When I first began bike commuting to daycare with the Little Dictator, I resisted the urge to buy a new bike. Attempting to be a fiscally responsible fellow, I utilized the bike I had available to me and modified it to the task. Yet, even with the addition of Schwalbe Big Apple tires and upright handlebars, my tandem was still not ideally suited to the job. With the weight of the Little Dictator hanging way off the back of a small-wheeled tandem, the ride was simultaneously a tad squirrelly and unwieldy. Not the best combo for a child conveyance.
I also started reading various blogs written by other, far more experienced biking parents. They RAVED about front-mounted child seats and bakfiets. Which made sense. It was easy to imagine that experiencing the whole ride together would be way more fun than having my child strapped to a chair five feet behind me.
It also just so happened to be within six months of my fortieth Birthday. Which if you compare the price of a mid-life-crisis-mobile with, oh, I don't know...the name Porsche on it, with the price of a top of the line Dutch bike, I am saving my family, like, ONE HUNDRED THOUSAND DOLLARS.
I tried to frame it that way with my wife, but she was't buying it. Literally or figuratively.
This did not prevent me from just "looking" at new bikes. Henceforth, we will not refer to this as "shopping" for a bike, thank you. I was hunting and gathering. With an Excel spreadsheet listing the pros and cons of twenty different kinds of bike as the tip of my spear.
Since my wife's new residency required a car commute, and my job occasionally requires a car, I wouldn't be experiencing the massive savings that came from getting rid of a car and replacing it with a top of the line, electric family bike. An electric assisted family bike can cost as much as $6000, which is shocking until you do the math of replacing a car.
With clean driving records, it costs us around $200 per month just to insure two cars in our neighborhood. Then you factor in depreciation. For our pre-owned hybrid SUV, that's about another $1600/year. Then add maintenance, gas, parking, car washes, parking tickets, and the opportunity cost of not investing the extra thirteen grand we spent on a car instead of an electric bike in a low fee index fund.
A $6000 bike is a STEAL if it gives you the freedom to give up a car. That's not even counting the health benefits of active transportation extending your life with your children while simultaneously leaving a healthier planet for your children.
But, I digress, since we would still be carrying the costs of a two car family, I gave myself a budget of $1500. In order to fund my bike purchase, I decided to sell my sexy, lightweight mountain bike that sat virtually unused since having a child. Truthfully, with a wife in residency, I had no time to ride it. But, even if I had a more equitable child rearing arrangement, I probably wouldn't have ridden it much anyway. I find it way more fun biking with my kid than biking solo. Incorporating errands and parenting into my workout is not only efficient, but rad. The mountain bike fetched $1350 on Craigslist. I now had a "green" light.
Following months of stalking obscure corners of the internet for cargo bike reviews, I made the decision that the bike MUST have a front cargo box or the room to accommodate a front-mounted child seat without splaying my knees out to pedal. This left: A box bike, a Brompton with the Pere chair (mild knee splaying), a Gazelle Bloom, or a Workcycles Fr8.
I test road a Brompton H6L at The Flying Pigeon and loved it (along with Josef Bray-Ali's customer service). I could totally imagine my son and I having a great time on it. If you plan on commuting partially on bike and partially on buses, trains, or subways, there is no better tool. Its fold is so elegant, quick, and simple. You never have to be without a bike again. A Brompton goes everywhere.
The biggest drawback of the Brompton was that my son, who was approximately 18 months old at the time, wasn't old enough to sit on a Pere chair. Your kid has to be at least approximately 2.5 years old to ride on the Pere chair because he or she must be mature enough to hold onto the handlebars without falling off the bike. Since the little buggers have a tendency to get sleepy on bikes when they're young and there would be no place for him to nap even if he was old enough to ride it, that cancelled out the Brompton.
Bromtpon H6L with Pere Chair (also know as I.T. Chair) for carrying a kid.
I really wanted to like the Gazelle Bloom because it was the cheapest option. It also had a roomy cockpit for a front mounted child seat and a strong rack that could accommodate a rear-mounted seat for a second kid. The floral, feminine mom-ness of the bike graphics and design was not my ideal, but does vanity really have a place when the extra cash could go into a 529 college fund? You're damn right it does, but I tried to be good and ignore the voice inside my head saying it wasn't cool.
Gazelle Bloom (The color scheme was much pastel with floral graphics in 2012 when I was looking at them)
Fortunately for my fragile male ego, when I test road the Gazelle Bloom, it just felt super slow. The uber-relaxed geometry somehow prevented me from getting any power to the pavement. I knew that would drive me crazy in Silver Lake's hills on my seven mile roundtrip to daycare. It would also severely limit the range of our adventures. What's the purpose of a kid friendly bike if not for adventures?
