Tag Archives: Brompton

Christmas tree by bike, again

Another December means another trip to get a Christmas tree by bike. So far we have failed to match the experience of carrying a tree by bike that we had in the first year, which was laughably easy. Last year the tree fit in the bike just fine, but Matt dropped the Bullitt and lost one of the support struts holding up the rain canopy, which left the kids miserably cold until we got the new part. That meant the post-tree hauling experience was less than fun.

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

Christmas tree on bike, yet again

So this year we switched back to the MinUte because I was paranoid about losing a support strut again, even assuming that we removed the canopy in the garage. It turns out that a midtail is great for a smaller tree, but a 7-foot tree with attached stand is a bit beyond the scope of our bike. Matt rode for part of the trip and walked the bike for part of it. The tree was firmly attached with bungees, but so back-heavy that the bike wanted to do wheelies. Maybe it would work if we were heavier riders. Next year, it’s back to the Bullitt (with an extremely careful removal of the canopy and full parts inventory before departure).

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4

However we did resurrect last year’s tradition of me riding the kids home on the Brompton. This was a bigger challenge than last year given that I’m not as strong as I used to be. For the last hill my son jumped off and walked with the tree-bike, so I was only carrying my daughter. Ultimately I made it up a decent hill on an unassisted bike with my daughter, who is now pushing 45 pounds, in the front seat. Not bad.

Although I tend to think bringing a tree home by bike is nothing special when I see all the cargo biking families who’ve posted pictures of themselves doing the same thing, it is evidently still pretty avant-garde here in San Francisco, because the lot manager recognized us from previous years. He did report that some families bring their tree home on scooters. And although our hauling strategy has not yet been perfected, it still beats waiting for one of the hotly contested spots in the parking lot and vacuuming a gazillion pine needles out of the car, an experience which historically made us reluctant to buy a tree at all. It is a big deal that we’ve now had some kind of tree three years in a row, as we’re (a) technically a Jewish family and (b) pretty lazy about the whole getting-stuff aspect of the holidays (my kids typically score socks for Christmas). In my defense, though, I always take the two weeks of school holidays off and spend gobs of time with the kids.

We need happi coats if we're going to join the mochi pounding crew.

We need happi coats if we’re going to join the mochi pounding crew.

On Sunday we went to our daughter’s preschool for a winter concert and mochitsuki, which was a bit early for a mochitsuki but pretty incredible nonetheless. Watching a pile of sushi rice turn into a gelatinous mass of delicious mochi is one of those have-to-see-it-to-believe-it experiences, plus we got to eat the mochi. My only complaint about the experience is that the bike parking around Japantown is pretty substandard. But evidently the car parking situation was worse, as a bunch of families arrived late.

P.S. A zero-waste Christmas extra: my gift wrapping strategy. We are pretty mellow about the present-aspect of Christmas, but there are some gifts under the tree. One year my son even got a bike (the bike was left unwrapped).  But most gifts are wrapped in fabric. Thanks to our exposure to Japanese culture, I picked up a few furoshiki in Japantown years ago to wrap gifts, and I reuse them every year. (For furoshiki wrapping techniques, ask the internet, which is almost as eager to teach people how to use furoshiki as it is to teach people how to wear scarves.) When I run out of furoshiki—I didn’t buy a lot because they are kind of pricey for something I use few times a year—I wrap gifts in my scarves or in our flour sack dish towels, which are free because we already own them. I know, know, dish towels: classy! But they are big and square and hey, white is a Christmas color. For larger gifts, I’ll use a pillowcase. And for huge presents, well, we have sheets and a fabric shower curtain. A watercolor pencil will write on fabric and come out in the wash, allowing the lazy wrapper to skip not only wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, but a gift tag as well. Some people make their own furoshiki, or pick up square scarves while thrifting, but ever since I had the dish-towel insight I just can’t bring myself to make the effort.

