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Punk’d

When we went to visit my mom for spring break, we brought our rain gear. It rains a lot in Seattle. Unfortunately I lost my rain pants while I was there. That was a bummer—they’re great rain pants—but not a short-term crisis. It rarely rains in San Francisco after February, and never after March. And this is a drought year anyway. I figured that if they didn’t show up by October or so, I’d have to buy new gear, because an El Nino year is on the way. And I had already promised myself that next rainy season, I’d try a Cleverhood, but it wasn’t exactly on the top of my to-do list.

I also assumed that California’s weather system had better things to do than punk me, like empty out the state’s reservoirs. I was wrong.

This morning we woke up to rain. Of course it is welcome, because of the drought, but I was vaguely annoyed about my missing rain pants. Rain in San Francisco is like hills in San Francisco: hard and intense, although it comes and goes. But how bad could it be? I thought, with the casual ignorance of someone who has not gone outside in suspicious weather without wearing full rain gear since 2011.

Really, really bad, it turns out. By the time we’d gone a few blocks, my pants were soaked. By the time we hit the Panhandle, they had dripped an inch of water into each of my rain boots. And because the boots are waterproof, all that water just stayed there. By the time we dropped off our son, I was shivering. When I finally got to work, I had to empty my boots into the kitchen sink.

There will be no pictures with this post. I look like I was fished from a pond, and I’m walking around the office barefoot. I am just grateful that typically only one other person works in the office on Fridays.

When people say there is no bad weather, only bad gear, they are basically right. Until today I’ve loved riding in the rain. Super-cautious drivers, empty streets, respect or actual awe from my coworkers: what’s not to like? Having good gear is like having the right bike. It makes everything easier. With the Bullitt’s rain cover, the kids have never had complaints about riding in the rain either.

But without it, misery is never far away. This morning as I was sloshing through the halls, I thought, “This sucks. Maybe we should buy a golf cart.” This is the route to madness! I should buy some new rain gear. Preferably before 5pm. If only Instacart delivered clothing.

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Richmond Sunday Streets

On Arguello heading up to Clement Street

On Arguello heading up to Clement Street

Richmond Sunday Streets was last weekend, the last Sunday Streets of 2013. There’s a reason for that: it was cold. This didn’t seem to affect attendance much, but it made our kids grouchy and their noses run, so we didn’t stay as long as we might have otherwise.

For this event our son could ride his own bike without our having to keep an eye one him. Although most of the action was on Clement Street (aka Chinatown 2), Arguello was also closed from Golden Gate Park up to the start of Clement. In combination with the regular Sunday street closure in the park (and the fact that we live three blocks away) we rode the whole way without having to worry about cars except at a couple of intersections staffed by crossing guards. Even though it is always a bear climbing up Arguello into the park on the way home, it was worth it.

Spotted at Richmond Sunday Streets: skeleton bike

Spotted at Richmond Sunday Streets: skeleton bike

We used to live in the Inner Richmond, back when we were a one-kid family. We liked it then, although it eventually made sense to move closer to campus, but we’d like it even more now. Richmond Sunday Streets overlapped what is now a regular farmers market that takes over a few blocks of Clement Street every Sunday (now permitted to 2014). That didn’t exist when we lived nearby. And with Halloween coming up there were costumes as well. Even bike costumes!

Big Dummy with pirates--see what I mean? Costumes!

Big Dummy with pirates–see what I mean? Costumes!

We often see friends at Sunday Streets, and this was no exception—these days I’m starting to recognize bikes, at which point I stop to look for the people attached to them that I know should be around somewhere. As a bonus, we also got to meet a handful of new-to-us people with cool bikes. One family met us in Golden Gate Park to try out the Bullitt, even though they already own a pretty righteous Big Dummy. And I was reminded once again how much you can load on a Big Dummy, a trick that is evidently not exclusive to Family Ride.

Finally, I meet another triple tandem family.

Finally, I meet another triple tandem family.

People break out the big bikes for street closures. At Sunday Streets I’ve now spotted three different triple tandems—green, pink, and red—and this time we met the dad who rides the pink triple. He told me that he’d bought the frame used and built it up from there—he had no idea who manufactured it, but what a score.

On the way home we stopped at an intersection with a guy on a folding bike who told us our electric assist was “cheating.” I find this kind of thing pretty tiresome—since when are there competition rules in transportation cycling?—but Matt is more patient than I am. “We haul two kids up Parnassus Heights,” he said. “They should pedal on their own!” responded our critic. This is ludicrous—our son was on his bike that day, which is how we know that he can’t yet get up that hill on his own, even though he is a strong rider for his age. But after that this stranger told us that an assist was the right thing to do, and that he wanted one of his own. These moments make me wonder how much of the occasional grousing we hear about electric assist constituting “cheating” is simply envy.

