A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the battery on the mamachari was getting a lot less range per charge. I use the motor pretty sparingly, only to go uphill, and while it used to go around the city several times without needing to be recharged, now it could go only once. And it was getting worse. I fully charged the battery one morning before taking my son to summer camp. On the way home, on the first hill, the battery gave out. So I rode home, up a mountain, with 50 pounds of my son on the back of an unassisted single-speed 65 pound bicycle. It was hell.
On Friday I charged up the battery to full and went to pick up my daughter. A half-block from home, the battery gave out. The mamachari’s assist is dead. RIP. Even the backup battery doesn’t work now, because it’s wired through the factory installed battery.
This wasn’t completely unexpected. The woman who sold it to me told me the mamachari was six years old with all its original parts, and the bike was really cheap. We both knew the battery was on its last legs, and I have used it a lot over the last couple of months, more than I had planned. I’m mostly impressed that it lasted this long at all. It’s been used as an almost daily commuter by three families for six years, all of whom were carrying children, in the Berkeley Hills and on really steep hills in San Francisco. Most electric assist bicycles warranty the batteries for only two years. It had an amazing run.
I started thinking about whether I wanted to try to replace the battery on this bike when the range started to drop. I decided that I like the mamachari enough that the answer was yes. How to do that was the question. It is a Japanese bike, and parts for those aren’t exactly thick on the ground in the United States.
Luckily for me, there is Mama Bicycle in Japan. I learned a lot about mamacharis from his blog, and he recently posted that he has been looking for a way to export mamacharis overseas. If he can figure out a way to do it, I’m sure he will make a fortune. I know a dozen families in our preschool alone who would buy one. However shipping a heavy bike like a mamachari is problematic. But all I needed was a battery—that could be presumably be shipped as a normal parcel, assuming he was willing. And he was! Mama Bicycle is the best! If you’re in the market for a mamachari outside of Japan, he is your guy.
When I sent a photo of my bike, he identified the model on sight. Happily, Bridgestone sells replacement batteries for its bikes in Japan, and it’s legal to ship them to the US. Mamachari batteries aren’t cheap, even in Japan. But I can’t begrudge the cost given that the bike itself was. Moreover, if this replacement battery lasts as long as the first one did, the cost per month of my new battery will be equivalent to a couple of Muni rides each month. I ride the mamachari way more often than that. (Plus we are flush because we just sold the minivan, which makes it hard to begrudge the cost of a new battery to get the mamachari back online.)
In the short to medium term, however, we’re in a bit of a bind bicycle-wise. The Breezer has been vetoed as a child carrier by our bike shop given the strain I’ve put on it already. The mamachari is out of commission until a new battery arrives from Japan, which I imagine will take quite a while by economy shipping. That means that all our bike riding is now on the Kona MinUte and the Brompton + IT Chair. The MinUte is great but it’s primarily Matt’s bike. The Brompton is what I’m riding now, and although it is still completely awesome, riding with a kid on board gets a little cramped on rides longer than a couple of miles. And while it’s not as bad going uphill as a mamachari with a dead battery (nothing else I’ve ever ridden is that bad) it’s not the greatest bike on steep inclines either. And even though the MinUte owns the hills, it gets a little cramped for two kids at once. There has been squabbling.
What we really need for the long term is an electric assist bike that one of us can use to carry both kids. And now that we have some ready cash on hand, that’s exactly what we intend to get. When our local bike shop told us we should stop using the Breezer as a child carrier and get a real cargo bike, we realized we needed a new strategy for the next school year. Our local bike shop doesn’t sell any cargo bike other than the Kona Ute and MinUte and never will. They suggested we find someplace that did.
So next week, we are headed to Seattle and Portland and their many family bike shops to try out every cargo bike we can find (and if you’re a local, we’d love to meet you while we’re there! We’ll be attending both cities’ August Cargo Bike Roll Calls and the Portland Kidical Mass.) This isn’t the only reason we’re going: we’re also visiting my mom and we have friends in the area who’ve never met our kids. However the bike issue, in combination with the tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles Matt has racked up going to China for work, made the decision to head north pretty easy. With any luck, by the time that school starts we will have a family bike that can take all of us anywhere we want to go.