Monthly Archives: January 2012

We have a visitor! (Yuba Mundo)

We have continued the string of injuries with Matt now out of commission due to an errant dodgeball at one of our son’s classmate’s 7th birthday party. Hello again, N-Judah.

Hello, Mundo! Let's go for a ride

However. A while back a representative of Yuba Bicycles, just across the bridge, wrote to ask whether I would care to borrow one of their bikes and write about what it was like to ride it in the city. Would I! But honestly, it seemed implausible. Let’s be clear: I know almost nothing about bicycles. This cannot be overstated. Many days, I am just grateful that I managed to get to work in the morning without tipping over.

(The other days I have been known to tip over. It’s less common than it used to be. At least I am strong, and get compliments from my son when he’s riding the Bobike Junior that “You go up the hills faster than Daddy.” Yeah! I’m sure that has nothing at all to do with the fact that my Breezer weighs 10 pounds less than the MinUte. Cough, cough.)

And yet, fortuitously, despite my skepticism, I picked up this loaner last Friday. It has taken some getting used to. I have an internal hub on my bike and this does not. I had no idea how to shift, you know, like normal people, and for the first ride, we sounded like the bicycle equivalent of a car without a muffler. In my defense, someone informed suggested that the gears probably needed adjustment, which I am about as qualified to do as I would be to repair the Mars Rover.

Even outdoors, it kind of dominates the landscape

The Mundo is a big, big bike. It is heavy, and lurks in our basement like a small car. We are extremely fortunate that we can keep our increasingly ridiculous (albeit temporary) collection of bicycles in a very large locked ADA-accessible garage. Thanks to 50+ years of battles with the local neighborhood association, the university is not allowed to use the space to add another parking place (other residents’ preference) or a studio apartment (university housing’s preference). Thanks to a major flood last year that left everything 6-12 inches underwater for a few days, no one on our block, ourselves included, has the boxes of random crap on the floor anymore that typically litter garages. As a result it’s like a bicycle bar scene down there right now, assuming that people in bars were regularly U-locked to standpipes, that is.

Because I am all about overkill, we decided to see just how much we could do over the weekend on a bicycle that I cannot lift, can just barely ride (getting better…), and yes, tipped over. More than once.

So on Saturday morning we rode 5 miles to our kids’ swim class, to brunch with my sister and brother-in-law, to Rainbow Grocery to stock up, downtown to get a mystery box, and then back home. Our daughter slept for most of the ride home in her child seat. I learned that the bike lanes and traffic South of Market are flat, but terrifying.

Saddle up!

On Sunday we went to Golden Gate Park to see the Sunday Skate and meet friends from school with their Big Dummy, where we rolled up, unbelievably, right next to another Yuba Mundo. Then we stacked various combinations of our four kids on different bikes and rode them around until it started getting dark. The Yuba Mundo lacks dynamo lights, which has also taken some getting used to. I learned that my kids can hold a thought in their heads longer than I had thought possible, assuming that thought is: “Can we get roller skates?”

Further updates on all of these experiences pending. Riding this bike has been a fascinating experience. Having other people ride it (family members, friends, all of whom are more informed than I am) has been even more so–their opinions vary dramatically, based largely, it seems, on how much experience they have riding cargo bikes.

I thought I got a lot of comments about my ride when I was carrying one kid, but it’s a whole new world carrying two and a few bags of groceries. Perhaps a signature moment of San Francisco was while we riding near the ballpark. A City CarShare Prius carrying two white-haired couples came to a dead stop in the lane next to us, at which point all the passengers started waving wildly to my kids while chattering in Cantonese. Presumably they were saying “Would you look at that bike!”

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, family biking, Kona, reviews, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

Car-light, not car-free

It has been a stressful couple of days around the HotC household. Last night, I spent 3 hours with my daughter in the Emergency Department. She is fine, and after a day spent chafing at home, is now ready to return to her normal activities. We are exhausted.

We have become, I am sorry to report, frequent flyers at the ED since her birth. The staff there now knows she loves band-aids and jumping off things, and provides rooms where the potential for self-destruction is limited. However they lack the reflexes we have developed, and so were unable to catch her when she vaulted off a moving stretcher (The doctor: “Oh! There’s that lust for danger.”) But I did, so at least I feel I’m not wholly incompetent.

En route to the hospital

We live mere blocks from the ED, so we walked (okay, I ran while carrying her). Parking near the hospital is limited and expensive, and it would have taken us longer to drive there, find parking, and wait for an elevator to take us up to the admission desk than it takes to hoof it, even at a slow amble. Who puts an emergency department at the top of a steep hill, anyway?

At 10pm on a Wednesday night, our discharge instructions were to get a specialty prescription into her before she went to sleep. It was already well past her bedtime and our only options were 24-hour pharmacies (for reasons that mystify everyone, the on-site pharmacy closes at 8pm).

