When the opportunity to test cargo bikes arose, I was ecstatic. My husband and I had been searching for a bike to safely transport our toddler daughter, T, while running errands. We briefly considered a child seat for our bikes but ruled it out because we were concerned about stability and because the cargo carrying capacity of a traditional bike is very limited. Instead, we purchased a trailer. The trailer sheltered her from the elements but I felt uncomfortable taking her out by myself because I couldn't see her or interact with her easily. I didn't like the way the trailer tugged on my bike or the feeling that T was too far away from me.
Reviewing cargo bikes for Silent Sports gave me the chance to check out other options. Cargo bikes can be a lot of things to a lot of people but for the purposes here, I was looking for a quality built bike that I could use to carry T and six or more bags of groceries safely and easily.
For my review I chose four different bikes that fall into three broad categories:
1) The Yuba Mundo and Xtracycle Free Radical are long-tail bikes with extended wheelbases that put the load behind the driver.
2) The Larry vs. Harry Bullitt is a long-john or bakfiets-style bike with the load carried low and in front of the driver.
3) The JC Lind Triple Lindy is a traditional Danish-style trike with a large cargo box up front.
The Yuba Mundo
Yuba is a small California company that promotes the Mundo as an affordable, one-size-fits-all replacement for the minivan. Yuba loaned me a black, 21-speed Mundo with V brakes for an extended test. The Yuba frame is high tensile steel with a large integral rear rack. An adjustable stem and quick release on the seat post allow an advertised fit for riders from five feet tall to six foot five inches. The standard bike has fenders and a bell.
At my request, Yuba also included a child seat, passenger stoker bars, running boards, a deck and pad for the cargo rack, Go-Getter panniers and a double-legged center kickstand.
The Mundo is 81 inches long and retails for $1,199. As configured for me, the bike weighs 71 pounds and the price tag was $2,070.
My first impression of the Yuba was that it is a very attractive but huge bike. I had images of T's head hitting the pavement if I couldn't control the long frame. To alleviate my fears, I first took the bike for a ride by myself.
To my surprise, the Mundo handled like any upright comfort bike. I felt relaxed and in complete control. I was ready to ride with T. The beefy kick stand kept the bike completely stable while I loaded her. One day T scrambled up the bike and into the child seat before I could catch her. The bike was so steady it seemed bolted to the floor.
T was comfortable and secure in her seat, but at the tightest setting the straps were still loose. T was not in danger of getting out or falling but I would have preferred better adjustability.
T and I rode to the grocery store where I purchased six very full bags of bulky food including two gallons of milk, three pounds of chicken and piles of produce. The Mundo has a 440-pound capacity so my only concern was load distribution. After ensuring the bike was balanced, the ride home was easy. My refrigerator was stocked for the week.
As a family we were giddy about the social aspect of the bike. All three of us can ride comfortably on the long, strong frame. We got a lot of smiles from our neighbors as I pedaled through town with Paul sitting on the padded rack and T waving from the child seat.
I do have a couple of complaints about the Mundo, however. The components are only middling. Although this never created a problem, I did notice a certain lack of smoothness in shifting. And although the enormous waterproof panniers are well constructed, there is no way to attach them when a child seat is mounted to the frame. Because I almost always have T with me, I didn't use the panniers. Instead I was able to attach four smaller panniers that worked fine for my purposes.
The Larry vs. Harry Bullitt
Before trying the Larry vs. Harry Bullitt, I was skeptical about the practicality of riding a long-john bike in a town with few bike lanes or much bike infrastructure at all.
With preconceptions against this kind of bike swirling in my head, I walked into Splendid Cycles, a shop in Portland, Oregon, that specializes in cargo and utility bikes. Owner Joel Grover has a vast knowledge of utility bikes. If you are interested in purchasing any model cargo bike, Splendid Cycles is the place to start your search.
Long-john bikes are typically made from heavy steel, weigh 100 pounds or more and have gearing designed for the primarily flat Dutch landscape. With the Bullitt, Larry vs. Harry broke from this tradition by specifically designing a bike to be light and fast. To reduce weight, the frame is hardened aluminum instead of steel. A fully configured Bullitt with box and child seat weighs 73 pounds which is impressively light for a 96-inch long machine.
