This is the first of two guest cargo bike reviews from another biking family in our area, including parents Josh & Katie, and their four kids ages 9, 7, 4 and 1. They have daily riding experience with two cargo bikes, the Madsen and the Xtracycle Edgerunner, so I asked Katie if she’d be willing to provide reviews. In this post, Katie writes about the Madsen.
Who we are
I am excited to have been asked to write a blog post about our family bikes for Car Free With Kids, which was such a source of inspiration and wisdom as we were considering options. My husband Josh and I also live in Cambridge, but are actually not car free. We do own a minivan, which is mostly used for weekend Costco trips and my husband’s evening hockey games. We currently both commute by bike and transport our four kids daily by bike. Our children are G (age 9), D (age 7), Z (age 4), and I (age 1).
People often assume Josh and I are incredibly strong and athletic people when they see us biking with a bunch of kids, but that is not really true. We are in decent shape from our bike commutes (8-10 miles round trip), but beyond that we are pretty average. In fact, I’m an asthmatic with some back issues who was usually picked last in gym class. So if we can do it, you probably can too! Since this data is relevant to those considering bikes, I am 5’4″ and Josh is 5’10″ and our kids are either average or large for their ages.
Part 1, Madsen
Our adventures in cargo biking started last fall. Josh was bike commuting with just our 3-year-old after putting the older two boys on the bus, but Z is large for his age and quickly outgrowing the seat limit of 40 pounds. We also had a newborn baby girl who was going to be joining the bike commute the following fall. So we started looking into bikes for 2+ kids. After a bunch of online research, we ended up pre-ordering a Madsen in a Black Friday sale, even though we hadn’t been able to test drive one. Cost was the determining factor in our decision, since the bike was more reasonably priced than other similar alternatives. It was supposed to come in January or maybe February, but arrived in March in a very large box which was shipped to our house.
We weren’t really sure whether the older boys would fit in the bike, but the three boys fit in there great and my husband started biking them to the bus stop in the new bucket bike. They loved it and would beg to bike. Within a few days, he started biking them all the way to school (3 miles away) since the routine was easier than waiting for the bus.
I was much more nervous about the new bike starting out. The first experience I had was just walking the bike with some kids in it, and I lost control and tipped the bike over. Thankfully the seatbelts on the benches work great and kids have always been fine when the bike tips (more on that later). I decided to take the bike out for a ride without any kids in it, and my 6-year-old came for a ride on his bike as well. While we were riding, my son fell off his bike and was scraped up and upset, so I loaded him and his bike into the bucket and biked us home. I was already hooked on the advantages of a cargo bike!
My first impression of the bike was that it felt very different than riding a typical bike, since it was more upright like Dutch style bikes. Also, the frame mounted rack seems very weird when you are not used to it, since it moves separately from your handlebars, so that can be disorienting the first few times. The seat is incredibly comfortable, but I had some trouble at first with it wiggling a bit and every now and then dropping down to the lowest position while I was riding, but thankfully I am short enough that this was still rideable for me. Josh fixed this by tightening the quick release nut.
The following summer, I was home with all four kids and determined to use the car as little as possible. The baby was 10 months old, and we decided to see if she was ready to sit in the bucket. We considered adding in some sort of 5-point-harness for her, but found that she did fine for short rides if we put her next to one of the older boys who put an arm around her while I was riding. This was effective at keeping her stable, and also super cute. (Once she hit about 12 months, this was no longer necessary, but I do still prefer to seat her next to another kid or a backpack because her legs are short and she sometimes tips sideways otherwise.) As the summer progressed, I became pretty comfortable biking with all four kids in the back, though our radius was limited to about 2 miles and hills were really tough. On the bad ones, the older boys would hop out and walk, and then hop back in at the top. I also lived in fear of curb cuts being blocked or some other obstruction in my route, since the bike is very tricky to maneuver around tight spots and can be a bit wobbly at low speeds.
