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Aug242010

« Larry vs Harry Bullitt: Family Style »

Portland with a Bullitt

Larry vs Harry make stylish, relatively lightweight, modern reinterpretations of the Long John style of Danish cargo bike, where the load sits on a low platform in front of the rider. Think Old World Northern European cargo bikes mashed up with North American car/pimp culture, with a generous helping of messenger attitude and alu-high-zoot build. The lovechild of Steve McQueen, Cleopatra Jones, and an 1800s greengrocer. They have enormous curb appeal, are certainly the "sexiest" cargo bikes out there (if you like splashy, racy bikes). But how might they work as an everyday family cargobike? And am I cool enough to ride this bike? Based on the photo above, it appears that my kids have the look down.

We took a Bullitt for an extended demo this weekend in Portland, courtesy of Splendid Cycles (value: $25, which is their typical 24-hr rental fee). Travelogue and shop info here (they do ship, and to date have sold more outside of Portland than in). In terms of review comparisons, our regular family ride is a MADSEN cargo bike with "bucket seating" in the rear, and our first family cargo bike love was the bakfiets.nl Dutch family cargo bike, which we've rented on many occasions. Here's what we thought ...

Design and Build Features

In a word, splendid.

  • The paint schemes are incomparably delicious. More drool here.
  • The components are higher-end than I've previously ridden. Shimano Alfine 8-speed internal hub seemed even smoother than my Nexus 8, and still tolerates shifting under mild-moderate pedal pressure. Or choose an external 27-gear drivetrain.
  • The Alfine hydraulic disc brakes were easily the finest brakes I've ever experienced on a cargo bike. And unlike many, I actually appreciate the hub brakes on bakfiets/Dutch bikes. But these were powerful, very easy to modulate, and absolutely confidence-inspiring.
  • A unique and fantastic feature that I would love to see on other bikes is a quick-release stem height adjuster that quickly moves the handlebars up and down, for aggressive vs more upright riding styles, different height riders, and bigger kids (the bakfiets bars tend to clock older (4-5yo) kids in the helmet).
  • The tires were a Schwalbe hybrid I hadn't seen before with smoother tread centrally and more aggressive grip laterally. They worked fine, and I wonder if they might be helpful cornering in the rain.
  • The centerstand deploys easily and releases very cleanly by rocking the bike forward. While it lacks Val's handlebar release lever, at least there's no fiddling with feet or fingers to work the latch, as on some bakfietsen. That said, the bakfiets.nl stand is a 4-point stand that is unbeatable when it comes to letting big kids romp in and out of your parked bike. With the Bullitt, I'd keep a eye on wilder kids, or think about a rear brake lever cinch. But overall, stable enough, I think.
  • The wheelsets seem moderately burly, not in indestructible Workcycles territory though.
  • As for the cargo options, the stock bike ($3100) will need an additional aluminum honeycomb with nonskid platform from LvH ($230), or a box of some kind (see options here). Me, I'd probably build my own. The Bullitt child option, while sleek as all getout (and priced accordingly at $550 for side panels, folding seat with belt, and raincover, on top of the $230 deck plate), isn't really wide enough for my 2 kids. 
  • Bullitt Boat BikeBut the frame has a number of features that lend itself to cargo hacking (4 postholes, plentiful bolting options). Given how much fun the MADSEN has been to "upgrade" (DIY infant seat, Gelato Bike, etc), I would enjoy designing a reasonably lightweight but wider box with locking bench seat and rain cover. Splendid has a "Mr. Mom box" that's more in the direction I'd go. But I'd be tempted to try using the honeycomb deck with textured aluminum sidepanels that flare out. And then there's the Boat Bike option - how rad is this?
  • I would vote for rear rack braze-on's though. The dropouts are drilled for a rack, but unless LvH come out with a rear rack of their own we'd need to kludge one on. The bakfiets rack, by contrast, comes standard and is rated for major weight, which opens up a lot of rear cargo ability.

The Ride ...

Has a learning curve of a few blocks, and then is delovely. Having spent some time on bakfietsen, child-up-front tandems, and other bikes that use similar steering mechanisms, I thought I could just jump on a Bullitt and go at this winter's family bike demo. Err, not so much. But I take it all back! It does feel twitchier than similar bikes at first, especially unloaded. But after a few blocks, and certainly after a few hours of riding around with kids, it was juuuuuust right.

