I was twenty minutes into the first ride on my new Benno Boost E a few months back, when a car with road bikes on its roof drove past me slowly and yelled “Cheater!” It was the first of many snide comments I’ve received while pedaling the bike through San Francisco. “Manpower forever!” a fixie rider bellowed while retaking me after I passed him on a park bike path. “Use the car lane, a$$%*#!” a slower rider cursed while I passed them in the bike lane. “You should learn to ride a real bike though,” a fellow cyclist told me after we’d chatted about e-bikes while we unlocked our neighboring bikes outside a grocery store one evening.
While there have been plenty of positive comments too, the negative ones from cyclists are confusing though not entirely unexpected. Probably some are meant in good fun. But I think they mostly stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of an e-cargo bike like my Benno Boost. This bike didn’t replace another bike in my growing stable of pedal-powered craft in the garage. It’s replacing my car.
The bike has also fundamentally changed how I experience living in an urban area for the better.
I’ve ridden a bike here in San Francisco since the first day I arrived, more than a decade ago. It can be a fabulous way to get around the city. But the hills are no joke. To ride from one neighborhood to the next can mean arriving an exhausted, sweaty mess. Crossing the entire city is a workout, a physical experience that is best planned for with a change of clothes, water, and a snack. Which can, of course, be part of the charm. Plenty of people make cross-town rides on conventional bikes in SF every day, of course, and I was once of them. Like, as recently as three months ago.
But the right e-bike completely changes that experience. It simultaneously shrinks the distances between destinations in an urban space while opening it too, reminding the rider they’re pedaling through a natural space, even if one with lots of people and buildings and cars and bikes. This bit of alchemy, spinning a regular bike commute into gold, is produced, simply enough, with the bike’s motor, and in the case of the Benno Boost, the bike’s easy-riding design. By removing just enough of the physical task of riding a bike through hilly terrain, an e-bike lets the rider forget they’re on a bike, to a degree. A daunting climb, a stiff headwind, nothing fazes, really. It’s a subtle thing, and one I hadn’t expected, but rounding off the edge of physical effort opens the rider to their surroundings because you’re not thinking of the effort. Trees, houses, the sky, the sights, the smells—everything around you leaps into your awareness in a way I have never experienced on a conventional bike. I feel more present, more connected with my surroundings. And totally horrified I ever traveled these same streets confined within a car.
Of course, that’s where people yelling “cheater” come in. But a cargo bike, like the Benno Boost, is meant to be a cheater, in a sense, because it’s built to take over urban or suburban or, heck, some rural tasks, from a car. That’s the whole point.
Reviewing the Benno Boost E
I sprung for the base model Benno Boost E, a Class 1 e-bike powered by the Bosch Performance Cruise drive. The 250-watt motor produces a maximum of 65 Nm of torque and has a top assisted speed of 20 mph, though you can pedal as fast as your legs can push you; the motor simply switches off at 20 mph. The bike comes with a rear cargo rack that’s rated to hold 90 pounds. I added footrests for the rear rack to accommodate a rider (my infant daughter, eventually), and to support the floor of large bike bags. I also bought a burly front rack that can hold 55 pounds. Benno makes their own bags, and I purchased one, the utility pannier, which can swallow 30 liters worth of whatever: groceries, backpack, wetsuits, camping gear, dogs, you name it.
The frame is a very sturdy aluminum with a steel fork to soften the ride up front just a bit. Benno designed the bike around its 24-inch wheels which keeps the bike very nimble and playful feeling. The wheelbase is just 73 inches, shorter than most longtail cargo bikes, so it rides pretty much just like any standard commuter. It’s heavy, at about 60 pounds, but that’s lighter than larger e-cargo bikes I comparison shopped. Plus, the relatively short wheelbase means it fits in my garage, unlike cargo bikes with big cargo boxes up front or a tail that’s twice as long.
Power is put to the ground with a 10-speed Shimano Deore drivetrain. With the motor engaged, you have 5 settings: Off, Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo. There is not a hill in San Francisco that the Turbo setting does not laugh at. I’ve stuffed my pannier with 40 pounds and pointed the bike straight up some of North Beach’s steepest hills, cable cars groaning their way up next to me, and it’s still a relative breeze.
E-cargo bikes can be massive, heavy, unwieldy, and an eyesore. The Benno is none of those things. I’ve read before that Benno Benzinger, designer of the bike, didn’t like the look of any available e-cargo bikes out there, finding most of them dorky. So he made his own. That’s apparent here. When I’m not getting yelled at by purists, I’m getting strangers complimenting me on the bike.
Ego-boosting is merely an ancillary benefit, however. As I’d hoped, the bike has absolutely replaced my car for driving anywhere less than 7 miles, which is a cross-town drive in San Francisco. I’ve reduced my driving by 65 percent just by owning this bike, and I can get that number down with another accessory, a surfboard carrier; the Carver model apparently bolts right to the Boost. Grocery store runs, hardware store trips, quick jaunts to the Marin Headlands over the Golden Gate Bridge—it’s all easy and fun on a bike like this.
There are campgrounds in Marin within 10 miles from my apartment, accessible only by fireroads which I’m planning to ride to in the new few weeks. It fits on my car’s bike rack, so I’ve driven it to fireroad-accessible backcountry lakes in Northern California and zoomed out to hard to reach places with ease. This would be a phenomenal bike touring system if you planned to recharge accordingly.
Which brings me to range. It’s actually enormously difficult to calculate because it depends entirely on how hard you pedal and which settings you use. But I ride it every day, usually covering 5-10 miles, though sometimes more, and I charge the 400 Wh battery bike every other day. A conservative estimate would be 25 miles per charge if you live in a hilly place, and 40 if you live somewhere flat.
I’d never really meant to buy an e-cargo bike, or any kind of e-bike, by the way. But I’d bumped into parents dropping their kids off at my daughter’s daycare who were riding them. I researched bikes, found the Benno, went for a test ride, and was hooked within a mile. Within moments, the concept of driving short distances is immediately rendered absurd. The e-cargo bike can be a revelation, in the right situation, and for an adventurous city dweller, it’s about as good a solution to transport as it gets.
The bike is not cheap, however. The base price is $4,000. A model with a more powerful motor can reach 28 mph, but costs another $1,000. But when thought of as a more fun version of a car, it’s a bargain.
All bike photos: Housman