayaking with our kids. This was fun, but in exchange I had to stay in bed for the rest of the weekend.

As one might imagine, this kind of limited energy has put a crimp on our usual summer plans, which usually involve biking around the city all the time. Some days I can ride, and some days I find that I can’t. Things are getting better, and lately I have been riding more days than not. However I have been heavily triaging on all fronts. I haven’t fallen too far behind at work, however updates to the blog have been limited, it’s been months since I last checked my personal email, and so forth. Also I have been very grouchy, because seriously: who would want to live this way?

Fortunately for me, this turns out to be a curable condition. Less fortunately, it means that I have to have another surgery. Tomorrow. That’s right: three years in a row! I’m sure that’s not a world record, but it’s definitely a personal one. Nonetheless I’m grateful that this isn’t going to last forever, and that I have the chance to get better.

When we started riding with our kids, I took my strength and good health for granted. Riding up the hills of San Francisco was difficult but not impossible. I assumed that using an electric assist would make me lazy, not yet realizing that at certain times, it would be the only thing that allowed me to ride at all. In hindsight, this is all very humbling. And surprising: I would never have believed, five years ago, that it was possible to keep riding after getting run over, when I needed a cane just to walk, or when I needed to stop and catch my breath every few steps while going up a staircase. And yet I could ride through all of that. I have heard people say that there is no form of transportation more efficient than a bicycle. It is experiences like these that make me realize what that really means, and that somewhere there is a (possibly assisted) bicycle (or tricycle) suitable for everyone. Now all we need are more safe places to ride.

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Filed under commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

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

Family bike shops that I like

I get asked questions about family biking a lot (Always welcome! Feel free to email! I will be painfully slow to respond, but it will happen eventually). One of the more common questions I get from people is where I think they should shop for bikes. This can be an awkward question to answer. There are thousands of bike shops and only one me. Admittedly there are far fewer family-oriented bike shops, but still. I live in San Francisco and mostly travel north from there, because that’s where my family lives. There’s no way that I could ever be truly objective, let alone offer advice to people in say, Minnesota.

That said, at least I have no conflicts of interest. I am a professor of public health and health policy at a university medical center with an extremely strict policy about any kind of giveaway that could be even vaguely construed as professionally-related. Although my primary work is in tobacco control, active transportation could easily be viewed as related to public health, because, well, it is in fact related to public health. Under the terms of my contract, I can’t be compensated for anything I say on this blog or accept any discounts or freebies (loaners are okay, but I have to give them back). So if nothing else it’s safe to say that my wildly subjective opinions are based solely on my wildly subjective experiences.

So anyway, below is a list of family-focused bike shops that I’ve liked and would visit again. It is a short list. First, as mentioned, I haven’t really visited THAT many bike shops, plus I only included shops that would actually call themselves family bike shops (which excludes our local bike shop). Second, I only listed places where we’ve made two or more purchases. My apologies to all the other family bike shops—I’m sure you’re great, but I have no way to know. Third, to the extent that you can trust anonymous reviews, they all get great reviews.

Shops are listed in order of their distance from my house. I admit that this is a totally useless organizing principle to anyone but me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Ocean Cyclery (1935 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Enablers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Not that I saw
  • Kids’ play area: No, but noodling around on kids’ bikes is encouraged
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Yuba (Mundo, Boda Boda)
  • Assisted bikes: Yes, BionX both for the Yubas and as an after-market addition
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, and a buyback program to help afford bigger bikes as kids grow!
  • Child seats: Yes, and a lot of expertise with them
  • What we bought there: My old Breezer, Bobike Maxi, Bobike Junior, accessories, service
  • Other: Ocean Avenue is a nice commercial strip with places to retreat when the kids get antsy, like the burrito shop next door. Transit access is excellent (it’s on the K line) and the former hippodrome around the corner is an outstanding place for test rides, especially for kids.

