Sunday, August 10, 2008

Product Reviews: Offspring Haulers

Many dedicated real-world cyclists give up on using bicycles as their primary vehicles once children enter the picture. There are various reasons for this shift. Cycling with a child can be a scary experience for a parent who puts his/her child’s safety above all other concerns. Additionally, most bicycles are not set up for hauling small humans. And, in the hectic world of parenting, cycling can be time-consuming and just plain inconvenient. However, there are solutions out there which can make cycling with your kids in tow safer, easier and more fun.

As the father of a seven-year-old and a nineteen-month-old, I have been wrestling with these issues for several years now. I have recently developed a combined approach that seems to work well. I own a child seat that snaps onto a rear bicycle rack and a trailer designed to hold two children comfortably. With both of these items at my disposal, I can carry my infant (or is he a toddler already?) without towing the trailer, or I can carry both kids in the trailer, or I can carry the baby in the seat and fill the trailer with groceries and/or other children.

My main bicycle in full child-toting regalia

My bicycle trailer is the Nashbar Kid Karriage. I bought it several years ago, and I have come to think of it as one of the best investments I have ever made. Its “normal” price is $159.99, but I have seen it on sale as low as $79.99, with additional discounts available through Nashbar’s frequent coupon offers. The trailer holds two children securely and comfortably. It is a bit smaller than some other trailers I have seen, and my children tend to rub elbows while they ride in it. My daughter is 46.5” tall, and her helmet now pushes up against the cloth roof when it is in place, but we generally ride with the top down these days, so height restrictions are not an issue.

Glossy marketing shot of the Kid Karriage from Nashbar.com

The trailer is great for carrying groceries as well, with plenty of space for one child and two full-sized grocery bags or six bags and no passengers. Unlike BOB trailers, this one does not require a special rear wheel quick-release mechanism, so it can be attached to any bike. Be warned, however, that the plastic-coated attachment clamp can rub away paint on a frame’s chainstay. Anyone worried about their bicycle’s finish should wrap the contact area with cloth tape before attaching the trailer for the first time.

Safety-wise, the Kid Karriage leaves me feeling confident and secure. The attachment clamp is supplemented by a nylon strap which acts as a “fail safe” device. If the clamp ever came off, the strap would still hold the trailer securely (note that the clamp has never failed while I have used my trailer). There is a thick coil spring between the attachment clamp and the main frame. This spring twists as the bike leans, so if the bicycle falls over, the trailer stays upright. Consider also the wide track and the low center of gravity. This trailer is designed to keep the rubber side down under extremely adverse conditions.

The Kid Karriage in the real world

Inside the passenger area, children are held by both three-point shoulder harnesses and a lap belt which stretches across one or two occupants. The harnesses can be configured for two children sitting side by side or one child sitting in the middle of the seat. There are nylon storage pockets on either side of the interior, and there is also room under and behind the seat for stowing toys, tool kits, etc.

The trailer’s frame is made from high-tensile steel tubing. It is very sturdy and much heavier than fancier models with aluminum frames. It folds up flat with by pulling a few spring pins, and it stows easily in relatively small spaces.

After I owned the Kid Karriage for a few years, I bought the “Stroller Attachment” which sells for $24.99. This kit provides everything needed to turn the trailer into a stroller which can hold two children. As an added benefit, the converted stroller can still be used as a trailer without having to remove the conversion pieces.

Topless Kid Karriage, great for bigger kids

After several years and several hundred miles, I am completely satisfied with this trailer. I recommend it highly to anyone looking for a sturdy, albeit heavy, solution to carrying any combination of kids and groceries.

Nashbar Kid Karriage Overall Grade: A

I also own a Topeak BabySeat, a.k.a. the “Suspension Child Carrier.” I bought this from my local bicycle shop at the full retail price of $129.99, minus the 10% discount I get for being a member of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition. The price was surprisingly high, but it looked like a quality product, so I bit the bullet and made the purchase.

