Category Archives: destinations

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

Return to Seattle: Snow day!

A couple of weeks ago I took a quick trip up to Seattle. I was technically there to present a poster, but given that it was an evening session, I got to sneak in lunch with my mom and some time with Family Ride before getting back on a plane the next day.

The conference was massive, but I learned enough from the discussants who stopped by that my poster was outdated by the time my session finished, which I count as a huge success, because (a) I learned something and (b) I didn’t have to carry the poster home. Win-win!

This is what winter looks like in Northern California.

This is what winter looks like in Northern California.

Madi had offered to bring me a bike, which was awesome in principle but seemed scary in practice, mostly because I am such a wimp about being cold and it was freezing in Seattle. Like: the temperatures were below freezing. Yeargh, are you kidding me? But after she towed a spare bike over on her iconic Big Dummy I couldn’t really skip the chance to take a ride. Also it would have been embarrassing to wimp out. Luckily I had thought to insulate myself to Michelin Man proportions, so it wasn’t nearly as bad as I had feared. We rode down to the Washington Bikes Bike Love party, where I had occasion to remember that there are lots of people who ride bicycles without children perched on them. Their bikes looked fast.

And then we rode back to the hotel and while we were riding IT SNOWED. I RODE IN THE SNOW. It was, by riding in snow standards, totally pathetic, a few flakes rather than the mega-dump that hit Seattle just a couple of days later. But I suspect that I’ll never have occasion to ride in any kind of snow ever again, so this will have to do. Snow is pretty.

I plan to use this experience to build up all kinds of cold weather cred back here in San Francisco. Our local bike shop owner complains that half his customer base won’t even ride in the fog, which in this neighborhood means that they’re using alternative forms of transportation something like 350 days of the year. I ride in both fog and snow, because I am hardcore like that.

An infinite series of air kisses go to Madi, the best host in all of Seattle, for making me look so much tougher than I actually am, and to Jen at Loop Frame Love for reminding me that grudgingly riding in snow in Seattle is still the epitome of cool in California. I couldn’t have asked for better company. This was a very short trip, but I’ll be back. I’m taking the kids to see their grandmother for their spring break in the first week of April while their dad is in Australia. And I’ll be back for yet another conference, without the kids, from April 17-20. (This is a ridiculous number of trips to take to one city in three months, but I promised my mom I would visit her before my next surgery, applied to multiple conferences in Seattle to make sure that I could deliver, and then had papers accepted at all of them.)

Look out, Seattle family bikers: I know how to ride in snow. Now nothing can stop me from visiting the already-famous G&O Family Cyclery.

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Santacon and an Urban Arrow

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown's Ross Alley

Scoring fortune cookies in Chinatown’s Ross Alley

Our kids get the same present every birthday: an “All About Me” day, where they get to pick exactly what we do all day (within reason—we had to veto any activity that involves a plane flight).  Typically that ends up involving a lot of visits to places like ice cream shops, but they’re getting more creative over time. Our son recently turned 8, and last Saturday was his day. He wanted to go to Chinatown to visit the fortune cookie factory, to the Ferry Building for lunch and chocolates, and to spend the evening at Acrosports on the trampolines. No problem, kiddo.

The weekends before Christmas are always a challenging time to get around San Francisco, as there is a huge influx of shopping traffic. Something that never, ever gets old about commuting by bicycle: never having to care about how many other people are headed to the same place we’re going. So it didn’t matter that much that we’d forgotten that December 14th was also Santacon. We only realized when we’d gotten most of the way downtown and started seeing Santas drifting out onto the streets, even around 9am, which is an impressively early start for people who are planning to be up all night drinking.

So we went to Chinatown and the fortune cookie factory, which was far more interesting for our kids than I would have guessed. Probably the endless handouts of flat fortune cookies that were too stiff to fold didn’t hurt. Walking through Chinatown is a trip, because it is not that big and so packed with people that it is difficult to stay on the sidewalk, and yet we were, as usual, the only white people visible in any direction, not to mention the only people speaking English. A few blocks over, we crossed the street and presto—North Beach, and the signs in the windows were suddenly in the Roman alphabet and said things like “Sicilian salami” and “Espresso.” Our son wanted to top off his post-breakfast fortune cookie snack with a pre-lunch cannoli, so, okay, fine, there is no shortage of Italian bakeries in North Beach. From there we threaded back to Matt’s office for a bathroom break (carefully navigating around the North Beach strip clubs) and to lunch (and more dessert) at the Ferry Building. The Ferry Building was even more packed than Chinatown.