The advantage of buying a Bullitt from Splendid Cycles is they will do a custom build to suit your needs. The bike I rode sported a Shimano SLX 3x10 derailleur with butter smooth shifting. On a Splendid Bullitt, hydraulic disk brakes are standard to ensure easy stopping of a bike that has a 400-pound capacity including the rider. Fenders and a two-legged center kickstand are also standard components. The bike retails for $3,000 to $5,000 depending on components and accessories.
The Bullitt is designed with a removable Honeycomb deck plate and sideboards to create an elegant box ahead of the driver. Into this box goes a comfortable retractable leatherette seat with seatbelts for a child or two. Also included is a stout rain cover that fits securely and flatly over the entire box.
Positioning the box low keeps the center of gravity low resulting in an inherently stable bike. The Bullitt kickstand is rock solid. Even with my squirmy toddler climbing repeatedly in and out of the box, the bike didn't budge when resting on its stand.
Complaints about the Bullitt often mention difficult handling at slow speeds. I did notice some twitchiness on my first ride, but Grover coached me to avoid looking at the front wheel and to ride it like I would any other bike. When I kept his advice in mind, I had no trouble. Within minutes I was deftly climbing modest Portland hills.
I quickly felt comfortable and safe on the Bullitt but I did make adjustments from my normal biking style. First of all, with the long wheelbase in front of me, I learned to stop earlier at intersections to avoid protruding into traffic. Also, it took a few rides before I was comfortable leaning into turns rather than constantly steering the front tire. My tendency to over steer disappeared after a few rides.
The next test was as a grocery getter. On the way to the store, T read, chatted and even acted as a mini-domestique by passing me a water bottle on request. While shopping, I didn't need to consider the shape or weight of my purchases. In addition to my normal load, I also threw in a case of beer and a watermelon.
With T in the box, there is not a lot of extra room, so I secured the heavier items at her feet and then tossed the rest into bags I hung from the sides of the box. Because of the lower center of gravity I had no problems with balance. Interestingly, the added weight made the Bullitt feel more stable.
On the return trip, T took a nap. I had brought a pillow on which she simply lay down and went to sleep. As a comfortable and safe sleeping spot for T, the Bullitt box far exceeded the rear-mounted child seats.
My largest concern with the Bullitt, besides its high price tag, is its geometry. At five-foot, three-inches tall, I am near the lower height limit for this bike. It is outfitted with a quick release on both the seat post and stem for easy adjustability, but both the reach and stand over height make it extremely unlikely that anyone shorter than about five-foot, two-inches would feel comfortable riding it.
The Xtracycle Free Radical
For my third test, Xtracycle sent me their Free Radical Family Kit. Xtracycle developed the Free Radical over 15 years ago as a highly customizable, affordable alternative to a car. The Free Radical is a system that bolts to a traditional bike and moves the rear wheel back to extend the wheelbase by about 15 inches. The end result is a long-tail built from an existing bike.
The Family Kit includes two Freeloader cargo bags, a deck for the rack and a Peapod child seat with all the necessary brackets for attaching it all. Xtracycle also included a stoker bar for a passenger, a set of passenger footrests and the all-important Kickback kickstand.
The Free Radical base frame retails for $225. Adding the Family Kit brings the total to $825, making the Xtracycle the most affordable option tested, provided you already own a bike to which it can be mounted.
When the Free Radical arrived, I entrusted it to my favorite local bike shop, Cranked Bike Studio in Neenah, Wisconsin. They took a dusty old mountain bike that had been hanging unloved in our garage for several years, fixed a few components, deftly attached the Free Radical, suggested a stem change to improve handling, and wheeled out a nifty cargo bike for my enjoyment.
My first impression of the Xtracycle was that it was amazingly nimble and light compared to the previous two contenders. Indeed, at 81 inches and 54 pounds, as configured for me, it was more than 15 pounds lighter than the other two bikes. I felt like Speed Racer on the Xtracycle. Of course the total weight depends on the bike with which you start.
The Pea Pod child seat was obviously designed with safety and convenience in mind. Integrated reflectors and a bright orange color make it highly visible on the back of the bike. A quick release attachment allows for easy removal of the seat for rides without a child. The child seat differs from the one on the Yuba in that it sits slightly higher off the rack. The higher mounting makes loading and unloading the panniers easy but it also makes the bike feel slightly top-heavy.
The center kickstand is light and extremely easy and quiet to operate. It stabilizes the bike and I felt comfortable loading groceries with T in the seat; however, it does not provide as solid a platform as the others in the test. In order to improve stability, Xtracycle sells stance wideners for the kickstand.
