These days, I run trails more than I ride them, but I also drive less than I used to. Instead, my husband and I go by bike, whether we’re taking the kids to preschool, hitting the farmer’s market, or even going out for dinner on those rare nights when we find someone to watch the kids. Riding as a family forces us all to slow down. It melts tensions, tames tantrums, and blows off steam. You don’t have to prowl around for parking spots, feed the meter, or stop for gas. It’s almost impossible not to be happy when you’re spinning around under your own steam.
For the past eight months, our ride of choice has been an Xtracycle Radish cargo bike that I bought used from a neighbor. Xtracycle has been designing bikes like these since the mid-90s, when its founders were young, footloose adventurers without cars who lived and played in the Sierra foothills and needed a way to ferry their whitewater kayaks from camp to river. Ours is a classic longtail cargo bike, two frames fused together, with an extended seat in the back with room for three kids. It’s equipped with seven gears, a V-brake in the front, and a disc brake in the back.
Built from chromoly steel, the Radish is sturdy and utilitarian, with a smooth, old-school ride that reminds me of my first mountain bike, a Gary Fisher I loved for years but then neglected behind my old rental casita on moving day. The Radish weighs about as much as my old Gary, which says a lot: At 40 pounds, it's bantam for a bomber cargo bike built for three. The one-size frame fits my 5' 5" frame, but my six-foot husband can ride it easily without having to adjust the seat.
People can’t figure out what the Radish is. They stare and point, or come up and ask me outright. "It's a cargo bike," I explain, and then, if the two passengers behind me don't spell things out, I point to the roomy, expandable, nylon bags that hang down on either side of the frame, which can fit up to four bags of groceries.
Sometimes they whoop and holler as we go by, as though I'm a Tour de France rider powering up L'Alpe d'Huez. I assume they're offering words of encouragement, though they could just as easily be horrified by the sight of two small girls hanging on behind me on the seat, aka the “Flightdeck," that looks a little like a surfboard, but with a comfy foam pad and two wooden running boards below sized just right for little feet. Almost-three-year-old Maisy rides in front, gripping tightly with two hands to the handlebar rigged to the seat post. Pippa sits behind her, with strict orders to hold onto her sister's waist. Santa Fe is full of twisty, narrow, dirt roads, and bike lanes are scarce, so I choose our routes carefully: back roads wherever possible, and no streets with speed limits over 25 miles per hour. Still, there's a part of me that's bracing for the day when someone from Child Protective Services pulls me over and hauls me into custody for biking around without my kids strapped in.
We recently retrofitted our Radish with the Hooptie, an adjustable aluminum roll bar made by Xtracycle that surrounds the seat as a kind of child safety cage to keep them tumbling off the side. No question, it's a game changer. Our girls still get to ride free, without being belted into seats, but I have extra peace of mind knowing that they're more secure. The only downside is that it's tougher for them to climb onto and off of the bike by themselves: Now they need to grab the roll bar and hoist themselves over the top and inside. After only a few rides, even little Maisy had mastered the dismount, though it takes longer and feels a little more precarious.
For the most diminutive riders, Xtracycle does make a child seat, the Yepp Maxi Easyfit, a regulation, super-safe, five-point harness seat for babies nine months and up. It snaps right onto the deck with a quick release, and leaves plenty of room for two more kids on the deck.
Xtracycle recently announced that they're overhauling the Radish for 2014, but you can still track down new and used Radishes online. In the meantime, there are other options. The EdgeRunner, a next-generation longtail cargo bike with a smaller, 20-inch rear wheel for a lower center of gravity and easier loading and unloading, comes with two frame sizes and 27 gears. You can even trick your EdgeRunner out with an electric assist motor for ferrying heavier loads up hills. If you want an entry-level longtail that folds up into the back of your car and won't blow your budget, the Cargo Joe is a deal at $850.