I went to the “Sustainable West Seattle Festival” with my family on a rare sunny Saturday afternoon, hoping to see a Kona Electric Ute that a local bike shop was scheduled to show there. It was fun to see many like-minded people showing various sustainable choices — bee keepers selling local honey, farmers selling organic chicken feed for your home-raised chickens, Zip cars, small wind turbines, and various kinds of electric bicycles. Unfortunately, the Ute was not one of them. Apparently, the Kona rep had not gotten a Ute to the bike shop in time for the festival, so this elusive bike foiled my best efforts once again. I know a bike shop in our area that definitely has one, but it’s a bit of a drive and a ferry ride to get there, so I’m hoping to combine that trip with another outing sometime.
If my efforts to see a Ute have been challenging, getting a demo of the Yuba elMundo seems nearly impossible at the moment. There is only one bike shop within 100 miles listed as a Yuba dealer. When I contacted them about the possibility of seeing the elMundo, what I got instead was a strong recommendation to steer clear of this bike as well as the Ute and any other inexpensive cargo bike. The bike dealer recommended the Surly Big Dummy with a Stoke Monkey motor as a superior way to handle our hilly geography. This came as a surprise to me, because the Big Dummy was the bike I first intended to buy, but I was disuaded by several factors. I’ve listed these elsewhere, but the main problems were the size of the bike (my wife wants a bike that is easy to ride) and maintenance of the Stoke Monkey (frequent alignment is necessary to avoid problems with the second chain).
The bike dealer pointed out that the Stoke Monkey is better for climbing hills, because it works through your bike’s gears. In contrast, a hub motor like the BionX applies torque after the gears. When you climb hills, a hub motor is running at low speed where it is inefficient. I can verify that: on the steepest part of my hill where you want the most help, the motor does not feel like it is working as hard as you would like. The bike dealer says his Big Dummy climbs 20% grades (steeper than mine) with less effort than my bike.
So, if you’re serious about replacing your car and hauling big loads up steep hills, the Big Dummy and Stoke Monkey are probably the best choice for you. But unfortunately, it requires a custom build, and it’s a pretty crude system compared to my bike. This video shows what I mean:
Everything demonstrated here seems like it’s a generation behind my bike. The controller and burrito bag seem pretty crude: my controller must be built into the BionX battery case, which is beatifully mounted under my cargo deck. Putting that big battery in the XtraCycle bag seemed primitive in comparison. I could go on, but you can watch the videos and form your own opinions. (If you haven’t seen my bike video, it’s here.)
I hesitate to criticize the Big Dummy and Stoke Monkey, because it’s a great bike and people have done a lot of amazing things with it. For example, the BikeForth.org blog is one of my favorites — the author is pushing the boundaries of car replacement with weather coverings and solar power for his Big Dummy. It’s really great stuff, but I sometimes feel like he’s quite a bit ahead of his time. My practical side is struggling to find ways to get more people on bikes, even if only for some of their trips. I would love to jump directly into a future where bikes are as prevalent in my country as they are in Denmark, but to enable that future we have to find a way to make our bikes more mainstream. I feel like my bike is closer to that practical ideal than the Big Dummy/Stoke Monkey, but the price is still a barrier unless you’re completely replacing a car. Even as a cargo biking advocate, I still drive our mini-van, frequently. With our current infrastructure and suburban location, it’s not possible for me to transport my busy family without the car at this time. So the cost of the bike comes on top of the cost for the car, and that is a challenge for many family budgets.
On the other hand, I don’t want to recommend the Ute or the elMundo if their inexpensive price comes at the cost of reliability, functionality, or safety. Until I see them first-hand, or a good bike magazine does a thorough review and comparison of them, I can’t say if these are good candidates for advancing the worthy cause of cargo biking.