Tag Archives: hills

We tried it: Urban Arrow

As promised, the lede in 6 words:

Like Bakfietsen? You’ll love Urban Arrows.

Check it out: Redwood City has Urban Arrows and sunshine, too.

Check it out: Redwood City has Urban Arrows and sunshine, too.

I have had a couple of recent conversations with cool bike people recently that brought up something that has been in the back of my mind for a while. My feeling is that the family biking market is still pretty nascent and as a result there are mostly two kinds of bikes out there.

On the one hand you have the macho bikes. The view of family biking by companies that make these bikes ranges from, at best, detached bemusement (e.g. Larry v. Harry, which developed some basic kid accessories like a child seat and rain cover, but has never seen any need to mention them on its website or anything), to disinterest (Kona—“oh, you can carry kids on a bike?”—and Brompton, which as a company seems unaware of the aftermarket Pere child seat), to outright hostility (e.g. Surly and its new kid-unfriendly Big Dummy deck, Trek and its no-kids-allowed Transport). But to their credit, these companies put a lot of effort into (relative) nimbleness. In the universe of cargo bikes, these bikes are lighter, have better parts, are fitted with gears that can handle hills, and are safer and easier to ride in challenging conditions, by which I mean any conditions other than a flat street on a sunny day. (Okay, I exaggerate. But still.) And these bikes can go fast. Relatively speaking.

On the other hand you have the land yachts. These bikes are definitely family-friendly. They offer awesome kid-carrying capacity (even for large families), provide multiple ways to haul stuff/other bicycles as well as kids, and often have user-friendly accessories like integrated lights, step-over frames, upright seat positions, rear wheel locks and internal hubs. On the other hand, they typically weigh a ton and have a limited gear range and weak stock brakes, making them a challenge to ride on anything but the mildest of hills. And they are slow, even in the let’s-face-it-cargo-bikes-are-tanks class. I include in this category Madsens, Bakfietsen, Yuba Mundos, and every tricycle and unassisted mamachari I have ever seen or ridden.

The cargo bike market reminds me a bit of the car market in the 1960s. You could buy a station wagon (so practical! so massive! so slow!) or you could buy a “sporty” car, and hope for the best as you stuck your kids in a homespun “car seat” or harnessed them to long straps above the rear seat that offered a non-trivial strangulation risk. My mom hauled us around in a 1965 Chevrolet Corvair for years in those harnesses, because my parents believed in buying older used cars and keeping them until they literally fell to pieces decades later.

There are exceptions, and I have ridden some. On the longtail side, Xtracycle’s EdgeRunner is both family-friendly and nimble. On the box bike side, Metrofiets customizes almost all the bikes they make, so they can be tailored to weird cargo and/or families large and small, plus they start out as more-than-decent hill climbers and can be turned into awesome ones.

And there is the Urban Arrow. Thanks to an integrated electric assist, Urban Arrow turns a bike that is completely land yacht in character into something with many of the capabilities of a macho bike.

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

Two big kids on a very generously-sized bench seat

The Urban Arrow is a hard bike to find, let alone to test-ride, and the only people we know who have one bought sight unseen. Fortunately for us, Motostrano in Redwood City imports them, and will allow test rides whenever it gets orders in, if you get on the wait list. Motostrano is an interesting shop. From the outside it’s all posters of scantily-clad women draped over motor scooters, which definitely gave me pause. On the inside it offers a huge selection of assisted and unassisted commuter bikes (plus other kinds of bikes that I don’t care about, FYI). And they had boxes and boxes of bike stickers that they handed over to my kids. Pasting those stickers all over their clothes and helmets completely obsessed both kids while we learned about the Urban Arrow, and made them happier than anything else they did all weekend. We were glad that we made the trip down, which was, frankly, a not-inconsiderable hassle.

What I like about the Urban Arrow

  • First, the Urban Arrow is a box bike. Not everyone loves a front-loading box bike, but I do. It’s easier to talk to the kids, it’s simple to protect them from bad weather, and the kid seating is elegant. It’s also much easier to walk front loaders than longtails because the weight is near the leverage of your arms. There is a reason that people think of—in the words of one family friend—“those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” when they think of family biking.
  • Footrest visible on the upper right, deck with drain holes, padded seat

    Foot cut-out visible on the upper right, deck with drain holes, padded seat

    The Urban Arrow’s child-hauling and commuting setup is unbelievably swank. The box is made of styrofoam [update: it's not styrofoam, it's expanded polypropylene, which is evidently better--see comment below] and forms a sort of roll cage in the event that you drop the bike. The manufacturer cut out step-holes in the front to make it easy for kids to climb into the bike, and the thick styrofoam serves as an arm rest on both sides. The bench seat, which had plenty of butt-room for my 8-year-old and 5-year old, is padded (there is an optional second bench seat if you have more kids than I do). The center stand has the same rock-solid design as the best-in-class bakfiets. The bottom plate has multiple holes for drainage. It has integrated front and rear lights and the wires run through the frame so they can’t be dislodged. The chain is enclosed, so you could easily ride this bike without incident while wearing palazzo pants. For that matter you could ride it in a maxi-skirt, because it also has a step-through frame. The battery sits unobtrusively under the bench seat. It comes with fenders and an Abus rear wheel lock. It shifts seamlessly using a Nuvinci n360 internal hub. Although the Urban Arrow normally comes with roller brakes, Motostrano automatically upgrades them to disc brakes. The bike we rode did not have a rear rack, but they are available.

  • This bike looks so classy. I felt like I should have dressed up to ride it. To me, a Bakfiets, with its wooden box, looks practical, but not exactly stylish, while our Bullitt looks fast and sleek. But the Urban Arrow looks… polished, to the extent you can say that about any cargo bike.
  • Considering all the features packed into it, the Urban Arrow feels shockingly light. I expect big bikes to be heavy bikes, and realistically, it is in fact a heavy bike, tipping the scales at 99lbs/45kg. However people who ride Bakfietsen tell me their bikes as weigh about that much, and that’s without an electric assist. Both the aluminum frame and the styrofoam box are shaving a lot of heft from this bike, and with cargo bikes that’s all to the good, especially given that most people are going to throw at least twice the weight of the bike itself in the box, and then push it around.
  • The Bosch motor--note that while there's an occasional visibly wire, most of the wiring is run through the frame.