How cool is this Bilenky?

How cool is this Bilenky?

But to sweeten the ride home, we met up with another cool cargo bike: a BionX Bilenky! I’ve seen a couple of Bilenky cargo bikes before, usually on the flats as the Bilenky front-loaders are not known as great climbers. But with a BionX it hardly matters. The rider told me that he lives above Buena Vista Park (for those unfamiliar with San Francisco, if there is a view, inevitably there is a steep hill associated with it). “I’m living the dream!” he told me.

This is the part of our new condo that doesn't need anything fixed.

This is the part of our new condo that doesn’t need to be fixed.

I’m now riding nearly every day, and walking without the cane. My limp gets a bit less noticeable every week. I keep meaning to write more, but I’ve been overwhelmed, mostly because (drum roll) we just bought a condo. Our new place is three blocks from our current rental, but every one of those blocks is downhill. And it is on a designated bike route, which means: a flat street. We’ll no longer need the assist just to get home. We won’t be able to move into the new place for months because it has… issues that need to be addressed (including the world’s most unusable kitchen). But we are counting the days.

And check out our new neighbors. I am so excited that we will be living down the street from these people.

And check out our new neighbors. I am so excited that we will be living down the street from these people.

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Crash

Last Sunday, while my son and I were riding in Golden Gate Park, we were rear ended by a car. The driver stopped, we have a police report, and our son was released from the ER that night. I have a shattered leg and will be hospitalized for some time. As much as I wish I could keep writing and riding, I’m going to have to take a break from both for a while. I hope to catch up in due time.

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The city and the city

This is light traffic by the standards of a driving commute in San Francisco.

This is light traffic by the standards of a driving commute in San Francisco.

Today, thanks to a complicated sequence of planned afternoon events, I took the shuttle to work. I was surprised to realize that this is the first time I’ve ridden a bus instead of a bike in months.

The university shuttle, compared to Muni, is fairly palatial. You always get a seat, there are no stops between most destinations, and people are quiet. A lot of people work on the shuttle, but now that we drive so rarely, I’ve found that I, like the kids, tend to get a little carsick. So I looked out the windows instead, which helps.

The city that I saw on the shuttle is very different than the city I see on a bike. The bus got caught in traffic at one point, which was unnerving (San Francisco keeps postponing the implementation of Bus Rapid Transit lanes). And most of what I saw on the way to work was roads and cars, an endless expanse of gray asphalt and metal. It was unpleasant. The bus is high enough that I could look down on cars, which were filled, almost without exception, with drivers texting on their cell phones. I did not find that reassuring. And from my perspective, every car I saw, even the “compact” cars, was comically oversized for its typical load of one or two people. People on foot sprinted across major intersections. The city I traveled in today is filled with noise and fumes and traffic. It feels dangerous and unwelcoming.

At the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

At the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park

I normally ride to work through Golden Gate Park and on back streets, and aside from a few transitions on major roads, the trip is quiet. I ride either in the park or on back streets lined with trees. My city is mostly filled with bird song and nature and brief conversations with people walking to work. “Please,” I say, “go ahead.”

No cars allowed

No cars allowed

I live in one place, but it contains two cities. I realize now why I haven’t ridden the shuttle in months. Why would I want to?

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The end of the world (or at least the end of the year)

I miss November.

I miss November.

It’s the end of the world. It’s the winter solstice. It’s the last day of school. And at the end of the day today, my office will turn off the heat until January 2013. It’s a giant hint that we shouldn’t be here, and after last year, when I had to come in anyway to work on a grant proposal, I’ve learned my lesson.

When the weather's better, they want to try riding with both of them on the tube (I don't, though).

When the weather’s better, they want to try riding with both of them on the tube (I don’t, though).

It hasn’t been the easiest December. It is often hard for me to get on the bike in the winter, even in temperate San Francisco. Temperatures have been lower than usual many days, and when it hasn’t been cold, it’s been pouring rain. Drivers are rushed and rude, passing too close and gunning though red lights. And in the afternoon and evening, there are delivery trucks blocking the bike lanes on every street and pushing me into traffic. The racks at the office these days hold only two bikes, mine and my friend Libby’s. For the first mile of any ride, I am always grouchy. The other day, for the first time in months, I thought “maybe I should just take the shuttle home.”

This is the Bullitt's Splendid canopy, worth every penny.

This is the Bullitt’s Splendid canopy, worth every penny.

But it gets better after that first mile. I have gear to handle the rain, and our kids are content under the Bullitt’s (awesome!) cover for the whole ride.  And other people make it easier. My friend Libby admired our dynamo lights when I left the office yesterday. On the Bullitt the other day I was fuming after my son and I were trapped behind two FedEx trucks, when another rider came up behind us. “I love your cargo bike!” he yelled. “It’s fantastic!” This morning, in the pouring rain, I saw Matt coming back from dropping off our son as I returned from dropping off our daughter, and we stopped to talk. One of my daughter’s preschool teachers walking to school stopped on the sidewalk next to us and shook her head. “You guys,” she said, “are so cool.” Who knew?

The fake snow at the Academy of Sciences is the only snow my kids have ever seen.

The fake snow at the Academy of Sciences is the only snow my kids have ever seen.

San Francisco is a big city, but on our bikes, it’s a small world. And it’s a friendly one. Thanks, everybody.

It can't be overstated how much kids love Engine Engine Engine.

It can’t be overstated how much kids love Engine Engine Engine.

There is so much I still mean to write about. What it was like to ride in Seattle and Portland (Families Ride again!), and both cities’ cargo bike roll calls (which were completely different); trying out new ride share services; how we set up our Bullitt; our son’s new bike and how he learned to use gears; how using the electric assist has made me a stronger rider; our trip to Davis and the World Cycling Hall of Fame; my battle to get more bike racks at our son’s afterschool program because the current ones are packed with family bikes. People have asked me to put together a summary of all the child seats we’ve tried; thanks to all those bike rentals, we’ve tried almost a dozen.  We have two friends who switched from driving to family biking just this month (in December! They rock!) San Francisco is adding bicycle infrastructure at such a rapid pace I can’t keep up. Next year, we hope to try our first cycle truck, a Workcycles Fr8, and a tandem or two.  And in April, when Golden Gate Park closes the streets to cars on Saturdays again, I’ve promised myself I’ll organize a Kidical Mass ride.

Another day at the Rosa Parks drop off, which has less and less room for all the bikes

Another day at the Rosa Parks drop off, which has less and less room for all the bikes

But it’s been a big year already, so for the rest of it, I think I’ll be taking a break from everything except family. If you’re in San Francisco, you might spot us at museums around the city over the next two weeks. Just look for the “one less minivan” stickers on the bikes parked by the front door.  And if you’re not in San Francisco, hope to catch you in 2013.

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Uphill, downhill: the limits of cargo bikes

This what hills in Bellingham look like. A 10% grade according to the signs, not too bad, especially given the killer views.

I complain a lot about going up San Francisco hills. What can I say? It often sucks. Something I’ve only mentioned in passing, but that we think about quite a lot nonetheless, is going downhill. While going uphill is literally a pain in the legs (and chest, when gasping for air) it is not as dangerous as going downhill can be.

We carry our kids on our bikes, and we go down steep hills regularly. We learned quickly that loaded cargo bikes (and trailers) need extra time and distance to stop when going downhill. It can be deeply disconcerting to brake and brake and brake, and only slowly drift to a stop. At first there were occasions that we overshot the lines at stop signs and red lights, and we are cautious riders. At times we take less steep routes on the way down than we do on the way up. We learned good braking habits very quickly and have internalized them to the point that I often forget to mention them.

Although we are scrupulous about maintaining our brakes, they occasionally fail. We replace pads on the bikes with caliper brakes on a schedule that raises eyebrows among people from outside San Francisco—roughly once a month—and that meets with knowing sighs among friends who ride in the city. The stock disc brakes on the Kona MinUte failed repeatedly and were on an every-other-week maintenance schedule until our local bike shop finally lost patience, called Kona, and asked for a credit to upgrade us to hydraulic brakes. And they got us one, which made the upgrade expensive rather than wildly expensive. The new brakes are amazing, with unbelievable stopping power, and the MinUte now only needs a brake adjustment every other month. We never, ever skip this maintenance.

The other problem that can crop up going downhill, which mercifully we have never experienced, is shimmy, aka death wobble. This is when the bike starts shaking uncontrollably and violently while going down hills, and is the kind of thing that typically only road racers experience, because it usually happens at high speeds. But some bikes can also shimmy at lower speeds, say, the kind of speed that a loaded cargo bike would approach while rolling down a steep hill. Having a top tube apparently provides stability that helps reduce the risk of shimmy, which is why I’ve been encouraged to abandon step-through frames. Better brakes help too. But the risk can only be reduced, not eliminated.

As annoying as all of this can be, we have gotten used to it. However these issues arose again when we started calling around asking about family bikes we could test ride, and why there were so few electric assist cargo bikes designed to handle steep hills in the US. There aren’t many electric assist cargo bikes anyway. When you start asking about taking them up mountains, or adding an electric assist to a bike like a Bakfiets, bike shops often get very quiet. A few shops claimed that electric assists were only designed for mild hills and to go longer distances, not to haul heavy loads up steep hills. This is clearly not true, as there are electric assist cargo bikes all over Europe designed for hills: e.g. an assisted Workcycles FR8, an iBullitt, and according to the German bakery we visited in Bellingham, every delivery bike used in Germany. The whole situation was starting to tick me off. I could get strong enough to haul my kids on long distance rides (and I have). I cannot get strong enough to haul my kids up truly steep hills as they get heavier, and even if I wanted to, putting them on the back of the bike on a steep hill has sometimes led to the front wheel lifting off the ground. They’re not strong enough to ride uphill themselves, and there’s too much traffic for them to be safe even if they could. People who want to ride an extra couple of miles don’t need an electric assist like people who live on the top of steep hills do. WTF, bike manufacturers?

I give Portland family bike shops (and a couple of San Francisco bike shops, Everybody Bikes and The New Wheel) credit here because when I asked this they gave me honest answers. It is, evidently, not a huge problem to put an electric assist on a bike to get it up a steep hill. It can, however, be a huge problem getting the bike+cargo back down that same hill safely. We rolled our eyes a little when we heard that because we’re already going down those kinds of hills fully loaded, so no new news here. But manufacturers are apparently concerned about the limits of bicycle brakes going downhill. The brakes on many cargo bikes are not up to the task; as proof, there’s our experience with the MinUte.

Evidently manufacturers are also concerned about the liability they’d face if someone who wasn’t attuned to these problems had the worst happen going downhill on an assisted cargo bike. Personally I think that’s a copout. I know parents who’ve been pulled or pushed down hills by trailers, who’ve broken spokes or had rear wheels taco or screwed up frames and gearing carrying kids up and down steep hills (cough cough… me). They don’t sue the bike or trailer or wheel manufacturers. They start looking for a better cargo bike. But there are currently very few better bikes, at least in the US, and the ones that do exist have appeared in the last year or two. So most parents in our situation have either kludged something together or started driving.

A Big Dummy in Bellingham: it is no accident that you can spot this bike all over in hilly cities

At any rate, although we’ll be trying out a lot of family bikes over the next couple of weeks, we have been told in advance that many of them aren’t going to work for us. Xtracycle and assist a commuter bike? Wobbles and fishtails when loaded on steep hills. Bakfiets and trikes? The brakes can’t handle steep downhills and can’t be upgraded, and the bikes themselves are so heavy that better brakes might not work effectively even if they could be added. And so forth. Although we’ll be riding lots of bikes for our own edification, the list of plausible candidates that we could take home to the hills of San Francisco is actually very short, at least for now. I don’t like this, but I have to live with it.

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Family bikes we have seen

I am getting a little better about taking pictures of interesting family bikes we see around the city. Some of them are ridden by people we know, and some of them seem to be just passing through. There are now more manufacturers in the US focused on creating bicycles that work for families–Xtracycle (almost everything) and Surly (Big Dummy), Kona (Ute and MinUte) Yuba (Mundo, elMundo, maybe the as-yet-unrevealed Boda Boda), Metrofiets, KidzTandem–but it’s not a hugely developed market, especially as kids get older. So people often work out their own strategies, and they’re sometimes even more interesting.

Purple tandem with a trailer-bike attachment

This isn’t the best photo, but this bike belongs to a family we know and is a tandem with a trailer-bike attached. The dad is a former mountain bike racer and we see them during member hours at the Academy of Sciences sometimes. Matt caught this picture of one of their many bikes during a party at a mutual friend’s house in the Presidio, although he didn’t see them riding it.

Two recumbents and a trailer at the Palace of Fine Arts

I think these two recumbent bicycle pirates were just passing through, because I’ve never seen them before or since. But these recumbents had a kid trailer (there was a small helmet inside and stuffed animals), and both bikes had an electric assist; one in the front hub and one in the rear hub. I didn’t find the riders but would have liked to ask them the difference. They had very large battery packs which supports my suspicion that they were only visiting San Francisco. Also they were recumbent bicycles, and I’ve never met anyone who liked riding those in city traffic. Yay, tail pipe exhaust. Woo hoo, unlikely to be seen by drivers.

Custom Bilenky kitted out for a family ride

Last but not least is the custom Bilenky I spotted at the Golden Gate Bridge anniversary party, with a child seat added to the rear rack. The dad who was riding it said he had gotten it before he was a parent, but with that much cargo space it seems reasonable enough to squeeze a child seat on somewhere. I have seen pictures of cargo bikes (and cargo scooters) with kids on the front deck, but his son was young and a rear seat is probably safer at that age.

I have a lead on another wild family bike, but no photos yet: to be continued, I hope.

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