The bike is lighter than other versions of this style, which translates to zippier acceleration and noticably better hill-climbing. The frame is stiff enough to stand and mash up a hill, and the riding position (while adjustable) is generally more sporty than Dutch sit-up-and-ride bikes (the latest bakfiets.nl incarnation, if anything, seems to have an even slacker foot-down position). While I got my family cycling start on such upright bikes, lately I've been enjoying a slightly more sporty riding position, especially where non-flat rides are concerned. As for speed, this bike tends to slay the field in Danish cargo bike races, where it does enjoy a home-town advantage. With a lightweight platform or box this would be plenty speedy as an everyday commuter with special cargo powers.

The frame, however, is not a step-through. The top tube lends stiffness to the frame, and is low enough to easily get over, but it does limit the rider size to 5'3ish and up. Which is a bummer, as Kim is 5'1". Then again, she prefers the way the MADSEN feels to cargo forward bikes like the bakfiets anyway.

Family-Style

As much as I love our MADSEN, I do really like having the kids up front, as it's the social aspect of cycling a la familia that has me hooked. Conversations and parenting are easier. However ... this is not a big box. In the MADSEN, I can seat kids kitty-corner if they're starting to play the helmet head-butt game. In a bakfiets.nl long, the box is long enough to put one up front, and there's more shoulder room on the bench seat. In the Bullitt as we rode it (kids on a cushion, no belts), there were some turf wars. And then Luc wanted to move around and Drew tried to "tie him down", for safety.

Portland with a Bullitt     Luc does Portland

Kids plus cargo is cramped in the standard box, but it naps well.

So with my kids, it felt overall tolerable and safe enough for quiet streets at low speeds. But for carrying any cargo plus my two kids at higher speeds around town, I'd want a bigger box, restraints of some kind, and the option to put one behind me in child seat purgatory. I tried to make Drew ride behind the handlebars in the "penalty box" (there are handy footrests there), but she had crochal interference with the top tube. These are all doable adaptations for a motivated and handy parent. But the MADSEN and bakfiets.nl come that way stock, and have more room for cargo. I'd want a rear rack with sizeable panniers on the Bullitt if I was everyday cycling with 2 kids.

In the event of rainy climate, there is the LvH raincover/spray skirt, which is sleek and seemingly sidecar-inspired; I'd need some moto-goggles for the kids with that one. But I might prefer a bakfiets style canopy, with more of a cozy, warm, flashlight under the blankets feel. Splendid Cycles says Mike Cobb (of Yuba Mundo bag-designing fame) is on the case - exxxcellent.

For more than 2 kids, there's no question that a bakfiets or MADSEN would be preferable. They have more room for kids and their inevitable cargo, and again, come standard with multiple-kid design features. I especially like the lip on the bakfiets box that lets kids leap in on their own. Because they will try, and it's better that they don't bend your chainguard or ding their perineum in the process. Speaking of which, my box will have a rounded or foam-protected edge, and that front headset would have a tennis ball or similar cushion.

So which family cargo bike reigns supreme (remembering that I haven't even included xtracycles, Mundo's, or others in today's comparisons)? I love all three of these bikes; they all have tradeoffs. Price, inexpensive vs performance vs durable component choices, hill-climbing ability, extra kids and cargo versatility, riding positions, curb appeal ... and first impressions can be deceiving. If you have the opportunity to travel to a bike-friendly burg like Portland with extended demo opportunities, do it. Or make friends with that guy in your town with one of these. Or post questions below. But carefully consider your own family's needs and environs, current and future. It seems for us that the "ideal" family bike changes every year, so think versatility, or resale value at least.

Box Bikes vs Box Store Bikes

On the way back to our abandoned car, after returning the Bullitt, we got caught in a rain shower. Drew hopped off the Brompton's main tube and dove into our trailer, staying warm and dry. So there I was, easily transporting 2 kids and bags in safety and comfort using nothing more than a $300 trailer. Yet all the while, visions of my dream Bullitt Box danced in my head. Is there something clinically wrong with me? What do I have against trailers? Why even consider a $3,000 family cargo bike when a beater bike with trailer or xtracycle upgrade will get the same job done? Aren't bikes just humdrum "appliances" in evolved cycle cultures? So says the owner of this bike:

So This Century, By Mikael Colville-AndersenThat's a pretty sexy vacuum cleaner you're fetishizing there, Mikael (see Lovely Bicycle for a rebuttal). But I love the message in this poster. And while $3-4,000 cargo bikes are not going to save the world or take the US market by storm (big box bikes? try big box stores ...), they are captivating, cool, thrilling, and fun in ways that bike trailers are not, for driver or passenger. And arguably cooler than most cars. A Bullitt in a movie would run right over the Hollywood "bikes are for losers" trope. And in your neighborhood, bikes like these can mutate people's notions of transport in important ways. It was a bakfiets sighting that sent me on my giddy family biking journey, after all, and the way more affordable MADSEN is also a head-turner and assumption-tweaker.