Ocean Cyclery is the first real family bike shop I ever visited, and they made it very easy to start biking for transportation. It is the shop where I often send people who ask me about different kinds of child seats, who want to buy bikes for their kids, and who tell me that they’re not sure they’re up for this “riding for transportation” thing that we’ve got going on but still want a bike, something inexpensive so they can ride with the kids on their new bikes in the park on weekends. Ocean has the widest selection I’ve seen in San Francisco of what I consider traditional family biking goods: child seats, trailers, and kids’ bikes. One Christmas they had a bike in the front window with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the rear ready for test-rides, the only time I’ve ever seen such a thing in a bike shop. They offer a buyback program for kids’ bikes to make it easy to upgrade as your kids grow, and also have a great selection of bags and accessories. On the cargo bike side, they carry Yubas (assisted and unassisted). The owners, Jeff and Sabina, support the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and they are incredibly nice. As a bonus, Ocean has possibly the best location for test riding bicycles in all of San Francisco: it is a block away from the city’s former hippodrome, which is now a sleepy flat oval road surrounded by homes. Even little kids can safely try out bikes there. If you’re interested in family biking but not sure where to start, Ocean Cyclery is your bike shop.

 

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

The New Wheel (420 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Curators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: No, but older kids will adore the tools and parts hung on every square inch of the bathroom walls; our son had to be forcibly extricated
  • Kids’ play area: No; however younger kids can play with kids’ bikes and older kids will gravitate to the shop’s iPad
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Xtracycle EdgeRunner
  • Assisted bikes: All their bikes are assisted, and they will put after-market BionX assists on other bikes
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, plus, unusually, a good selection of helmets for infants
  • Child seats: Yes, the Yepp rear seat
  • What we bought there: Our son’s Torker Interurban (20”), Xtracycle EdgeRunner, our daughter’s helmet, BionX upgrades, accessories, regular service visits
  • Other: Cortland Avenue is a quiet and increasingly upscale commercial strip so there are restaurants and shops, plus the Bernal Heights library about a block away if the kids lose patience. Getting there is a serious haul by bike but the 24 Muni line will drop you right in front of the shop.
The New Wheel is out at Sunday Streets offering test rides, FYI.

The New Wheel comes out to Sunday Streets to offer test rides of assisted bikes, FYI.

The New Wheel is a focused bike shop. They carry only electric-assist bikes (okay, and unassisted kids’ bikes—it’s illegal for kids to ride assisted bikes in California). They’re actually even more focused than that: they carry extremely reliable assisted bikes that anyone can ride. The whole electric assist market is still pretty nascent, and has only recently become more than a private enclave for the do-it-yourself set. For someone new to the idea of riding a bike, let alone riding an assisted bike, the obsessive hobbyist end of the market can feel completely overwhelming, to put it politely. It felt that way to me. The New Wheel is not set up like a traditional bike shop, with mystifying parts and accessories piled up on every surface. Instead they have bikes in front to test ride, and some reasonably identifiable accessories mixed in with actual art. It is a very non-threatening place for a new rider to visit. If you want an electric-assist bike, you should go to The New Wheel. Their expertise with assist systems is in a class of its own. Plus, they always have the most recent BionX software upgrades and know how to tweak the system to maximize the torque for hill-climbing. They also reset our BionX so that it kicked in at 0.5kph instead of 2mph, which has been a total game-changer for us. Many of their commuter bikes have mid-drive assists, some of which could probably scale anything short of a vertical wall. Also, they have the prettiest assisted bikes, with none of the hulking beasts that anchor (literally) the less expensive and less reliable end of the market. In keeping with the curated feel, they offer one family/cargo bike: the EdgeRunner (assisted, obviously), as well as one kids’ bike in each size. Everything in their shop promises years of trouble-free riding. Brett and Karen, the owners, are kind people who have immense patience with my wild ideas, and they are also big supporters of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Their service is top-notch, way beyond expectations (you can bring your unassisted bike here for service too). Because The New Wheel is an all-assisted bike shop, it is located in Bernal Heights, among the steepest hills in the city, including Bradford Street, with its 41% grade. That’s kind of inconvenient for me personally, but hey, why not?

