Saturday, May 25, 2024

Shopping for a non-electric family bike: Which option would you pick?

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(Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

A few weeks ago I explained a conundrum: I have greatly enjoyed riding my leisurely e-trike, but I haven’t gotten enough exercise. One of my original family biking goals was to get more exercise with my children. However, as my husband describes it, the pedal-assisted trike is “like coasting downhill, both ways” — fun, yes! But not necessarily a source of fitness. 

Thus, I have been toying with the idea of returning to a non-electric cargo bike. This is particularly relevant, as I am riding both with young children in my cargo box and my newly independent kid-riders. This means my e-assist doesn’t increase our speed or range because I have to ride at the ability, pace, and distance that accommodates our slowest kid rider. It therefore seems a most opportune time to ditch the motor and pedal myself and little ones, getting some good exercise while my big kids learn to pedal themselves. 

With that crazy idea in mind, I took the kids out for some test rides. Which option would you pick?  (Notes: I had to test ride the bikes with motors, but I would purchase the human-powered model. I’ve also shared my children’s opinions too. The drawings represent their viewpoints, not mine.)

Option 1: The Steel Steed

I saw this blue beauty pop up for resale, and I knew I had to try it. I had been wanting to try a Dutch-made bike for years, and this looks just like the original Emily Finch bike, which she rode motorless with six children (four in front, one on the back rack, another pedaling on an attached tow-bike). This one had an aftermarket motor installed, which could be removed — if I wanted to stick to my plan to get a human-powered cargo bike, and try to copy Emily.

A few details:

  • Workcycles bakfiets
  • Used from local seller: $3,500 with rain cover and motor (would have to pay to have motor removed)
  • Steel frame

Pros:

  • My kids loved this bike (see my daughter’s illustration above)
  • “Rides like a dream” –says my daughter. Very comfortable ride, especially for passengers
  • The e-assist is fast and the throttle button is very helpful when getting started
  • Spacious and comfortable cargo box with bench seat
  • It’s a gorgeous bike

Cons:

  • Heavy! I tried riding it, unassisted, without kids (so no load weight), and the bike itself felt extremely heavy. (How did Emily pedal such a heavy bicycle?) Steel is heavy.
  • Swept-back handlebars and upright riding position: I have learned I don’t like the feel of this style of handlebars, and with the hope of riding unassisted, I am looking for a more athletic biking position.
  • Would have to pay to remove the after-market motor in order to get my exercise, but the motor was the bike’s best feature
  • I didn’t feel as confident in the brakes. I had to really push hard to bring this bike to a stop.
  • This bike was hard to maneuver from stopped, and hold upright when slow/stopping. I didn’t feel confident riding it unless I was using the e-assist. It is comfortable when moving, but I worried about tipping the box over when it was heavy with a full load of children.
  • My kids hated the rain cover, as it squished them too much and didn’t fit their helmets.

Overall:

I hated the feel of this bike on its own (a total shock, as I really wanted to love it!) With the motor on, it was absolutely fun and fantastic. Motorized, this bike goes fast. If I wanted a zippy and beautiful e-bike, this would be great. But I would rarely be able to use the motor at high speeds, since I would then leave behind my big kids riding their own kid-powered bikes. With the motor, I wouldn’t achieve my goal of a human-powered family bike. And without the motor, I didn’t want to ride it.

Option 2: The Jittery Speedster

A few details:

  • Yuba Supercargo Front Cargo Bike, non-electric, with open-loader box
  • $3,734 from Clever Cycles (with baseboard, open-loader box, rain cover & bench seat)
  • Aluminum frame
  • Cable steering

Pros:

  • Lightweight! With the aluminum frame, bamboo baseboard, and fabric box, this bike felt lightweight, even when fully loaded with kids
  • Fast: I test-rode the e-version with “no assist” the entire ride and I felt fast. My kids said, “Too fast!” And “This is way faster than our Bunch trike.”
  • Super-responsive: the cable steering responded to even slight movements, turning quickly. And the brakes were amazing – so much so, that I had to be careful not to stop too fast.
  • Decent-size cargo box, with bench seat.
  • Step-through frame (I enjoy the ease of this, accommodating dresses more comfortably, and much easier when riding pregnant/postpartum and out-of-shape: no high leg lift over the top tube)
  • Great feel and fit: I loved the handlebars and seat immediately. I know these can be changed, but it feels amazing to ride a bike with the perfect seat and handlebars. The bars provided a more athletic riding position, which is just what I wanted.
  • I loved riding this bike. I was sure I would ride it immediately if I bought it, and not mind the absent motor. It felt light, fast, and zippy–no motor needed.

Cons:

  • The cable steering was too responsive. The front wheel felt wobbly, responding to every shift in weight. On an uphill section I zig-zagged somewhat dangerously as I shifted my weight side-to-side on the pedals. On the downhill, I still had trouble holding her straight and steady. I worried about the possibility of wobbling into a passing car.
  • Bumpy ride for passengers.
  • My kids hated this bike. It was bumpy and wobbly and they were convinced I was going to veer off the path and tip us into the Willamette.

Overall:

I was disappointed that this bike I liked was adamantly opposed by my children. I liked it because it felt the lightest and fastest, yet I share their concern about the “wobbly” feel. They were very uncomfortable. Would I improve my skills and get used to the highly responsive cable steering, or would the jittery feel of the steering become more annoying to me and all of us? It felt like this bike had a few shots too many of espresso–for better and worse.

Option 3: Splendidly Smooth and Steady

Details

  • Larry vs Harry Bullitt (human-powered)
  • ~ $4,000 from Splendid Cycles (price adjustments based on customized choices)
  • Aluminum frame
  • Solid arm steering
  • Choice of a standard or long deck frame and variety of boxes
  • Human-powered Bullitts are customized, made-to-order

Pros:

  • Custom-made, high-quality, dream bike. The ability to participate and choose the build-up of this bike is extremely exciting.
  • Smooth ride. My kids approved!
  • Smooth steering. The whole ride was smooth and steady.
  • Strong brakes. A tap to stop us. I felt very secure with the brakes.
  • My kids liked this bike. They felt the smooth ride. (My daughter gets motion-sickness, and she approved it.) Their approval is particularly notable because they were the most squished in this cargo box, the most tired at the end of our day, and compared to the first bike, I didn’t use the e-assist much. I think they just knew a high quality bike when they felt it.
  • Supports local businesses: the wood cargo boxes are made-in-Portland
  • The shop is so-much-fun! I want to go back. My kids want to go back. We would all enjoy building our dream bike with this amazing bike-building crew.
  • Beautiful. This is a beautiful bike.
  • Feels “worth it.” It’s hard to fork over a lot of money for a non-e-bike. But the quality and customization of this bike feels like a worthy investment in a beautiful lifetime machine.

Cons

  • Felt heavy. I think the wooden cargo box may have added a lot of weight compared to the canvas box on the Yuba, and I was feeling it.
  • Felt slower than the Yuba. (Maybe I was tired, but it felt harder to pedal this bike.) I didn’t feel zippy and zoomy.
  • I didn’t immediately fall in love. (This isn’t a fair assessment, as I could build-a-bike-to-love. But I didn’t love the handlebars or seat that I tried, and it’s hard to assess what my custom bike would feel like, compared to the one that was available to test-ride.)
  • No bench seats in the cargo box. This really squished my passengers and eliminated under-seat storage space.

Option 4: Keep what we have

I could give up the outlandish idea of riding a human-powered family bike. We could just keep our e-trike with its huge cargo box, lots of storage, great bench seats, e-assist, and fun coasting leisure-ride. Save money and get a gym membership instead?

What should we pick? What have you picked for your family bike? Did you test ride multiple options? Bike or trike? E-assist or human-powered? Local shop or shipped in? What was your favorite? How did you choose? Does anyone regret their choice? Tell me more. We’d love to hear from you.

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