Volk Bullitt Review (wittco posted on May 17th, 2012 )

Josh Volk, Slow Hand Farms, recently reviewed his time with a Bullitt. Out of his generosity, we have been able to share his review in full text.

Part of our goal at TRANSPORT/LAND is to support and promote the growth of a cargo bike culture in the Portland area, and business will play role in this. With this in mind, see how one of many businesses in the Portland area go about the business day. Enjoy.


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In a previous life I was a bicycle racer and bicycle mechanic, and for a long time I’ve wanted to merge the bike world with the farming world. In the earliest plans for Slow Hand Farm I was lusting after a completely impractical delivery bike like the Classic Dutch Cargo Tricycle from Workcycles, complete with a custom deck to display the produce. like an old time push cart vendor.

I stopped into Splendid Cycles over a year ago, curious to check out their selection of cargo bikes and struck up a conversation with Joel, the owner of what at that time was a one man shop. He was excited enough about what I was doing, even without the bike, that he immediately sent me photos of the set up he thought would be right for me. I did come back for a test ride, but I wasn’t totally convinced. Then, earlier this year, Mike Cobb, a dyed in the wool cargo cyclist and all around great guy who is working with me on the Farm Hand Carts, lent me his Yuba Mundo so I could try out a farm delivery run, human powered. This was actually the second time I had pedaled the produce into town. The first time was a relatively light run on a day when my car ended up in the shop, and for that run I had used my Bike Friday with its trailer grossly overloaded. The run with the Yuba was a significantly heavier load, and while it was fun in its own right, it also made me realize what Joel had been telling me about a good set up.

So I went back to Splendid and arranged to test out one of Joel’s Bullitts with the Bionx 350 electric assist. Overall I love it and it is super fun to ride, but I’ll put down some further observations and thoughts that follow the 85 or so miles I put on the Bullitt in the last week, schlepping boxes back and forth from the farm.

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Joel lent me the floor model, with he had decked out with a beautiful brass bell, two bottle cages, a rear rack, a generator hub and lighting system, a rear wheel lock, and of course the Bionx electric assist. The bike was set up with a 10 speed wide range cassette and a triple crankset up front. Shimano SLX components worked very smoothly, and the hydraulic disk brakes were incredibly powerful with a super light touch, a feature that’s very much appreciated when stopping, or even slowing several hundred pounds of cargo, bike and rider. They also keep the rims clean in rainy conditions, which is a small detail that makes a big difference to me. The other feature of the bike that I really loved was the super stable, strong, and easy to use kickstand. This feature is essential for loading the bike easily.

The frame is light weight, super stiff aluminum. The riding position is a bit more aggressive than most other cargo bikes I’ve ridden, and I appreciate that, especially for long hauling at higher speed. It’s not that I don’t appreciate an upright, comfy cockpit, but when you’re trying to get somewhere far away on a schedule you need to be able to put some muscle into the effort and the slightly more aggressive position does facilitate that. The stiff aluminum frame is noticeably efficient at transfering pedaling energy to the rear wheel, and also improves the loaded handling, with no hesitation or bounce. The long wheelbase keeps the ride smooth despite the stiffness of the frame. It does help to unweight the saddle slightly when negotiating speed humps as the seat is directly over the rear wheel (this is something that is second nature to me after years on tight geometry road bikes).

A lot of reviews I’ve read talk about the funky handling on the Bullitt, and it does have slightly twitchy steering at low speeds, especially with no load. This is probably partly due to the geometry, which includes a smaller than usual front wheel. Once the bike is up to speed, it’s completely smooth, and when it’s loaded it’s much less noticeable. Again, being from a racing background I kind of appreciate steering that is responsive and quick and after a few days of riding I was totally comfortable taking one hand off the bars to reach for a water bottle, or to signal turns. I still haven’t gotten to the point where I’m going to ride the thing without hands, I’m not sure if that will ever happen, but who knows, it didn’t feel like I’d be taking even one hand off when I first rode away from the shop. I had this same kind of readjustment when I started riding a small wheeled Bike Friday a few years back. It took me some time to get comfortable with the difference in geometry of the small wheels, and now it’s strange to me when I get on my 700c road bike which feel impossibly slow to turn.

