By Paul Freedman
In June 2017 I supported the Climate Ride’s Central California Coast ride as the first ever cargo bike ‘SAG’ rider. I’d just come off the Death Valley Climate Ride in February, where I noticed that they relied heavily on vans to zoom up and down the route, checking on riders and offering lifts. I proposed to the organizers that they could showcase cutting edge climate solutions and try out a cargo bike SAG rider: me! I’d carry water, tools, snacks, and do the kinds of things I saw the van drivers doing, just from a capable electric cargo bike.
I borrowed a brand new Supermarché from Yuba with the eRad electric propulsion system. What follows are my impressions of the bike — mostly really positive — along with some stories from the ride.
The kickstand is excellent!
It’s the easiest center stand to deploy and release of all the cargo bikes I’ve used. Because it’s in the front, it can be wide without interfering with walking and pedaling. All the center stands of the rear-loading cargo bikes I’ve ridden face a compromise: if they get too wide, you clip them with your heels while walking. Not so on the Supermarché. Also, the amount of force required to pull the kickstand up and over ‘the hump’ to its deployed position is pretty low. And similarly, pushing off is easy and can be done while standing over the frame. All in all a really user-friendly and effective kickstand. Considering how often you use the kickstand on a cargo bike, having one that’s pleasant to use and doesn’t let you down is huge!
This kickstand is even strong enough for human power use. My business makes the Fender Blender Mundo sold through Yuba and I brought one to blend a cocktail dubbed the ‘Ride Tai’ the night before the big century ride. The blender was a hit and I succeeded in getting multiple staffers and riders tipsy with the watermelon, rum, and lime cocktail. (A custom rear part was needed to elevate the rear wheel off the ground. Anyone who wants to do bike blending on their Supermarché should contact Rock The Bike for the kit.)
Now, to riding.
The handling on the Supermarché is excellent at biking speeds. I was actually able to ride no handed when going faster than 25 mph. There is no detectable delay or slop in the steering. I’ve ridden other front-loaders and felt that their tie-rod steering systems were too sloppy or that they handled like a small aircraft. But on the Supermarché, with its cable steering system, the steering was precise and there wasn’t a lag. Again, it feels great at speed.
However, handling at slow speeds, like getting out of a parking situation, or trying to stay on a narrow shoulder while climbing a hill, is pretty hard compared to a shorter bike. I ended up putting my foot down, hard, more times than I liked. Also the spatial awareness about the front wheel is much harder than with a normal bike. Used to ‘normal’ bikes, I forgot where my front wheel was and touched other riders rear wheels a handful times (on a 5 day ride). This always happened when we were trying to ride close enough to talk, never at high speed. It didn’t cause the other riders to fall or veer off the road, but it was a little embarrassing to touch another rider with my wheel when I was supposed to be a support rider!
Similarly, the bike is just bigger than other Yuba bikes, so loading it on vehicles, taking BART escalators, etc, is harder, but often still doable with a little creativity.
The ergonomics are mixed but pretty good overall. The grips and bars are really nice. The low standover on the frame is really nice. Platform pedals are fine. I felt that the seat was harsh (too flat) and I also observed that the seat post does not go down very far. I would say this frame is for 5’6″ riders or taller right now.
The looks of the frame and the overall aesthetics of the bike are very good. The quality on the decals and paint are high. The bike looks really different and purpose built. You’ll get a lot of comments, if that’s something that turns you on.
On to the loading system.
If you do what I did and only use the bottom plywood panel, the loading system is primitive, which I personally like because I’m good with cam straps. I like the sporty minimal look without the box installed and I encourage Yuba to develop a lashing system that is low profile when not in use but still effective at containing a load. Something like the retractable trunk cover in a station wagon. Selling the Supermarché as a box bike with the sides takes away from the sportiness of the look, in my opinion. I guess for kid-carrying this is inevitable, and way better than a minivan, but I hope Yuba will sell a stripped down loading system for non-parental customers that keeps the sporty look.
What’s the Supermarché like as an electric bike?
I rode one with the eRad system (basically the BaFang). The power and efficiency of the motor were excellent. I was getting about 30-40 miles from the 11Ah battery over medium-hilly terrain with a 30 pound load. I also used 2 of my own 14AH batteries. I was getting ~45 miles from those batteries over mixed terrain. I weigh 200 pounds. This is an excellent range for an e-bike system over hilly terrain with a rider of my weight. I was normally riding in mode 2. Using it in mode 3, 4, and 5 cuts into battery life significantly. But mode 2 is a substantial amount of assist if you’re willing to go a little slower. I think of mode 1 as being about equal to my effort. In mode 2, the bike is trying harder than me by about 2:1. In mode 3, the bike is doing about 3:1, and so on.
The other Climate Riders often had a significant misunderstanding about the benefits of the motor. From the questions they’d ask, I heard that they felt the motor ‘helps a little’ when you climb hills. What they don’t understand is that it’s actually a really powerful motor and is closer to the experience of using a cordless drill — you basically point the bike and the motor does nearly all the work (that’s in mode 2, 3, 4, or 5). Only in mode 1 does it do what most cyclists think it does, which is help a little.
