San Francisco is hard on bikes

Our kids “borrowing” the toys in our Copenhagen apartment’s courtyard

I feel like I should subtitle this post, “why I get whiny about components.”

When we started riding our bikes in San Francisco we did not go by half-measures. We got bikes and we rode them pretty much every day as transportation. We hauled our kids to school and their activities and back, rode to work, and got groceries. It was fun! And we assumed that that was what bikes were FOR. That’s what comes of picking up bike riding in Copenhagen.

We realized pretty quickly that lots of bike manufacturers had different ideas about how we would ride. That’s because we kept breaking things on our bikes. At first we assumed we were doing something wrong. It seemed entirely plausible that we were just lousy riders after such a long hiatus. But our excellent bike shop assured us this was not the case. We were just riding a lot more, and in much more difficult conditions, than the people who built our bikes had expected. What do I mean by difficult conditions? San Francisco streets where we live and work are steep, poorly paved, and dirty.

I have written about my brake paranoia before. We spend a lot of time going down steep hills, and that puts serious wear on the brakes.  It is no accident that I go on (and on and on) about hydraulic disc brakes, which last and last and stop on a dime. We also spend a lot of time going up hills. When we rode rental bikes in Portland we could go for several minutes without shifting, but this never happens here at home. Once, while wandering though Ikea, I saw a piston pressing a carved wooden bottom into a chair, over and over again, supposedly to demonstrate the chair’s longevity. That is essentially equivalent to what we do to our gears.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

The streets around San Francisco are also poorly maintained. Riding around my office and down the hill from home, the asphalt is so rough that it makes my bell ring as I bump over it. At first it was sort of annoying but also sort of funny. It became less funny when I realized that this was literally rattling parts off my bike. And the streets are dirty. At bike camp, my son was told to wash his bike at the end of the week, every week. We should do this, but we totally don’t. So our bikes look like crap a lot of the time, and all the grime doesn’t do the moving parts any favors either. And it is a rare day that I ride without having to dodge broken glass in the street.

So we learned to care about the components on our bikes. Most cargo bikes come with low to mid-range parts. High quality parts cost money, and my sense is that people already balk at the costs of cargo bikes, which unquestionably cost more than ordinary bikes. Plus a lot of people who take up riding bikes for transportation do so in conditions that are less extreme than ours. This makes sense to me: the barriers to entry are a lot lower in places without serious terrain to battle. And finally, most people who ride bikes in the United States do it as a supplement to car ownership, not to replace driving. They’re not riding every single day. Why not use cheaper parts? Most riders don’t need anything better than that.

The city brought goats in earlier this year to eat the garbage that had piled up around the bus depot across the street from my office. (I hate riding up this hill, incidentally.)

Yet over here in our stomping grounds things are different. Thus I find some bikes difficult to imagine owning because if I bought them, I would have to replace almost every part (or build up a bike from a frame, which exceeds my ambitions). This is essentially what happened with our Kona MinUte. It lists as a $1,000 bike. Thanks to our bike shop’s first year warranty, which replaced everything we broke, it is now really a $2,000 bike (and now we like it twice as much). In its first year, here is an incomplete list of what was replaced: brakes, pedals, shifters, chain, derailleur guide, tires, tubes, chain ring. And this is why we were told to buy a bike from a good local shop: we paid a fraction of the true cost of those upgrades. Even swapping out the crappy disc brakes with excellent hydraulic disc brakes was half-price. That’s because our shop called Kona and insisted that they give us a credit toward the upgrade. And although all of this was great, even better than great, these upgrades meant that the MinUte spent a lot of time in the shop the first year. That was frustrating given that it was supposed to be a daily commuter. It also meant there were some scary and annoying moments, like when the old brakes failed going down steep hills (twice!), or when one pedal snapped in half while riding, or when Matt got four flats in four days.

There was a time that I complained about having to invest so much more in a bike to get a comparable riding experience as people in other places, which reminded me of how much more we pay in rent to live in San Francisco than we would in other places. I am over it. We are lucky to be here, we both work and can afford the relatively trivial price of bike maintenance, and anyway we all have different burdens to bear. However when we went looking for a new bike, we knew that we were willing to pay up front to keep that bike out of the shop, not to mention to keep it from careening down a hill with no working brakes and two kids on board. Our new Bullitt came with outstanding components, and I haven’t regretted our decision to pay for that. In addition to being safer, it’s also more fun to ride a bike with better parts. The Bullitt will never drop a chain, and it shifts cleanly and without hesitation. And it’s never skidded past a stop sign at the bottom of a hill, even fully loaded.

These bikes can now handle whatever San Francisco can throw at them.

At times I have criticized bikes that I perceive to have middling parts because where I ride, it’s something that matters a lot. Should people in other places pay for higher quality parts? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how often they’ll be riding, how difficult the conditions are, and how much they care. The more you ride and the more hills, wet, and cold you face, the more likely it is that a low-maintenance bike with great parts will be worth the money. Where it’s flat, people often gravitate to Dutch bikes, which are built like tanks. But if riding a bike is a sometimes thing, or if you’re living in sunny Southern California, hitting a lower price point may be far more important than having a bike whose parts can weather all conditions.

