Category Archives: cargo

Christmas tree by Bullitt, and three people on a Brompton

Last year, we brought our Christmas tree home on the Kona MinUte. It was the easiest way to bring a tree home ever. Longtails and their midtail cousins are custom-made for the long skinny load. This year, to address some of my grouchiness about having the MinUte stolen, I decided I’d try to bring our tree home on the Brompton.

Christmas tree by Bullitt: welcome home.

Christmas tree by Bullitt: welcome home.

Ambition, you have felled me again. We brought the tree home in the Bullitt. But the Brompton still had a surprise in store for us.

Many San Francisco residents will know the significance of the numbers 7 and 49. San Francisco is seven miles by seven miles square, and thus 49 square miles. San Francisco also came into its own as a city in 1849 with the Gold Rush. Thus the city is littered with references to both numbers: 49-mile drive, the 49ers, not to mention a vapid lifestyle magazine, 7×7 (which once referenced the city’s geography but now apparently alludes to days of the week). Anyway, I became very excited when I realized that this year I had both a seven year old and an opportunity to carry a seven foot tall Christmas tree. Surely this was meant to be!

Once again, my son found a tree and stood yelling, “This one!” as two other families were walking over talking about taking it home themselves, and once again a couple of other people made a move on our tree as the packing guys were wrapping it up. His ability to find the best tree on the lot is uncanny. Trying to carry both him and it on the Brompton, however, was a mistake.

If we'd gotten a smaller tree it TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.

If we’d gotten a smaller tree it TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.

Based on my test run with a load of lumber, I could almost certainly have carried a 4-5 foot tall tree standing up on the rear rack, with the center of the tree bungeed to the saddle rails (here’s proof). More than that height, though, and it was too top-heavy. We couldn’t keep the tree from toppling over just walking it across the Christmas tree lot. Oh well, that’s why we brought the real cargo bike. We had a backup plan.

Almost there, but note a crucial handlebar mistake on the left.

Almost there, but note a crucial handlebar mistake on the left.

So we plopped the tree on the Bullitt, bungeed it down (the Bullitt has many handy bolts to bungee things to) and put our son in the bulldog seat over the top tube. Hey, 7×7 after all! Unfortunately this setup lasted less than a block. We’d inadvertently put the tree stand too close to the handlebars, and when Matt tried to make the first turn, he hit it and dumped the bike. I have this disgraceful moment on video, but will never post it. It took less than a minute to rearrange the tree, but our son pretty understandably refused to get back on the Bullitt after that.

So Matt headed off again with just the tree on the Bullitt, drawing accolades from all and sundry, including a man walking by who stuttered, “That is… so cool! It’s like green… on green!” Honestly, you’d think these people had never seen someone carry a Christmas tree home by bike before.

Yep, that's two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

Yep, that’s two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

I followed, assuming we’d walk the Brompton home. But both kids wanted to ride in the IT Chair, and our daughter refused to get off. Our son was so dejected that I did something that the manufacturer definitely does not recommend: I offered him a ride on the rear rack. What can I say? He was so excited. He really didn’t want to walk. So after a little bit of testing (to make sure the rack wouldn’t collapse underneath him) we rode all the way home with him standing there whooping, and I have to say, it was fantastic. Following Matt as he carried the Christmas tree, however, made us look like lunatics. “LOOK NOW OH MY GOD, there are TWO kids on that bike!”

We were laughing all the way, ho ho ho, even on the uphill parts. Admittedly the trip was less than a mile. I realize that I have probably voided every warranty that the manufacturer offers on this bike based on my son’s weight alone; but I would totally do it again. It was really, really fun.

So last Christmas: tree by bike. This Christmas: tree by bike and three people on a Brompton. Next year, well, no idea yet, but I’m open to suggestions.

Home at last

Home at last

In the meantime, anyone can follow along with tree-hauling-by-bike exploits around the world by following the hashtag #ChristmasFeats on Twitter. Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Grocery shopping by bicycle

I consider grocery shopping to be one of least interesting things that I do by bicycle. Compared to figuring out a way to carry two kids simultaneously up and down steep hills, it’s not particularly challenging. I am always surprised to find out that the question of how I carry groceries is interesting to people. Even weirder to me, people who don’t ride bikes regularly typically assume that we must use car share to shop, because no way could we carry groceries on a bike. And I am thinking: dude, we did our shopping by bike even when we owned a car (as a California resident, I am legally required to use the word “dude” at least five times a day).

We live in San Francisco, which is not packed with the kind of giant supermarkets featured in suburban locales. Thus we are not once-a-week shoppers, because we pick up groceries here and there en route to other destinations. Last week, just as an exercise, we shopped entirely without the Bullitt, which can carry anything, figuring that most people do not have a cargo bike.

Trader Joe’s by bike basket: milk, yogurt, cheese, butter, box of wine, fruit, crackers, vanilla (plus my lunch bag)

General groceries: There is a Trader Joe’s a block from my office. There is no point in driving to this location, which is the busiest in the entire United States, and where the line to park stretches dozens of cars back at all hours. I usually walk to the Trader Joe’s once a week during my lunch break and pick up things like milk, yogurt, cheese, and pasta. The Trader Joe’s near my office does such a land-office business that its produce is actually okay, so I will also pick up organic fruit on sale.

This week’s farm share (carried in one MinUte pannier): apple pears, arugula, turnips, carrots, persimmons, bok choy, leeks, kale, potatoes

Farm share: Matt takes a martial arts class in our neighborhood on Thursday evenings. On the way home he detours a few blocks to pick up our farm share produce. He transfers the contents into a pannier for the ride home.

Farmers market: strawberries, kettle corn, carrots, apples, oranges, grapes, coffee cake

Farmers market: Our farm share doesn’t provide much fruit, but our kids eat a lot of it, so on Sunday mornings I go to the neighborhood farmers market. My son’s birthday party was this weekend so I bought a full flat of strawberries for the party instead of our usual half-flat. I also picked up four bags of kettle corn at a local grocery store because the boys watched a movie during the party and requested it.

A farm share + Rainbow trip by Kona MinUte: produce and bulk shopping in the panniers plus a 25 lb. box of apples strapped to the deck, no problem!

Odds and ends: We are vegetarians so we don’t buy meat. We also don’t usually buy things like cereal and bread because we make them.  However that means that every few months we need to make a trip to Rainbow Grocery for staples like flour, along with occasional bulk purchases of olive oil, salt, grains and beans. We also stop by Costco (which is across the street from Rainbow) on roughly the same schedule for things like compost bags, toilet paper, and the tissues that we donate to our son’s school.