The tree at home and decorated

The tree at home and decorated

Presents for other people typically go out in a glass jar that would otherwise have been recycled, a flour sack dish towel that I wouldn’t be traumatized to never see again (they’re cheap), or some of my kids’ artwork (always my first choice, but not always available in appropriate sizes).

Happy holidays!

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Filed under San Francisco, Kona, Brompton, Bullitt, zero waste

We tried it: Ridekick cargo trailer

The Ridekick cargo trailer, unattached

The Ridekick cargo trailer (unattached) with Brompton

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

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

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

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

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

What I liked about the cargo trailer:

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

My reservations about the Ridekick:

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

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

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

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

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

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

What I like about bikes

I want to ride my bicycle.

I want to ride my bicycle.

I have been trying to practice riding more, although I have hit some limits. Riding two days in a row, I have learned, now leaves me saddle sore. I get a little antsy when I have to go through the intersection in Golden Gate Park where I was hit, which is unfortunately en route to almost everything, but it’s been reasonably mellow other than that. I don’t have the stamina or strength to go long distances or up hills, but hey, that’s the kind of thing electric assists were made to fix.

Now that I am riding every other day or so, I remember what I like about riding my bike. I’ve been in cars and buses a lot in the last few months, and it is isolating. Plus, even though I now have a handicapped placard, I end up having to walk a lot when we drive somewhere because the competition for handicapped parking places is ferocious. But on the bike the world returns to human scale (plus I can park by the front door). When I was coming back from grocery shopping—my current level of grocery shopping competency by bicycle involves carrying one glass jar of yogurt—two guys on the corner waved me over to ask about my bike. On my way to the office, the only other person who stopped at the red light besides me struck up a conversation. “I can’t believe I get grief about not wearing a helmet sometimes from people who run red lights,” he said. I agreed that this was pretty irritating. This nice man was in the full roadie kit; not the usual stop-at-red-lights type in my experience. I am learning not to judge hastily.

I get a lot of funny looks when I get off the bike and unfold my cane. This amuses me. In physical therapy I can do exactly zero of the exercises I’m supposed to be able to do 25 times in a row when I’m fully recovered. I am still a slow walker, and I limp, and I can’t go far on foot, but on my bike I’m almost as fast as everyone else.  On the bike no one knows I’m still crippled.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, injury, San Francisco

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

My Brompton gets schooled (2 kids on a folding bike, redux)

Here we go again.

Here we go again.

Over Christmas I started riding the Brompton occasionally with both kids on board. At the time, and again now, I noted that this almost certainly voided any manufacturer warranty and was nothing that I could in good conscience officially recommend, etc. etc.  I’m not sure how much it matters anyway, as the Brompton is not the cheapest folding bike, plus the IT Chair required to ride with a kid in front, which is awesome, is laughably expensive. We were only comfortable dropping that kind of dosh to celebrate my promotion last year. So this option is not likely to appeal to lots of people.

That's a rear child seat, a double front saddle, and a front cargo basket on a folding bike. Damn!

That’s a rear child seat, a double front saddle, and a front cargo basket on a folding bike. Whoa!

But it seems I’m not the only person to think about ways to squeeze a couple of kids on a folding bike. At my son’s after-school program, one parent is doing it on the cheap. I was awed when I saw this folding bike, which offers a way to haul a rider, two kids, and a fair amount of a cargo in the front basket, with even smaller wheels than the Brompton, and with parts that looked like they could easily be scored secondhand. I wouldn’t call the results pretty, but you know what? This bike could be put on a city bus and take up less room than a folded stroller, and I’m guessing the total rig would cost very little even if assembled brand new. Well played, mystery parent. Well played.

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Filed under Brompton, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco

How much does a bike like that cost?

Apparently these bikes are interesting.

Apparently the Bullitt is interesting.