There are a number of minor adjustments I had to make moving to a big cargo bike like this. One is that the front wheel is just a lot farther forward and so I had to learn to stop just a little farther back in intersections. Similarly it doesn’t fit between the curb and a car the way a small bike does so I treated it much more like a car in traffic when there was no bike lane (or when the cars on my route were taking the shoulder, as often happens on the approach to the St. Johns bridge. Another difference is that it does have a slightly limited turning radius in tight spaces. This mostly comes into play when wheeling the thing into and out of my yard, not when I’m actually on the road. It’s actually quite fun to ride through the corners at a good clip, and really feels solid. After I returned the bike Joel showed be a clever trick for getting it up and down steps, which is a bit of a pain given it’s weight with the battery and its extreme length. He walks around the front and holds up the front wheel and cargo platform, rolling it just on the rear wheel. Why didn’t I think of tha? It’s not really balanced to lift from the top tube, which is behind the center of gravity.

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Loading It Up and Locking It Up

Joel had set the bike up with a standard rear rack, which was handy since I typically travel with an Ortlieb pannier. The rear rack is a bit superfluous with the huge platform in front, as well as lots of space around the steering column that can be utilized. Because the frame isn’t step through it might be easier to get on and off without the rear rack, but it didn’t bother me at all. This bike had the standard aluminum honeycomb non-skid deck. There’s plenty of tubing around the edges to lash to, but I’m always a little disappointed to not see something like lashing spars, or tie down mounts on cargo bikes. I guess you could add these, just like you can add them on the sides of a pick up truck.

My first loaded trip I was carrying four of my farm delivery boxes, empty, back from one of the delivery sites. The boxes are Ikea Pränt storage boxes with a foot print of 13×15” and a height of 13”. These fit very nicely on the deck and gave me the first indication as to why the handlebars have a quick release to adjust their height. I like riding with the bars low, but they hang out a little above the cargo deck, so with the 26” high load I needed to move the bars up almost as high as they would go to fit the boxes below them. No problem with the quick release height adjustment. I tied the load on using some old flat webbing tied around the frame of the cargo platform and using a truckers hitch (one of the most useful knots I know, and essential for tying down loads securely – thanks for teaching me that one Andy). If I were setting the bike up for regularly hauling the load I’d probably either invest in some cam buckle straps, or maybe an extra long bungee or two, or maybe both.

I was wondering if such a tall load would make it hard for me to see the road. Actually, I felt like I could have gone significantly higher without any visibility problems. My bigger load was with eight of these boxes. When I delivered a full load I had to built a little auxiliary platform (using a bit of scrap 1×6 I had in the basement) to let the eight boxes hang out over the sides. The platform is a little longer than 26”, but not a full 30” so I had to mount the boxes sideways, side by side, making my load 30” wide. The deck is a little more than 15” wide, which is perfect for one box, but for two I needed to hang out quite a bit more. I also put a 1/2” closed cell foam pad (an old camping mat) between the frame of the deck and the boxes to pad the frame so I wouldn’t mar the paint. This had the added benefit of damping road vibrations to the load, and in the future I’ll definitely continue to incorporate a light foam pad to help cushion the load from bumps in the road, and to make the ride quieter.

Two boxes high, and two boxes wide was no problem, and the load weighed about 120 pounds in total. This was pretty comfortable to ride with, and I didn’t feel any stability problems, although I wouldn’t want to have to thread any tight spaces at low speed. If I needed to, I think I could add two more boxes to my load making it 39” high in the front. I expect to at least double the weight of the load on occasion, which will definitely slow me down on the hills, but I don’t think it will create any handling problems.The biggest issue with such a wide, tall load is that at speed I was pushing a lot of wind, which makes me think I’d like to build a little fairing to help reduce the drag.