 

There are so many bikes it's tough to get a good shot.

There are so many bikes it’s tough to get a good shot.

Blue Heron Bikes (1306 Gilman Street, Berkeley, California)

“The Aggregators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh, we didn’t visit the bathroom. Sorry.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a Lego table in the back corner, plus an extensive collection of kids’ bikes that they’re encouraged to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No, although you can sometimes use the deck of a Bullitt for this
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Surly, Xtracycle, Yuba, and more
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair
  • What we bought there: Brompton accessories
  • Other: Gilman Street is a small commercial strip with some options for food and entertainment. The shop is right on the Ohlone Trail and easily accessible from North Berkeley BART.
The Lego table

The Lego table

A question I get a lot: “I want to try a lot of different kinds of cargo bikes. Is it worth traveling to Blue Heron in Berkeley?” My answer: Yes. Yes it is. They have all the bikes. They have cargo bikes I’d never seen or heard of before, and after the years I’ve spent obsessing about cargo bikes this is a rare experience for me. So if you want to compare riding a Bullitt with a Brompton with an Xtracycle with a Yuba with an odd-looking longtail that just came off a container ship from Japan, all in both assisted and unassisted versions, well, now you know where to go. It’s pretty obvious that Berkeley real estate is less expensive than San Francisco real estate, because they also have piles of commuter bikes and dozens of different kids’ bikes. As a result, Blue Heron Bikes is the Bay Area’s one-stop family bike shop. Even better, it is located along the Ohlone Trail, a shared bicycle-pedestrian path that runs past the North Berkeley BART station, and it has a large flat paved area in the back, which allows safe test rides for all ages. The owner, Rob, is passionate about family biking and patient with families who come in and are understandably a little overwhelmed with all the options they find. I’ve now met more than one family who bought a Bullitt there and made an adventure out of getting it back to San Francisco by ferry or BART, carving out an ad hoc Silk Road for family bicycles. Nonetheless, I feel resentful that Blue Heron is located in Berkeley and not in San Francisco.

 

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Clever Cycles (900 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland, Oregon)

“The Experts”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes, and diapers too. Like Ikea! But cooler.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a large corner with a couch, toys, and books, plus kids’ bikes out the wazoo to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes
  • Cargo bikes: Babboe, Bakfiets, Brompton, Metrofiets, Nihola, Surly, Workcycles, Xtracycle, Yuba, plus we spotted dark horses like the Kidztandem and Onderwater—seriously, it’s unreal
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and they developed and sell the Stokemonkey assist.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, yes, yes
  • What we bought there: rental bikes, accessories
  • Other: Hawthorne Boulevard is a commercial strip featuring distressingly fast car traffic with some options for food and entertainment (basically a nearby bar as I remember it). Head back onto the nearby quiet and leafy streets of Ladd’s Addition for test rides instead.
Why not a hot tub?

Why not a hot tub?