Historically these stock-up trips have been by car share if we’re with both kids (or if Matt passes by the neighborhood while in a business-related car rental), or by bike if one of us was going solo. Matt’s Kona MinUte can carry anything we’ve ever bought at Rainbow and then some, and it’s not even a full-sized cargo bike. Lots of people shop at Costco with ordinary bikes.

Five pizzas for a kid’s birthday party in the Bullitt is also no problem.

Our future bulk shopping trips will almost certainly be by Bullitt, because it’s more fun and has zero marginal cost. We haven’t used car share since this bike rode into our lives in the middle of last month. For our son’s birthday party on Sunday, Matt took the Bullitt to pick up five pizzas. A load like that isn’t even a challenge for a bike like this.

If you get a real cargo bike your ambitions scale up accordingly. But even with just a midtail and our limited ambitions, we have carried a Christmas tree, two kids and their gear, each other, and the Brompton. A week or even a month’s worth of groceries barely ranks on this scale. Ride on, shoppers.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, San Francisco

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

A series of electric assists

This is the first assisted bike I ever rode, a Surly Big Dummy with BionX.

I first tried a bike with an electric assist last March, just over six months ago, a BionX assisted Surly Big Dummy at Splendid Cycles in Portland. It made quite an impression. Later I tried a mid-drive assist at The New Wheel in San Francisco. Then I tried another mid-drive assist and a front hub motor.  Less than a year ago, I could not have identified the difference between these assists with schematic diagrams and prompts from their designers. I wish I knew then what I know now.

The electric assists I have tried:

  • A front hub motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (eZee)
  • A mid-drive motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (EcoSpeed)
  • A mid-drive pedal-assist motor (Panasonic)
  • A rear hub pedal-assist motor that responds to torque (BionX)

I have pretty strong feelings about what kind of assist I prefer after trying all of these (BionX, although it’s not perfect). Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, but wish you did because you’ve been hearing about this electric assist thing and it sounds kind of cool, but you couldn’t pick an electric assist bike out of a lineup. Read on, friend.

General thoughts

Electric assist bicycles are interesting because they are true car replacements for ordinary people. I have met lots of committed, fiercely strong riders who not only ride to work and for errands and on weekends, but also head for the steepest grades in the city to improve their hill-climbing chops. These guys (they are almost always men) are inspiring, but your average mom of two isn’t going to look at them and say: “Yeah! That could be me!” But put an electric assist on a cargo bike and you are looking at a transportation system that can haul the kids, handle a week’s worth of groceries, dodge traffic, and park right next to the front door of any destination in the city—at the same time. All of this for minimal operating and capital costs, plus enough exercise that you no longer get depressed about not making it to the gym since the kids were born. Many of the factors that make riding a bike seem intimidating—I can’t sweat because I need to look decent for work, no way can I make it up that hill, how am I going to carry the kids, I can’t handle the wind—disappear with an assist. All that’s left to worry about is wet weather. I personally got some waterproof outerwear and found out that I liked riding in the rain, but if I had hated it, heck, we could rent a car on every rainy day in San Francisco without coming close to the cost of owning a car. (In other climates people worry about snow, but from what I’ve read this involves getting some studded winter tires and a cover for the kids and then you’re good.)

Some people like throttle assists (operated by a grip on the handlebar, independent of pedaling) and some people like pedal assists (which multiply your effort as you pedal). My anecdotal impression is that people who come to electric bikes from bikes prefer a pedal assist because it feels like riding a bike. Whereas people I’ve met who ride both bicycles and mopeds, or bicycles and motorcycles, seem to prefer having a throttle. Everybody likes what’s familiar. I came to electric bikes from riding a bicycle as my kids’ weights edged up toward 100 lbs. I didn’t care for the throttle assists I tried.

None of the electric assist systems cost much to charge. Efforts I’ve seen to estimate power costs sort of peter out because they’re so trivial. NYCE Wheels, which sells a lot of assisted bikes and has some great articles on their website about the technology, estimated the cost per charge at maybe 18 cents in New York City, but of course prices depend on local rates. The better systems estimate that a charge can carry an assisted bike at the highest level of assist for 20-45 miles.

Currently there are three kinds of batteries that can power the motor on the market (that I know of): sealed lead acid (SLA), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCd), and lithium-ion polymer (LiPo). The technology for batteries on electric assists is still considered somewhat experimental. Getting the longest possible warranty from a reputable manufacturer is a really good idea. Expect the battery to last only a little longer than the warranty and you won’t be disappointed. Battery replacement is the true cost of maintaining an assisted bike. Compared to the costs of maintaining a car, it’s still bupkis: with a good warranty, it will run $500-$900 every two years at the most.

  • SLA batteries are the least inexpensive electric assist battery. They’re incredibly heavy and take several hours to charge. Bikes with these batteries tend to have limited range (maybe 5 miles). When SLA batteries won’t hold a charge anymore, they have to be disposed as hazardous waste. These batteries are common on e-bikes in China. If you buy an e-bike at a big box store it will have an SLA battery, and it won’t last long. You’ll be replacing entire bikes more frequently than other people replace their bike’s batteries.
  • NiMH (more common) and NiCd (less common) batteries are somewhat more expensive, still heavy, and bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (maybe 10 miles). They were considered an upgrade from SLA batteries at one time, but they have their little issues. One of these is charge memory; occasionally you have to drain the battery down or it will stop fully recharging, and you won’t be able to go as far. When they won’t hold a charge anymore, they will not win any awards for environmental stewardship. However in San Francisco, Sunset Scavenger will recycle them if they’re left taped up in plastic on top of a black can. It’s almost impossible to find these batteries on new bikes, as they’ve been supplanted by LiPo batteries.
  • LiPo batteries are the most expensive, most energy-dense, and lightest weight battery option. LiPo batteries largely dominate the market now. Bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (20-90 miles). Using them with inappropriate chargers or puncturing them can make them explode (exciting!) They can be stored for long periods (1-2 months) without losing charge.

Front hub throttle assist

I tried the eZee front hub motor that comes standard on the Yuba elMundo. This is a 500 watt motor. You can tell there is a motor on the bike because the front wheel has an oversized hub. There are lots of other manufacturers that make front hub motors, and kits made in China, where electric bikes are fairly common, are often found on eBay. However eZee seems to be one of the more reputable manufacturers. On the elMundo there is also a battery attached to the frame, just behind the seat tube (that’s the part of the frame that attaches to the seat) and in front of the rear wheel; however the battery could be placed somewhere else on other bikes (a rear rack, a down tube, anyplace that would hold the weight). The suggested range for this assist system is 20 miles.

  • How it works: You activate the motor by twisting the right handlebar grip away from you. The more you twist, the more assistance you get. When the motor is on, your pedaling appears to add nothing. You can turn the motor on and off with a controller on the left side of the handlebars. The controller is pretty basic; just a switch with lights. The look screamed “high school science fair project” to me.
  • What it feels like: It feels like skitching. Skitching is when you are pulled along by something other than the bike, like when lunatic bike messengers grab onto a passing car. You’re hitching a ride. I have never skitched on a bike because that would be insane, but I have skied. Using a front-hub throttle motor feels a lot like being pulled on a rope tow while on skis (except obviously you’re on a bike).
  • Noise level: Medium. I definitely noticed the sound of the motor while I was riding. I wouldn’t call it noisy, but people walking along the sidewalk alongside noticed the sound, and it also muffles the noise of passing traffic somewhat.
  • Pros: You never have to work going uphill. The eZee motors work with many batteries. They are the Microsoft Windows of electric assists. The system is reasonably priced as electric assists go, although not so cheap that you wonder whether they’re a fly-by-night manufacturer.
  • Cons: A downside of using any of the throttle assist motors is that your power is limited to what the motor can pump out. Pedaling adds nothing. Unfortunately a 500 watt eZee front hub motor didn’t really have the kind of power needed to get two kids up steep hills in San Francisco. I saw one elMundo overheated and out of commission (two older kids on deck, bike on a hill) during our recent Kidical Mass/Critical Mass ride. I have heard other similar stories, although I haven’t personally witnessed them. There is also something weird going on with eZee right now; none of its products seem to be in stock. Using a throttle-operated assist doesn’t feel like riding a bike.
  • Battery type: LiPo. I’ve seen warranties on eZee batteries of either six months or a year.
  • Cost: around $1450 for this motor with a 36v battery.

Mid-drive throttle assist

This is the EcoSpeed Bullitt; the motor is not visible, but note the console above the handlebars.

I tried the EcoSpeed aftermarket mid-drive assist mounted on a Bullitt at Portland’s Splendid Cycles. This is either a 1000 watt or 1500 watt motor; the answer seems to depend on how you frame the question. Mid-drive motors are more efficient than hub motors, so comparing watts between systems isn’t helpful. Unlike many assist systems, the controller did not limit the maximum speed (many state laws limit the top speed on assisted bicycles to 20mph). This discovery led to the following entertaining conversation. Me: “Uh, is this system even legal in California?” Splendid: “Well… no. Maybe. It’s a gray area, legally speaking.”

You can tell there is a mid-drive motor on the bike because there’s a bulbous protrusion near the chain wheel attached to a second chain. The motor drives the second chain and pulls the bike along. On the Bullitt, the batteries were mounted under the front box. You can fit a lot of batteries under the pallet of a long john, and mid-drive motors are pretty efficient; EcoSpeed claims their system can go 35-45 miles.

  • How it works: Twist the right handlebar grip and away you go. More twist, more speed. You can spin the pedals for fun but it’s not necessary, nor does it add any power or speed. The controller is a complicated-looking little computer on the handlebars that details the remaining battery power, speed, mileage, etc.
  • What it feels like: Hard to describe. It’s kind of like riding a train? I could feel that the motor was moving the bike underneath me, but it didn’t feel like I was being pulled; it wasn’t like a front hub motor.
  • Noise level: Unbelievably loud. It sounded like a moped.
  • Pros: This is an insanely powerful motor. It would be great for a construction company. Attach a trailer and you could haul, I don’t know, a load of concrete blocks up steep hills for miles on end. It would be overkill for hauling my kids around the city. Nonetheless, they thought it was wildly entertaining. They still ask about “the fast motor” sometimes.
  • Cons: It’s really noisy and really expensive. It may or may not be street-legal. The motor is so powerful that evidently it sometimes breaks chains on bikes. Using a throttle assisted bike doesn’t feel like riding a bike. To be honest the EcoSpeed scared me a little. I think this assist is best suited to someone who really understands the mechanics of electric assists. I am not that person.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The battery supplied by EcoSpeed has a two year warranty. There’s an option to supply your own battery.
  • Cost: $4,195 for the motor with battery, $150 for the computer.

Mid-drive pedal assist

Two types of bikes at The New Wheel: the Focus has a mid-drive pedal assist, the Ohm next to it has a BionX assist.

I tried a Panasonic mid-drive pedal assist on a purpose-built electric bike at The New Wheel in San Francisco, a BH Emotion Diamond Wave+. Some of the European assisted bikes have really weird and complicated names, I’m sorry to say. I’m going to refer to this bike as the Emotion because that was the name emblazoned on the down tube.

The Emotion has a 250 watt motor that’s built into the frame of the bike; you can tell it’s there because the chain guard looks really fat, like it’s been pumped up on steroids. Because the manufacturer built the system into the bike the torque/motion sensor is hidden inside the frame. There is also a battery mounted behind the seat tube and in front of the rear tire. Like many of the higher-end electric assist bikes, it comes with lights, fenders, chain guard and rack; this bike is designed to be used for transportation, not as a toy.

Mid-drive motors are so efficient that it would be a mistake to think that the comparatively low wattage means that you’re sacrificing power. On this bike I could easily scale hills that I’m fairly certain would have knocked out the eZee entirely. (The New Wheel is cleverly located near some of San Francisco’s more scorching hills. In my neighborhood the hills top out at a 25% grade; there are steeper hills near the shop.)  The BionX and EcoSpeed motors could handle the same hill; in fact I was riding with a friend who was on a BionXed bike (350 watt motor) at the time and he was just peachy. However the suggested range of the Emotion was 45 miles, whereas the suggested range of the BionX bike he was riding (an Ohm) was 35 miles.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the left side of the handlebars where you set an assist level of low, medium, or high (or off). Once it’s on it sends power as you pedal to multiply your effort. On low I wanted to gear down to make pedaling comfortable. On high, gearing down for the hill was optional.
  • What it feels like: Using the mid-drive pedal assist motor felt like riding a beach cruiser along the waterfront regardless of how steep a hill I attempted to scale. People do that kind of thing for fun on vacation. If you ride on a lot of hills already, the experience of using a mid-drive pedal assist is both intoxicating and a little spooky. If you always wanted to ride a bike but don’t because you live on a steep hill, this bike is a dream come true.
  • Noise level: The motor itself is silent. There was a slight rattling from the chain when the motor was running. It was fairly quiet but I noticed it, although someone walking on the sidewalk next to me wouldn’t have.
  • Pros: I like all of the pedal-assist systems because they feel like you’re riding a bike, but you don’t have to suffer (unless you want to). However this system is probably the most sophisticated I’ve ever used in that it doesn’t require you to think about how you’re riding: set the assist and forget it. The mid-drive motor works with internally geared hubs. The motor and battery are unobtrusive. There is a neat feature on most of the European assisted bikes, the “walking assist”, where you can push a button and the bike gives a trickle of power that makes it feel like you’re walking a bike that weighs 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds.
  • Cons: The biggest con is that these systems are currently only built into one-person commuter bikes (but see below for notes on the Stokemonkey). So although you could add a child seat to a bike like this, there isn’t any way to use the assist system to haul serious cargo or two kids, even though the motor is capable of handling those loads. Beyond that there’s only trivial stuff. If you’re using to riding a bike on hills, learning to use this kind of assist appropriately can be a little weird. The goal is to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm and not bear down on the hill, or even necessarily shift down (unless it would make it easier to maintain cadence). I had to remind myself not to *try* to climb the hill. It was like The Matrix: “There is no hill.” But if you haven’t been riding on hills a lot, this won’t be an issue. You’ll take to it immediately. Another minor issue is that people who like to tinker get frustrated that these are closed systems; you can’t mess around with the bike. However I have trouble believing that people like that would have the slightest interest in this kind of bike anyway.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The entire bike has a two-year warranty.
  • Cost: The entire bike, including the electric assist, costs $3,300 at the New Wheel; they offer 12-month 0% interest financing as well.

The Stokemonkey

Once upon a time, there was an aftermarket mid-drive pedal assist system specifically meant for cargo bikes , the Stokemonkey (designed and sold by Clever Cycles in Portland). Although the motor was created for longtail cargo bikes, Stokemonkeys have also been used on front loading box bikes (this is not recommended by the manufacturer, however).  I have, sadly, never ridden a bike with a Stokemonkey. However reports from people who have ridden them claim that the motor is silent, the assist is seamless, and that a stoked, fully-loaded cargo bike can easily climb any hill. The Stokemonkey was withdrawn from production when the cost of parts increased, but is apparently coming back at an unknown (to me, at least) future date and price. Yeehaw!

Rear hub assist that responds to torque

The BionX system can go on any bike with a rear derailleur, including this Yuba Mundo.

I have now ridden two different bikes with aftermarket BionX pedal assists, both in Portland: a Surly Big Dummy and a Bullitt. In both cases the motor was the PL-350 (350 watts), which is the model recommended for climbing steep hills. The BionX controller gives you the option of choosing between four levels of assist, which range from a 75% assist to 300% assist. There is also a thumb switch that acts as throttle, giving the bike a burst of power at the highest level. This is a handy feature when you’re crossing an intersection. The BionX system only provides an assist if you’re moving at least 2 mph, however, so the initial start has to be powered by the rider. This ensures that the bike won’t jerk forward if you accidentally brush a pedal while stopped.

The BionX is a rear hub motor. You can tell it’s there because the hub of the back wheel is much larger than normal. The (proprietary) battery comes in two versions. One is an odd and obtrusive tear-drop shape, which can be mounted in a couple of different places but usually goes on the down tube. The other is a less-obvious flat pack that mounts below a special rack. Although the rack mount is unquestionably more attractive, I have heard from more than one bike shop that the rack mount can be problematic, because that much weight placed high on the back of the bike can make it very tippy. Add kids to the rear deck and the problem is intensified.

The BionX system is an unusual pedal assist system for two reasons: first, it responds to torque, and second, it has regenerative braking.

The BionX provides more or less assist depending on how hard you press on the pedals. For this reason, riding with an assist feels the same as riding without the assist, except you’ve grown massively stronger: push down hard on the pedals and you rocket forward. For people who’ve been riding on hills for a while without an assist this is an intuitive system to use because it mirrors the way they already ride.

Regenerative braking means that as you go downhill and brake, the battery recharges a little. This is a little bit of a gimmick, but not totally. For some reason, many people I talk to about electric assists to seem to think that pedaling the bike should provide all the charging they need for the assist system, as though an assisted bike were some kind of perpetual motion machine. I suppose this is technically possible, but only if you worked exactly as hard as you did on an unassisted bike, in which case, what would be the point of having an assist? Setting aside the expectation of a free lunch, however, regenerative braking has some advantages. The first advantage is that you can use the system to slow the bike while going downhill by setting the controller to a negative assist, turning it into a hub brake. On steep hills where brakes can overheat, which are all over San Francisco, this feature is outstanding. I am paranoid about brakes, so the news that BionX assists came with an independent second braking system had the same effect on me as a face mask full of nitrous oxide at the dentist. Whee! The second advantage is that regenerative braking can decrease range anxiety, because after going downhill you have a little bit more range.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the right handlebar that allows you to set an assist level; there are four levels of assist (and four levels of negative assist that act as a brake). There is also a thumb switch that acts like a throttle and gives a burst of power at the highest level of assist. The controller is also a computer that provides information on speed, distance traveled, and remaining battery life. It is a slick little machine, the iPhone of controllers. Once an assist level is set it sends power to multiply your effort. You can set an assist level and forget it, and just ride around faster than usual with no fear of hills.
  • What it feels like: They call this system BionX for a reason. When it’s on it makes you feel like you’ve suddenly developed super strength, but without the sordidness, health risks or expense of taking performance enhancing drugs. Because it responds to effort (torque), it really does feel just like riding an unassisted bike, except that the experience has become much, much easier. You still use the gears, but don’t ever slow down so much that you wobble on the hills.
  • Noise level: Completely silent.
  • Pros: This system feels more like riding a bike normally than any other assist I’ve used, and yet is powerful enough that I had no trouble hauling two kids up steep hills. In Portland, riding the BionXed Bullitt, I didn’t even need the highest level of assist to clear the local hills without difficulty on brutally hot days. On the hottest day we were in Portland (with a high of 105F), however, I did turn the assist to the highest level and it allowed us to go fast enough to catch a breeze even though I was putting in minimal effort because I feared I might pass out from the heat.
  • Cons: The BionX system currently only works on bikes with a rear derailleur and not with internally geared hubs (however BionX will be releasing a system with a 3-speed internally geared hub next year; this system will only be for purpose-built assisted bikes, however, as the torque sensor has to be built into the frame by the manufacturer). Having to get the speed up to 2mph before the assist kicks in can make starts on a heavily loaded bike very wobbly. There is no walking assist, which would be helpful. (If you make the mistake of trying to use the throttle button as a walking assist, as I once did, the bike will lurch ahead faster than you can follow it.) The BionX system is proprietary and does not allow the use of less expensive batteries from other manufacturers. This really ticks off people who like to tinker with their assists: BionX is the Apple of electric assists.
  • Battery type: LiPo. BionX offers a two year warranty.
  • Cost:  Ranges from $1200-$1800. The more expensive systems are better hill climbers and have greater range.

My conclusion

After riding all of these systems, the one that seemed best suited for our needs was the BionX (but how about a walking assist, BionX?) However, because the battery technology for all electric assists is still a little spotty, I wouldn’t get an assisted bike without the kind of gearing that would have a sporting chance of getting me up serious hills if the battery failed. Our new cargo bike has a wide range of gears.

Our needs are not everyone’s needs. I suspect a mid-drive pedal assist bike would be the best choice for an inexperienced rider facing steep hills. If I wanted to carry seriously heavy loads on a cargo bike, an EcoSpeed would be the better choice (or if it were available, a Stokemonkey). Personally, I didn’t really like being pulled along by a front hub motor, and the version I tried was underpowered for San Francisco hills. However many people like these motors better–I recently talked to one dad who wouldn’t consider any other kind of assist–and it’s possible to buy stronger assists for a front hub. Moreover there are some relatively inexpensive front hub systems available. Battery experience with these systems may vary.

No electric assist with any longevity is inexpensive, and some of them cost more than the bike itself. However I know many families in San Francisco who ride bikes but own a second car only to get the kids to school on top of a steep hill or because they can’t get a week’s worth of groceries home on a bike. Compared to car ownership, an electric assist is a bargain indeed.

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Filed under car-free, cargo, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Christiania and Nihola cargo tricycles

Over a year after our return from Copenhagen, we finally got to ride a Christiania.

I knew coming in to our cargo bike test rides that we weren’t going to be buying a tricycle. If there is one thing that is fairly certain, it is that trikes can’t handle steep hills. But we wanted to try all the cargo options, if only to get a basis for comparison. Also, we had really, really wanted to rent a Christiania while we were in Copenhagen and no bike shop we found would let us.

One kid plus a backpack does not test the capacity of the Nihola.

In Portland, however, it was easy to test-ride a trike, because Emily Finch offered us the chance to use their family’s Christiania when she learned we were coming to Portland. How sweet is that? She herself rides a Bakfiets, but her husband got the Christiania when he was new to riding. While we were at it, we rented a Nihola from Clever Cycles (Clever Cycles is amazing). Matt and I each rode one for a few miles from the shop to the Hawthorne shopping district for lunch, then we switched off and headed back.

This is about as far forward as you want the weight in the cargo box to go.

Tricycles have a reputation for being more stable than bikes among new riders, which is only half-true. Trikes are statically stable and dynamically unstable (whereas bikes are statically unstable and dynamically stable). When trikes are stopped they rest on three wheels, like a footstool with three legs. For this reason you’ll never see a trike with a kickstand. They have a single hand brake with a parking latch, and coaster brakes. When trikes are moving, however, they are unstable. They sway and shimmy. My father-in-law, who is a physics professor at UC Berkeley, explained this to me as partially a function of the third wheel. All wheels have inherent lateral instability from the centripetal force of their movement. Add a third wheel and you increase that instability by 50% (my summary of his explanation elides a lot but is much shorter).

This guy with no legs whizzed by us on a hand-powered delta trike. Impressive and depressing at the same time.

Whether you will like a trike depends on whether you expect to be stopped or moving most of the time. It also depends on a lot on how fast you want to ride. We found that the top speed of a loaded tricycle was only slightly faster than brisk walking (although it was much less effort). Given this pace, it was tiring to think about taking it for a ride longer than a mile or two.

I would rule out a tricycle if facing any hill steeper than a speed bump. This isn’t because they are poor climbers, although they are, in fact, terrible climbers. I radically redefined my definition of a hill while riding these trikes to: any incline whatsoever. More distressing was that even in the fairly flat environs of southeast Portland, while going down mild hills in the Christiania at maybe 5 miles/hour, I experienced shimmy for the first time. And it scared the crap out of me. A shimmying bike starts to tremble uncontrollably and stops responding to attempts to steer, swinging wildly across the road. Slowing down the trike helps, but good luck getting much braking power from coaster brakes and a single hand brake. The Nihola handled the hills better. I would say it was roughly comparable to a very heavy bike with bad brakes.

The Nihola on the move

On the flats, however, a trike offers a pleasant and meandering ride. If you’re not in much of a hurry, it can be quite pleasant to putter along. The trikes came with chainguards and fenders but not lights. You never have to get out of the saddle at stops, which is a nice break if you do a lot of stop-and-go riding. Riding posture is bolt upright. Trikes are heavy and can carry a lot of weight, and you don’t really feel that (unless you’re going uphill, in which case you TOTALLY feel it, it’s like dragging an anchor). In a place like Chicago or Copenhagen, I can imagine that a trike could be an appealing option. They can, however, be slow to start at intersections after a full stop. At Clever Cycles they advised that we stand up on the pedals and use our body weight to get them started, and this was good advice.

Both the Nihola and Christiania are tadpole tricycles with two wheels and a cargo box in the front rather than delta tricycles with two wheels in the back. Our kids liked the trikes and couldn’t wait to ride them, but they couldn’t climb into them by themselves. Our son could almost make it into the Christiania trike, but it nearly fell forward from his weight when he tried. This was an unexpected downside of the tricycle experience. We had assumed that trikes were always stable while parked, but they can actually fall forward. After that we lifted both kids in ourselves, placing them toward the back of the cargo box, which was between all three wheels.

The front view from the Nihola

Both the Christiania and Nihola have seats for two children. The Christiania box is wider, with more elbow room. Given our kids’ sizes it was like sharing a love seat and they liked having that space. The Nihola is narrower but has a clear front, which improves the view for riders. There is arguably room for two more kids sitting on the floor in front of the seat, although this would be a very tight squeeze in the Nihola, and would probably lead to kicking and screaming in either trike on a long ride (but no one would take a cargo tricycle on a long ride). Both trikes offer rain canopies with a lot of headroom for kids as well. Having the kids in front is awesome. We have never had such great rides with them as we have with them in front. We could always hear what they’re saying and they could always hear us.

As one might expect, tricycles also need enormous amounts of space when parked, and reversing them involves something like 35-point turns.

Both tricycles are very wide, and as a result we stayed off busy streets with narrow bike lanes or sharrows, opting instead to follow some of Portland’s excellent neighborhood greenways on our trip. No way would I want to ride either trike in city traffic.

Both the Christiania and Nihola have internally geared hubs rather than a derailleur. Weirdly, they both shifted with a significant time lag, although it was more delayed on the Nihola than the Christiania. So we would shift gears, and I don’t know, the trike would think about that for a while? And then several seconds later the gears would change. It was strange and made going up hills (riding a tricycle on a hill of any kind TOTALLY SUCKS) even more unpleasant.

Riding the Christiania in the bike lane means using the entire bike lane.

The steering on the Christiania is bizarre and yet fun. There is a bar across the back of the cargo box and you shove it away from the upcoming turn to corner the bike (push left to go right). It takes a little getting used to at first but is very responsive. It feels kind of liberating to swing the bar from side to side. Whee! The steering on the Nihola uses regular handlebars, which made me realize immediately why the Christiania used the leverage of a wide bar across the box. It was difficult to get the Nihola to turn at all. At one point I took a speed bump a little too fast, rolled away to one side, and couldn’t straighten the trike before ramming into the curb. (Hitting a curb with a wheel isn’t dangerous, but it was annoying.)

The Christiania offers a lot of elbow room.

Overall, the Christiania was bigger and easier to steer, while the Nihola was marginally better on hills and has a neat clear front and thus a better view. However if I were forced to get one, I would pick the Christiania over the Nihola, because I would never take either tricycle anywhere that wasn’t flat anyway. These are very nice tricycles, and I’m delighted we had the chance to try them. For better or for worse, however, we live in a place where they are completely inappropriate, and we are unlikely to ever ride one again.

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Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews, travel

Spotted in Hayes Valley: The Faraday Porteur

New Hayes Valley parklet (not the park built on a closed street)

Although I don’t get much chance to socialize with adults given that we have two little kids, I try to meet my sister every once in a while. The last time, she suggested we meet in Hayes Valley, near Civic Center. I hadn’t been to Hayes Valley in a long time, and it turns out it’s a nice ride over. The entire neighborhood has been shifting in character from a seedy strip off the freeway to a shopping and dining destination. Part of that transition involved closing off a major street to car traffic, and building a park where the cars used to be. It was filled with families, even though Hayes Valley itself is more of a hipster neighborhood, packed with expensive housewares stores, wine shops, and expensive restaurants. It is a fantastic place to hang out, and I was not the only person who thought to ride my bike there: the racks and parking meters were packed.  It was one of the rare summer days in San Francisco that was not foggy and cold, and I pitied the drivers stuck in their cars, fuming as they searched for parking. That used to be me.

The Faraday Porteur

I met my sister at Propellor, which is kind of a hyper-local version of Design Within Reach. Propellor was an odd location to find a bicycle, other than the one I’d locked up outside, but a bicycle there was. It was, in fact, an electric bicycle, the Faraday Porteur, a creation of IDEO/Rock Lobster that was the Oregon Manifest People’s Choice winner. Oregon Manifest was a 2011 competition intended to encourage designers to create the ultimate utility bike. Given that hauling kids was not even a criterion in the Oregon Manifest, it was hard for me to take much of an interest. But although the Faraday reflects the goals of the Manifest rather than of many actual utility cyclists, it is an interesting bike nonetheless.

There are some issues that arise when attempting to market a bike in a modern housewares store. The main one is that the people staffing the store clearly had no idea what they had in their window, other than that it was an electric bike, and then only because it said so on the sign. I had a lot of questions, and they didn’t have a lot of answers. Eventually they found a brochure, and that helped. They are planning to sell the Faraday, which is actually going into production. With luck they’ll have someone in the store who can explain what it actually does by then. I’m interested to see how the whole sales process goes. They’re clearly reaching a market of people who would not normally spend a lot of time in bike stores. What will happen after one of them actually buys a bike is something of a mystery.

Front hub motor, apparently

The Faraday Porteur is clearly an effort to make utility bikes seem cool. I recognized from the front hub that it was an electric bicycle even without seeing the sign, but couldn’t spot the batteries. The brochure revealed that they were packed into the double top tube.  Although I think packing the batteries in the frame is a fantastic idea, I wonder about the choice to put them in a double top tube. You can forget about adding a rear child seat given that frame; you’d roundhouse your kid every time you got on the bike. Putting that much weight in the top tube seems like it would make the bike harder to balance, and my brother-in-law wondered what happened when someone needed to replace the battery. And the whole bike seemed designed for a sporty ride; there’s no way to ride upright on that frame. Maybe it’s meant to appeal to people who would otherwise ride fixies?

Those quibbles aside, there is a lot the Faraday gets right. The frame-mounted front rack comes off and on with one hand, and it is large enough to haul serious cargo. The mount for that rack has two headlights built into it, and the rear of the bike has an integrated taillight. They were very, very sweet. The electric assist (which is a pedal assist, but I got that from the website, not from the confused staff at the store) is beautifully integrated into the bike, looking exactly like a left-hand shifter. It’s not a particularly powerful assist, but for this kind of bike, I doubt it needs to be. And there is no question: this is a very pretty bike.

Pretty, but vague on the details

The Faraday got a lot of attention while we were there, from people who didn’t have my kinds of questions. Theirs were more along the lines of, “When will you have them in stock?” and, “How much will they cost?” The store couldn’t answer those questions either.

In a neighborhood like Hayes Valley, a bike built to carry a case of beer easily, rather than a kid, is right on target. The Faraday, which takes the brutality out of climbing the city’s hills and makes it possible to haul everything a single person could need,  was clearly making riding a bike seem practical to people who would never consider it otherwise. I hope they sell thousands of them, and that the next time I’m in Hayes Valley, I see them everywhere.

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

Book review: Traffic; why we drive the way we do

This is a street designed for traffic.

