When we visited Portland two years ago, I had good intentions of visiting bike shops and test driving some cargo bikes, as I was already dreaming about adding something with serious kid- and cargo-carrying capacity to our fleet. Alas, somewhere in the mix of vacation with a 14-month-old, this just didn’t happen.
Sadly, there are zero bike shops in St. Louis that carry cargo bikes (if I won the lottery, I’d open a bike shop specializing in family, cargo, and commuting bikes — anyone want to fund this???).*
Anyhow, when we were planning our return trip to Portland, just a few months after purchasing our own cargo bike, I prioritized trying something new-to-me. A bit of research revealed that for $25 we could rent a Bullitt bicycle (a bakfiets or Dutch long-john cargo bike that I’ve read about over at Tiny Helmets Big Bikes) for a day from Splendid Cycles. I emailed the shop owners, settled on a date, and that was that.
On Thursday morning, we blew right past Splendid Cycles and were partway down the Springwater Trail (along the Willamette River) before we realized we must have somehow missed the shop. We backtracked and found the shop right at the trail head.
They put a lime green Bullitt up on the repair stand to look things over, while we browsed their other offerings and chatted with one of the owners.
Can I sit in here? Gabriel’s a fan of this model with the sweet rain cover. Also love the detail work on the box!
Gabriel checking out Big Blue’s (AKA Roadrunner) long-lost twin, with the Hooptie accessory (the wrap-around bar he’s holding onto). I’m totally wishing we included one of these when we ordered Big Blue. I imagine we’ll end up getting one, we’ll just have to eat the shipping cost. With the Hooptie, we could carry Gabriel and one or two of his friends, which could come in handy.
Before we knew it, our rental Bullitt was ready to roll. The guys at the shop assured us that we’d adjust quickly to the steering and general handling. Specific tips were to not look at the front wheel, and that it would be trickiest at low speeds. We’d decided Matthew would be driving it first, so he set out for a little trial run before hitting the streets. (To Gabriel’s delight, Splendid Cycles is located right across from a concrete manufacturing plant with lots of big machinery — his idea of a “scenic” bike ride.)
I waited with our borrowed bike and trailer . . . .
Several minutes later, they returned, and Matthew announced he was good to go.
With lunch and nap-time looming, we set out on our three-mile trip home, which was significantly uphill. I could tell the hills required a good bit of effort (more effort than I exerted pulling the trailer), but all-in-all, Matthew made it look easy.
After lunch, we were all tired, so I didn’t get my shot at the Bullitt until after nap time (can’t believe I waited that long, after all the excitement).
After naps all around, we loaded the bikes and set off for a short jaunt to a neighborhood farmer’s market. I hopped on the Bullitt, tried to turn the bike in the direction I wanted to ride, panicked, and dumped it in the middle of the [low-traffic, residential] street.
By “dumped,” I just mean that the bottom edge of the box met the asphalt (at very low speeds). Gabriel was just fine, strapped into the padded seat in the box. I imagine this is not an uncommon first experience riding this style of bike, but it was an inauspicious start, and did not exactly make me confident about handling the bike in traffic.
I picked it up, Matthew gave me a couple more tips and a pep talk, and we headed out. Once I got the bike up to speed, all was well — the stops and starts were the tricky part. Unfortunately, stops and starts are part and parcel of operating a vehicle in an urban environment.
I quickly realized that my beloved “balance stop” was not an option [for me] on the Bullitt. I needed to plan on each and every stop sign being a “foot down” stop, or there was a good chance of tipping. Fortunately, many of the bike boulevards in Portland minimize stop signs, so the stopping situation was less annoying than it would have been in St. Louis.
I made it the half mile to the farmers’ market, where we bought some fruit and tomatoes. As we were reloading the bikes to continue to our next destination, Gabriel asked, “Daddy drive bike now?”
Matthew was astonished, because Gabriel is usually all-mommy, all-the-time. The next words out of Gabriel’s mouth were, “Mommy makes it tippy. Daddy drive.” Thanks for the confidence boost, bud.
We explained that I really wanted to try riding the new bike some more, and we offered to let him ride in the trailer instead of the Bullitt’s box. Even after our tip, he was a huge fan of his spot up front in the box (he’d been complaining that the trailer was bumpy, which it is), and he opted to stick with mommy.
At this point, he decided that if he was stuck with me as the driver, he may as well think good thoughts, because he said, “You can do it, Mommy,” and then proceeded to chant, “Go, Mommy, go,” for ten blocks of uphill riding.
We made it with no more than a few wobbles, but by the time we reached our second stop, I was ready to be done with the Bullitt. I could ride it, but it wasn’t particularly fun, so Matthew and I swapped back.
Of course, we neglected to get any photos of me actually riding the dang thing, so we had to stage this the next morning. Note that the kickstand (you can see one of the legs bottom center) is down. Also, I’m sitting crazy high because it wasn’t worth adjusting the seat height for a photo op.
I’m glad we tried the Bullitt, but after twenty-four hours, I was happy to return it. Neither Matthew nor I ever really got comfortable to the point that we could use arm signals, which is an important part of riding in traffic. We agreed that both the trailer and the longtail are much more nimble and easier when climbing.
The Bullitt (or similar bakfiets-type bikes) seems like a great option for really flat places. Anywhere with hills, I would only want it with an electric-assist (which we didn’t try).
On the other hand, if you live somewhere flat or want to go for the e-assist, I can see the appeal. I think with more practice, I would have adjusted to the steering. Gabriel really liked being up front, and the cargo capacity is impressive (you could carry even more by adding a rear rack). Compared with wrangling things into the longtail’s bags (or onto its rack), the ease of just tossing things into the box is quite attractive.
When we returned the Bullitt, Joel at Splendid Cycles said they had sold FOUR Bullitts the previous day (all with e-assist), one locally and three shipping to all parts of the country (Colorado, North Carolina, and, not too far from home, Springfield, MO).
All in all, I’m glad we had a chance to try the Bullitt, but I’m looking forward to returning home to our longtail. There’s no place like home, and there’s no bike like your own!