How We Ride Now
August 29, 2012
Julian / Totcycle in Brompton, Electric, Madsen, Reviews, Xtracycle

It's been a while since our omnibus posts about the ages and stages of family biking, and our stable has evolved enough to be worth describing a bit.

My personal favorite city bike, light cargo bike, and ride with 3-5yo passenger choice is ... the Brompton folding bike, with an obscure front-child-saddle attachment called the ITchair. There are enough odes to Brommies out there that I won't bother much here, but yes, it is all that. Magical folding clown-bike jet pack for 2. 

Totcycle at Fiets of parenthood PDX

This beloved bike has travelled with me to SF, Berkeley, NYC, Vancouver, and Portland. Gate-checking has worked very well for me, with the bonus of getting to roll your bike and bag through airports. Trains and buses and subways are a cinch. With the trifecta of Brompton + smartphone (routes and transit planning) + transit, almost any trip is possible, with panache and adventure. And with the ITchair, you can do that all with your kid. Add in Zipcar or other car-sharing services and you can ditch the car, or a car, at least. Wicked cool. There just is no other bike that folds as small, carries cargo as well, is as fun to ride, and can carry a passenger. 

ITchair's are really hard to come by (they seem to be coming back as "Pere" accessory, with novel Bobike Mini adapter for younger kids?), and quite expensive if you do. One option I've been thinking about would be a narrow "grip deck" that could be attached to the top of the main tube. Because as cool as the "passenger stands in front of you" trick is, it's just too slippery and narrow up there for my 3 year old. But with a slightly wider platform, with skateboard grip tape, that didn't interfere with fold or pedaling, I think we'd have a great solution for bike to bus days in the winter. Both Luc and I got a bit wimpier last winter about wet cold commutes to work/preschool, so often found ourselves taking the Brompton to the bus.

Luc with Brompton, back of the bus

Our youngest has also graduated from front seats (sniff), so we are rolling with a longtail version of our city bike conversion. Yes, we have joined the xtracycle tribe. It really is a remarkable platform. Rides not much different from previous city bike incarnation,with cargo and passenger flexibility available at all times. Luc's strapped into a Bobike Maxi, as he still tends to snooze on the the bike:

Improvisational nap station

Drew is following in CarFreeDays' footsteps with fancy sidesaddle, no hands riding positions and running starts, dismounts, and Secret Service escorts where she runs alongside the bike with a hand on the snap deck. This is my current favorite family cargo bike, and the Seattle family biking scene is all about Big Dummies these days, thanks in no small part to Madi's cheerful advocacy and Edward, the cargo mechanic at Ride Bicycles

Drew's first running remount, courtesy of Madi / FamilyRide

The MADSEN is still the kids' favorite choice, as they like the social seating configurations, roller-coaster ride feel, sturdy kickstand that allowed them to clamber in and out, and the ability to slump over, lie down, nap, dangle their feet out of the box, etc. I still think this bike is great for younger families where having comfortable nap options are important. A front-loader box bike works well for that as well. But that kid and cargo-loading flexibility does come at a hill-climbing cost. 

So, we added a CleanRepublic front electric hub assist, in the bike shop "build your own wheel" cheaper version, with lithium battery pack. It was a screaming deal, but a PITA to get the front disc brake to work (I think things are easier now). Even at a relatively-underpowered-for-cargo 250W, having this motor was fantastic. Still got plenty of workout - it just majorly expanded our choice of routes in a hilly town, distances we'd consider biking, improved our trip times, and really reduced any lazy barriers to piling into the bike instead of the car. It flattens mild to moderate hills, and otherwise makes a cargo bike feel like a normal bike to ride, in terms of effort. To crunch up steeper hills on a regular basis you would want a burlier assist.

Sunny Day Madsen

However. The dirty secret of the ebiking "revolution" is that lithium batteries remain seriously unreliable (and expensive), with longevity in the 1-3 year range. Ours died hard 14 months in - 2 months after the anemic warranty expired. To replace it will cost almost $500. This does not make me happy. Even with top-of-the-line systems like Bionx, battery failures are depressingly common. So. If you go electric, look for longer warranties on lithium batteries, consider getting a deal on last-gen NiMH, or budget high running costs from battery replacement. Dig into A to B magazine's fantastic commentary and reviews for more insight on electric assist.

For another perspective on family cargo options from a Hill People perspective, don't miss Hum of the City's saga on finding the perfect cargo bike to replace their car. Stay tuned for the thrilling finale ... eMundo? Bionx Big Dummy? Or a dark horse like an electric Bullitt or Metrofiets?

As for us, we also also shed a car this year. We still have our Subaru, but my first car, an '89 Honda Civic with custom paint from my friends at Maria's Children, went off to the junkyard this year after conclusively giving up the ghost. Sad to see it go, but nice to realize that we didn't really need 2 cars. I have a Zipcar backup option, but haven't needed it yet. If I can get a new battery and MADSEN raincover going for this winter I think we'll be in great shape.

Decommissioning my car

I couldn't bear to part with the hood. So I kept it. It now adorns our garden.

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