Category Archives: Yuba Mundo

Destinations: Blue Heron Bikes

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys.

This is what you get when you go to Berkeley: wild turkeys. It’s not safe crossing the Bay.

I’ve been disappointed for years now that San Francisco has no family/cargo bike shop. Things are certainly better than they were a couple of years ago, when we started looking for our 2-kid hauler, but shopping around for a family bike in the city still involves a lot of “around”: wandering from bike shop to bike shop, none of which are necessarily on the same transit lines (and none of which, pretty understandably, have any parking for cars.)

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let's ride some bikes!

Welcome to Blue Heron. Let’s ride some bikes!

Back in 2012, it was a no-brainer to tack a train ride to Portland for cargo bike shopping onto our summer trip to Seattle to visit my mom. At the time Portland had three cargo bike shops that seriously considered the needs of family riders. Last year, however, I started to hear from other families about Blue Heron Bikes in Berkeley, which opened shortly after we returned from Portland in 2012. They said it was a real family bike shop. They were right.

These people think of everything.

These people think of everything.

We didn’t make it over to Blue Heron until early 2014, but it was worth the wait. Having visited a few family bike shops already, we knew what to look for: kids’ bikes, cargo bikes, and a Lego table. Check, check, and check.  (Clever Cycles in Portland, which represents the pinnacle of family bike shops in the United States, also adds a large play space, inexpensive rentals of many of the bikes it sells, and FREE DIAPERS IN THE BATHROOM to that mix, but this is the result of years of practice.)

Hi, Rob!

Hi!

I no longer patronize bike shops that give me attitude—and anyone who’s walked into a typical bike shop with kids will know what I’m talking about here—so the other critical attribute of a family bike shop is being nice to anyone who walks in the door.  I’m no longer the best judge of that personally, given that my husband likes to walk into bike shops and announce, “This is my wife and she writes a blog about family biking!” However on our first visit to Blue Heron about half a dozen novice family bikers stopped by, and Rob (the owner) and his staff were lovely to all of them. Those poor families also had to endure us talking their ears off about the bikes they test-rode, but you can’t blame Blue Heron for that. Check Yelp for the many five-star reviews from people who showed up on other days.

The family bike corner

The family bike corner

What kind of bikes can you get at Blue Heron? Lots of bikes: they stock Bromptons, Bullitts (sent down from Splendid Cycles), EdgeRunners, and Yuba Mundos. I’ll admit that Bromptons aren’t usually considered family bikes, but that’s how we ride ours, and Emily Finch is now hauling four kids on a Brompton + Burley Travoy, so I think they qualify. Blue Heron also has some quirky stuff like a Japanese cargo bike that they’ve rigged with a rear child seat.  I haven’t ridden that bike, because I figured we’ve tried their patience enough. My kids wanted to ride all the bikes they had in front, and my son announced afterward that he wants a mountain bike. My daughter cried all the way home about our decision to not buy her the purple bike she rode while we were there, because “It’s near my birthday!”

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

Swoopy looking EdgeRunner

The kids did not stop with the bikes in their own size. They also asked to ride the Bullitt with the large box, so we did, and I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should upgrade to that box since. And they also wanted to ride the EdgeRunner. The last EdgeRunner I had ridden was a pre-production model, but the 2014 EdgeRunner was significantly more awesome. We loved that bike. I haven’t stopped hearing about how we should get an EdgeRunner either. We’re going to try the assisted version next, and hopefully a Kinn Flyer and a Workcycles Fr8 too (more reviews!)

Although Blue Heron is located on the Ohlone Greenway in the flats, which makes for lovely test rides, Berkeley is not without hills, and they will also assist your family bike. They had BionX versions of a number of the cargo bikes they sell ready for test rides. Fortunately they didn’t have a BionX EdgeRunner in stock when we were there or we might not have escaped without buying another bike.

