Last week I headed over to G&O for a bike maintenance class and on the way over my headlight shut off. I didn’t think much of it. I had the headlight installed relatively recently as an upgrade from the stock headlight and there’d been an issue with it shutting off previously due to a zip tie that was just a bit too tight and stripped the insulation off in one spot. I figured it would be something similar. So I almost didn’t even ask about having a loaner bike while mine was in the shop to get it fixed (and get the rear brake pads and rotor replaced). Good thing I did though. It turns out the headlight issue runs deeper than expected. The port for my headlight running from the motor isn’t working properly. So now it’s a warranty issue and we’re waiting on a response from the Bosch distributer. Fun times. On the plus side, once the bike gets put back together I should be able to use it while we wait for the issue to be sorted out. But that wasn’t able to happen this week due to other commitments.
In the meantime, the folks at G&O have been amazing enough to let me spend the last week riding around on a Stokemonkey-assisted Metrofiets. I’ve been on a variety of box bikes in the last year. The Douze, two different Bullits, a Workcycles Kr8, the Load, and all three lengths of the Packster. The Metrofiets is a different beast. The first clue about this is the larger-than-typical-for-a-bakfiets front wheel. The Metrofiets has a 24″ front wheel compared to the more typical 20″ wheel. Similar to the CETMA Largo it also has a steel frame and a wooden box. When I look at the Packster, Load, and Bullit I see amazing works of precision engineering. And thats great. But when I look at the Metrofiets I see a work of art. The Metrofiets are built in Portland and it shows in the look of the bike. I gets all the same sorts of comments that the Packster does and more.
That larger front wheel makes for a very different feel when you’re riding the bike. Bikes like the Packster and Bullitt can get twitchy in the front end and many find they benefit from steering dampeners. I can’t imagine the Metrofiets needing one. The larger front wheel (or perhaps the combination of the steel frame and larger wheel) provides plenty of dampening on it’s own. In some cases I found this helpful, in others frustrating. It’s nice not to deal with a twitchy bike when it’s loaded up with kids. But despite a shorter wheelbase and tighter turning radius than the Packster (which is nice when I’m walking around with the bike) I have to work a lot harder to make tight turns happen while I’m riding. And this translates into more times that I need to dismount and walk the bike through things. It’s also just harder on me physically. Over the course of a normal commute it’s not a big deal but over the course of a big ride (we did 50 miles on Saturday) it can add up and leave me sore. Over time I would get stronger and this would likely be less of an issue but it’s there and it’s something you might not immediately notice during a test ride. As a smaller rider I don’t know that I’d have picked this bike for myself because of it.
I’ve heard since I started biking about how steel was more flexible and forgiving of a ride than aluminum. I’ve even owned a steel framed cyclocross bike and a couple of aluminum framed bikes. I liked the steel one best but not because it felt more forgiving, it was just a better fit for me at the time. It’s different on a bike that’s ~8 feet long. The flex of steel is obvious here and it’s put to good use. The Metrofiets is much calmer to ride over bumps than my Packster. Despite lacking a front shock it provides an impressively smooth ride. I worried a bit that this might mean the bike handled poorly at higher speeds but I was proven wrong. I never had any handling issues at high speed, even during steep descents at 28+ mph. Another nice thing is that the bike handles the same empty as it does loaded, which makes for very predictable handling. With every other cargo bike I’ve handled there is a very noticeable difference between empty and loaded. Usually they feel better loaded, and that’s great, but it also means the bike can behave a bit differently than you expect at times.
I love the brakes on the Metrofiets (hydraulic Shimano discs) and the much smaller brake levers that they use. The brake levers on the Packster are Tektro and HUGE. I don’t have trouble pulling them in most circumstances, but they aren’t easy to operate with just a couple of fingers the way the Shimanos are and sometimes on steep decents (especially with wind involved) I wish they were. Also, they much more easily interact with the rain canopy than the smaller Shimano levers. The brakes are responsive and very effective and much quieter when wet than the brakes on the Packster. I also appreciate the front rotor being larger than the one on the Packster. I have slightly more mixed feelings about the kickstand. It’s incredibly stable, something the Packster stand is lacking at times. But it’s also more difficult to deploy and tends to hang down rather far. I’ve bumped it into things more than once.
The box is beautiful, deep, and has a bench seat in the back that’s well sized for two smaller kids to sit on. It normally comes with harnesses but due to the unexpected nature of my needing the bike they hadn’t been installed yet and I took it without them. My kids are 4.5 and 2.5 and have both been riding in a box bike for nearly a year, so they’re very used to sitting down properly, but obviously for younger kids and those who are prone to messing around on the bike it would be good to harness them. In falls the deep box goes a long way to keeping them contained and safe though it does make it harder for young kids to get in and out on their own. There’s a little step on the side of the box near the front that seems to be for kids to use to get in but neither of mine attempt to use it that way, and my friend with a Metrofiets reports that none of the children who have ridden in her box do either (and she nannies so there have been a few). That sucks because the box is narrower in the front to allow for that step. I’d prefer it to be wider and not have the step. As it is, the bike can take 3 kids but 4 would be a stretch. If it were wider it might work for 4 more easily. The lightly finished wood of the box provides a nice canvas for painting the box, if you are so inclined. I do sometimes wish my Packster were as easy to personalize. The Metrofiets has a custom Blaq canopy that fits well and is very easy to use. It’s similar to the one on my Packster but lacks the side support poles. You mostly don’t notice this (the canopy is much smaller than the one for the Packster 80, so they aren’t really needed) but in the wind you’ll see if flex sometimes. This never caused an issue for me. I loved how much it tilted up when both back snaps were undone. It made loading and unloading the bike really easy.