Our closest choices were the Walgreens in the Castro or the Walgreens in Daly City. The Castro Walgreens is known for its close relationship with San Francisco’s storied Ward 86 and it is substantially closer to us. But in my addled state, I assumed that the Castro site would not have pediatrics formulations readily available because it primarily serves AIDS patients. And I knew we couldn’t park there: there is never any parking in the Castro, at least while the bars are open. So I had the ED call her prescription into Daly City, which is a 30+ minute drive away, but located in a mall with a huge parking lot where every other store closes by 9pm. Matt drove there and waited while they compounded her prescription and I tried to keep her awake until he returned. She finally got to bed at near midnight after passing out in my arms.

Kumachan (and bubble gum flavoring) helps the medicine go down

With hindsight I realize we could have saved ourselves nearly an hour by skipping the drive. There are hundreds of pediatric AIDS patients in San Francisco, so the Castro pharmacy undoubtedly has pediatric drugs in stock. And I forgot in the press of events that it is nearly always faster to get around the city by bicycle than by car. Even though Matt would have had to detour around Twin Peaks if he rode the bike there, it is a 20-minute round trip (probably 15 minutes given the adrenaline). Alternatively we could have picked up one of the taxis available 24/7 outside the ED discharge doors.

Under the circumstances, though, we went with what seemed obvious. We walked to the hospital because it felt within range (and because we’ve done it before). But when we were unfamiliar with alternatives and panicked, we defaulted to the car. That’s where we are.

We have discussed whether it makes sense for us to live without a car. We know many families in the city do this already, although they thin out when kids reach school age. Given the plethora of public transit options, our bicycles, and strategic use of cabs and car shares, it is objectively possible, likely cost-effective, and arguably more practical.

But for now, it’s clear that we’re still attached to the safety net of having a car.

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Legoland California

Legoland from the Sky Cruiser

Our son is old enough to appreciate the cult of Lego now so the big incentive for him to get in a plane to San Diego at some risk to his personal safety was the promise of getting to visit Legoland. I had no idea what to expect and neither did he; at our most specific, I would say we were all imagining a place where there were a lot of Legos to play with.

At the risk of ruining the surprise, Legoland is not like that. It’s like a Lego-themed Disneyland. Admission is heart-stoppingly expensive. There is a weird tie-in with Volvo, raising the question of whether all Scandinavians signed some kind of blood oath of mutual commercial support (but if you’re visiting San Diego and going to Legoland, try to rent a Volvo).

VIP Volvo parking

Although the whole experience primarily made me miss the charms of Fairyland, the most underrated amusement park attraction ever, we had the good fortune of visiting Legoland on what was evidently the least busy day of its entire history, and never waited for even a second in line for a single ride, attraction, or concession, so I have no complaints.

Our kids thought it was awesome, and there is a lot of thought put into what would entertain them.

"Yes, we have no bananas..." (I have no idea why this song, no)

In the water play area, very welcome on a hot day, they can step on dots in the ground to make the fountains go or make music play. The rides are pitch-perfect for a six-year old boy, involving helicopters and boats and trains and fire engines.

However the Volvo sponsorship deal led to some weird moments for us. This was particularly true for the rides that involved driving; kids of various ages can drive little cars around a track, for example, and at the end of the ride they are issued little driver’s licenses.

Legoland driving school

There were, on occasion, opportunities to pedal things, but they were always purely decorative, like on the train in the sky, a surreal experience where a train car with helicopter blades mounted on the tail fin rode on an elevated track through the park, ostensibly moving thanks to the two riders pedaling but in fact powered by an engine. Our kids were both disappointed to discover it was not in fact a train that you pedaled like a bike.

Why include pedals at all if they don't do anything?

Like nearly every amusement park I’ve ever seen, Legoland was surrounded by a sea of parking, and if there’s a way to get there other than by car I can’t figure it out. We were traveling from the city proper by rental car, and expected that we would drive, but it startled me a little. As mentioned our usual amusement park venue is Fairyland, which is so old-school that parking was an obvious afterthought and you can walk there from a nearby BART station (if you are used to city distances, at least; a recent visit from a suburban family member reminded us that there are people who view a half-mile walk with a preschooler and no stroller as something akin to a polar expedition).

Although we had a nice time, I found myself confused by the whole experience (and it was reassuring to read that we are not the only people thinking about this). Have the scales fallen from our eyes? Is it as crazy as it seems to me that we were alone in the carpool lane both there and back yet driving the smallest car on the road? It’s hard not to think of hundreds or thousands of people driving alone in giant trucks as laughable overkill, as if people were walking through the streets with rocket launchers strapped to their back for “personal protection.”

Legoland helicopters can be moved up, down, and around

Is it as bizarre as it seems that the pedals on the Legoland rides were all purely decorative while the controls to operate a small car worked and the ones for a helicopter ride that actually flew it up and down and in circles were functional?  Or am I now a bicycle-crazed crank?