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

A very California Christmas season at the Embarcadero playground

After a post-lunch stop at the Sue Bierman Park children’s playground, we packed up and headed home over Nob Hill. Where we found: Santacon, in force. After lunch the Santas were all up and ready to party, and for much of our trip the sidewalks and streets were filled with them. I heard later from people who attempted to drive downtown on Saturday that the streets were immobilized for cars. A few blocks of this and my son asked, “So do Santas really like bars?” And I said, “These ones do.” There were Santas filling the streets all the way into Japantown and the Western Addition. They liked our bike.

Our new neighbors' new holiday display

Our new neighbors’ new holiday display

On the way back home we stopped by our new condo to see our new neighbors’ Christmas display, which rivals their awe-inspiring Halloween display. And right as we stopped, a woman next door to them wheeled out: AN URBAN ARROW! OMFG! The Urban Arrow I spotted at the Golden Gate Park tree lighting belongs to a family five doors over from our new home!

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

The other new neighbors and their Urban Arrow

Based on what the mom told me, it could well the only Urban Arrow in the entire Bay Area. Apparently Rolling Orange in New York, the only US importer, gets only a dozen of these bikes each year, and most of them are pre-sold well in advance of their arrival. When our neighbors started looking for theirs there was only one bike in the shipment not already pre-sold, and they bought it. First impressions: no question, that bike is really, really big. It makes our Bullitt look like a Brompton. And the kids’ box is tricked out like an airport lounge. The neighbors have three kids, and that morning they also had things to do, so I couldn’t quiz the mom as mercilessly as I would have liked about her bike but I consoled myself: in a few months, we’ll be seeing them almost every day. Then on Sunday I learned that some of our other neighbors bought a Bullitt. We’re moving to the street of box bikes, whoo hoo!

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Western Addition Sunday Streets 2013

Looking down at City Hall from Alamo Square--Postcard Row is hidden behind the tree on the right.

Looking down at City Hall from Alamo Square–Postcard Row is hidden behind the tree on the right.

We went back to Western Addition Sunday Streets yesterday, mostly, I will admit, so that we could eat pie. Unfortunately for me, my camera was acting up, so here is a list of bikes I photographed but that my camera ate:

(1)    A Zigo (a stroller attachment bike-trike thingy that never hit our radar because my brother-in-law threatened to break into our garage and throw it into Stow Lake if we ever seriously considered buying one)

(2)    A red Bike Friday triple tandem, ridden by a dad and two daughters—ARGH! It was so awesome, I swear.

(3)    A Bay Area Bike Share bike whizzing down the hill from Alamo Square. At least that image would be easy to replicate.

Instead I had to settle for panda shots and some other oddities.

In words of my husband: "Look! It's gimpy on her death machine." Thank you very much.

In words of my husband: “Look! It’s Gimpy on her death machine.” Thank you very much.

Western Addition Sunday Streets is a bit quieter than Mission Sunday Streets. Overall it’s on less commercial streets, although I’m sure that the big hill up and down from Alamo Square helps keep the crowds down too. My leg is still way less than 100% so I didn’t ride the whole route this year, just the western approach and downhill for one block on the eastern side. Then we turned around and headed back. And from there we went to pick up some yogurt (returning the deposit glass jar, natch). I’m not usually a Sunday shopper but evidently all our neighbors are. Hi neighbors!

What's not to like about family bikes?

What’s not to like about family bikes?

Although I didn’t get to keep my photos of the most impressive family bike rigs (curse that camera) there were a lot of traditional family bikes out. Bikes with trailer-bikes, bikes with child seat—all the usual stuff that I tend not to post very often, but that I like seeing, especially en masse. It’s nice to feel like we’re not completely alone out there.

This assisted elliptical bike-thingy was new to me.