    The Bosch motor–note that while there’s an occasional visibly wire, most of the wiring is run through the frame.

    The Bosch electric assist is a fully-integrated mid-drive. It is also fully enclosed, so there are fewer worries about loose wiring, and it’s designed to work with the bike’s gearing. Mid-drive assists are powerful, although not silent. As usual with this kind of assist, I noticed a slight clanking as the chain ran through the motor, but it wasn’t offensive. The Bosch is a pedal-assist in the legal sense; turn it on and the bike just sits there, but as soon as you turn the pedals, the assist is immediately there. It won’t start without you making a (mild) effort. The controller offers three speeds, and the feeling of the assist ranges from “slight tailwind” at the lowest setting to “strong tailwind” at the highest.

  • Not everyone loves this, but it has a super-upright posture, for a great view of traffic. And it’s virtually impossible to slouch. My mom would always hassle me when I was growing up to “sit up straight!” My mom wants you to ride this bike.
  • At $5400, this is a competitively-priced assisted box bike, although I certainly would not call it cheap. An unassisted Bakfiets is now running about $3750. An assisted EdgeRunner longtail, comparably accessorized for hauling kids, would run $4700 in San Francisco. That price difference is not trivial, but it’s not outrageous either.

What I don’t like about the Urban Arrow

  • The Urban Arrow is a really big bike. Matt and I both rode it, and we realized quickly that it would not be a practical commuting bike for us in San Francisco. Matt was vehement that he would never even consider riding it on Market Street, which has a semi-random bike lane layout and many, many people competing for space in it. It would be more of a ride-in-the-park bike for us. And it is big in both dimensions—width and length. Size was a deal-killer for us when we test-rode a Metrofiets as well, and it’s a large part of the reason we’ve been hauling 2 kids (and sometimes squeezing in more) by Bullitt for almost two years—the Bullitt is narrow. If we lived in a smaller city, or a place with wider streets, or rode different kinds of routes, we’d have no problem with an Urban Arrow.
  • On a related note, turning and parking the bike is a production. It is possible to make a big bike with a (relatively) tight turning radius. This is not that kind of big bike. It is probably impossible to make a front-loading box bike that is easy to park at a standard bike rack. We bought a front loader anyway, because the advantages outweighed the disadvantages from our perspective, but it can be frustrating. However if you live in a less theft-prone municipality that we do, you could just park it without using a rack by relying solely on the rear wheel lock.
  • All front loading box bikes are tricky to learn to ride, because of the linkage steering. We don’t have many issues with that after riding ours for a couple of years, but on a new-to-us model, we’ll still always wobble off the start. It seems safe to assume that it would be worse for someone who had never ridden this kind of bike before. The Urban Arrow has one advantage in this class, however, and that is that the box blocks the view of the front wheel (watching the front wheel is bad, it will confuse you and make you dump the bike).
  • I have no idea why that controller is sitting in the middle of the handlebars. Awkward.

    I have no idea why that controller is sitting in the middle of the handlebars. Awkward.

    I found the handlebar layout very odd and somewhat frustrating. The brake levers required a big stretch to reach and pull. I have large hands and long fingers—my ability to span a ninth is part of what made me a competent pianist and organ player in my youth—and so this is nothing I have ever experienced before. These parts could be swapped for smaller ones, but given that this is a bike marketed to both women and men, and women typically have smaller hands, I found it bizarre. In addition, the controller for the assist is located in the middle of the handlebars, instead of near one hand, so to turn it on or change the level of assist, we had to take one hand off and reach over. That’s annoying and it also feels like a safety risk. Even if the controller were moved closer to one hand [see comment below; this can be done], its design is such that it would be difficult to operate by thumb.

  • This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    This is Matt, grimacing at Dutch geometry.

    The Urban Arrow has what those in the bike business would call Dutch geometry, which basically means that you’re riding the bike in roughly the same position that you would be in while sitting in an office chair. I am comfortable riding this kind of setup but it is not something that Matt likes, and we share all the bikes, and so we must compromise.

  • Caveat: San Francisco-specific concern. Motostrano told us that the assist would not be able to handle San Francisco’s steepest hills, even unloaded, but could not specify what kinds of grades it could climb. We had hoped to figure it out by simply riding up some hills ourselves, but unfortunately for us, Redwood City is as flat as Kansas. Furthermore, the Dutch geometry makes it impossible to bear down and crank up a hill on your own power. That’s because your chest will whack the handlebars—which is what happened when I tried to go uphill while test riding a Bakfiets. Hauling up hills on your own power is supposed to be a non-issue, because the bike has an assist, except that we were told that the assist might not be sufficient where we ride. And then it would be an issue.
  • Speaking of hills, I found the brakes slow to respond. I assumed that it was just that particular bike and suggested to Motostrano that they tighten the brakes, but they said that they’d noticed it on all of the bikes they had built. They believed that it would settle after the bike had been ridden for a while. I would love to hear confirmation of that from someone who’s actually experienced it.
  • The Urban Arrow would be almost impossible to get up to higher speeds. For quite a while this is something that I didn’t care about at all. However as time passed and we became more confident on cargo bikes, the appeal of one that can rocket along (relatively speaking) on occasion grew. It is useful when, say, the kids lock themselves in the bathroom and we end up leaving 10 minutes later than planned. The assist is not designed for speed either, but rather for steady help in the background. A BionX, in contrast, will match your effort, so you can use it to start fast and build up speed quickly. (This is fun, although BionX systems have their downsides.) Some bikes are just always going to be on the slower end—that’s just how they’re made—and the Urban Arrow is one of them. If you’re not compulsive about getting places early, this may not rank as high on your list of concerns as it does on mine.
  • Last but not least, this bike is ridiculously elusive . There are only a few shops in the country importing them, and there is a lot of unmet demand, so getting an Urban Arrow almost always involves a deposit and a wait list. We have only seen two riding around San Francisco (which is one more than anyone I know in any other city has seen—except, I presume, Portland), and at least one of those was shipped from New York. Motostrano said they were able to get all the bikes they had ordered so far in a time period between 1-3 months, which is a big improvement over the waits I heard about last year, but is still non-trivial. And if you want to do a test-ride first, count on doubling that wait because whatever bike you test-ride will be a bike that’s already been sold.
See, a foothole--there are so many nice details like that on this bike.