Clever Cycles is the drag queen of family bike shops: it’s faaaaaaabulous! Honestly it’s difficult to describe, let alone oversell, Clever Cycles’ raw, unadulterated family biking appeal. I say this even though the first time I walked in, the bike at the front door had a huge growler full of beer attached to it. Honestly this seemed a little off to me for a family bike shop, but that is only because I do not live in Portland. Portland is so beer-crazy that I assume local hospitals give it away to new parents in lieu of formula. Clever Cycles is a venerable institution in the world of family biking, as its owners were importing, designing, and selling family bicycles and electric assists before we even had children. There was clearly unmet demand back then, because the shop has expanded through its various incarnations to the point that it’s now gigantic, at least to my eyes. It does not look like any other bike shop. It looks more like a bike museum (admittedly I have only visited one bike museum, in Davis, California). In the front showroom the box bikes look almost petite, and the kids’ bikes are parked in long rows on oriental rugs. There is so much space that the mechanical parts of the shop are tucked away in back, with rows of even more bikes. Their accessories are so extensive that I would embarrass myself with the omissions if I tried to give details. However they were the first U.S. shop to discover and carry the Brompton child seat, back when the idea of carrying a kid on a Brompton sounded roughly as plausible as throwing a kid all the way to the moon. In the realm of family biking I suspect they have accumulated more firsts than even they can remember. Clever Cycles has the largest selection of rental bikes that I have ever seen, including Bromptons and family trikes. The shop also rents out portable hot tubs that it delivers to customers by bike, because this is Portland. I mean, obviously. Unusually, Clever Cycles sells some clothing too. My only frustration with Clever Cycles is that it is so well-suited to its locale (as it should be) that it is rather less well-suited to mine. Nonetheless, at least one owner is a former resident of San Francisco, and so even if their stock doesn’t reflect our issues—it’s hard to imagine a shop making a go of selling unassisted bakfietsen in San Francisco, although one shop tried and moved to Sausalito—they have the expertise to speak intelligently about them. Even some of the offhand comments they made back in 2012, when we first bought our Bullitt, turned out to be more prescient than I had hoped (they were skeptical about adding the Patterson). At some point I realized that I was not totally ignorant about family bikes anymore, but I know enough to know my limits. The people running Clever Cycles are experts.

 

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Splendid Cycles (407 SE Ivon Street, Portland, Oregon)

“The Visionaries”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh… once again we neglected to check the bathroom.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a corner with a bench and a basket of books and toys
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, plus the deck-of-a-Bullitt option
  • Cargo bikes: Bullitt, Butchers & Bicycles, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: No
  • Child seats: Yes, various options for the Bullitt and Yepp seats for the Xtracycle
  • What we bought there: our Bullitt, rental bikes, Bullitt parts and accessories
  • Other: Splendid Cycles is located on a weird little corner underneath the freeway and near some industrial/construction companies, which I offer as a warning because when we first got there, we thought we were in the wrong place. The shop is also directly adjacent to a lovely bike path that runs along the river. Portland, I sometimes find you kind of schizo. Who zones this way?
The kid zone

The kid zone

I first visited Splendid Cycles after we realized that we might actually be able to stop using our car in San Francisco if we had the right bike. The BionXed Big Dummy that they had available for test rides was the first assisted bike that I ever rode, and after hauling my extremely patient friend Todd on its deck up the hills around the shop I couldn’t stop grinning and thinking, “This could totally work!” Joel and Barb, the owners of Splendid, imagined a world full of crackpots like me and decided they could help make it happen. And so they did something that I would never have the courage to do: they opened a shop that sold only cargo bikes. And holy smokes, they were right: there really were a lot of crackpots like me out there. Splendid is best known for selling Bullitts (and in fact it serves as the source for all the Bullitts sold in the family bike shops we visit, as it imports them). But there are lots of good reasons to ride longtails as well, and Splendid had child seats on Big Dummies long before the EdgeRunner made its debut in less forward-thinking shops. They rent bikes as well, which is very helpful when learning to maneuver cargo bikes—in some cases (mine) there is a learning curve. I’m still awed by the sheer bravado involved in opening up a bike shop that doesn’t carry any “normal” bikes, but you’d never guess it was anything out of the ordinary from talking to Joel and Barb, who are down to earth and incredibly helpful and also know way more about cargo bikes than, like, everybody. When they started their shop cargo bikes were pretty much a boutique niche and everything was somewhat customized. The rain cover for the Bullitt was their development, and getting it made riding with our kids in all weather conditions completely unremarkable. Both the covers and the larger wooden boxes that hold more kids are accessories they developed with local Portland businesses. When we bought our Bullitt we had the option of getting a larger wooden box but declined in favor of the standard box both because we couldn’t get a rain cover for the wooden box and because we wanted a narrower bike. Not long after that, they’d developed rain covers for the larger wooden boxes and now they have 3-child Bullitt boxes and rain covers for those too. They are already selling Bullitts with the super-powered BionX D on them, which is not an option yet here in San Francisco, no matter how often I call. (One of the problems of being an early adopter is that now I’m always envious of the latest innovations.) They never stop coming up with new cool things, many of which are so popular that they stop being innovations. Then they put the only-slightly-less-cool older bikes on the incredible sale page of their website. Honestly, I didn’t really catch on to how impressive it all was at first because Joel and Barb are so mellow. They put their bike shop on an industrial corner and concentrate on the bikes rather than the bling. Splendid has all the right things without any unnecessary extras, and they are always coming up with more awesome ideas that make family biking (and the somewhat-less-interesting-to-me cargo biking) easier and more fun. Whenever there is discussion about adding bike lanes in San Francisco, there is always blowback from some people about how it’s only for hipsters, and that you can’t shop for groceries or carry kids on a bike. These people are wrong. Splendid Cycles is building a world where people can carry anything and everything on bikes.

