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!
- 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.
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.
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.