See, a foothole–there are so many nice details like that on this bike.

So the Urban Arrow: not the right bike for us, but definitely a cool bike. It reminded both me and Matt of the Bakfiets, but upgraded. It was like a Bakfiets that had gone on a makeover show: Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.

I find that people tend to have a sense of what they want in a bike, even if they can’t always articulate it. There are macho bike people and land yacht people. If you are the former, this isn’t the right bike for you (and you know that already). If you are the latter—assuming that you don’t live on Twin Peaks—it’s probably the most perfect cargo bike ever made.

 

 

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

We tried it: BionX v. Stokemonkey

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

One of my colleagues recently taught me two great tricks. The first is to never use the word “but” when talking to people because it  always ticks them off. The second was that anything could be summed up in exactly six words. She writes six-word biographies for every graduating student in her program. It is amazing. Given that I am a chronic offender in the Too Long: Didn’t Read sweepstakes, I’ve decided to open all of my reviews with the six word summary. Here’s one now.

BionX: Easy to use

Stokemonkey: Powerful

I’m sure that the respective producers of BionX and Stokemonkey electric assists now wish that they could reach through the screen and punch me in the face. Good thing it’s a virtual world.

There are basically two heavy-hitters in the world of electric assists for cargo bikes. They are BionX, which is a rear-wheel assist (motor on the rear wheel hub), and Stokemonkey, which is a mid-drive assist (motor on the frame running through the chain). The Stokemonkey was out of production for a long time, and now it’s back. I had the chance to try both assists on the same bike, the Xtracycle EdgeRunner, while we were visiting Seattle over spring break, thanks to the lovely G&O Family Cyclery. G&O was the only shop I have ever seen that had both kinds of assists on the same model of bike, which I rode on the same hills on the same day, with both my kids on the back. It made for a near-perfect comparison. The kids ate a few crackers between the Stokemonkey ride and the BionX ride, but still.

I have already written about other brands and types of assists—there are front wheel assists, like on the original Yuba elMundo, and other companies make both rear wheel and mid-drive assists. I’m concentrating on BionX and Stokemonkey because most people shopping for an add-on family bike assist end up choosing between these two, for reasons that center around power and reliability. Both have good odds of hauling a loaded cargo bike around, and they have the reputation of being the least likely to die within a few months of purchase (or immediately after the warranty expires). People who know a lot about electric assists may end up finding or hacking something better. Nevertheless your average rider wants something that does not require the patience and ability to read through and comprehend the forums on Endless-sphere. (Note: when I refer to “pedal assist” here and everywhere else, I am using the EU legal definition, meaning an assisted bike that will only move if you are already pedaling. Although there are other definitions, this is the one that most people I speak with intuit when they hear the term pedal assist.)

BionX

We have a lot of familiarity with the BionX, because it’s the system on our Bullitt. It has served us well, although it is not perfect.

  • How much does a BionX cost? $1800 installed by The New Wheel in San Francisco (SF-suitable system with 48v battery)
  • How much does a BionX weigh? 14.1 pounds including battery

What I like about the BionX

  • The BionX is easy to use. This is a set-it-and-forget-it system combined with a throttle. You can get a boost across intersections by pushing the red button (the throttle), or set a level of assist from 1 to 4 and feel super-powered as you blaze through the city. The pedal assist is the best of any electric assist that I have tried, and I have tried a lot of them now. The BionX was the first assist that I ever tried, and in a way it spoiled me for other assists, because it is truly intuitive to use. There is no learning curve. Anyone who has ever ridden a bike can master it immediately. Many people end up leaving the bike in a relatively high gear and using the different assist levels as gears, and this actually works pretty well.
  • It is pretty powerful. BionX systems come in different flavors, and we got the most powerful, with a 48v battery. It works well in San Francisco on our daily rounds, which feature a number of serious hills (Twin Peaks, Alamo Square, Lone Mountain) and various unnamed elevation changes that would qualify as hills in a less topographically challenging city. Families in Seattle, which has less steep hills yet is nonetheless pretty hilly, seem content with the 36v battery system. The cheapest and least powerful systems are probably best for handling stiff winds in areas with mild hills.
  • It requires minimal maintenance. There are people who will argue this point. The consensus from the bike shops that we patronize is that they use their assists in a different way than we do. We rarely use the throttle; instead, we use the assist levels to maintain a steady speed and effort level. We do not burn through power trying to race other riders. We have the shop check the wiring every few months. With one major exception, which is that we initially had spokes on the rear wheel that were too thin, which broke by the dozen, the system has not given us grief. We replaced those spokes with much thicker ones and haven’t had issues since.
  • It is silent. Lots of assists make a humming noise, or much louder noises. The front wheel assists I have tried definitely sound like motors, and the EcoSpeed mid-drive frankly sounds like a motorcycle. One of the reasons we like riding bicycles is the relative quiet and the opportunity for conversations with our kids, and so the noise of some of these systems was a deal-killer for us. This is not an issue with the BionX. It is the ninja of electric assists.
  • It has regenerative braking. This means that you can use the BionX system to slow (or stop) the bike and recharge the battery while going downhill. It is debatable whether regenerative braking adds much to battery capacity—there is loss in any system. In an area like San Francisco, where steep hills abound, careful route planning can actually mean you get some power from the regenerative braking, although this may not apply outside the city. It is inarguable, however, that using the regenerative braking through the motor saves a lot of wear and tear on the bike’s brakes. And it offers me a lot of peace of mind, given that we have had brakes fail in the past. I view the BionX regenerative braking like skydivers view a backup parachute.

