Tag Archives: San Francisco

We tried it: Juiced Riders ODK U500

Well hello, long time no see. Both the world and I have been busy, in my case innocuously. I have a new fall class with about 120 students, and thus have missed multiple anniversaries that I try to mention. It’s been over three years since we sold our minivan and two years since we were able to buy our condo with the money we’ve saved. It’s been three years on the Bullitt and that’s still great, and a year on the EdgeRunner with no regrets. But I digress.

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

Over the summer we had a chance to try the Juiced Riders ODK U500, a newish midtail. Our midtail, the Kona MinUte, was our first cargo bike. Since then there have been other midtails released, including the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer, during which time the MinUte went in and out of production. The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day was a midtail in one incarnation, but according to Bike Friday has now stretched out to longtail length. At some point I realized the cleverly-designed but much-too-heavy-for-San-Francisco Workcycles Fr8 was also a midtail. However I think it is fair to say that the midtail category has not exactly been wildly innovative, as the best-case scenario is pretty much that manufacturers keep producing the same bike.

My daughter wondering why we couldn't stop taking pictures already

My daughter wondering why we couldn’t stop taking pictures already

What makes a midtail? In our experience it’s a bike with a rear deck that comfortably carries one kid on the deck. We have squeezed two smaller kids on the deck of the MinUte, because I’m not so good with “boundaries,” but I learned that if you do that kind of thing with any regularity There Will Be Blood, literally. With a very little kid the frame is sturdy enough to handle both a front seat and the kid on the rear deck, so carrying two kids is not impossible, but that will work only for a limited age range. Anyway, the ODK is a midtail by my reckoning because my two kids would not even consider the possibility of getting on the deck at the same time.

We tried the ODK while visiting Seattle and the always-amazing G&O Family Cyclery. My only regret was that Madi of Family Ride couldn’t come out with us, because I would love to have gotten her thoughts. Anyway, the ODK is unusual in a few ways. Most notably, it is sold only as an assisted bike. Since my reviews are way too long, here is my new obligatory six word review for those who don’t want all the blah-blah.

Juiced ODK: the assisted midtail slayer.

What I like about the ODK

  • The ODK is designed for cargo. A persistent complaint that I have had about midtails is that their decks tend to be really high,
    Pretty stable, even loaded

    Pretty stable, even loaded

    which makes them tippy, especially when hauling kids. That’s less of a big deal on a midtail than a longtail, because the deck is shorter so there’s less fishtailing effect. It’s less of a big deal for the tall than for the short, because the relative height is lower and thus more manageable. However it’s not trivial. I am not particularly short at 5’7” (170cm) yet I notice the tippiness of our MinUte, especially on corners, when it feels like the bike wants to roll over. The Boda Boda and the Cascade Flyer are built with the same high deck. The ODK shaves several inches off by using 20” wheels and the handling with cargo, especially moving human cargo, is noticeably improved as a result.

  • The ODK has a step-through frame. It’s a really low step-through as well, meaning that this bike can easily be ridden by the short or less-flexible. I went out on a test ride with Jen of Loop-Frame Love who pointed out that this would be a fantastic bike for seniors, and I agreed. However it’s also nice for people who have a kid sitting behind and thus cannot swing a leg around the back. The lower the top tube, the easier it is to get on and off.
  • The ODK has an extremely upright riding position. Not everyone likes this, but I do because it helps me see over traffic. With a kid (in this case my daughter) in the back, it also makes me feel less like I’m sticking my butt directly in her face, which seems gauche.
  • The parts on the ODK are formidable on even the cheapest model. Cargo bikes usually carry loads that strain parts to their limits, so the quality of the parts matters more than it might for solo riders. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard (Tektro Dorado for those who care about details like that) and it is immediately clear that they have the kind of stopping power that is appropriate for a fully loaded cargo bike. The shifting is smooth (3 speeds; this bike is assisted and not designed with a big gear range as a result) and the steering is easy. I have ridden enough bikes now that I can tell within a few seconds of getting on a bike whether the manufacturer is trying to save money by using cheap parts: Juiced Riders is not.
  • There are a lot of cool accessories that come with this bike, which I am happy to see is becoming more common for assisted and family bikes. It comes with fenders and a wired-in rear light. It offers a frame-mounted front basket, which is deep enough that not everything would need to be bungeed down.
  • Like all midtails, this bike is short enough lengthwise to be very maneuverable. The ODK is even more so than most midtails because it has 20” wheels, which allow tight cornering. The ODK is also fairly narrow. Overall, this makes it a very easy bike to park at the kinds of dreadful racks that grocery stores, movie theatres, and parking garages seem to have installed sometime in the 1960s and never replaced. The San Francisco standard bike rack, aka the parking meter, offers no challenge for the ODK; our Bullitt, as handy as it is, usually needs some coaxing to snuggle up to a meter.
  • The assist on the ODK, which uses a motor on the front wheel and a throttle on the handlebars is very, very powerful. I have
    At the top of the hill, Jen's turn