 

The G&O logo is a family bike.

The G&O logo is a family bike.

G&O Family Cyclery (8417 Greenwood Avenue N, Seattle, Washington)

“The Tinkerers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a train table right in front, plus some balance bikes that kids can ride
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, stools by the counter (and the deck of a Bullitt), not to mention a La Leche League sticker in the front window
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Metrofiets, Soma Tradesman, Surly Big Dummy, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX, Bafang, or Stokemonkey kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Cleary bikes (all sizes), Soma BART
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair (in stock!)
  • What we bought there: Brompton parts and service, Xtracycle EdgeRunner accessories (frame-mounted front rack, Rolling Jackass center stand)
  • Other: Greenwood Avenue has great options for food and entertainment when the kids start to lose it, including the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company (formerly the Seattle outpost of 826 Valencia)
The train table

The train table

G&O stands for Tyler Gillies and Davey Oil, and while their shop is less than two years old, I knew Davey well before then, when he had his own blog, Riding on Roadways (now folded into the shop blog). I love G&O because it has and does all the things that people learn they want once they start riding around with kids. It’s a bike shop that grew out of family biking. Almost all the bike shops we visited when we first started riding talked about family biking as something extra, “oh yeah, we’ll do that when we have time, later.” In most cases, of course, later meant never, but even shops that pick up family biking sometimes do it half-heartedly. But not here! This is a shop that had a changing table in the bathroom and a La Leche League sticker on the front door the day that they opened, and that puts the kids’ play table right out in front with the bikes. You can tell when you walk in the door that no one is going to freak out about your trying out a Yepp seat by actually putting a kid in it, something that happened to us (twice, in fact). G&O has launch parties when customers come to pick up their new bikes. They make a point of keeping accessories in stock that don’t necessarily make money, like the Brompton child seat, because “why should you have to wait for us to order it?” You want obscure kid-hauling stuff, like a helmet sized for a toddler? They’ve got your back. Despite the huge increase in family biking lately, things like toddler helmets are in fact considered obscure, and cargo bikes don’t necessarily have all the things families want yet. I think of Davey and Tyler as tinkerers because I know that there is nothing you can dream up that they won’t try to make work, as long as it’s safe. When I visited their shop last year, they were installing a Yepp mini front seat on a giant mountain bike with a telescopic fork, and the whole rig was covered in mud. It was the weirdest combination I’d seen in a while, and I stopped dead and said, “Really?” And Tyler smiled and said, “It’s what they want.” That visit to G&O is also where I found the frame-mounted front rack that now graces my EdgeRunner (maybe grace is the wrong word there, I concede that it’s not pretty), when I test rode Davey’s own personal EdgeRunner, which has the same rack. G&O also tested the first true pedal-assist Stokemonkeys, and have put more kinds of assist systems on a Bullitt than I knew existed. And of course they’ll take care of non-family bikes too. Servicing family bikers is like building for accessibility—what’s good for people in wheelchairs is good for everybody, and what’s good for families on bikes is good for all riders. Seattle is lucky to have G&O.

