Last week I took advantage of Middlebury’s new e-bike lending library and borrowed a bright orange RadWagon cargo bike with electric assist for three days.
It was so much fun. And completely free.
The lending library is a collaboration between Local Motion, Middlebury Safe Routes and Frog Hollow Bikes, and it is running through the end of October.
Here’s how it works: Reserve a bike online. It’s free. You can keep it for up to three days. Have fun!
There are two options at Frog Hollow: a cargo bike with a rear rack and optional baby/toddler seat, or a standard commuter-style bike. Both models have an electric assist that helps riders get around with less effort — especially when carting around sizable children, or laden with groceries!
I’ve always wanted to try one of these things, but the cost scared me off. The RadWagon I borrowed sells for $1899. That’s a lot for a bike that I’m still not sure I would use year-round.
I wanted to hear from someone with real experience on one of these bikes.
So I called Jef Bratspis.
If you live in Middlebury, you’ve probably seen the Bratspis family tootling around on their 2017 RadWagon. (That’s Ronen, Jef, Gil and Renée pictured above, back in 2017 when all four of them could fit on the bike at once.)
They tried out their first e-bike in 2014. They lived in southern California at the time and were traveling to Seattle for a wedding. “Instead of renting a car, we rented an electric bike,” Jef recalled. They loaded it up with their family of three — Gil was 2; Ronen wasn’t born yet — and all of their luggage, and rode it to their AirBnB, to and from the wedding, and all around town.
They loved the experience and dreamed of getting their own. But electric bikes were much pricier at the time. The one they rented in Seattle would have cost $5000 to buy. “That just wasn’t going to happen,” Jef said.
Fast forward three years: The price of e-bikes came down, and the Bratspis family had moved to a very bike-able downtown location in Middlebury. “That’s when we realized that it would be conceivable for us to spend two grand in order to have a legitimate car replacement,” said Jef.
They bought the RadWagon for $1600, adding a few hundred dollars worth of accessories such as kid seats, bike buckets (Jef prefers them to panniers for cargo), extra lights and bling, and winter mittens that stay attached to the bike called pogies.
The family has put 1400 miles on their bike since then.
They use it to commute the kids to and from school, and for grocery shopping. “You can easily fit four fully loaded bags from Hannaford in the buckets,” Jef said. And if the kids aren’t with him, he can get two more bags on the rear seat.
“When you’re fully laden with a load of groceries, and you’re at a stop light, that’s where the electric assist is comforting and essential,” Jef said, noting that getting a bike started in traffic is always a tricky maneuver. The e-bike has a throttle, which you can twist to give yourself a boost, even when you’re carrying a heavy load. “You can keep up with the accelerating cars, and find your stability quickly,” Jef said.
So how does it fare in the winter?
Jef said he doesn’t do studded tires and doesn’t ride if the roads are “messy.” He wears a ski helmet and neck gaiter. The kids wear their ski gear.
What happens to the cargo setup when the kids get bigger?
“Up until this year — Gil is 8 and a half, and Ronen is 5 — I could fit both of them on the back pretty comfortably, even with all their stuff,” Jef said. “Now I’m just realizing they’re reaching the limit.” But Gil is big enough to keep up on his own bike, while Ronen rides on the back.
So is it truly a car replacement?
Almost. Renée is an on-call physician at Porter Hospital, and works several days a week in Brandon, so she needs a car at the ready 24/7. But Jef and the kids manage most days without driving. Especially over the last year and a half. “There were weeks and weeks during the pandemic where I didn’t use our car,” Jef recalled.
As for my family, we were all sad to say goodbye to our borrowed bike.
We rode the kids to and from camp those three days, and felt very special when all the other campers swarmed around us to ogle the bike. I rode it to and from work, and to pick up groceries.
There was a learning curve to that electric assist; I didn’t realize until the last day that I could switch into a higher gear while I pumped up the e-power, making it easier to pedal while we cruised along. Once I got comfortable, I got the bike up to 20 miles per hour on some long stretches of road. It’s impossible to ride like that, the wind in your hair, without smiling.
I highly recommend taking one for a spin. To borrow one for free this summer or fall, click here.