I have a feeling I know the answer to that. At the same time, I don’t feel crazy. That should be worth something. At my old office I somehow got on speed dial at the locked psychiatric ward across the street, and would end up with endless messages on my office voice mail from the King of Hawai’i. He said his name was Raymond, and he would croon nonsense songs into the ether while complaining that I never visited. These calls were the introduction to a wide cast of characters in inpatient lockdown, all of whom seemed harmless enough, although finding a dozen random messages in my voicemail box every morning got to be annoying. Eventually the psych ward staff figured it out and changed the speed dial settings (which I heard happening in the background of the last message). But my point: these people knew that they were off the charts crazy and they didn’t shrink from telling my voicemail about it. When I think about transportation, I don’t think that cars are bad, although I think they’re overused and inappropriate for many conditions (it’s a rare day I don’t ride my bike faster than the cars on the road in San Francisco, and I am slow and frequently carrying an extra person). It doesn’t feel crazy to me to think this, but the reaction I get is often comparable to announcing that I am the King of Hawai’i, and I’ve got a lovely song for you today…

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Filed under reviews, traffic

At last, it rains

The untouchable Novara Stratus makes its debut

In November and December, expecting the winter rain to start at any time, we prepared for the season by buying cycling rain gear. At that point, for some reason, prices were amazing, which is the only reason we were even vaguely prepared. Our rain jackets were purchased for half off regular price, and waterproof pants were even cheaper; I think mine cost $10? My mom sewed rain pants with cartoons of angry dinosaurs on them for our son. He tried to wear them as pajamas but we had to nix that.

And then: nada.

We were beginning to think it was another drought year. December was warm and dry, great for riding, but leading us to fear a return to the days when restaurants wouldn’t bring a glass of water and people were encouraged not to water their driveways. Evidently in the Inland Empire and SoCal, people water their driveways. Watering lawns during daytime hours and washing cars were also discouraged. But also: watering driveways. I have lived in California now for years, off and on, and I still don’t understand this state.

I was starting to feel kind of stupid. It looked as though we’d dropped a lot of dosh and shopping effort on rain gear we wouldn’t need until next year, or in the event of a real multi-year drought, several years. We were preparing for real Northern California rain, too, not the endless drizzle of my Pacific Northwest childhood, but the insane barrel-of-water-dropped-on-your-head downpours that scared the daylights out of me when I first moved here. These kinds of rains left my waterproof shoes filled with water that was then impossible to remove and once led me to attempt to dry my soaking wet clothes on the (forbidden) space heater in my office. It turns out there’s a reason they tell you not to dry clothes on a space heater, who knew? My entire outfit ended up with giant brown-edged holes in it. People across the hall complained about the smell and sent the department manager to investigate. I skulked home in my gym clothes. It was a low moment.

This year the rains came late but seem eager to make up for lost time. And I smelled the sweet scent of victory over the elements. I rode to work in the pouring rain but with waterproof pants, jacket, and boots, I was feeling great. There are some extra issues to consider: I can’t see as well; giant puddles at the edge of the road mean taking the lane more often; braking is best done early and often. On the other hand, there are many fewer cars on the road, and they are slower and more considerate. And once I stripped off the rain pants and jacket, no one believed I had ridden to work.

Empty racks=rainy season

It turns out that it’s fun to ride in the rain with the right clothes and the right bike. I haven’t spent so much time outdoors in serious rain since we were kids visiting my grandparents and didn’t care about getting soaked in the local thunderstorms: they’d just hose us off in their laundry sink. For the last several years I was always scurrying from one covered place to another when it poured. But seeing the world in the rain is pretty. The city smells green. I had forgotten.

Matt checked in after taking our son to school geared up as I was, and sent his impressions:

“The ride this morning in the pouring rain was actually great… especially after 3 days of driving 4 hours a day! [Matt had to drop off and pick up both kids while I was away.] The investment in gear has totally paid off — rain jacket and pants, bike shoes, smart wool socks, thermal gloves — I was completely dry from neck to toe.  Only remaining gaps are a) goggles or some other solution to keep my glasses from fogging over (I just took them off eventually, but then the rain gets in your eyes); and b) a helmet cover (optional, but would be nice to have dry hair on days when I have to show up a little more dressed up and collected).

The boy loves his rain pants and boots so much, he insisted on keeping them on in the classroom.  With the balaclava, he’s even better covered than me on top.”

Riding in a San Francisco winter offers fewer challenges, I realize, than riding in other winter climates. It snows here about once every 30 years, if we’re lucky, and temperatures are unassuming. But it’s nice to conquer our little challenges even so. And of course we’ll always have the hills.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, Uncategorized

The Co-Rider (aka Bike Tutor) debacle

I have avoided writing about our experience with the Co-Rider for some time, because thinking about it makes me feel nauseated to this day. But it’s probably worth putting down.