On the other hand, if you're living in Santa Monica and plan on just biking in the flats within a couple miles of home, it could be the perfect, not terribly expensive, mom-mobile for you. There is no cheaper bike that can easily carry two kids sold in the U.S. of which I am aware.
On a family trip to the bay area, I test road an Achielle Retro Long bakfiet at A Streetbike Named Desire in Palo Alto and fell in love. I did not fall in love with the $3300 price tag + tax. Besides nuking my budget, I was reticent to plunk down that much cash on a family bike while I was still a relative newbie trying to figure things out. In hindsight, that was a good instinct. I test road that bike on a bike path in flat-as-a-pancake Palo Alto which is the perfect place for it. Had I test ridden it loaded with weight on a steep hill like the one on which I live, I would have quickly learned that the brakes were not robust enough to stop the bike loaded with children and cargo on steep descents.
Achielle Retro Long bakfiet
Of course there are many other wonderful bakfiets, some of which are better for tackling hills. From our very own CETMA cargo in Venice to the Workcycles bakfiet on which the owner of The Flying Pigeon carries his kid, or the racier Larry vs. Harry Bullitt, there are a plethora of box bikes catering to a range of biking needs. But, not counting poorly made Chinese versions, all good quality bakfiets retail for over $3,000 and the ones I (rarely) found on Craigslist were, at the cheapest, around two thousand dollars. If I had two kids I probably would've scraped together an extra $500 and pulled the trigger because of their flexibility. But, with one kid I couldn't justify the cost.
Bakfiets have a myriad of child friendly attributes: The "safety cage" of a box around your kid, a low center of gravity which makes their handling under full loads very stable, the box swallows SUV sized Costco runs, it gives you the ability to transport your kid's friends without the dreaded car seat transfer, you get to keep an eye on your kids and have fun with them all at the same time, etc...I lust after a bakfiet.
Yet, they do have their downsides. You can't take them on the subway or easily mount them on a bike rack on the back of your car. Some of the Dutch options have that same relaxed geometry that the Gazelle Bloom has that prevents you from getting up to a good cruising speed. Storing them can be a problem if you don't have access to a garage, or in our case, room in the garage for a car and a land barge on two wheels in a space designed for a model T. In short, I doubt I would be any happier with a bakfiet than I am with the bike I ended up buying:
The Workcycles Fr8.
Workcycles Fr8 with rear GMG chair for naps, front seat for fun, and a load of beach stuff for the Little Dictator.
Had I purchased one new, it would have blown my budget. I lucked out and found one on Craigslist in the bay area. Yes, I was hunting every Craigslist on the west coast between San Diego and Canada for a bike. When a Workcycles Fr8 popped up on the San Francisco Craigslist, I was VERY interested. I'd still never test-ridden one because there were no Workcycles dealers within approximately 370 miles of my home. Yet, my obsessive compulsive internet sleuthing had suggested that it may be the perfect bike for me (since you are still reading this obscure blog devoted to family biking, I know we are fellow travelers).
I breathlessly stalked the pre-owned Fr8 on Craigslist for two months (!) believing it would most likely be gone before I had a chance to buy it. How could the residents of the entire bay area not realize what they were missing! I generously suggested to my wife that since she'd been working so hard and our son hadn't had a chance to see his cousins recently, we really should visit her sister's family in the bay area for a long weekend (What can I say? I am a thoughtful and caring husband).
My plan worked! Except that my wife saw through my transparent ploy. After more than a decade together she knows that I am neither thoughtful nor caring.
I arranged a meeting with the seller. We exchanged pleasantries. I double checked the bike's serial number on various stolen bike registries even though the owner had the key to the frame lock. All clear. Then I test road the bike...
Switching from an ultra-light mountain bike designed for racing to a sixty-five-ish pound (?) steel Dutch bike, is very much like driving a minivan right after climbing out of the cockpit of a formula one race car. So, it took a minute to get used to. As I road further around the residential neighborhood...it just started to feel "right."
The Fr8 is a wonderfully engineered bike. Although it has a relatively upright sitting position, it's less upright than a traditional bakfiet or the Gazelle Bloom, so I am still able to get really good leverage on the pedals. With a child on my bike and full panniers, I can maintain 15mph in the flats which is a good three to five miles per hour faster than I could pedal a traditional bakfiet. An upright steel frame, brooks sprung saddle, and plump Schwalbe Big Apple tires work together in harmony to create the most comfortable ride of any bike I have ever ridden. It's not even close.
