The Best Bicycle – Urban Arrow Family

uaf-title

The Fam

As a parents of two developmentally disabled children, my wife, Deana, and I struggle to wrangle everyone together for family activities. We’ve always tried to find ways to get our kids riding, and despite his visual impairment, that has been relatively easy with our son, Ryan. First we used a Burley trailer, then a trail-a-bike, and finally a traditional tandem. This has been wonderful and we ride a fair amount, but we were often leaving the ladies of the house behind.

Our daughter, Allison, has gross motor issues and is non-verbal, so while she has good sight, even getting her to navigate a tricycle safely on her own has been a challenge. We had the Burley trailer which served us well and was a way for all of us to ride together for a few years when both kids were younger, but as soon as Allison grew out of that, the bikes fell by the wayside as a group option.

When we recently moved to Boulder, Colorado, all of the cycling infrastructure really got us hankering for a solution to get our daughter on (or behind) a bike again somehow so we could all ride together. She’s 11 now, and she’s pretty big. Her inability to balance safely and consistently had us leaning toward some other trailer option. We briefly considered an e-bike plus a larger trailer to account for the added weight. In addition, we were trying to think ahead with a potential significant investment involved. We wanted something that we felt we could use for at least a few years, and hopefully many more into young adulthood and beyond.

The A-HA! Moment

Brainstorming with my cousin Ellen via email one day, she offered to put us in touch with her friend James to discuss some possibilities. Ellen mentioned that James had recently gotten one of the excellent Yuba Spicy Curry cargo bikes for his family and thought it might be worth checking out and exploring as a solution for us.

As an e-cargo bike, it seemed compelling. After discussing some of the pros and cons, we decided we should go check one out in person. Both Ellen and James immediately pointed us to local cargo bike specialist, Front Range Cargo Bikes, with the thought that we could certainly put our hands on a few bikes there, if not get some novel ideas from folks who deal primarily in this niche.

It was probably only a day or two later when I headed on down to Front Range Cargo Bikes, and that’s when I saw it. Front and center by the open bay door, the first thing that caught my eye was a crazy, bakfiet-looking cargo bike with an electric motor, integrated lights, and a cool looking cargo area made of EPS foam. As I waited for someone to come help me, I started poking around it. The first thing I noticed was a small bench seat bolted in the cargo area with a SEATBELT!  QUEUE THE HALLELUJAH CHORUS.  Right then, I suspected we found our answer – The Urban Arrow Family.

First Test Ride

The first ride was a solo affair. I figured, my wife and I need to crawl before we sprint – we needed to be steady on this bad boy by ourselves before we could strap a child in the front with a clear conscience.

The first piece of advice was that the steering would be much different from I was used to. The analogy used by the folks at the shop was, “it’s like steering a canoe”. I have to say, that’s a pretty good analogy. I was a bit wobbly, but as soon as the Bosch electric motor kicked in with the first pedal stroke, things straightened right out. More about the fantastic motor later.

I pedaled down to the end of the industrial area where the shop is located, and found a nice big area of tarmac to make a complete turn with lots of space, then headed back. Instead of going straight back to the shop, I hooked a left turn and rode on down an adjacent bike path. Before I had even hit the path, I had the steering sorted out, so I opened it up to see how the thing felt at speed. Right away, the bike is confidence-inspiring. At 100 pounds, one might think it would be a bear to manage, but with a low center of gravity, and a lot of the weight out in front of the long wheelbase, this thing is very stable. If there was a precise moment I knew the bike would work for us, it was then, on the path.

A return visit with Deana and Allison proved that the bike was, indeed, a winner. The test rides with those two went better than I expected. Deana quickly handled the awkward transition to driving a long and heavy machine, and Allison showed no fear riding in the front. In fact, Allison clearly loved having the wind in her face and was actually resistant to getting out at the end of the first test ride. Smiles and high fives ensued!

The Details

Tires, wheels, etc

The Urban Arrow has features galore that really make it a legit car replacement option. In fact, in the last month, my car has seen fewer miles than it has in years. A big reason why is all of the features that make the bike easier to grab as a first transportation option.

Starting from the ground, a thoughtful spec is apparent. Supporting you are two Schwalbe Big Apple Plus tires that serve two purposes – durability and suspension.

big-apple-plus

These things are impenetrable, and even at the higher end of the pressure range, they offer a surprising amount of shock absorbtion over inconsistent tarmac. There are oddly shaped valve stems that only seem to work with some of my pumps, and this is my only complaint with the tires.  I still don’t know what they’re called, but they seem to me like some combination between Schraeder and Presta.

Moving up from the tires brings us to the excellent SKS fenders that came stock on our Urban Arrow. These are the bolt on variety and are wide enough to accommodate the Big Apple tires, and as anyone who has any experience with SKS fenders will tell you, they’re great. They come with buddy flaps installed and everything, so the coverage and splatter protection is top-notch.