There's a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids' test rides

There’s a largely unused parking lot behind the shop, great for kids’ test rides

From my perspective, Blue Heron has only one dreadful, depressing flaw, and that is that it is in Berkeley. Getting to Berkeley is an all-day commitment for us, even now that our kids are older. However I understand why families in San Francisco are making the trek across the Bay. Getting a cargo bike from Berkeley to San Francisco is a real adventure—one dad took his new Bullitt on BART, which meant carrying it on the stairs, and another family rode theirs down to the ferry to get it home.  I’m not sure I’m ready to commit to that kind of adventure, but we’ve been there twice now and I have no doubt that we’ll return.

For us, a trip to Portland was the only way to compare the different possible bikes we could have bought. We wouldn’t have to make that same trip now. I’m glad we did go, of course, because if we hadn’t we would never had met the family biking crew in Portland, and we would have had to wait much longer to ride our bike. This is difficult and unpleasant to imagine. But if we were looking now, we’d start in Berkeley.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, Bullitt, destinations, family biking, travel, Xtracycle, Yuba Mundo

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

Kidical Mass, Critical Mass

Getting to Critical Mass involved some serious traffic maneuvering. This bus was stopped completely, so we had to squeeze between it and the curb. And that is why I like narrow bikes.

It was a busy weekend for our bikes. On Friday, we attended San Francisco’s first Kidical Mass, which was an auxiliary of the 20th anniversary Critical Mass. We don’t live anywhere near the Financial District where the ride starts, plus we have little kids and almost never go out on Friday nights. As a result it had been years since we had any exposure to Critical Mass whatsoever, and we’d never ridden in one.

To make things more complicated, Matt had rented a car for a work meeting in the South Bay in the morning, had left late, and was caught in traffic returning to the city. He didn’t make it home until 40 minutes after we were supposed to leave. It is fair to say that his delay caused a modicum of tension in in the Hum household. If I had had the new cargo bike already, I would have taken both kids myself, but I had no way of doing that with our current bikes and I couldn’t take one kid and leave one home either. The list of things we could do if we had the new bike has reached the point where I now wonder a couple of times a week if waiting until October in exchange for free delivery was my best decision ever.

This woman had both a kid on the back and a dog in front!

So anyway, we got there late. Luckily for us, the ride started late too. Although many families had apparently left, pleading bedtimes, there were still a few people there with kids, and it was wonderful to meet them. I was particularly enamored of the family with stuffed animals zip tied to their helmets (who were understandably featured in all the local news coverage). The families riding in San Francisco are absolutely fabulous. Mostly I hang with the Rosa Parks parent crew, so I sometimes forget how many more people are out there.

This was a huge, huge ride, and as a result, there was about as much walking as there was riding. I was surprised at how philosophical many of the drivers caught in traffic were about the event. On some level, I suppose it is much like getting caught in traffic for any other event—game day, Occupy protest, whatever—just part of driving in the city. I am happy to have left this all far behind us.

Yes, there is a flaming broomstick on the back of that bike. It’s something to consider now that Jerry Brown has vetoed the 3-foot passing rule.

Although it was a new experience, and a slow ride, my daughter and I were having fun being around all the bikes, especially the unusual ones: tall bikes, conference bike, music bikes. We also saw a Yuba elMundo with two kids on board (not part of the Kidical Mass crew) stopped on the hill up Market Street because the motor had overheated. Unfortunately my son, who had spent the day running around for Undokai (Japanese Sports Day), was hungry, tired and frustrated and started crying and demanding to leave. We told him we would leave early and take him to a Mexican restaurant off the Wiggle on the way home, which improved his mood.

The conference bike had a little kid in the middle (a bad shot I realize).

And this is when the ride got funny. We peeled off from the main ride to the Market Street bike lanes heading west. “Where are all the bikes?” my daughter asked sadly. A few blocks later, the mass rushed into the lanes ahead of us. “Yay!” she said. We turned off from the ride and headed up another street. “Where are all the bikes?” A few minutes later, the mass rushed through the same street we turned onto. “Yay!” When we got onto the Wiggle, we rode for a few blocks on our own again, then whoosh! Critical Mass returned. We finally lost the ride for good when we headed directly up Page Street, which is far too steep for the fixie crew.

