Tag Archives: hills

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

An ordinary life

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I used to write posts more often. Part of that was novelty value. The switch from driving everywhere to biking everywhere was pretty exhilarating and there was a lot to learn. There still is, but despite the fact that I have ridden more cargo bikes than anyone else I know who does not run a bike shop (and some people who do) I’m no longer the best person to assess the handling of family bikes, mostly because my kids, at ages 10 (almost 11) and 7, are really heavy. I still do it though, just on a very extended schedule.

We also still carry our kids on the bikes, but it’s almost always one kid at a time. They’re moving to riding their own bikes and our son is now old enough to ride the bus to school on his own (well, buses: there’s a transfer), or at least as much “on his own” as it is to ride the same bus as 100 other middle school students. We still commute by bike, sometimes by bus. We rent a car when we need to cross the Bay Bridge as a family (no bikes allowed on the western span) or when we go camping in Central California, or whatever. We take cabs to the airport. We take the train when it’s an option, which is rare, unfortunately. We do not miss owning a car, and in related news, we like being homeowners in San Francisco.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don't try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don’t try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

What people call “alternative transportation” is our ordinary life, and honestly, I kind of stopped paying attention after a while because it doesn’t seem remarkable. At least once a week, one of my colleagues stops at my office, and asks, “Did you bike to work today?” And I say, “Of course I biked today. I always ‘biked today.’”

Alternative transportation is not a bad term though, because it means that we have alternatives. We aren’t tied into getting places any particular way, or to a huge cost sink of a car. Looking for parking has long since become a foreign concept to me, and the biggest maintenance expense we have ever racked up on one of our cargo bikes was in the low three figures. And to this day, when I ride past the line of cars backed up at stop lights, or behind construction equipment, or in the endless wait for summer camp pickup, there is a part of me that thinks, “Suckers!” Obviously I have room for self-improvement.

We travel all kinds of ways, and I wish everyone could. Both Matt and I have aging parents who probably should not be driving, but they live on steep hills without transit on roads with a posted speed limit of 35mph, successfully designed to encourage drivers to take it to 50+mph (and they do), and there is definitely no 8-80 bicycle infrastructure; there aren’t even consistent sidewalks. Their only alternative to driving is to move. We know kids who grew up in places without transit or sidewalks, and to this day the thought of taking the bus terrifies them. Car culture doesn’t allow alternatives, and thus it traps people who are unable to drive, and similarly traps people who are able to drive into taking those who aren’t everywhere they need to go.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and here we are, hanging in in the new normal, proving that even carrying kids by bike can become unremarkable after a while. We see more families on the road with us every year; it makes the commute fun. When I was riding my daughter to summer camp earlier we saw another EdgeRunner with kids on it and she yelled, “One of us!” There are still plenty of people who haven’t tried it yet though. Every week, we get buttonholed by parents walking to their cars who say, “That bike looks awesome! Do you love it?” Yes. Yes we do. It’s still awesome.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, EdgeRunner, family biking, 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

“Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers' market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.

 

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Filed under car-free, 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

We tried it: Faraday Porteur

It's not just a bike, it's also a coat rack.

It’s not just a bike, it’s also a coat rack.

Our kids are getting older, and as a result, I can imagine something that was previously kind of unimaginable, which is riding a bike that’s not actually a cargo bike. Late in 2014, this dream drew a little closer to reality, because Faraday Bikes was offering its bikes for a week’s free test ride to anyone who asked. And I asked. Poor Matt ended up being the solo kid hauler for that week, as I gleefully rode through the city childfree. He was glad to see it go, but not me. I have seen the future.