So yes, I want a Bullitt. And no, it doesn't make practical or financial sense for us (we have multiply redundant ways to transport stuff by bike). Is it too soon to have a midlife crisis?

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Reader Comments (9)

Julian, well written. I think that about sums it up for all interested folks. As for myself, I am smitten on the Bullitt. There are two features that I love most (aside from cargo up front) and that is (1) it is a totally solid bike with no perceivable twisting--probably due to the cross tube and several triangles. I took the one you borrowed the week before and filled up the cargo bin and hauled it up a good sized hill, standing up, rocking it back and forth for full power. Not a flinch of concern. It rocked. (2) the multiple attachment points for various bungee, straps, et al as well as the easy set up to modify it with anything you want--love the back wall on the cargo area and the fact that it, too, has holes for bolts.

In a nutshell, I have reached a point where I am able to get another cargo bike since I had to sell my bakfiets (sadly to pay mortgage) and with the choice so easily available in Portland for comparison, I will cruise the Bullitt any day now.

But you are right. There is little reason to have a redundancy of bikes. I will keep the Mundo as that is a super hauler for other reasons (think sheets of plywood). However, the Madsen will go. My sons love the Madsen the most, but given their ages and sizes, they are pretty tall and make the already top-heavy seating wiggly.

Great to walk Alberta with you. Leave it to a person from Seattle to let me know that Alberta is having a fair. Sheesh. You have wonderful kids.

August 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTravis A. Wittwer

Much of the fun has been thinking of new designs beyond the boat. Riding with a child as cargo is so much richer beyond a box. Riding along the river recently Gavin asked why the boats were in the river -not on the path!

August 25, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjames

Entertaining and informative as usual! However, I have to reject the premise here:
"Why even consider a $3,000 family cargo bike when a beater bike with trailer or xtracycle upgrade will get the same job done? " Having your kid(s) in front of you is different (and I would say better) than having them behind you. How much better in dollars I haven't decided. Great post Julian.

September 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterPablo

Another great post Julian. The Bullitt looks nifty. I've gone another (quite unexpected) route for my 2nd family bike. I love my Mundo, and it serves us well for most of the year, but when the weather changes here (DC area), with the combinations of cold and wet, (read freezing and black ice), I find I resort to the automobile too much, which is a real bummer. So I've opted for the three-wheeled, canopy-covered Boxcycle aka Christiania. Have you tried one of these yet? This is definitely a different animal than the two-wheeled variety of cargo/kid carrying contraptions.

September 12, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMax

Thanks, Pablo! That was not meant to be my "voice" there ... believe me, I consider $3,000 bikes all the time. And Max, I'll be trying a Christiania next time I'm in PDX, at Clever Cycles. I feel like I was cheating on them a bit with the Bullitt and Splendid Cycles. But I have come out as bicycle polyamorous, so I guess that extends to shops too.

September 13, 2010 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Check out my S.O.S. Mobile Classroom. This cargo bike will be a teaching tool, bringing sample, and setting up workshop in school and community events.

September 13, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTattfoo

The Bullitt is by far the coolest Long John style (or any style!) cargobike around! There are a few limitations to the off-the-rack bikes, but this might help some of these issues:

http://dutchcargobike.com.au/2010/10/dutch-cargo-bike-exclusive-distributor-for-harry-versus-larry-bullitt-bikes/bullitt-cargo-bike-plus-open-canopy/

If not, consider Winther's Wallaroo:

www.kangaroobike.com/media/Wallaroo_flyer_English.pdf

...which is basically a Bullitt (same designer) with a slightly longer frame and a canopy seating arrangement for two kids.

For those of you looking a tricycles, have a look at Winther's Kangaroo or Nihola's models.

November 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAdam

I have 3 young children and live in Seattle. I am researching the Bullitt since we have hills and it apparently can take electric assist and strong brakes and so far am not learning that the fietsen have strong enough brakes. Do you not think the Bullitt could take a box big enough for 3?
Confused,
M

September 14, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMolly

Oh, it could, and I believe Spendid Cycles has a guy that can make a wider box. See Dorie's posts at Hum of the City for a similar search and recent demo ...

September 14, 2012 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

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