I knew what I wanted: a bicycle with all of the bells and whistles that commuters typically have to add to bicycles, unless they buy heavy, expensive Dutch bicycles: lights that didn’t need to be charged, gears that couldn’t drop off the chain, ability to hold tons of weight. Basically a dorkcycle.
It was easier to find the child seats I wanted, thanks to our European experience. And in retrospect there is good advice out there suggesting that you pick the child seat before the bike anyway. We’d become familiar with the Bobike Maxi, but our son, nearing six, had aged out of that seat. At that point most people stuck the kid on a trailer bike or their own bike, but we had length and school drop off and pick up problems that made that idea a non-starter. The other option to haul older kids was a longtail bike (and this idea still has some appeal) but my husband was riding a sorta-kinda cargo bike that seemed to be meeting that need.
Bobike has a seat that doesn’t get much attention in the US, the Bobike Junior. It holds a kid aged 6-10 weighing up to 75 pounds. It looked like what I wanted, assuming that I could find a bike that would take the weight. This is not a cheap child seat, but we were looking at using it for not one but two kids over the next decade, and what’s more we’d bought car seats around the same price point that didn’t get as much use. (And of course, if we’d bought a second car, we probably would have had to double our car seat collection too.) It seemed insanely difficult to find reviews of this seat in English, but eventually I found someone who’d not just noticed it and thought it looked interesting and then balked at the price, but actually hauled a kid on it for years. That was the indefatigable Adrienne of Change Your Life, Ride A Bike, who not only sang the praises of the Junior, but lived in San Francisco and recommended a local bike shop that stocked it. I had previously assumed that the seat was only available in the US from the family biking Promised Land of Clever Cycles in Portland, Oregon.
Both of these were helpful recommendations. The Bobike Junior is an outstanding seat, and the only way that I could imagine hauling an older child on a normal bike. And Ocean Cyclery has been great to us, as one of the few San Francisco shops we’ve visited that has extensive familiarity with child seats (owned by an American/Dutch couple with kids of their own), welcomes kids who show up in the shop and start tearing around, and stocks an extensive selection of bikes set up for both commuters and kids themselves. The last time we visited, the bike in the front window was a commuter step through with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the back. Other than shops with “Dutch” somewhere in the name, I’ve never seen anything similar elsewhere. And although I try to harp on price too much, reminding myself that we could buy a dozen bicycles without hitting the price point or storage problems we’d face acquiring a second car, Dutch bicycles sell at prices that made me concerned making a bad decision, especially given their weight. Maybe they’re a good value on a per pound basis. Whereas Ocean primarily carried bicycles with price tags way under $1,000.
Moreover, Ocean carried a line of commuter bicycles that I’d never seen in person, but was reading crazy-good reviews about from all over the place: Breezer. I do research for a living, and at this point have descended to the kind of intellectual tail-eating where I conduct systematic reviews and read articles about how to process too much information. As a result I no longer trust my own individual judgment much because research tells me it’s much less reliable than the experiences of lots of other people. And lots and lots of other people liked the Breezer Uptown. Big, heavy men liked it and said it hauled 300 pounds without a shudder. Almost everyone said that riding an Uptown was like riding a couch, in terms of nonexistent saddle soreness or lower back pain. It had a mountain bike pedigree and was, as a result, geared for hills. It came with every commuting accessory: fenders, dynamo lights, internal gears, a chain guard, even a rear wheel lock. And even loaded up with all of those extras, the bike weighed only 35 pounds; light enough that even after adding two child seats, I’d still only have achieved the weight of the single-speed Dutch bikes we’d rented in Europe when they were carrying nothing at all. I could imagine lifting this bike (and I do in fact lift it every time I park it at work).
There were, admittedly, comments that the Breezer Uptown was unlovely, with all the practicality and style of a vacuum cleaner. And it was not a bicycle that was setting any land speed records. These concerns struck me as aesthetic and irrelevant. I was looking for a dorkcycle, and anyone riding a bicycle in the United States is already hopelessly unfashionable anyway. I wanted to haul 75 pounds of children plus our gear up the non-trivial hill we lived on every day. I didn’t care if the bicycle looked like a cinder block if it was comfortable to ride and could climb. If anything, having a bicycle that didn’t turn heads might reduce the odds of it being stolen. Bicycle thefts in our neighborhood have progressed to the point where prevention means U-locking your bike inside a safety coffin in your bedroom.
Ocean Cyclery had a Breezer on the floor that I could try, although they warned me I was too tall for the medium frames they had in stock and it wasn’t really ready to ride. The shop is located near a weird but friendly test ride: a street converted from an old horse-racing track in the middle of the city that made a perfect 1-mile loop, with a couple of hills heading on and off. They were right that the frame was too small for me, and the front fender was loose and rattled the entire time, but even so the bike was more comfortable than anything else I’d been on in my visits to seven other bike shops in San Francisco. The owner thought my desire to put two child seats on the front and back was a nifty idea; it was something he’d wanted to do with his own kids before realizing they were too far apart in age. And unlike every other bike shop where I’d proposed this idea, he immediately understood why this meant I’d need a step-through frame. After hearing where we lived, he thought (and my brother-in-law confirmed) that the 8-speed was the best bet to get me home every evening.
I made a deposit on a Breezer Uptown 8 that afternoon. Buying a new bike in the late fall meant that the price was way below list; in the same range as the (estimated, wildly varying) price of buying a used bike of dubious provenance and trying to upgrade it to something like what I wanted, and astonishingly, cheaper than buying it online and having to assemble it myself (which I couldn’t do anyway). Bonus! The owner was sure it would arrive and be ready before my husband’s next trip to China, making it possible for me to ride my son to school while Matt was away. Of course it was late. We drove to school that entire week.
When the bike arrived, my daughter was ecstatic. On my first ride she insisted on climbing aboard and shrieking, “I’m riding it! I’m riding it!” until my significantly more cautious son couldn’t take the humiliation any longer and jumped aboard despite the absence of the stoker bars he’d grown accustomed to. He likes riding the Bobike Junior on my bike. I like this bike too.
I did not dip my toe slowly into bicycle commuting. My first few rides were with both kids on board up hills with double-digit grades. Because I was totally ignorant I did that with the hub dynamo lights on, which meant even more drag. Even so, I did not have to walk. For the first month I never took off either child seat, even when the kids weren’t riding along, because I didn’t know how, meaning that I was regularly hauling an extra 20 pounds no matter what. I take my son to school on this bike once a week, haul my daughter around all weekend long, and on days that they’re not on board, load up two panniers and a front basket with most of our weekly groceries. I ride this bike pretty much everywhere but the Tenderloin (where it would be covered with piss and/or vomit if I were lucky enough not to have it stolen) and the Mission (where it would simply be stolen). I have never been saddle-sore, and only rarely, after a long ride with kids and gear, have I felt any pain at all after riding. Braking on the downhills with a kid on the back can be unnerving—it takes quite a bit more preparation than it does when riding alone—and I’ve nearly popped a wheelie going up some steeper hills in the city with one of them on the back, but more informed people tell me that these things would happen on any bicycle.
The Breezer, as I’d hoped when I bought a bike tricked out with every commuting accessory known to nerds, makes it easier to ride my bike most of the time than to drive our car. Thanks to the Bobike oeuvre, that’s true even when I’m going somewhere with one kid in tow. When I step onto this bike I feel like I’m ten feet tall. The lights come on with the flick of a switch. The lock is always on board, although given where we live I think that all bikes should come with a U-lock holder in lieu of the largely-decorative rear wheel lock. Even with kids on board, it glides up the endless San Francisco hills, and I can even afford to keep the lights on. I’ve only had to walk it once, when I lost momentum because Matt was weaving in front of me (and he had reason). As I’ve gotten stronger I’ve been able to reserve the first gear more and more for heavy loads. I wouldn’t call this a fast bike, but I’m just trying to get to work with my teaching clothes looking decent, and anyway I ride through Golden Gate Park most days and it’s gorgeous there, so I’m in no special hurry. And once I started taking the child seats off when the kids weren’t on board, my commute got noticeably faster. On days when I’m whizzing down the hill out of the park past a row of stopped cars, our household’s Pixar obsession has led me to yell, “Ride like the wind, Bullseye!”
I can imagine that someday when the kids are older and riding on their own I may want a prettier, faster bike. For the foreseeable future I feel like I’ve made the right decision, even though this bike, like Matt’s Kona, isn’t always everything I want it to be. I would be happier if the bike could still carry both kids at once, and if the rear rack were longer so it fit panniers when the Bobike Maxi is attached (panniers do at least fit under the Junior) or if came with a front rack. The front light could be brighter. I would happily swap the top two gears for an even lower first gear. These are not big complaints.
When I am riding around the city, my Danish helmet and our child seats draw lots of attention and compliments. No one has ever complimented me on my Breezer. I cannot bring myself to care.