The Faraday Porteur grew from a concept city-bike to a Kickstarter campaign to a real company, a journey that is as desirable as it is unlikely. The Porteur is an assisted bike, and I first saw it in 2012 in a furniture store, as the company had zero connections to actual bike shops at the time. Checking out a bike in a furniture store brought home the inherent difficulties involved in buying any bike, let alone an assisted bike, without local bike shop support. The woman selling sofas had no idea how the bike worked and had lost the brochure. It didn’t inspire a lot of confidence. Now you can buy the Faraday Porteur in real bike shops, including locally at The New Wheel, which pretty much lives by the mission statement of selling not-crappy bikes. This does inspire confidence. Throughout it all, it has remained a bike unlike any other. Six word review?

Faraday Porteur: It’s the cool bike.

A long time ago, I was reading advice on what bike to buy. The article is now lost to the internet wayback machine, but it said that when you go looking for bikes, there is often the bike that you think that you should buy, because it’s the practical or affordable choice, and the bike that you want to buy, the cool bike, which is the bike you desire whether or not it’s practical or affordable. And the author said: “Buy the cool bike.” Why? Because you’ll ride the cool bike, and not leave it in the garage, wishing that you were on the cool bike. Your definition of a cool bike will change over time and in different circumstances. We are still in the stage of our lives where our Bullitt is the cool bike, although for most people, it might better be described as the “slack-jawed disbelief” bike. In general I think “buy the cool bike” is excellent advice. And I can say one thing for sure after a week on the Faraday Porteur: whatever its weaknesses (all bikes have weaknesses), EVERYONE thinks it’s the cool bike. Do I want this bike? Heck yes. I have lust in my heart for this bike. For my needs, it’s not yet perfect, but I am still in the kid-hauling years, so I figure they have time to work out the last few kinks for me. I know from talking to the company representatives when I dropped off the bike that some of the changes I would make are already in progress.

Charging in the garage.

Charging in the garage.

It is difficult to describe people’s reactions to this bike, but I will try. Like the Bullitt, the Faraday is not necessarily the best bike for shy people. For the week that I rode it, I was the most popular that I have ever been. I suddenly found my road-racing neighbor casually hanging out by the garage. Our block is surprisingly cargo-bike heavy, with an Urban Arrow to one side of us and a Frances on the other, but this particular neighbor, notwithstanding our mutual respect and fondness, views all our cargo bikes with what I would describe as fascinated horror. His interest is in road bikes, and he has lovingly rebuilt over a dozen of them, each of which cost more than our entire bike stable, and he rides them exclusively for athletic reasons. Yet every morning that I had the Faraday, he was there when I left home and arrived home, asking questions about it. “That is a really nice bike,” he’d say. On the last day that I had it, he took pictures. When I got to the office with the Faraday, I was far too paranoid to leave a loaner bike at the racks, so I rode up with it in the elevator and parked it in my office. And during that week, there were always, mysteriously, a half-dozen people who’d struck up conversations next to my office door around the time I came in and when I left, who also quizzed me about the bike. My more self-confident colleagues wandered into my office pretty much at will to ask questions about it. Heads turned when I was riding. When our cousins came down from the North Bay for the weekend, I had one of them try it and he yelled as he rode, “This is AWESOME! AWESOME!” I imagine this is something like your life if you are a supermodel. It would probably settle down in time, but it was absolutely fascinating. And yes, it was kind of gratifying.

Let’s be real: as a full-time cargo bike rider, I am biased to gush about any bike that is lighter than a Bakfiets, because for me, riding a normal bike is like suddenly losing 50 pounds, quite literally. However, I am not the only person who really, really likes this bike.

What I liked about the Faraday Porteur

  • The Faraday Porteur is beautiful, and I am as vulnerable to the allure of this bike as anyone else. Everything about it looks intentional. Even the wires match the frame. The handlebars support a controller for the assist
    Faraday pileup at the shop.

    Faraday pileup at the shop.

    as well as the usual collection of shifters and brakes and so on, yet it was the cleanest cockpit I have ever seen. Just looking down at it while riding was aesthetically gratifying. Yes, having a gorgeous bike is a luxury, and bikes don’t have to be lovely to be useful, but I can testify now that with a bike this beautiful and practical, I found myself making up useless errands to run so that I could ride it more often. “Sure, I checked the hold shelf at the library once today already, but I should check it again, because you never know.” I found myself dreaming up stuff like this despite the fact that we sold our car in 2012 and so we already ride our bikes everywhere all the time. I would cheerfully have ridden this bike all day long if I could have figured out a way to skip work and arrange child care.

  • The Faraday is extremely easy to ride, and intentionally so. The swept back handlebars are a comfortable width, the Brooks saddle (which is standard) is the choice of those who are picky about those things (I am not, but I like it too), and the gearing relies on a smooth-shifting internal hub that allows you to change gears even when stopped. I typically test-ride cargo bikes, and they all have learning curves to some extent, so maybe I’m overselling this, but it was just so fantastically simple.
  • This bike is both lightweight and balanced. This is probably my cargo bike experience talking again, but I could not get over how cool it was to be riding an assisted bike that I could pick up and carry up the stairs without a second thought. The balance of the bike makes this easier; the assist is on the front wheel and the internal gears are on the back wheel, so you can pick it up by the top tube(s) and it hangs evenly thanks to the equal weight on both wheels. This is not something that I have ever seen any other manufacturer of any bike worry about. It is one of the many thoughtful design features that made me think, “This is so obvious and yet no one has ever done it before.” Not everyone has the ambition to carry their bikes up the stairs, but being able to lift it up easily is also really handy for parking the bike in random places and tight racks that are normally completely out of the question for assisted and/or cargo bikes.
  • The ride is so smooth. Riding a bike in San Francisco comes with a certain amount of jostling, because many streets are poorly maintained. There are potholes galore, and riding over broken glass is a daily experience. On my normal routes, I now automatically hop out of the saddle at the worst points and even the kids know to brace themselves at certain intersections. Well, for one glorious week I said goodbye to all of that, because the Faraday eats potholes for breakfast. I was whizzing down McAllister through its endless ongoing construction one morning at full speed and barely even noticed the giant gaps in the asphalt. When I finally realized that I wasn’t getting bumped, I started aiming for them for a few blocks to prove the point to myself (sorry, Faraday, I’m sure that wasn’t great for the bike). God, it was awesome.
  • The electric assist, which is standard on the Faraday, is the smoothest assist that I have ever used. Also people don’t even notice it’s there unless you tell them. It is a pedal assist, and activated by torque, yet it feels different from traditional pedal assists because the motor is in front. What’s more, it is truly silent. The Faraday is frequently compared to Apple products, which is a fair comparison, because it doesn’t go in for a lot of unnecessary features: the assist controller is a physical toggle: Off/Low/High, and it shows a battery gauge, the end. You could use it blindfolded. When the assist is on, you feel like you are a superhero, but you can’t always feel it come on, because it never jerks, it just sort of slides into place as you’re moving along. I assume that they spent a lot of time developing this. It is another one of those thoughtfully engineered things that made me feel like the Faraday was almost a different species of bike.
  • This is an assisted bike, but you don’t need to use the assist. Typically an electric assist bike is carrying so much extra weight in the form of the battery and the motor that it can be unpleasant to ride without keeping the assist on at the lowest level. This is particularly true given that assisted bikes tend to be used to carry lots of stuff. However on the Faraday I found myself riding with the assist off most of the time. I flipped it on to go through big intersections and up hills, but kept it off when riding on flat streets or mild hills, because I didn’t need it. The Faraday staff wanted me to tell them, when the week was over, how much range I had been able to get out of the bike, and I was honestly unable to answer the question, because I spent so much time riding it with the assist off that I never ran down the battery before I made it home to recharge it, even after the couple of times when I forgot to plug it in overnight. I had range anxiety before I rode the bike, because the battery seems underpowered from the specs, but ultimately the issue never came up.
  • Although the Faraday is not billed as a cargo bike, it can easily carry a ton of stuff. Even back in 2012, when it was a Kickstarter campaign, it had a frame mounted front rack, so the steering wasn’t affected when you threw stuff in the basket. That front rack is still there, and it’s beautiful, bombproof, and laughably easy to take on and off. The only thing I would add to it is a matching cargo net, the best bicycle accessory ever, but mine sort of clashed with the white bike because it’s black. I was getting very picky about aesthetics after a week on this bike. They have a matching bungee cord for the front rack but a bungee cargo net is better. Faraday also offers a rear rack now, and if I were getting this bike, I would get neither or both, because putting just one of them on messes with the balance of the bike and makes it more of a hassle to carry. Who am I kidding, I would get both, the bike is plenty light enough to handle the weight and they’re so practical. The front rack can carry everything I needed in a workday. The rear rack would allow you to bring home a cart full of groceries as well.
  • This was my first experience riding a bike with a belt drive, and I am now a fan. No chain = no need for a chain guard. You can wear normal clothes and ride this bike.
  • The lights are integrated into the bike and they are always on when the bike is on, just like cars in Canada (and they stay on whether or not the assist is on). What’s more, if you decide to get the front rack, there is an option to mount the light on the front of it, so you can pile all kinds of stuff on the rack and still see where you are going. I found the lights to be plenty bright even for night riding on the unlighted paths of Golden Gate Park. This is a great commuter feature and much too rare, even on other assisted bikes.
  • The bike comes in different frame sizes, for those of many heights. At 5’7” I was, as usual, on the medium frame, but I have heard that people who are 5’4” can also ride that size, which suggests that the small frame may be suited to even the shortest among us. My road-racing neighbor, who is well over six feet tall, was really too tall to ride my medium frame bike, but I saw a similarly-sized rider at Faraday on a large frame.
  • How much does it cost? $3500. There aren’t really any options other than the front and rear racks that would change that price, and demand is such that it’s not likely to go on sale. For what Faraday is offering, which is an assisted bike made with exceptionally good parts, the price is reasonable. Yet like all assisted bikes that you would actually want to ride, it is definitely not cheap. (Unless you are used to buying expensive road bikes. Then you will laugh and tell me that it is a steal.)

