Category Archives: bike shops

We tried it: BionX v. Stokemonkey

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

One of my colleagues recently taught me two great tricks. The first is to never use the word “but” when talking to people because it  always ticks them off. The second was that anything could be summed up in exactly six words. She writes six-word biographies for every graduating student in her program. It is amazing. Given that I am a chronic offender in the Too Long: Didn’t Read sweepstakes, I’ve decided to open all of my reviews with the six word summary. Here’s one now.

BionX: Easy to use

Stokemonkey: Powerful

I’m sure that the respective producers of BionX and Stokemonkey electric assists now wish that they could reach through the screen and punch me in the face. Good thing it’s a virtual world.

There are basically two heavy-hitters in the world of electric assists for cargo bikes. They are BionX, which is a rear-wheel assist (motor on the rear wheel hub), and Stokemonkey, which is a mid-drive assist (motor on the frame running through the chain). The Stokemonkey was out of production for a long time, and now it’s back. I had the chance to try both assists on the same bike, the Xtracycle EdgeRunner, while we were visiting Seattle over spring break, thanks to the lovely G&O Family Cyclery. G&O was the only shop I have ever seen that had both kinds of assists on the same model of bike, which I rode on the same hills on the same day, with both my kids on the back. It made for a near-perfect comparison. The kids ate a few crackers between the Stokemonkey ride and the BionX ride, but still.

I have already written about other brands and types of assists—there are front wheel assists, like on the original Yuba elMundo, and other companies make both rear wheel and mid-drive assists. I’m concentrating on BionX and Stokemonkey because most people shopping for an add-on family bike assist end up choosing between these two, for reasons that center around power and reliability. Both have good odds of hauling a loaded cargo bike around, and they have the reputation of being the least likely to die within a few months of purchase (or immediately after the warranty expires). People who know a lot about electric assists may end up finding or hacking something better. Nevertheless your average rider wants something that does not require the patience and ability to read through and comprehend the forums on Endless-sphere. (Note: when I refer to “pedal assist” here and everywhere else, I am using the EU legal definition, meaning an assisted bike that will only move if you are already pedaling. Although there are other definitions, this is the one that most people I speak with intuit when they hear the term pedal assist.)

BionX

We have a lot of familiarity with the BionX, because it’s the system on our Bullitt. It has served us well, although it is not perfect.

  • How much does a BionX cost? $1800 installed by The New Wheel in San Francisco (SF-suitable system with 48v battery)
  • How much does a BionX weigh? 14.1 pounds including battery

What I like about the BionX

  • The BionX is easy to use. This is a set-it-and-forget-it system combined with a throttle. You can get a boost across intersections by pushing the red button (the throttle), or set a level of assist from 1 to 4 and feel super-powered as you blaze through the city. The pedal assist is the best of any electric assist that I have tried, and I have tried a lot of them now. The BionX was the first assist that I ever tried, and in a way it spoiled me for other assists, because it is truly intuitive to use. There is no learning curve. Anyone who has ever ridden a bike can master it immediately. Many people end up leaving the bike in a relatively high gear and using the different assist levels as gears, and this actually works pretty well.
  • It is pretty powerful. BionX systems come in different flavors, and we got the most powerful, with a 48v battery. It works well in San Francisco on our daily rounds, which feature a number of serious hills (Twin Peaks, Alamo Square, Lone Mountain) and various unnamed elevation changes that would qualify as hills in a less topographically challenging city. Families in Seattle, which has less steep hills yet is nonetheless pretty hilly, seem content with the 36v battery system. The cheapest and least powerful systems are probably best for handling stiff winds in areas with mild hills.
  • It requires minimal maintenance. There are people who will argue this point. The consensus from the bike shops that we patronize is that they use their assists in a different way than we do. We rarely use the throttle; instead, we use the assist levels to maintain a steady speed and effort level. We do not burn through power trying to race other riders. We have the shop check the wiring every few months. With one major exception, which is that we initially had spokes on the rear wheel that were too thin, which broke by the dozen, the system has not given us grief. We replaced those spokes with much thicker ones and haven’t had issues since.
  • It is silent. Lots of assists make a humming noise, or much louder noises. The front wheel assists I have tried definitely sound like motors, and the EcoSpeed mid-drive frankly sounds like a motorcycle. One of the reasons we like riding bicycles is the relative quiet and the opportunity for conversations with our kids, and so the noise of some of these systems was a deal-killer for us. This is not an issue with the BionX. It is the ninja of electric assists.
  • It has regenerative braking. This means that you can use the BionX system to slow (or stop) the bike and recharge the battery while going downhill. It is debatable whether regenerative braking adds much to battery capacity—there is loss in any system. In an area like San Francisco, where steep hills abound, careful route planning can actually mean you get some power from the regenerative braking, although this may not apply outside the city. It is inarguable, however, that using the regenerative braking through the motor saves a lot of wear and tear on the bike’s brakes. And it offers me a lot of peace of mind, given that we have had brakes fail in the past. I view the BionX regenerative braking like skydivers view a backup parachute.

What I don’t like about the BionX

  • Starts can be slow and difficult. The system is set up to kick in once the bike reaches 2mph. If you are trying to start a loaded bike from a dead stop on a steep hill, you may have trouble getting to that speed. This is particularly the case if, like me, you have a bad leg. Outside of G&O, which is on a moderate hill, I could not get started with both kids on board. I had to walk to bike to a level area. This is evidently something that can be modified—you can reset the controller so that the assist kicks in at a much lower speed [update: as low as 0.5 kph]. Now that I know this, it is high on our to-do list. That modification would help a lot, yet it does not change the fact that no matter what, the initial effort on the start is going to be human-powered. This is our biggest issue with the BionX. It was less of a big deal before I was injured.
  • It gives up on really steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that we cannot get up with a fully-loaded bike—the system overheats, which means it’s back to pure pedal-power at the worst possible time. For people outside of San Francisco, this may be no limitation whatsoever, because SF is the second-hilliest city in the world, also very windy, blah blah blah. This actually turned out not to be a huge deal for us. The system is powerful enough that it can handle most of our trips, and we prefer to take alternate routes for 18%+ grades whether we are riding assisted bikes or not. On the extremely rare occasions where there there is no alternative, there’s always transit or car-share.
  • The proprietary battery limits the range. Also it’s annoying. The BionX system is completely self-contained. It’s like Apple computers. You can’t get a battery any more powerful than the battery they supply. You can’t set up a backup battery to extend your range, except by carrying another battery and swapping it in, and their batteries are expensive. There is a big logo on it, which is irritating. However the main issue is that you have no way to control the range other than by picking one of their batteries: you get what you get. The range is not unreasonable, and it handles most of our needs, but there are times when we have to be sure to carry the charger and find a place to plug it in, or suck it up and accept that some of the trip home will be exclusively human-powered. Thankfully that is a much less painful prospect now that we no longer live on a steep hill.
  • The system can be finicky.  Matt has dropped two controllers and when you drop them, they break. In one case, the controller seemed to be fine but then the bike started jerking when the assist was on max, because it wasn’t really fine. Replacing the controller costs $100. Argh! The bike shop suggested that we super-glue the third controller in place. There is a certain amount of loose connection hassle with some of the controller parts—the wire to the regeneration system sometimes works loose, and so on. We have the wiring checked regularly and so we haven’t had those problems. I classify this in the same category as our constant brake checks. A certain amount of attention is required.

Stokemonkey

And then there is the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden a stoked bike for exactly one day, so I can’t offer an opinion that is nearly as informed, and for obvious reasons I have no idea about maintenance.

  • How much does a Stokemonkey cost? $1250, not including the battery (varies) or installation ($125 at Clever Cycles in Portland)
  • How much does a Stokemonkey weigh? 21 pounds, not including the battery

What I like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is incredibly powerful. I would go so far as to say it is virtually unstoppable. The chain or the frame will break before the assist gives out. This is not always obvious when you are riding, because weirdly, it doesn’t feel like it is helping. However I know that the ease I was feeling while hauling 100 pounds of my children up a big hill was not natural, especially with a broken leg. If I hadn’t been sure while I was riding the stoked EdgeRunner,  it became obvious when I rode the BionX EdgeRunner, because it took a lot more effort to get up the same hill. Neither was particularly hard, but the Stokemonkey was definitely easier. I doubt there is any hill that would overpower it. Maybe a vertical wall.
  • Starting on a hill is easy. When you push the throttle, the pedals start moving and the bike starts moving. Even with warning, it was hard to be prepared for this. However I had no fear of stopping mid-hill on the Stokemonkey. It cranks right back up to full when you hit the throttle. Starts are my biggest weakness, and so this feature was, for me, the Stokemonkey’s greatest appeal. It destroys all fear of hills. No matter what the incline, it will always start.
  • It is compatible with multiple batteries. If BionX is the Apple of electric assist, Stokemonkey is the Windows environment. You can wire any battery into it, or, if you are like me, your bike shop can do it. That is a cost savings, and there is also a learning curve involved—I have no idea how to pick a battery. Any shop installing the Stokemonkey should have a good idea though.
  • It is pretty quiet. It is not totally silent like the BionX, and I don’t think that any mid-drive assist could be that quiet, because mid-drive motors run through the chain and there is some noise involved with that movement. I found it unobjectionable. There is one exception to the generally quiet nature of the Stokemonkey. If it is installed on a box bike it will be pretty loud, because the noise of the chain will echo through the box.

What I don’t like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is controlled by a throttle only. If you want the assist to kick in, you have to hold the throttle down. It did not take long for my thumb to get sore doing this. I might get used to it over time, but I doubt that I would ever stop finding it annoying.  There is not set-it-and-forget-it option with the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden enough assisted bikes to know that this is not really workable for us. There are too many hills and too many places where we need to take our hands off the handlebars to signal.
  • It is not pedal assist, yet you must pedal. Truly, the Stokemonkey is neither fish nor fowl. When the assist comes on, the chain moves, and so the pedals also move. You have be right there ready to move your legs. Even with warning, I kept whacking my ankles on the pedals on starts because I wasn’t ready for this. On the flip side, when you release the throttle, the pedals keep moving for a little bit on their own, so again, whacked ankles. Personally I found this a small price to pay for instant starts on hills, but still: ouch. Word from people who have stoked bikes is that you get used to this and adjust relatively quickly. In the interim, wear thick socks.
  • The learning curve is not insignificant. Using a Stokemonkey was described to me as being a bit like driving a manual transmission car. Amusingly enough this analogy came by way of Davey Oil, who does not drive. Nonetheless it is pretty accurate.  The bike will start to shudder if the Stokemonkey thinks you are in the wrong gear, and then you have to shift down to make it settle. My son, sitting on the back of the bike, noticed this immediately, and he found it both fascinating and disconcerting. “You need to shift, mommy!” In combination with the pedals whacking me in the ankles, it required a lot more attentiveness to the assist while riding than I was expecting. This comes at the price of paying attention to other things, like traffic. With this system I would need to spend time getting comfortable on quiet streets without the kids on board before I would feel confident taking it out on a daily commute.
  • The Stokemonkey is only really suitable for certain bikes, mostly longtail bikes. [update: I was wrong, modifications to the original statement follow.] Stokemonkeys are not appropriate for early-model Bakfietsen with roller brakes, or presumably any bike with borderline brakes, because the bike can then get up hills that it can’t safely get down. The mounting of a Stokemonkey is evidently somewhat complicated. This seems to be the case for a lot of mid-drive assists.

The winner: everybody

That was our experience, and to my surprise, it did not feel like a definitive win for either the BionX or the Stokemonkey. I had assumed that when I tried the Stokemonkey I would feel like an idiot for getting the demonstrably less powerful BionX (not that we had a choice at the time) and that I would immediately want to swap out to a Stokemonkey. Although I was really impressed with the Stokemonkey, I didn’t feel like it was a BionX-killer. Moreover, I have no good sense of what I would want when we get a new bike, which for various reasons is on the horizon.

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, and moreover, both systems can be tweaked/are currently being re-engineered. Grin is working on a pedal-assist, set-it-and-forget-it version of the Stokemonkey, suitable for EdgeRunners only, which [update] has just been released. This resolves my biggest issue with the Stokemonkey (and it means I could probably justify buying an EdgeRunner to myself). On the other hand, resetting the BionX controller to a lower start speed would probably resolve our issues with starts on hills, and San Francisco has a dedicated BionX shop that can handle any maintenance issues. In contrast, getting a Stokemonkey would be a long-distance operation for us. Moreover, BionX is releasing a higher-torque model suitable for super-steep SF hills this year. There isn’t an easy answer. On the other hand, there are no bad decisions to make here either.

In the meantime, I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to try both systems on the same bike (which is, incidentally, an awesome bike). Thanks G&O! Thanks Xtracycle!

 

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Filed under bike shops, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Hills v. hills: San Francisco and Seattle

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Last week was our spring break, and the kids and I headed north to visit my mom while Matt flew to Australia for work. This kind of thing is why I make no pretense that our car-free, zero waste schtick is carbon neutral. That said most of our travel is for business, and I believe I speak for both of us when I say that a tax on business travel that would ensure we did far less of it would be pretty awesome.

Anyway, we took the Brompton, which in circus-mode can carry both me and the kids. Flying with the Brompton was an unrelieved nightmare, due to Allegiant Airlines. They are dead to me. Their motto should be: “We will terrify your children.”

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Nonetheless it was nice to have the bike once we got to Seattle. However I was surprised to find that despite the photos I have posted, even people who know family biking were impressed that it is possible to carry two kids on the Brompton. It’s fun, although not something I would do regularly on long rides. And I asked my son to run up the hills because I’m not the rider I used to be. And this brings me to: hills. Seattle is a hilly city, but hills in Seattle are different than hills in San Francisco.

A lot of San Francisco was built on landfill, which means that there are large chunks of the city (e.g. the Marina, the Financial District) that are perfectly flat. San Francisco doesn’t have a fixie culture because everyone is a masochist. It has a fixie culture because it’s possible to live without ever leaving the Mission. However once you want to go somewhere else, it gets tricky. The hills loom like walls, and although it’s possible to thread the needle sometimes using routes like the Wiggle, eventually people like us who go to work in offices (in Laurel Heights) and have kids in school (on the other side of Lone Mountain) have to start climbing. And San Francisco hills take no prisoners. Once we load 1-2 kids on deck, even with an assist we’re working hard. So riding in San Francisco is often: la-la-la-la-OMFG-OMFG-OMFG-wheeee!-la-la-la, etc.

Seattle is hilly in a more consistent way. In comparison to the totally-in-your-face hills of San Francisco, Seattle’s hills feel almost passive-aggressive. They meander up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. I kept wondering where the steep hills were, because from my perspective there weren’t any. However the relentless low-key up and down is not the kind of terrain I’m used to riding and it wore me out (this has happened before—I got smoked by Madi from Family Ride on a deceptively mild-looking but seemingly endless hill in August 2012, while being fried by the equally foreign 80+F temperatures).

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

From the hill perspective, if riding in San Francisco is like occasionally ripping off a band-aid and screaming in agony, then riding in Seattle is like slowly peeling band-aids off by the dozen while feeling the adhesive tug on every single hair. Except that riding bikes is way more fun than that, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having to make an effort, it proves I’m alive and makes me stronger. I’m sure that if we lived in Seattle I would get used to Seattle hills and find them normal. Admittedly sweating on the way to work is a non-starter in my life, but this is why the universe has provided electric assists.

And speaking of assists, on this trip we stopped by the newly-opened G&O Family Cyclery, which had the Holy Grail of assist comparisons available for test rides: a Stokemonkeyed EdgeRunner and a BionX EdgeRunner. I love EdgeRunners (I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike) but had never tried an assisted version before. They are even better than the unassisted versions. We took the stoked and BionX EdgeRunners up and down the hills of Seattle, and if it wasn’t the same kind of challenge we face in San Francisco, it was still a fascinating experience.

My dissertation advisor had five mottos. One of them was, “Whenever you go away on a week of vacation, there’s always two weeks of work waiting for you when you come back.” Alas, this is painfully true, so coming soon: BionX v. Stokemonkey.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, EdgeRunner, electric assist, San Francisco, Seattle

Destinations: Blue Heron Bikes

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys.

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys. It’s not safe crossing the Bay.

I’ve been disappointed for years now that San Francisco has no family/cargo bike shop. Things are certainly better than they were a couple of years ago, when we started looking for our 2-kid hauler, but shopping around for a family bike in the city still involves a lot of “around”: wandering from bike shop to bike shop, none of which are necessarily on the same transit lines (and none of which, pretty understandably, have any parking for cars.)

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let's ride some bikes!

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let’s ride some bikes!

Back in 2012, it was a no-brainer to tack a train ride to Portland for cargo bike shopping onto our summer trip to Seattle to visit my mom. At the time Portland had three cargo bike shops that seriously considered the needs of family riders. Last year, however, I started to hear from other families about Blue Heron Bikes in Berkeley, which opened shortly after we returned from Portland in 2012. They said it was a real family bike shop. They were right.

These people think of everything.

These people think of everything.

We didn’t make it over to Blue Heron until early 2014, but it was worth the wait. Having visited a few family bike shops already, we knew what to look for: kids’ bikes, cargo bikes, and a Lego table. Check, check, and check.  (Clever Cycles in Portland, which represents the pinnacle of family bike shops in the United States, also adds a large play space, inexpensive rentals of many of the bikes it sells, and FREE DIAPERS IN THE BATHROOM to that mix, but this is the result of years of practice.)

Hi, Rob!

Hi!

I no longer patronize bike shops that give me attitude—and anyone who’s walked into a typical bike shop with kids will know what I’m talking about here—so the other critical attribute of a family bike shop is being nice to anyone who walks in the door.  I’m no longer the best judge of that personally, given that my husband likes to walk into bike shops and announce, “This is my wife and she writes a blog about family biking!” However on our first visit to Blue Heron about half a dozen novice family bikers stopped by, and Rob (the owner) and his staff were lovely to all of them. Those poor families also had to endure us talking their ears off about the bikes they test-rode, but you can’t blame Blue Heron for that. Check Yelp for the many five-star reviews from people who showed up on other days.

The family bike corner

The family bike corner

What kind of bikes can you get at Blue Heron? Lots of bikes: they stock Bromptons, Bullitts (sent down from Splendid Cycles), EdgeRunners, and Yuba Mundos. I’ll admit that Bromptons aren’t usually considered family bikes, but that’s how we ride ours, and Emily Finch is now hauling four kids on a Brompton + Burley Travoy, so I think they qualify. Blue Heron also has some quirky stuff like a Japanese cargo bike that they’ve rigged with a rear child seat.  I haven’t ridden that bike, because I figured we’ve tried their patience enough. My kids wanted to ride all the bikes they had in front, and my son announced afterward that he wants a mountain bike. My daughter cried all the way home about our decision to not buy her the purple bike she rode while we were there, because “It’s near my birthday!”

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

The kids did not stop with the bikes in their own size. They also asked to ride the Bullitt with the large box, so we did, and I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should upgrade to that box since. And they also wanted to ride the EdgeRunner. The last EdgeRunner I had ridden was a pre-production model, but the 2014 EdgeRunner was significantly more awesome. We loved that bike. I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should get an EdgeRunner either. We’re going to try the assisted version next, and hopefully a Kinn Flyer and a Workcycles Fr8 too (more reviews!)

Although Blue Heron is located on the Ohlone Greenway in the flats, which makes for lovely test rides, Berkeley is not without hills, and they will also assist your family bike. They had BionX versions of a number of the cargo bikes they sell ready for test rides. Fortunately they didn’t have a BionX EdgeRunner in stock when we were there or we might not have escaped without buying another bike.

There's a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids' test rides

There’s a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids’ test rides

From my perspective, Blue Heron has only one dreadful, depressing flaw, and that is that it is in Berkeley. Getting to Berkeley is an all-day commitment for us, even now that our kids are older. However I understand why families in San Francisco are making the trek across the Bay. Getting a cargo bike from Berkeley to San Francisco is a real adventure—one dad took his new Bullitt on BART, which meant carrying it on the stairs, and another family rode theirs down to the ferry to get it home.  I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to that kind of adventure, but we’ve been there twice now and I have no doubt that we’ll return.

For us, a trip to Portland was the only way to compare the different possible bikes we could have bought. We wouldn’t have to make that same trip now. I’m glad we did go, of course, because if we hadn’t we would never had met the family biking crew in Portland, and we would have had to wait much longer to ride our bike. This is difficult and unpleasant to imagine. But if we were looking now, we’d start in Berkeley.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, Bullitt, destinations, family biking, travel, Xtracycle, Yuba Mundo

How much does a bike like that cost?