This assisted elliptical bike-thingy was new to me.

Per usual, the Bullitt got more than its fair share of attention. It can be weird to be out with it, because the novelty of our bike makes people massively curious even on a day that things aren’t going well. We are not always the role models we would like to be. Luckily for us San Francisco parents seem to be buying Bullitts, so with luck there will be less pressure as time goes on.

First aid by bicycle

First aid by bicycle

Sunday Streets in the Western Addition is not quite as car-free as it is in some other locations. We were stopped by go-carts escorting local drivers occasionally, and some church traffic drove out of a parking lot last year—that was really distressing, because there were little kids playing in the street, which is sort of the point of Sunday Streets. However I was impressed to see that the official presence is more and more in the spirit of the event, including these bicycle-riding EMTs. Nice!

Pie is a good enough reason to hit the streets.

Pie is a good enough reason to hit the streets.

Still coming up this year: Sunday Streets in the Excelsior on September 29th (which is likely to be too much of a haul for us, or at least, for me), and the inaugural Sunday Streets in the Richmond on October 27th which will be linked with the normal Golden Gate Park street closures (wouldn’t miss it for the world!) Richmond Sunday Streets will run along Clement Street. Mmm, dim sum.

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Filed under bike share, Bullitt, destinations, family biking, rides, San Francisco

These are the ways we ride to school, continued

EdgeRunner, Mundos, trailers, trailer-bikes

Rosa Parks parents rolling in: EdgeRunner, Mundos, Boda Boda, trailer, trailer-bikes

Last year I wrote about some of the bikes we saw at school drop-off. We have a new bike to take our kids to school (the Bullitt) but the big news for us this year was the group of new kindergarten parents on bikes. They outnumber all the rest of us put together. When we were first assigned to Rosa Parks in 2010 I never would have guessed that these families would be coming two years later.

This year’s kindergarten parents came riding multiple Yuba Mundos, and at least two of them are assisted (it’s still San Francisco). There is a bike with a trailer, a real rarity in San Francisco. There are a couple of bikes with trailer-bikes for kids, and an eBoda Boda. And joining them in 2013 is a brand new assisted Xtracycle EdgeRunner.

At the kindergarten end of the yard it's bike-central

At the kindergarten end of the yard it’s bike-central

I catch these parents sometimes when I’m riding up Webster from the south, and we make a little bike convoy. On occasion my son has reached over to the deck to zip up another kid’s open backpack while we talk. Parents and teachers in cars wave to us at stop lights, and we wave to families walking to school from the bus stop.

Bikes with yellow jackets

Bikes with yellow jackets

The kindergarten parents are such a cohesive crew that I am seriously considering replacing my beat-up, broken-zippered windbreaker with one of the day-glo yellow ones that they all seem to wear so that I can look like part of their posse. And historically I have not been a fan of day-glo yellow.

Hey, Boda Boda.

Hey, Boda Boda.

After drop-off I sometimes ride with another family whose route to preschool mirrors my route to work. On the rare occasions that I leave our son and head out before school starts, I have spotted Rosa Parks families coming down Post Street in the opposite direction as they head to school.

Some of the families with older kids are in transition. The third and fourth graders are moving to their own bikes, or sometimes a kid’s bike hitched to a parent’s bike with a TrailGator (there is still a lot of traffic in the city). Our son’s love of the Bullitt’s rain cover has temporarily postponed his desire to ride his own bike, at least while it’s cold and rainy, but I’m sure this will change as he sees more and more kids riding on their own.

Rain? What rain?

Rain? What rain?

Riding our kids to school on our bikes is still not typical, but at Rosa Parks it’s not exceptional either. The neighborhood infrastructure for bikes isn’t more than a bit of paint, but evidently this is enough. There are traditional bike lanes and sharrows on some of the streets near school, and drivers are used to looking out for bikes. Every morning there is a row of them parked along the fence at drop-off, in addition to the bikes like ours left at the actual racks.

All aboard!

All aboard!

I remember reading about families with in other cities with neighborhood schools that organized regular walks and rides to school and thinking, at the time, how unrealistic it seemed for San Francisco, with its citywide school lottery. I was sure that it would never happen here, with families coming from all directions and every neighborhood. But who really knows what creates enough critical mass to form a bike community? I was wrong. And I couldn’t be happier.

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Filed under destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Xtracycle, Yuba Boda Boda, Yuba Mundo

A weekend in the country

We stopped at Sonoma Train Town en route. Even the kids had a moment of disconnect about driving to the train.

We stopped at Sonoma Train Town en route. Even the kids had a moment of disconnect about driving to the train.

Last weekend we went to visit cousins in Santa Rosa while Matt and our son attended a martial arts tournament. It’s been a while since we left the city and it’s always interesting. All of our cousins shun life in the city, choosing instead to live in homes that range from exurban to aggressively rural. These particular cousins live way, way out in the country, which is a good fit for their interest in activities like developing their own orchard, building a deck larger than our entire living space (with integrated bocce court), keeping goats, and collecting rural-type things that I can’t identify and that must be explained to me. In turn, they stare in disbelief at the news that we no longer own a car. We like them very much.

However it is an unbelievable haul to get to their place. We rented a car, as they are nowhere near any kind of transit (when I asked for a transit route on Google maps the final step after four hours of proposed bus rides was: take a taxi for the last 20 miles) and riding a bike would be about a 12 hour trip each way in the unlikely event that the kids didn’t melt down, which they totally would.

We loved the quiet at their house, which sent us all packing to bed before 10pm. Our current place is great in many ways, but now that we are going to have to move anyway, we have been thinking a lot about what we want in a new place to live, and the main thing is quiet (although we are also looking for a neighborhood that does not have the word “mountain” or “heights” in its name). Our old apartment was in the back of its building and the only noise we ever heard was an occasional fog horn.  Now we live right on a street with five bus lines running down it, and we are next to the hospital, and all day and all night we hear the howling of ambulances and the WOOSH of bus air brakes and everyone gunning their engines to get up the steep hill and cars whizzing back down. I don’t even want to talk about the neighbors with the gongs. Surely they have a special place in hell reserved for them already. Anyway, we loved the quiet up there.

The entertainment value of dressing up in sparring props lasted less than an hour.

The entertainment value of dressing up in sparring props lasted less than an hour.

We didn’t love the time we had to spend in the car. It seemed like a 40 minute drive to get from any place in Santa Rosa to any other place (cousins’ house to martial arts tournament, martial arts tournament to farmers market for our daughter who rapidly lost patience with the competition, martial arts tournament to lunch, etc.) There are a lot of bikes in Santa Rosa, which is beautiful, sunny, and incredibly flat. But the distances seemed daunting. The riders who commuted despite them impressed me. One stopped by the side of our rental car (which was emblazoned with the City CarShare logo), very excited, to ask where we’d picked it up. When I told her we had come from San Francisco she was crushed. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “I wish they’d come up here!”

I like Santa Rosa, but we are used to living in the city, and it seemed empty to me (although the novelty of being able to park everywhere we took a car was amusing). Even the farmers market seemed small, as well as more crafts-oriented than food-oriented, which surprised me given that it’s an agricultural area. There was also a new-to-us hostility to organic food there. All of the market vendors were happy to report that they did not use pesticides and discuss their farming methods, but the Ron Paul yard signs and “Live free or die!” ethos apparently meant that getting certified by the government as organic was not high on their to-do list.

When we came home we were all sore from sitting for so long. I got on the bike to pick up some cheese and crackers and hummus (in our own glass jars, more to come on this topic), just to get moving again. Our local cheese shop is definitely not the kind of place to try to visit by car, as even when I’m on the bike I have to dodge double-parked cars all the way.  But there’s always bike parking right by the front door. It’s so cold in the city in February that my fingers always freeze, even under two pairs of gloves, but it’s still a pleasure to ride again, every time I go out.

We were happy to return to San Francisco, but we’ll be back to visit again. It was nice to get a good night’s sleep.

[Last but not least: Thank you, internet! We'd been asking JCCSF to install new bike racks for months, and were being blown off as recently as Tuesday. After Wednesday's post, I got an email that evening saying that they'll be installing 6 new custom bike racks that will hold 12 bikes. In addition, they're going to try letting parents have keycode access to a locked courtyard with an additional bike rack for preschool and after school drop-offs and pickups. We are thrilled! I know that some readers wrote to to JCCSF on our behalf and it is very much appreciated.]