Lights

front-light

Mounted to the top of the front fender is an integrated headlight, and there’s a tail light mounted under the seat in the back that is similarly hard-wired. The lights can be turned on and off from a switch on the Bosch head unit, and the lights run off of the prodigious battery. The lights work well enough, but they do leave some room for improvement. The headlight is adequate, but not particularly bright. Because it’s very adjustable, I was able to point it in a way that maximizes illumination and it works well enough. The rear tail light is large, but again, if I could have it 100% my way, I would like to have an option to make the tail light blink. Despite these minor issues, both lights appear to be high quality and completely adequate.

Cockpit and Shifting

cockpit

I have to admit, it took me a while to get used to the bendy bars. With hands resting in position on the grips and just straight line cruising, it’s a very comfortable setup. The grips are…grippy, and the ergonomic shape is comfortable. Standing up in the pedals took a while for me to confidently figure out with this setup. There’s rarely a need to do so in order to accelerate or power up a hill – you have the battery-powered e-assist. Where it occasionally becomes handy is going over bumps, across uneven driveways, or otherwise navigating a bumpy section of road. Even though the saddle and tires are cushy, sometimes it’s nice to stand and use your arms and legs to absorb some of it.

The stem is like nothing I’ve never seen before and provides lots of adjustment options:

stem

The bike came with the stem almost as high as it would go. The upside to that position is that it clears the bars out of the way for larger passengers inside the cargo area.  In a lower position, which is more comfortable for me as the driver for several reasons, the bars _might_ get in the way a larger passenger’s noggin. So far, this has not been a problem for us, even with Ryan who is a 5 foot 7-ish inch 15-year-old and always wears a helmet.

Shifting via the NuVinci N380 system is a key component to the killer spec on this bike. It’s a completely sealed and continuously variable shifting solution that’s contained in the hub of the rear wheel. There are essentially two extremes (easy and hard), with a rotating grip shift to adjust between those extremes.  I find that I need to pause shifting for a beat to make the up-shifts as smooth as possible. Down shifting seems to go much smoother while pedaling, but I find that I still pause my pedal stroke for just a second when going in either direction.  This is no different from what most people should be used to with traditional derailleurs.

Conveniently, you can shift to the easiest end of the spectrum while at a standstill. This comes in handy if you have to stop short, or just forget to downshift. This allows you to restart a 100 lb. bike from a standstill without needing to crank over a huge gear which is a must. The closed system of the NuVinci also continues the low-maintenance, durable theme of the bike. The chain is also enclosed in a rubberized Chainglider cover. As with the shifter, this keeps the chain entirely sealed, keeping water out, and also protecting the pant leg of your Armani suit from drivetrain lube, should you choose the take this mean machine to work after dropping the kids off at school.

The Key Bits – Cargo Area and Motor

What sold us on this bike is the integrated, purposeful human hauling capabilities. There is a cushioned bench that comes stock with the Family version of the Urban Arrow, and there are adjustable nylon belts to secure your passenger (or passengers). A second, smaller bench is available as an after-market option, which allows for a forward-facing and a rear-facing passenger in the cargo area. We haven’t gotten the second bench yet, but we may at some point.  For now, the main bench is perfect for any single passenger.

bench

I purposefully avoided the use of “child” in reference to the passenger, because there’s room for a full-sized adult. The hauling capacity in the cargo area is rated at 400 pounds, so with that much room, you could technically put two average sized adults in there, as long as they were willing to share some knee room.  We haven’t tested the upper ends of the hauling capabilities, but it was reassuring to know we had room to grow.

The Bosch Active motor and battery are phenomenal. I had no experience with any sort of e-bikes or e-assist motors at all before test riding this bike. The first thing I noticed when stepping on the pedals is that the engine assists you right away. As with the downshifting capabilities described above, the instant assistance of the electric motor is VERY handy when you have a heavy and unsteady payload….such as an excited, hand-flapping, 100 pound autistic girl. The assistance is subtle and, in a word, perfect in those situations. It allows the driver to confidently lift both feet on to the pedals at very slow speeds, so steadying the bike is a breeze.

battery-and-motor

Beyond the instant availability of the e-assist, the motor feels and works very intuitively. It’s not a motor in the traditional sense – when engaged, the motor will not propel the bike by itself. It only assists the pedaller while pedalling with variable amounts of power based upon the four settings:  Eco – just enough boost to take the edge off of completely pedalling the thing by yourself; Tour – a bit more power, more than enough to help get over moderate hills with a light load without too much extra effort; Sport – the next notch up, great for powering up hills with a kid in the front, getting up to speed in traffic, and most any situation; Turbo – tons of power for getting over the steep hills with a full load.

The battery life on the unit is pretty good so far.  The higher power settings obviously eat up battery life much faster. If you left the bike in Sport mode, you might get 15 miles of pedalling assistance. I find that I most often use Eco mode when riding by myself, and the estimated range on a full battery in that mode is somewhere around 25 miles. My technique to extend battery life has evolved to maximize life between charges. When going downhill, I’m getting better about turning off the motor and just pedalling. I think Bosch got the design right when they developed this product, because the toggle switch between e-assist modes is easy, intuitive, and right at your fingertips. Your mileage will obviously vary, but so far, we get two to three days out of a charge.  That’s with regular use riding at least one child to school every day (sometimes two), and using it for nearby errands and/or short fun rides around the neighborhood every day.

