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Tuesday
Dec022008

« Madsen Cycles kg271 Bike Review »

I've been drooling over this Madsen Cycles "urban utility bike" since photos emerged at Interbike. As the economic meltdown reduced my chances of driving a $3,000 bakfiets with my toddler and baby-boy-to-be (due in Feb!) to less than zero, this emerged as a family biking contender. The other tempting option was an xtracycle with custom kid seats, but I like the facing-each-other and side-by-side social aspects of the Madsen bench seats, even as I missed the kids-in-front aspect of a bakfiets. Ah, tradeoffs. Party in the front? Or party in the back? We went with the mullet option.

The clincher was my wife. Never a huge fan of pedaling a bakfiets herself, being uncomfortable with the weight and having kids in front of her, she fell in love with the Madsen mom video, the fabu colors, and the fact that it looked as if it would ride more like a typical bike. In a moment of fiscal insanity, we ordered one from their website, since there is as yet only one dealer, in Portland.

What follows is our first week impressions, in what I believe may be the first in-depth online review. Scooped, Mr BikePortland.org! But seriously, Jonathan, we can't wait for your review, as your photos and preview put us over the edge.

What We Love

  • The RIDE - They nailed the handling here. Easier to hop on and ride than a bakfiets, which has a bit of a learning curve, and similar in feel to a longtail, but with the advantage of a 20-inch rear wheel for lower load and more sturdy wheel. Unloaded and heavily loaded, it's got a nice, stable, swoopy ride. Standing in the saddle up a hill with a big load does feel squirrelly - not sure if this is operator error or frame flex yet. My wife felt immediately comfortable on it (and in it, which our daughter thought was a hoot). It feels lighter and a bit more responsive than a bakfiets, and more stable in turns at lower speeds. And their design decision to put the load in the back does indeed make it more nimble over curbs and rougher road. Plus it's surprisingly fast - clocking in at about 70-75 lbs with our setup (measured by the oh-so-accurate stand on bathroom scale lifting bike method), it still got to work faster than me on my big black Dutch city bike. Maybe it's the slightly more sporty riding position.
  • The LOOKS - I do like a handsome bike, and the Madsen is a looker. The bin looks even better in person, mildly translucent, and the blue with orange fender detail is lovely, as are the curved tubes. I got pulled over twice today on my way to work by random folks wanting photos of me and Drew, and Seattle has seen more than a few bakfietsen and xtracycles. Then again, some think that we're riding a big blue trash can ...
  • The BIN - This bike is indeed a party in the back. When alone, Drew is the queen of Ballard, waving to passersby and spotting things of interest (cats, the moon, holiday lights). But with other kids, this thing comes into its element. Too much fun for all involved. Although I do pine for the bakfiets kids-in-front dynamic, as it's not as easy to keep an eye on things or hold a conversation in traffic. The bin loads cargo effortlessly, no strapping & bungeeing required. And the kayak-grade polyethylene material is bomber and weather-proof.
  • The STAND - Not as burly as a bakfiets stand, and currently ours is twisting a bit side to side (may need less grease). But it is a nice centerstand, and so nice to see one standard on a US utility bike. I'd supervise kids climbing in and out more than with a bakfiets stand, but it's doable for bigger kids.
  • The FENDERS - Finally - a "practical" bike that actually comes standard with decent, color-matched, wide fenders. Hopefully the other non-Euro bike companies will clue in. 
  • FRONT DISC BRAKES - Thank you. I'm still not sure why the Radish comes with a rear disc brake ... you want them in the front [update - see comments for more educated take on this]. Not much chance of endoing this bike.
  • The PRICE - See below for some 1st-gen complaints, and below-par spec, but $1299 is much more accessible than $3000. Then again, the bakfiets is of much higher build quality, is a more evolved design, already has a great rain cover, and comes standard with many things you'll upgrade to sooner or later. 
  • DELIVERY TIME - If you lack a local dealer, they can get it to your LBS in days for $100 (which you'd likely spend on sales tax), and will pay your shop for assembly and tuning. It took only 2 days for ours to arrive!

Upgrades

  • EXTRA BENCH SEAT - It's not clear from many online photos, but the standard bike with bucket only comes with one bench seat and 2 seatbelts. Ask them to include another seat and belts (add'l $30-40).
  • TIRES - You don't want a flat on a cargo bike, and fatter tires are better. Get yerself the fattest kevlar-belted Schwalbes that will fit. We've got Big Apples in the front and back, with slimed tubes.
  • SADDLE - The disposable saddle it comes with just won't do. He and she agree - we love our black Brooks B-67s. Double-sprung and comfy with a more upright riding position.
  • PEDALS - Get some big platforms. Grip King and MKS sneaker pedals are great.
  • DOWN LOW GLOW - Coolest upgrade ever. Blue ground effects on the long bottom tube look so fine, and lights up the bin from within. Magical.