 

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking, kids' bikes, Portland, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Our new cargo bike: Hello, EdgeRunner

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They're kind of wusses.

2 kids on deck with their feet in the bags and a stadium blanket. They’re kind of wusses.

People who see us around San Francisco may have already noticed that we have added a new cargo bike to our stable. Around when school started, we got an EdgeRunner. It’s fantastic.

I realize that we are in a fortunate position in being able to buy a second cargo bike outright. When we sold our minivan in 2012, we got enough money from it to buy two assisted cargo bikes. So we used about half of that money to buy the Bullitt, and we saved the rest for some vague future transportation need. At the time we weren’t sure whether we’d want to replace our car eventually, and figured the money we saved could be a nice down payment if it came to that. Two years later, we’ve found that we are just fine with renting cars for our very occasional driving trips, and have no desire to own one.

However we were feeling that it would be very helpful to have a second 2-kid capable cargo bike. The construction work in our garage smashed up the mamachari (RIP, mamachari), so we were suddenly down a bike. With two kids going to the same school for the first time this year, we were in the new position of wanting each parent to be able to pick up and drop off the kids together—before, we could split up because each of them was going to a different place at a different time. That was way more complicated, but it also meant that riding around on one-kid-hauling bikes wasn’t a big deal. Moreover, our son had become a strong enough rider that he was ready to go to school sometimes on his own bike. The problem with that was that the kids take a bus to their after-school program, and there are no bikes allowed on the bus. So if he was going to ride, we needed a way to get his bike from the drop-off at school to the pickup at after-school.

One option was to assist the Kona MinUte—because both kids are too heavy to haul around unassisted now—but it was a tight fit for two kids even when they were smaller, and left the question of how to haul our son’s bike unresolved. If you’re in the bike-on-bike-hauling business, your best bike is a longtail. We had taken enough test rides over the years to know that our favorite longtail, by a long shot, was the EdgeRunner. So around the time school started, we headed to The New Wheel to buy a BionX EdgeRunner. They were our bike shop of choice because they know so much about assists—anyone can take care of an unassisted bike, but having an electric assist-focused shop to maintain our bikes is an enormous luxury and it would be crazy not to take advantage of it. Also they are very nice. Even though we have to cross town and haul up serious hills to get there, which is not fun with kids when an assist is on the fritz, it is worth the effort.

This is Davey Oil's stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

This is Davey Oil’s stoked EdgeRunner with the same massive front rack.

Because I’ve gotten particular about certain things over the last couple of years, we put some unusual accessories on the bike as well. I credit G&O Family Cyclery for these particular specs, which I tried and loved on one of the EdgeRunners I rode while visiting Seattle to compare the BionX to the Stokemonkey. Specifically, we added a frame-mounted front rack and Rolling Jackass (very regrettable name) center stand from Haulin’ Colin in Seattle. The front rack was a huge pain to install, given that no one in San Francisco had done it before, and almost made me wish I’d flown my bike to Seattle instead of having the rack put on locally. But the payoff was a massive front basket (I have a Wald Giant basket zip-tied to the rack) that is independent of the steering and absolutely rock-solid, and that has easily swallowed loads like: my work tote, both kids’ backpacks, a clarinet, and a bag of groceries, with room for more. Finally, the EdgeRunner’s tiny rear wheel meant that I was getting a much bigger boost from the assist, which in my still-weakened state, meant that this was going to be my primary ride for a while.

The transition to riding the EdgeRunner with both kids was not without its issues. Our son doesn’t ride his own bike every single day, because he tends to go at a maximum speed of 7mph, making even my normal pace look like road racing. When we leave home on the later end of normal, we have to stick him on the trailer-bike to make it to school on time, and that means I’ll end up carrying both kids home in the afternoon. Although both kids easily fit on the EdgeRunner’s deck, for the first two weeks sharing the deck they fought so relentlessly that I actually found myself yelling, “I can stop this bike right here!” I am happy to report that this was a short-term problem—they eventually settled down, and now they usually have pleasant conversations sitting face-to-face during the times that they share the deck. The only remaining annoyance is that our long-legged son will drag his feet on the ground sometimes, which acts as an unwelcome extra brake and does his shoes no favors. He’s getting better about this.