I have to mention the kick stand here. Have I not yet mentioned how amazing the kickstand is? This is not the kickstand you remember from your childhood where the bike always fell over, this thing is solid and super easy to deploy, even fully loaded. It is essential for loading the bike and takes the full weight. It supports the frame on both sides of center so the thing doesn’t tip at all and all you have to do to start riding is to push forward a little and it releases. Deploying the stand is similarly easy, from the cockpit you just push down with your foot until the stand is touching the ground and then rock back slightly – done! It’s similarly easy when you’re off the bike. I found myself using it constantly, and it worked on soft, uneven ground as well as on the concrete.

An add-on that went nicely with the kickstand’s ability to hold the bike upright anywhere was a simple wheel lock. This mounts on the seat stays and very easily flips through the spokes to prevent the rear wheel from turning. For quick deliveries this is a great way to lock the bike, which won’t easily be picked up, and with the lock engaged, can’t roll away. With the kickstand you don’t even need anything to lean it against and the lock is always right there! It’s spring loaded, too, so a quick turn of the key and it completely disengages itself. This is much, much easier than fiddling with a U-lock. When I was in Europe, many years ago, these locks were super common on city bikes. My only fear here is that a thief might not recognize that the bike is locked and in an attempt to roll it away would destroy a few spokes. Ultimately that would be a small price to pay though.

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Electric Assist

The Bionx system is very easy to use and super fun! I rode quite a bit at maximum assist trying to figure out the limits. The motor is in the hub and there is a controller on the handlebars with a good sized LCD readout letting you know what’s happening. There’s also a little sensor on the rear brake lever that kicks in regeneration when you start to use the brakes. Assist is typically just magnifying your pedaling effort, but there’s also a little thumb throttle you can use for quick bursts, which is especially useful for hills or for getting up to speed when you’re not otherwise using the assist.

From a stop the motor doesn’t kick in until you’re actually moving 3mph so there’s a slight delay. Once you start moving, in full assist it really kicks in and gets you up to speed, across intersections quickly. It’s lots of fun, and definitely makes crossing busy traffic intersections feel safer. The other place the assist is most noticeable is going up hills. Unloaded I barely slowed down, even on pretty steep hills. Loaded, with a good effort on my own part, I could ride 3-4 times as fast as I would have been able to otherwise, and also makes the time climbing the hill much shorter, making my increased effort less exhausting.

There were a few modifications I felt like I needed to make to my riding style to take advantage, and I’m sure these would become more second nature over time. One difference is that they assist is more noticeable if you’re pushing a big gear, as opposed to spinning. I’ve spent years trying to learn to spin smoothly, but with the assist you can feel it kick in more if you mash on the pedals in a huge gear. I’m sure this is because it’s reacting to the pressure on the pedals, or more accurately the torque on the cassette generated by hard pressure on the pedals.

Another habit I have is riding with my thumb along the handlebar, which was putting it right on top of the little controller switches. There are three buttons to operate the controller easily while keeping your hands on the bars. One button increases the assist, another decreases or puts it into regenerative mode and the third is the throttle. These sat right next to my thumb on the right side. Numerous times I inadvertently switched away from assist. I’m sure I would get used to this, but it would also be easy to move the controller farther from my wayward thumb. The buttons are nice, unobtrusive, and cleanly designed. For use with gloved hands they could be a tad larger to make it easier to tell which was which without looking, but I expect with time I’d also learn this and have no problems.

Another habit of mine is to favor the front brake, which typically has more stopping power. This is definitely a habit that comes from the old days of side pull brakes that had very little power on their own. On this bike the regen is on the rear brake, and the hydraulic disks and fat tires mean that the rear brake is pretty much all you need for most stops. I was trying to make the conscious effort to use the regen braking as much as possible, which meant feathering the rear brake lever to slow down and also using it to stop, pretty much ignoring the front brake. Old habits die hard though.

I had high hopes for the electric assist. I imagined I would cruise at 20mph with moderate effort and cut my bicycle delivery time in half. That didn’t happen. It’s not legal to have the assist help you over 20mph so the controller backs off as you get closer to that number. When I was riding unloaded I could easily cruise at about 18mph, even on gentle grades, with an effort that typically would have had me riding more like 12-14 mph. Going up a steep hill I could ride at 16mph with a reasonable effort, one that probably would have had me in the 4-8mph range with no assist. On downhills I found that if I wanted to exceed 20mph it was best if I set the controller to zero assist (and on the Bullitt it was a lot more fun to ride very fast than I initially thought it would be – super solid and very fun).

The regenerative braking is impressive. Set to the maximum on a steep hill with a full load it easily kept me in the 16 mph range. Unloaded on a similar hill it pretty much brought me to a gradual stop, with very smooth deceleration. On gradual downhills, where I was trying to increase battery life, I would pedal in regen level 1 which added just enough resistance to slow me to 16-18 mph with a decent effort in a situation where I would have normally been riding at 20-22 mph. In some ways this actually felt like a better use of my energy, as wind resistance goes up so much in that range (especially with a the huge frontal area of my load), that my increased efforts against the wind really weren’t going to add much speed anyway.

Battery Life

Unloaded, at full assist, on rolling terrain with a few hills I was riding 12 miles averaging 16-18 mph and using about 1/4 of the battery. For a typical bike commute I don’t think you’d have any trouble with battery life at all. To really test the battery I tried my 36 mile delivery route, with two decent hills and 120 lb load for both of those hills. The non hilly part of the route (the return) was unloaded. There also happened to be a killer headwind for the loaded part of the route. I ended up using the assist for just a little of the unloaded part – mostly to make it up and over the St. Johns bridge which has no bike lane and heavy traffic. For the loaded part of the ride I used the assist for the hills and the headwind, which was probably about 8-12 miles of the route in total. That allowed me to do the entire route in about 3 hours and 15 minutes of riding time, with all of the hills feeling very reasonable, and high traffic areas feeling much safer as I was closer to traffic speed. The bike was also more stable in the high wind areas, as I was able to maintain higher speeds, which make it much more stable due to the increased gyroscopic effects of the wheels (momentum!) By the end of the route I was down to no bars on the power indicator, but it was still allowing me to use the throttle at intersections (I had turned the assist off by that point).

In reality, I have three stops on my route that are long enough that I could have hauled the charger with me (another 3 pounds or so) and recharged the battery between sections, which would have allowed me to be less conservative with the assist. I didn’t test the charge times, but my stops were all at least an hour, which certainly would have put quite a bit more into the battery, and possibly would have been able to completely top it off.

The charger is very simple to use, just plug it into a wall and plug it into the battery. You can leave the battery on the bike, or take it off (using a key so that it doesn’t get stollen while you have the bike parked on the street). I was typically taking the battery off, as my parking spot was not close to an outlet. The charger does have a little fan, which makes a noticeable noise. It didn’t bother me, but the sound drove my partner nuts as she was studying for the GMAT. It basically sounds like an old computer fan, which is probably what it is. There are little indicator lights on the charger to let you know when it’s done (it also stops making noise when it finishes).

My take on the assist is that it is optimized for riding between 14-16 mph, and that its greatest benefit is in saving the energy of getting the bike up to speed, and getting it up hills quickly. For riding on flat ground at a steady pace it’s less useful. For a route with lots of stops and short hills, it’s perfect. It will still do something on the flats and long stretches, but not as much. For anyone that has hauled a load, especially in town, it’s obvious that getting up to speed, and getting up hills is the big challenge and the assist make the bike feel almost like it’s unloaded. The assist makes the front derailleur superfluous. With a wide range cassette in the back, all you really need is the big ring in the front. As long as you can get the bike moving up to 3 mph the assist will get you quickly up to a speed where you want to be in the big gears.

Parking

My biggest problem with the Bullitt was parking it at home. My house sits above grade, so there are about 5-7 steps to get in and out wether you’re going in the basement door or the front door. On top of that there’s not direct approach so there are some tight turns to negotiate. This is where a long, relatively heavy bike is problematic. The obvious solution is a little bike garage, and that’s probably what I’ll end up building. If you already have a garage, or somewhere safe to park the thing that’s at street level you’re golden. As a temporary measure I made a little makeshift ramp, which was not easy to negotiate, but was functional (except for the time I tried to load the bike before negotiating the ramp – not a good idea). After I brought the bike back Joel mentioned that you can wheel it backwards, using the front of the cargo platform and front wheel like wheel barrow handles, that would definitely make things easier. The bike is not balanced for picking up (at least not with the battery attached).

Dollars and Cents

The Federal mileage rate is at $0.555 at this point. I estimate that my 1997 Honda Civic costs about $0.25 per mile with current gas prices, depreciation, parking, etc. (that’s a pretty rough number). The Bullitt with the Bionx assist is somewhere in the $6000 range, depending on the set up. Taking a wild guess I’d say that maintenance and electricity costs would be under $0.05/mile to keep it in top shape. That would mean that at the federal rate you’d have to ride it about 12000 miles before it paid for itself, or for my Civic, about 30,000 miles.

For my farm deliveries I ride about 72 miles a week on average, or 3,300 miles per year (I don’t go to the farm every week of the year). If I were to just base the purchase on farm miles and simple math I’d be looking at 9 years for the bike to pay off (a lot of not so great assumptions there about interest rates, gas prices, and a few other things). If I also consider that I would probably use the bike for other trips (like meetings in town, groceries, trips to the hardware store and lumber yard) it might take half as long to pay off. And, if gas prices go up, I’m in even better shape.

I’m looking at these numbers, but I’m also thinking about whether I’d rather be spending my time driving around town, or riding, and even when it’s raining, my answer is riding. That’s a lot of extra hours of getting to ride a bike, one of my favorite things to do.

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Overall

I want to end on a positive note because despite the fact that the assist didn’t turn the thing into a motorcycle, that it was hard for me to park, and that it’s going to take more than a year to pay off, I had a ton of fun actually pedaling the thing and it loads up and hauls the load with ease! There is no question in my mind that this would be an ideal bike for someone with young kids for running them around town and getting groceries. I’m already designing the custom rack and fairing in my head for hauling my farm loads to town. During the week that I had the bike I didn’t once drive my car, and that felt great.

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8 Responses

  1. Karen Wittwer says:

    …one of the BEST reviews I have read on these cargo bikes. Covers everything. Joel had no stake in giving a sales pitch. He actually did everything. Man, that is cool. Joel at Splendid Cycles is a real prince of a person. All the cargo bike sellers I have read about are generous.
    You help make a better world. thanks. kw

  2. Bill says:

    Good review. I have been looking into an ebike (thinking an Bionx-based Mundo) and trying to do a “dollars and cents” analysis as well. One thing that was missing out of yours was replacing the battery pack. From what I have read, it seems most people get a few years out of them before they need to be replaced. That adds several hundred dollars to the bike column, unfortunately.

    –Bill

  3. eljefe says:

    I have a Bakfiets that I have ridden probably 10,000 miles now in three years, and it has transformed my life. But I want to be honest about the math. I eat a LOT more food when I ride it. A $5 burrito will get me 10 miles, and my car will go that far on $1 worth of diesel. On the other hand, my costs for exercise and health care are basically $0 and I look and feel my best ever.

  4. Joel says:

    Thanks Karen for the kind words…we work hard to let people see for themselves what works for them…and we invite anyone curious about cargo bikes options to take us up on our very liberal test ride policies.

    Bill…good questions. From a purely dollars and cents stand point, no assist works best. A modern cargo bike fueled by food is not free but still a bargain compared to a gym membership or medical bills caused by sedentary lifestyles.
    With that said, most folks could use more convenience, more range and more hill climbing capabilities out of their cargo bike. An e-assist will allow you to go further, climb longer/steeper hills and keep the “death marches” down to a minimum.
    Make no mistake, a modern cargo bike like a Bullitt or a Yuba Mundo can take a lot of energy to pedal ordinary distances over even moderate terrain. Modern e-assist systems like the BionX have the capacity to turn potentially unpleasant rides into something that is actually fun and convenient. Our society benchmarks the distances of daily travel with the use of the automobile at mileages beyond human scale. Conversely, the average human can only travel at fractions of these distances…throw in steep terrain and heavy loads…and we begin to discover how puny we really are.
    As for specifics, just this past weekend, my wife Barb and I supported 10 other cyclists on an outing that was in previous years supported by a van. With 2 e-assist cargo bikes pulling trailers we were able to carry all of our food, cooking utensils, gear, and support other cyclists not accustomed to overnight bicycle travel with the use of e-assist Bullitt cargo bikes instead of an automobile. A few hundred pounds of gear taken 60+ miles in 2 days was no big deal. Without the e-assist, the task would have been possible…but no where near as pleasant nor as easy for the beginners.

    As for long term costs, all batteries eventually die of old age in 4-7 years….even Lithium Ion batteries like those in the BionX system whether you use them or not. BionX batteries that are heavily used but still cared for properly have the capacity for 800 complete recharges. Based on distances traveled like this weekend… hypothetically speaking one could expect to travel over 25,000 miles on BionX battery before replacement. While battery replacement is not cheap ($900)…it is still a fraction of the cost of major car repairs or car replacement.
    Modern e-assist cargo bikes when used in a local living arrangement in a city like Portland, OR have the capacity to replace a car on the majority of trips one needs to take. Because of this…and when framed by household budgets under assault by increased living expenses and a planet in dire need of some human behavioral changes… we see the use of e-assist cargo bikes as imminently appropriate.
    Besides all of the above reasons, I find I enjoy myself the most if I can do double or triple duty on my errand runs around town…going for a ride for fun and exercise…going the places I need to go…pick up the the things I need..even distances like 30-40 miles are doable with a heavier loaded e-assist cargo bike.

    In an earlier age I would have been driving all over town…then hurrying back for a work out…all of that seems silly now I must say…

  5. [...] cargo bike, the choice of San Francisco bike couriers, and it can carry a lot of weight. (Here is a great review by Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farms, whom we later met, and another from Wisconsin, and another from a [...]

    • wittco says:

      Volk does do a good job with his personal review. I like that he shares the process of his use, not just the cargo bike.

  6. Josh Volk says:

    Thanks for all of the comments. I should really update some of this and I’ll just say here – Joel has now outfitted this bike for me and I’ve been riding it almost daily for the past four months now. It’s fantastic! The electric assist is a bit of bridge technology now in my mind, allowing me to ride longer distances than I’d otherwise consider, faster, and with less effort. This definitely means I use my car less as it makes the bike a better option for more trips.

    The money thing is interesting, the extra food thing is interesting, but the most important difference in my mind at this point between riding the bike and driving the car is that this bike is so much fun. I kind of have a better understanding of folks who drive SUVs now. Why ride a big long cargo bike with fat tires when I could do the same trip on my road bike? Because the big long fat tire bike is fun!

    One last note: I had Joel change around a few things on the bike when I got it, but after a few months of riding it I’m starting to understand why his initial set up was so good. When I get a little time I’ll try to outline a few of those features that I’m looking back at. I’m also looking forward, strangely, to the winter and getting to test this thing out in the rain.

    • wittco says:

      Josh–you have captured te essence of the reason behind why cargo bikes are ridden. Yes, they have a utilitarian component. However, I find myself riding mine all the time. It is my daily rider because I enjoy the ride.

      I appreciate the words and thoughts you have shared with TransportLand. Thank you. As far as the bike handling in the winter and rain, cargo bikes keep ge rain off your legs ;0) big ass fender as a front pallet.

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