What We Don't Love

  • BUILD QUALITY - Unfortunately, the bike we received displays some significant early model production issues. The installed fork had goofy brake mounts (hence the mysterious extra fork in the box). The disc brake rotor bolts were sketchy and needed to be replaced. The chainguard had to be bent up to clear the chain, and its rear attachment is a flimsy weld. There was a shifter housing on the rear brake cable. And so on ... I'm well aware of early adopter tradeoffs, and didn't expect this China-made bike to have the polish of a US or European bike, but this first production run bike feels more like a prototype to me. 
  • WELDS - Our hi-tensile steel frame has some pretty unsightly welds. I've seen nicer welds on Walmart bikes, I'm sad to say. I think they can do considerably better, even at this price point. The Radish, at $100 less, has cromoly steel and is made in Taiwan, with decent welds. 
  • PARTS - Since I like to choose my own tires, saddle, and pedals, I'm fine with the cheap spec there. But the spokes aren't great (thicker stainless spokes would be better on a cargo bike), the rims could be double-walled, and the accessory bolts are inexplicably cheesy (phillips head? why not allen?). And the seatbelt buckles are low quality - one of ours jammed on the first day, and I'm still cussing over it.
  • DRIVETRAIN - The chain management needs work. They currently have a plastic chain rest at the back end of the chainguard. We're having some mild chain rub on the plastic in most gears, and clonky-sounding chainslap against the guard in lowest gear. Some bending of the guard, filing of the plastic, or shortening the chain might help. Kudos on including a chain guard, though. What I'd prefer is a better chain idler, or an internally geared hub in the back. It's really nice to be able to shift when stopped on a cargo bike. As for the gearing, it's currently nice for lighter loads on moderate hills. Bigger loads on steep hills will need lower gearing, but unfortunately, the front chainring is part of the crank, so it'll be more complicated and expensive to downgear this bike. 
  • NO INSTRUCTIONS - My bike shop was disgruntled that this fairly unique bike arrived without instructions, diagrams, or photos of how things should go together. Big thanks to the gang at Aaron's Bike Repair for building it up so well anyway. I bet Madsen will remedy this soon, since they're footing the assembly bill.

Bottom Line

Despite the above issues, our family still loves the bike. And so do our friends. And random people in the street. It's nice to finally have a bike that bike-obsessed husband and bike-reluctant wife are fighting over, and that fits a 5'1" ("and 3/4") pregnant woman and a 5'10" guy. I hope they work out some of the above problems, upgrade some key components, and move production to a better facility. I'd love to see it built in the US, or Taiwan at least, but don't know how that might affect the price, and the market does need a decent-quality lower-cost family cargo bike. I do think this bike could and should thrive in the US market, as it's an out-of-the-box family biking gem, with a riding position and handling that's familiar to US riders. 

Because of the quality issues we experienced, I might ask them when you order about how they're addressing these problems, and I'd have your bike shop give it a careful check before you take it home. Or wait a few months for the next revision. I'm not good at that. And do consider some of the above upgrades, the tires at the very least.

The Future

I'll post more photos and updated ride reports as we spend more time on the bike, and do check out the photo of the rain cover prototype. WAY cool. 

My accessory idea? I want a fitted rain-proof cover that cinches around the rim with a shock cord, or better yet, a lockable cable. That'd protect the bin contents from rain, casual theft, and being mistaken for a trash can when the bike is parked. The hidden feature for our cover? Thick snuggly fleece for an inner lining, so it can be used as a cozy rain blanket for the kids when we're riding. I'll build it if they don't ...

We'll also be experimenting with alternate seating ideas. I think a foam cushion fitted into the bottom of the bin, for a lower seat without the bench would be great - we could still use the belts, at least in the front position, and keep a smaller child lower down for better protection, and for comfy napping. For longer rides, you really need to be able to let a child fall safely and cosily asleep, and the Madsen's got real napping potential. 

Update

Don't miss the Madsen Cycles Update followup to this review, as well as other posts tagged "Madsen".