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Bicycles in New York

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt's company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt’s company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

Matt spent last week in New York. While he was there, he remembered that what I always want is pictures of bicycles in new places.  There has been lots of discussion of New York City’s commitment to creating major-league cycling infrastructure. From Matt’s admittedly very short-term visitor’s perspective, they’ve been successful.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

When we went to Copenhagen in 2011, we had no idea that it was one of the bicycling capitals of the world. Probably the only reason we even bothered to get on bikes at all was that bike rentals were advertised on literally every corner. And what a life-changer that turned out to be. To rent our bikes all we had to do was cross the street to the shop directly in front of our apartment and ask. We delayed even that for a while because we assumed they wouldn’t be able to put child seats on our bikes, which was silly in retrospect. We could have spared ourselves days of tedious walking just by asking. New York has enough of a cycling culture now that bike rentals were everywhere too. Alas, no bike share yet.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

San Francisco has a separated cycle track in Golden Gate Park, but it’s not protected from cars by anything but paint. Neighbors also objected to painting the bike lane green to differentiate it from parking, claiming that it would look too obtrusive (in a park!) I like the lanes in the park anyway, but the protected lanes on Broadway in NYC make them look pathetic.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

I rode to downtown San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It took less than 20 minutes door to door in the middle of Christmas shopping season, and I parked right in front of the building in the middle of Union Square. Ha ha! I made excellent time in part because for several blocks I was able to ride through intersections where right turns were signed as mandatory for everyone except buses, bicycles, and commercial vehicles. New York has evidently made the same decision to prioritize cycle traffic in the middle of town.

A "Do not enter" sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A “Do not enter” sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A different sign Matt found I’ve never seen in San Francisco: the “Bicycle Wrong Way” sign. I have some doubts about whether anyone pays the slightest attention to it, as I suspect no one here would. But it’s nice to be recognized as traffic, even if it is a don’t-go-here signal.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Some things are the same in both New York and San Francisco, however. Bike theft is rampant both places. New Yorkers, I’m sorry to say that not even a hardened chain will protect your bike from a guy with an angle grinder. We learned that the hard way.

New York City: it’s no São Paulo. It looks like a good place to ride a bike. I hope we get to try it sometime.

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San Francisco destinations: The New Wheel

This is actually quite an accurate depiction of what it’s like to ride an electric-assist bicycle in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, we checked out a new bike shop in San Francisco, The New Wheel. The New Wheel is marketing itself to a particular niche in San Francisco, and I suspect they will be successful. They sell only electric pedal-assist bicycles.

For this trip I rounded up two other families from our daughter’s preschool to keep us company and so I could get the opinions of people who’d never ridden electric-assist bikes before. Preschool was the obvious place to recruit other families interested in electric-assist bikes; as Matt puts it, the building “looks down on us like a Tibetan monastery.” From asking around, we knew that other biking parents (okay, dads) had tried to haul kids up that hill in trailers and on bikes. Like us, they’d given up after a couple of tries.

Electric-assist bikes: interesting!

Cyclists in San Francisco do not give up easily. There is no avoiding the hills in this city, and there are a few intrepid riders who climb preschool hill every day solo. But not pulling a trailer, which one dad reported actually dragged him back down the hill while he was attempting to pedal up. I have discussed before the reasons that parents in the city don’t typically ride with trailers (can’t be seen in traffic, don’t fit in bike lanes): that’s another. Let’s not even discuss what it would be like back going down that same hill. In summary it would be fair to say that there is intense interest in electric-assist bikes in our preschool community.

So we all headed to The New Wheel one Sunday. It was fascinating. In a lot of ways, The New Wheel is not yet our kind of shop. Although they are interested in the family market, they are most strongly focused right now on pedal-assist bikes for commuters. They can attach a child seat or a trailer or a Burley Piccolo to their bikes, but they don’t offer cargo bikes. It turns out that there is a reason for this.

These are the kinds of bikes they sell.