    At the top of the hill, Jen’s turn

    learned with some practice that you can add some pedaling power with throttle-assists, although this is not necessary, particularly with this motor. It did not even slow down on the steepest hill we could find in the surrounding neighborhood, which although it did not achieve San Francisco levels of aggression was nonetheless very respectable. As a devotee of pedal assists I have gotten used to contributing noticeable effort on my commutes, particularly when I’m carrying heavy loads like the kids. It was kind of intoxicating to relax and let the motor do the work, pedaling at roughly the level of effort I expended the last time I rode a beach cruiser on the boardwalk. I have seen ODKs on some disturbingly steep hills in San Francisco and now I know why. I don’t think there is much it could not handle, except maybe the 41% grade of Bradford Street in Bernal Heights.

  • The battery options are scaled to a level that allows you to use a lot of assist for a long time. This is a bike that’s intended to be used assisted most of the time; I have seen bikes like this before but they tend to have limited range. The three battery options provide ranges estimated from 40 miles at the low end to 100 miles at the high end. I typically slice estimated ranges in half given San Francisco’s topography; even after this those estimates are very respectable. I rode the model with the biggest battery, and despite my going up and down big hills a few times with my daughter, then having a friend do the same thing, the battery didn’t seem to drop a single bar.
  • The ODK is ridiculously, laughably affordable for an assisted cargo bike. The version with the smallest battery is $2200, and that includes the fenders and the rear light (the front basket is extra). Especially considering the quality of the parts, this is an unbeatable value. Upgrading to the biggest battery adds another $1000 to the price, and that’s still a good price relative to its competition.

What I don’t like about the ODK

  • When you put the kind of battery that can give you 40 or 100 miles of range (maybe) on a bike, you make it really, really heavy. The ODK is really, really heavy. To Juiced Riders’ credit, they are actually willing to report the weight of the bike; with the smallest battery it comes in at just shy of 70 pounds according to their specifications. The version with the biggest battery, which I rode, weighed so much that I couldn’t even lift it. This is not a bike that could be put on an overhead rack or a bus rack, even though it is short enough to fit. It is not a bike that you could carry up the stairs. It is a bike that is, shall we say, permanently wedded to the ground. If you don’t have street-level parking, this may not be a good choice. On the up side, the bike thieves that break into garages with pickup trucks around my neighborhood might very well end up leaving this bike behind rather than risk throwing their backs out. So there’s that.
  • Aesthetics are admittedly in the eye of the beholder. However to this beholder, the ODK is a punishingly ugly bike. This is not
    Eh. Looks aren't everything.

    Eh. Looks aren’t everything.

    the kind of bike that will draw compliments from strangers. The ODK is built for practicality and value and it shows. I hoped with time it would grow on me, and have a certain “so ugly it’s attractive” kind of appeal. I regret to report that this did not happen. Even almost six months after my first exposure and even though I genuinely like this bike, looking at the ODK hurts my eyes. Even the controller is unattractive.

  • The ODK has a twist throttle assist operated by hand, not a pedal assist that operates as you pedal, and throttle assists are the kind of manufacturing choice that makes me question how serious a company is about commuting. Even during the test ride, operating the throttle was starting to hurt my wrist. This is admittedly a personal preference, but it’s less personal than my aesthetic opinion, because I suspect that a long ride on this bike could become unpleasant. There is a “cruise control” option, which I am sure would be fine on an extended ride on a multi-use path, however my longer rides tend to be city rides with a lot of stop and go. This issue isn’t insurmountable, as the ODK is inexpensive enough for an assisted bike that a bike shop with the right experience could convert this to a pedal assist at a price that would still make the ODK a good value. However it would be far better if Juiced made pedal assist an option, even if it were a more expensive option. Not everyone lives near an experimentally-inclined electric bike shop, it would be more cost-effective if the manufacturer did it, and it would not risk voiding the warranty. And it would be better for commuters, particularly commuters with kids, for whom every available hand matters pretty much all the time.
  • The 20” wheels on the ODK make the ride a little bumpy and slow; this is a tradeoff for the low deck and maneuverability. Any speed you pick up on this bike will be coming from the assist, and you will care about the quality of the pavement.
  • The ODK is not really designed for carrying kids. Apparently the rack makes it possible to mount a Yepp Maxi, which is good.
    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    A bike I saw, however, although set up with Yuba accessories for an older kid (probably a better fit for my daughter, age 6), which were nonetheless a little limited; foot pegs and wheel skirts were not available, for example. (I have had some concerns in the past about the quality of some of Yuba’s parts, but I definitely appreciate that they are all-in on the kid-hauling accessories.) Like our Kona MinUte, setting up the Juiced ODK for kid hauling requires some hacking and creativity, probably from a bike shop with experience with the bike and with these kinds of accessories in stock.