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Reader Comments (10)

Nice review. I have yet to ride one, but noticed some of the same shortcomings you mentioned on the one that I viewed at the downtown Portland Bike Gallery. Although our family has a lot of riding time in with the Bakfiets--and I have long been intrigued by them, we purchased a less expensvie Breezer with rear hub shifter and Xtracycle this summer from Revolver Bikes in Portland. Had the Madsen been available at the time, we would have strongly considered it as well.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterScott Mizée

Thanks for letting me know about your blog. Brilliant review. The bike sounds like it is really delivering, and notwithstanding the tweaks you've had to do, it sounds like an absolute bargain. BTW - if you don't find a suitable solution to the kickstand, the Hebie Big Foot stand might be an option. The rain cover looks great, doesn't it. I reckon a walkie talkie installation would be a cool upgrade on the kiddie interaction front.

I really hope that they decide to bring these over here - or someone decides to do a tub for the Yuba (would that work?). How old do you reckon kids would be before they outgrow it?

I look forward to reading about your family's exploits in it.

December 3, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterDrMekon

Great review. Thought I'd mention that the likely reason the Radish has a rear disc brake is that on a long bike, a significant portion of the load is carried by the front fork, much more than on a regular bike. For this reason, you should use the rear brake in greater proportion than you normally would because hard front braking with a load can cause the front fort to fail. Which is why surly has this to say about the Big Dummy:

"! It should be noted that using the front brake only could cause the fork or frame to fail under heavy load conditions. Use both brakes and keep your speed under control !"

And the BD has a VERY beefy fork. The Madsen is subject to the same increase of front-fork load (slightly diminished given the length and wheel size differences, but still much greater than a standard bike.) So be careful.

December 5, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterWiley Davis

Thanks Wiley, I hadn't though of it that way. I'll lay off trying to lift the rear wheel at stops!

And Dr Mekon, thanks for stopping by ... love the walkie-talkie idea, especially when the rain canopy/"pope-mobile" cover shows up. I'll be riding the Madsen with a 2, 3 and 6yo this weekend, and will let you know how that works.

December 7, 2008 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

I have to say, while I am VERY impressed with the Madsen itself, the build is frankly pathetic. A bike built to handle that amount of mass needs to have MUCH better brakes, even the front disc is frankly pathetic.

I agree however, that the geometry is dialed, we stopped it up and filled it with thirty plus gallons of water and it still handled manageability-ish, we pushed it as far as possible. I'm an experienced Xtracyclist and I was impressed by the Madsen's ability to haul a 200 lb buddy. Madsen, Xtracycle, Fisher, Bakfiet ...I LOVE load hauling bikes!!

December 15, 2008 | Unregistered CommenterSinlgetrackMind

Hi Julian,

Thats a nice bike and co-incidentally (or not) very similar to a bike that i was going to dwell on in my next post on work bikes.

Have you seen the 8 freight? Its a Uk cargo bike, (cyclefix sell it and velovision have reviewed it). Its design is very similar and apparently it has a superb (bike like) ride just like the Madsen. (stunning price by the way!). I suspect some of the answers to your moans could be answered by some of the 8 freight solutions.

PS The 8 freights claim to fame is its stand. Hunt down the velo vision review and then mourn that you dont have it!

December 22, 2008 | Unregistered Commentercycledad

Indeed, a cool bike! Really nice low load placement, and the pneumatic stand release does look nice. Val's xtracycle centerstand has a handlebar lever actuator option as well, which seems to work very well.

December 23, 2008 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

I'm glad I came across your post. I was getting very interested in the Madsen but I am not a bicycle mechanic at ANY level, let alone experienced enough to make all the modifications you have. I have drooled over a bakfiets which I test-drove with my preschooler (and agree is too pricey) but will not buy a Madsen sight-unseen (and un-test-driven) after reading these notes. Thank you for sharing your experience.

April 6, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen

You're very welcome Kathleen - but please don't get the impression that I had to do any of this stuff myself. I just told my local bike shop what I wanted, and they made the substitutions when they assembled the bike. Now that Madsen is shipped pre-assembled bikes to folks that don't have a local dealer, they will be doing similar tweaks for interested customers. So bike mechanic skills are NOT needed. And is you want to try it with stock parts, your local bike shops that sell you any later upgrades should be able to get them on the bike for you.

April 6, 2009 | Registered CommenterJulian / Totcycle

Great post - you definitely have me reaching for the credit card! I do have one question - does the black bucket get hot? I hadn't thought much about it until my wife pointed it out - there are some specials on certain colors right now, with the black bucket / pink frame being the cheapest. It get's progressively more expensive once you start coordinating colors. With today's temperature reaching well over 30C it's definitely something I need to consider.
Thanks

July 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhil

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