Choosing an electric bike for young families
Long-tail or Christiana? Trailers or tag-alongs? What about conversion kits and accessories? Writer Rhiannon Batten sifts through the options in her quest to find a practical everyday bike to cycle with her two young boys
It drove me half crazy trying to find a bicycle for two (that is two small boys, plus me, their mother). When our older son, Osian, started school last September we knew we wanted to leave the car at home as much as possible and get more fresh air on the school run. However, the school is in a beautiful valley over a mile from our house – a scenic but, at times, steep route that four year-old Osian could manage to walk but not his three year-old brother, Owen – and I would have both boys with me on non-nursery days.
As a time-poor working mother cycling also seemed a more realistic option than walking. And, while Osian is a confident cyclist, I felt he was still too young to be cycling independently alongside me on a route that, at one point, takes in a busy rat-run for motorists.
The answer was that we should get a family cargo bike. Yet we were unprepared for how difficult a search this would entail – over two months of research and test rides, and a much bigger investment than we initially envisaged.
Was it worth it? Resoundingly, yes. The bike we eventually bought has transformed not just the school run but also our wider lives. On weekdays we arrive at the school gates invigorated and happy and raring to go (at the risk of sounding like the Waltons, I am also loving the interaction I get with the boys – instead of sleepy grunts from the back of the car I get a rolling commentary on their days and on the journey itself, even if they tend to get more excited by a passing rubbish lorry than the spectacular views of the valley that I’m soaking up myself).
On a more personal note, as someone who works at a desk all day trying to cram in as much time as I can between drop-offs and pick-ups, it can be hard to break away for a lunchtime walk or swim but the school run means I get some much-needed fresh air and exercise: ultimate ‘me’ time that makes me a happier person. The bike also means I really can ‘nip’ into town, or to the local railway station, without the hassle of finding somewhere to park or waiting for a bus.
Just as no two children are the same different families’ cycling needs are rarely equal and there were some specific factors that made our search more complicated than it might otherwise have been. Finding the information we needed was an exasperating, time-consuming process. I hope that by sharing the discoveries we made along the way, it will make the process a little easier for you if you’re looking to buy one of these life-enhancing machines.
Going electric One of the first things we discovered was that there are many more options available if you don’t need an electric bike. The proliferation of bike-based businesses over recent years (even in our home town of Bath we have both a pedal-powered groceries service and a postal service) has meant that standard cargo bikes (ie bikes designed to transport bigger loads than a standard bicycle basket could cope with) are now fairly common. And many brands sell models designed specifically to transport children. Non-electric cargo bikes also tend to be cheaper than those with electric-assist (by our reckoning electric assist adds about £1,000 to a cargo bike).
However, our two boys are tall and, being just over a year apart in age, that means two relatively heavy children to transport (if you have a bigger gap between children it might be easier to manage with a non-electric model).
The other consideration for us in choosing to go electric was living in Bath; being in one of those fabled cities built on seven hills might add to the beauty of the surroundings but it’s an extra challenge for local cyclists and our school run includes a pretty steep incline.
If we lived in a flatter area I wouldn’t have gone for electric but now I’m evangelical about electric bikes. One of the most common questions I’m asked is whether I need to pedal or whether it just goes on its own but the truth is I’m still getting plenty of exercise. The model we went for has a choice of electric assist from zero to five – even at full-power five you still need to pedal but you don’t get that burn in your thighs unless you choose it, and you’re not arriving anywhere panting and sweaty – unless you choose to be!
In fact I’m such a convert I don’t think I would go back to a standard pedal bike now. When the boys are long-since on their own bikes and our first electric bike is on its last legs, I’d go for another electric model again; you get all the gain but none of the pain.
Crucially for a family cargo bike there is one other great advantage of having the electric assist. Starting off with two children on the back of a bike isn’t easy until you get used to it because there’s such a shift in balance. But our model has a special boost for that purpose on the handle and when you use it from a standing start it removes any wobbles as you get going.