Apparently these bikes are interesting.

Apparently the Bullitt is interesting.

People like to ask me how much our bikes cost. Usually this question comes when we’re riding the interesting bikes. I understand the impulse, but I almost never get these questions from the kind of people who normally ride bikes, people that I know have a sense of what bikes actually cost. It usually comes from the kind of people who say in the next breath, “It looks like it would be expensive; like: $200!”

Yes, sure. My “expensive” bike cost less than your mattress or the flat-screen television you keep in the kitchen. Riding bikes for transportation is cheap, but unless you get the bike for free, it’s not that cheap. And nobody picks up a free Bullitt at the dump.

The Bullitt is an expensive bike (and if you really want to know what it and bikes like it cost, check out my family bike reviews). Announcing how much we spent while standing around the park seems likely to encourage eavesdroppers to try stealing it. I finally came up with some decent answers. “It cost less than half of what we got for selling our six-year-old minivan!” I say. “Can you believe it?” Here in San Francisco, there are other meaningful comparisons. I sometimes tell people it costs about as much as a Vespa (this is true). “But a Vespa couldn’t carry my kids, of course, and I don’t have to pay for license or registration or gas—it costs a few cents to charge this bike up and ride for 30 miles! Or more!—and the maintenance cost is basically nonexistent. Can you believe it?”

I suppose I should use another picture of the Brompton sometime.

I suppose I should use another picture of the Brompton sometime.

I still never know what to say when people ask me what our Brompton cost. Usually something like, “Well, it depends on the options.” This is true, but it’s kind of lame.

Luckily for me, bikes really do cost less to maintain than scooters or cars, because right now the Bullitt is in the shop and won’t be fixed until Splendid Cycles comes back from vacation next week at the earliest (something has gone awry with our customized front shifter). Its long vacation has turned out to be a bigger hassle than I expected given that we have backup bikes. Now that we’re used to having a real cargo bike, it’s crazy-making to not be able to haul big loads and cover the kids in the cold or the rain.

Come back, Bullitt.

Come back, Bullitt.

But it’s not going to cost a thousand dollars to fix. It’s not like repairing a car. And this confidence I have that even the most depressingly expensive bike repair is easy to cover from our monthly cash flow is probably the best news of all. How much does a bike like that cost? Over the long term: nothing worth mentioning.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco

Meet the new bike

We are classy, classy people.

We are classy, classy people.

When Matt’s bike was stolen, my first thought (after, “Thank goodness we checked it was insured when the Bullitt came!”) was “What are we going to replace it with?”

Matt’s first thought was, “Where is that box of wine we just bought? I need to drink it all now.”

In the realm of people who have had bikes stolen, we were incredibly fortunate. Our renters insurance was up-to-date, and our agent had just assured us a few weeks prior that the bikes were covered. In addition, we have always carried replacement-value insurance. When Matt talked to the police, they told him that the frame had almost certainly been cut, making the bike itself not worth the effort of recovering (assuming such a thing was even possible). When he called our local bike shop, Everybody Bikes, they immediately put together a summary of the cost of the bike and value of the upgrades and sent it to our insurance company. (Thanks, Michael!) And in the meantime, given that we have a spare bike or two now, Matt had something to ride.

So the sequence of events went like this.

  • Friday afternoon: bike stolen.
  • Friday evening: Matt got a police report, filed an insurance claim, and commenced drinking.
  • Saturday: our bike shop sent a valuation of the bike to State Farm.
  • Monday:  State Farm called us saying that our claim was approved and they were sending us a check.
  • The following Friday: we got the check for the value of the bike less our deductible in the mail.

Thank you, State Farm! And I am grateful to our agent, Ken Bullock, as well. You never really know whether the insurance is going to be there until you need it, and I’m really glad it was.

Over the weekend, once Matt sobered up a little, we talked about a replacement bike. The first question was whether he wanted a midtail or a longtail as a replacement. Matt is still very fond of the Big Dummy, and considered it or the Edgerunner as options. But we both thought that another midtail bike would have the most longevity for our needs. Matt expects he will ride that size of bike on his commute for years to come. It can pick up groceries as well as an extra person but doesn’t really look like a cargo bike, it’s lightweight compared to a real cargo bike, and it’s transit-friendly. I’d like one too someday, for the same reasons (although we are so done with new bikes this year).

Which midtail was the question: there used to be one, but now there are three. Another MinUte or one of the others?

Matt loved the look and features of the Kinn Cascade Flyer and so did I, but it wasn’t going to solve the problem of getting him on a bike soon. The most obvious issue was there weren’t any in the Bay Area, and it’s not clear when or if they’ll be showing up here–the first production run of 30 bikes has sold (I asked), although a demo is supposed to appear in town eventually and more bikes will be produced in the spring. The second problem was that the bike appeared to be under-geared for San Francisco. I learned recently there is an option to get a Kinn with mountain-bike gearing, but we didn’t know that at the time.

Load up the Boda Boda.

Load up the Boda Boda.

We had just ridden the Yuba Boda Boda for a few weeks, and this bike is not without its charms. The main issue for Matt, which made him rule out this bike with little discussion, is that he really hates the cruiser aesthetic and the Boda Boda is designed to look like a cruiser. This is one of those reasons to reject a bike that seems silly on one level and totally reasonable on another. Our other concern was that the Boda Boda is also under-geared for San Francisco, and Matt didn’t want an electric assist bike. The Boda Boda is a great choice in San Francisco if you know you’re going for the assist, but if you’re not it would require regearing (and that would be a pain). And Matt is tall enough that he didn’t care about having a step-through frame.

The same bike, but different

The same bike, but different

We bought our first MinUte because it was the only available midtail at the time. Ultimately we bought another MinUte to replace it because it was still the best midtail for us over a year later. The MinUte is geared for San Francisco hills (the gearing is probably one of its best features).  Kona has significantly upgraded some of the things that bothered us about the old bike: for example, it has a new Yepp-compatible deck option and a dramatically better kickstand. And although we were initially worried about our ability to actually order a bike given that it was the end of the year, our bike shop actually had one last MinUte frame kicking around. We got a pity discount and they added the same upgrades we’d put on the first bike all at once. It was ready to ride in a couple of days.

There are still things I would change about the bike if I could. But I also realized that the Kona MinUte, despite being the bike we’ve both ridden the longest, is the only bike I’ve never really reviewed like the many other bikes we’ve test-ridden. So that’s coming up soon. In the meantime, even though the new MinUte looks a little different than our first bike, it’s still familiar. And it’s nice to have it back.

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Filed under bike shops, commuting, family biking, Kona, San Francisco

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.

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

We tried it: Bullitt (with BionX electric assist)

Hello, Bullitt!

While we were in Portland, we rented bikes from Splendid Cycles for the week. They knew the geography of San Francisco, and their suggestions were that we try riding a BionX-assisted Big Dummy and a BionX-assisted Bullitt. The Big Dummy was an obvious choice, beloved of hilly-city families up and down the west coast, but the Bullitt was a dark horse if there ever was one. The Bullitt is a serious cargo bike, the choice of San Francisco bike couriers, and it can carry a lot of weight. (Here is a great review by Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farms, whom we later met, and another from Wisconsin, and another from a dad in New Zealand.) However both a quick once-over and a detailed review by Totcycle made it clear that the standard Bullitt setup is so narrow that carrying two older kids at once in its box was improbable at best. One kid, sure: even my friend Todd has ridden in the box of the Bullitt, and he’s taller than I am. But two kids? Why couldn’t we rent a BionX-assisted Metrofiets or Winther Wallaroo?

You can actually fit a 3.5 year old and an almost-7 year old in the box of a Bullitt, but it’s a tight squeeze.

Joel at Splendid Cycles suggested that we could put a trailer-bike on a Bullitt for our son (rapidly approaching seven years old, and tall), and that appealed to him. There is also an alternative box built in Portland that holds two kids, which is about the size of a Bakfiets box. Joel encouraged us to give the Bullitt a try because, as he put it, the bike was “a hill-climbing monster.” But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to haul a trailer-bike every day. Given the length of the Bullitt, the combination would be like riding Family Ride’s Engine Engine Engine (bike + trailer-bike + trailer) everywhere we went. My son had another idea: he wanted to try straddling the top tube, like another kid at his school who rides a spare saddle that her dad sticks on the top tube of his mountain bike (see school bike #3 in this post). The Bullitt actually appears to be designed for that, with two footrests behind the box for a short passenger. However I was skeptical that our son would actually follow through. It was months before he would even get on the front seat of the Brompton. Once he did, he loved it, but I wasn’t going to buy a bike based on the hope that one day, before he grew up, he might like straddling the top tube. And even if he got on, I thought it was unlikely that he would be willing to ride that way for more than ten minutes or so.

This is an awesome way to ride with two kids if you’re used to a front seat. Conversation yes, fighting no.

I rarely have occasion to eat as much crow as I did that week in Portland for doubting my son’s willingness to ride what we ultimately referred to as the Bullitt’s jump seat. It was difficult to pry him off that top tube once we were confident enough to ride the bike with both kids on it. He rode it standing for multiple trips of 5-7 miles. All that practice on the Brompton IT Chair definitely paid off.

The Bullitt is the lightest of the cargo bikes we tried by a long shot (it’s an aluminum frame). Even loaded down with a cargo box, child seat, and BionX hub and battery, it weighed maybe 65 pounds.  That’s light enough that it is slightly more flexible than other box bikes when it comes to storage, as it’s not a nightmare to bump it up a step or two or onto a curb to park it, and it’s narrow enough to make it through any doorway with ease. And this is definitely not a bike I would feel comfortable leaving outside all night in San Francisco. Well, okay, actually there is no bike that would fit this description. But anyway, anyone who got this bike would ideally have walk-in parking. However, unlike the other box bikes, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it was almost-walk-in parking. Nonetheless it needs a lot of space: like the Bakfiets, the Bullitt is 8 feet long.

The pros of the Bullitt:

  • The Bullitt climbs like a monkey! I try to keep this a family-friendly blog, but OMFG! At first I was skeptical, because we did have a BionX assist on this bike, and that wasn’t a fair comparison to anything but the BionX-assisted Big Dummy we were also riding. So to test my perception I turned off the assist for a while. That slowed me down, but just to the speed of an unloaded regular bike. It was easier than the Big Dummy with the same load on hills, even using the same level of assist. With two kids on board and the assist turned off I could still get up the only hill of note we found in Portland during our stay, Alameda Ridge (a moderate but short hill roughly comparable to the western approach to Alamo Square in San Francisco), without dropping down to the bike’s lowest gear. I barely used the smallest front ring on the Bullitt while we were in Portland. With the BionX this bike was unstoppable.
  • Bike goes fast!  It felt pretty hardcore to drop road bikes while my daughter was leafing through the complete Curious George collection in the box in front of me. More than any other bike I’ve ever ridden, this bike wanted to GO.
  • According to a friend we saw in Portland who is not really that into bikes, “That is a sexy, sexy bike.” Like Totcycle, I wondered if I was cool enough to ride this bike. When I was having trouble with the steering on a hairpin turn one afternoon, I nearly ran over another rider. I yelled, “Sorry!” and he replied, “SWEET RIDE!” This proves that people in Portland are extremely nice. But this was a common response to the Bullitt even from people I wasn’t mowing down at the time. And people do very weird and wonderful things with the Bullitt in its cargo form, e.g. the Sperm bike.
  • The Bullitt may be 8 feet long, but it turns on a dime (assuming a competent rider). It cornered better than the Big Dummy, which is no slouch in that department either.
  • The components on the Bullitt are the nicest of any bike I’ve ever ridden. It was an experience that forever spoiled me for cheap bike parts. Hydraulic disc brakes (even though they needed adjustment on our rental bike) stopped the bike instantly, and shifting on the bike was as simple as thinking “I need to shift.” The handlebars are on a quick-release for different riders or steeper climbs. Like all the long johns, the Bullitt swallows rough pavement and potholes, but even in that very competitive group it had the smoothest ride of all the bikes we rode. The child seat was a tight squeeze for two kids but luxurious for one, like a leather armchair. The box had a sound dampened floor, so there were no echoes even when the bike was unloaded, and had slits along the sides so water and crumbs didn’t pile up. There are two different rain covers available for kids.
  • The Bullitt’s centerstand is almost as good as the best-in-class Bakfiets centerstand. It doesn’t rest on four points, so it isn’t quite as stable, but it is easy to pop down from the seat (even with a kid standing on the top tube in front) and pushing the bike forward releases it. Being able to prop the bike up without getting off is very useful on a loaded bike. Being able to trust it when you walk away (I’m looking at you, Kona MinUte) is even more useful.
  • The actual couch in the apartment might as well not have been there.

    The bike is very narrow (this is also a con). That means it can fit in small spaces, including bike corrals. Our rental apartment didn’t have space in the attached storage shed for two cargo bikes, so we wheeled the Bullitt through a tight hallway and parked it indoors every night. With the centerstand down, the kids treated it like a spare couch. They called it the Bullitt-fiets.

  • This is the point where I do my usual paean to the wonders of having the kids in front. It’s easier to talk with them. It’s also easier to keep them from fighting, although in their preferred 1-in-the-box-1-on-the-top-tube configuration there was no fighting.
  • Like other front box bikes, it’s possible to mount a trailer-bike or a rear child seat (or both) behind the rider which allows you to pile on more kids. The Bullitt can carry 400 pounds; weight is not an issue.
  • Box bikes have boxes; this one is no exception. With or without a kid in there you can throw all kinds of stuff in there willy-nilly, with no worries about weird load shapes or having to pack carefully. One kid can nap easily; throw a pillow in there and they’re out. (Two kids might if they’re tired enough not to hit each other when they get drowsy, but I wouldn’t count on it.)
  • Climb in, climb out. Climb in, climb out. Climb in, climb out. Joel and Barb at Splendid Cycles are VERY patient people.

    The Bullitt has the lowest box of any of the box bikes we tried, which meant that even our three-year-old could climb in and out unassisted (and she did). That was handy. Other people’s toddlers did the same thing when they walked by the parked bike, to my amusement and their parents’ mortification.

  • Thanks in part to the extremely low center of gravity (even the child seat sits at the bottom of the box), the Bullitt is hard to tip once you get moving, even with one kid lurching around inside the box after removing her seatbelt or the other one actually JUMPING UP AND DOWN on the footrests behind the box while a distracted parent is crossing an intersection. Or both of them doing those things at the same time. We had many occasions to be sorry that we had ever called that top tube placement “the jump seat” because our normally cautious son viewed that term as an engraved invitation. Nonetheless, despite some close shaves, we never dropped this bike, not even on difficult starts.

The cons of the Bullitt:

  • Like all front-loading box bikes, the Bullitt has linkage steering, so the front wheel is connected to the handlebars through an attachment that runs under the box. It seems in principle that once you’ve figured it out once, you’ve got it, but the Bullitt is not that simple. It messed with us. Splendid Cycles has a whole Bullitt tutorial where Joel goes out with new riders and coaches them through the first few blocks of mortal terror (for me, anyway), and it is both totally necessary and totally inadequate. The first few blocks with the Bullitt were awful. It was a bona fide miracle that I didn’t dump the bike (that and the fact that I have learned from hard experience to keep the seat way down on the first test ride of any bike).  Apparently many people are not so lucky. It must require serious reserves of zen-like inner calm to watch people take your expensive bikes out of the shop, panic as they lose control of the steering, and drop them on the ground every single day.
  • Seriously, the learning curve on this bike is painful. After the first day of riding, I thought, okay, I’ve got it now. So it made me feel wildly inadequate to get up every morning for the next few days and have to spend a few blocks learning to ride the bike AGAIN. I had my son run alongside the bike for the first block those mornings just to feel stable enough to put him on board. By the sixth day it was better. Six days? Almost three weeks later I’m still carrying an impressive set of bruises on my legs from those rides. I felt like I had a dysfunctional relationship with this bike: “I hate myself for loving you, Bullitt!” I assumed at first it was just my incompetence. Then we went to the Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call, where I talked to Josh Volk (see his review of the Bullitt above), who is super-nice. He volunteered, without prompting, that he loved his Bullitt with the passion of a thousand burning suns but it had a serious learning curve; he’d been riding bikes for years, and riding a Bullitt for three months every day, and he still couldn’t ride it no-hands. Granted, I have never even had the ambition to ride no-hands on a bike with my kids on board, but I found this conversation a little depressing. [Update: With hindsight it seems that a big part of my problem was learning to ride with two kids jumping around on the bike at the same time. Other people report getting comfortable with the steering far more quickly. Also, Josh can now ride no-hands, see the comments.]
  • The Bullitt is a narrow bike. This is a pro when you’re trying to squeeze through small spaces or fit into a normal bike corral, but a con when you’re trying to carry multiple kids. Both of my kids could fit in the box but like a trailer, fighting was inevitable after a while. If our son hadn’t fallen in love with riding over the top tube, this bike would have been a complete non-starter. You could probably fit two younger kids in there though. But with the box set up to carry kids, the Bullitt can’t carry as much as other box bikes, because the box is so much smaller. Take off the sides and you can carry almost anything, but then you have to worry about the kids tumbling off the side. There is the option of getting a custom two-kid box, Bakfiets-sized, built in Portland. But the sample box had no sound dampening, no drainage holes, and no rain cover, and is much less well-integrated with the rest of the bike. Plus you’d give up some of the advantages of a narrow bike. Still, a possibility.
  • Only relatively tall people can ride this bike given the height of the top tube. The recommended shortest rider is evidently around 5’4”, but I suspect you’d want a couple of inches more to feel really comfortable. I’m a little over 5’7” and had no issues other than the usual contortion over the top tube, which is comparable to the one on the Surly Big Dummy or Yuba Mundo, maybe a little lower. Matt, who’s a couple of inches taller, was also fine. But that’s us; not everyone is as tall.
  • Despite the many nice components on the Bullitt, it is set up a lot like a courier bike: there were no lights and no chain guard. It did have fenders. Lights are easy to add but cost extra. A chain guard is harder to manage with the mountain bike gearing we were using (and loved). There is an internal hub option that makes it possible to mount a standard chain guard. In a less hilly locale than San Francisco, going with the internal hub would be the obvious choice. But I often bike to work in dress pants and we do live in San Francisco.
  • The kind of mind-blowingly awesome components that came on the Bullitt do not run cheap. The list price of the bike we rode, which came with hydraulic disc brakes, mountain-bike gearing, fenders, a Brooks saddle (!), and the BionX electric assist, was $5400. Without the assist the bike runs $3100-$3800, roughly comparable to a Bakfiets. The bike we rode was on sale (scratch and dent after too many test rides?) for $4650, a screaming deal by comparison to list price. That’s not that far from the price of a good commuter electric bike like the Ohm, with the Bullitt having far greater cargo and kid hauling capacity. Nonetheless it’s a head-spinning chunk of change. We were in the fortunate position of having cleared far more cash than this from the sale of our minivan, so the price of every bike we looked at was affordable for us, but I don’t think our situation is that common.

It was a party every day on the Bullitt.

At the end of the week, I was surprised at how much I liked this bike. My kids found an unexpected configuration where they both fit easily on the Bullitt, and they loved riding it. I was used to riding the Brompton with my son in front, so having him standing over the top tube was no problem for me. He’d fit there for a couple of years to come, plus we could add his trailer-bike rack to it, and that would also allow us to carry standard panniers. But Matt, who does not take our kids on the Brompton, did not like carrying our son in front, and putting both kids in the box was not particularly fun for anyone. And although the Bullitt was a ton of fun to ride by the afternoon of each day, every morning it made me feel like I was relearning how to ride my old yellow banana-seat Schwinn on the day my parents took off the training wheels.

Should we get this bike in the expectation that when we were used to it, we’d get the payoff of laughing at every hill in San Francisco?  Would our son tire of riding standing up if we did? It would be great to have the cargo flexibility of a box bike to match our midtail, and we loved having the kids in front. But this was not the only box bike that would work for us, and it would be an unconventional choice to haul two kids. Yet although the Bullitt wasn’t a bike I considered very seriously at first, I found it hard to rule it out after riding it for a while. The Bullitt is just so… cool.

[This is the bike we bought.]

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Filed under bike shops, electric assist, family biking, reviews