The hydraulic disc brakes are excellent! Quiet and stoppy. I didn’t check the pad wear and I’ve seen pads wear fast on similar bikes, so beware of scrapy sounds when braking.
In my opinion the gearing is too low for the motor system. Put another way, the motor is capable of propelling the bike up to 28 mph, but my legs spun out after about 22-24 mph. With a higher gear I could keep contributing at higher speeds. As someone who likes speed, this is important to me.
A thumb throttle (available through eRad) would be a good cheap upgrade. When I was tired after riding 110 miles on the century day I used mode 5 and barely pedaled, just enough to keep the motor spinning. A thumb throttle would make that easier. That type of barely pedaling takes effort because you have to actively move your legs. So you are trying to rest but you don’t really get to rest.
The bottom bracket is a little low – I scraped my pedals on the turns several times. There’s no way to fix that, so you have to anticipate it and not pedal in steep turns.
One downside of the eRad system is that it’s not pressure sensitive. It senses pedaling at all, not pedaling hard. It’s possible for the cranks to move after you take your feet off the pedals — through their own momentum or because the chain pushes them forward. If this happens, the motor activates and the bike lurches. It can be dangerous, so the thing to remember is just to use the brakes. The brakes operate a kill switch that stops the motor. Kinda obvious to use the brakes but when it’s happening you don’t always have the presence of mind.
Shifting is very good during normal riding but not good if the rider tries to shift a bunch of gears at once. The eRad shifting sensor works fast to kill the motor just long enough for a shift when you do 1 gear at a time or maybe 2 gears at a time. But shifting is bad when you forget to downshift coming into a stop and then need to downshift a bunch of gears at a time to get going again. This is a common rider error on ebikes. If you’re still in mode 2 or 3 or higher, the motor kicks in too soon and mashes the gears. I don’t know how to fix that except changing my habits.
Overall the bike is a pleasure to ride.
I appreciate the loan and the Climate Ride team did too. I rode 115 miles on day 3, the furthest I’ve ever ridden on a cargo bike in a single day and my first century in about 20 years. I used 2 full battery packs and 1 partial battery pack to do so. It was 6000′ of climbing on that day and I got plenty of exercise.
There was a lot of interest in the bike from the other riders, but given what I wrote above in the paragraph about the electric drill I think we have a lot of work to do to communicate how different electric biking is from regular biking. The other riders really liked it when I got dropped off from the bus and rode away with all my stuff (about 150 pounds). Many riders had heard of Yuba and were pleasantly surprised the Yuba is now offering a front loader.
So how’d it go as the Climate Ride’s first cargo bike support rider?
It was mixed. I was assigned the duty of sweep rider and I definitely reduced the number of van trips back and forth along the route. I did this by simply riding at the back and texting the other SAG crew how things were going so they didn’t have to drive back and check. Not only that, but for riders in the back their experience was nicer because getting checked up on by a van is louder and more startling than getting checked up on by a bike.
However, I barely ever served a real support role beyond keeping company to the slower riders. Only a handful of riders helped themselves to my water or snacks and I didn’t have to fix a single flat. The Climate Ride is so well served by its support system, which includes well-planned water stops, lunches, vans, shuttles, roving mechanics in their own cars, each with a rack capable of carrying multiple bikes, etc., that there weren’t a lot of holes left to be plugged.
There was one poignant experience that kind of summed it up. I was riding at the back with a woman with a numb hand. I was keeping her company without hovering too close. We’d take breaks in the shade together. I even gave her a massage to try to help. Eventually I texted the other SAG team that she wanted a shuttle, but no response. Could have been a busy day with all the hills or maybe they didn’t have cell reception where they were. Eventually I said “I can shuttle you”. She knew me from my work on Rock The Bike events and had seen how I load up heavy trailers and Mundos. So she said sure, and I went through the steps of clearing the front area for her and towing her bike behind the Supermarché. We were all set to ride when one of the SAG vans showed up. There wasn’t even a question in his mind about what would happen next. Even though both she and I were energized by the thought of doing a bike shuttle, the other SAG driver said “cool, let’s load you up.” I rode on alone and she zoomed off in the van. Superhero status on the Supermarché was postponed for another day.
In reflecting on the week, I would say that the biggest impacts I made on the Climate Ride were entertaining the other riders with the Bike Blending and showing them the potential of high quality electric cargo bikes. There were so many joyful pedalers engaged with the Supermarché while blending their cocktails — it felt like a real hit and I was really in my element. There was another electric bike wizard from Marin called Michael Bock on the ride and he helped me prep the drinks, so thanks again for that Michael! More people pedaled for their cocktail than did to test ride the Supermarché. People were a little shy about it, honestly!
As for the vision of a large charity bike ride supported by cargo bikes… I believe in it, but it will take a cultural shift, I suspect, before riders demand it. The riders of the Climate Ride each raised around $3000 for Climate causes. This is such an important force for change that the ride organizers want to truly pamper the riders as much as possible at the ride. For now that means sticking with what they know how to do well: van support.