Bikes

Selecting a cargo bike: take two

In mid-February we found out that T got a job he’d applied for in Seattle. We had just about a month to move to Seattle and get settled before he started work. One of the first things we discussed was what the commute situation would look like and that we both wanted to stick to biking as much as possible, trying to go beyond how much biking we’d been doing in Eugene. That meant it was time to make some decisions about the bike.

We considered keeping the Boda and adding e-assist to it. Doing that with a system powerful enough and reliable enough to be confident of it working out for us in Seattle was going to run around $2000. Not awful, but not terribly cheap and we were worried that the high center of gravity would cause problems for me, especially on hills and that the extra weight with the assist would only exacerbate that problem in some ways. Furthermore, we’d still have the problem of the kids not being very protected from the weather, which would limit how much we were willing to get out and use the bike instead of the car. Since the resale on cargo bikes is quite good we decided to try selling the Boda and picking out an assisted cargo bike that would be the right fit for us in Seattle. It turned out we were able to sell it very quickly for a loss of only ~$500 compared to what we purchased it for. The new family had kids very similar to the ages of ours (and in fact they got along wonderfully and did not want their playdate to end when the bike sale was all done!) and the accessory setup we had was a perfect fit for them. We only hung on to one Yepp seat for later use, which has come in quite handy for us already!

Now it was time to figure out what the new bike would be. By this point I’d joined a couple of cargo and/or family biking groups and knew a more about what was available. I was intrigued by box bikes, which seemed like they could solve the issues we had with the Boda and cold and/or rainy weather and would offer easier loading and unloading and a low center of gravity. But I was worried about whether I’d be able to get such a bike up hills even with an electric assist. Plus, there weren’t many options to test ride box bikes (especially assisted ones) in Eugene. That was when I found out that Portland is pretty much the box bike capital of the US. Lucky us! We were going back and forth through Portland as a part of our move and looking for a rental house in Seattle, so we made plans to stop by a couple of stores there to check out bikes.

Our first visit was to Clever Cycles. There we test rode the Douze and a Workcycles Bakfiets. The first thing I discovered is that riding the Boda with the breadbasket on it had prepared me pretty well for riding box bikes. I was already comfortable with the “don’t look at the front wheel” aspect and found that I took to it pretty quickly. The first bike I rode was the Douze. From what I knew about it I was expecting to like it quite a bit, but it was clear pretty much immediately that it wasn’t the right fit for me. To be completely fair to it I should probably go back and ride it again, since it was my first box bike and I’ve become much more comfortable on them since then, but it isn’t a good enough fit for our needs to be worth it. The Douze is unique due to the cable steering system (other box bikes use linkage steering; **Edit: The Yuba Supermarche has recently become available and also utilizes cable steering**) and the fact that it can be disassembled fairly quickly for easier storage or transport. There are some nice child-related accessories available for the Douze but the child setup wasn’t going to work well for my 18 month old and the rain cover seemed very low (which I’ve learned is a frequent issue with rain covers made in Europe where very few children are wearing helmets so less overhead clearance is needed). The box they had in stock was the smaller one and was definitely too small for our needs. It does come larger but overall the bike just didn’t feel right to me so I didn’t end up looking much further into it. I had been hoping to ride the Urban Arrow, but they were on order and the arrival date was not clear. Although I knew the Workcycles Bakfiets was not going to meet our needs (the roller brakes just aren’t up to the hills in Seattle) I did give it a ride anyway. I liked the geometry a lot, couldn’t stand the brakes, but overall loved the feel of the bike and how much space was available in the box even with H on board. That there is no way to add a different braking option killed it for us though. Even on relatively flat terrain I was unnerved by the lack of responsiveness in the brakes and I know there is no way I’d ever feel safe with that setup on substantial hills or in traffic. We left Clever still interested in box bikes but quite certain that we hadn’t found the right fit for us.

On the return from Seattle a few days later we stopped by Splendid Cycles and were able to test ride the Riese and Müller Packster 80 and a Bionx assisted Larry vs Harry Bullitt. From the reading I had done I thought the Packster was going to be the winner for me, but I’ve had reality clash with what I was expecting based on my background research before and was prepared to find out that the reality of the Packster didn’t live up to what I’d read. I shouldn’t have worried. As soon as I got on I loved it. After a quick spin to get my bearings I loaded H up into the box and went for a bit longer ride. Despite deciding to take out the longer box I found the handling and turning radius exceeded my expectations. The front shock made the ride amazingly smooth, and what may have pleased me most was just how quiet the whole thing was other than the moderate amount of noise from the motor. Over bumps the Packster was smooth and solid. I loved it! H loved it! Climbing the biggest hill around (which, granted, was rather tame) was effortless even with the assist on level 2 (bizarrely called “tour” by Bosch). And I found that I really loved the feel of the assist as well. Back at the shop I appreciated how stable the bike felt while I was walking it around with H in the box and that the low stepover allowed me to get on and off the bike easily and without having to lean it. I also liked the 5 point harnesses for the kids and relatively plush seating in the box. The more comfortable the ride the longer the kids will be willing to go.

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H and her companion in the Packster 80 before our ride. Lots of room to stretch out!