I recently started reading paper books again, the kind found at the neighborhood library, rather than scanning the digital library and downloading books without having to leave the relative comfort of home. The paper library is still substantially more diverse than the digital library, with a much broader selection of non-fiction in particular, although admittedly it appears to offer less in the realm of evangelical romance novels (which are surprisingly difficult to identify based solely on title and cover art; this is why now I only download books that have gotten a good review somewhere, sometime).

Even though we rarely drive, it still really ticks me off that drivers park their cars right in our driveway, like, daily. Drivers who are really committed can even block the bikes.

While in this less ephemeral realm I picked up a copy of Tom Vanderbilt’s Traffic, which is one of the most fascinating books I’ve read in quite a while. For a long time I have accepted that getting on an airplane is the psychological equivalent of locking myself into a small prison cell, and I have prepared myself for flights accordingly. I drive more frequently than I fly (every week or so rather than every few months) but I hadn’t really thought before about how putting myself in a car is somewhat equivalent. I also only recently learned that cyclists call drivers “cagers,” which has a certain dark accuracy.

Riding a bike means never being stuck in traffic.

Vanderbilt discusses the many illusions of driving, including the expectation that early merging is more efficient than late merging, and the efforts of traffic engineers to reprogram people who resent late mergers and create traffic jams to force them out of merged lanes (I used to be one of these people). Even more fascinating was the illusion of queuing in traffic, where whichever lane you pick appears to be moving more slowly than all of the others. Ultimately, it turns out that they’re all moving at the same speed, but because everyone ends up waiting far longer than they end up passing—that’s what makes it heavy traffic—no one perceives the underlying equity.

This made me realize that one of the pleasures of cycling is never having to queue except at stop lights. Speaking as someone who cycled in Copenhagen, where bicycle traffic is thick, I can testify that this benefit is not an artifact of only having few riders on the road. Part of this is undoubtedly another counter-intuitive discovery by those who study traffic: slower speeds lead to faster movement; below certain speeds, there are no traffic jams. The rest is just inherent.

This is a street designed for people. Drivers complain that parklets are “too close to the road.”

It was particularly terrifying to read about just how awful most drivers are, which is something you can often ignore in the car because you’re busy being an awful driver yourself: trying to settle down kids, program acceptable music, talk to passengers, talk on the phone, or worse yet text. But I definitely notice it as a cyclist and pedestrian. Given that there is no feedback that all the dangerous things drivers do are dangerous until they actually hit something, why wouldn’t most drivers believe they’re doing a good job? Even when they do hit something, the fact that it doesn’t happen every day makes people believe the non-collision days are more meaningful. And my friends who work at power companies tell me that even people who hit utility poles argue that the pole was at fault (“It was too close to the curb!” or if seriously drunk, “The pole was in the road.”)

My husband is not a MAMIL

It was painfully familiar to read Vanderbilt’s discussion of how women end up creating and suffering in the worst traffic because of what is referred to as “serve passenger” driving. Taking the kids to school, picking up dry cleaning, doing the grocery shopping: these trips involve the most traffic—school pickup and dropoff zones are particularly notorious—because everyone needs to do them at the same time, and they are the least compatible with ride-sharing. And that’s before even mentioning parking. This is why there are dark jokes about the kinds of hardcore cyclists (Middle-Aged Men In Lycra, or MAMILs) who are able to commute the way they enjoy because their wives are doing all of the errands by car.

Doing errands by bike means never having to look for parking.

Although my husband handles his own dry cleaning and many other household tasks, he does far more business travel than I do, and when he’s away I do almost everything alone. This is part of the reason we’re in the market for a new family bike, and it’s part of the reason I get so annoyed that the market for bikes like these is so thin. I think there are more models of Trek Madone alone than there are family bikes of any brand. (I only recently learned that the Madone is a model of racing bike made by Trek that costs like $5k, and there are apparently a million versions, all of which sell like Big Gulps.)

My son will grow up riding his bicycle for transportation just like I did.

In my personal experience, when I transitioned to commuting primarily by bike I actually saved time, not to mention frustration, because I avoided so much traffic en route. In addition, as a working parent there is almost no other time to exercise. But it’s not possible to do these kinds of errands—picking up two kids at two different schools, etc., with a mountain bike or even a so-called commuter bike. You need something that can haul non-traditional cargo, like cartons of milk, kids themselves, and whatever fragile and emotionally significant popsicle-stick-and-cotton-ball art projects that they want to bring home unscathed.

At the end of this book, I understood why Vanderbilt apparently transitioned to riding a bicycle and public transit. I would have done the same thing if I hadn’t already. Public transit is unequivocally safer and the majority of research suggests cycling is as well (although people find this difficult to believe, or at least “not where I live!”–urban people insist they’d ride if they lived in the country where there’s less traffic, rural people insist they’d ride if they lived in the city where there are bike lanes, etc.) And either option is dramatically less grueling than driving.

When I was first hired at my university I went to a talk for junior faculty by a senior professor (who later won a Nobel Prize) about how to balance work and family. Although many of the things she did were not possible for me (e.g. having her first child at age 45—too late already!) her strongest advice was, “Kill your commute.” Do whatever it took to move close enough to work and school that almost all your time was spent doing something you valued (research, patient care, spending time with kids) rather than something you didn’t (driving, or more likely, sitting in traffic). And we took that advice. We moved from a large house in the suburbs to a small apartment in San Francisco that cost over 50% more per month, and my husband, after a long stint of unemployment and underemployment, found a new job within city limits. We slogged through the San Francisco public school lottery. (And we did all this before we had bikes. Between the hills of San Francisco and the absence of family bikes nationwide, cycling wasn’t an ambition for us at the time.) It was a long road, but our lives are infinitely better for it.

Streets can change. People can change.

Most people wouldn’t have to move and sell a car and change their jobs and their kids’ (pre)schools to change their commutes, as we did. And some of the best changes, which involve transforming streets themselves, are not individual decisions but collective decisions: removing parking, adding bike lanes, creating parklets, developing bike share programs, lowering speed limits, and narrowing roads. But having seen the result of changes like these, in our own lives in San Francisco and after visiting cities like Copenhagen and even Paris that have implemented them, those changes are most assuredly worth it. They scale cities back down to human size. Calming streets is really calming people. It takes the stress out of living.

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Filed under advocacy, cargo, commuting, Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

I didn’t kill the Breezer (phew), but even so

I had to walk the Breezer to the shop with my daughter in the backpack and the rear wheel seized up. It was exhausting.