Before we realized installing the Co-Rider was a horrible mistake

I knew when I got my bicycle that I wanted to be able to carry both kids. My two children were heavy enough that even the more “conventional” setups for carrying two children on a bike were not really an option. The Bobike Mini/Bobike Maxi combination looked stellar, but at 32 pounds my daughter was only a pound away from the Mini’s weight limit. This was a shame because we trusted the Bobike line at that point. The Yepp Mini seat had the same weight limit. Bike shops we visited that knew anything about child seats liked the Bobike and didn’t object to the Yepp, although the Yepp had been recalled for safety reasons in the past and that tipped the scales toward Bobike.

I wanted a front seat that could hold more weight. There seemed to be only two options. One was the iBert seat, aka The Green Sled, an instantly recognizable bright green plastic seat that held up to 38 pounds. The other was the glowingly reviewed Co-Rider, which claimed to be able to hold a child up to 5 years.

The iBert was cheaper and easily available online, so we asked about it first. We had seen this seat all over the place on Sundays in Golden Gate Park. But we were unable to find a bike shop willing to install it, and none of them would sell it either. The first shop we asked said it was unsafe because it hung from the handlebars and compromised steering, too much of a risk with a child on board, particularly one nearing the top of the acceptable weight range, so they wouldn’t install it for us even if we bought it ourselves. The second shop we asked said it was unsafe because the back of the seat was too low and risked the spine of the child riding it, and they wouldn’t install it even if we bought it ourselves. The third shop said that the mounting bracket was nothing more than a giant steel spike that was a riding death trap, and what’s more the plastic would weaken with anything more than occasional recreational use, risking dropping the kid to the ground, and they wouldn’t install it even if we bought it ourselves. We didn’t get the iBert.

We have since learned that there is at least one well-respected shop in San Francisco that sells the iBert (Roaring Mouse), and ultimately, none of these things would have been as bad as what happened with the Co-Rider. So from my revised perspective we might as well have just taken our chances with the iBert, especially since none of the proposed horror scenarios seems to have actually come to pass. Although in general I think following the advice of informed people is a better idea altogether. More realistically, we should have given up the idea, accepted that we’d missed the window for using a front seat, and looked for a bike for me that could carry two on the back.

Testing the Co-Rider for stability didn't help any: it seemed stable but would collapse less than 15 minutes later

We then moved to the Co-Rider. It looked like what we wanted, and the weight limit was no problem. None of the bike shops we visited had any objection to installing it, probably because none of them had ever heard of it. The setup looked reasonable enough and it attached to the frame, which was apparently desirable. I had to order it myself but Ocean Cyclery was willing to put the Co-Rider on the front of my Breezer and the Bobike Junior on the back. They were confused as to how it could work on a frame without a level top tube, but the Co-Rider website and literature was vehement that the seat could be installed on a step-through frame, and in fact showed one mounted on what looked like an Omafiets, which had the most sloped tube I’ve ever seen on a bicycle.

When I came to pick up my Breezer the Co-Rider was installed on it but the bike shop was, if anything, even more skeptical about the seat. (This is where I should have listened more closely.) They felt it didn’t have any support at the back and that if the screws loosened even slightly, inevitable from the various bumps and impacts that come with regular riding, that the seat would tip. To test it, the shop owner had spent extra time on the installation and taken his six-year-old on an extended test ride to ensure it was stable. He felt it wasn’t going anywhere but was nervous about the design and insisted that I check the stability of the seat every time I put our daughter in it. His concern was prescient.

What the Co-Rider looked like when first installed, correct position

I rode with my daughter in that seat (sometimes with our son in the Bobike Junior in the back) for three weeks, checking the seat for stability every time we rode because I am paranoid like that. On the third weekend, riding in Golden Gate Park after once again checking the seat for stability before departing (no problem), the screws loosened, the seat tipped up 90 degrees, and she tumbled back out of it nearly into the street.

Where the Co-Rider ended up while my daughter was in it and we were crossing six lanes of traffic

The good news is that it was a front seat and I could catch her. The bad news is that we were crossing Masonic at Fell when it happened, and even on a Sunday, this is easily one of the most dangerous intersections in the entire city of San Francisco. Even thinking about this experience months later makes my palms sweat and a headache start.

Because it was my daughter and not my son, she laughed it off like it was an adventure ride I’d created just for her and cheerfully rode in the Bobike Junior the rest of the way home. When I called Ocean Cyclery to tell them how right they were they were mortified that they’d ever installed it.

I was left wondering why I had such a different experience than everyone else who wrote about this seat. When I called the distributor in LA to get a refund (well past the return window, but clearly the seat was defective, and to their credit I did get the full refund) he said that I was the 3rd or 4th person to call with a story of a seat failure like this on a step-through frame. The distributor felt that these people were installing the seat incorrectly but I was pretty sure this was not the case for me, because my seat had been installed by a bike shop with extensive experience. I also thought that given that the problem had been identified by more than a couple of people with the same frame, it was time to investigate the seat design or the fabrication. The distributor said he was sending a request to manufacturer to investigate the problem. But since then there have been no changes in the advertising by the manufacturer, which continues to claim the Co-Rider is appropriate for step-through frames.

In the meantime my feeling is that either I got a seat with defective parts, and I am not the only one, or the seat is fundamentally unsuited to installation anything but a frame with a level top tube. Either option would suggest that the Co-Rider doesn’t belong on anything but a diamond frame, at best. It would be impossible for the seat to tip if installed on a level top tube, because the tube itself would hold up the entire length of the seat. I assume that the people who had good experiences with this seat were riding on diamond frames.

If the Co-Rider hadn’t tipped and nearly sent my daughter head-first and backwards into the street (other than that, how was the play, Mrs. Lincoln?) I would have other issues, but they are minor. San Francisco is windy and my daughter didn’t like to ride very fast on this seat, because of the wind chill (both the Bobike and Yepp seats come with optional windscreens). The footrests look impressive but don’t have straps to hold her feet in, so she liked to kick sideways, which at times made the bike wobble. The seat is heavy and rattles when a child isn’t riding in it, and the welds are sloppy. Heavy is understandable given that it’s supposed to hold an older child; the sloppy welds and rattles (and my terrible experience) made me suspect that the seat is poorly made.

I liked riding with my daughter in a front seat, because it was easy to have a conversation and felt intimate. Putting the kid on the front also makes the ride a lot smoother; crossing Muni tracks with a child in a front seat makes the bumps forgettable, and there was never any risk of popping a wheelie on the uphills. I would  have loved to have her there longer and if I were riding a diamond-frame bike, without any need for a rear child seat, we would probably have enjoyed using this seat for a couple of years to come. Admittedly we would have ridden at a very slow pace. After having the seat literally collapse underneath my daughter, however, I can’t imagine ever using it again.

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Filed under Co-Rider, family biking, reviews

Hello, Atlanta, good-bye

Sharrow: I missed you, little buddy

So Atlanta: not world-renowned as a bicycling destination. My experience there was brief but suggested that this reputation is deserved. I hardly experienced the breadth of what the city had to offer, as I was indoors during nearly all daylight hours, but I don’t think I’m far off. To wit:

  • Bicycles spotted: 0
  • Bike lanes spotted: 0
  • Sharrows spotted: 1
  • Pedestrians spotted (myself included): <10

I will return for further updates in June.

Atlanta appears to represent hometown pride in part by relentless promotion of Coca Cola products, which were offered gratis throughout the meeting. I only recently gave up my diet Coke habit, a long-overdue New Year’s resolution, and it was until then my only source of caffeine. I did not falter and I had packed a half-dozen green tea bags, but the whole experience was not unlike what I imagine a former smoker feels in Las Vegas, or at an AA meeting. Perhaps this colored my perception unfairly.

The meeting I attended had a nice warm-up introduction for people about to spend 12 uninterrupted hours per day together. Before we began, everyone in the room was asked to introduce themselves and provide an anecdote about something interesting that had happened in the last six months (the group meets twice a year, but this was my first time). I said that this year we had started taking our kids to schools on our bikes. As an introduction, this turned out to be pretty popular, at least in a room full of doctors. It wasn’t as impressive as the woman who had started open-water swimming in the Atlantic Ocean near NYC, and had kept it up right into January, and rightly so, but still, not bad.

At lunch and dinner I ended up sitting next to the only other vegetarian in our own little catering ghetto. We passed the time by guessing what our eventual entrée would be, a game that quickly grew dull as the answer was always pasta with vegetables.

She mentioned that she took her kids around town, specifically small-town Indiana, on a trailer attached to their bikes. Represent, team oddball! Although they walked to school, they traveled regularly by bicycle for errands, sometimes piling groceries around the kids until only their faces were visible. But, she said, she would never put her kids in a trailer in city traffic. At last, I have independent confirmation of my theory that trailers are for small towns and suburbs.

Her son is now riding on his own bicycle, even though he is slightly younger than mine, but of course they have no traffic concerns. And we talked about when it might make sense to put kids on their own bikes in city traffic, which I think depends largely on the extent of protective lanes given to bicycles. I have no issues with our son riding in Golden Gate Park, even though he can’t brake yet. I won’t have issues with him biking in a separated lane once he can use his brakes consistently. An urban oncologist noted that although he loved riding, he only commuted by bicycle on weekends, because the traffic where he lived was too frightening on weekdays even for an adult. Once outside of a small town, I have to agree: no infrastructure, no bicycle commuting.

Welcome home: I missed these little ones even more

And speaking of braking: although my son can’t use the ones on his bicycle yet, he can at least conjugate them, informing me with delight before I left that while the past tense of break, when you break something, is broke, but the past tense of brake, when you stop your bike, is braked, which he found enormously amusing. The bicycle commute just keeps giving.

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Away, away!

I am headed across the country for one of my rare business trips. As work is on the agenda morning, noon, and night, I will not be updating for the duration. I will return to talk smack about child seats in celebration of Lunar New Year, something of a big deal around these parts.

Although I am still not 100% there on the habit of bringing a camera everywhere, I have at least gotten better. So I know that my mom will miss the photos of the kids. Sorry, mom.

In the meantime, I leave with a story and a photo.

Recently while riding home from work, I saw a father riding with his daughter in the stoker position behind, with a child seat (empty) behind her. Is that an Xtracycle, I asked when we were both stopped at the red light. He seemed pleased that I recognized it and we rode along for a while talking; he told me he’d had the Xtracycle for 10 years but that most people didn’t have any idea what it was. I told him I knew it on sight because our friends at school have a Big Dummy. He said he was envious of the Dummy, but I was more impressed he’d had the Xtra since before his kids were born, given his daughter’s age (probably 7 or 8). I like having these conversations with other riders, which happens more often than I expect. I miss it when we are driving, where the only “conversations” involve honking horns. Riding my bicycle for the last few weeks has been keeping me sane; it was for several days the only time I was not simultaneously feeling horribly guilty and incompetent.

Put a bird on it (San Francisco-style)

The caption on this photo amuses me, but my husband, who purchased this shirt for me, and our son, who chose it, are less entertained. It it hard to read the thought bubble on the shirt in this photo, which really makes the bird, but it says, “Things will be different when I learn how to breathe fire.”

How true that is.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco

Cruisers at Pacific Beach

Our first night in San Diego we headed out for Mexican food, or at least a quesadilla, the only food our son will consistently eat. In kindergarten he composed a brief poem to the quesadilla, his favorite food, poorly spelled but nonetheless hauntingly evocative.

A wall with far less than half of the bike basket selection

By complete happenstance, while walking there we stumbled into Bicycle Discovery, the beachiest bike shop in my personal experience, if not the world. What I noticed first, from outside, was the entire wall of bicycle baskets, the most extensive I’ve ever seen either in-person or online, and although we were all hungry I insisted we check it out.

Once inside no one was disappointed.

I'm sure that these in no way encourage drinking and riding

Matt had to forcibly rip himself away from the handlebar baskets carved from coconut shells to look like the drinks you get at tiki bars. Both kids were fascinated by the chopper beach cruisers with handlebars taller than they were and four inch wide tires.

This bicycle appears to be on loan from an alternate universe where cyclists are cool

One of these was a tandem! We bought our daughter’s dinosaur horn online but at this place we could have chosen from hundreds of models. The kids rode balance bikes and tricycles in the store and investigated all the various baskets and panniers; luckily for us the staff was not just patient but indulgent. Our daughter was traumatized that she was not yet big enough to ride the bike covered with pink skulls.

In keeping with the San Diego spirit this store was as big as a warehouse would be in San Francisco.

No single photograph could do this store justice

I would guess that 90% of the bicycles on the floor were single-speed beach cruisers and most of them came in colors I’ve previously only seen on giant lollipops. San Diego proper is as flat as a griddle. While we were there the store was mobbed by a contingent of Danes (which we identified because they were speaking Danish). The Danes are coming to SoCal for bicycles now? Has it really come to this?

We came back our second day to visit the beach and the kids did not need convincing to try out new rental bikes.

How can there be multiple models of unicycles?

The store must do a land office family rental business, because they had multiple bikes set up with both child seats and trailer-bikes, and had them unlocked and ready to roll before our kids had made it out of the bathroom. I ended up with our daughter on a cruiser with a Co-Pilot Limo seat on the rack. Matt and our son ended up on a different cruiser attached to an Adams Trail-a-Bike.

After complimenting our son extensively on his Bikefish t-shirt (“Bikes eating a car: RIGHT ON!”), they sent us off to ride along the beach.

Figuring out the trailer bike

As one of them took our picture for the family, Matt commented drily, “Oh yes. Because no one would ever believe we rented bicycles if there weren’t photographic evidence.” Okay, maybe our biking habits are now more than two standard deviations from normal. I never imagined we could get to this point in less than a year.

I have never seen as many forms of mobility as we saw on the beach of San Diego. Dog pulling two skateboarders, trail-a-bikes, elliptical bike, kid bike pulling skateboard, rollerblader with a stroller, segways, and those are just the ones I remember. A bike with a child seat like mine was no novelty by comparison, even with my daughter yelling, “Ta ta ta TAAAA!!!” in the back as we rode (useful, given that we had no bell on that bike and the beach walk was crowded).

It was interesting to try riding such different bikes than we normally ride. Cruisers are about as simple as a bike can get, and they had big fat seats that were obviously designed for a cushy ride. Both of us found them uncomfortable.

Co-Pilot Limo test ride

I asked our daughter what she thought of the Co-Pilot and she said she liked the Bobike Maxi better. I was actually surprised because I thought that Co-Pilot had a nice arm rest; she is too young to elaborate her reasoning. Our son enjoyed the chance to pedal on the trailer-bike, but he found it unstable. He now wants to try a real tandem, which he believes would be less floppy, and I suspect he is right. Matt is used to the MinUte and disliked both the length and the wobbliness of the trailer-bike, although he liked getting some help with pedaling.

Along Pacific Beach with cruiser and trailer-bike

We both got off the rental bikes thankful we’d chosen to buy bikes better suited to us. But we learned a lot; we were correct in guessing that a trailer-bike wasn’t right for us, and we now know that our son would be eager to ride a tandem.

It was a great way to spend an afternoon and we couldn’t be happier that we rented those bikes, unlike the surrey. The beach was packed with people enjoying the day. Sun, sand, waves, and mid-70s temps in the middle of January: it is no accident that we spent most of our time outside during our stay. Curse you, Southern California, and your seductive wiles.

Further test riding was required in-store

We wouldn’t have seen half of it walking or any of it driving, and six months ago we would never have considered renting bicycles on vacation with our kids. If someone had suggested it we would have dismissed the idea outright, expecting there was nothing available for them to ride. Now I feel as though family biking is something that was always there,  waiting to be stumbled upon. We feel lucky now just to have been at the right place at the right time.

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4 wheels bad, 2 wheels good

Looks ridiculous, rides like a Flintstone car

The resolute flatness of San Diego gave us a lot of hope about a promise we’d made to the kids the second that they saw the website of the hotel where we stayed, which prominently featured its bike and surrey rentals. They have been crazy to rent surreys ever since they first saw one in Golden Gate Park, and we’ve never done it because we always ride there on our own bikes, and the weirdness inherent in biking somewhere to rent a surrey made my head spin. But we agreed that we would rent a surrey on vacation and we did.

Having now rented a surrey I can say that it is an unbelievable behemoth of a bicycle-like machine. I seriously reconsidered my burgeoning interest in a longtail or a tandem during our hour-long ride, in fact during the first five minutes of our hour-long ride. I don’t know whether the surreys we rented were junkers that had been permanently disabled by exposure to sea air, maybe so. Matt, who has a physics background and a strong theoretical understanding of such things (although, as mentioned, nil in the way of practical application of same), felt that running two sets of pedals in parallel with a second set of gears and an axle implied all the weight of carrying four people with only half the mechanical efficiency. Then he groaned with the effort of turning the wheel to get us around a 15 degree corner. We had to stand on the pedals to get over a speed bump and brake when faced with the downhill on the opposite side. I have been told that I have a habit of hyberbole but in this case I am completely serious.

Building sandcastles, no tools required

The kids enjoyed the ride for a while but quickly grew bored and asked to go play on the beach. Exhausted with effort of pedaling them there at a rate slightly slower than walking, we agreed.

I’m glad we rented a surrey because it was important to our kids and they enjoyed it, laughing through much of the ride and appreciating a promise kept. And we never had to worry about cars, for the brief period of time when we were on the road. Most of the risk of bicycling seems to center on not being noticed, and no one fails to notice a surrey, certainly not a bright red surrey wallowing along like a beached walrus.

Zero-risk camera-shot on the surrey

Our greatest risk was drivers losing control of their cars as they burst out laughing; we also managed to completely stop a few boats worth of competitive rowers on the bay, who stared at us slack-jawed and pointed. I have grown used to comparable things riding with our daughter on board at home, particularly when I do things like wrap her in a Mylar blanket, and I like to imagine that it keeps us safer.

However none of us wants to rent a surrey again and Matt and I are thankful for that. It was entertaining enough as a lark but it does make me thankful that we appear to have chosen well enough for our first bicycles that we are always pleased to get on and ride somewhere, to the point that our ambition at times exceeds our abilities. We have heard from people that have bicycles less well-suited to them that they are far less interested in riding than we are; it is not fun for them. We could have chosen the surreys of bicycles and I imagine that my brother-in-law’s vehement advice to us to purchase new bicycles well above the price point that novices appreciate as reasonable, as well as his insistence that we avoid even setting foot in certain bike shops, reflected his knowledge that it is easy to misstep and choose poorly when you are as ignorant as we are.

The rental agent's bicycle was more ironic, but also more practical

Having asked around among the many people I know who never ride bicycles and in some cases never have ridden one, my assessment of the price point that novices view as reasonable for a starter bike is: $100. I had no perspective on this question one way or the other before I started riding, but having gone down this road I can now say that the price point that would get a novice on a bike that is actually fun to ride as a commuter would be something between $500-$1000, at least in San Francisco (possibly cheaper somewhere flatter, but more expensive if the goal is to haul multiple children or serious cargo), including lights, fenders and a rear rack. That was an easy number for us to accept because we were comparing the cost of bicycles against the cost of a hypothetical second car. For people who are less certain about whether they will ride at all, I would imagine that’s a harder figure to swallow.

I think that the knee-jerk reaction that a price above $100 is unreasonable (which is usually where the conversation goes after I ask for a “reasonable” price) is worth reconsidering. Certainly reconsidering is a better reaction than sprinting off to Walmart, which will cheerfully sell people something like the surrey of bicycles near that price point, to the purchaser’s eventual despair. I can’t think of a single person who would expect that a mattress purchased for $20 would offer a peaceful night’s sleep unless they were extraordinarily lucky. And a bicycle is more complicated than a mattress.

Obviously used bicycles are cheaper but the (startlingly common) assumption that a total novice without daily access to a knowledgeable source could find a good used bike (or assemble one from parts!) is simply not reasonable. Craigslist lays many traps for the unwary, and I have heard now from more than one of my graduate students who tried to follow casual advice to “find a good frame and have a bike shop turn it into the perfect ride for half the price of new” that the best description of that advice would be “recipe for disaster.” Even my brother-in-law, who is a former bicycle mechanic, sent my sister out to buy a Jamis when she wanted a bike. It is true that a Jamis will not turn heads, but it was an excellent value and she enjoys riding it. And she and I are both somewhat contrarian so we appreciate the charms of being underrated.

Can I get off now?

Now that we have found bicycle shops we trust and have some experience and knowledge we could probably do well on the used bicycle market. But we have bicycles now. Even so I can easily imagine how much more poorly our search could have gone without the occasional push in the right direction from my brother-in-law. Knowing him as I do, I realize now that I owe him a box of cheap wine and another of expensive Japanese chocolates.

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If it’s Thursday, we must be in San Diego

In the last year Matt has racked up unbelievable amounts of international business travel. From my personal perspective this is a hassle because it means I’ve spent more weeks than I care to count as a single parent. From a more optimistic perspective his travel represents an unexpected windfall in the form of hundreds of thousands of frequent flyer miles.

Sunset at Pacific Beach

At some point, realizing that our work schedules had turned our winter break into no break at all, we decided to take a real vacation over MLK weekend. Thanks to Matt’s miles, the cost of this vacation was $5 apiece in booking fees and a few days of entertainment plus eating every meal in a restaurant. We decided that was a price we were willing to pay. We didn’t want to leave the time zone because that always turns the kids into zombies and we wanted to be warm. Hello, San Diego!

I don’t leave San Francisco much and when I do it’s typically for conference travel, which is so stylized that I never really see the city I’m staying in—arrive at airport, take public transit or shared van with colleagues to conference hotel, meetings meetings meetings, meals in hotel restaurant, reverse on the way home. Many of my colleagues try to enjoy the conference destination but at this point in my life if I have to travel alone somewhere I prefer to go back home ASAP to be with the kids. So this was the first time in a long, long time that I had spent free-form time outside of the greater Bay Area, except for last summer’s trip to Europe. And I have to admit I’ve found it unnerving.

Oh yes, car culture

We stayed in a hotel with extensive grounds notable for its heavy reliance on golf carts, but every trip away from the property was a jarring reintroduction to Southern California car culture. Nearly everything commercial in San Diego appeared to be located in a strip mall. Every street seemed to have at least four lanes and traffic moved blisteringly fast except at rush hour, when we were the only car in the carpool lane and the rest of the traffic was at a standstill. Is this what the rest of America is like?

Despite the heavy emphasis on cars in San Diego, particularly huge trucks, it seems like a nice place to ride a bicycle in many ways. The city itself seems to lack hills entirely; it was no accident that we had trouble spotting a bicycle with gears in San Diego, even in a bicycle shop. There are bicycle lanes everywhere, albeit not with a lot of actual bicycles in them, and since they’re marked about once a mile it would be easy to confuse them with a break-down lane if they weren’t so narrow.

All bicycles end up at the beach

Except at rush hour, San Diego is a small city that doesn’t have serious traffic, which would be a relief. Admittedly my judgment as to what constitutes serious traffic might be a little skewed.

In addition, San Diego, like the rest of Southern California, is so image-conscious that we actually saw a street cleaner out buffing the streets. I’ll bet potholes aren’t much of a concern. California may be experiencing a state budget crisis beyond all precedent, forcing public elementary schools in impoverished neighborhoods to pack over 40 kids into kindergarten classrooms, but fortunately having streets as smooth as glass is the city’s last bulwark against the end of civilization.

No parking, bike lane

Unlike many cities, San Diego primarily stripes its bicycle lanes against curbs where there is no parking, eliminating the dreaded door zone. Unless our son is on board, as he is eagle-eyed and relentless in his self-appointed task of scanning for potential door-bike incidents, I ride as far to the left-hand side of the bike lane as possible when we are at home in San Francisco. And I get no small amount of huffiness from drivers about my determined leftward drift on sharrow streets, where the risk of being doored is greatest—without the visual reminder of a bike lane drivers fling open their doors into traffic with casual abandon.

I never knew that the sharrow arrows in San Francisco were positioned to protect riders from the door zone if they ride on top of the arrow itself until I read it on the SFMTA website. It makes perfect sense, but it does put you right near the middle of the street, and if I didn’t know that was the goal even after I’d started riding regularly I suppose it’s hopeless to expect full-time drivers to know.

What is that thing?

We have changed. In San Diego despite having no intentions to do anything in particular, we ended up renting bicycles (of a sort) almost every day.

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