All that weight also makes for a stable ride too. On our lighter tandem, if my kid leaned over far to one side, perhaps if he dropped a toy, I would have to wrestle with the bike to keep it from tipping. With the Fr8, the heavy steel frame keeps the center of gravity lower thereby greatly increasing the stability of the ride. It just stays planted on the road.
Like many Dutch bikes it comes with an enclosed chaincase which keeps your chain clean, your pant leg clean, and extends the life of your drivetrain. The eight speed internally geared hub is protected from the elements, so it is virtually bombproof with minor maintenance. The front and rear light is powered by a dynamo generator in the front wheel. I LOVE dynamo generated lights because there's no battery that can die at the wrong time, or rechargeable l.e.d. light that you forgot to charge. It just works. Which could be the theme for this bike. Everything about this bike just works. It's as practical as it is pretty.
The Fr8 was also the only other bike on the market besides the Brompton (with a pere seat) or bakfiets that allowed my kid to sit in front of me once he outgrew the 30 lbs limit on a Bobike or Yepp mini front-mounted child seat. I've mentioned it before, but I'll say it again. Riding with your kid in front of you is magical. I didn't want the magic to end once he grew out of the Yepp mini around three years of age.
The Fr8 child saddle allows him to sit up front with me for an extra few years. Another advantage to having him on the front-mounted seat is it places his weight over the center of the bike. That's a fancy way of saying the Fr8 handles just as well with a kid on the front-mounted seat as it does with no kid on the bike. If he's sleepy, I switch him to a rear-mounted seat and buckle him in for a nap.
Which leads me to the usefulness of the front cargo rack on this bike. With a rear mounted seat, it becomes rather challenging to access panniers, if you can even mount panniers on your bike with a rear child seat attached. But, with the steel front luggage rack attached to the frame of the Fr8, I can carry a beach trip worth of cargo on the front rack while the Little Dictator sleeps on the way home in his seat on the back rack.
The Fr8 offered my family the most flexibility too. It allows me to attempt an epic adventure like biking eleven elevation gaining miles to Kidspace in Pasadena safe in the knowledge that if I'm overdoing it, I can squeeze the Fr8 onto the Gold Line and let public transportation take us home. A bakfiet can't do that. Nor can a "long tail" bike like an Extracycle do that. I often avoid a congested car trip to afternoon auditions in the valley by picking up my son from pre-school on the Fr8 then taking the subway to Studio City. It transforms the drudgery of the Cahuenga Pass at rush hour into a multimodal adventure. Little boys LOVE the subway. Also not possible with a bakfiet.
After I added a (very, very strong) hitch-mounted bike rack for my car, we were able bring it along on vacations. Once again, not possible with a box bike. My kid has about a one hour fifteen minute range on a bike before it's time to stop and play. With multimodal transport not possible with a bakfiet, our range would be limited to a circumference approximately ten miles from our home. As spread out as L.A. is, that's not as much range as we need to leave a car behind.
On the negative side, for a bike that is not a bakfiet, it is ridiculously heavy. I mean HEAVY. If we lived in a flat-ish place like Santa Monica I would evangelize like a snake handling preacher that there is nothing in the world as perfect as this bike. But, I live near the top of a significant hill and traveling almost every cardinal direction from my hill requires some painful climbs up other hills.
I am someone who grew up playing a lot of sports where I became accustomed to "loving the pain." Riding up hills on this bike, you will be in a deeply committed relationship with pain. Also, the front child saddle, which I love with all my heart, blocks me from being able to stand and pedal. If I had a bakfiet, when the going gets really tough, I could stand and grind it out on a different set of leg muscles. That isn't possible on a Fr8. The only option is sitting, spinning, and suffering.
If I was only using the bike for weekend recreation, then the weight wouldn't be an issue. It's the day to day drudgery of the hill climb to pre-school that has me fantasizing about electric assist. I can still bike my 40-ish pound kid and a full week of groceries up our hill (swearing under my breath like a sailor), but if we were to add another kid, I wouldn't be strong enough to get the groceries and the kids up the hill without retrofitting some sort of electric assist.
With that said, two kids plus groceries is easily doable on this bike if you don't have to climb real hills. The eight gears are very effective at moving all that mass up moderate inclines with very little effort. Also, after purchasing my bike, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it is to ride it relatively quickly on flat ground, especially for a cargo bike. For all my complaints about the weight, I biked the Fr8 up to the Griffith Observatory today carrying heavy bike locks, water, snacks, sun block, hats, camera, and my child. Which is literally mountain biking with the Fr8.
It was challenging. It was glacial. It was a great adventure. Tomorrow will be a day of rest and recovery. Maybe the day after too.