Loading up my son's bike for the tow.

Loading up my son’s bike for the tow.

There are compensations. The biggest is that when he does ride, it is laughably easy for me to tow his bike to work in the morning, and to his after school program in the afternoon before riding home. It has definitely reduced our load and is improving his stamina (and although he doesn’t like to admit it yet, he’s in a much better mood when he rides to school and back home). The bike can also haul unusual loads that were formerly pretty tricky. When I had to pick him up from school a couple of weeks ago because he’d gotten sick, I had no trouble towing the bike while he was nodding off on the deck. That kind of doubling-up has historically been the Bullitt’s weakness.

Our daughter is our primary deck-rider, though. The EdgeRunner deck has a bit more space for a kid than the Bullitt, but it is also uncovered. This has led to some complaints about having to experience weather, and some excitement. We have a Hooptie around the deck, and given our daughter’s personality, that was a smart move. She treats the deck as a combination small room and performance space, and kind of does what she feels like doing back there. Sometimes that’s lying down flat to take a nap. Sometimes that’s standing on the deck on one tiptoe while holding onto my shoulders. Sometimes that’s leaning waaaaaaaaay over to one side to check out something on the ground (at which point I once again feel a sense of gratitude for that low deck, because I can feel her doing it but it doesn’t dump the bike). The EdgeRunner is our mullet bike: business in front, party in the back. Our daughter has been a frequent flyer in the hospital emergency department since she was less than a year old, thanks to her try-everything attitude , which means that we have more experience assessing what constitutes a serious physical risk to her than we ever wanted. I’ve learned not to worry about her shenanigans, because her balance is excellent, she’s corralled by the Hooptie, our route consists of quiet streets and protected lanes, and I’m usually riding at (much) less than 10mph behind my son. However I definitely get a lot of drive-by parenting. I mean that literally. People in cars pull up next to us and tell me to tie her down, sometimes pointing to their own kids strapped in 5-point restraints in car seats as examples. I am already so over this. And I have begun to wonder, from a philosophical perspective, what it says about us as a society that our kids spend so much time literally tied down.

I digress.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now.

Seriously, these bikes are all over San Francisco now. These are the racks at my office.

Riding an EdgeRunner is also fun because it makes me to feel like I joined a club. Although it gets a lot of attention from people who don’t ride bikes, it is definitely the bike of choice among San Francisco parents (along with the Yuba Mundo). As one might expect, most of them are BionXed up as well. There are two EdgeRunners on the Panhandle riding to school most mornings, and I see a blue one just like mine almost every day, coming the opposite way on Post Street after I’ve dropped off the kids. There sometimes yet another EdgeRunner, with a Yepp seat, parked at the racks at my office. After a couple of years riding the Bullitt, which raises eyebrows wherever it goes and has tourists snapping photos, the relative obscurity of riding an EdgeRunner is a nice change of pace.

Most importantly, it does what we need it to do. The addition of the EdgeRunner means that Matt and I can each ride a cargo bike that can haul both kids, and/or their bikes, wherever we’re going. Even though the BionX is not the most powerful assist you can put on a bike, we have used it to get up the hills of Bernal Heights with both kids on the deck. That’s steeper than we ever hope to go on a daily basis. And with the regenerative braking it has crazy-range–I sometimes feel as though I’ve returned home with the same charge I had when I left.

We came late to having two big cargo bikes, but it’s been working well for us. Having two kids in the same school has allowed our schedules to ease enormously, and having two big bikes to haul them and their bikes around as needed makes it easier still. Our son may be slow when riding his own bike, but we’re still beating our old car commute times. I’ve heard a lot of people say that having a box-bike and a longtail is the perfect two-cargo bike situation. Based on our experience so far, I’d have to agree.

 

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, commuting, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle