[February 2012: I have updated our experience with the MinUte here. And also here.]
So, a longtail: even though Matt wasn’t thrilled about the downsides he didn’t have any better ideas. We were getting him the first bike because I had the university shuttle taking me almost door to door, but most longtails seemed to be adjustable enough for two riders if it came to that, and all of them could carry two kids. At that point the only experience we had with longtails was some fellow school parents who liked their Ute. My brother-in-law, a former bike mechanic and bike messenger and our go-to person for all things bike-related, said that he liked Konas and was in fact, commuting on one. He didn’t like the Radish for reasons that I still don’t know enough about bikes to understand or even repeat, and didn’t like the Xtracycle because of what is apparently referred to as “flex” which is a concept I don’t really understand either. Plus he knew that we didn’t have any kind of handiness around bikes or a donor bike, which are apparently good things to have if you want to set up an Xtracycle. Nobody I asked knew anything about the Mundo or Big Dummy (I have since met someone who does know something about the Big Dummy and apparently that bike is awesome, with a price to match). So I went online to look up Kona dealers and the closest one was the local bike shop that my brother-in-law had been raving about and urging us to visit since we got back from Europe. Okey dokey then, we’d check out the Kona Ute. While I was on the Kona site I figured I’d look up the price of the Ute (although I already knew it was definitely going to be cheaper than the second car we’d grudgingly been saving up for). Under the list of commuter bikes was something I’d never seen before, new for 2012: the MinUte.
Looking at the MinUte online, it was like someone had designed a bike just for us—a longtail with a normal bike’s footprint. Despite that the back deck was only 4” shorter than the Xtracycle deck, which meant plenty of room for the kids. It came stock with two giant bags, and they sat back behind where our son would sit. It had fenders to keep off road crap and mountain bike gears to grind up hills. The limited complaints about its big brother, the Ute, in reviews centered on the aluminum frame and limited cargo capacity (plus some complaints that it wasn’t Xtracycle-like enough that I assume make sense to people who know something about such things). But with our hill problem the lighter weight of an aluminum bike was appealing. Given that we had no desire to haul much more than a kid or two and some groceries, being unable to haul a surfboard, lumber, or 900 bananas wasn’t a big issue for us. Sure, it would be great if the bike came tricked out for commuting with wired lights, a chain guard, and internal gears, but Matt felt that the price, pretty competitive for a cargo bike, more than made up for wrapping up his pants leg on the way to work, and he was thrilled that he wouldn’t have to park it on the street. We are anything but adventurous as a rule but this brand-new bike (a medium tail?) seemed like the bike for us.
We went to Everybody Bikes (a fantastic shop for know-nothings like us despite its high hipster quotient) to check out the bike only to discover that it wasn’t available yet. But the shop did have a Kona Ute and some other bikes to try for size, and Matt liked them. They would be happy to stick on stoker bars and foot pegs for our son when the bike arrived, and our son, for his part, couldn’t wait to try it. Now all that we had to do was wait, and pray that it came in time to solve our soccer pickup problem.
I have since learned that nothing that involves getting a bike ever happens on time (unless you buy something in stock right there off the floor). I still resent this, but I have learned to accept it. If like me, you are new to the world of biking, you might as well know in advance. Your bike will arrive late, and some non-critical parts will probably arrive even later.
Luckily for us, although All Bike Orders Are Late, we only had to do one soccer pickup before it arrived, which we managed with car share. That sucked. But the MinUte arrived. It was missing some non-critical parts. The cargo bags were apparently stuck on a slow boat in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The (aftermarket) foot pegs were no longer in production. But the bike was there and it looked good, and the stoker bars swooped up at the perfect spot for a six-year-old. Matt was ready to take it for a spin: he pronounced it awesome.
Our son was jumping up and down to get on and ride once Matt felt comfortable on the bike. Of course we had to pry our two-year-old daughter off the back deck, where she was already attempting to jump up and down while insisting that she be allowed to ride, because we should have just named her “Danger” and spared everyone the bother of having to figure it out. Our son climbed on board and decided it wasn’t so great after all: the bike was wobbly, it was scary. We bucked him up with memories of biking in Copenhagen, even though he wailed that he wanted to ride on the Bobike Maxi again (a seat he had since outgrown). Matt said he’d ride slowly. They took off and DISASTER. Without footpegs or panniers to block the spokes, our son’s foot, clinging to the bike as tightly as possible in fear, went directly into the spokes, cutting and bruising his ankle. Maybe those missing parts weren’t so non-critical after all. We felt like idiots.
So the first attempt to ride the MinUte ended with our son weeping in pain and fear and howling that he never wanted to go near a bike again. Matt rode home to get the minivan and we went home that way, feeling completely defeated.
We had about three days before the next soccer pickup to convince our son to try the bike again. The bike shop’s mortified owners called to say that they’d found the discontinued foot-pegs on Ebay for us, but it would be a couple of weeks before they arrived. No one had a clue when the bags would arrive. In the meantime we needed some motivation and we needed something to keep his feet out of the spokes.
Motivation came from massive amounts of screen time. We set up a slide show on Matt’s computer made up of shots of them riding in Copenhagen, which helped, but what helped even more was a movie from Car Free Days, showing their son jumping on and off the back deck of an Xtracycle. I could not be more grateful that they posted that movie; we must have watched it 100 times that afternoon. Our son thought it was the coolest thing ever. Something to keep his feet out of the pegs came after he went to bed. I kludged together the world’s most ghetto panniers; a piece of kraft paper folded to make two pockets, held together with duct tape (as noted: not handy). He could put his feet in the pockets to prevent them going into the spokes until the real footpegs and bags arrived.
The next morning we walked the bike down to Golden Gate Park—flat! no cars!—to try riding again. After a day of unrelenting motivational efforts our son was not totally repelled by the idea. We spent the walk talking up the safety features of the duct tape panniers. (Because he is six this did not meet with the ridicule it deserved.) At the park, faced with the prospect of actually getting on the bike, he decided it wasn’t such a good idea after all. With much prompting, he finally tried it, feet firmly planted in the new duct tape pannier pockets, but immediately wailed that he wanted to get off. Matt lost patience and rode off anyway, leaving us with a dopplered, “NOOO!!!!!!!!” A few hundred feet later, our son was cheering and shouting that he loved riding the new bike. Success! Since then he’s been impossible to extricate from that bike. He is as proud as royalty riding it into school and wrote up his story of learning to ride it for a school project. His teacher assumed that it was fictional, given that everyone else in the class wrote about their superpowers (e.g. flying, invisibility). He now wants his own bike, which we’d previously assumed was months if not years away.
So is the MinUte everything we’d hoped for? Yes and no.
NO: Matt got the larger frame size (20”), and it turns out that it is too large for me to ride. My brother-in-law says that this is a design decision and the frame could easily be modified by Kona to be more adjustable for people of varying heights; whatever the reason, this is a one-person bike in our household. We also had hoped that our daughter could ride on the back deck with our son. This was unrealistic; although there’s plenty of room, she is too young and too adventurous for that to be safe unless she’s strapped into a child seat. The can-do folks at Everybody Bikes could probably figure out a way to convert one of the Xtracycle UteDecks to a MinUte deck (the MinUte deck is 24”, while the Ute’s is 31” and the Xtracycle’s is 28”) and use it to mount a seat for her behind our son, and we might still do that. But if the kids were 4 and 6 instead of 2 and 6, both of them could ride on the deck without adding seats. As expected, this bike isn’t grab-and-go as a commuter; Matt needed lights and he has to strap up his pants. He works in an office with a dress code and no shower, so on days when everyone’s in a suit for foreign visitors, it’s easier to take the train. I think that this would be true for any bike though. The cargo bags, which arrived two months later, lack a shoulder strap so they’re hard to carry around once off the bike. We had initially thought that we’d both get MinUtes, but we now feel that doesn’t make sense given our kids’ ages and our daughter’s need for a child seat.
MAYBE: We are not sure if it will fit on the bus rack, although I suppose it’s a good sign that we haven’t yet had to try. Standard bus racks apparently fit bikes with a wheelbase of up to 46” (I had to look this up) and his frame’s wheelbase is… 46.4” (the 18” MinUte frame’s wheelbase is about an inch shorter). I’ve been told that people have squeezed recumbent bikes with 47-48” wheelbases on Muni racks, though, so, possible? Further updates as events warrant.
YES: There is a lot to love about this bike. Matt has no problem taking the hills with our son on the back and with cargo. Granted, for the first week he came home drenched with sweat every day even after taking the elevator (which doesn’t cover the whole hill). But it’s gotten easier; he now only rarely takes the elevator and doesn’t always need a shower, and we live at the top of a really steep hill (veloroutes says 16% if you take the direct route), a situation that has led to my classifying any city in the world other than La Paz, Bolivia, as “flat.” And as promised, the MinUte is basically the length of a normal bike—my bike is ~68” front to back and the MinUte is ~73”. It fits in the elevator (barely) and it fits in Matt’s cubicle. Matt enjoys riding it to work and finds it pretty nimble, although it’s definitely heavy. He gets a lot of envy and questions from other dads with Trail-a-bikes riding on Market Street, one of the more challenging parts of his route to the Financial District, who say that the bike+trail-a-bike is often frighteningly unstable and that hauling an extra bike length in back is limiting, especially after dropping off the kid. Based on that feedback alone we’re glad we didn’t go with that option (or for that matter, with a trailer). With the foot-pegs and stoker bars the bike looks made for two riders, but when our son’s not on board the bike looks like a heavy-duty commuter; no need to add a child seat. After our son’s drop-off Matt can use the back deck to carry more stuff, not that there’s ever been any need for that given that the bags hold a ton already. When we’re riding together even a single bag swallows everything from extra jackets and clothing to both U-locks to whatever we buy while we’re out, and he can grab things without getting off the bike; it has the capacity of a trailer without any of the hassles involved in hauling a trailer in the city. Our son can easily ride the back deck until middle school if he wants to, and his sister can ride there once he’s an independent rider.
The MinUte isn’t the bike for everyone—I doubt you could fit two child seats on the deck—but we like it very much. I’m sure that it can carry less than a standard longtail, but it holds plenty for a small urban family, and it’s much more adaptable because it fits in small spaces like Matt’s cubicle. For new bikers like us, it’s been a nice entrée into cargo/family biking, precisely because it’s short enough that it’s possible to take it everywhere a normal bike could go. The thought of getting a big bike as our first bike was kind of scary. It is also easy to carry a kid (maybe two) and cargo without having to figure out how to add accessories like a trailer, another thing that felt kind of scary. And it is definitely a conversation starter, particularly with our son on board. Family biking is still enough of an oddity in San Francisco that even at events with valet bike parking, where it’s safe to say you’ll see a lot of bicycle diversity, people are always asking us about our bikes and where we got them. This bike was so much fun for Matt and our son that my daughter and I grew jealous. One day a couple weeks after they’d started riding, my son leaned over at dinner, patted my hand, and said, “It’s okay, mommy. You can get your own bike soon.”