What I learned from the owners at The New Wheel is that there is a wide range of reliability in electric assists for bicycles, and particularly in batteries. As they are focused not just on selling equipment but maintaining it, there is a very short list of systems that they felt were worth selling: BionX and Panasonic. BionX motors sit in the rear hub and respond to torque on the pedals; the harder you push, the more help you get. I’ve written about riding with the BionX before. The mid-drive motors attach to the chain, and add power throughout the gear range. These are stronger motors, but they are significantly more expensive and they work best when riders maintain a steady cadence. After trying one, I can attest that doing that involves a learning curve.

For the time being, this is the only kind of family bike that The New Wheel is selling.

Because they are very interested in the family market they had considered stocking the Yuba elMundo, which comes with the eZee assist. However they found that customers had so much trouble with eZee motors and batteries, which evidently have a nasty habit of cutting out in the middle of the hills where people need them most, that they are negotiating with Yuba to develop and sell a BionX-assisted Mundo instead. The trade-off for increased reliability, of course, is a higher price.

Having this discussion with them made it pretty clear that for our needs, a BionX system is probably our best choice. After-market mid-drive motors, although they themselves are great, evidently have some of the same battery issues that other systems do, namely that there are not many consistently good ones, and no one is currently making cargo bikes with the integrated Panasonic assists. So it would seem that BionX is the most reliable option for cargo bikes, unless you know a lot about batteries or get lucky.

All these bikes have the motor integrated into the design; the mid drive motors are placed inside a massive chain guard.

All of the bikes The New Wheel sells are built as electric-assist bicycles from the ground up, and they all come with integrated BionX motors (e.g. the Ohm line) or integrated Panasonic mid-drive motors (the German bikes). They felt both of these systems worked well on steep hills. The mid-drive motors were more useful for weaker riders. One of their customers, an older woman with a recent hip replacement, was using one of their mid-drive motor-assisted bikes to commute up to the top of the Berkeley hills every day. That is an extremely long and unforgiving grade.

Having already tried a BionX-assisted bike in Portland, I went out for a test ride with one of the preschool dads, Paul, on a mid-drive bike. He took an Ohm with a BionX assist. I was very curious about how it would feel to ride with the more powerful mid-drive motor. The New Wheel is conveniently located in Bernal Heights, next to some brutally steep slopes. After taking some time to figure out how our respective assists worked, we rode up and down the hills for a while. It was such a hoot!

When I rode with a BionX, I liked that it felt seamless with the pedaling and was almost completely silent. Other than feeling like I’d grown massively stronger, I barely noticed the BionX was there.

I rode the extremely girly “Emotion” bike. I’m not particularly proud, but this kind of marketing leaves something to be desired. Bad manufacturer; no cookie!

The mid-drive motor was different. It makes a slight rattling sound as the chain runs through the motor, which I found kind of annoying. It was hard to tell that it was more powerful, because the assist felt so subtle. I suspect for riders who are already used to going up hills, there may be less difference between the two systems until the cargo load gets quite substantial. And it was hard for me to maintain a steady cadence and pressure instead of reacting to the hill by gearing down and pushing harder, which meant that I wasn’t getting the greatest benefit from the system. As a result, Paul consistently passed me on the way uphill even though I had a stronger motor.

So although I liked riding up hills with the mid-drive motor, especially hills that I could barely move on by myself (I tried turning the assist off halfway up the hill a couple of times; it was unspeakably brutal), I didn’t like it any better than riding a BionX-assisted bike. Yet I suspect that I would feel very differently about these two systems if I were a novice rider. The owners of The New Wheel said that in fact they steer experienced riders to the BionX-assisted bikes like the Ohms, and novice riders to the mid-drives. I suspect that’s because if you have practice going up hills already, you’d have to relearn how to ride effectively with the mid-drive motors. Basically you have to convince yourself that neither the motor nor the hill is there, and just pedal blissfully on. In contrast, if you’re getting an electric bike in order to start riding a bike again, you don’t have to unlearn any existing hill-climbing habits. This information, by itself, was worth a trip to The New Wheel.

