Category Archives: electric assist

Hills v. hills: San Francisco and Seattle

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Mugging for the camera at the airport

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We tried it: Ridekick cargo trailer

The Ridekick cargo trailer, unattached

The Ridekick cargo trailer (unattached) with Brompton

I was pretty impressed with the Ridekick child trailer, but it’s still a prototype so you can’t buy it yet. However I did recently get to try the Ridekick cargo trailer, which anyone can buy right now.

I originally started looking at an assisted trailer as a possible way of getting around the city when I was just back to weight-bearing and much weaker. I had hopes that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offered one of them as a membership benefit—they do have other trailers for members to use. But no such luck. However Ridekick was willing to drop one off and let us use it for a while, which was absolutely fabulous of them.

The appeal for me of an assisted trailer was that it was a temporary solution to my problems getting around by bike while I figured out how much strength I’d get back in the longer term. Other people, I suspect, are interested in an assisted trailer for different reasons. My sense after riding with both trailers and assisted trailers is that they are a product for people who need to haul loads sometimes. If you are riding with your kids every single day and rarely ride without them, it probably makes more sense to jump right to a cargo bike or assisted cargo bike. It is more fun to ride with the kids on the bike, in cities with a lot of traffic it feels safer to ride with the kids on the bike, and some of the logistical issues with the trailer, like the fact that it can be a pain to park, go away. But if money is tight or if there are a lot of pickup and drop-off swaps between parents, then a child trailer makes a lot of sense. And if you are hauling a bunch of tools or equipment every day then you don’t need me to tell you to consider a Bikes At Work trailer or a cargo trike or whatever.

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

If you’re looking at an (assisted) cargo trailer, maybe you have a fast and light bike but want to do major grocery shopping on the weekends, or have a long commute and want to bring a week’s worth of clean clothes on Monday and haul them back on Friday. For that kind of thing, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to add a rear rack, and a trailer will probably carry more anyway. Some people will view hauling an unassisted trailer as strength training and other people not so much. If not so much, the Ridekick cargo trailer is worth a look.

What I liked about the cargo trailer:

  • It made heavy loads disappear. One day I packed it up with over a dozen hardback library books and then bought milk and yogurt (in glass bottles) and some other groceries. Starting to pull a load like that in the trailer nearly yanked my little folding bike backwards, but a push from the assist made riding normal again. We live on a fairly substantial hill, yet I had no fears about making it home.
  • The Ridekick trailer works with any bike! I had never seriously considered putting an assist on my Brompton, as that would make it too heavy to carry, and I got a folding bike specifically for times I needed to actually take a bike places I couldn’t ride one. But putting the Ridekick trailer on the Brompton was no problem. I wish that these trailers were more available as rentals because they’re also a great way to try out riding with an assist—not being able to imagine what an assist feels like and to judge whether it is worth it seems to be a real sticking point for people who are considering one. I think that is very understandable given the price and hassle of installing electric assist on a bicycle.
  • This may be my personal issue, but riding with a cargo trailer made me feel more protected from traffic. When I started riding again I was still pretty jumpy when cars pulled up behind me, given that I had been run over from behind. Although it’s a very unlikely way to get hit on a bicycle statistically speaking, I needed time to get over my wariness. With a cargo trailer behind me I knew that it was pretty likely any car would be slowed down significantly by running over the trailer before it managed to get to me. If that had happened I would, of course, have felt pretty bad about destroying Ridekick’s trailer, but not THAT bad. (This concern in reverse, however, is one of my greatest reservations about riding with a child trailer.)
  • I have tried a throttle assist on bicycles (the Yuba elMundo) and it wasn’t my favorite, but I may not have given it enough time because the throttle assist on the Ridekick really grew on me. As a weaker rider it was really nice to feel like I could push the throttle to the max and get pulled up the hill when I needed that. The throttle itself is a push toggle and it’s quite sensitive. By pushing it lightly I could keep the assist low enough that I actually felt like my pedaling was adding something. In practice because I was trying to build strength I tended to max the assist when I was fading and catch my breath, then let it go and use the momentum the bike had gained to pedal part of the way on my own again. This got me up quite a few big hills that I couldn’t have done solo, let alone with a kid on board (I usually have a kid on board). I suspect that a lot of people could use the Ridekick this way: to build up strength. For regular use I still prefer a pedal assist but for occasional use the throttle makes a lot of sense.
  • By comparison to a decent assisted bicycle, the Ridekick cargo trailer is pretty cost-effective at $700. Yes, there are big box store style e-bikes that sell for $500 but they are junk—they have very limited range, weigh as much as boat anchors, and have batteries that will die within a few months and can’t be replaced. The Ridekick has a lot more useful life than that. It’s not useful in all the ways that an assisted bicycle would be, but for many people’s needs, an assisted bicycle would be overkill.

My reservations about the Ridekick:

  • Probably my biggest problem with the cargo trailer was that I had the chance to try the child trailer first. I liked the child trailer much better, even as a way to haul cargo. The cargo trailer is much smaller, capable of holding a couple of bags of groceries. The child trailer could haul a couple of bags of groceries AND two seven year olds, or several bags of groceries and one kid, or a giant pile of donations to Goodwill. I kept thinking of the cargo version as a single person’s trailer. It wasn’t right for the volume of stuff that I wanted to carry. I don’t think I’m the target market for this trailer.
  • All trailers, including the Ridekick, can be tricky to park. It’s actually a lot smaller than child trailers, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but at the racks at my office, for example, I had to scoot it around a little to make sure it wasn’t hanging out into the car parking places where it might get run over.
  • The battery is in the body of the trailer itself, which is fine and makes sense given that batteries are heavy, but unfortunately that means there is no way to tell how much charge is left without stopping to open the trailer. So I had a fair bit of range anxiety at the end of the day when I was riding with it. This turned out not to be justified at any point, because its range was actually pretty generous—I rack up about 10 miles up and down some major hills just going to and from work and dropping off and picking up a kid or two—and I never actually ran the battery down despite using it, especially at the beginning, pretty profligately. However I never knew how much power was left until I stopped riding, and that made me edgy. This was particularly the case because at the time my limp was so pronounced that I had a lot of trouble walking my bike up hills.
  • I did not like the attachment for the trailer. It screws on using a plate attached through the rear axle, which is pretty traditional for trailers. My sense was that it was both too easy and too hard to release. It was too easy because there after a couple of weeks the trailer fell off the bike while I was riding—in regular use, you need to tighten the screw regularly. FYI. It was too hard because if the screw was tightened appropriately, you needed tools to take it off. Given that the market for this trailer is almost certainly an occasional user, I felt like it should work like the Burley Travoy, which has a snap-in attachment that can be operated by hand. The wiring for the assist, interestingly, worked just that simply. To remove the assist wiring from the bike you only needed to pull out the plug, and to reattach it to push the plug back in. I wanted the trailer itself to attach and release that easily.
  • An issue that I suspect is more Ridekick’s problem than mine is that everyone who saw me seemed to think the trailer was homemade. People told me it was very cool and then asked me how I’d put it together, which ha ha. I suspect that the Ridekick cargo trailer would sell better if it looked a little more professional, somehow. This is the market that I’m pretty sure the Burley Travoy is targeting—the ride to work on Monday with a bunch of work clothes in the bag and return with the trailer full of dirty clothes on Friday set.  Or maybe the Ridekick just needs a bigger logo. In neon colors. I don’t know.

So the Ridekick cargo trailer: pretty cool although it’s not quite right for us (the child trailer, on the other hand, I want for traveling).

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

Probably the greatest thrill of riding with the Ridekick attached was being able to take my Brompton anywhere with a kid on board. Getting it up the hill where we live was simply impossible for me for most of last year, if not to this day. The commutes with the Brompton+Ridekick were some of the most memorable I’ve taken all year because I had such great conversations with my kids during those rides. On one trip home my son (almost 8 years old and still fitting on the Brompton front child seat!) relayed me the entire plot of a series of Avengers comic books, which although it did not really interest me at all, was exciting because he was so excited about it. On another trip my daughter taught me some of the Japanese songs she learned at preschool. I love carrying my kids on that seat more than any other bike seat, but the Brompton gets less use than I’d like because of the hill. With the Ridekick cargo trailer, I could carry them and all our stuff and not have to worry about any of that. “Make it go fast!” they yell when we got to a hill. And I could.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco

A reliable bike

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway's Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Sunday Streets

The things that I write about on the blog are only a portion of what’s really happening. This is a problem inherent to life, I think: you get so busy living that there is only so much time to talk about it all. This can lead to some false perceptions. One that’s come up lately, I’ve realized, is the sense that the Bullitt spends a lot of time in the shop. That’s not really true. It’s just that the times it goes to the shop it really ticks me off. After almost a year the Bullitt has been impressively reliable, with only a couple of exceptions that are, frankly, the result of our ignorance.

