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The Bullitt One Year Later - REVIEW

May 2013

A little more than a year ago I took an extended test ride on a Bullitt cargo bike from Splendid Cycles and I wrote up a review here. Shortly after that I worked out a deal with Splendid to pay them a bit of money and take the same bike for a kind of super extended test ride, using it for Slow Hand Farm deliveries and errands. A year and almost 5000 miles later I wanted to add some notes to that original review, notes about what it’s been like riding a Bullitt through all kinds of weather and with lots of different loads.

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A typical farm load on the Bullitt.

Customizing the Ride

The first thing we did before I got the bike was to make some modifications. I had the shop strip off the rear rack and dynamo light system to save a bit of weight and drag. I’ve since had minor regrets about both of those decisions. The rack, while a bit of extra weight, is a very convenient spot for personal gear in a pannier, and while I’ve never lacked space up front, it would often have been easier to have a quick and easy place to mount my pannier with personal gear while the front end was loaded with cargo. In place of the Supernova E3 lights I’ve been using Light & Motion Urban 180 and Vis 180 battery lights, the front is mounted with a Paul stem cap light mount. While these lights are super bright and easy to recharge, they aren’t permanently mounted so I have to remember to bring them with me if I’m going to be out late, and when making deliveries I prefer to remove them during stops rather than risk having them stolen.

I also had Splendid swap out the swept back bars for straight bars that I could use with bar ends. I’m glad I did this for extra hand positions and a longer aero position in windy conditions, although the original bars were more comfortable for shorter rides. I still think something like Jones H bars might be an even better option. I would actually love to ride with moustache bars, or even drop bars, but they would be more complicated to swap out and would restrict the clearance with tall loads.

Splendid put a set of Shimano A530 pedals on the bike at my request. These have been fantastic, with a nice broad platform on one side when I’m in street shoes, and SPD on the flip side when I’m wearing cleats. For long hauls it’s nice to have the little extra efficiency of cleats, but I really like having a comfortable pedal for regular walking shoes around town.

 

Getting Comfortable

In the initial review I talked about getting used to riding the long geometry and not being able to ride with no hands. I think that review is great as it was written with a real beginner’s mind (where most folks start.) The good news is that eventually the bike geometry feels much more natural and I can now comfortably ride with no hands in many conditions, even with a moderate load.

The bike initially seemed like a hassle to get into and out of my basement, something that I don’t even think too much about these days. I still have to take it up and down five steps, and around a few tight turns, but I’ve gotten used to it, and it doesn’t ever really slow me down any more. It still would be more convenient to have a garage but it’s not high on my list of changes to make to our house. I definitely do not load the bike before hauling it up and down steps, a lesson I learned early on.

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Loading up long tools is easy with custom orange cam buckle straps and a wooden platform that extends past the sides. The tool handles are outside of the pedals so they don't interfere at all with riding the bike.

Loading it up!

I had my friend Mike Cobb make me a couple of long, custom cam buckle straps with 1” webbing. I’ve threaded those around the cross bars of the cargo platform and they hold down most of my loads very comfortably and securely. I also wrapped an old inner-tube around the vertical stays at the back of the platform so they make an x in front and are straight in back. The tube is super handy for quickly holding on my pannier with personal gear when there’s no extra load, or for stashing my jacket or spare shoes. I can lash loads with the tube from either the front or back, meaning I can lash my jacket easily while I’m still riding if I get too hot.

I’ve also built a few versions of extra racks and boxes to sit on the front cargo area and allow me to load up more boxes and tools than the typical cargo platform allows. I’m mostly using the bike to deliver boxes full of produce. The boxes are roughly 13”x15”x13” and I can fit up to 10 of them up front by raising the handlebars as high as possible and hanging the boxes slightly off the sides of the platform. A more typical load for me has been between 5 and 8 boxes, which when full weigh between 100 and 200 pounds. With the electric assist this is a completely reasonable load for me, and as I found out one day it’s even possible without the assist. Although obviously it takes a bit more energy, it doesn’t actually take me a lot more time without the assist.

I like to really stack my loads high in the front rather than spreading them wide and low. This is a little counter intuitive and isn’t so much for stability, but especially in cold weather it provides a wind screen which keeps me warmer and more comfortable. making a fairing has been on my list of things to build for a long time but I still haven’t gotten around to it, so in the mean time I just stack loads high, which also keeps them narrower and seems to provide a bit less drag in the wind.

I’ve also ridden with a number of long handled tools by mounting them outside of the frame, handles pointing back, just outside my pedals. This works very well and is very stable provided the two sides are loaded evenly. I’ve experienced a bit of high speed shimmy in the front end with a load that was weighted heavily to one side. I also realized early on that strapping anything directly to the frame, no matter how securely, rubs on the paint. It’s always best to strap with something soft, like foam, between the paint and whatever the load is if you care about the paint. After 5000 miles the loaded surfaces are definitely a bit scuffed, but with the aluminum frame it’s just cosmetic and there’s no fear of rust.

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Another bulky load. Those 10' rough cut 2x2s didn't fit in the truck but they were fine for the 8 mile ride on the bike. Also, notice the load is well above the handlebars, but there's still great visibility.

Electric Assist

The bike has been pretty maintenance and trouble free. The biggest exception is the Bionx electric assist, which I love, but does require a bit of fiddling occasionally. Basically what happens over time is the contacts in multiple wiring connectors either loosen slightly or corrode slightly which causes a bit of discontinuity. This expresses itself initially in hesitations during high load (it feels like someone is switching the motor on and off quickly). If you let this go on it will eventually cut out completely. The fix turns out to be relatively simple: unplugging the wires and enlarging the contacts by inserting a small ball end allen wrench carefully is my preferred technique.