The wonderful Freeloader panniers are open slings with fastening straps that allow for a wide range of items to be loaded. For instance, one day I needed stroller. No problem. I simply slipped the stroller into the bag, tightened the straps and away we went. The bags contain a large inner pocket with a waterproof flap for more delicate items.
On our obligatory grocery run, I was able to quickly load six heavy bags of groceries into the panniers while T was in her seat. Of course, I still had to be concerned about balancing the load, but once again biking with the weight of a week's worth of food was easy.
At 200 pounds, the advertised cargo carrying capacity of the Free Radical is only half that of the Yuba or the Bullitt. To me the difference is unimportant. I cannot imagine ever wanting to haul more than 200 pounds with me as the engine. If I need to carry that much freight, I'll make two trips or, gasp, take my car.
Of all the bikes tested, the Xtracycle felt the least stable. It is possible my problems arose from starting with a bike that wasn't quite the right size for me, but I suspect the slight wobble comes more from the high position of the child seat and the bolt-on characteristic of the frame. Even though it felt less stable to me, my husband gravitated to the Xtracycle over the other bikes because of its speed and easy-to-load panniers.
Xtracycle does sell an upright bike of its own called the Radish that would probably solve my issues. In addition, they will soon be selling an entirely new long-tail bike with a smaller rear wheel to provide a lower center of gravity.
The JC Lind Triple Lindy
An extended test with the JC Lind Triple Lindy trike wasn't possible. Instead I rode it for about 45 minutes on Chicago streets and parking lots. John Lind imports the frames from the Netherlands and then builds them up in his Chicago shop. I have no idea what the Lindy weighs but it felt the heaviest by far. The Lindy is 84 inches long and retails for $3,399.
The trike is very nicely constructed with a five-speed SRAM internal hub. The shifter is located on the seat post in order to keep the cables short. I found the positioning awkward especially since I was wearing a skirt, but since the bike is intended for completely flat routes, shifting might not be an issue. The main brakes are coaster brakes with a hand-operated drum brake for extra security and for use as a parking brake. The wheels have sturdy fenders and include step plates for climbing into the box. I especially liked the hub generated lighting and the built in wheel lock. T enjoyed standing in the box and ringing the bell at every opportunity.
The huge forward box is made of high quality marine-grade plywood with a built-in bench seat. Even with me and T in the box, there was room for a mind-boggling amount of cargo. I had no need to do a grocery run. Throw everything you can think of into the box, toss a few kids into the mix and away you go.
Riding the trike was easy. While traveling in circles in a parking lot, I never felt in danger of tipping. I really liked the stability of the three wheels when starting and stopping. With no need to put a foot down, I relaxed on the Brooks saddle until I was ready to go. John Lind cautioned me to avoid uneven terrain, hills and speed bumps. With those cautions, I left Chicago feeling that although I enjoyed the trike immensely, I couldn't see a practical use for it in our neighborhood. It seems best suited for trips of three or four miles when speed and terrain are not a concern. In short, it could be the perfect car replacement for a city dwelling family with a several children.
After testing the trike and living with the other three bikes for almost a month, I can definitely see many advantages to owning one of them. Because of the impressive load carrying ability, a cargo bike could easily replace a car for most errands within a reasonable distance. My last significant gripe is that none of the models I tested offer any kind of passenger sun protection. If I am going to use a bike as a car substitute, I want a way to protect T from the elements. Both the Lindy and the Bullitt have rain covers available but they offer limited venting. On a hot day, I suspect the rain covers would act like greenhouses.
Storage could also be a problem. All are heavy and long compared to traditional bikes. Maneuvering in tight spaces is tricky. I would not attempt to carry any of them. We are fortunate to have a garage, so this is a nonissue for us, but I recommend carefully considering and measuring your available storage space before committing to such an expensive purchase.
Small quibbles aside I have developed a passion for cargo bikes. During my month-long test, I rarely used my car. Errands to the grocery store, post office, bank, gym and parks were all by bike. Over 24 days, T and I averaged about 13 miles a day. Most enjoyably, my sweet toddler now wakes every morning yelling, "WIDE DA BIKE! WIDE DA BIKE!" Translation: "Ride the bike!"
Susie Weber is a wife, mother, pilot and small business owner residing in west-central Wisconsin.