Installing the seat assembly was as simple as installing a standard rear rack. In fact, that is all that is involved. I installed the heavy-duty rear rack which came with the package, snapped the seat in and, “Presto,” all was accomplished. When the seat is off the bike, the aluminum rack works well with standard panniers. Taking the seat on and off is quick and remarkably easy.

Topeak BabySeat detail

With shoulder straps, a padded snap-down crossbar and foot straps which keep the passenger from kicking, the child seat seems quite secure. While I am sometimes nervous that a fall on my part would take my passenger down with me, I also acknowledge that my bicycle is much more maneuverable without a trailer in tow. Furthermore, I am less nervous about riding on busy streets with narrow shoulders when I do not have the wheels of the trailer sticking out into traffic.

My son seems very comfortable in the seat. The seat pad is adequately cushy, and the crossbar is at just the right height for him to lay his helmeted head down on it and go to sleep. Frequently, he is out cold within ten minutes after we start riding. There must be something about the rhythmic swaying motion of the bicycle…

There are a few downsides to this product, however. The Velcro foot straps are a bit awkward to secure, especially when one is trying to balance the bicycle and passenger during the loading process. It is not horribly difficult to strap a youngster’s feet down, but it is tricky enough that I am considering looking for some wheel skirts to install when I install fenders on the host bicycle. With wheel skirts keeping kicking feet out of the spokes, I would forgo the foot straps entirely.

Glossy marketing shot of the Topeak BabySeat from Topeak.com

The shoulder straps have two positions. One of them is a bit too low for my child, the other a bit too high. Still, with the straps in the higher position, he seems safe and fairly comfortable, so maybe I am complaining about a non-issue. My final gripe has to do with the adhesive-backed Velcro strips which are supposed to hold the seat pad in place. They are worthless. The adhesive does not stick to the plastic shell, and the pad settles wherever it wants to go. Fortunately, there are enough straps and buckles going through the pad to hold it in more-or-less the right place. Topeak should save a few manufacturing dollars and get rid of all these Velcro strips. Perhaps they could pass the savings on to the customers by lowering the price a bit.

Despite the high price and quirky problems, I am glad I bought the child seat. None of the issues effect overall performance significantly, and the price was not high enough to make me balk.

Topeak BabySeat Overall Grade: B

6 comments:

SprocketScientist said...

Hey again Forbes,
So, your 7 month old is good in the Topeak seat?

Just wondering because my son is just about 6 months and didn't know how early I could put him on a child/baby seat. Also I guess requires wife approval.

Forbes Bagatelle-Black said...

Hi,

I blinked, and my 7-month-old turned into a 19-month-old. How'd that happen?

The Topeak owner's manual states that it is for children from 1 - 4 years old. That makes sense to me. By the time my kids were one, they had developed a bit of coordination so they can move with the bike. Of course, they also need to be able to hold their heads up.

BTW: I started both my kids at about 6-months in my BOB Sport Utility Stroller, so at least I could go hiking with them at that point.

Esteban said...

I have a bobike mini seat in front that works nice. They also have the Maxi for the rear, which is marketed under a different name in the US - which I can't recall. I'm going to try to pick one up.

Presley said...

I've been using a Burley Solo trailer with my 16 month old daughter. I'd say she seems a bit to small to ride comfortably. She is always slumped down after a few minutes. I think a rear seat will be better so I was glad to hear your thoughts about the Topeak. I'm interested to hear anyones experiences with the Rhode Gear seats, they seem to be the most common seat in the Bay Area. Plus an attached seat will be much better for commuting and dropping her off at daycare. I won't have to find space for a trailer at work.

Forbes Bagatelle-Black said...

Hi Presley,

I sold a few Rhode Gear seats back in the 90s, when I was working at a bike shop. They always impressed me as the best bike seat available back then. I don't have any current information on them, though.

SprocketScientist said...

oops! I saw 7 month, when you said 7 YEAR old. Thought that sounded a little young to be in a bike trailer or kids seat!
Thanks for the input though. When my boy gets old enough I'll have to start "training" him how to ride in a bike seat.