This mostly happens in extended wet conditions (like our Northwest winters). Adding a thin coating of dielectric grease to repel water occasionally also helps. I rode this thing over thirty miles nearly every Monday and Thursday, plus half that much on Wednesdays and Sundays, regardless of weather, all fall and most of the winter. Needless to say the bike saw a lot of rain and wet roads, and I probably had to fiddle with the connections a handful of times through the winter. Now that the weather is dry the problems have disappeared (at least for a while).

There are a few things about the Bionx system that I love, and would make it hard for me to switch to another system. Firstly it’s silent, I cannot hear it working. Secondly I never use the throttle, I just rely on the sensor to add to my pedaling output. This allows me to forget it’s there and to use any hand position I want. The battery is also super easy to remove. This is a benefit in two ways for me. I don’t have a convenient outlet where I park the bike so I just take the battery off and charge it where there’s an outlet. I’ve also been delivering vegetables to Splendid Cycles in exchange for the option to swap out the battery for a fresh one after a long delivery route. It’s fantastic to have a full charge at the end of the day when I’m headed home.

The battery, on full assist, loaded lasts me about 15-20 miles, depending on the wind and terrain. My current route is 25-30 miles with a number of hills, which requires me to use the third assist level (full assist is level 4) in order to not run out of battery. This gives plenty of assistance on hills, but doesn’t give the huge acceleration from low speed that level 4 gives, or quite as much speed on the hills.

I usually ride 25 miles in the morning to the farm, take the charger with me and charge up the battery while I’m working so that I have a full battery for deliveries in the afternoon. Charging the empty battery takes about three to four hours. The regen mode on the electric assist doesn’t really put much back into the battery, although it probably saves a little wear on the brakes.

There are two other issues I had with the Bionx system. One day a battery quit on me. After fiddling with connectors for a while I ended up just riding under full leg power, which was tiring, but worked fine. It turned out there was an issue with that battery, which Bionx warrantied through Splendid (shipping the batteries requires a special license).

Having to pedal without electric assist made me realize that it was possible to do the deliveries without the battery, but it definitely takes a lot more work. It’s hard to tell sometimes how just how much of a boost the battery is giving but not having it makes it more obvious. The upside to a redundant system like this is that even when the battery failed I was still able to make the deliveries. If the car battery failed I’d have to fix it before I could do deliveries.

The other issue I had was breaking spokes. After three broken spokes in less than 2000 miles, and the same issue on a few other bikes, Splendid decided that they’re building up their own wheels with the Bionx hubs instead of relying on the factory builds. They re-laced my wheel with a great downhill rim. I’ve had no problems since and the ride is much smoother with the new rim which is slightly wider, and seems to be a bit stiffer laterally.

Since I’m talking about the wheels I should mention that the Schwable Marathon tires with Slime in the tubes is a great combination. I have had zero flats and I rarely have to top off my tires. I even ran over a thumbtack, rode with it in the tire for a day before pulling it out. The tire leaked for a second when I pulled it out, but as soon as I spun the tire the Slime sealed the leak and I haven’t had any problems since. That was about 3000 miles ago.

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This is a prototype platform I built for the front. The sides fold up from the flatbed verson (left) to make an enclosed box (right) when extra width isn't needed. This worked great and having the sides up makes it easy to toss smaller objects in without having to strap them down. I'm happy with the basic design so I'm working on a cleaner, stronger, lighter version.

Other Maintenance

The only real maintenance I’ve done is to keep the chain lubed. This required almost daily attention during the wet season, the same as any other bike with an exposed chain. I’ve probably come close to wearing through the rear brake pads at this point, and the chain and freewheel might need to be replaced, something that will happen soon.

Besides the few troubles with the Bionx system the only other failure I’ve had was a somewhat random failure of the quick link on the chain after about 1000 miles. Fortunately I was uphill from Lakeside Bikes in Lake Oswego and I was able to coast a few miles down to the shop where they gave me a new link for no charge.

 

Parting thoughts

I feel hugely grateful to Splendid for getting me on this bike. It’s super fun to ride and I love having the opportunity to show folks that cargo can be hauled between town and rural areas, not just inside town. Yes, it takes a bit more time and energy than driving, but it’s so much more fun, and I’m in great shape after all of that riding. It also is a fantastic way to get the business noticed. Folks are constantly telling me that they saw me in one corner of the city or another, and it’s really easy to mount signs on the bike, letting folks know who I am, even when the bike is parked. Especially when I get outside of town the bike turns a lot of heads, and surprisingly gets almost universally positive comments from guys driving by in huge lifted trucks.

I never thought I’d be an advocate for electric assist, but a season on this bike has sold me on it. For folks with limited fitness I can see this as a way to help them get out and ride themselves into shape, or even just to ride where it wasn’t possible before. For folks hauling loads, that little bit of assistance makes a huge difference. Not everyone needs it, but having it makes so many more trips by bike easily accessible that I’m sure anyone who has it ends up using automobiles less, I certainly have. That added incentive to use the bike also means I’ve gotten into better shape. Even though the electric assist is on the bike I’m still pedaling, and it’s still work, I just have the option to make it a little less work and ride a little farther, and a little faster up hill (although it’s a bit slower down hill and even on the flats sometimes).

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