So the good news is that I didn’t kill the internal hub on the Breezer. The bad news is that I have apparently been, entirely unintentionally, straining the bike well beyond its limits with the loads I’ve put on it. Our bike shop was concerned that the frame wasn’t meant to take that kind of weight and would eventually break. I have learned that this actually happens sometimes. Yeah. Oops. At a minimum they were sure I’d kill the hub eventually. The Breezer is a great commuter bike, but it has limits.

Here is the sobering summary from my brother-in-law: “You realize you carry more on your bikes sometimes than would fit in a SmartCar, right? I was just thinking yesterday that while you are not at all aggro, you may be the most aggressive cyclist I know in terms of what you are willing to try with your bike (you make full face mask downhillers look like wusses).”

He has obviously never met the mom who carries six kids and the shopping, and who makes my typical load look like a grocery bag full of paper towels. Admittedly she’s riding a bike designed for that.

My poor Breezer, asked to carry loads it was never meant to bear.

Anyway, there was, shall we say, strong advocacy from both our bike shop and family members that I should get a real cargo bike and stop trying to force my Franken-bike to do things it was never designed to do. Matt expressed similar concerns when he called from China. It is something that I had begun to suspect already, as I was trying to flag a cab in the Tenderloin and wondering whether I’d ever be able to ride the Breezer again.

Having proven that I’m up for riding fully-loaded through the seasons even on what is evidently a wholly inadequate bike, I am willing to consider bikes that are much more expensive than I would have a year ago as a primary bike. Also I learned what people pay for mountain and road bikes used only for entertainment value, which: whoa. For reasons of structural stability, I have been encouraged to learn to love the top tube. I’m also sure I want an electric assist.

Wanted: a cargo bike that can handle both hills and sand dunes

So we are now in the market for a new cargo bike. I’m not at all sure what kind. I was putting off another bike until finding out whether I’ll get the new position my department recommended, which is equivalent to my current position but with much more job security. At the last check-in, my department chair was optimistic that the university would offer a verdict “maybe even as soon as 2013.” Given that timeline and the fact that I thought the Breezer would carry two on child seat+trailer-bike for years to come, I wasn’t exactly scouring the market for its replacement. But circumstances conspire.

Two kids, now aged 3 and 6.5, too much traffic for them to commute solo, serious hills, a not-very-wide basement door (fortunately walk-in) and many pinch points and narrow bike lanes are the main issues we deal with when riding our bikes in San Francisco. I welcome any suggestions for bikes that could handle the challenge. Long, narrow, and assisted was one person’s summary of the best bike for me, and I suspect that’s right on.

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Filed under Breezer, cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

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

Upgrading the Breezer Uptown 8

That’s right, my Breezer didn’t have enough stuff hanging off it yet. I needed more.

One day when we were visiting our local bike shop, Everybody Bikes, I was complaining that it was getting increasingly difficult to get up hills as our kids gained weight every month. My Breezer Uptown 8 handles hills well with reasonable loads (like a single rider and a preschooler) but it was getting to be a slog with a 6.5 year old on the back. The shop owner suggested I gear the bike down. But it has an internal hub, I said. Oh, you can still change out the rear cog for a larger one, he said, and that would give you the equivalent of two extra low gears (at the cost of losing the two highest gears, which I never used: whatever). The cost? About $20. Whoa. Sign me up!

What’s more, the brakes were getting soft, again. This issue seems to crop up every couple of months. The Breezer’s brakes aren’t as bad as the original brakes on the Kona MinUte, but San Francisco does seem to eat through bicycle stopping power.

My new front basket, the Soma Gamoh.

I also wanted to be able to carry more cargo on the bike. They suggested a front basket. Putting one on would require rewiring the front dynamo light, but they could do that with some time.

And my kids wanted a cargo kickstand. They hated my little stock one-legged kickstand; they thought it was too wobbly, which was true. And that would argue for a front wheel stabilizer, for basically the same reason.

At last, a kickstand that is not pathetic.

Finally, we wanted to attach the custom rear rack for our new trailer-bike. And that meant rewiring the rear dynamo light, which attached to the stock rack.

This had all turned into a kind of major project, but upon reflection it seemed worth it. Two weeks ago the Breezer went into the shop for all these changes at once. For much of last week I came back for tweaks (the front light stopped working, then started again, the kickstand wasn’t in, then it came in, we had to fit the adjustable trailer-bike handlebars to our son, ad infinitum). Now the Breezer is back in action, and while some of the modifications are a bit kludgy—there was no pretty way to attach a stabilizer on my big fat down tube, and a trailer-bike always looks ad hoc—they all make the bike work better. The gearing change alone would have been worth it.

This is the Frankenstein of wheel stabilizers, but it gets the job done. Anyway no one has ever waxed rhapsodic about the Breezer’s clean lines.

Lowering the gears turned out to be the cheapest adjustment I have ever made to my bike, and the most practical. The rear cog original to the Breezer has 18 teeth, while my new rear cog has 22 teeth. It didn’t seem to me like four teeth would make a difference, but ignorance like that is why I don’t work at a bike shop. It makes a massive difference. I have had to completely relearn my gears, but the un-laden Breezer now cruises up serious hills like they’re barely there, and that’s without my first gear making much of an appearance—I’m almost always able to keep the granny gear in reserve. Laden up with a kid on the back or the trailer-bike (a bonus 30 pounds) or a heavy bag in the front basket, going up hills is significantly more challenging, so no worries: this bike will still keep me honest.

The new fork-mount for the headlight is unlovely but very effective.

The dynamo lights had to be rearranged to fit around the front rack, but this has actually increased my visibility. And the front cargo rack, a Soma Gamoh, is large enough to hold two grocery bags. It’s not frame-mounted, but it can take a lot of weight with the fork-mount. Combined with my two panniers I doubt that I’ll ever have to shuttle home after a grocery run again, especially now that the bike is geared to take the extra weight up hills. And the improved brakes will now stop me on the way back down.

Because I’m ignorant, I’d never realized it was possible to make these kinds of changes to a bike. Apparently some bikes aren’t worth upgrading, and last week I overheard a conversation with another customer in which our shop told him exactly that. Nevertheless: I used to get frustrated by the limitations of our bikes. Now I don’t bother getting annoyed until I’ve asked whether it’s something that can be changed.  It’s been enlightening for me to realize that having a local bike shop hanging with us through the last several months means that we can often remake our bikes into the rides that we need them to be.

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Filed under bike shops, Breezer, cargo, commuting, family biking, San Francisco