When we got home, my daughter was still missing all the bikes, and wondering at bedtime when they would come back. At the rate our ride was going, I think she expected them to show up in her room. But stuffed as she was on avocados and fried plantains, she fell asleep before she found out.

Our trip with the neighbors through Golden Gate Park seemed like a good potential Kidical Mass route.

I would love to try another Kidical Mass ride, independent of other rides on a more child-friendly schedule. We had a lovely ride with some neighbors on Labor Day in Golden Gate Park, which started with the kids running around at Koret Playground. From there were headed through the closed streets to the food trucks on the Music Concourse for ice cream and onward from there down JFK Drive. For kids on their bikes, practicing on streets closed to cars is very nice. Matt suggested that a future ride go along JFK all the way to the Park Chalet at Ocean Beach, which despite its horrific service and indifferent food has extensive bike parking, a huge open yard and seating, and interesting woods behind the yard where kids can play and parents can practice their free-range parenting skills. Any interest? If so, perhaps one of these upcoming Sundays could be another Kidical Mass.

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Filed under advocacy, San Francisco, traffic, Yuba Mundo

Rosa Parks Fall BBQ

One part of the bike parade

On Saturday we headed to the annual Rosa Parks PTA Fall BBQ. We have been there before, but this was the best year ever, because this was the first year there was a bike rodeo and a bike parade. Attendance exceeded previous records, and so many people came by bike that they had to create overflow parking. We are a mighty bike community.

The Madsen and a few other bikes stayed behind during the bike parade.

My husband says that bikes are to schools as lesbians are to property values: a marker of great things happening. I have been taking photos like crazy on school mornings because the amazing new kindergarten class at Rosa Parks is simply packed with family bike commuters—4 Yuba Mundos, a bike with a Trail-Gator, a bike with a trailer, and so on. Plus the families I wrote about last year keep on keeping on. Not only were many of these families there on Saturday, there was a new bike on the yard, a real-live Madsen. I didn’t meet the family riding it but was told that they recently moved to San Francisco from Japan. I assume that they must live close by because this was an unassisted Madsen.

Two kids on one 20″ bike slay the obstacle course. Who needs Fiets of Parenthood? We have Fiets of Childhood.

Kids on their own bikes were out in full force on the lower yard, and before and after the parade (which was led by the principal). Not every kid who wanted to ride had a bike so they began loading each other up on their bikes to make sure everyone got a spin. I had to laugh thinking about how much angst we’d had over child bicycle seats. With kids old enough to sit up, you can simply seat them right on the top tube. It worked in My Neighbor Totoro, it works for a dad at school still hauling his now-1st grader to school that way, and it definitely worked for the kids. Sure, a spare saddle or a foam pad is a nice addition, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary. And the weight distribution is very good, right between the wheels and probably better for the bike than a rear seat. When they couldn’t fit two kids on the top tube in front of a rider, they improvised, and put one kid on the top tube while the other stood on the back. I had no idea you could fit three kids on a such a little bike. And these kids went fast once they loaded up.

More of the bike parade whizzes by, and Rosa Parks smiles above it all.

I’ve written before about how much I love our son’s school, which not only is a wonderful community for our son but provides me with endless entertainment, including camping with friends from school and digging up tombstones at kids’ birthday parties. It just keeps getting better. The other morning my son and I met two families coming up Webster Street on the way to school and formed an impromptu bike train up to the school yard. This morning I rode and chatted with one of the Yuba moms on the way from school to work; she took that bike, with her preschooler on the deck, up the heinous Post Street hill. They went slowly but never faltered. I never dreamed that I could have so much fun commuting. Fortune smiled when the San Francisco school lottery sent us to Rosa Parks.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

We tried it: Yuba elMundo

I didn’t manage to get good photos of the elMundo I rode, so here’s a nice-looking Mundo. Imagine a battery behind the tube holding up the seat and you’re mostly there.