What I didn’t like about the Faraday Porteur

  • I was terrified that it would be stolen. Seriously, I have never spent so much time worrying that I would lose a bike, and I don’t usually ride beater bikes. This bike is so appealing that the thought of leaving it at a bike rack gave me palpitations, and so I found myself making up errands only for situations where I could bring the bike inside or watch it from inside. I parked it my office most days, which doesn’t really bother anyone, but then I worried about it all through that week’s fire drill. Although, as mentioned, I have lust in my heart for this bike, one of my most serious reservations about the prospect of buying one is whether I would have the nerve to ride it and park it in many parts of this notoriously-bike-theft-prone city. This sounds kind of ridiculous as a downside (“I dislike that it’s so desirable”) but it’s a real issue.
  • In its current form, the Faraday is not a kid hauler. This is true even though with the new rear rack, it is entirely possible to put a Yepp Maxi on the back of the bike. However just because it is technically possible does
    Faraday with Yepp.

    Faraday with Yepp.

    not mean that it is a great idea. There are a number of issues that make riding with a Yepp Maxi kind of a non-starter. First is that the assist is really designed to haul one person (more on that below) and on steep hills, I suspect that it would be a struggle to carry a kid as well, even with the assist on high. Obviously for already-strong riders this isn’t an issue, but for many people it would be. Second is that the Porteur has a high horizontal top tube, so it’s designed to be mounted by swinging your leg over the back. With a Yepp seat on the back that’s impossible. I tried swinging my leg over the top tube as an experiment, which is how we get on and off our Bullitt and EdgeRunner, and it was, to say the least, not easy on this bike. The tube is just too high to make that move comfortable, and it kept clipping my shoe at the heel, which knocked me and the bike over a couple of times. With a kid strapped in the rear seat, that would be seriously scary. The Yepp Maxi actually having a kid in it raises a couple of other issues. Most annoyingly, the power button is placed right below the rider’s saddle, directly within reach of a Yepp-encased toddler’s hands. And the power button has a cool light that goes off and on when you press it. I don’t know any kid in the entire world who could resist turning the bike on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off and on and off as you rode, no matter how dramatically they were threatened. That makes having an assisted bike kind of pointless, and possibly dangerous. What’s more, the Yepp seat blocks the taillight, so riding with it at night would be a bad idea unless you clipped on an aftermarket light. It’s clear that the idea of adding a child seat is still very much in development at Faraday. They are developing a bike with a step-through frame that deals with a number of these issues at once. If I really wanted a Faraday as a kid-hauler I would wait for the step-through model or use a front seat (something like the Oxford Leco might work on this model).

  • The assist lacks pickup. This came up most often at intersections, when I really wanted a boost button. Honestly I didn’t feel that there was much difference between the low and high settings of the assist, so I would have preferred that the toggle be Off/On/Boost instead of Off/Low/High. And here is the San Francisco-specific concern: on steep hills, the assist felt underpowered, even with just me on the bike. I was very surprised, because this bike was designed in San Francisco, but on my first trip up Page Street (which I rode up from Market Street to Golden Gate Park, and which involves a surprising amount of elevation gain), I was working harder than I had expected I would. Honestly, I didn’t mind that much in the end, because it wasn’t overwhelming, and I appreciate having to work to go up hills sometimes. Exercise is healthy. However the assist is definitely not a hill-flattener. I was not particularly laden at the time, but if you added another 30-50 pounds of live child weight the effort involved would be even more noticeable. This for me is not a deal-breaker, but I definitely thought it was a missed opportunity.
  • The riding position on the Faraday is too aggressive for a commuter. The handlebars are too low. It was such a disappointment. When riding in the city it makes sense to be very upright, so you can see over the cars. That is why recumbent bikes in San Francisco are as rare as emeralds. Yet despite the swept back commuter style bars on the Faraday, I was hunched over riding this bike, like it was designed for a triathlon or something. A stem extender would be non-negotiable if I were going to ride this bike regularly (this is actually already in development for the step-through model at least, I saw it on the demo bike).
  • To my astonishment, I had occasion to test the fenders with more than my eyeballs, as I had this bike during the one week that it actually rained in San Francisco since forever. The rear fender is too short. I ended up with a stripe of mud on the back of my jacket to prove it (according to people in rainier locales, they are also too narrow). The fenders are bamboo, and beautiful, and this issue would probably never come up again for me personally, but if you live in a place where there is precipitation, you will want longer fenders.
  • Initially I blamed myself for this: I broke the kickstand, which is a Pletscher double. Then I found out that everyone who uses the Pletscher has broken theirs at least once. Some people have even broken multiple Pletschers. It’s a cool-looking kickstand, but given the quality of the rest of the parts, this bike should have something better. An Ursus Jumbo would be a much more solid choice.
  • Speaking of missed commuter opportunities, the Faraday has no bell. Yes, you can get an aftermarket bell, but on a bike where even the wires match the frame, not including a matching bell is a bizarre oversight. I really missed having a bell on a few occasions when I was nearly doored.
  • As mentioned above, the power button is poorly placed, as it is underneath the saddle. It’s horrible if you’re trying to carry a kid in back, who would mess with it, but it’s not great even if you’re not, as you have to dismount to turn the bike on if you forget to do it before you start riding. I did that a couple of times, as I was riding without the assist on so much of the time. I would realize that the lights weren’t on, or I’d hit a hill and suddenly, “Dang.”
  • The battery on the Faraday is enclosed in the down tube, so it can’t be removed for charging. For me personally it wasn’t a huge issue, because we ran outlets to our garage, and I just plugged it in there. If you keep your bike inside, which given the theft risk isn’t a bad idea and given the relatively light weight isn’t impossible to imagine, it’s also not a big deal. However there are several situations where this could be a real hassle. Moreover, the question of what to do when the battery needs to be replaced is unclear to me. The battery does have a two year warranty, which is about as good as it gets with assisted bikes. I would want to know more about this question before buying the bike.
  • Like all assisted bikes, at $3500, it is not cheap, even if it is a good value for the money.

