Many of my car journeys are within a mile of my house, hauling toddlers and groceries to and fro. It would be much easier, more fun, and better for the environment, if I could replace at least a few of those trips with an electric cargo bike. However, a few hurdles stand in my way.
The first is cost. I loved the versatility and power of the R&M Load, but at $7,000, it costs as much as my current car. Going completely carless would justify the price, but it’s hard to make the commitment. I don’t know what my mom would say if I picked her up at the airport and strapped her into a cargo box to ride home. But I can picture her face, and it’s not pretty.
The second is convenience. Yuba, Riese & Müller, and other e-cargo bike manufacturers only sell through preferred retailers. Since I live in a city that is positively infested with high-end bike shops, I find picking up an electric cargo bike to be a simple, if time-consuming, task. But for many others, stopping by a shop and riding your new bike home is a lot harder. If Yuba’s preferred retailers aren’t in your city, you might be stuck taking a train and biking 50, or 100, miles back home.
Seattle’s Rad Power Bikes operates on the principle that everyone who wants an electric bike should be able to get one. The RadWagon, their e-cargo offering, starts at $1,599. It costs only a fraction more than a decent road bike. And since they’re direct-to-consumer, they will deliver a bike directly to your door.
In terms of price and convenience, Rad Power Bikes already have the competition beat. Now it just remained to see if the bike itself was worth it.
Built to Spill
Rad Power asked if I wanted to assemble the bike or have it assembled for me. For an additional $199, Rad Power offers full assembly through a mobile bike shop called velofix, if you live within an area that velofix serves. But since the whole point was that anyone, anywhere, can order a Rad Power bike, I opted to put mine together myself.
As I soon realized, bike building is a skill, performed in workshops by trained professionals with a set of specialized tools. I’m a card-carrying member of the Gadget Lab, and I have an outsized sense of my ability to assemble almost anything. However, that turned out to be mostly hubris.
For three days, I spread the contents of the enormous box on several mats on my deck, snatched bags of screws back from my toddlers, and watched videos on YouTube. Eventually, I caved and begged my spouse to let me rummage around in his tool shed. While Rad Power does provide you with the tools that you need to assemble the RadWagon, you are much better off if you have access to a set of ratcheting hex keys and a torque wrench to measure how hard to tighten individual screws.
I confess to still feeling slightly nervous every time I go over a large bump and hear a spring jiggling. If it’s an option, I recommend getting the bike professionally built. Having an Ikea bookshelf fall down is one thing, but having a bike fall apart while going 20 mph is another.
It’s worth noting for the short people out there: You can pivot the RadWagon’s handlebars to compensate for having shorter arms and a shorter torso. I’m 5’2″ and it can be difficult to find a bike—let alone a cargo bike—that will fit my frame.
Get Your Motor Running
If an e-bike seems mysteriously affordable to you, I would check to see which e-assist system they’re using. The Shimano Steps and Bosch eBike systems are by far the most prevalent, and will raise the price of any e-bike by almost a grand. They’re weatherproof, intelligent, integrated e-assist systems with incredibly long-lived batteries, that will only output precisely the amount of power you need to go as fast as you want.
However, Rad Power is able to offer the RadWagon at a drastically lower price because instead of a Shimano or Bosch, it has a Shengyi e-assist system. The first tradeoff is the battery life. While you can travel around 100 miles with a Shimano battery, the estimated range on the RadWagon is 25-45 miles.
I got to around 20 miles on one charge before I started to feel nervous about getting stranded. If you have a commute of longer than 10 miles, I would keep a charger at work. The RadWagon also tops out at a much lower speed, around 20 mph as compared to the R&M Load’s 28 mph.
The biggest difference is hard to describe. A Shimano or Bosch system is easy to calibrate. You can tinker with the gearing and different assist modes to tackle different terrain, or travel at different speeds. The intelligent motor will only provide just as much assistance as you need for every second that you’re pedaling. The end result is that biking on a Shimano or Bosch system feels natural and intuitive. You can control the level of resistance that you feel on the pedals. You’re just more powerful, and with more stamina.
The RadWagon also has five different assist modes. But rather than gauging the terrain or speed, the motor offers a certain amount of wattage per mode. For example, I found that in eco mode, the motor provided around 150 watts of power when I pedaled, versus 300 watts in standard mode.
What I found was that in practice, the physical act of pedaling had little to do with how much propulsion the bike offered. One afternoon, I covered four miles without ever making a full rotation on the pedals. A half-rotation was enough to trigger the e-assist, and then I went back to coasting and daydreaming. My spouse actually liked this feature. He said that it made the motor seem more powerful.
And the bike’s e-assist was certainly effective. The bike’s power and speed modes provided enough wattage for me to haul a cargo bike and groceries up a 30-degree hill.
However, I like feeling resistance on the pedals. And going below 15 mph was hard. Even the lowest level of e-assist feels like an abrupt jerk when you trigger it at lower speeds. I enjoy my leisurely morning commute to my toddler’s preschool, where she sits in her bike seat, talks, and sings. But I can’t hear her if I’m going above ten miles an hour. She soon started objecting to our speedy, windy morning commutes, and I ended up turning off e-assist altogether.
That wasn’t as big a sacrifice as you might expect. After all, the bike also has a 21-speed Shimano drivetrain. But if I’m not using e-assist, we might as well get back on my old commuter bike.
With all that said, the RadWagon is also the only e-cargo bike that I tested that falls within my personal budget. I might fantasize on a daily basis about selling my car, but I’d like to have one on hand in case either of my kids needed to visit the emergency room.
With a max 45-mile range, I won’t be doing any epic bike tours on the RadWagon. And having ridden, and loved, both Shimano and Bosch systems, it was hard for me to overlook the Shengyi system’s shortcomings. But a slightly jerky ride is more than compensated for by having an extra grand in your bank account. And for tooling around town, running errands, and hauling kids to and fro, the RadWagon works perfectly well.
The RadWagon will be back in stock on Rad Power’s website on August 13. Just make sure you can assemble it in a room where you can close the door.