I have said before that Yuba is the Ikea of bicycle manufacturers. This sometimes gets taken as a slur against Yuba, but I intend no disrespect. Ikea meets a market demand that no one previously realized was there: at certain points in their lives, people want cheap furniture that looks decent. Yuba realized there was a market demand that no other manufacturer was meeting directly: inexperienced riders wanted inexpensive bikes that could carry a bunch of stuff.

Xtracycle pioneered that market with the FreeRadical longtail extension, but there are some limitations to their model. The first is that the FreeRadical will fishtail and flex under weight (that means you feel like the bike will fall apart while riding it loaded, even if it won’t—although with sufficient weight, in difficult conditions, it actually might). The second is that installing it onto an existing bike frame, or for that matter even understanding how it works, requires a certain baseline level of comfort with bicycles. Xtracycle attempted to address the second problem with the release of the Radish, but as the Radish is simply a FreeRadical attached to a bike frame, there are still problems with flex. They addressed the problems with flex by partnering with Surly to create the Big Dummy, which uses a solid frame, but that bike is substantially more expensive, and offers some complicated choices. Having talked to a lot of inexperienced riders, I can attest that although the Xtracycle line of products is incredible (seriously, it’s awesome), it can seem very confusing.

Enter the Mundo. Yuba keeps it simple. (I rode a Mundo for a couple of weeks earlier this year and reviewed it here.) For $1200 you get a bike with a strong frame that can carry massive amounts of weight, mountain bike gears to climb hills, fenders for foul weather, and a lot of cargo and kid-carrying options (these cost extra). Hitting that price point means that Yuba has made certain compromises: there is no free lunch in the world of cargo bikes. For one thing, the bike is heavy, and even with a lot of gears, getting up steep hills involves major-league suffering. Thus Yuba created the elMundo, the electric-assist version of the Mundo.

I found riding the elMundo fascinating. If you’ve read my review of the Mundo, most of the reasons the Mundo wasn’t the right bike for us are still an issue with the electric assist version.  The elMundo is not our future bike. However our situation is somewhat unusual, and after riding the elMundo I think that unless there is a sea change in what other manufacturers are doing, it will soon dominate the family/cargo bike market.  That is in large part because Yuba has created a bike that is simple enough, cheap enough, and capable enough that it is drawing in people who had previously never imagined that they might commute by bike with their kids. There aren’t a lot of choices to make with the Yuba line, and that can be a good thing.

The pros of the elMundo:

  • Longtails ride a lot like normal bikes. The learning curve is minimal. I’ve gotten comments that I harped excessively on getting used to a bike in my reviews of front box bikes, but I think it’s important for people to have a sense of how long that might take, or they will rule certain bikes out the first time they get on them. (There are multiple attempted reviews of the Bullitt, for example, that essentially say: “Yuck, I couldn’t ride it.”) The elMundo is no exception to the general “easy to ride” rule; although of course it gets tougher with the kids on deck because they squirm and that can mess with balance.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo can carry major amounts of weight without the bike feeling unstable or fishtailing. Yuba claims that you can carry over 400 pounds of cargo on the rear deck. A very nice (although somewhat out of date) summary of cargo bikes from JoeBike notes that cargo bikes can usually safely carry rather less weight than their manufacturers suggest, and other bike shop owners have told me the same thing. However the Mundo line is still rated to carry twice what other longtail bikes can.
  • Unbeatable price! The elMundo lists for $2600, basically the price of a Mundo with the assist thrown in at what must be very near manufacturer cost. There is no other electric assist cargo bike I have heard of that approaches this figure. For example, the hopefully-soon-to-be-released Xtracycle Edgerunner, which looks to be a very nice assisted longtail, is supposed to list for $3500. That’s a good price for an assisted cargo bike too, but it’s still almost $1,000 more than the elMundo. Novice riders in particular are extremely price-sensitive.
  • The elMundo, like the Mundo, has good acoustics. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but having the kids behind you instead of front means that you can’t see what they’re doing. Being able to hear them reasonably well as a rider helps smooth the ride (kids, left unobserved together, will eventually fight). Plus it’s entertaining. You as the rider still can’t be heard by them, but it’s better than nothing.
  • The elMundo has a good kickstand, which now comes standard (the older versions of the Mundo had the better kickstand as a more expensive option). Poor kickstands are legion among longtail and midtail bikes. Putting live weight on a bike is different from putting dead weight on it, and having a decent kickstand is critical to being able to load the bike safely with two younger kids, or being able to add cargo to a bike with kids on it (and kids come with a lot of stuff). You can’t put the kickstand down without getting off the bike, but the bike is unlikely to topple while parked.
  •  The electric assist, which works using a twist-throttle on the right hand grip, is very simple to operate and powers smoothly up mild to moderate hills. The further you turn the throttle, the more power you get from the motor. I always overheated getting the Mundo up San Francisco hills, which was extremely undesirable given that I commute in work clothing. The elMundo is better.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are relatively short for cargo bikes, at just shy of 7 feet, and that means that they are much less painful to park and store. Although the Mundo is wide in back, you’ll be able to fit it into a normal bike corral if you roll in forward. However you will still need walk-in parking, or close to walk-in parking, and there is no way you could carry the bike upstairs. The Mundo takes up a lot of room at the conventional San Francisco “bike rack”, which is a parking meter, but it won’t completely block the sidewalk as a Bakfiets or trike would.
  • The elMundo (as well as the Mundo) can take an infant seat on the front, which makes it possible to carry three kids (two on the deck, one in front) with minimal squabbling.
  • The elMundo can carry a lot of cargo in addition to kids. Yuba’s Go-Getter bags, which are Mundo-specific panniers on the rear rack, are gigantic and don’t sag because they are supported by the side beams on either side of the rear wheel. If you don’t like the Go-Getter bags, you can install Xtracycle FreeLoaders (this would be my choice). The optional front Bread Basket is frame-mounted. It takes some getting used to, because it doesn’t turn with the bike’s front wheel, but that frame mount means that it can carry a lot of weight. For example, friends with an elMundo bungeed a 16” kid bike with training wheels to it last weekend. We carried a week’s worth of shopping on a Bread Basket.
  • The Mundo and elMundo have some nice design features. For example, the side beams that stick out on either side of the rear wheel can be used as footrests for riders on the deck or as a way to easily haul a second bike. The bike is accessible to riders of a range of heights with an adjustment of the quick-release seat. A front wheel stabilizer to keep the bike from toppling due to the weight of the front wheel is standard. The deck and optional foot boards are made from bamboo; very pretty. The color choices (orange and black) are more attractive than most. And if you don’t have much storage space, the Yuba can be balanced “standing up” on the back of the frame (photo here), assuming that you don’t have a child seat on the end of the deck.

The cons of the Mundo:

  • The eZee electric assist on the elMundo is underpowered. I had heard reports that it failed on steep hills, which I believe. It struggled on moderate hills, slowing substantially on the longer ones, even with no kids on deck or other cargo. (My definition of a moderate hill is roughly 10% grade, which is maybe atypical but is consistent with San Francisco topography. However note that the bike was unloaded.) Ultimately I climbed hills faster by turning on the assist for a while, then turning it off and pedaling for a bit, then turning it on again, etc. This worked but did not improve my mood. A BionX assist is much more efficient and did not struggle at all on comparable grades, even with a two-kids-and-all-their-gear load. However a BionX assist is substantially more expensive, and a BionX rear wheel is only rated to carry 220 pounds. Given that safe cargo weight limits on longtails can be exaggerated this might not make much practical difference. However several hundred dollars in price difference for a BionX assist is not trivial.
  • The eZee battery is very wide, and that means that the elMundo has lost the Mundo’s front triple ring, because there is not room at the back for the chain to run freely with three front rings. The elMundo has only seven gears in the back instead of the 21 gears on the Mundo (3 in front x 7 in back). Converting a Mundo into a elMundo costs ~$2000 at San Francyclo, more than the $1400 price difference between the two bikes at purchase, in part because of the parts swap on the front ring.
  • The eZee assist is a throttle assist rather than a pedal assist. (There are after-market eZee assists that have a pedal-assist option, and evidently at least one person has put one on a Mundo, but I’m focusing on the stock elMundo.) This is a personal preference, but I am much happier using a pedal assist, in part because the effort of pedaling is multiplied when riding instead of replaced. When I turned the throttle on I stopped pedaling, and this made riding the elMundo feel like switching between a bike and a moped.
  • Front hub motors like the eZee are somewhat noisy. The sound of the motor, when it was on, negated some of the good acoustics I liked when riding the bike unassisted. The motor wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as after-market mid-drive motors—the one I tried was like a Vespa—but it was louder than manufacturer-installed mid-drive motors like the Panasonic, and I found even that mild rattle vaguely annoying when I tried it.
  • The Mundo and elMundo both have cheap parts. What that means from a practical perspective is that they can be less than fun to ride at times. There is mild rattling while the bike is moving and I noticed bad pavement more than usual (and this bike was better maintained than the Mundo I rode earlier in the year). When I tried to shift gears, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. That probably wouldn’t matter much to me if I lived in Chicago, where people can ride for hours without changing gears, but I live in San Francisco, and I rarely ride for more than a few minutes without needing to shift. Having ridden bikes with better components, and discussed these issues with the shop, I feel confident that this is not my incompetence; instead, it’s that the stock gearing uses cheap parts. Similarly, the stock brakes on the elMundo are terrible. Not only is there a rim brake on the front wheel, the rear disc brake was weak and slow to stop the bike, even when it was unloaded (the Madsen has a similar setup, which I also disliked, but the brakes on the Madsen worked better; I have no idea why). Again, maybe a San Francisco-specific issue; I am paranoid about bicycle stopping power.
  • The elMundo felt sluggish. This is difficult to explain, and I doubt that I would have noticed if I hadn’t spent a few weeks riding many other cargo bikes. However after that my conclusion was that some bikes like to go fast (Big Dummy, Bullitt), and some bikes want to go slowly (Bakfiets, elMundo, Mundo). I felt like I was constantly fighting the elMundo to get up to the speed I wanted to travel.
  • When I rode the Mundo, I had issues with the side loader bars that stick out from either side of the rear wheel. In many ways these are very handy, because they provide nice footrests and support the Go-Getter bags. However for me their width was frustrating on city streets in narrow bike lanes. I was never sure whether I could thread through pinch points in traffic, particularly at intersections when cars move to the right curb and block half the lane. With Go-Getter bags the problem is exacerbated, as they’re so big that the width of the bike in the rear then becomes almost 36 inches, wider than most bicycle trailers. For this reason, I thought that the Mundo, when I rode it, was more of a suburban or small city bike than a big city bike.
  • From a parental perspective, riding with the kids in back is less fun than riding with the kids in front, because you can’t really talk to them. Moreover you can’t easily break up fights. Technically there is room on the back deck for three kids (and the Mundo/elMundo can certainly handle the weight) but putting three kids in close proximity like that is like putting both of our kids on the deck of our Kona MinUte: sometimes we get lucky and they get along swimmingly on a long ride, and sometimes they start smashing helmets in less than a minute, at which point we have to walk the bike.
  • With a longtail loading the bike is more complicated than it is with a box bike. Box bikes don’t have any issues with, say, a mega-pack of toilet paper. However if you ride a longtail there’s always going to be some repacking with bulky items.
  • My daughter, who is three, can’t climb up to the deck and into the child seat unassisted. It is useful when kids can load themselves onto the bike, although this issue is less critical given that the elMundo has a good kickstand.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are very difficult to walk while loaded and to start up an incline while loaded without tipping over. I dumped my kids on the Mundo, and given time, the same thing would happen with the elMundo. Although I often feared dumping my kids with the front box bikes, it never actually happened. Longtails are less stable than box bikes.
  • The top tube on the Mundo and elMundo is fairly high. That’s part of the reason it can carry so much weight without complaint, and that’s no small thing, but I suspect that shorter riders would have trouble getting on and off the bike for this reason. It involved more contortion than I would have liked and I’m 5’7”. Update: Check out the comments below for a nice discussion of how a 5’2″ rider gets on and off the bike.
  • Like most of the longtails, the elMundo comes without any of the commuting accessories that make bikes easier to ride in a lot of situations.  Although fenders are standard, there is no chainguard, there are no dynamo lights, and neither one appears to be an option. Adding a child seat is $170, the Go-Getter bags are $130 each, the front Bread Basket is $130, stoker bars for an older kid are $60, and seat cushions for the deck are $30 per kid. Getting the bike to the point where it can carry two kids and a reasonable amount of cargo would cost a fair bit on top of the list price of the bike.  And there is no rain cover for the kids. And I’d still have to tie up my pants.