People like to ask me how much our bikes cost. Usually this question comes when we’re riding the interesting bikes. I understand the impulse, but I almost never get these questions from the kind of people who normally ride bikes, people that I know have a sense of what bikes actually cost. It usually comes from the kind of people who say in the next breath, “It looks like it would be expensive; like: $200!”

Yes, sure. My “expensive” bike cost less than your mattress or the flat-screen television you keep in the kitchen. Riding bikes for transportation is cheap, but unless you get the bike for free, it’s not that cheap. And nobody picks up a free Bullitt at the dump.

The Bullitt is an expensive bike (and if you really want to know what it and bikes like it cost, check out my family bike reviews). Announcing how much we spent while standing around the park seems likely to encourage eavesdroppers to try stealing it. I finally came up with some decent answers. “It cost less than half of what we got for selling our six-year-old minivan!” I say. “Can you believe it?” Here in San Francisco, there are other meaningful comparisons. I sometimes tell people it costs about as much as a Vespa (this is true). “But a Vespa couldn’t carry my kids, of course, and I don’t have to pay for license or registration or gas—it costs a few cents to charge this bike up and ride for 30 miles! Or more!—and the maintenance cost is basically nonexistent. Can you believe it?”

I suppose I should use another picture of the Brompton sometime.

I suppose I should use another picture of the Brompton sometime.

I still never know what to say when people ask me what our Brompton cost. Usually something like, “Well, it depends on the options.” This is true, but it’s kind of lame.

Luckily for me, bikes really do cost less to maintain than scooters or cars, because right now the Bullitt is in the shop and won’t be fixed until Splendid Cycles comes back from vacation next week at the earliest (something has gone awry with our customized front shifter). Its long vacation has turned out to be a bigger hassle than I expected given that we have backup bikes. Now that we’re used to having a real cargo bike, it’s crazy-making to not be able to haul big loads and cover the kids in the cold or the rain.

Come back, Bullitt.

Come back, Bullitt.

But it’s not going to cost a thousand dollars to fix. It’s not like repairing a car. And this confidence I have that even the most depressingly expensive bike repair is easy to cover from our monthly cash flow is probably the best news of all. How much does a bike like that cost? Over the long term: nothing worth mentioning.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, Bullitt, family biking, San Francisco

Christmas tree by Bullitt, and three people on a Brompton

Last year, we brought our Christmas tree home on the Kona MinUte. It was the easiest way to bring a tree home ever. Longtails and their midtail cousins are custom-made for the long skinny load. This year, to address some of my grouchiness about having the MinUte stolen, I decided I’d try to bring our tree home on the Brompton.

Christmas tree by Bullitt: welcome home.

Christmas tree by Bullitt: welcome home.

Ambition, you have felled me again. We brought the tree home in the Bullitt. But the Brompton still had a surprise in store for us.

Many San Francisco residents will know the significance of the numbers 7 and 49. San Francisco is seven miles by seven miles square, and thus 49 square miles. San Francisco also came into its own as a city in 1849 with the Gold Rush. Thus the city is littered with references to both numbers: 49-mile drive, the 49ers, not to mention a vapid lifestyle magazine, 7×7 (which once referenced the city’s geography but now apparently alludes to days of the week). Anyway, I became very excited when I realized that this year I had both a seven year old and an opportunity to carry a seven foot tall Christmas tree. Surely this was meant to be!

Once again, my son found a tree and stood yelling, “This one!” as two other families were walking over talking about taking it home themselves, and once again a couple of other people made a move on our tree as the packing guys were wrapping it up. His ability to find the best tree on the lot is uncanny. Trying to carry both him and it on the Brompton, however, was a mistake.

If we'd gotten a smaller tree it TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.

If we’d gotten a smaller tree it TOTALLY WOULD HAVE WORKED.

Based on my test run with a load of lumber, I could almost certainly have carried a 4-5 foot tall tree standing up on the rear rack, with the center of the tree bungeed to the saddle rails (here’s proof). More than that height, though, and it was too top-heavy. We couldn’t keep the tree from toppling over just walking it across the Christmas tree lot. Oh well, that’s why we brought the real cargo bike. We had a backup plan.

