Category Archives: trailer-bike

The summer ends, the summer begins

Heading out on the first day of school, all of us on our own wheel(s)

Heading out on the first day of school, all of us on our own wheel(s)

In the middle of August, we headed up to San Francisco’s family camp in Yosemite, Camp Mather, to finish off the last week of summer before the kids started school. This year is a year of big changes, because our daughter just started kindergarten. For the first time ever, we have a single drop-off. And we have finally gotten both kids riding to school. Our daughter will be on the Roland add+bike for a while, because she has no traffic sense, but our son is on his own bike. This was a logistical challenge that took us a couple of years to solve, because he takes a bus from school to after-school and it lacks a bike rack, meaning we have to find a way to get his bike from school to after-school without him. It’s also a physical challenge, because his travel speed is approximately 3mph after a full day at school. However he’s building up stamina already.

Hanging out on the dock at Birch Lake

Hanging out on the dock at Birch Lake

But Camp Mather! Berkeley and San Jose also had family camps, but theirs burned down in the Rim Fire. Camp Mather was set up for workers building the O’Shaughnessy Dam at Hetch Hetchy, so there was water to save it. San Francisco families can enter the lottery in the spring for a weekly slot, in either a cabin or a tent site. There is no internet of any kind while you’re there, and the only connection to the outside world is an unreliable pay phone, possibly the last of its kind in California. Our stay at Camp Mather was the most disconnected we had been in years.

This is one side of the bike parking outside the dining hall.

This is one side of the bike parking outside the dining hall.

Even better from our perspective is that there is no driving at Camp Mather. Everyone, and I do mean everyone, rides bikes everywhere—to the dining hall, to the lake, to the pool, to the play fields, to the bath houses. There are no cars. The littlest kids ride piled up on rear racks and on blankets wrapped around their parents’ top tubes. The bigger kids go feral and ride off to play ping pong or develop talent show acts for hours at a time. Our daughter’s bike skills became truly extraordinary. If it weren’t for the annoyance of cars, she could ride anywhere in the city now. Her lightweight single speed was even able to overtake other kids’ geared mountain bikes on the (very minor) hills around camp.

Halfway to the lake with Brompton + Travoy and a ton of gear.

Halfway to the lake with Brompton + Travoy and a ton of gear.

I brought the Brompton and our Burley Travoy (have I mentioned that we’ve had a Travoy for a couple of years? Wonderful trailer, and yes, I should review that too). It was evidently the first Brompton anyone had ever seen at Camp Mather, but it was a great choice. Apparently I was inadvertently representing Cycle Chic roaming around camp in a sun hat, bikini and silk wrap skirt on the Brompton, as I got approving, “Looking awesome, momma!” hollas from other moms. The Travoy made it easy for me to haul our load of beach chairs, towels, lunches, and pool toys to the lake and back every day. I had the Pere chair for the rare occasions when our daughter didn’t ride her own bike, which only happened after dark, because we didn’t bring her lights.

DIY archery

DIY archery (they tie-dyed those shirts themselves)

Anyway, we had a lovely time, even though we had to drive up there. I was saddened to learn that a couple of decades ago, no one was allowed to drive at all—there was bus service to Camp Mather, and an area dedicated to families that biked in. All this is no more. I would have paid a lot to have someone drive us there in a bus. As vegetarians, we had some initial concerns about the food, which comes on a giant truck from Sysco, but we were basically fine, although we ate a lot of salad (Here is the Camp Mather menu). So we spent a great week relaxing at Camp Mather. We would do it again.

We returned to San Francisco and the start of school. But here the summer weather is just beginning, so in a way, we have a lot more summer yet to come. There is so much to tell, still.