But there isn’t a free lunch. One cargo bike may cost twice as much as another cargo bike, even though they look very similar. Cargo bikes aren’t sold based on sex appeal or brand names (because they have neither), so there is always a reason for a price difference. Sometimes that reason simply isn’t relevant to the local conditions or a family’s riding style, but it’s a real reason. And while there’s no wrong decision if it’s an informed decision, it is entirely possible to make a bad choice if you don’t know what you’re choosing. We bought a cheap cargo bike first because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t have to pay for that mistake because we bought it from a great shop. We got lucky.

8 Comments

Filed under bike shops, car-free, family biking, San Francisco

8 responses to “San Francisco is hard on bikes

  1. todd

    you had me until cargo bikes not being sold on sex appeal.

  2. Jim

    Yes, SF is hard on bikes even without “Winter”.

    Hydros are great but even my newly-arrived racer/wrench friend from Colorado chastised me for wearing out my pads so quickly in SF. Maybe keep an eye on yours with the weight you’re carrying around; Good pads are supposed to wear out — you really don’t want them to glaze. I went through a pair/year.

  3. This is something I’m thinking about a lot since I’m looking to buy a nice cargo bike soon. I’m on the other side of the Bay and I’m close enough to the water, that I don’t do a lot of hills like you do in SF, but there is a weekly commute that takes us up 600 feet in elevation over the course of 7.6 miles with most of the elevation change is at the end of those miles. And of course, we have to come home and go downhill for 7.6 miles. It’s not a daily commute, but it’s a big enough concern that I want to do this thing right, especially since we’ll be trekking 2-3 kids. Your posts have been very helpful. There are just so many options and all these costs do add up, though not quite like car ownership does.

  4. Hi I will comment a bit here. I didn’t read the post earlier than I had read “Stolen”. ( Honestly, I have finally finished reading it today.) I am very sorry to know that you had invested much to your Kona MinUte , that your family loves much too. I really hope that you can find the loved one soon. Now you still have the Bullitt and the Assista. Please go ahead with them. In addition, I also learned much that the big difference of street conditions between Japan and SF. Luckily we seem to live in a bike oriented city. On the other hand, if you ride Mama Bicycles in SF you may additionally pay for their parts although I don’t think the tough quality of Mama Bicycles makes it less than other bikes. Well, I am not sure, I wish I could test drive Mama Bicycles in SF.

  5. Brad Hawkins

    I think that there is good and there is good enough when it comes to bike parts. I follow the same cleaning regimen as you all down there and find that 105/LX parts level will get you through just as well as the more chi-chi levels at a fraction of the price. Some stuff just won’t last at all. For instance, Shimano freehubs of any level aren’t really made for cargo bike weight levels so expect to replace them regularly. Chris King lasts about as long and is distinguished merely by being 4x as expensive.

    I don’t have as much experience with disc brakes as only one bike has them out of my 11, but I’ve found that brake performance is based entirely upon the compound of the pads. For rim brakes, orange cool stop pads cut through the water and stop best, lasting much longer than the rest, for rims, heavy and cheap is best because they last longer.

    Have your wheels professionally built to avoid problems with spoke breakage, and experiment with 8 speed chain for longer lasting drivetrains.

    But as anyone who has perused JensonUSA or other mail order companies who don’t really offer middle of the road equipment but only the really expensive stuff, middle of the road equipment works great, even every day. I have bottom brackets and headsets that have lasted 50,000 miles and weren’t made by Chris King or Phil Wood, derailers with the same or more mileage that say things like Deore and 105 on the side, and hubs that have been overhauled or repaired repeatedly (freehubs are a weakness), and am totally happy with their continued excellence.

    Sorry about the theft. I’m not nearly as careful as you are and am starting to worry.

    • Hi Brad! I think you may be overestimating both my bike knowledge and our budget. I’ve heard the name “Chris King” before but that’s about it. I’m talking more about stuff like: when our plastic pedals and brake levers broke, our local bike shop suggested we switch to metal ones that cost twice as much ($20 versus $10) and we said: seems reasonable. And when the $20 tires kept flatting we spent twice as much on new ones that we were assured would not. No way to know now, of course, as the bike was stolen a couple of weeks later, but it seemed like a good idea at the time. Our Kona came with a lot of parts that literally broke right off the bike, so they were, I’m guessing, at an even lower price/quality point than the good-enough parts on your bikes.

      Our entire knowledge of bike parts comes from suggestions by our bike shop, which is not particularly chi-chi–e.g. when other riders suggested Schwalbe Marathons as replacement tires they shrieked at the expense and said “we have tires that work just as well for cheaper.” Even so they replaced a heck of a lot of parts in the first year, and they were very skeptical of the parts they have seen on some of the cargo bikes we’ve test-ridden. (But they love the Bullitt.)

      • It looks like we are of the same esthetic then. I often ride with people where I’m riding by far the least expensive bike so palping the lower level stuff is considered pretty derelict, that is until I drop them. It’s kind of a badge of honor for me in a sick way.

        I’ve broken all the same parts as you and agree that cargo bikes tend to be underspecified for their needs. Perhaps there will be a stockpile of cargo bikes developing with only one problem that the owner has decided not to address, and we can pick them up cheap. On the other hand, perhaps cargo bikes are here to stay. I don’t have a good answer.

        Claire knows me as “he who breaks stuff”. This month, I wreaked the dishwasher, the kitchen aid mixer, the van door, and the windshield wipers while only wreaking a rear tire on my bike (I had not installed it correctly).

        There is learning for all. Nice post.

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