This is not the time in my life when I would get a bike like the Faraday Porteur. However that time will come before too much longer, and I already want one. There are bikes that you ride, and even though they’re not perfect, you say, oh to heck with it, I want it anyway. I want to kick my kids off our bikes and get this bike. I loved the Faraday Porteur. It’s totally the cool bike.

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

Our kids’ bikes: Torker Interurban 20” and Spawn Banshee 16”

The bike that started it all.

The balance bike that started it all.

As our kids have gotten older, they’ve moved into riding their own bikes, as one might expect. Our son started riding on our venerable Specialized Hotwalk balance bike, which this summer finally moved on to live with our next door neighbors and their 2-year-old.

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

He jumped from there to a Jamis Laser at age 5, which worked for a while, but not as long as we had hoped, mostly because it doesn’t have gears and we live in San Francisco. After about a year of his resisting riding because he had to walk up the hills, we switched him to the Torker Interurban (20”) from The New Wheel when he turned 6, which has multiple gears, and he’s been riding that ever since (we sold the Jamis to a family in a flatter locale). After spending part of a summer at the wonderful wheelkids bike camp, he had the stamina and knowledge to take to the streets whenever he’s inclined. That’s less often than we might like, but he’s getting there. The Torker is lightweight, and he’s a lean and scrawny kid. Between that a reasonably wide gear range, he has little trouble pedaling that bike up to Alamo Square and back down again on the way to school.

Now

Now

Fortunately for us, our son by age 6 had reached a height that put him in the realm of kids’ bikes that are not uniformly terrible. In contrast, we found it very difficult to find good bikes in the 16” wheel range for our daughter. Local shops sell Linus kids’ bikes, but they are too heavy for the hills our kids ride, and worse yet from our perspective, come with training wheels [but see the comments below: there is a new local company producing a great 16″ bike, the Cleary Hedgehog, as of last month]. We didn’t stick our kids on balance bikes before they turned two years old so they could backslide when they got older to bikes designed to accommodate training wheels. All the 16” bikes we found also came with coaster brakes, which we wanted to avoid after our son’s hard experience. The coaster brakes in combination with a hand brake on his old Jamis confused him, “Hand? Feet? Hand? Feet?” and really slowed his ability to catch onto braking while riding. Plus we have heard more than one horror story about kids who had had their ankles caught in the cranks, and whose parents had to disassemble the bike to remove them. Our daughter stayed on the balance bike much longer than she probably should have as we looked for a better alternative.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

At this point, I should probably mention a brand of kids’ bikes that have gotten a bit of a subculture following in the family bike community, and why we didn’t get one: Islabikes (pronounced “eye-lah”). Islabikes makes some very nice kids’ bikes, although their 16” model comes with coaster brakes, which we did not want. The coaster brakes made it easier for me to decide not to buy one. There is a reason that I was trying to avoid Islabikes. While I try not to climb onto my soapbox too much here, I am not a fan of the Islabikes business model, which is to sell exclusively by mail. We typically buy our bikes and accessories from local bike shops.

The reasons we shop locally (for a given definition of locally) are complicated, but I will outline one of them here. Probably the most common question I get from other people is where they can test-ride the interesting family bikes we have tried, whether they are cargo bikes or kids’ bikes. And well, if you want to live in a world that has lots of shops in which to test-ride bikes, or for that matter, any shops in which to test-ride bikes, you have to support the local shops by selling to them and buying from them. I realize, of course, that new bicycle brands have to start somewhere, and I remember the difficult line that Xtracycle walked before its dealer network was well-developed, when it sold products both through local bike shops and through its website. But Xtracycle has always cultivated relationships with local shops, and now appears to sell exclusively through its dealers. Yuba appears to be en route to the same transition.