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Filed under Brompton, family biking, kids' bikes, trailer-bike, travel

Growing up

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

We love having the Bullitt to haul our kids (and a lot of other stuff) around San Francisco, and I continue to be impressed that we can squeeze a 4-year-old and an 8-year-old into the standard front box with minimal squabbling. And with the rain canopy they never get cold or wet. Sometimes we don’t even bother to put on their shoes. However I began to wonder after a while whether riding in the box was possibly too appealing.  We got our son a geared bike for his birthday last year (a Torker Interurban, more on this bike later) when we realized that trying to get a single speed bike up the hills around our neighborhood was making him hate riding. For several months it seemed like we had waited too long. In combination with his general neophobia, he mostly ignored the new bike and asked to ride in the Bullitt instead. Our daughter loves her balance bike but was too short to get on the trailer bike or a decent pedal bike.

Ultimately I decided not to worry about it. I figured they’d want to ride more on their own eventually, probably when temperatures crept up in the spring, at which point we’d also have moved downhill. I find the riders who pull up next to us and shout “you should make them pedal!” beyond tiresome. Getting up to Parnassus Heights is no joke for strong and experienced riders, even with an assist, let alone little kids. How about I don’t tell you that you look stupid in lycra hotpants, and you don’t tell me how to get my kids up an 18% grade, mmmkay?

Weekend grocery shopping with scooter

Weekend grocery shopping with scooter

And yet. To my surprise, over the last month, both kids have decided that they want to ride on their own. Our daughter’s legs finally got long enough that she could hop aboard the Roland and actually turn the pedals (a side effect of getting a German trailer-bike that I hadn’t considered is that Germans are crazy-tall). Our son flipped a switch in his head one day and decided to try riding his scooter to the library, and realized almost immediately that scooters are much slower than bicycles. The next day he wanted to ride his bike instead.

Heading out on the Torker Interurban

Heading out on the Torker Interurban

So now on weekends we are a family caravan. Our son rides his own bike, and our daughter rides the trailer-bike hitched onto the Bullitt. Sure, she hasn’t yet completely mastered the idea that you want to move the pedals forward while going forward, but she can give a noticeable assist when she does remember. Our son, with much encouragement, finally realized that shifting into a low gear to go up hills is neither difficult nor shameful, and he is chugging up some pretty impressive grades. Aside from some trouble with braking on steep downhills (which I completely understand because I’ve been there) he is a capable and safe rider. The front box is now available for friends or groceries or library books, or we can put one of our kids and/or the little bike in there if the ride gets too long or cold or hilly.

It's hard to see, but Matt has a 4 year old and 2 year old in the front box as well as our daughter on the trailer-bike.

It’s hard to see, but Matt has a 4 year old and 2 year old in the front box as well as our daughter on the trailer-bike.

I expect that there will be some backsliding into the comfort of the Bullitt box when winter digs in, but I can see the future from here. We still have some logistics to work out, because the bus that takes our son to his afterschool program does not have bike racks (yet! In the meantime I have contemplated getting him a Brompton.) Sometime next year we’ll have moved to the bottom of the hill, and the prospect of getting home after a long ride will not seem nearly as daunting to them. And once we live on a quiet and flat street, our daughter can practice riding a pedal bike near home. I worried once that we’d have to coax them into riding, but they started when they were ready.

Eventually we won’t have to carry them at all. But we’ll keep the Bullitt, of course. I love that bike, and I hear that teenage boys eat a lot of groceries.

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Filed under Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike

We tried it: Ridekick electric assist child trailer (prototype)

This kind of thing is my problem.

This kind of thing is my problem.

[Note: As of April 2014, release of the Ridekick child trailer has been postponed to 2015.]

When I thought about getting back on the bike after my injury, I thought immediately about electric assist. We live on a big hill. I was surprised that I could get up part of it on the Brompton by myself when I tried riding for the first time last weekend. But a little more experimentation made it clear that I wasn’t able to ride up all of it. This is better than I’d expected, but still: not useful. It doesn’t help much to go partway up the hill. And when I tried to walk the bike up the hill instead, it made the pins in my leg ache so badly that I had to lie down. This was predictable but still unwelcome.

Spotted near work

A mid-drive spotted near work

What’s more, it’s not very useful to be riding again if I can’t pick up and drop off a kid occasionally. I figured I would get my strength back eventually, but in the meantime I needed a better solution. Option one is a new mid-drive electric-assist bike, but that’s really expensive for short-term use and depending on how much strength I got back, could potentially be overkill in the long term. Ideally I wanted a temporary assist that I could stick on the Brompton, which is basically the only bike we have that I can use right now given my limited strength and range of motion. I did try getting on the MinUte, and technically it’s possible, but it wouldn’t be safe yet with a kid on the deck. I can get on and off the Bullitt, but it’s too heavy for me to ride for the time being.

Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!

Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!

I knew what I wanted, but unfortunately I didn’t know of any temporary, immediate on-off electric assists currently in production. At least, I didn’t until a blog reader pointed me to the Ridekick trailer (thanks David!) The only Ridekick currently on the market is a small cargo trailer with an electric assist built in. It was cute and it looked like it would do what I wanted, but when I went to their website, I saw that they were taking pre-orders for what looked like my rehabilitation holy grail: an electric assist child trailer.

This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.

This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.

Although I’m not the world’s biggest child trailer fan (hard to see in city traffic, don’t always fit in urban bike lanes, won’t make it up many San Francisco steep uphills, can be terrifying on many San Francisco steep downhills, we prefer to have the kids in front), we had been considering getting a bike trailer for travel, and for upgrading our one-kid bikes to two-kid bikes on occasion. The trailer also has the advantage of offering weather protection, just like the Bullitt, but in a far more portable package. The Ridekick assisted child trailer also seemed way more promising than an ordinary trailer because with an assist we’d no longer have to worry about drag on the bike.  The pull of a weighted trailer can really be a problem on hills and in strong winds, both of which San Francisco has in abundance. And if the assist were up to it, I could attach it to any bike and make it up hills with one or both kids even in my reduced state.

So I wrote to Ridekick, hoping against hope that the child trailer was close enough to production that I could get one by August. The answer was no. But they were coming to San Francisco in August with the prototype to look for venture capital funding, and would I like to try it? Yes!

This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.

This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.

We met Dee and Mark from Ridekick in Golden Gate Park.  They are great people. The prototype trailer that they brought is built up from the same Burley Bee model that we rented last year when we visited my mom in Bellingham. To my surprise, the assist doesn’t really intrude into the trailer’s cargo space. There’s a lithium ion battery with an on-off controller attached, about the size of a hardback book, that slides into the rear cargo compartment and that’s basically it. There is a throttle attachment that they Velcro-tied onto our handlebars, and then strung the wire for it back along the frame with more Velcro ties. It clipped into the wire coming from the motor at the rear wheel bolt, which is the same place that the trailer itself attaches. For novices like me: a Burley trailer attaches with a hitch plate that is threaded onto the same bolt that holds the rear wheel onto the bicycle frame. The trailer frame has a drop-in pin that goes through the hole in the hitch plate, with a back-up strap that loops around the bicycle frame in case it fails. Ridekick estimates that the trailer can go about 15 miles on a charge, depending very much on local conditions (how much weight and how big a hill?)

Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.

Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.

"Oh, if I must."

“Oh, if I must.”

My kids hadn’t ridden in a trailer for a year and were thrilled to get back in one. They also brought a friend. For our first test ride, we attached the assisted trailer to the Kona MinUte and then Matt took the two 7-year-olds for a spin through Golden Gate Park.

Something I may not have mentioned before is that Matt is less enamored of new bike experiences than I am. He mostly just treats all the experimentation I do like my weird hobby. He’s not big into optimizing his riding experience. The first bike he got was the Kona MinUte, and when it was stolen, he bought another one just like it. I got him a new pannier for Christmas one year when he complained that the ones that come standard on the MinUte were not office-appropriate (definitely true), but he has never used it. When we got the Bullitt he said for two months that we should have replaced the car instead, although he has since come around. So Matt was actually pretty grouchy about coming down to Golden Gate Park on a Saturday morning for “another bike thing.” He had had other plans.

It is in this context that I say that Matt loved the Ridekick child trailer from the moment he started riding with it. Generally neither of us is a big fan of throttle assists (the kind that go when you push the button, whether you are pedaling or not), but in the context of pulling well over a hundred pounds of weight behind the bike, the throttle assist is extremely appealing, especially at intersections. At steep intersections it is sometimes impossible for us to start a heavily loaded bicycle, even with the BionX, because the BionX doesn’t kick in until your speed exceeds 2 mph. Although Golden Gate Park is a little thin on steep hills—its grades top out at about 12%—Matt took it on a moderate hill, probably 10% grade, behind the Conservatory and had no trouble hauling both 7-year-olds up. When you’re riding with an assisted trailer, you don’t have to feel like you’re dragging an anvil.

It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.

It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.

When he came back I took our daughter for a solo turn around the park on the bike. Despite the fact that I was on the MinUte, which is a huge hassle to get on and off for me at the moment, I loved the Ridekick child trailer too. It resolves a lot of child trailer problems all at once. There’s no drag from the trailer unless you want to work harder. When you get tired, you can have it push you along for a little while. Taking breaks like this, interspersed with pedaling, got me up the same hill behind the Conservatory that Matt had ridden. That felt amazing! And it’s something that is currently completely out of reach for me on an unassisted bicycle.

There is probably a limit to the Ridekick’s capabilities. We have the advantage that we are using to riding up hills, and so we just need an extra boost now and again when we have extra weight on the bike. Even I, in my reduced state, tended to use the assist for a while, then pedal solo for a little bit, then repeat. My guess is that a weak rider could burn it out on the steepest hills, given that Matt has overheated the BionX on the steeper hills in our neighborhood occasionally. We’d have to ride with it a lot more to be sure. Then again, how many families really deal with hills like ours on a regular basis?

In the world of trailers, which tend to be useful but not that fun, the Ridekick assisted child trailer is a killer app, both useful AND fun. Normal trailers drag, and pulling them can be exhausting. As a result, even though most cargo bikes ride like tanks, cargo bikes are a lot easier. Still, in a situation where one parent drops off and another one picks up, you’d need two cargo bikes (which is exactly what we have now, but that’s a big commitment to start). But an assisted child trailer? Awesome! The assist means that riding is not a chore, it could be passed between parents’ bikes as needed, and it can keep the kids warm and dry, all for a (suggested) price of a single unassisted cargo bike. And as a rehab tool, it would be amazing.

If we could have, we would have bought it on the spot. But there is only one in the entire world. Our kids were crushed. “Can we keep it, please?” our daughter begged. “It goes fast! Can we keep it?” Alas, no.

Evidently Ridekick has gotten a fair bit of interest from parents who would like an aftermarket kit to assist their existing trailers. This doesn’t surprise me, but they still don’t even have the basic model in production. Ideally they could find a partner with an existing child trailer company (e.g. Burley, Chariot, Wike) and add the assist option to their standard product lineup. I’m sure there is sufficient demand.

This trailer is so much fun!

This trailer is so much fun!

How cool is the Ridekick assisted child trailer? It’s so cool that if it had been on the market when we started riding with our kids, we might never have gotten cargo bikes. Even with my misgivings about the width of trailers versus bike lanes and having the kids behind me in city traffic instead of in front, having a trailer that could glide up hills, as well as being able to swap it between bikes, would be worth compromising in other areas. I have zero regrets about getting cargo bikes, especially given that the Ridekick child trailer isn’t actually available yet, but an assisted trailer would have been a much lower stakes way to ease into family biking, and it would travel well. I could be biased by the fact that this trailer allowed me to ride up hills that I couldn’t have otherwise attempted, but I loved the Ridekick.

 

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, Kona, reviews, San Francisco, trailer-bike

With or without me

My kids are evidently getting to be really fast on those scooters.

My kids are evidently getting to be really fast on those scooters.

I have been incapacitated for 12 weeks now, and it is really starting to chafe. Even though I can go into the office now (thanks to my new compression stocking) and that is fun, I find that I am irritable. I can only maintain a good attitude for so long. And when people tell me things like, “You should just be grateful that you’re alive! And that your son is okay!” I kind of want to punch them in the face. Yeah, sure, it could have been worse, but that doesn’t mean I’m happy that my entire summer was ruined and I can’t go out with my kids and that after three months I still have weeks to go before I can try walking again. Maybe I shouldn’t have weaned myself off all of those narcotics.

Going ice skating? Wear cashmere!

Going ice skating? Wear cashmere!

Then again: I have forgotten the entire month of May. Seriously, my son was asking me questions about some things that happened then, things in which evidently I had some involvement, and I had no memory of them whatsoever. I do remember that in June I bought my daughter an entire new wardrobe on eBay after my mom mentioned that a four-year-old probably shouldn’t be showing so much VPL or sporting crop tops. Normally I would go to the local consignment store and pick up stuff in her new size, but I couldn’t leave the house. Luckily for me, there are scads of amazing deals on eBay for people who have nothing but time. She’ll be spending the next year or so in secondhand cashmere. Nonetheless, thank goodness our son goes to a uniform school.

These are the appropriate costumes for 1-legged airplane rides on your parents' bed.

These are the appropriate costumes for 1-legged airplane rides on your parents’ bed.

There are things that I can do, although they are limited. Given that I can only use my left leg, and that university housing still hasn’t gotten around to putting grab bars in the bathroom despite our requests, I can do pistol squats on that leg until I fall asleep from boredom. That means, as I learned recently, that I can give my kids one-legged airplane rides in bed. That’s fun. And we can watch movies, when they’re into that. I can read them bedtime stories.  I can give them rides on the cool electric cart that I use at the grocery store (although the competition for those carts has been fierce lately). That’s about it.

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

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

Matt takes them out to do all the fun things I wish I could do. They’ve been swimming at city pools and ice skating and last weekend, they went to Sunday Streets on the Bullitt with the Roland add+bike attached. Poor Matt is getting worn down by the constant attention the Bullitt draws, and sticking the Roland on the back only adds to the effect. That will be our commute vehicle next year, so with any luck it will get a little more familiar to people on our usual route.

We won't miss her old preschool, although we'll miss her old friends (nearly all of whom are leaving as well).

We won’t miss her old preschool, although we’ll miss her old friends (nearly all of whom are leaving as well).

Some good things have happened, although I get the news secondhand. Our daughter has finally started at her new preschool. After the for-profit takeover of her old preschool I would have been happy with anywhere that let her go to the bathroom when she needed to and anyplace where her teachers didn’t tell her than she was “wasting mommy and daddy’s money” when she didn’t listen and she wasn’t told to “turn and face the wall” any time that she talked to another kid in line. But her new preschool is apparently awesome even by standards much higher than our radically downsized ones. She looks forward to going and she’s surrounded by her future Rosa Parks classmates—it’s a Japanese immersion preschool and a feeder for the school.

On the other hand, if the San Francisco summer continues along these lines, skirts and shorts are a non-issue.

On the other hand, if the San Francisco summer continues along these lines, skirts and shorts are a non-issue.

I am also grateful for my colleagues, who make me happy every time I’m in the office that I work in academic medicine. I have scars on my right leg that look like a giant red zipper running from the ankle to above the knee, and they can’t stop telling me how great they look. Sure, they’re saying that because they’ve seen so much worse, but I don’t mind. One person told me it looked like a shaving accident. This is so far from the truth that when I reported it to Matt, he laughed so hard that he almost stopped breathing. But the person who said it was speaking the truth as he saw it, and that makes me feel okay about wearing skirts to work again one of these days.

The kids collected jellyfish at Ocean Beach over the weekend. I couldn't go.

The kids collected jellyfish at Ocean Beach over the weekend. I couldn’t go.

I have x-rays next week and if they look good I will get permission to start putting weight on my leg the week afterward. And according to my surgeon, who is also a bike commuter, if I can walk, I can ride. Sure, there’s the minor matter of what bike—I suspect I won’t have the strength to get the Brompton up our hill for a while, I know I don’t have the range of motion to get on the Kona because the top tube is so high and the stoker bars mean I can’t swing my leg around the back, and Matt sometimes needs the Bullitt so I can’t ride it every day. Maybe I could put an assist on the Brompton?

Thanks for the electric carts and the cargo bike parking, Rainbow.

Thanks for the electric carts and the cargo bike parking, Rainbow.

And one more piece of good news: just before I was hit, I wrote to Rainbow Grocery after a difficult Bullitt parking experience asking them if they’d reserve the end spots on their racks for cargo bikes and bikes with trailers. A friend of mine sent me a picture of the racks just the other day, and the new sign on them that gently requests that the big spaces be saved for big bikes. So life goes on, with or without me.

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Filed under advocacy, Bullitt, family biking, injury, San Francisco, trailer-bike

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

More family bikes of San Francisco

There is no shortage of "traditional" family bikes like this Xtracycle, though.

There is no shortage of “traditional” family bikes like this Xtracycle. This was the first Rolling Jackass center stand I’ve seen in San Francisco, though.

Riding a giant family bike around San Francisco can at times feel outlandish. I feel that way most often when I’m having trouble parking the Bullitt. There are also occasional moments when I have to stop on a hill and am unsure whether I’ll be able to successfully start again (this problem is not unique to the Bullitt but feels scarier with both kids on board). And then there is the general reaction when we’re out: it’s uniformly positive, but there’s no question that riding a bike like ours around is still unusual enough in San Francisco that we get a lot of attention. Fortunately we are not completely alone out there. In the last few weeks we’ve seen at least three other family bikes that are at least as interesting.

Stoked Metrofiets at Golden Gate Park

Stoked Metrofiets at Golden Gate Park

One family has been riding a Stokemonkeyed Metrofiets with a FollowMe tandem for far longer than we’ve had the Bullitt. With that Stokemonkey I don’t doubt they can climb tougher hills than we can. We saw them at the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition’s family day, and again at Golden Gate Park the other weekend. Their bike is even wider and longer than ours is, and it hauls more too.

This bike wins the "most modifications" award.

This bike wins the “most modifications” award.

Last night we saw this incredible Burley tandem with kid-back cranks on the stoker seat, a Burley Piccolo trailer-bike, and a BionX assist like ours. The bike itself looked very familiar, but the last time we saw the family we know riding it, it didn’t have the BionX. We’re still not sure whether it was their bike with a recent upgrade to electric assist or another family’s bike—meaning that there are two Burley tandems like this in San Francisco, which is possible although perhaps not likely—but it’s an impressive setup.

When riding back from school on the Bullitt recently back I saw another long john headed the other way with two kids on board. I was talking with a friend while we were riding and almost missed it, and I definitely didn’t get a photo, but it looked like a Cetma Largo? Unlike our bike, theirs lacked a weather cover, and the kids looked cold.

Outside nearly any family-friendly venue in San Francisco you'll find bikes like ours.

Outside nearly any family-friendly venue in San Francisco you’ll find bikes like ours.

Riding our smaller bikes around the city, though, we have plenty of company. I took my daughter to a friend’s birthday party last weekend, and the racks outside the playspace were all occupied; we weren’t even the only family to ride to the party. Trailer bikes, child seats: we see bikes rigged with these all over the city, sometimes so many that the places we ride don’t yet know how to handle them. We still often ride the smaller bikes to new destinations largely because we’re not always sure we’ll be able to find decent cargo bike parking on our first trip.

What is it?

What is it?

And then there are the bikes I can’t figure out. At school lately I’ve been seeing a motorized bike. It looks like a moped and it has a gas motor, but the pedals turn, so arguably it’s a bicycle. It looks as though it was designed to carry two passengers. Does something like this belong at a bike rack? I have no idea. But there’s no question that the city’s infrastructure lags far behind the people using it.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Xtracycle

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