Long-tail or Christiana? I knew I wanted a long-tail cargo bike rather than a Christiana-style bike (those with a big box on the front or back). Our route to school takes in some narrow country lanes and I felt a Christiana-style bike would be too wide to steer away from a car if one came around a corner unexpectedly. A wider bike would also be more difficult to park and lock up on trips into town.
With such a big investment, I also wanted a bike that I could continue to use once the children are cycling to school on their own bikes and the long-tail looks and feels much more like a ‘normal’ bike so I can see myself using it well into the future.
The other option would have been a low-to-the-ground trailer attachment and, while there’s an argument that people drive more carefully around them, I felt our boys would be too vulnerable so low down. Nor did I like the idea of them travelling along at optimum exhaust-inhaling level.
A tag-along If we hadn’t needed an electric bike the best solution I came across was the Roland Add+Bike attachment. Unlike most tag-alongs, the crucial factor here is the way it attaches to the bike; it was the only tag-along we came across where the fixing is such that you can also have an infant seat attached to the panier rack of your bike for a second (younger) child.
This might still have worked for us but neither the manufacturer nor any of the stockists we contacted (nor the electric bike manufacturers we asked) could tell us whether this would work with an electric bike. Someone had warned us that there might be a load issue with an attachment tagged onto an electric bike and, without being able to get a definitive answer, we decided not to gamble on an expensive mistake.
Conversion kits If you’re handy there’s also the possibility of adapting your own bike with a DIY cargo bike kit (eg Xtracycle) but we’re not especially handy and I knew if we bought a standard electric bike and modified it and something went wrong we’d invalidate any guarantee we had, a risk I didn’t want to take. There are obviously load issues to take into account, too, if you’re thinking of going down that route.
A test ride If you’re not sure which family cargo bike set-up is best for you and you live in the south of England I recommend a day trip to Kids & Family Cycles in Bournemouth (also not far from the glorious Dorset Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty if you're thinking of staying for a few days). Though they stock many more non-electric options than electric you can try a few models and figure out whether you want a long-tail, a Christiana, a parent-and-child tandem or various trailer attachments.
It’s also right by Friars Cliff Beach, a family-friendly spot with a simple beach café which, together with a few test bike rides, makes a great day out with young children.
Unfortunately, although our visit helped us make the decision to go for a long-tail model, the only electric version the company stocked at the time was outside our price range.
The end of our search It seems the best-known long-tail cargo bikes on sale in the UK that are also available with electric assist are probably the Yuba Mundo and the Yuba Boda Boda but these are imported from the States and the weak pound when we were looking meant that they were beyond our budget.
Almost the only long-tail cargo bike with electric assist that we could find in the UK for under £3,000 was the version we bought, the eZee Expedir, a Chinese-made bike imported by Cyclezee in Milton Keynes.
Again this meant a long journey for a test ride (or returns, should we have any major problems with it in the future). And Cyclezee is not signed up to the Cycle to Work scheme, which was disappointing, but business owner, John Douglas, went out of his way to help us and knows the bikes inside-out. He also made some sensible suggestions about various customisations we had asked for - a very positive experience.
In all, including an oversized cargo basket shelf on the front, both the boys’ bikes seats, Osian’s pedals and handlebars and delivery to Bath it cost us £2,000. Almost exactly as much as we spent on our car but then that’s exactly what we’re thinking of it as - a second car.
And that, essentially, is that. A bicycle made for three that’s fun for all the family. It took me two weeks to feel really confident on it – and to memorise where all the side-of-the-road potholes were (now I understand why all those cyclists hog the middle of the road!) – and I learnt the hard way that daydreaming while cycling along a lane the autumn bramble-trimmers have just swept along is not a great idea (replacing a spiked inner tube is a major operation on a bike like this). But otherwise it’s been plain sailing. Or, rather, plain pedalling.