Islabikes, on the other hand, has no relationships with local bike shops. It sells exclusively online and the last that I heard, had no plans to change that model. I had qualms about supporting a brand that chose to cut out the biggest supporters of the riding that we do: local family bike shops. They are few and far-between and it’s not a hugely profitable business. I want to give them all the help that I can, because they help us, and because I’d like to see them survive, and because I’d like more shops to realize that ours is a market that is worth cultivating. So we spend our money at family bike shops, and on occasion, I write up the great experiences we’ve had at these places. I’m way behind on the latter, but these days I’m behind on everything.

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Finding a bike for our daughter, unfortunately, was looking as though it was going to be a “swallow hard and buy online” experience, though, because we couldn’t find a bike suited for our local conditions from a local shop. We considered an Islabike despite my reservations about the online-only sales and the coaster brakes (and about the fact that it only came in red; she didn’t want a red bike, her brother rides a red bike). Islabikes are in fact lovely bikes, viewed solely from a specifications perspective, as they are both lightweight and appropriately scaled. Our kids enjoyed test-riding them when we visited their factory at the post-Fiets of Parenthood party the company hosted in Portland this summer.

On the Spawn Banshee

On the Spawn Banshee

Fortune smiled on us, however, when I found a reference somewhere—I have forgotten where—to Spawn Cycles in Canada, which also sells excellent kids’ bikes. Better still, their 16” wheel bike, the Banshee, is sold with front and back hand brakes and no coaster brakes. They appeared pricier than other good kids’ bikes at first, but that was only until I realized that the prices were in Canadian dollars. Spawn Cycles sells its bikes online, which was good news for us given that they’re based in Canada. However the company is also developing a network of local bike shops that sell its products, exactly because it realizes that people want to be able to test-ride kids’ bikes. I liked the company’s attitude toward local bike shops and I liked the bikes. If we were going to buy a bike online, and it looked as though we were, I felt pretty decent about buying one from Spawn. And our daughter was thrilled to discover she could pick the color. Her new Banshee is pink. She was 5 years old when she started riding it, but could have managed it at age 4 if we’d found it sooner.

Spawn managed to get the bike to us within a few days, which I found impressive considering that it had to go through customs. Then we discovered that bikes purchased online, whatever the brand, come “some assembly required.” What can I say? We’d never bought a bike online before. Under normal circumstances the minor assembly work would have been no problem, but we had just moved into an ongoing remodel, and everything we owned in the way of bike tools was packed away… somewhere. Luckily, we share our building with a friendly guy who is really, really into bikes—and this is me saying that. He has a workshop set up in our shared garage for his own bikes, and volunteered to put our daughter’s bike together the same evening it arrived. Thanks again, neighbor! It took him about 15 minutes, but would probably have taken half as long if our daughter hadn’t been helping.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

We were right about the hand brakes. It took our daughter a couple of weekday evenings to learn to ride her Banshee, and after a week, she could gracefully feather her brakes to slow her descent down even San Francisco hills. Her bike is so light that although it is a single speed, she occasionally outpaced teenagers on mountain bikes while riding up the hills at Camp Mather. Our daughter has never been much of a walker, always begging us to “Carry me!” Now she doesn’t have to be. These days when we head somewhere within a few blocks, we walk and she rides her bike. She’s still working on the skills she’ll need to ride in the street like her brother can, but in the meantime, it’s legal for kids to ride on the sidewalk. Between that and the Roland, which is giving her practice on the streets on the way to kindergarten, we’re slowly transitioning to a new kind of family biking, with everyone on their own bike.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco, trailer-bike