Thus far we have been very reluctant to ride our bikes at night with the kids. Because we are even more outside the mainstream than the average parent carrying kids on a bicycle, who is already, let’s face it, way more than two standard deviations away from any American’s definition of mainstream, we didn’t really pick up riding at all until late fall, heading into winter. Although this is a good way to get great deals on bicycles, and we’re grateful for that, I’m sure that this transition would have been easier if it stayed light later and if we didn’t have to spend time before each ride wrapping the kids up against the wind. That doesn’t really take any longer than putting them in a car seat, but it’s unfamiliar.
Over time we’ve gotten increasingly comfortable on solo rides, to the point that I was riding home through Golden Gate Park at 9:30pm on Wednesday evenings after my Japanese class, which given that I have good lights no longer seems particularly remarkable to me, but did raise some eyebrows at work when it came up at one point. I have many colleagues who live in the suburbs. (An unexpected bonus of my bicycle commute is that I no longer have to hear daily paeans to the environmental superiority of the Toyota Prius, the bridge-crossing commuter’s vehicle of choice. Granted, I got tired of that because I am envious; a Prius is way cooler than a minivan. For that matter a Yugo is cooler than a minivan.) However when heading out with the kids after 4pm we’ve pretty much stuck with driving. Lately we’ve been feeling ready to expand our range.
As a kick-starter to nighttime riding, and because our son loves riding on the bike and staying up late, we decided to go out on the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s Holiday Lights Ride. It seemed like a fun seasonal thing to do now that we’ve mostly given up presents (excepting a couple for the small, long since wrapped). Leaving the house, the kids were already hopped up, especially because they saw that I was carrying several dozen lollipops in the hopes that the unfamiliar sugar rush would keep them awake. We knew that it was going to be a windy ride so in our usual last-minute scuffle I ended up using an emergency Mylar blanket as our daughter’s wind break, which I attached to her seat with a binder clip. Classy! Of course SFBC reps took a photo of this travesty.
I was pretty sure that the ride would start late but we were nervous and thus some of the first people to arrive. And at first the crowd looked pretty scraggly, frankly, made up solely of the kind of hardcore long-time city riders who always made me think that two-wheeled commuting was the exclusive domain of single, childless bike shop mechanics with serious tattoos and dreadlocks who have spent decades carefully curating rust colonies on bicycles that are older than I am. Nice guys, but we never seemed to have much in common. But although we were the first family to show up we were by no means the last. Before we left the Panhandle we’d met a dad with a Yepp mini on the front, another dad with a Yepp maxi on the back, some kids on their own bikes, a dad riding a tandem with his teenage daughter, and a mom and dad riding a tandem with a babyseat on the top tube between them, which was unquestionably the most awesome family bicycle I’ve ever seen. (If I had any hope of being competent enough to take pictures while riding I would post the dozen photos I wanted to take of this family.) Later on we even saw the rarest and most elusive family bicycle setup ever to roam these gritty urban streets: a bicycle trailer. On this particular ride, even I would have been willing to put my kids in a trailer; when you’re riding with 100 other people, traffic and the width of the bike lanes aren’t really issues.
We loved this ride. Every time we go out like this we end up remembering that we’ve forgotten once again how much we love this city. Sure, it was weird to hit a four-way stop as a crowd and figure out how many bicycles should go through the intersection for every turn between cars, and we got spread out pretty quickly due to traffic lights; this wasn’t Critical Mass. But in addition to being around more family bikes than I’ve ever seen before, there were at least two bicycles set up as rolling speakers blasting holiday tunes, and SFBC volunteers marked all the turns by squatting the intersections and pounding away on what sounded suspiciously like cowbells. Nobody was in much of a hurry, and it quickly became apparent that this event draws a lot of once-a-year riders, because for the first time ever Matt and I were actually passing people on the hills even with our kids on board. The first climb up to Alamo Square seemed pretty daunting, but by the time we hit Pacific Heights the company and the sights made hauling uphill mostly a non-issue. We’ve gotten to be stronger riders (we never had to walk) and the ride was so much fun we eventually stopped noticing the grades. Up, down, it’s all okay.
Of course we couldn’t stay until the end. Our daughter had been so hyped up by the prospect of going out late that she’d missed her nap, and about an hour in started protesting violently whenever anyone complimented her Mylar blanket. “I don’t WANT to have a shiny BLANKET!” she screamed, prompting tandem-dad to say, “What? I don’t see any shiny blanket.” From behind us another couple of voices piped up with, “Nope, no shiny blankets here!” “Nothing shiny at all that I can see!” She subsided with a suspicious glare but passed out a few minutes later, her head listing heavily from side to side as we rode. Pretty much everyone who passed us from then on took a photo of this and showed it to me at the next intersection, but we knew at that point we’d have to peel out early. When we got to Presidio Heights we turned back toward home. Ironically, after sleeping through most of that party on wheels, she woke up again on the dark and silent streets of Golden Gate Park.
While we were waiting at the light at the bottom of the long hill that takes us home, a man on the sidewalk ran out to the corner. “I saw you guys going the other way a couple of hours ago when I was headed into to the restaurant and I thought you looked great!” he said. “And here you are again just as I’m leaving! How funny is that?”