What I don’t like about the BionX

  • Starts can be slow and difficult. The system is set up to kick in once the bike reaches 2mph. If you are trying to start a loaded bike from a dead stop on a steep hill, you may have trouble getting to that speed. This is particularly the case if, like me, you have a bad leg. Outside of G&O, which is on a moderate hill, I could not get started with both kids on board. I had to walk to bike to a level area. This is evidently something that can be modified—you can reset the controller so that the assist kicks in at a much lower speed [update: as low as 0.5 kph]. Now that I know this, it is high on our to-do list. That modification would help a lot, yet it does not change the fact that no matter what, the initial effort on the start is going to be human-powered. This is our biggest issue with the BionX. It was less of a big deal before I was injured.
  • It gives up on really steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that we cannot get up with a fully-loaded bike—the system overheats, which means it’s back to pure pedal-power at the worst possible time. For people outside of San Francisco, this may be no limitation whatsoever, because SF is the second-hilliest city in the world, also very windy, blah blah blah. This actually turned out not to be a huge deal for us. The system is powerful enough that it can handle most of our trips, and we prefer to take alternate routes for 18%+ grades whether we are riding assisted bikes or not. On the extremely rare occasions where there there is no alternative, there’s always transit or car-share.
  • The proprietary battery limits the range. Also it’s annoying. The BionX system is completely self-contained. It’s like Apple computers. You can’t get a battery any more powerful than the battery they supply. You can’t set up a backup battery to extend your range, except by carrying another battery and swapping it in, and their batteries are expensive. There is a big logo on it, which is irritating. However the main issue is that you have no way to control the range other than by picking one of their batteries: you get what you get. The range is not unreasonable, and it handles most of our needs, but there are times when we have to be sure to carry the charger and find a place to plug it in, or suck it up and accept that some of the trip home will be exclusively human-powered. Thankfully that is a much less painful prospect now that we no longer live on a steep hill.
  • The system can be finicky.  Matt has dropped two controllers and when you drop them, they break. In one case, the controller seemed to be fine but then the bike started jerking when the assist was on max, because it wasn’t really fine. Replacing the controller costs $100. Argh! The bike shop suggested that we super-glue the third controller in place. There is a certain amount of loose connection hassle with some of the controller parts—the wire to the regeneration system sometimes works loose, and so on. We have the wiring checked regularly and so we haven’t had those problems. I classify this in the same category as our constant brake checks. A certain amount of attention is required.

Stokemonkey

And then there is the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden a stoked bike for exactly one day, so I can’t offer an opinion that is nearly as informed, and for obvious reasons I have no idea about maintenance.

  • How much does a Stokemonkey cost? $1250, not including the battery (varies) or installation ($125 at Clever Cycles in Portland)
  • How much does a Stokemonkey weigh? 21 pounds, not including the battery

What I like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is incredibly powerful. I would go so far as to say it is virtually unstoppable. The chain or the frame will break before the assist gives out. This is not always obvious when you are riding, because weirdly, it doesn’t feel like it is helping. However I know that the ease I was feeling while hauling 100 pounds of my children up a big hill was not natural, especially with a broken leg. If I hadn’t been sure while I was riding the stoked EdgeRunner,  it became obvious when I rode the BionX EdgeRunner, because it took a lot more effort to get up the same hill. Neither was particularly hard, but the Stokemonkey was definitely easier. I doubt there is any hill that would overpower it. Maybe a vertical wall.
  • Starting on a hill is easy. When you push the throttle, the pedals start moving and the bike starts moving. Even with warning, it was hard to be prepared for this. However I had no fear of stopping mid-hill on the Stokemonkey. It cranks right back up to full when you hit the throttle. Starts are my biggest weakness, and so this feature was, for me, the Stokemonkey’s greatest appeal. It destroys all fear of hills. No matter what the incline, it will always start.
  • It is compatible with multiple batteries. If BionX is the Apple of electric assist, Stokemonkey is the Windows environment. You can wire any battery into it, or, if you are like me, your bike shop can do it. That is a cost savings, and there is also a learning curve involved—I have no idea how to pick a battery. Any shop installing the Stokemonkey should have a good idea though.
  • It is pretty quiet. It is not totally silent like the BionX, and I don’t think that any mid-drive assist could be that quiet, because mid-drive motors run through the chain and there is some noise involved with that movement. I found it unobjectionable. There is one exception to the generally quiet nature of the Stokemonkey. If it is installed on a box bike it will be pretty loud, because the noise of the chain will echo through the box.

What I don’t like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is controlled by a throttle only. If you want the assist to kick in, you have to hold the throttle down. It did not take long for my thumb to get sore doing this. I might get used to it over time, but I doubt that I would ever stop finding it annoying.  There is not set-it-and-forget-it option with the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden enough assisted bikes to know that this is not really workable for us. There are too many hills and too many places where we need to take our hands off the handlebars to signal.
  • It is not pedal assist, yet you must pedal. Truly, the Stokemonkey is neither fish nor fowl. When the assist comes on, the chain moves, and so the pedals also move. You have be right there ready to move your legs. Even with warning, I kept whacking my ankles on the pedals on starts because I wasn’t ready for this. On the flip side, when you release the throttle, the pedals keep moving for a little bit on their own, so again, whacked ankles. Personally I found this a small price to pay for instant starts on hills, but still: ouch. Word from people who have stoked bikes is that you get used to this and adjust relatively quickly. In the interim, wear thick socks.
  • The learning curve is not insignificant. Using a Stokemonkey was described to me as being a bit like driving a manual transmission car. Amusingly enough this analogy came by way of Davey Oil, who does not drive. Nonetheless it is pretty accurate.  The bike will start to shudder if the Stokemonkey thinks you are in the wrong gear, and then you have to shift down to make it settle. My son, sitting on the back of the bike, noticed this immediately, and he found it both fascinating and disconcerting. “You need to shift, mommy!” In combination with the pedals whacking me in the ankles, it required a lot more attentiveness to the assist while riding than I was expecting. This comes at the price of paying attention to other things, like traffic. With this system I would need to spend time getting comfortable on quiet streets without the kids on board before I would feel confident taking it out on a daily commute.
  • The Stokemonkey is only really suitable for certain bikes, mostly longtail bikes. [update: I was wrong, modifications to the original statement follow.] Stokemonkeys are not appropriate for early-model Bakfietsen with roller brakes, or presumably any bike with borderline brakes, because the bike can then get up hills that it can’t safely get down. The mounting of a Stokemonkey is evidently somewhat complicated. This seems to be the case for a lot of mid-drive assists.

The winner: everybody

That was our experience, and to my surprise, it did not feel like a definitive win for either the BionX or the Stokemonkey. I had assumed that when I tried the Stokemonkey I would feel like an idiot for getting the demonstrably less powerful BionX (not that we had a choice at the time) and that I would immediately want to swap out to a Stokemonkey. Although I was really impressed with the Stokemonkey, I didn’t feel like it was a BionX-killer. Moreover, I have no good sense of what I would want when we get a new bike, which for various reasons is on the horizon.

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, and moreover, both systems can be tweaked/are currently being re-engineered. Grin is working on a pedal-assist, set-it-and-forget-it version of the Stokemonkey, suitable for EdgeRunners only, which [update] has just been released. This resolves my biggest issue with the Stokemonkey (and it means I could probably justify buying an EdgeRunner to myself). On the other hand, resetting the BionX controller to a lower start speed would probably resolve our issues with starts on hills, and San Francisco has a dedicated BionX shop that can handle any maintenance issues. In contrast, getting a Stokemonkey would be a long-distance operation for us. Moreover, BionX is releasing a higher-torque model suitable for super-steep SF hills this year. There isn’t an easy answer. On the other hand, there are no bad decisions to make here either.

In the meantime, I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to try both systems on the same bike (which is, incidentally, an awesome bike). Thanks G&O! Thanks Xtracycle!

 

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Filed under bike shops, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Hills v. hills: San Francisco and Seattle

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Last week was our spring break, and the kids and I headed north to visit my mom while Matt flew to Australia for work. This kind of thing is why I make no pretense that our car-free, zero waste schtick is carbon neutral. That said most of our travel is for business, and I believe I speak for both of us when I say that a tax on business travel that would ensure we did far less of it would be pretty awesome.

Anyway, we took the Brompton, which in circus-mode can carry both me and the kids. Flying with the Brompton was an unrelieved nightmare, due to Allegiant Airlines. They are dead to me. Their motto should be: “We will terrify your children.”

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Nonetheless it was nice to have the bike once we got to Seattle. However I was surprised to find that despite the photos I have posted, even people who know family biking were impressed that it is possible to carry two kids on the Brompton. It’s fun, although not something I would do regularly on long rides. And I asked my son to run up the hills because I’m not the rider I used to be. And this brings me to: hills. Seattle is a hilly city, but hills in Seattle are different than hills in San Francisco.

A lot of San Francisco was built on landfill, which means that there are large chunks of the city (e.g. the Marina, the Financial District) that are perfectly flat. San Francisco doesn’t have a fixie culture because everyone is a masochist. It has a fixie culture because it’s possible to live without ever leaving the Mission. However once you want to go somewhere else, it gets tricky. The hills loom like walls, and although it’s possible to thread the needle sometimes using routes like the Wiggle, eventually people like us who go to work in offices (in Laurel Heights) and have kids in school (on the other side of Lone Mountain) have to start climbing. And San Francisco hills take no prisoners. Once we load 1-2 kids on deck, even with an assist we’re working hard. So riding in San Francisco is often: la-la-la-la-OMFG-OMFG-OMFG-wheeee!-la-la-la, etc.

Seattle is hilly in a more consistent way. In comparison to the totally-in-your-face hills of San Francisco, Seattle’s hills feel almost passive-aggressive. They meander up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. I kept wondering where the steep hills were, because from my perspective there weren’t any. However the relentless low-key up and down is not the kind of terrain I’m used to riding and it wore me out (this has happened before—I got smoked by Madi from Family Ride on a deceptively mild-looking but seemingly endless hill in August 2012, while being fried by the equally foreign 80+F temperatures).

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

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

From the hill perspective, if riding in San Francisco is like occasionally ripping off a band-aid and screaming in agony, then riding in Seattle is like slowly peeling band-aids off by the dozen while feeling the adhesive tug on every single hair. Except that riding bikes is way more fun than that, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having to make an effort, it proves I’m alive and makes me stronger. I’m sure that if we lived in Seattle I would get used to Seattle hills and find them normal. Admittedly sweating on the way to work is a non-starter in my life, but this is why the universe has provided electric assists.

And speaking of assists, on this trip we stopped by the newly-opened G&O Family Cyclery, which had the Holy Grail of assist comparisons available for test rides: a Stokemonkeyed EdgeRunner and a BionX EdgeRunner. I love EdgeRunners (I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike) but had never tried an assisted version before. They are even better than the unassisted versions. We took the stoked and BionX EdgeRunners up and down the hills of Seattle, and if it wasn’t the same kind of challenge we face in San Francisco, it was still a fascinating experience.

My dissertation advisor had five mottos. One of them was, “Whenever you go away on a week of vacation, there’s always two weeks of work waiting for you when you come back.” Alas, this is painfully true, so coming soon: BionX v. Stokemonkey.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, EdgeRunner, electric assist, San Francisco, Seattle

San Francisco problems: bike racks

It seems tasteless to complain about the limits of San Francisco’s bike racks, a real bicycle first-world problem. Many cities are still trying to increase the number of riders on the streets, and here I am frustrated with the fact that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to park my bike. Part of the reason it’s irritating, though, is that it’s such an easy problem to fix. Bike racks are cheap, there’s plenty of room for them, and the city will install them on request (at no cost to the requestor), but you can end up waiting a long time. Demand is high.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Last year my problem was my son’s afterschool program, which is no longer a problem because they installed a bunch of new bike racks. This year I’m still waiting for the request placed at my daughter’s preschool to make its way to the top of the list. In the meantime, we juggle with other families on bikes to lock up to the street cleaning sign. Unfortunately one (non-biking) family has a really aggressive dog that they like to tie up to the same sign (because he’s too aggressive to be around kids at the preschool itself), and although I’ve asked them politely if they could tie him to a tree instead and they said okay, they sometimes forget. The dog will attack me and my bike, and my kids understandably run away screaming when they see him, which means I’m stuck waiting for that family to leave if they arrive first.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Our son’s school has lots of racks, but there are no longer enough to meet demand. The school district has found another large bike rack for us and is working on scheduling its installation, but it’s not there yet, so the school bike racks remain pretty packed. There are street cleaning bus zone signs we can lock to if necessary, but it will be nice to have another real rack.

Around our neighborhood and my office, there’s a different problem: non-bike competition.

A bike rack can't hold much more than one shopping cart.

A bike rack can’t hold much more than one shopping cart.

We live on Parnassus Heights and thus we are well above what’s referred to locally as “the shopping cart line,” but most of our local haunts are in the flats. The library, for example, has a pretty small bike rack anyway, and it’s often occupied by a stolen shopping cart filled with someone’s worldly goods. There is increasing evidence that homelessness is a problem that can be resolved pretty cheaply by giving homeless people places to live (relative to paying for the health care and jail costs of having people live on the streets). But in a city like San Francisco, which is reluctant build new housing even for billionaires, it does not surprise me that subsidized housing is scarce.

At work the bike racks are often occupied by motorcycles and scooters, despite multiple signs saying that this is not allowed, which also direct their riders to the designated motorcycle parking area. There’s usually room for bikes as well, but the motorcycle riders always take the spot closest to the door, and motorcycles are so big that walking around them means walking into a driving lane, and they smell awful, and it’s all just annoying.

Everyone, it seems, is beginning to discover what we’ve discovered: riding a bike is the easiest way to guarantee VIP parking wherever you go.  Even when I have to lock to a parking meter or a stop sign, it only takes one attempt to drive in the city again to make me realize how good we have it still.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

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

A reliable bike

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

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Sunday Streets

The things that I write about on the blog are only a portion of what’s really happening. This is a problem inherent to life, I think: you get so busy living that there is only so much time to talk about it all. This can lead to some false perceptions. One that’s come up lately, I’ve realized, is the sense that the Bullitt spends a lot of time in the shop. That’s not really true. It’s just that the times it goes to the shop it really ticks me off. After almost a year the Bullitt has been impressively reliable, with only a couple of exceptions that are, frankly, the result of our ignorance.

The first exception relates to the gearing. I have an aversion to pinning up my pants to keep them from getting caught in the chain, although I’m getting over it. The standard setup on a Bullitt is a triple front ring, which is great for hauling up hills, but as many riders already know, is basically incompatible with a chain guard. So when we bought the Bullitt, we put an internally geared front hub on it, the FSA Metropolis Patterson crankset.

The Metropolis is unquestionably cool, and you won’t need to roll up your pants. Unfortunately, it is not built to withstand the kinds of loads and riding we do. It is very sensitive to people doing things, like, say, pedaling over a speed bump and smashing unexpectedly into a hidden pothole on the far side, or to a rider shifting down after hitting a quicker-than-expected red light with a fully loaded cargo bike and then pushing off on a steep uphill from a dead stop.  These are not what I would call conventional bicycle riding situations, unless of course you are a family living on a steep hill in San Francisco, in which case they’re like daily rituals. So we broke the Metropolis. Twice. After the second time, we replaced it with a triple front ring, which withstands anything we throw at it (and if it didn’t would be cheap and quick to fix anyway). That wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was very time-consuming.

I miss the Metropolis, because it shifted like a dream when it wasn’t broken and had a lot of range, but it was not to be. In the meantime, I’ve learned to embrace skinny pants. Sure, they may not be the most flattering look, but they don’t catch in bike chains and they are wonderful at compressing a broken leg that tends to swell up at the end of the day. Although maybe that’s just me.

Hanging out with the Rosa Parks bike fleet

Hanging out with part of the Rosa Parks bike fleet

The second exception came up pretty recently. The Bullitt went back to the shop for another time-consuming repair when we broke over a dozen spokes at once on the rear (BionX) wheel. This turns out to be a BionX and San Francisco-related thing (San Francisco is hard on bikes). The first time we didn’t realize what the issue was so we had the bike shop replace the spokes and re-true the rear wheel. The folks at The New Wheel were the ones who warned us that it would happen again unless we put a stronger rim and spokes on that rear wheel. One week later, we learned how right they were when three of the new spokes popped. That’s a lesson to all of us, yes? Go to the pros with your electric assist bike! So we took the Bullitt back to the shop and now we have a thicker rim and spokes and they are hanging in without incident. This was pretty cheap, but once again, time-consuming.

There have been other odds and ends, but they don’t affect our ability to ride the bike. Matt dropped the BionX controller and destroyed its display, which now looks like something out of a slasher film. It still works, though. One of the fiberglass poles holding the rain cover has split twice—the first time probably due to the combination of wind sheer and the kids messing with it, and the second time due to some drunk baseball fans snapping it in two. Splendid told us how to order spare fiberglass poles, which are now sitting in the garage for the next time it happens. I think they cost $15. If you happen to have obnoxious sports fans roaming your neighborhood, you too may want some spare poles.

The two big repairs represented several weeks in the shop taken together, and those messed with our lives. The Bullitt has become what our car used to be, and we use it almost every day. I wrote about those incidents because they were such an unpleasant shock—with the Bullitt our lives are pretty easy and without it they start to derail.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

But it did not fail it when we needed it most. All last summer while I was bed-bound for 23 hours a day, Matt used it to carry both kids to school and preschool and summer camp. At the time, our daughter was still attending preschool on the top of Mt. Sutro, and our son’s summer camp was up one of the toughest hills we have ever had occasion to ride regularly (9th Avenue from Irving to Ortega, for locals reading along). And although there were days that we needed to call in friends for a carpool or a family member to walk someone home, mostly Matt managed all of that extremely grim summer solo. So how can I hold a crankset and some broken spokes against the Bullitt? Especially when I know they won’t happen again? Also, Matt is awesome.

We started this year knowing that there was trouble in the wind. The university decided to kick everyone out of faculty housing, our daughter’s preschool, disastrously, was taken over by a for-profit corporation, and the campus where I work was scheduled for closure with everyone on site told we would move “somewhere.” As bad as all of that was, we could not have predicted how much worse it would get when I was run down by a distracted driver in April. For a week we assumed that our car-free days were over. But with my right leg shattered it turned out that I couldn’t drive either, so here we are. I’m riding again and the Bullitt is still hauling the kids. I can’t yet do everything that I used to do, but the bus and rideshare make up the difference.

Thinking about future careers at preschool

Thinking about future careers at preschool

And in other ways, we seem to have turned the corner. In July our daughter started at a new preschool, a Japanese immersion program that is a feeder for Rosa Parks. She loves it so much we have to drag her home every evening. The office move keeps getting postponed another couple of years into the future. University housing can’t kick us out as long as I’m disabled, but we have other progress on that front as well. I am walking again, and people tell me my cane looks badass. We’ve been taking long weekends with the kids to try to make up for their having such a bummer of a summer–the other week we camped in a (handicapped accessible) yurt, and we’re headed to the coast this weekend. It’s been one hell of a year, and it’s not over yet.  But life is a little easier with a reliable bike.

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

Tipping point

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

At some point I speculated that 2013 would be the year of the electric assist bicycle. Not to toot my own horn here, but I was so right. The other day we stopped at an intersection and the rider next to us said, “Hey! All three of us are on electric assist bikes!” When I went to return books at the library the other day, the other bike on the rack was assisted. When I’m on the main campus, which is on a hill that could charitably be called “non-trivial” it is like an e-bike showroom up there. I would guess that about a quarter of the bikes I see hauling up our hill these days are assisted. That is new as of this year.

I get stopped at the bike racks at work by people wanting to know how to find cheap e-bikes on craigslist. Although I am admittedly kind of the poster child for that, I would only recommend doing that if you are comfortable replacing the battery shortly afterward (which is something I had to do). Very few people flog assisted bikes on craigslist until the batteries are on their last legs, and batteries are the most expensive part to replace. Caveat emptor.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets--they must be doing a land office business.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets–they must be doing a land office business.

There is really no such thing as a super-cheap electric assist bike, unless of course you are comparing them to a car, in which case every single one of them is laughably cheap. And I and everyone else riding one can testify that an assisted bike will make driving in the city seem ridiculous. I mean, my leg is still really weak, and the most recent x-rays show that the bones look like they’ve been attacked with a chisel–it surprised me that this is considered to be great progress–and I walk with a cane, and I now have a handicapped parking sticker. However it is still typically easier for me to go anyplace within about three miles on a bike (granted, an assisted bike) because I can park so much closer that I don’t have to hobble nearly as far. Riding a bike doesn’t stress my leg like walking on it does. When I talk to normal people with assisted bikes they say that they never tackled various hills until they put assists on their bikes. Then once they did, they started riding everywhere instead of driving. That’s pretty much how it went for us.

San Francisco is the kind of city that is made for assisted bikes. There are, famously, a lot of hills. It’s the second hilliest city in the world, and this is not a competition that you want your city to win (or show or place). To pile on the injury, it’s also extremely windy.

Going up this hill into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Going up a hill like this into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Aside: I find it slightly annoying when people in flat cities claim that it’s hard to bike in their extremely flat city because of wind, or that a 10mph headwind is like a 14% grade. I ride up a 14% grade to our home every day and many of those days I ride into a 10mph or 20mph headwind AT THE SAME TIME. Riding into the wind is hard, but it’s not the same as riding up a hill. They’re both hard, but they’re a different kind of hard. The truth is that if you live somewhere flattish then it’s either easier or cheaper to ride bikes everywhere, so go ahead and cherish your good fortune.

Anyway, San Francisco: lots of hills, lots of wind, but also lots of great bicycle infrastructure. And we carry kids-as-cargo and groceries and library books and so on. Getting over ourselves and getting an assist was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, transportation-wise. In my current condition, I’m not sure I could ride in the city at all without one (and with the gimpy leg, walking the bike up hills is not a good option–I can do it, but the price is having to go back on my narcotics that evening). Our friends who have assisted their bikes will say the same thing: the assist is life-changing when you ride a bike for transportation. An assist makes driving not worth the bother. The sight of a bicycle being carried on an SUV now seems outrageously weird to me. Even if you’re hauling a racing bike, it would be cheaper and more fun to tow that baby on an assisted cargo bike.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

So for the people who keep asking me whether it’s worth paying so much to put an assist on a bike: if you’re already seriously considering it, then yes it is. And there are ways to make the cost less appalling up front; for example, The New Wheel in Bernal Heights will finance the purchase of an assisted bike or an after-market assist for an existing bike, plus they’re super-nice people.  Is it necessary? It is for me (at least for now), but it’s not for everybody. For people who are enjoying the ride unassisted, there’s no need. But if you can’t bring yourself to ride every day just yet even though you want to, and are wondering whether the assist will tip the scales: it will.

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Filed under electric assist, 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

The year of the electric assist

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

Over winter break we noticed a lot more bicycles on the streets than there were at the same time last year. It’s now rare that I’m the only rider on the streets on my route, whatever route that might happen to be. Last week, riding from our son’s school to downtown, I was surrounded by so many other riders that in combination with being tailed by a bus, which blocked cars from potentially rear-ending any of us, I relaxed and started looking at other people’s bikes instead of focusing on traffic.

As is increasingly common, there was an assisted bike in the group, this one ridden by an older gentleman dressed up for work in the Financial District. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t be riding an unassisted bike. On most work days I look like that kind of person myself.

Spotted near work

Spotted near work

It is no accident that I pretty much stopped taking transit entirely when an assisted bike (the mamachari) entered our lives. We live on the top of one big hill and I work on top of another, and before that particular craigslist score there was always calculation involved in riding to work: “Am I going to have to look presentable today?” (I don’t have the patience or free time to carry a spare set of dress clothes and shower at the office, assuming that my office even had a shower, which it does not.) With an assisted bike that problem disappears. I can choose to work harder on the way home at the risk of sweating, and I often do. But I can also choose to use enough assist that I arrive at work with no more evidence of having ridden a bike than rosy cheeks and the complete absence of commuter rage. “Wait, what? You came here on a bike?” is the kind of thing I hear a lot these days.

It’s coming up on a year of electric assist for us, and there’s no question it’s been life-changing. Example: we sold our only car (30 Days of Biking is no challenge whatsoever this year).  To my surprise, because we’re about as fashionable as any other harried parents (which is to say: not at all) we appear to have been out in front on this issue. From what I’ve seen so far, 2013 is the year of the electric assist in San Francisco. Assisted bikes are everywhere; I spot them while riding around, while walking in our neighborhood, and there’s always at least one locked up nearby every time I stop to park my bike. Cargo bike riders who don’t have one typically say they want one, even if the need to carry a bike up a flight of stairs or the extra cost makes adding an assist unfeasible.

Look, there's another one

Look, there’s another one

I don’t ride much where it’s flat, but people who do seem to ride more with assisted bikes as well. The assist is like the cover on the Bullitt; in winter we could dress up our kids to ride without it, but it’s easier to get them out the door by skipping the cold weather gear and letting them cozy up under the cover. I could get myself out the door on an unassisted bike, and I have, but it’s a lot easier knowing that I can get a little help when the hills get steep or the wind gets fierce or when I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s also easier to take a bike knowing that I’m not going to walk into a meeting at work dripping with sweat. Unless I’m crossing the bay (and sometimes even then), it’s always easier to ride a bike now. And so that’s what we do.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

To Panhandle or not to Panhandle

Who wouldn't want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

Who wouldn’t want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

On the western side of San Francisco there are many excellent bike lanes through Golden Gate Park, which stretches nearly half the length of the city. Even outside the park to the north and south the streets are pretty quiet (with a few exceptions), so it is very easy to get around by bike as long as you don’t mind the hills. Which whatever, where besides the Mission are there are not hills in this city.

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

At the edge of the park the Panhandle begins. The Panhandle is a one-block-wide, ¾ mile long stretch of greenway, and it extends even further east. A nightmarish three blocks at the far edge of the Panhandle then drop you into the Wiggle, and from there bike lanes, some protected, run all the way to the eastern edge of the city and San Francisco Bay. (Protected bike lanes for those three blocks of Oak Street have been in the works for some time and postponed repeatedly.)

Unfortunately the streets on either side of the Panhandle, Fell and Oak, are basically freeways in the middle of the city, and noisy. There is a break in the middle for the death highway of Masonic Avenue, which even with a dedicated bike signal is not the most fun street to cross. Supposedly Masonic is a designated bike route. Ha ha.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There are two paths on the Panhandle: the southern path along Oak is a pedestrian-only path, and the northern path along Fell is shared-use. For reasons that mystify me, runners and walkers mostly shun the southern path and so there are always multitudes wandering idly among the bikes. And there are always off-leash dogs. A couple of weeks ago I slowed when one came close, but not fast enough because it suddenly jumped right into my path, knocking me and my son to the ground. My son fell under the bike and although he was unhurt, he was so upset that he burst into tears. The dog ran off. Of course its owner was nowhere to be found.

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

So anyway, although the Panhandle has its appeal–no car traffic to contend with–it has some issues as a place to ride.

There is an alternative. Like all alternative routes in San Francisco, it is steeper. Heading east, Page Street runs above the southern edge of the Panhandle then drops down suddenly to join the Wiggle. In reverse, obviously, it goes up just as suddenly.  I know many riders who prefer Page Street to the Panhandle. They tend to be solo riders.

Recently, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we headed out for Mexican food (eating out contrary to ethnic expectations on holidays means never having to wait for a table). Because we were already south of the Panhandle we took Page, which we don’t normally ride. It was nice; there were multiple sidewalk sales, and families were sitting out on their front steps chatting with each other. Even though there are lots of stop signs to slow you down, it is a pleasant alternative to the Panhandle in the downhill direction.

After dinner we had the choice of following the Wiggle back or turning around and climbing up Page. Matt had both kids in the Bullitt and to my surprise he wanted to take the hill. As he headed up, a pickup truck going down the hill slowed, and the driver stuck his head out the window. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” he cheered. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” I laughed so hard I almost fell off my bike. Oh how I love San Francisco.

Git it, old man!

Git it, old man!

We made it back to Golden Gate Park with only the usual stares that the Bullitt draws from families walking on the street. I scratched Matt’s back at a stoplight and said, “Git it, old man.” He laughed. “He was supportive,” I said, “That’s what matters.”

“He was ACCURATE,” he replied. “Like I care. I’m fitter now than I ever was in my so-called prime.” And this is true. We have been married for 14 years, and by any historical standard Matt is smokin’.

I’m used to the Panhandle and its quirks. But I can see us taking Page more often in the future too. Git it, old man!

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, family biking, San Francisco