When I rode the Madsen, I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be comfortable riding it in San Francisco without substantially upgrading the parts. And frankly that seemed like too much work given that there were other choices. The same is true for the elMundo. Yuba sells a frame kit, and it is possible to buy that and build it up with much higher-quality parts: better brakes, better gearing, better tires, probably dynamo lights, a stronger assist, and so forth. I suspect that would resolve many of my issues with the elMundo: it could stop quickly, could climb hills better, wouldn’t resist shifting gears, and probably wouldn’t be as sluggish. The question is how much that would cost.

BionX Mundo. Nice!

Some parents at our son’s school recently bought a customized Mundo with excellent parts that had been returned to the shop by another customer.  The shop (Roaring Mouse) had also installed a BionX assist. It is a beautiful bike and they have zero problems climbing San Francisco hills—I saw the mom at Sunday Streets last weekend pedaling casually up to Alamo Square—but they said that their bike was quite expensive even though the price had been significantly reduced because it was a customer return. I suspect that a Yuba Mundo/elMundo upgraded to the point that I’d enjoy riding it would cost at least as much as a Surly Big Dummy. At which point I have to ask: why not buy a Big Dummy? It would be a lot easier.

And yet. I am picky about these issues because I live and work on steep hills in what I am told is the second hilliest city in the world (and this is not a competition you want to win). My situation is not typical, perhaps not even in San Francisco. I see a LOT of Mundos and increasingly, elMundos, in the city now, primarily in the Richmond and the Sunset. Families who live in these areas and commute to local schools and/or along the Wiggle have no need for a bike that can scale steep hills. There are few serious grades in those parts of the city, the streets are wide and mostly empty of moving cars, and they can rent a car if they want to go to the Randall Museum. I would be surprised if families who live on Nob Hill or Potrero Hill could make an elMundo work for them without serious after-market modifications, but there are lots of families who don’t need to go those places.

The elMundo is cheap and its parts are sufficient for most riders. This bike makes it easy to take up commuting by bike with kids, and in flat cities, the same is true of the Mundo. There are no complicated decisions to make, riding it is painless, the bike is inexpensive, and it will get most people where they need to go smoothly. This is why I think the elMundo will be a category-killer.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

San Francisco destinations: The New Wheel

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

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

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

Electric-assist bikes: interesting!

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

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

These are the kinds of bikes they sell.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The New Wheel: stop by and check it out!

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

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

Riding to the Bicycle Music Festival

The Bicycle Music Festival at Log Cabin Meadow

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

Pedal!

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

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

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

Haven’t we seen you somewhere before?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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