My son’s desire for this bike has not waned in the slightest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that The New Wheel is really, truly committed to family biking, even if they don’t yet stock any real family-hauling bikes. The proof was in their children’s bikes, which were the nicest I have ever seen. The preschoolers could not stop riding their gorgeous balance bikes. Our son test-rode a beautiful 20” Torker (not listed on their website) and has been begging us ever since to trade in his Jamis for this bike. He is willing to put his entire saved allowance to the cause. This was, however, not even the nicest bike available; they do not currently stock, but they do sell, a German bike for kids that comes with an internally geared hub, dynamo lights, fenders, a double-kickstand, and a chain guard. They said they didn’t stock it because they assumed that no one would be willing spend that much money on a kid’s bike. I only wish The New Wheel had been in business when we bought our son’s bike last Christmas. It would have spared us a trip across the bay and he’d be on a better bike right now. At any rate, if you are looking for a child’s bike, I have never seen a higher-quality collection. And they also have very nice children’s helmets, and they know how to fit them, too.

The New Wheel: stop by and check it out!

If I were in the market for an electric-assist commuter bike to handle the steepest San Francisco hills, I would start at The New Wheel. It is a great shop with incredibly nice owners and they are impressively informed about electric assists. We will almost certainly return when it is time to buy another kid’s bike. My only regret is that they do not yet sell family-hauling cargo bikes that can handle steep hills. For that, you still have to go to Portland.

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Filed under bike shops, destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Yuba Mundo

Riding to the Bicycle Music Festival

The Bicycle Music Festival at Log Cabin Meadow

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

Pedal!

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

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

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

Haven’t we seen you somewhere before?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Sunday Streets with Loop-Frame Love

People of the family bike en route to Mission Sunday Streets

This year, Sunday Streets is in the Mission four months in a row. Sunday Streets in San Francisco has become so popular since it started in 2008 that it will happen twice in July–both in the Mission and in the Bayview/Dogpatch, down near my sister and brother-in-law’s condo. We are so there.

But the June Mission Sunday Streets was special. Gil Penalosa, credited with founding the entire Sunday Streets movement in 1995 when he developed Bogota’s Ciclovia, came to visit San Francisco to see Mission Sunday Streets (the Chronicle article I linked is appallingly dismissive, referring to Penalosa as a “wobbly” cyclist, which I doubt very much, but anyway). And Loop-Frame Love came down from Seattle to visit us! Okay, she was really in town for a conference, but close enough. I am sort of spacey at times and hadn’t realized that she was a scientist [swoon] but it meant we had three things to talk about: bicycles, kids, and science! How cool is that? Please come back soon, Loop-Frame Love, and stay longer next time. San Francisco has been very good to us, but it lacks Seattle’s incredible family biking community. We’re working on it.

Loop-Frame Love gives our daughter a lift uphill.

Our last visit to Mission Sunday Streets was great, but June’s Sunday Streets was even more impressive. There were thousands more people and many more family bikes out. This time we did not miss the capoeira demonstration. One of our son’s classmates who lives nearby is in one of the children’s classes and took a turn, and we saw some other friends there, including the school librarian. Our PTA president was there (sans triple tandem). From there we returned to Dynamo Donuts at the other end of the route, then turned around to go back.

Because we started much later in the day this year, on our way back we saw the streets reopening to cars. It was sadder than I had thought it would be. A police car and two motorcycles swept down the street with lights and sirens shooing happy pedestrians onto the sidewalk, where they piled up in crowds that struggled to move. On a few side streets people resisted. It is surprisingly depressing to watch a living street return to being a dead space. Cars use streets but they don’t interact with them. No one dances in a street occupied by moving cars.

New sharrow marker along the Wiggle: you can’t miss it.

Loop-Frame Love rode the Brompton (sans IT Chair) most of the afternoon. We also got to show off the new sharrow markers in the Wiggle, which make the route much, much clearer. There have been complaints about the shade of green, which is indeed very jarring. But given that drivers around this area routinely drive into the Muni tunnels despite warning signs, speed bumps, and the absence of a road, then get stuck for hours and block the trains, my sense is there is no much thing as too much visibility on any San Francisco street. That is, unless it is a Sunday Street, and there are not yet nearly enough of those.

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Filed under Brompton, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic