Monthly Archives: June 2012

A day in the life of the mamachari

The coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco.

This morning after I dropped my daughter off at preschool and was riding to a meeting I got stopped by another cyclist, who pointed at the rear basket and asked, “Is that a child seat? Where can I get one?” I was sorry to tell her that it was made in Japan, and to the best of my knowledge, isn’t imported to the US. Then she realized I had an assist. “Is that a motor?” And I said, yes, I used it to get my daughter to preschool at the top of Mt. Sutro every morning, it was perfect for that ride. “Where can I get a bike like that?” she asked.

Now that I am riding with my daughter to preschool every day for drop-off and pick-up the mamachari is being seen by many more parents. While walking out of preschool last night I was talking with another mom, and she stopped dead when she saw my bike.  “Wait! That child seat! Is that a motor? I want that bike!”

Passenger panda in Golden Gate Park

As I was telling her that I got it on craigslist and it came from Japan, etc., a classmate’s dad walked up and said, “I NEED that bike. I NEED IT!”

We saw another classmate of my daughter’s on the way home and stopped to say hi, but couldn’t get much of a conversation over his pleas to his mom.

“Mommy I want HER bike! We need to get HER bike! Get me her bike, please!”

I think of moments like these every time someone tells me that US bicycle manufacturers don’t make family bikes because there’s no demand for them. Yeah, right. (Thank goodness this is changing.)

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

More bicycles in Beijing

Matt is in China, and that can only mean it’s time for another update of bicycles in Beijing. Last time Matt went to the tourist bicycle center of Beijing and caught some righteous triple tandems. This trip’s theme is practical bicycles spotted on the road. These seem to involve two things: electric assists and passengers.

Bicycle, moving toward a scooter aesthetic

There is a wide range of electric bicycles, and while some of them are primarily for occasional assistance up the hills, in Beijing the bicycle part seems like the afterthought. This bike has pedals, but it’s moving more toward a scooter aesthetic. And those giant batteries have to be sealed lead acid, an environmental disaster.

Definitely more like a scooter than a bicycle

Going even further along the spectrum is this bike, which looks more like a moped than a bike, although those pedals do seem to turn, I presume for legal reasons. But credit where it’s due: this bike, like the other, can carry a passenger and has a dedicated front basket. These are not the overpowered machines lacking space for even a briefcase that litter San Francisco sidewalks. They’re meant to haul, not to look cute, and I’m guessing they’re a lot cheaper than the Vespas parked next door to us.

Carrying older kids on the bike is okay

And in Beijing, evidently, it’s normal to carry even older kids on the back of the bike. I sometimes regret that our kids will be on our bikes for so long, which reflects the traffic and hills of San Francisco, but I’m beginning to think that this is inevitable for people living in a city that doesn’t have extensive bicycle infrastructure (e.g. Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Tokyo). Sure, it would be better if our kids had more independence, but you have to work with what you’ve got.

Riding with a baby in traffic

These moms make me think that the fears of riding in traffic are relative. I’ve gotten more confident riding in city traffic here, but riding in Beijing would probably give me a heart attack. And parents from smaller cities would probably have heart attacks here. We get used to the circumstances around us. It’s not like kids have never died in cars.

Pedaling a paddleboat is a kind of pedaling.

Matt still has yet to ride a bicycle in Beijing. But at least this time he’s pedaling.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, traffic, travel

SF Pride: another year, another disaster

Breezer and trailer-bike: seemed like a good idea, but it didn’t work out that way.

We have struggled with getting to the SF Pride Parade for years. One year we stupidly tried to drive there: it was a disaster. Last year we tried to take Muni instead: it was also a disaster. The trains are packed, and the route is a long way for kids to stand, and we couldn’t get a return train, so we ended up carrying the kids through the downtown crowds to find an alternate way home. This year I thought I had it figured out: we were going to ride the bike. We were meeting my in-laws downtown: they would watch my daughter while my son and I were in Japanese class, then we’d all walk over post-Dykes on Bikes to watch the parade (the noise of Dykes on Bikes freaks the kids out, and I’m not much of a fan of it either).

With a week’s worth of clothes and books to haul for my son, and his newfound desire to ride, the obvious choice for the trip was the Breezer with Bobike Maxi plus trailer-bike. I loaded up the front basket with my son’s stuff, piled on the kids, and within a block of home, realized that the tires needed a lot more air than they had to handle that kind of load. We turned around and went back. While I was getting the pump, the bike fell over. I’m not sure whether to blame the wheel stabilizer (which isn’t that stable even with the basket unloaded) or the kids for this one, but it turned out to be no ordinary fall.

By the time we hit the Panhandle, the Breezer was making a buzzing noise every time the wheels turned. When we investigated it appeared to be a bent fender. So I tried to whack it back into place with moderate success and we continued on. Everything seemed okay until we got to the Tenderloin, when the gears started grinding and the chain fell off. I don’t enjoy putting the kids on the sidewalk to watch drug deals while I futz with a bike, but I didn’t have a lot of options. Mother of the year! When I got the chain back on, I realized that the damage must have been much more severe than I’d realized—the gears kept grinding and it was hard to shift. But we had little choice at that point: the buses we passed had broken down, and we’d hit the street closures by that point anyway, so there was no other alternative.

Yet another electric bicycle spotted at Golden Gate Park: I wish I’d had one on Nob Hill.

We finally got to Japanese class (late) and afterward, were all so exhausted that we skipped the parade and went out to lunch. I thought about trying to get home another way, but there were no cabs available around the parade route and transit was much too packed to allow us to board with a bike and a trailer-bike (maybe not even without them). I figured that if I’d made it there I could ride home.

My in-laws told me the parade was now over, so I assumed we could ride down Market Street on the way home, which is mostly flat, sparing my gears. This turned out to be totally not true; the parade just keeps going. So I headed up Nob Hill. About halfway to the top the chain fell off. And fell off. And fell off. I ended up walking up the rest of the hill and back down, figuring that I could manage the downhill Polk Street bike lane. But by the time I got there, the rear wheel had completely seized up. I was in the middle of the Tenderloin with a broken bike and a preschooler who desperately wanted a nap. I needed a cab.

This was a bike-friendly cab: it had the new “don’t door the bicycles” window sticker.

Hailing a cab in the Tenderloin is a challenge under the best of circumstances. Hailing a cab in the Tenderloin during the Pride Parade was harder: every cab that passed was already carrying a fare. I also wanted an SUV cab big enough to haul the Breezer and trailer-bike if possible, because leaving them in the Tenderloin would mean that I’d probably never see them again. Two very nice older gentlemen who’d been hanging out on a stoop helped me, but it still took almost a half hour. I have never been happier to see a car than when an empty SUV cab finally stopped for us. The driver helped us load the bikes and agreed to ignore the fact that my daughter was going to have to ride without a car seat. I have never given anyone a bigger tip. “You’re a long way from home,” he said. “It’s not that far with a working bike,” I said, “But right now, it definitely is.”

I still have no idea what happened to the Breezer (I have an appointment at the bike shop tomorrow). My guess is that whatever it is will be expensive. I am trying not to think about that right now. Sunday made my brush with road rage last week feel like meandering through Golden Gate Park during a street closure. I have never been more miserable or exhausted on a bike ride. And I can’t help feeling disappointed by the Breezer. I worry that our needs for a bike (the ability to haul up to two kids plus cargo) are beyond its capabilities. It’s really a commuter bike and not a family bike.

This man was handing out leftover Pride parade balloons to all the kids. Very exciting!

I almost couldn’t bring myself leave home after all of that, but we’d agreed to meet our Big Dummy-riding friends from school for Sunday Skate in the late afternoon.  Once we got there, we had a great time. My daughter loves their youngest daughter, and we ended up riding to a nearby restaurant for dinner. The only downside of the whole evening was that everyone else was out on bikes as well, so the nearest parking was a half-block away. Oh, the humanity.

I sometimes think that the number of bikes I have now is a bit excessive but I’m reconsidering.  If I didn’t have another bike, I wouldn’t have even left the house that afternoon, let alone by bike, and I was glad that I did.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, family biking, San Francisco, traffic, trailer-bike

Riding to the Bicycle Music Festival

The Bicycle Music Festival at Log Cabin Meadow

On Saturday, Matt headed off to China for work again. Saturday was also the last day I spent with my son before his departure for grandma (and grandpa) camp in Berkeley. After three weeks at wheelkids, what he wanted to do with the day was show off his new bike riding skills. Okay by me! So after the morning rush of seeing Matt off, and my daughter’s afternoon nap, we rode down to Golden Gate Park for the Bicycle Music Festival.

Pedal!

The Bicycle Music Festival has amplified music, but it’s all bicycle-powered. I had hoped that kids would have the opportunity to ride the generator-bikes, but they all seemed custom, and sized only for adults. And incidentally, I have never seen so many electric assist bicycles in one place in my life. If they’re electric-assist bicycles, is the festival really human-powered? Certainly I can’t imagine any other way to manage the musical parade across town, but it’s an interesting philosophical question.

Is it a picnic or a bicycle festival? Even hundreds of bicycles are unobtrusive.

Pretty much everyone came to the Bicycle Music Festival by bicycle, and brought them onto the Log Cabin Meadow with them. And yet, although the numbers of bicycles were visually impressive, it looked nothing like its closest automobile equivalent, which to me would be tailgating. A group of people with an equal number of bicycles looks like a big picnic. A group of people with an equal number of cars looks like a parking lot full of cars.

Haven’t we seen you somewhere before?

These days we are starting to recognize some of our neighborhood bikes and we’re in that odd place where we nod to acquaintances when we recognize their bikes, although we don’t really know them. It’s like that weird relationship you end up having with other dog owners at the dog park or other parents at the children’s playground.

Riding in the JFK bike lane (the portion open to cars)

It turned out that the actual music at the Bicycle Music Festival was not that attractive to kids, or at least it wasn’t at the time we came. My son could not have less interest in spoken word/rap, even if it was ostensibly about bicycles. Instead he rode around for a while through the field, winding around other bicycles in a self-guided obstacle course. I had no idea he’d picked up off-road riding at camp.

The kids did like this Mundo converted to sound stage. I wouldn’t ride it without an electric assist either.

He quickly grew tired of the festival and asked to ride around the park more. Now that it’s summer, most of JFK Drive is closed off to cars on both Saturday and Sunday, so no problem. We rode to the waterfall and back, and then headed home.

I was initially nervous about taking our son on actual streets to and from Golden Gate Park, but three weeks at wheelkids seems to have worked something close to a miracle. He now rides a straight line, stops at stop signs before the line without falling over, uses hand signals, and watches oncoming traffic. He’s not perfect (he’s six!) but I was impressed.  On hills he stands to get leverage, and although he couldn’t make it home without walking—it’s a single-speed bicycle—he rode a good portion of it. And he got back on the bike for the last stretch near home. He’s not ready for the traffic and hills on the route to school, but he’s closer than I would have hoped. I give full props to wheelkids for this, because we came nowhere near teaching him this stuff on our own. And he loved it.

Check it out! Stopped at a stop sign all by himself!

When we got home, we headed out for sushi and noodles at our neighborhood joint. And who showed up but Adrienne from Change Your Life, Ride A Bike! It was great to meet her; reading her stories about riding with her youngest in San Francisco is part of what gave us the confidence to try riding with our kids in the city. Big city, small world.

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Filed under destinations, electric assist, family biking, rides, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

Bridgestone Assista, the electric mamachari (my craigslist bike)

The Bridgestone Assista, brought to us by the Land of the Rising Sun

Last month I mentioned that I bought a mamachari. When I saw it on craigslist, I assumed that given the less-than-a-new-bike-at-Walmart price that there must be something wrong with the electric assist. I was wrong and there was not. So for the past three weeks I’ve had the option, when I want to, of riding an electric pedal-assist bicycle. It is even better than I dared to hope.

This particular bike and its assist do not work miracles. My mamachari is a single-speed and it weighs 65 pounds. The motor, which sits in the rear hub, is not especially powerful compared to the BionX-assisted Big Dummy I rode in Portland; it is several years old and a first generation pedal-assist and evidently Japanese bicycles limit the power anyway. It does not have a throttle: if you want power, you have to pedal. With a 35 pound preschooler on the back the combined weight makes this bike really slow, even with the assist. Guys wearing lycra on light road bikes pass us going uphill, although we pass regular commuters. On mild to moderate hills the assist is helpful although not always necessary, but even with the assist it is still work to crank that much weight up a steep hill.

This is the only road to our daughter’s preschool.

All that said, this bike is a game-changer, because on the mamachari I fear no San Francisco grade. On a pedal-assist bike, San Francisco flattens out to something approximating a normal city. My daughter is getting regular rides to preschool because we now have a bike that’s capable of taking the hill safely. When Matt took her up to school once on the Kona MinUte, having her weight on the back meant he had to fight against having the front wheel lift right off the ground (this has happened to me on other hills). Plus he nearly passed out from the effort and has refused to ever do it again. On the mamachari, not only do we have the assist, but the weight of the battery, which is low on the bike and further forward, ensures that the front wheel stays safely on the ground. It is a lot of work even so—my heart rate usually doubles on the way up and I always end up short of breath—but I don’t break a sweat.

This is the battery; the English words are basically decorative

My mamachari was imported from Japan by a coworker of the woman who sold it to me. She works at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, which is about 2/3s of the way up a very long and steep hill. We live in San Francisco, which has countless hills that are steeper, but very few of them are long. The Bridgestone Assista does not seem to have been designed for the kind of extended use needed to haul it up the hill to LBL, so the previous owner of this bike wired a backup battery into the front basket that kicks in when the original battery’s charge runs down, and used the assist for the entire trip (I found her electrical skills awe-inspiring). The range on this bike is now apparently about 20 miles with hills, although I have yet to use the backup battery.

The pedal assist controller: Off at the top, On in the middle, and Eco at the bottom. The bars next to the plug symbol indicate how much charge is left in the battery.

This bike is really, truly a Japanese bike and it has some quirks. The electric assist controller and the battery charging instructions are written entirely in Japanese and my Japanese is pretty rudimentary, so I had to get some help with translation. The kanji and katakana on the controller read: “Off,” “On,” and “Eco.” Because the bike has no gears, I think of the pedal assist as creating three virtual gears: “Cruising,” “Going up a hill,” and “Riding into a headwind.” In Japan traffic is on the left, so the brake cables were reversed, which was especially disconcerting when I got it because the front brake wasn’t working at all. (Before I replaced the brake, riding the mamachari was a bizarre inversion of normal life because I casually rode it uphill and carefully walked it down.) The mamachari has 650b wheels, which are standard in Japan, and big wheels look odd to me on such a slow bike. And this bike is meant to meander. You sit bolt upright on a mamachari and putter along. It’s very relaxing.

This is the motor in the rear hub; it’s not particularly powerful, so it’s fairly unobstrusive

There are lot of ways that it’s clear that the bike is meant to be disposable. The wheels are junk (and would be hard to replace, given the quirky size and the integrated rear hub motor) and the original brake levers were plastic. They felt like they would snap in half when I was pulling them (without much effect at first). When I had the front brake replaced the bike shop also switched out the brake levers for metal ones, and that feels a lot safer. It has a hub dynamo front light that looks pretty ratty and works, uh, most of the time. The fenders are plastic.

And yet I am amazed at all the ways that a “disposable” Japanese bike is relentlessly awesome.

The back rest on this seat can flip over to convert it to a giant rear rack basket

The back support of the rear child seat (with integrated waterproof cushion) can be flipped over to turn the seat into a huge rear basket when a child is not on board. The rear wheel lock is virtually hands-free, and so well-machined that it makes Dutch rear wheel locks and the one on my Breezer look like something out of the Stone Age. Plus it is integrated with the battery lock, so when the rear wheel is locked the battery cannot be removed.

With the low step-through, getting on this bike is like sitting down on a comfy chair

The kickstand reminds me of a giant paperclip but it is bombproof. I can put my daughter on board and watch her lever herself to the side until she is almost out of the seat and the bike does not even wobble. The seat has the largest springs I’ve ever seen and riding the mamachari literally feels like bouncing on an exercise ball.  And for reasons I don’t understand, the mamachari is rock-stable at low speeds and can take corners more tightly than even my Brompton. And this is without even mentioning the giant front basket. I can’t put panniers on the mamachari but haven’t yet missed them.  The Bridgestone frame is also the prettiest and lowest step-through I have ever seen. Even the bell is mellow.

Why pink power? She just really likes the color pink; apparently it’s part of being three. The girls in her preschool all fight over who likes pink the most; it’s a thing.

When I ride this bike people ask me where to buy it (craigslist, or barring that, Japan), or if they can buy it from me (no). It is easily the most coveted bike we own, at least in our demographic, and although the mamachari initially left our local bike shop unimpressed, they have been reassessing it in light of its popularity. My daughter begs to ride the mamachari at every opportunity. When we are on the streets she shouts to everyone she sees, “I’m riding a mamachari!!!” And then she turns to me and says, “Turn on the pink power, mommy. I want to go FAST!” And yet the mamachari is a bike that is so obviously only cool to parents that no bike thief would be interested in stealing it. Why is no one importing these bikes?!?

To my surprise, my mamachari even has a pedigree of sorts. My brother-in-law wrote to tell me about it. “You now own a distant cousin to what bicycle aficionados consider the greatest production bike brand that ever was: Bridgestone USA. It was an office of three in Walnut Creek (or maybe it was San Leandro) that designed bikes to be built by Bridgestone Japan and sold only in the US. They were around for about a decade and were super duper smart bikes like never before or after (Kona and Salsa are the closest thing to them now). Bridgestones were known to be the best bang for the buck at any price range and were spec’ed in ways where nothing ever needed to be changed out at the time of purchase and nothing was on there just because it was new or cool. They also were the winningest bikes in history for folks who paid for their own rides (like amateur world champions), while at the same time being the only brand to really push utility bikes in the US. I had one in Minneapolis and it was most awesome. I should have kept because it’s now a serious collector’s item. If Bridgestone USA was still around, I suspect you’d be riding one or three.”

Riding the mamachari is crazy-fun.

The mamachari is the ride of choice on our trips to preschool, of course, because of preschool hill, which is why I bought it in the first place. But it is also my ride of choice on a new route in San Francisco, because it can take any hill that I didn’t realize was there from reading the map, because it is relatively uninteresting to bike thieves, and because it can carry almost anything I might want to borrow or buy (a dozen library books? no problem). I still usually ride the Breezer on my ordinary commute; I’m used to those hills and the mamachari is overkill. The Breezer is also the only mule that can haul the trailer-bike. And the Brompton serves its own niche, so it will always have a place in our lives.

Even without the assist, the mamachari would be fun to ride on weekends, when we’re going someplace flat, because it is such a mellow ride and because it is so easy to haul kids and other stuff. Yet although I adore this bike, it may not be with us forever. Having tasted the freedom that the assist gives us, I want a lighter pedal-assist bike with gears, so I don’t need to rely on the motor quite so much on moderate hills. Plus, to be honest, the combination of the weight plus a weak motor means that it can’t really go up every hill in the city, although it’s close. But I’d be better off on a frame that is designed for people who are bigger than the average Japanese mama—at 5’7” and change I’m a bit tall for this bike. Plus the mamachari is too heavy to go on a bus bike rack, which maxes out at 55 pounds.

The mamachari locked up after its daily conquest of preschool hill.

Although I will keep this bike at least until my daughter outgrows the rear seat, I think the mamachari’s ultimate destiny may be to carry my 5’2” mother up the somewhat mellower hills of my hometown. After all, in Japan it could be called either a mamachari or an obachari. And that way I would never have to part with it entirely. I am attached to all our bikes to some extent, but the mamachari, the first bike I ever felt confident enough to buy used on craigslist, the first bike that could ever haul our daughter up to her preschool, the bike that laughs at most San Francisco hills, and the bike that has already taken me to more new destinations than any other, is already special. It may have been intended to be disposable, but I’ll love it forever.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

Amsterdamized bike lanes

Bike lane markers: they interest me, and probably only me. I still have no idea why sharrow bicycles have no riders (free bicycles!) and bike lane bicycles have riders (oppressed bicycles!) The whole business gives new meaning to the term “vehicular cycling.”

Found it! This no-helmet bike lane marker is in Golden Gate Park.

When I last went out photographing bike lane markers I could only find the ones with helmets, despite the fact that the whole endeavor was cued by Family Ride‘s mention of Seattle’s only without-helmets bike lane marker, which she refers to as Amsterdamize. I had a recollection there were some in San Francisco but couldn’t remember where. But success! I recently found some on the Music Concourse at Golden Gate Park. Then I saw more of them in the Presidio. Bike lane markers without helmets are apparently confined to parks in San Francisco. I guess the city only feels the need to encourage helmet use on gritty streets. Is this the reason some people carry helmets rather than wearing them?

I still think that the bike lane markers showing riders wearing “helmets” should actually look like riders wearing helmets rather than riders who happened to find frisbees stuck on top of their heads. But maybe that’s just me.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, traffic

Road rage redux (now with less road rage)

After my Thursday morning commute I had pretty mixed feelings about heading out again to pick up my son from bike camp. It is a little grueling no matter what because for that pickup I have to head straight uphill for several blocks to get over to the Presidio. But I figured it couldn’t be too bad, because half the route is in a separated bike lane along the Marina. And I was right: things got better.

Funny, you don’t look 75 years old.

I like riding along the Marina, which has a wide, flat multi-use path to the side of the main road along the water. There are always lots of tourists heading to and from the Golden Gate Bridge, and I love seeing their goofy smiles as they stare over to the bridge and to Alcatraz Island and watch the ferries pass by. They look like I feel. And en route to Fort Mason I can see the city unwinding down the hills like a long white skirt. People sometimes say San Francisco looks like a young girl. You can almost see it smiling.

Yes, you can carry a six-year-old on a Brompton (assuming you don’t mind looking goofy, but let’s face it, you already look goofy)

There was still a surprising amount of car hostility on the road, although nothing like the morning, but if no one is honking I find that pretty easy to ignore. And once my son is on board the Brompton most people are so overcome by disbelief that it is apparently hard to stay hostile. The wheelkids staff managed to get a photo of me with my son on the IT Chair; although he used to be too nervous to ride it, he has developed a new fearlessness about bicycles and wants to ride every bike he sees.

We rode through the flats for a while and then hitched a ride on Muni before the biggest hill. I’m not sure I could get up it with him as a passenger, and he was so exhausted after a long day’s ride that he nearly passed out anyway.

I’m glad I got back on the bike.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, Muni, San Francisco