We have had a few more tipping incidents with a fully loaded bike. It tends to happen when I am trying to walk the bike or during loading and unloading. The kickstand is great and very stable once it is engaged, but with 170 pounds of living cargo in the back, I sometimes have had trouble bumping the bike up and over to engage the kickstand. Also when I disengage the kickstand, there’s this scary moment where I have to regain control of the bike before getting on. (I only very recently discovered that if I get on the bike with the kickstand down and push forward, it will disengage on its own, which makes it much easier to manage.) The good news is that of all the times they have been tipped, no one has ever gotten hurt because they are held in by the seatbelts. When it happens, I just unbuckle them, get them out, set the bike back up, and we hop back in. I should also note that Josh has never once tipped the bike, and I’m not sure whether this is due to his height, upper body strength, or generally superior coordination.
We have a few accessories that help make the bike safer. In addition to powerful front and rear lights, we added spoke lights so the length of the bike is visible to cars. We also have an air horn, so we have the option of honking at any cars if needed. Madsen has been claiming for years that their rain cover is coming soon, but we have managed OK without it. If an older kid is in the bike, they hold a large umbrella which covers all four kids. If I’m riding with just the two little ones, I put them in their Muddy Buddy rainsuits (which always stay in their daycare bag for surprise showers), which keep them dry for the ride. We also attached a plastic milk crate with bungee cords to the front rack, which provides much needed storage space since there isn’t too much room left in the bucket when all the kids are in there.
In the first 7 months of daily use, we had a few problems with the bike. I was riding home with the two little kids one day when the front tire suddenly popped. When we brought it in to be fixed the bike shop mechanic said that the rim tape had either shifted or not been put on properly, so there might be some quality issues with assembly at Madsen. The rear tire also needed to be replaced since we didn’t keep it inflated enough for the heavy load and the sidewall wore out. We’ve replaced both tires with much more rugged armadillo tires and tubes that run at higher pressures than what came with the bike (80-100 PSI vs. 40-60.) The rear cassette has also worn down pretty quickly and needs to be replaced soon. But on the whole, it has held up very well.
Just last month, we decided our bike really needed just one more thing — an electric assist system. Josh was biking all four kids to school, and they just keep getting heavier and heavier. I found that hills were so tough that I would scout out routes ahead of time to make sure I could handle them, and wanted a bit more flexibility when biking with multiple kids. After some research, he purchases a Hill Topper Pro-pack kit for $400 which we had installed at our local bike shop for $180, which actually was building an entire new wheel so that now we have a spare front wheel if we get another flat. Installation with the existing wheel would have been about $100. Clean Republic sells an entire assembled wheel for and extra $100 but we would still have had to transfer our disc brake rotor over.
We’ve only had the assist for a little while, but I like it so far. It can only go about 10 miles on a charge, and I have found it often doesn’t make it the whole 10 miles when fully loaded. I was able to bring the kids to swimming lessons in Boston (which previously would have been outside my normal Madsen radius), charged up a bit, and made it home. However, the next time I tried the same routine, we ran out of charge a mile from home. The way the assist works is that there is a little button by the handlebar, and when I press it a motor kicks in that spins the front wheel just fast enough to get me going or give a little extra push. It is especially helpful when starting from a stop, since getting going with kids in the bike before was a very slow process. I also love the assist when I need to ride the Madsen into work. I work in Somerville which has tons of hills, and I used to dread the days I would have to ride the Madsen in, since even without kids it was a very heavy, clunky bike and would add at least 10 minutes to my 25 minute ride. Now I just push the button and pedal up the hills without an issue.
The Madsen was our first introduction to family cargo biking, and it is great for our family. We hardly ever use the car anymore, and our kids love sitting together in the back of the bike. Somehow we can never make it more than a mile in our huge minivan without someone invading another kid’s space and a fight breaking out, but they all sit back there in that little bucket totally content and chatting to each other as they ride through the streets of Cambridge every day. Our oldest at age 9 still fits in the bucket bike great, and we expect to have another year or two of being able to fit all the kids in the back.
Since we have two adults commuting by bike who both need to be able to carry kids, we did just recently purchase a second cargo bike, an Xtracycle Edgerunner, which you can read about in the next installment.