The Metrofiets I was using was set up with a rear rack that is set back well away from the bike and has a lot of support in the back for the panniers. I really wish I could have a rack like this one on the Packster and I appreciate that the Metrofiets is compatible with aftermarket racks rather than locked in to one proprietary option like the Packster and Load are. Although I didn’t have one installed on this bike it’s also possible to use a seat post mounted rear child seat with the Metrofiets, something that is much more difficult with the Packster since there isn’t enough room on the seat post for most brands of child seat.
The biggest challenge for me with the Metrofiets is the combination of the assist and the drivetrain. This particular Metrofiets uses a NuVinci 380 hub and a Stokemonkey assist. I loved the idea of the NuVinci when I heard about it but from the beginning it’s just never quite clicked for me. I find it fiddly to get to the right spot, especially if I need to move through the gear range quickly. In combination with the Stokemonkey this has proven to be even more problematic for me. Using the assist means I’m more likely to want to move through the gear range quickly and with the Stokemonkey there isn’t nearly as much room to wait a little longer and tolerate the gearing being in the wrong place. This is because the Stokemonkey actually actively pushes the pedals in order to provide it’s assistance. If the gearing is too high it will struggle to push the bike and start to bog down. Too low and it will push the pedals so fast you won’t be able to keep up. The Stokemonkey is the first throttle-only assist I’ve used and that also proved to be a struggle. The throttle doesn’t modulate the power coming from the assist as well as I’d like (to some degree this can be adjusted) which results in a lot of times where I’d get run off the pedals by the Stokemonkey while trying to get up to speed. Additionally, the assist pushing the pedals makes starting off, especially on hills, problematic. After over a week on the bike I still can’t do it. I can do alright on flats or downhill starts but on uphill starts I can’t balance well enough while allowing the assist to pedal for me and I can’t start off on a steep uphill without the assist. This has left me walking the bike up a hill more than once in situations I can easily handle with the Packster. I also find is very difficult to get the bike moving quickly with this combo between the throttle being a bit twitchy and it being difficult to get the gearing in the right spot (and keep it there while accelerating). I’m sure I would get better at these things but on the whole I find the setup slower and less intuitive than pedal assist systems. On the other hand, there is a lot of raw power in the Stokemonkey. If you can keep the gearing in the right range it can push up just about anything, including things the Packster will struggle on. But it’s going to take you substantially longer to get there (unless you happen to be someone for whom this system clicks a lot easier than me, and those people are definitely out there!) and you’re going to be slower in some situations than with other systems. It’s also worth pointing out that a lot of my frustration with this assist/drivetrain combo has to do with spending so much time on big hills. On flat ground, when less adjustment is needed, this system is much easier to work with. For that scenario once you master the throttle modulation the system can be very effective and relatively easy to use, albeit slower off the line than a pedal assist middrive like the Bosch system.
Once you get off the bike it’s very important that you turn the Stokemonkey off immediately. Otherwise it can be activated any time the throttle is touched, which is potentially dangerous. With the setup I had used the battery range was similar to my Packster (~30ish miles). The battery is stored underneath the bench seat. This is great for keeping it hidden and out of the way in general. Unfortunately, with the version I had the battery doesn’t fit quite all the way under the seat. There is a key that stays in the battery while the it’s in use that sticks out from under the seat. Several times the kids kicked it and turned the battery off. Thankfully only once while we were moving but it was definitely a point of frustration. I think making the seat a bit deeper and putting another piece of wood to block kid feet from kicking the key would be a big help. The only other issue with the battery being stored under the bench is that the bench needs to be removed to remove the battery for charging. You cannot charge the battery while it’s on the bike. I’m a remove the battery from the bike for charging type of person anyway so this wasn’t a big deal to me but it might be an annoyance for some.
Although I can’t personally speak to the durability of the system, the Stokemonkey is known for being very reliable once it’s set up properly (sometimes there are some difficulties with the initial set up). Internally geared hubs are also known for being low maintenance. So the combination of the two should generally work for a long time without needing as much intervention as other systems. It’s also worth noting that while there is a lot of resistance when you backpedal with this system (which makes setting up the pedals at a stop a bit weird at first) the bike feels very normal to pedal with the assist turned off, unlike the Packster, which always feels like you are pedaling through mud when the assist is off. That makes it much more pleasant to ride with the assist off, which will appeal to many people.
Another big thanks to G&O for lending me this bike while mine is out of commission. Although there are other bakfiets I prefer this is a very unique bike and I learned a lot from riding it. I especially appreciate the combination of shock absorbance and excellent high speed handling that the Metrofiets offers. It isn’t the right bike for me but it’s definitely the right bike for some and it’s gorgeous to boot. If you think the Metrofiets might be right, but you’re looking for an unassisted version or you want to use a different assist or drivetrain, you should definitely contact them! Metrofiets are highly customizable and if you like the way the bike rides there’s almost certainly an drivetrain and assist option you’ll like. There are also a bunch of smaller tweaks that can be made for things like the seat, pedals, brakes, etc.