My last test ride for that week was a Bionx assisted Bullitt with a 2 kid wooden box. The Bullitt is also available in a mid-drive version with the Shimano STEPS system. This is a great system, but I was advised by Joel that he felt it wouldn’t have the power I needed to get up the hills in Seattle with a full load. I have some experience now with that system in T’s commuter bike and I have to say that Joel is probably right. It’s a great system but the torque is not as high as the Bosch motor on the Packster, so it just doesn’t compare on hills. I’d read a lot of good things about the Bullitt and it was definitely a nice bike, but it didn’t top the Packster for me. In comparison to the mid-drive Bosch system on the Packster the Bionx Bullitt was powerful but not as fun to ride. The wooden box, which would have been a must to get the space I wanted, rattled over bumps. And the higher stepover was a problem for me. Although I can easily straddle the bar it makes getting on and off the bike difficult for me to do without leaning the bike, which I hate having to do with kids on board. Plus I have lingering hip pain that started after my pregnancies and sometimes acts up and would make getting on and off even more annoying. With enough tinkering I am pretty confident I could get a Bullitt set up in a way that would make me mostly happy, but that just didn’t seem worth it with the Packster available and so much closer to what I wanted.

After some more research I concluded that the Urban Arrow wasn’t worth waiting around to test ride for us. I’d liked the bikes that could combine space with a sportier feel and the UA is not as good a hill climber and more of a boat-like ride than the Packster or Bullitt. Another one scratched off the list. A few days later, after dropping my mom at the airport in Portland (she had been amazing enough to watch little T for us while we were house hunting in Seattle), I took both kids over to Splendid for a final test ride of the Packster. We took the shorter box (Packster 60) out that time. Again I loved the handling of the bike and the kids seemed quite happy. I didn’t find enough difference in the handling of the shorter bike to justify the loss of space in the box. I really want this bike to be something I can use for grocery shopping even when I have both kids, and the longer version seemed like a better match for that. The only remaining concern was the issue of the rain canopy. One of the main reasons we want a box bike is to have a nice rain canopy that can keep the kids out of the rain and wind during the many months of rain that Seattle gets. Unfortunately, R&M do not make, and have no plans to make, a rain canopy for the Packster 80. Fortunately, Splendid Cycles works with Blaq to make rain canopies for the Bullitt boxes and assured me that they would be able to work with us to come up with a rain canopy for the Packster 80.

 

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Little T in a Bullitt box. As soon as he got into the store he insisted on sitting in a box. With his helmet on.
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Both kids buckled in and ready to go. With the shorter box on the Packster 60 the fit was good with just the kids but doesn’t leave much room for additional cargo in the box.

After discussing all the options we finally settled on ordering the Packster 80 with the derailleur system, the high torque Bosch Performance line CX motor, and the rear rack. We placed the order with Splendid at the beginning of March. As of my last communication with Joel the bike had shipped from Germany by boat and was set to arrive in New York on April 16. From there it will cross the country by truck and hopefully make it to Portland near the end of April. As we’ve settled into Seattle I’ve missed having a bike and the kids are very clearly missing it too. I’m trying not to count the days because one of the only negative things I’ve heard about the R&M bikes is that the expected delivery date can be off by quite a bit. I am definitely looking forward to getting on our new bike though! I’m planning to deliver a thorough review once we’ve had some time to really put it through it’s paces. And over the summer we are planning to work with Splendid and Blaq to get the rain canopy made. I’m a bit nervous that we’ll be the early adopters on both the bike and the canopy but I’m hoping it will pay off and we will love the bike.

*I looked for vendors for box bikes in Seattle before we visited the Portland shops. At the time that we started looking G&O was closed and in the process of moving from their temporary store location to their permanent one. I didn’t realize that they were a R&M dealer until after we’d started the purchasing process through Splendid. Now that we’re in Seattle G&O is our local shop and we’ve been in a bunch. Both shops have been awesome to work with and if we had known that G&O carried R&M and were going to be just around the corner we’d probably have gone through them as it would have made life a little lot simpler.

4 thoughts on “Selecting a cargo bike: take two

  1. Thanks for all of the detailed information! Just out of curiosity, aside from the concerns about the child setup on the Douze, what didn’t you like about it?

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    1. I couldn’t find much, if any, English language information about the bike and the dealer didn’t really seem that well versed in setting the bike up for kids either. I felt like the cloth “box” while lightweight, would present problems from the perspective of keeping my kids warm and dry and being able to add my own modifications to the bike. And just generally the accessories available didn’t strike me as being all that well thought out (at least for families) compared to the Packster or Urban Arrow. And unlike the Bullitt (which also doesn’t have manufacturer designed accessories that meet my needs) the Douze is very rare in the US and so aftermarket options would be a lot more limited.

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  2. Have you since ridden the Bullitt since they upgraded from BionX to the Shimano mid-drive? If so, would you say the new system is up to handling Seattle’s terrain?
    Thanks!

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    1. I have. Only a brief, cargo-free ride but I took it up a few hills I’m very familiar with riding with the Packster and can confirm that it is a wickedly good climber. Only the e8000 model though. I haven’t personally ridden the e6000 version but multiple people I trust (including one person who sells them and would have had plenty of reasons to push me to buy it) have reported that that version is not up to handling Seattle’s hills.

      The Bionx system actually handles Seattle pretty well, by all reports, though I’m not a big fan of the way it rides. That’s really a personal preference thing though.

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