The first exception relates to the gearing. I have an aversion to pinning up my pants to keep them from getting caught in the chain, although I’m getting over it. The standard setup on a Bullitt is a triple front ring, which is great for hauling up hills, but as many riders already know, is basically incompatible with a chain guard. So when we bought the Bullitt, we put an internally geared front hub on it, the FSA Metropolis Patterson crankset.

The Metropolis is unquestionably cool, and you won’t need to roll up your pants. Unfortunately, it is not built to withstand the kinds of loads and riding we do. It is very sensitive to people doing things, like, say, pedaling over a speed bump and smashing unexpectedly into a hidden pothole on the far side, or to a rider shifting down after hitting a quicker-than-expected red light with a fully loaded cargo bike and then pushing off on a steep uphill from a dead stop.  These are not what I would call conventional bicycle riding situations, unless of course you are a family living on a steep hill in San Francisco, in which case they’re like daily rituals. So we broke the Metropolis. Twice. After the second time, we replaced it with a triple front ring, which withstands anything we throw at it (and if it didn’t would be cheap and quick to fix anyway). That wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was very time-consuming.

I miss the Metropolis, because it shifted like a dream when it wasn’t broken and had a lot of range, but it was not to be. In the meantime, I’ve learned to embrace skinny pants. Sure, they may not be the most flattering look, but they don’t catch in bike chains and they are wonderful at compressing a broken leg that tends to swell up at the end of the day. Although maybe that’s just me.

Hanging out with the Rosa Parks bike fleet

Hanging out with part of the Rosa Parks bike fleet

The second exception came up pretty recently. The Bullitt went back to the shop for another time-consuming repair when we broke over a dozen spokes at once on the rear (BionX) wheel. This turns out to be a BionX and San Francisco-related thing (San Francisco is hard on bikes). The first time we didn’t realize what the issue was so we had the bike shop replace the spokes and re-true the rear wheel. The folks at The New Wheel were the ones who warned us that it would happen again unless we put a stronger rim and spokes on that rear wheel. One week later, we learned how right they were when three of the new spokes popped. That’s a lesson to all of us, yes? Go to the pros with your electric assist bike! So we took the Bullitt back to the shop and now we have a thicker rim and spokes and they are hanging in without incident. This was pretty cheap, but once again, time-consuming.

There have been other odds and ends, but they don’t affect our ability to ride the bike. Matt dropped the BionX controller and destroyed its display, which now looks like something out of a slasher film. It still works, though. One of the fiberglass poles holding the rain cover has split twice—the first time probably due to the combination of wind sheer and the kids messing with it, and the second time due to some drunk baseball fans snapping it in two. Splendid told us how to order spare fiberglass poles, which are now sitting in the garage for the next time it happens. I think they cost $15. If you happen to have obnoxious sports fans roaming your neighborhood, you too may want some spare poles.

The two big repairs represented several weeks in the shop taken together, and those messed with our lives. The Bullitt has become what our car used to be, and we use it almost every day. I wrote about those incidents because they were such an unpleasant shock—with the Bullitt our lives are pretty easy and without it they start to derail.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

But it did not fail it when we needed it most. All last summer while I was bed-bound for 23 hours a day, Matt used it to carry both kids to school and preschool and summer camp. At the time, our daughter was still attending preschool on the top of Mt. Sutro, and our son’s summer camp was up one of the toughest hills we have ever had occasion to ride regularly (9th Avenue from Irving to Ortega, for locals reading along). And although there were days that we needed to call in friends for a carpool or a family member to walk someone home, mostly Matt managed all of that extremely grim summer solo. So how can I hold a crankset and some broken spokes against the Bullitt? Especially when I know they won’t happen again? Also, Matt is awesome.

We started this year knowing that there was trouble in the wind. The university decided to kick everyone out of faculty housing, our daughter’s preschool, disastrously, was taken over by a for-profit corporation, and the campus where I work was scheduled for closure with everyone on site told we would move “somewhere.” As bad as all of that was, we could not have predicted how much worse it would get when I was run down by a distracted driver in April. For a week we assumed that our car-free days were over. But with my right leg shattered it turned out that I couldn’t drive either, so here we are. I’m riding again and the Bullitt is still hauling the kids. I can’t yet do everything that I used to do, but the bus and rideshare make up the difference.

Thinking about future careers at preschool

Thinking about future careers at preschool

And in other ways, we seem to have turned the corner. In July our daughter started at a new preschool, a Japanese immersion program that is a feeder for Rosa Parks. She loves it so much we have to drag her home every evening. The office move keeps getting postponed another couple of years into the future. University housing can’t kick us out as long as I’m disabled, but we have other progress on that front as well. I am walking again, and people tell me my cane looks badass. We’ve been taking long weekends with the kids to try to make up for their having such a bummer of a summer–the other week we camped in a (handicapped accessible) yurt, and we’re headed to the coast this weekend. It’s been one hell of a year, and it’s not over yet.  But life is a little easier with a reliable bike.

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

Tipping point

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

At some point I speculated that 2013 would be the year of the electric assist bicycle. Not to toot my own horn here, but I was so right. The other day we stopped at an intersection and the rider next to us said, “Hey! All three of us are on electric assist bikes!” When I went to return books at the library the other day, the other bike on the rack was assisted. When I’m on the main campus, which is on a hill that could charitably be called “non-trivial” it is like an e-bike showroom up there. I would guess that about a quarter of the bikes I see hauling up our hill these days are assisted. That is new as of this year.

I get stopped at the bike racks at work by people wanting to know how to find cheap e-bikes on craigslist. Although I am admittedly kind of the poster child for that, I would only recommend doing that if you are comfortable replacing the battery shortly afterward (which is something I had to do). Very few people flog assisted bikes on craigslist until the batteries are on their last legs, and batteries are the most expensive part to replace. Caveat emptor.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets--they must be doing a land office business.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets–they must be doing a land office business.

There is really no such thing as a super-cheap electric assist bike, unless of course you are comparing them to a car, in which case every single one of them is laughably cheap. And I and everyone else riding one can testify that an assisted bike will make driving in the city seem ridiculous. I mean, my leg is still really weak, and the most recent x-rays show that the bones look like they’ve been attacked with a chisel–it surprised me that this is considered to be great progress–and I walk with a cane, and I now have a handicapped parking sticker. However it is still typically easier for me to go anyplace within about three miles on a bike (granted, an assisted bike) because I can park so much closer that I don’t have to hobble nearly as far. Riding a bike doesn’t stress my leg like walking on it does. When I talk to normal people with assisted bikes they say that they never tackled various hills until they put assists on their bikes. Then once they did, they started riding everywhere instead of driving. That’s pretty much how it went for us.

San Francisco is the kind of city that is made for assisted bikes. There are, famously, a lot of hills. It’s the second hilliest city in the world, and this is not a competition that you want your city to win (or show or place). To pile on the injury, it’s also extremely windy.

Going up this hill into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Going up a hill like this into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Aside: I find it slightly annoying when people in flat cities claim that it’s hard to bike in their extremely flat city because of wind, or that a 10mph headwind is like a 14% grade. I ride up a 14% grade to our home every day and many of those days I ride into a 10mph or 20mph headwind AT THE SAME TIME. Riding into the wind is hard, but it’s not the same as riding up a hill. They’re both hard, but they’re a different kind of hard. The truth is that if you live somewhere flattish then it’s either easier or cheaper to ride bikes everywhere, so go ahead and cherish your good fortune.

Anyway, San Francisco: lots of hills, lots of wind, but also lots of great bicycle infrastructure. And we carry kids-as-cargo and groceries and library books and so on. Getting over ourselves and getting an assist was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, transportation-wise. In my current condition, I’m not sure I could ride in the city at all without one (and with the gimpy leg, walking the bike up hills is not a good option–I can do it, but the price is having to go back on my narcotics that evening). Our friends who have assisted their bikes will say the same thing: the assist is life-changing when you ride a bike for transportation. An assist makes driving not worth the bother. The sight of a bicycle being carried on an SUV now seems outrageously weird to me. Even if you’re hauling a racing bike, it would be cheaper and more fun to tow that baby on an assisted cargo bike.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

So for the people who keep asking me whether it’s worth paying so much to put an assist on a bike: if you’re already seriously considering it, then yes it is. And there are ways to make the cost less appalling up front; for example, The New Wheel in Bernal Heights will finance the purchase of an assisted bike or an after-market assist for an existing bike, plus they’re super-nice people.  Is it necessary? It is for me (at least for now), but it’s not for everybody. For people who are enjoying the ride unassisted, there’s no need. But if you can’t bring yourself to ride every day just yet even though you want to, and are wondering whether the assist will tip the scales: it will.

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Filed under electric assist, injury, San Francisco

More bikes I have seen

Surly Xtracycled Karate Monkey with Stokemonkey electric assist--so many kinds of awesome!

Surly Xtracycled Karate Monkey with Stokemonkey electric assist–so many kinds of awesome!

Now that I am getting out and about more, I can continue my effort to catalog every unusual bike in San Francisco. There are more interesting hobbies, I’ll admit, but it entertains me (my other hobby is the even more obscure effort to catalog every word that means its own opposite, e.g. sanction).

This bike isn’t a kid-hauler, which is my favorite kind of bicycle by far, but it could have been (update from a more observant friend: yes it is! check out those stoker bars). I was not familiar with the Surly Karate Monkey before I saw this Xtracycle outside a café one weekend morning. But check it out: it’s a Stokemonkeyed Karate Monkey! That’s an awful lot of monkeys on one bike. It must own the hills. I couldn’t tell whether the box was a battery backup, but this bike looks like it gets around. The sticker references a shop in Seattle. You’re a long way from home, monkeys.

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Filed under electric assist, San Francisco, Xtracycle

Mission Sunday Streets 2013

We arrive at Sunday Streets. No more cover; it's spring in San Francisco.

We arrive at Sunday Streets. No more cover; it’s spring in San Francisco.

Last weekend we went to Sunday Streets again, and it was even more crowded than last year. Except right at the start, I think that the Mission site is so popular that walking the bike is no longer optional but required. It was still fun, however, with a caveat.

We went planning to meet another Bullitt family. Instead we met two! Even more amazing, although both rode red Bullitts, neither one of them was the one I recently spotted at our son’s after-school program (I asked).

This was the first red Bullitt.

This was the first red Bullitt.

We were late to Dynamo Donuts because we got caught in all the street traffic, which is okay, because halfway there we spotted our first red Bullitt. What’s more, it was another Bullitt from Splendid Cycles! (Matt has been complaining that we need a bigger Splendid sticker on our bike because people keep stopping him to ask where we got it. The little sticker under the seat is easy enough to spot if you know where to look, and of course I do, but strangers on the street, not so much.) It was great to meet this family.

I am getting the skinny about Bullitt #2.

I am getting the skinny about Bullitt #2.

When we got to Dynamo we met Jim, as planned, with his red Bullitt, plus an Xtracycle (formerly assisted, before the battery died), a Kona Ute, and eventually a music trike. For all the attention that one Bullitt gets, it pales in comparison to the attention that two Bullitts get. This red Bullitt came from Blue Heron in Berkeley, and to my astonishment he got it back to San Francisco on BART, by standing it on end in the elevators. I’m still impressed by this story.

A Kona Ute set up for kids

A Kona Ute set up for kids

Unfortunately by this time Matt, who had ridden the Bullitt because this trip would be his only riding for two weeks thanks to all his business travel, noticed that the front cranks, which had failed once before, were starting to creak again. By the time we navigated back to Mission, they stopped working almost entirely. Matt had to use the throttle on the BionX to get the bike home. Using the assist this way drains the battery fast, but we were lucky to have it. Now the Bullitt is back in the shop. Sigh. And I have to figure out a way to get both kids to their respective schools without a two-kid bike while Matt is away.

It's an organic cargo bike roll call.

It’s an organic cargo bike roll call.

This left me with two kids to get home solo. I crossed my fingers, loaded my daughter in the front basket (which is not rated for that kind of load, nor is it a comfortable way for her to ride) and rode home with them very, very carefully. The good news is that we made it.

And the other good news is that Mission Sunday Streets is pretty cool. Our kids were completely impressed by all the music, as were we. And the dancing. Check it out!

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Filed under Bullitt, electric assist, family biking, rides, San Francisco

Where the family bikes are

Family bikes like circus arts.

Family bikes like circus arts.

We tend to spot interesting bikes in the morning. I’m not sure why. I almost never get pictures because we’re booking to school, but last week was a particular doozy. One rainy morning I passed a recumbent bike that not only sported six poison-frog yellow Ortlieb panniers (with the rider in a matching jacket), but actual jingle bells. And almost every morning I also see some of San Francisco’s significant homeless contingent, or as I sometimes think of them, “self-supported locally-touring riders,” with each bike hauling not only a sleeping bag and a duffel bag but at least two full garbage bags of recycling. Matt found a generous collection of family bikes at the acrobatic center where he took our son this weekend.

Where I hit the motherlode (aside from our son’s school, of course) is Rainbow Grocery. Last Friday I took the day off after a particular grueling week; and instead of heading to work after school drop off I went to Rainbow. On the way in I saw our friends’ Big Dummy, probably because they joined us in car freedom last week, and together we checked out all the other family bikes locked up.

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

Another ad hoc family bike, with a seat on the rear rack

The first was one of the many ad hoc family bikes around the city. This bike was immediately familiar, though, because I’d already talked to the mom about her bike while we were riding on the Panhandle. I really liked the seat she’s screwed into the rack, which I’ve never seen before, and I would love to find another because it looks like the perfect addition to a midtail deck. Her kid is apparently still pretty small, but trustworthy enough to hold on to stoker bars. I asked her about footrests, because there aren’t any, and she said that she always keeps panniers with a kid on board, and her kid’s feet go inside. Personally I’d use a sturdier rear rack, but then again my kids are bigger.

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

A one-off: the Fraser Pack Mule

The second bike that pulled up while I was there was a longtail I’d never seen before, a Fraser Pack Mule from Southern California. I asked the dad riding it and he said it was custom, purchased long before the Surly Big Dummy hit the market. I was really impressed by the integrated back support on the deck. And  although it is evidently usually a single-kid hauler he said that he sometimes carries both of his kids on this bike as well (as long as they’re not fighting, a caveat that’s all too familiar). They live on a hill, but he left the bike unassisted because he has to carry it upstairs to park it, and wasn’t sure he could handle hoisting another 20 pounds on top of an already heavy cargo bike. How cool is this bike?

Anyway, I think I need to figure out a way to get to Rainbow Grocery more often on weekday mornings.

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

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

Losing it

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven't slept.

Our kids are cute but from day 1 they haven’t slept.

Matt and I are lazy, middle-aged people who have overstuffed our lives. Ever since our son was born, my favorite hobby has been sleeping. We both work full-time jobs, Matt travels extensively for business, I travel somewhat less extensively for business, and we have two kids we adore whose demands swallow our weekends and evenings. This is not a complaint, because we chose these lives, like our jobs, and love our children. But it was not really a shock to find last year that we had started to pack on the pounds.

In 2012, Matt’s repeated trips to China with their endless banquet meals put him near his highest lifetime weight. Also in 2012, I gave up a serious diet Coke habit because it seemed wrong to rely so heavily on a fake food. I never developed a taste for coffee or tea, which means that I have been caffeine-free for over a year. Sadly for me, caffeine is an appetite suppressant. I developed a killer sweet tooth and predictably, gained weight as well. Neither of us was technically overweight, but we were starting to get uncomfortable.

Mirror in the bathroom

Mirror in the bathroom

We both began losing weight at the end of 2012, in part, I suspect, because the Bullitt entered our lives then. With a haul-anything assisted cargo bike we were both willing to attempt riding up hills we’d never tried before, and even with the assist, we were working hard. Plus, that bike is so fast already that it is endlessly tempting to engage in what the good people at Wheelha.us call “time travel,” where you leave late, crank up the assist, pedal like mad, and arrive early. If losing weight using an electric assist is “cheating,” then sign me up for more of that.

Then in January I took a day-long tour of the dump. I came back in shock, and we started trying to become a zero-waste household. (Thankfully, there are role models for a project like this.)

We shrink and they grow.

We shrink and they grow.

There is a lot of talk about the sustainability triple-bottom-line, which suggests that any ecological change will have economic and health effects as well. In our experience this is: true. We bought bikes and sold our only car and saved money and lost some weight and started hanging out with a bunch of cool people. We started trying to reduce our waste because I was horrified when I toured the dump, but we ended up saving money too. Our grocery bills are now less than the California food stamp allotment. We also eat out less than we used to, about once a week, because zero-waste is not compatible with takeout. On top of that, in the last two months both Matt and I have dropped to the lowest adult weights of our lives. Our son, after two years without putting on a pound, finally started gaining weight, and both kids have grown a couple of inches. Everyone in our household needs new pants now. We look like hobos.

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in a quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

2 months in: our weekly landfill load in an old quart-sized ziploc (mostly foam stickers from preschool and dental floss). Wild!

Saving money and losing weight (or in our kids’ case, growing like steroidal weeds) weren’t exactly in our plans, but these are definitely welcome developments. Yippee! So here we are. Our zero-waste effort is like riding our bikes in that there is this unexpected triple-bottom-line, and that surprisingly, it’s made life more fun. It’s unlike riding bikes in that, well, these two things have pretty much nothing else in common as far as I can tell. Yet although we started riding bikes for fun and we started reducing our waste out of dismay, in both cases we ended up in the same place. And both changes have made life better.

[Coming up eventually, because I have been asked: The zero-waste “diet”]

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, San Francisco, zero waste

Turn that frown upside down

Is this really necessary?

Is this really necessary?

On Friday afternoon things were going terribly at work due solely to the machinations of campus IT, and not for the first time either. After a few hours of suffering I decided to do what everyone else in the office had already done and leave work early. I headed out to get the grocery shopping done, which in our brave new world of zero-waste is usually a pretty entertaining errand. But I was in a foul mood.

Even though I was on the Bullitt, which is a fun bike, the ride was not going well. It was windy and without kids in the bucket the rain cover kept catching the wind and threatening to tip the bike over. On my way down Post Street, there were cars parked in the bike lane roughly every 100 feet, pushing me out into traffic. My usual strategy when I see a car parked in the bike lane is to ring my bell, even though this is completely futile. I like to imagine my bell going: “WTF! WTF! WTF!” The drivers don’t even bother to look up from their phones but it makes me feel better.

Then thanks to yet another car in the bike lane I missed my turn and ended up winding back through the public housing projects south of Geary and their relentless, jarring speed bumps, which are short and sharp and which have sent the Bullitt to the shop with broken cranks once already. By the time I got back on route I was actually cursing to myself, and muttering: “CARS! I hate… CARS!”

I finally got to the Scott Street hill, which is a doozy, but whatever, I was on the Bullitt. To my surprise I saw a dad with his daughter on a trailer-bike preparing to head up that hill a few blocks ahead of me, which is no joke even when riding solo. I was impressed despite my bad mood. As I got closer, they slowed, and then he suddenly lost control and ran into a parked van, and both of them went over. Who among us hasn’t been there?

By the time I reached them they were back up, uninjured and walking up the steepest part of the hill. “Go, dad, go!” I said as I passed, because that kind of effort deserves some credit.

From the top of the hill on, it was all downhill and even though car traffic was backed up all the way through the Wiggle (why are there cars on the Wiggle?), and some of them blocked my big cargo bike temporarily, things got better at Rainbow Grocery. I discovered they have bulk Easter* candy wrapped in paper and foil, which is going to be helpful in a couple of weeks.

It ended up being a major shop but as usual the Bullitt swallowed it all, and as usual the Rainbow employee-owners staffing the parking lot made sure that cars didn’t mow me over when I headed out (many San Francisco grocery stores staff their auto parking lots to prevent the unspeakable mayhem that ensues if drivers are left to fend for themselves). Then I headed home, and thankfully it was a quiet ride. “Where’s the kid?” a guy asked me on Mission. “I’m on my way to get them,” I said.

Some other things that make me happy

Some other things that make me happy

According to the Bullitt’s computer I rode about 15 miles on Friday between the school drop-off and work and shopping and pickups. With all that riding my mood eventually improved, as it always does. I don’t really remember what I did on days like these before we started riding bikes. Probably I drank? Candy is dandy but liquor is quicker. And riding is cheaper therapy than either.

*We ceded Easter baskets last year when our son said he didn’t want to be Jewish anymore if he couldn’t have an Easter basket. Thanks to all the various holidays we now recognize/celebrate through his school (Oshugatsu Matsuri, Hinamatsuri, Cherry Blossom, Kodomo No Hi, Black History Month, Rosa Parks Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Holi, Diwali, Ramadan, Eid al-Fitr, Eid al-Adha, etc. etc.) he sees no reason not to pick up any holiday from any tradition. Fortunately California Judaism is pretty flexible about this kind of thing.

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