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Nov112013

« Bionx Bullitt Cargo Bike Review »

The odometer on my Larry vs Harry Bullitt with Bionx electric assist just rolled over 1,000 1,500 2,000 miles this week.

This review has had a long gestation period.

The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved. 

The Bullitt is something I've had lust in my heart for since 2010, when I borrowed one for the weekend from Splendid Cycles, in Portland. Joel and Barb have been fine-tuning their spec and accessories for this bike since that time, and truly have it down. 

My life and family configuration changed last year, when my wife and I separated, amicably. Bike-car interfaith marriage issues were not responsible, if you're wondering. I now live blocks away, and as you may recall, we were already down to one car (and a surfeit of bikes). As the bike guy, I relinquished the family car, but held considerable anxiety about actually being carfree, and having the kids three days a week in hilly, rainy Seattle. Kids who have classes at Seattle Center, and birthday parties, and such. A dad with friends who live across town that he likes to carouse with at post-bedtime hours. While cargo bikes we had aplenty, none had rain-cover for the kids PLUS sleepability PLUS reliable, effective e-assist. 

Zipcar doesn't do one-way, car2go doesn't have room for 2 kids. It was looking like I might be looking for a cheap backup car. After all, I ride bikes because it makes me happy, not because I'm anti-automobile. It then dawned upon me that I could buy/insure/maintain a craptacular automobile or a spectacular cargo bike for the same amount of money (you can just hear the self-justification, can't you?). 

Enter the Bullitt. I contacted Joel and Barb about the shop bike that they were selling (which, for various reasons, didn't end up working for us). They offered me a bit of discount and financing, which I am mentioning for disclosure, in exchange for having a visible and demo-able Bullitt-with-all-the-trimmings in Seattle. But yes, it still cost a lot of money. And no, they can't offer similar terms to other families, I am afraid.

I covered initial impressions and spec in my original first impressions post, and won't duplicate it all here.

The LvH box, kid seat, and Blaq/Joe/Splendid Raincover

Expensive to add, but so worth it. I had originally intended to build my own box, and hoped that their raincover could be kludged onto it. There has been much creativity in the custom box category:

But. The raincover was what makes this bike a car-replacement, in my climate. And it was unlikely to fit a wider cargo box, which was what I wanted, thinking that my kids wouldn't fit side-by-side in the narrowed Larry vs Harry solution [they do have a canopy that fits their wider wooden box now, however].

And guess what, they do fit! Drew is standard-sized 6yo, Luc is a wee 4yo, and it's a tight fit. They squabble about shoulder overlap at times, but blasting tunes in the box or handing out books takes care of that. When things get fierce, or for naps, I can put one kid in front facing backwards, or have one stand behind the handlebars. I thought that spot was going to be "the penalty box," but Luc actually prefers it there if the weather is nice. Crotchal clearance behind the bars works out for ~4yo and up.

The seat is comfortable, light, and folds up neatly. The deck and sidepanels are stylish, light, honeycomb aluminum. The design, build quality, and design of Larry vs Harry stuff is impressive. And the raincover is a GODSEND.

Truly, people. My kids have never fussed about school dropoff in the cold and wet the way they did on the uncovered MADSEN or xtracycle. We keep a cuddly blanket under the cover, but there's enough wind-protection and greenhouse effect that it's mainly used for coziness. Luc can nap, and his head lolls just right against the vinyl of the window. Or he can lie down, if it's just him. I can ride without gloves, and it keeps my body warmer and a bit drier.

It comes off and on easily, but isn't something you'd be rolling up during the course of an outing. I just left it on all winter, unless it was a blustery day without kids. Because yes, like any big-surface-area item, it does get exciting in windy conditions. That said, I got surprised by blustery weather plenty this winter, and other than some white-knuckling in high gusts, I didn't get knocked over or sent significantly off course. Weight in the box helps. I'd be very nervous riding in a downtown wind-canyon scenario thusly, but it wasn't as bad as I feared for my commute.

This weekend I was riding along the sound in 20 knot gusts, and the cover was skewing to the side (annoying Drew), but the bike was ridable. With a side-wind, you do have to hold your hands outboard on the grips to prevent the brake lever from catching vertical tent pole of the cover, however. Joel mentioned that he has a way to improve this issue when I got the bike, but I haven't bothered, as it only is a concern on windy days.

Bionx Electric Assist

Electrical engineering magic. This assist gives you superpowers. The name is spot on, as you truly feel bionic when you're riding a Bionx bike. It senses your effort and assists to match, which just makes you want to pedal harder and faster. So you still get exercise, just going further and faster than you might otherwise. It makes a loaded cargo bike feel like a nimble road bike.

I've tried other e-assists - Clean Republic, eZee, StokeMonkey, and various mid-drive assists. They all have their pros and cons, but Bionx is my current favorite (although what Grin Tech is doing with Stokemonkey looks enticing). To use an overworked analogy, it's the Apple of e-assists. It just works (unless it doesn't), it's well-designed, doesn't look like a science fair project, it's a joy to hop on and ride, but no, you can't use a 3rd party battery or tweak the controller, and battery replacements will cost you. 

I opted for the PL350 version, which is the "mature" 36V Bionx, with high-torque motor. Bionx has a newer motor, but Brad and others have had reliability issues with it. There is a newer 48V battery as well, which Dorie/HumoftheCity opted for, and that makes sense given San Francisco hills. But I've found this setup to be just fine for our needs. I've only once overheated, and that was biking straight up one of Queen Anne's steepest hills with 2 kids on board. It failed gracefully, I grunted up the last few blocks, and it was good to go when we left. When this battery fails I would consider upgrading the battery to get more distance out of a full charge. With cargo and hills and heavy usage the 36V battery sometimes gets low after about 15 miles of level 3 assist (yes I'm that lazy sometimes). I haven't run out yet, but for an all-day all-over-the-city urban flaneur adventure I'd want more range.

I tend to use level 2 or 3 assist, which keeps me in the big chainring unless going up moderate-steep hills, and lets me get some exercise while maintaining a speed of 15-19 MPH. It cuts my 30 minute commute to 20 minutes, with less schweatiness at the destination. Yes, you will pass many Cat 6 commuters, which can be fun, especially with cargo. 

I have no regret about having gone electric. Electric assist on cargo bikes replaces car trips, not bike trips. I still get a nice amount of exercise, and I've dramatically expanded my route and distance with cargo options. Could I get there without assist? Probably, but more slowly, with more effort, and more grumbling. I ride for joy, convenience, and enhanced interactions with my kids and the world, not to win purity points. 

As for roofrack-rider comments about electric assist being "cheating," or bike-curious "how-much-does-it-cost-wow-I'd-never-spend-that-much-on-a-bike," not having a car helps. It's the smugness trump card. Can't afford a Bullitt? Sell a car. Of course there are many many families who can't afford and don't want or need a bike like this. But for those that really would like to replace a car in their lives, this is one fine setup.

The Handling

The first few minutes on this bike are an almost universal disaster for people trying it out. Chances are you will tip/drop the bike on your first wobbly ride. I don't know why that is. Other front-loader "Long John" bikes are not like this. 

And yet, after a day or two on the bike, it handles so nicely - responsive, sporty, swoopy. The adjustable stem height feature is brilliant - lift the stem for tall kid helmet clearance or sit-up-and-ride position, or lower it for messenger competitions.

Perhaps the bike geometry gurus out there can explain why this bike's initial and subsequent handling are so different. I still don't know if this is a design flaw or feature. Is the horrid initial feel necessary to allow later handling bliss? I don't know. But trust the Bullitt owners, or borrow one for a long ride or weekend, before you give up on this bike over the initial handling. 

As an aside, going back and forth from Bullitt to Brompton is hilarious, as they are so opposed in their handling that I feel briefly newby all over again when I switch.

Handling with load? The very low cargo platform, and super-solid design (the overbuilt aluminum frame is the platform) make this my favorite heavy load bike. I've had 3 kids in the box and one behind the bars with confidence.

The Spec

My bike came with Splendid's SLX 3x9 spec. Hydraulic disc brakes are incredible. I can stop this bike with 2 fingers. Great modulation, low post-setup maintenance (so far, but I haven't had to work on them). 

The gearing works well for Seattle hills. I certainly don't need all those gears with Bionx working, but will be very happy to have them if the battery runs out. Alfine 11 would have been nice, but the Bionx is rear-hub only. I don't love trigger shifters (prefer grip-shift), but that's me, and generally NBD.

The wheelsets are bomber, with burly rims and spokes. I have broken 2 spokes, but that was user error both times, with me (and then a friend) rocking the bike off the stand with the Abus spoke lock engaged. Whoops. Easy enough to fix without needing to remove the rear wheel, by the way. 

The Larry vs Harry stand is GREAT. Very stable, no futzy latch as on bakfietsen, doesn't twist like my Madsen's, I let my kids climb in at out at will, but it could potentially rock forward if parked facing downhill.

Cargo Capacity

Not as much as an xtracycle, MADSEN, or bakfiets, in this configuration. Of course, Splendid can turn this into a cargo monster for businesses, with huge alu boxes and trailers. But this box is narrower and shorter than a bakfiets long, has less volume than a MADSEN bucket, and doesn't swallow grocery bags while leaving room for kids on top the way a longtail does. 

And yet, I haven't needed more room all winter. I was sure I'd have to add big panniers to the rear rack, and may yet for summer bike camping, but for daily transportation and shopping, this setup does just fine. With the cover on, I can put kids in first and then fill the front of the box (and yes, their laps) with groceries. If I need more room I pull a kid out of the box and put him behind the handlebars, or on our trail-a-bike behind. 

The times I miss my xtracycle are when I want to bring multiple kid bikes along. It is so handy to tow their bikes with a longtail. I can fit 2 bikes under the raincover, or resting sideways on the sidepanels, but that leaves no usable room in the box. Now that both of my guys are 2-wheelers, it is likely that I'll replace the Piccolo trail-a-bike with a Followme Tandem this year, so that we easily can bring one of their bikes along on urban journeys.

Love and Quibbles

First, some quibbles, none problematic:

  • Bionx assist kicks in at 2mph, to prevent accidental use. Good concept, but 1mph would save my knees on hill starts. Firmware update on the way?
  • Can't yet wire lights or charge my phone from the battery harness, but that is also forthcoming, I hear.
  • I will confess to some ongoing anxiety about Bionx reliability and battery replacement costs. So far, so good.
  • The aluminum blocks that hold the tent poles are a bit sharp, and I wouldn't want a kid to land on the headset. I could file down those corners and cover the headset with foam. But I haven't bothered. 
  • No built-in rear rack braze-ons. Joel and Barb are able to install some though.
  • Mine has one over-the-shoulder harness, 2 lap belts. 2 5-point harnesses would be nice, but with the tight fit for 2 side-by-side, and the rain cover, things feel pretty secure.

Stuff I love about this bike:

  • Schwalbe tires with slime, so reliable, hold air well, no flats all year.
  • Hydraulic brakes - best brakes I've ever tried on a cargo bike.
  • Luscious paint, graphics, design, and finish. Bike are appliances? Pshaw. People love their bikes in ways they don't love their vacuum cleaner. This bike is gorgeous and lustworthy and I would park it in my bedroom if I could.  
  • Adjustable stem height, comfortable bars and grips (I put Ergons on mine).
  • Setup and support from Spendid Cycles. No one in North America knows these bikes like Joel and Barb. They are continually refining how they set these up, and have developed their own cargo platforms, covers, and boxes. 

Conclusion

I love this bike. You will not regret purchasing one. It can replace a car, and pay for itself. It should also have excellent resale value, like other imported rarified cargo bikes. 

Other bikes in its league would be the Xtracycle Edgerunner with electric assist, or the barely available Urban Arrow (pictured above). If you can save the cash, get bike financing, or sell a car, and are considering these bikes, do yourself a favor and test-ride if at all possible. In Seattle you can find Edgerunners and Bullitts at G&O Family Cyclery (WOOOOT!), and in Portland at Splendid Cycles (you won't want to miss Clever Cycles, of course). If a bike-vacation isn't possible, ask Joel and Barb if they know any owners closer to you.

I would choose the Bullitt over the other two again (haven't test-ridden the Urban Arrow however), as kids-in-front-fun and raincover trump the cargo versatility of the Edgerunner for me, and hydraulic discs and sportier riding position options tip the scales over Urban Arrow (new versions will have disc, though). 

Flying around town solo without the cover, or hauling kids and gear on camping trips, the Bullitt has been a sexy beast of a bike. Are there cheaper ways to haul family cargo with electric help? Yes, you can add less expensive e-assist options to Xtracycles and Yubas and MADSENs, or even use an upcoming electric bike trailer option. For me, the raincover, reliability, ride quality, and bomber components made the Bullitt a better choice, but the past 3 years has seen the Seattle family biking scene explode with many different options working well for so many families. It's a nice time to be a family cyclist, with options all along the price spectrum, from Craigslist trailers, to a wider variety of child seats, to midtails and lower-cost longtails, to the new breed of high-end, refined assisted bikes.

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Reader Comments (9)

You scooped my one-year Bullitt review--thank you!

November 12, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDorie

This is beautiful! (The review and the bike.) Though I'm sure I'll shake my fist at you angrily come winter when my ears are ringing with the howls of my frozen kids and I see you cruise by all warm and chipper.

November 14, 2013 | Unregistered Commenter@familyride

Yay, good to see a fresh, wonderfully wordsmithed Totcycle post!

And so glad you love the Bullitt. Though don't go baggin' on the humble vacuum.I know someone who's had a cherished Miele for longer than she's been riding cargo bikes!

November 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTim K

Very similar to my thoughts on our Bullitt. I switched out to albatross bars and like the extra leverage. My biggest quibble is that I've never had a bike that is as sensitive on saddle and saddle position. Three saddles and three seatposts to get it right. On our big dummy there was fine tuning but the Bullitt has a stark comfortable/painful divide.

We got the deluxe version with the custom box and love the bionx and bike. So much so that we're getting a bionxed edgerunner for m.

November 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPapabybike

Great review. Have fun!

November 15, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTodd Waddell

You've almost sold me on this one. Plan on heading to G&O to check one out!

April 28, 2014 | Unregistered Commenterspuddybuddy

The reason people have trouble with the bullitt steering at first is 2-fold:

- long wheelbase: so especially at low speeds, you have to shift the front end of the bike farther out to achieve balance by shifting weight relative to the wheels contact patches (which are the balance point).

- one-to-one steering: other longjohn cargo bike models tend to have a higher (>1) steering ratio, the bullitt is exactly one-to-one; the front wheel is always at the same exact angle from the frame as the bars.

The Solution: especially at low speed, overcorrect. Make bigger corrections than you're used to. The bike will balance faster, so you won't end up going off-course by the time you've re-established balance.

The Upside: once you're riding at speed, 1-to-1 steering is very precise, and less twitchy than other cargo bikes.

June 24, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterBen

Hello,

the load-bikes are a great thing!

In Germany the load cycles are also becoming more popular. In the big cities, they are particularly good for short transport routes.
Most users of this load cycles are parents who drive their children to school so and then want to do shopping in the supermarket.

February 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLasten Esel

A car with a very unique design. I will buy it for my niece, her love it very much. Thanks for your great reviews.

June 27, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLove My Kids

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