Almost there, but note a crucial handlebar mistake on the left.

Almost there, but note a crucial handlebar mistake on the left.

So we plopped the tree on the Bullitt, bungeed it down (the Bullitt has many handy bolts to bungee things to) and put our son in the bulldog seat over the top tube. Hey, 7×7 after all! Unfortunately this setup lasted less than a block. We’d inadvertently put the tree stand too close to the handlebars, and when Matt tried to make the first turn, he hit it and dumped the bike. I have this disgraceful moment on video, but will never post it. It took less than a minute to rearrange the tree, but our son pretty understandably refused to get back on the Bullitt after that.

So Matt headed off again with just the tree on the Bullitt, drawing accolades from all and sundry, including a man walking by who stuttered, “That is… so cool! It’s like green… on green!” Honestly, you’d think these people had never seen someone carry a Christmas tree home by bike before.

Yep, that's two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

Yep, that’s two kids on one Brompton bicycle. We are our own clown car.

I followed, assuming we’d walk the Brompton home. But both kids wanted to ride in the IT Chair, and our daughter refused to get off. Our son was so dejected that I did something that the manufacturer definitely does not recommend: I offered him a ride on the rear rack. What can I say? He was so excited. He really didn’t want to walk. So after a little bit of testing (to make sure the rack wouldn’t collapse underneath him) we rode all the way home with him standing there whooping, and I have to say, it was fantastic. Following Matt as he carried the Christmas tree, however, made us look like lunatics. “LOOK NOW OH MY GOD, there are TWO kids on that bike!”

We were laughing all the way, ho ho ho, even on the uphill parts. Admittedly the trip was less than a mile. I realize that I have probably voided every warranty that the manufacturer offers on this bike based on my son’s weight alone; but I would totally do it again. It was really, really fun.

So last Christmas: tree by bike. This Christmas: tree by bike and three people on a Brompton. Next year, well, no idea yet, but I’m open to suggestions.

Home at last

Home at last

In the meantime, anyone can follow along with tree-hauling-by-bike exploits around the world by following the hashtag #ChristmasFeats on Twitter. Happy holidays!

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Filed under Brompton, Bullitt, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Road rage redux (now with less road rage)

After my Thursday morning commute I had pretty mixed feelings about heading out again to pick up my son from bike camp. It is a little grueling no matter what because for that pickup I have to head straight uphill for several blocks to get over to the Presidio. But I figured it couldn’t be too bad, because half the route is in a separated bike lane along the Marina. And I was right: things got better.

Funny, you don’t look 75 years old.

I like riding along the Marina, which has a wide, flat multi-use path to the side of the main road along the water. There are always lots of tourists heading to and from the Golden Gate Bridge, and I love seeing their goofy smiles as they stare over to the bridge and to Alcatraz Island and watch the ferries pass by. They look like I feel. And en route to Fort Mason I can see the city unwinding down the hills like a long white skirt. People sometimes say San Francisco looks like a young girl. You can almost see it smiling.

Yes, you can carry a six-year-old on a Brompton (assuming you don’t mind looking goofy, but let’s face it, you already look goofy)

There was still a surprising amount of car hostility on the road, although nothing like the morning, but if no one is honking I find that pretty easy to ignore. And once my son is on board the Brompton most people are so overcome by disbelief that it is apparently hard to stay hostile. The wheelkids staff managed to get a photo of me with my son on the IT Chair; although he used to be too nervous to ride it, he has developed a new fearlessness about bicycles and wants to ride every bike he sees.

We rode through the flats for a while and then hitched a ride on Muni before the biggest hill. I’m not sure I could get up it with him as a passenger, and he was so exhausted after a long day’s ride that he nearly passed out anyway.

I’m glad I got back on the bike.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, Muni, San Francisco

Mission Sunday Streets with Loop-Frame Love

People of the family bike en route to Mission Sunday Streets

This year, Sunday Streets is in the Mission four months in a row. Sunday Streets in San Francisco has become so popular since it started in 2008 that it will happen twice in July–both in the Mission and in the Bayview/Dogpatch, down near my sister and brother-in-law’s condo. We are so there.

But the June Mission Sunday Streets was special. Gil Penalosa, credited with founding the entire Sunday Streets movement in 1995 when he developed Bogota’s Ciclovia, came to visit San Francisco to see Mission Sunday Streets (the Chronicle article I linked is appallingly dismissive, referring to Penalosa as a “wobbly” cyclist, which I doubt very much, but anyway). And Loop-Frame Love came down from Seattle to visit us! Okay, she was really in town for a conference, but close enough. I am sort of spacey at times and hadn’t realized that she was a scientist [swoon] but it meant we had three things to talk about: bicycles, kids, and science! How cool is that? Please come back soon, Loop-Frame Love, and stay longer next time. San Francisco has been very good to us, but it lacks Seattle’s incredible family biking community. We’re working on it.

Loop-Frame Love gives our daughter a lift uphill.

Our last visit to Mission Sunday Streets was great, but June’s Sunday Streets was even more impressive. There were thousands more people and many more family bikes out. This time we did not miss the capoeira demonstration. One of our son’s classmates who lives nearby is in one of the children’s classes and took a turn, and we saw some other friends there, including the school librarian. Our PTA president was there (sans triple tandem). From there we returned to Dynamo Donuts at the other end of the route, then turned around to go back.

Because we started much later in the day this year, on our way back we saw the streets reopening to cars. It was sadder than I had thought it would be. A police car and two motorcycles swept down the street with lights and sirens shooing happy pedestrians onto the sidewalk, where they piled up in crowds that struggled to move. On a few side streets people resisted. It is surprisingly depressing to watch a living street return to being a dead space. Cars use streets but they don’t interact with them. No one dances in a street occupied by moving cars.

New sharrow marker along the Wiggle: you can’t miss it.

Loop-Frame Love rode the Brompton (sans IT Chair) most of the afternoon. We also got to show off the new sharrow markers in the Wiggle, which make the route much, much clearer. There have been complaints about the shade of green, which is indeed very jarring. But given that drivers around this area routinely drive into the Muni tunnels despite warning signs, speed bumps, and the absence of a road, then get stuck for hours and block the trains, my sense is there is no much thing as too much visibility on any San Francisco street. That is, unless it is a Sunday Street, and there are not yet nearly enough of those.

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Filed under Brompton, destinations, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Brompton M6R, with IT Chair

Brompton with IT Chair in Golden Gate Park

When I got the news of my promotion I bought a folding bike. But not just any folding bike: a Brompton. How come? Because it’s the only folding bike with a child seat, that’s how come. No bike will enter our lives for years to come unless it can haul the small.

I would advise the potential purchaser of a Brompton+IT Chair to be very sure that they are going to be okay with a lot of attention from strangers. And I do mean a LOT of attention. It’s not something that I was expecting. This setup stops traffic of all kinds. Jaws drop. People run over to see your bike. People in San Francisco are typically extremely cool in the face of the unusual. Piano bike? Sequined gold hot pants on a drag queen sashaying through the Financial District on a weekday afternoon? Bike Friday triple tandem? Naked people hiking through Golden Gate Park with fanny packs? Nothing worth noticing here! But people here gawk when they see me with my daughter on the Brompton, and yell, “COOL BIKE!”

The Brompton is both outrageously goofy and breathtakingly awesome. Even though I swear a blue streak at its makers every time I go up a steep hill (and I got the “San Francisco” gearing!), I love this bike. And although I was not really looking for practicality, this may actually be the most practical bicycle purchase a city rider could make: it’s a utility bike.

Brompton (with IT Chair) in a small shopping cart

I am sidestepping the fundamental question here, which is why I got a folding bike at all. Part of the answer is that it was cool and unlike any other bike, which fit with my desire to get a bike that could compete with a pretentious chair. But most of the answer is that it seemed like a great bike for riding in the grittier parts of the city and for taking on the road. It makes bike rides possible that weren’t possible before. I would never lock up my Breezer outside when I am visiting homeless shelters in the Tenderloin, but there’s been no problem bringing a folding bike inside to meetings. The Brompton also fits in a shopping cart at the grocery store, and when I don’t feel like locking it up, that’s exactly what I do with it. Moreover the Brompton is a clever travel bike. The Capitol Corridor Amtrak line that I took to Sacramento often runs out of bike spaces. Having been warned, I took the Brompton. The Amtrak folks recognized it instantly, but they do not count it as a bike. Later, when I hitched a ride in a friend’s car back to San Francisco, the Brompton fit in the trunk with plenty of room left over for our luggage. I may be taking an extended trip to Washington DC next year; if that happens, I will take the Brompton with me. If we lived in a small apartment again, this bike would easily fit in any random corner.

The Brompton tucked under a shuttle bus seat

The Brompton isn’t the cheapest folding bike you can buy, but it’s not the most expensive either. And this surprises me, because the incredible fold means you can put it almost anywhere. Most of the time mine hangs out in our non-functional fireplace, which it turns out is basically a Brompton-sized hole in the wall.

Home storage of the Brompton (with my sneakers for scale)

I ordered my Brompton from Warm Planet, which sells only folding bikes. They had never heard of the IT Chair before, but they didn’t have experience with any other child seats either. This may be the one bike shop that I forgive for this ignorance, as they primarily serve multi-modal commuters heading to CalTrain (they offer free bike valet parking every weekday). But they were bemused that such a thing existed, and impressed that it folded with the bike. The IT Chair had to be ordered from the UK after being hand-machined in Spain. It turns out that this takes a while, but it also takes a while to get a Brompton, so ultimately they arrived within a week of each other. This is good, because I refused on principle to pick up the bike without the child seat.

IT Chair, detached (2012 model: no folding footpegs)

The design of the IT Chair seems to have changed. Formerly it had folding footpegs, but my IT Chair does not. It makes folding the bike with the seat a little more tricky, and you have to get the sequence just right. It also is ridiculously, laughably expensive given that it is essentially just a piece of bent pipe. On the other hand, given the sporadic-at-best production line, IT Chairs apparently lose nearly zero value on resale, when the time comes that we can no longer use it. We were unable to find one used, but did find lots of desperate requests for them posted in the years when they weren’t being made.

Maiden voyage on the IT Chair

My daughter loves the IT Chair. Given the choice, she always asks to ride “mommy’s present bike.” She loves it because she can stand on the footpegs and ring (and ring and ring) the bell. I love it because a front seat is outrageously fun and makes conversation with her easy. My former experience with a front seat (the Co-Rider debacle) was not reassuring. But my brother-in-law assures me that design-wise, the IT Chair is bombproof, for all practical purposes an extension of the frame. To my surprise, he loved the Brompton, and proposed that we should get one for everyone in the family, once the kids are big enough, arguing that we could park four Bromptons in the space of one ordinary bike. In the meantime, my son has thus far refused to ride the IT Chair, as the design does not appeal to his cautious nature (no kid handlebars). But recently he realized that his reluctance meant that his sister has now ridden more bikes than he has, and evidently this will not stand.

Parked in my office on a rainy day, bag still attached

I was surprised at some of the ways that the Brompton excels. Its fenders are the best I’ve ever seen, so this is now my bike of choice for rainy day commutes. Assuming (correctly), that putting a kid on the bike would imply lots of things to carry, I also got the largest Brompton bag, the T-bag (an extremely poor choice of name). All the Brompton bags are frame-mounted, which means that they can haul massive amounts of weight. And although I find the bag sort of ugly, it is big enough to hold all four of our helmets when parked at the bike valet, plus a few jackets. With this kind of cargo space, plus the small footprint, the Brompton has also become our bike of choice for trips to the farmers’ market. It effortlessly manages a week’s worth of groceries, up to and including a half-flat of strawberries and Matt’s boxes of wine.

It doesn’t do everything well. Although there are people who take this bike on long trips, I prefer my Breezer for distances longer than a few miles, particularly given that my daughter likes to stand up on the footpegs while we’re riding. And then there are the hills. For mild to moderate inclines, the supposedly-designed-for-hills gearing I got is more than adequate, even pleasant, although the shifting itself is bizarre, as it switches between an internal hub and a derailleur, so every gear change involves both handlebars. When I hit a steep incline, however, it suddenly feels like I’m dragging a cinder block behind the bike. I’ll admit that this may be because I’m often hauling more weight at the front of the bike than it was really designed to carry when I put both a preschooler in the IT Chair and a week’s worth of groceries in the bag. (And it doesn’t help at all when that preschooler decides it would be fun to shift the gears randomly. This is a downside of the front seat. That and the endless bell ringing.) But it can be a problem even on days when I am relatively unladen. I appreciate that this problem may be unique to San Francisco. Let us say that this bike has made me stronger.

Brompton with IT Chair, folded up (I have become one of those people who folds and unfolds my bike for fun: I know, I know)

Getting a Brompton also involved the purchase of several pricey accessories. It’s a good thing that I was thinking of this as a “yay, I got a promotion” bike, because otherwise the total cost of all the extras could have ruined my mood. The IT Chair is the most obvious (price varies based on exchange rate at the time of order, assuming it’s in production), and the Brompton frame-mounted bags are expensive as well. It also turns out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to lock up a Brompton with a typical U-lock, and in San Francisco we do sometimes go places that are so small that even a folded Brompton is unwelcome. So on the recommendation of other folding bike owners I ended up getting a folding lock to go with my folding bike, the Abus Bordo Granit X-Plus. (However this lock is so fabulous that I ended up using it all the time. Matt asks to use it when we go out on rides together. So I can only really claim part of the price of this lock is specific to the Brompton.) On the other hand, the Ikea Dimpa bag that I sometimes use to carry it around was a steal at $4. Somebody at Ikea owns a Brompton.

Yet I would get this bike again in a heartbeat. It is surprisingly fun to ride, nimble and responsive. It is also fun to fold and unfold, and although it weighs are much as my daughter with all the accessories, it is fun to carry around. (I’m carrying my daughter around all the time anyway, so it’s not like a bike that weighs the same amount is a big deal.) It is safe in places where other bikes are not. It goes almost anywhere and stores almost anywhere. The Brompton may be the ultimate city bike. As a celebration of my promotion, it is infinitely better than a set of pretentious chairs.

The attention we get on the bike still surprises me a little, because riding it seems unremarkable to us now, but I find myself minding this less over time. The Brompton turns out to be the ultimate ambassador of family biking for people who’ve never thought of riding with kids before, which I find funny, because to me, my Brompton still looks like a clown bike. I think it seems less intimidating than a cargo bike; some moms see longtails and box-bikes and can’t imagine maneuvering them, but it is immediately obvious that any able-bodied person could handle a Brompton–and mine is usually hauling both a kid and two bags of groceries. (It could even haul two kids with a Trail-Gator, which another parent at our son’s school suggested.) And the Brompton, although it is by no means a cheap bike, costs less than a traditional cargo bike.

The Brompton is not my everyday bike, but I ride it every week. It proved to me that you should buy the cool bike. I keep it in the living room! And I smile every time I see it.

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Filed under Brompton, cargo, commuting, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco