Category Archives: trailer-bike

Two years on the Bullitt: still the awesomest

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

The Bullitt arrives, October 2012.

Our two-year anniversary of Bullitt-ownership was yesterday. I had ambitions to write a post last year about our first year of riding, but then Totcycle did it for me. I basically agree with everything he wrote, so why bother saying the same stuff over again? “The TL;DR version is that this is the finest automobile replacement bike setup in the whole wide world (for families and cities like mine), and a joy to ride for all involved.” I mean, that pretty much covers it. I have no way of assessing how far we’ve ridden on the bike (see below), but based on the mileage on our less-ridden bikes I would be shocked if it were anything less than 4,000 miles, and unsurprised if it were far more than that.

This setup never gets old, evidently.

This setup never gets old.

The specs on our bike ended up much like those of the Totcycle bike (but ours is blue): SLX 3×9, hydraulic disc brakes, standard LvH panels and seat. This is a lightweight and narrow setup that can go pretty much anywhere that a normal bike can go, which has a lot of value in a city of tight spaces. And although our climate is not rainy like Seattle’s, the rain cover is what sold our kids on the bike. It is a year-round greenhouse that protects them from cold and wind—this is San Francisco, so there’s not really that much cold, but there is definitely a lot of wind. One difference is that we added Supernova dynamo lights: to say we have zero regrets would be a massive understatement. That headlight is bright enough to effectively light a dark road in Golden Gate Park for the Bullitt and both kids’ bikes in front of it. We never worry about riding at night.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

We like the Bullitt so much that we rented one again the last time we were in Portland.

I heard from someone a while back that he got the impression that the Bullitt was unreliable. This is so far from the truth that I laughed, but I suspect it is the hazard of occasional blogging—our life wanders on, and is punctuated by posts in which Something Happens. We did have a few hitches in the beginning, which related to stuff we stuck on the bike. Some of our accessory choices worked out well (the BionX assist, dynamo lights) and some did not (Patterson cranks). But the bike itself: bombproof. We love this bike. It changed our lives.

To get it out of the way, I’ll cover the things that went wrong first. They’re in three categories: (1) the Patterson cranks; (2) BionX; and (3) vandalism.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards.

First, the Patterson: When I got the bike, I really wanted a chain guard to protect my work pants. These are tough to include on a bike that has multiple front chain rings. Instead, Splendid suggested trying out the FSA Metropolis Patterson two-speed internally geared crankset. For the time that it worked, this was an awesome addition. We loved it. Unfortunately it is not compatible with the conditions here. We broke it twice riding on crappy streets, in the “speed bump with a deep crack in the asphalt on the other side” scenario that is pretty much a daily experience for us. We know to slow down for these on our regular routes, but on unfamiliar streets it was easy to hit a surprise divot at speed while loaded down with 100 pounds of cargo. The Patterson crankset just couldn’t take that kind of abuse. After the second breakdown and time-consuming repair, we swapped it out for a standard front triple, which cheerfully swallows whatever San Francisco can throw at it.

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

Parent shoes v. kid shoes in San Francisco

In the meantime, I learned to embrace a more San Francisco style of dress anyway, most importantly the ubiquitous look of skinny pants paired with dressy shoes. I grew up in Seattle, where “cute shoes” meant Birkenstocks, Merrells, Doc Martens or something chunky with thick straps from the Keen oeuvre, the kinds of shoes that make San Franciscans wince and scream, “My eyes!” So this shift involved a learning curve for me. But I can testify that it is an extremely bicycle-friendly way to dress. (I doubt this is a coincidence.) Happily we put MKS Grip King pedals on the Bullitt, still my favorite pedals ever, and they make it easy to ride in even the most ridiculous shoes. (I’ve heard reports that the Grip Kings sometimes get slippery in the rain, but here in California, which is still being ravaged by the worst drought in state history, that hasn’t been a question I can answer one way or the other.)

Second, the BionX: Our maintenance issues with the BionX have involved the good, the bad, and the stupid.

The stupid is that over a six-month period Matt dropped two controllers and shattered them, which is why we have no idea how many miles we’ve ridden this bike. The controllers are not a cheap part to replace. The bike shop glued the third one into place on the handlebars, so it couldn’t be removed, and since then: problem solved. I recommend this strategy to the butter-fingered BionX users among us.

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

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

The bad is that in the first year we owned the bike, we broke a dozen spokes on the rear wheel. Twice. I really wish BionX had indicated that on a cargo bike or in seriously hilly terrain, the rear wheel is going to need much thicker spokes. We only found this out after the second set of spokes broke, after complaining about it to The New Wheel. They knew immediately what our problem was, which is the advantage of having an e-assist focused local shop around. So on round 3, we replaced the spokes with monster ones, and again: problem solved. Not expensive, but definitely annoying. I have heard other people report the same problem. Probably best to ask for extra-thick spokes from the start.

The good is that we are evidently the luckiest family in family biking, because last week, the Bullitt’s battery died. It ran out of juice and stopped recognizing the charger. And at that point we had one week left on our original two-year warranty. We took it to The New Wheel, which told us that BionX would honor the warranty and almost certainly send us a brand-new battery. Score! In the meantime the shop gave us a loaner battery to use. So we ride on.

An early ride with many more to come

An early ride with many more to come

Last is the vandalism. While this is a hassle, it’s not specific to the Bullitt, and I guess it beats having a bike stolen outright, which is what happened with the MinUte. Once the saddle was stolen in Japantown. It made getting the bike home a total PITA. When Matt took our son to a Giants game, rowdy fans broke a support on the rain cover, which led to a week of relentless griping by the kids while we waited for a replacement. And then there is the problem of drivers treating the front bucket like a garbage can. One woman actually threw a coffee cup into it from her parked car as Matt was riding by. These days we keep the rain cover on almost all the time.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger where we live since we bought our bike.

The family biking world has definitely gotten bigger since we bought our bike.

And those are the problems we’ve had. They sum up to one bad decision on a crankset, one instance of poor communication from BionX about spokes, and two dropped controllers (sigh). Given that we were coming to full-time cargo biking cold, in terrain that is much more challenging than was typical for family biking at the time we started riding, I figure we’re doing reasonably well. Sure, it would have been great to have had more information about the spokes and so on, but in the meantime we’ve had two good years of riding. The rest of the time the Bullitt has spent in the shop has been basic maintenance: we replaced the chain this summer, and we take it in every six months or so to have the wires checked and the BionX software updated. Most recently, we had the speed at which the BionX kicks in lowered to 0.5kph from its original 2mph. That resolved one of our biggest complaints with the assist, which was difficult hill starts. They are no longer difficult.

The Bullitt+Roland

The Bullitt+Roland

We worried that the narrow box would be too narrow, but it lasted longer than we dared to hope. Of course our kids have gotten bigger, and now that they are almost-9 and 5, it is tough to squeeze them both in the box (although they are willing). We now use the trailer-bike almost all the time. Our daughter is still getting used to the pre-8am kindergarten start-time, so she will doze in the box on the way to school while our son rides the trailer-bike or his own bike, depending on his mood and what time we got out the door in the morning (he is not a fast rider). Having just one kid in the box has given us some new cargo capacity, and that’s been fun. We won’t haul them to school on the Bullitt forever, but for now it’s still a good kid-hauler.

So many ways to use a cargo bike

So many ways to use a cargo bike

I still adore shopping by Bullitt. We’ve rented cars with trunks that are smaller than that front bucket. We just throw stuff in (groceries, carpets that need to be cleaned, the cat carrier, the table tennis set—with both kids too) and go. I have carried three kids on the Bullitt and Matt has carried four, and that was without the trailer. Granted, I would not do this on steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that a BionX Bullitt will not handle, at least not yet. We hear that the new BionX D system will change that, and given how much use we still expect to get from the Bullitt, we will almost certainly upgrade to that system when it is released. In the meantime, even our two-year old system gets us where we need to go.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

Our kids think that every Bullitt on earth belongs to them.

We feared that getting rid of our car would involve sacrifices. We were surprised that it has not, really. We still rent cars for weekend trips sometimes, but we’re always relieved to drop them off again. I didn’t think our monthly transportation expenses were unreasonable three years ago, but they dropped substantially when we sold the car, and that helped us buy our condo last year. I assumed that bike commuting would take extra time, but we have been surprised again and again at how much time we save. With the assist on high I can cross town to pick up a sick kid faster than I have ever been able to drive, because I don’t have to worry about traffic. Although my injury last year messed with my fitness, in general over the last few years we’ve been in good shape, a big switch from the first couple of years of parenthood. And I was pleasantly surprised that once you learn to ride the Bullitt—I had issues with the learning to ride it part—it stays with you forever. I got back on it after four months bed-bound and it was like I had never stopped. Furthermore, to this day, the Bullitt remains the only box-bike I have ever ridden that I can refer to as “nimble” (and keep a straight face).

And a big shout-out still to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids' play area at their new shop!)

A big shout-out goes to Splendid Cycles in Portland, which first had the vision to see Bullitts as a family bike. (And check out the kids’ play area at their new shop!)

We owe it all to the Bullitt. What can I say? It even made us homeowners in San Francisco. It was the right family bike. We bought it at a time when there wasn’t much advice about buying bikes like these to be found. It was Splendid Cycles in Portland that imagined Bullitts could be a real family bike in the United States, and we were lucky to find them and right to trust them. We were making our decision blind, and we hit the jackpot. I recognize a Bullitt isn’t right for everyone—some people are too short, some places are flat enough that the bakfiets is a better fit, and it costs a mint—but we have zero regrets. I know that our kids will age out of being carried on the Bullitt, and being pulled by it, but it’s hard to imagine our outgrowing this bike. There is always something more to haul.

 

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

Our kids’ bikes: Torker Interurban 20” and Spawn Banshee 16”

The bike that started it all.

The balance bike that started it all.

As our kids have gotten older, they’ve moved into riding their own bikes, as one might expect. Our son started riding on our venerable Specialized Hotwalk balance bike, which this summer finally moved on to live with our next door neighbors and their 2-year-old.

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

Then (holy smokes he looks tiny!)

He jumped from there to a Jamis Laser at age 5, which worked for a while, but not as long as we had hoped, mostly because it doesn’t have gears and we live in San Francisco. After about a year of his resisting riding because he had to walk up the hills, we switched him to the Torker Interurban (20”) from The New Wheel when he turned 6, which has multiple gears, and he’s been riding that ever since (we sold the Jamis to a family in a flatter locale). After spending part of a summer at the wonderful wheelkids bike camp, he had the stamina and knowledge to take to the streets whenever he’s inclined. That’s less often than we might like, but he’s getting there. The Torker is lightweight, and he’s a lean and scrawny kid. Between that a reasonably wide gear range, he has little trouble pedaling that bike up to Alamo Square and back down again on the way to school.

Now

Now

Fortunately for us, our son by age 6 had reached a height that put him in the realm of kids’ bikes that are not uniformly terrible. In contrast, we found it very difficult to find good bikes in the 16” wheel range for our daughter. Local shops sell Linus kids’ bikes, but they are too heavy for the hills our kids ride, and worse yet from our perspective, come with training wheels [but see the comments below: there is a new local company producing a great 16" bike, the Cleary Hedgehog, as of last month]. We didn’t stick our kids on balance bikes before they turned two years old so they could backslide when they got older to bikes designed to accommodate training wheels. All the 16” bikes we found also came with coaster brakes, which we wanted to avoid after our son’s hard experience. The coaster brakes in combination with a hand brake on his old Jamis confused him, “Hand? Feet? Hand? Feet?” and really slowed his ability to catch onto braking while riding. Plus we have heard more than one horror story about kids who had had their ankles caught in the cranks, and whose parents had to disassemble the bike to remove them. Our daughter stayed on the balance bike much longer than she probably should have as we looked for a better alternative.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

She was really ripping along on that balance bike, though.

At this point, I should probably mention a brand of kids’ bikes that have gotten a bit of a subculture following in the family bike community, and why we didn’t get one: Islabikes (pronounced “eye-lah”). Islabikes makes some very nice kids’ bikes, although their 16” model comes with coaster brakes, which we did not want. The coaster brakes made it easier for me to decide not to buy one. There is a reason that I was trying to avoid Islabikes. While I try not to climb onto my soapbox too much here, I am not a fan of the Islabikes business model, which is to sell exclusively by mail. We typically buy our bikes and accessories from local bike shops.

The reasons we shop locally (for a given definition of locally) are complicated, but I will outline one of them here. Probably the most common question I get from other people is where they can test-ride the interesting family bikes we have tried, whether they are cargo bikes or kids’ bikes. And well, if you want to live in a world that has lots of shops in which to test-ride bikes, or for that matter, any shops in which to test-ride bikes, you have to support the local shops by selling to them and buying from them. I realize, of course, that new bicycle brands have to start somewhere, and I remember the difficult line that Xtracycle walked before its dealer network was well-developed, when it sold products both through local bike shops and through its website. But Xtracycle has always cultivated relationships with local shops, and now appears to sell exclusively through its dealers. Yuba appears to be en route to the same transition.

Islabikes, on the other hand, has no relationships with local bike shops. It sells exclusively online and the last that I heard, had no plans to change that model. I had qualms about supporting a brand that chose to cut out the biggest supporters of the riding that we do: local family bike shops. They are few and far-between and it’s not a hugely profitable business. I want to give them all the help that I can, because they help us, and because I’d like to see them survive, and because I’d like more shops to realize that ours is a market that is worth cultivating. So we spend our money at family bike shops, and on occasion, I write up the great experiences we’ve had at these places. I’m way behind on the latter, but these days I’m behind on everything.

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Trying out Islabikes in Portland

Finding a bike for our daughter, unfortunately, was looking as though it was going to be a “swallow hard and buy online” experience, though, because we couldn’t find a bike suited for our local conditions from a local shop. We considered an Islabike despite my reservations about the online-only sales and the coaster brakes (and about the fact that it only came in red; she didn’t want a red bike, her brother rides a red bike). Islabikes are in fact lovely bikes, viewed solely from a specifications perspective, as they are both lightweight and appropriately scaled. Our kids enjoyed test-riding them when we visited their factory at the post-Fiets of Parenthood party the company hosted in Portland this summer.

On the Spawn Banshee

On the Spawn Banshee

Fortune smiled on us, however, when I found a reference somewhere—I have forgotten where—to Spawn Cycles in Canada, which also sells excellent kids’ bikes. Better still, their 16” wheel bike, the Banshee, is sold with front and back hand brakes and no coaster brakes. They appeared pricier than other good kids’ bikes at first, but that was only until I realized that the prices were in Canadian dollars. Spawn Cycles sells its bikes online, which was good news for us given that they’re based in Canada. However the company is also developing a network of local bike shops that sell its products, exactly because it realizes that people want to be able to test-ride kids’ bikes. I liked the company’s attitude toward local bike shops and I liked the bikes. If we were going to buy a bike online, and it looked as though we were, I felt pretty decent about buying one from Spawn. And our daughter was thrilled to discover she could pick the color. Her new Banshee is pink. She was 5 years old when she started riding it, but could have managed it at age 4 if we’d found it sooner.

Spawn managed to get the bike to us within a few days, which I found impressive considering that it had to go through customs. Then we discovered that bikes purchased online, whatever the brand, come “some assembly required.” What can I say? We’d never bought a bike online before. Under normal circumstances the minor assembly work would have been no problem, but we had just moved into an ongoing remodel, and everything we owned in the way of bike tools was packed away… somewhere. Luckily, we share our building with a friendly guy who is really, really into bikes—and this is me saying that. He has a workshop set up in our shared garage for his own bikes, and volunteered to put our daughter’s bike together the same evening it arrived. Thanks again, neighbor! It took him about 15 minutes, but would probably have taken half as long if our daughter hadn’t been helping.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

They rode those bikes everywhere at Camp Mather, even to the bathhouse 20 feet from our cabin.

We were right about the hand brakes. It took our daughter a couple of weekday evenings to learn to ride her Banshee, and after a week, she could gracefully feather her brakes to slow her descent down even San Francisco hills. Her bike is so light that although it is a single speed, she occasionally outpaced teenagers on mountain bikes while riding up the hills at Camp Mather. Our daughter has never been much of a walker, always begging us to “Carry me!” Now she doesn’t have to be. These days when we head somewhere within a few blocks, we walk and she rides her bike. She’s still working on the skills she’ll need to ride in the street like her brother can, but in the meantime, it’s legal for kids to ride on the sidewalk. Between that and the Roland, which is giving her practice on the streets on the way to kindergarten, we’re slowly transitioning to a new kind of family biking, with everyone on their own bike.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco, 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