The Extra Bits

There are several key features built into the bike that really help put it over the top and make it easy (and fun) to grab as a primary transportation option. First, Urban Arrow used a sturdy, double-legged kickstand that engages and disengages with relatively little effort.

kick-stand

The only thing you might need to take into account is steadying the bike when a passenger is getting in or out of the cargo area.  When the kickstand is engaged, if you don’t have weight on the seat, the bike will tip forward about an inch and weight ticks forward to the front wheel (you can see this better in the first picture at the top).  This is a natural consequence of the kickstand acting as a bit of a lever when it’s engaged with the bike defaulting toward leaning “back” toward the heavier back-end of the bike.  You can also just push the front down to ensure the weight is tilted toward the front of the bike to steady it that way if the passenger prefers that when they’re stepping in.  This is a very minor thing and is hard to explain, but I thought it would be worth mention. In either case, the bike is very stable and otherwise steady when parked with the kickstand in use.

Next, the seat has a hard molded plastic handle built into the underside:

seat-handle

This thoughtful addition serves a specific purpose. As you’ll find out after test riding the Urban Arrow, it has a very large turning radius and is very long. This makes the bike hard to handle and manipulate in tight spaces.  Having a sturdy handle to grab helps pick up the back-end to move the bike around a bit quicker when you need to…and there will be times you need to (think parking on a tight sidewalk area). Because of the length of the wheelbase and the relatively low clearance, it could be pretty easy to scrape the bottom riding off of a tall curb or other obstacle, so just be careful in those situations – you can use the handle to lift the back end a bit to walk the bike over. As for the low clearance, I have yet to come across any major slam scenarios, but I did strike the crank arm while pedalling up and over a grassy sidewalk/path interface while riding my son to school one day.  This was undoubtedly a consequence of the low clearance (and perhaps a poor line choice by the driver!)

Next on the list of nice extras is an integrated lock:

lock

With the flip of a lever and a turn of the key, a miniature u-shaped bar wraps around the rim, between the spokes, and locks into the other side.  This essentially immobilizes the bike since attempting to move it causes the rear wheel spokes to bump into the bar, so you can’t roll it when engaged. To retract the bar, all you do is insert the key and twist, and the lock springs back, hidden away and locked in the housing.  The key (shown above) is locked in place when the lock is retracted, so you can keep it there and don’t have to worry about it falling out while riding around.  To disengage the key, you have to push the lever and fully engage the lock.  This is really handy and is another critical factor that makes the bike so easy to use.

Skeptics might be worried about relying upon a tiny locking device like this to secure the bike. The fact of the matter is, this bike is at least 5 feet long end to end and weighs right around 100 pounds.  It would take at least two people, a truck, and some planning to pick up and make off with this bike while it’s immobilized.  For almost every daily use I have for this bike, the integrated lock is sufficient and is all I use.  I bring along a larger cable lock if I know I’m going to be away from the bike for more than a little while, and obviously your circumstances may vary.

Lastly, this thing has a siiick bell! A Dutch neighbor recently showed me a very similar bell that she has on her bike that she said she picked up on her last trip home, so I think these bells are a Dutch thing.  Anyway, there’s a great chance that you’ll be one of the few folks with a cool bell like this in your town. It’s just a small cherry on the top of an already stellar package that makes it fun to ride.

The Final Analysis

Because it perfectly fit as a solution to a problem that had been nagging at our family for quite some time, this is my favorite bike in the stable, and is the most fun I’ve ever had riding a bike. It’s certainly not going to get you anywhere as fast as other machines, and of course, you’re limited by its natural range of capabilities. You’re not going to go touring on it, you’re not going on any serious off-road trails, and you’re certainly not going to race this bike. I like to do all of those things, and this does none of them.

What this bike _does_ do is change your life. It changed our lives, at least. We’re lucky enough to live very close to a lot of amenities. We have two grocery stores, several banks, restaurants, dry cleaners, etc, all within a mile of our house. Our kid’s schools are next door to each other and sit less than two miles away. We also have an extensive network of multi-use paths and bike lanes right outside our door. These things unquestionably make riding a bike easier.

The undeniable fact is that we drive much, much less, and we are riding as a family again. If you think that you’re ready to make an investment in a purposeful, workhorse machine as a commuter, a grocery-getter, and an all-around car replacement, the Urban Arrow Family does all of this and more. Go get your hands on one and pedal it.

Postscript

I have to give a huge thanks to Ellen and James for helping us find this bike.  It really has been a blessing to have an option to ride together again with “all four friends”, as our son might say. We all owe you guys big.

Also, I can’t forget to mention that, if you’re serious about pulling the trigger on one of these awesome machines, be prepared to talk to people. More often than not, people want to talk about the bike when I’m out and about on it.  People are perplexed, curious, confused, amazed, and otherwise very interested in the bike, and they WILL ask you about it.  It’s a great conversation-starter and it turns heads wherever you go.  You’ve been warned – enjoy!

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