  • The ODK’s standard one-sided kick stand is pretty much a joke for a bike that is supposed to haul cargo, as with any load that wasn’t perfectly balanced it’s likely to fall over, unless it were windy, in which case it would definitely fall over. Juiced offers a center stand option that I did not get to try. Like hydraulic disc brakes this is the kind of thing that should be standard on cargo bikes.
  • Like any assisted cargo bike, the price point on the ODK is a big jump for people who are used to solo unassisted bikes. It’s a good value for what it’s offering, but it’s still out of reach for many families.

Things I’m clueless about

  • Juiced Riders as a company is new to me so I can’t speak to the long-term reliability of this bike, or the support that the company will offer. It’s a good sign that it’s invested in high-quality parts, and that it seems to be working with shops that have a good reputation. However there’s no way to know for a while.

Overall, I was impressed with the ODK. The midtail bike market has been pretty stagnant in the last few years and the ODK offers a lot of significant improvements for people looking for an assisted cargo bike. The lower deck and step-through frame alone are long-overdue innovations for midtail bikes. Because of its weight, its throttle assist, and the limited accessories for kid-carrying, it won’t suit everyone’s needs. Nonetheless I’ve seen enough of them around San Francisco now that it looks like they suit a lot of families very well. Within a minute of riding it I thought “this is the midtail slayer” because even though it has some obvious limitations, it fixes so many of the problems I have had riding other midtails. It might be ugly, but it can really haul.

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle, Uncategorized, Yuba

“Why do cargo bikes cost so much?”

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

This is a very cool and very tricked-out Metrofiets I got to test-ride in Seattle. Thanks!

I usually talk about bikes with people who already ride bikes, often cargo bikes, and they don’t freak out when they see the prices of cargo bikes. They may not like the idea of paying for a bike (who would? free is always better) but they understand.

That said, I also hear pretty regularly from people who haven’t purchased a bike since childhood, if ever, and their usual response to the idea that any bike, no matter what it can do, might cost more than $100, is, “It costs HOW much?!?” Followed by the usual, “I could buy a used car,” “I could buy a moped,” muttering and suspicions of profiteering. [Note: for exact numbers, check my many reviews; I always list a price or a range of prices. That said, in general you’re looking at somewhere between $1,500 for an unassisted cargo bike at the low end to $7,500 to a seriously tricked-out, kid-hauling, weather-proofed and assisted cargo bike at the high end, although, as always, devotees can figure out ways to spend more.] This came up again recently, and so I am finally writing about it.

So for those who haven’t purchased bicycles for a while, first things first: All bicycles cost more now than they did when we were kids. That’s inflation. For those of us living in San Francisco, well, the bicycles people ride here cost more than the cruisers students ride around on in college because San Francisco has hills, and if you want to ride your bike up a hill instead of walking it you need gears, and once you introduce gears you are in a whole new world of parts and engineering and labor. So while a new Linus single-speed starts at $400 (curse you, inflation), by the time you get up to 8 speeds a new Dutchi (with no racks or lights) will run more like $850. That only gets us about halfway to the price of a cargo bike at the low end, though. What’s going on?

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

Our two biggest bikes; note that our 9 year old and 6 year old can still squeeze into the standard Bullitt box.

The demands placed on a bike that carries one person and a backpack are very different from the demands placed on a bike that may carry 1-2 adults, 1-4 kids, a cartload of groceries, school backpacks, musical instruments, toys, games, beach tents, a mattress, a bookcase, and tow a trailer, sometimes ALL AT THE SAME TIME. All hail the cargo bike, the minivan slayer! What’s different? Well, if you’re riding that cargo bike unassisted you may well want a wider gear range, because it’s hard to pick up speed with those kinds of loads. More gears=higher costs. The frame has to be stronger, because a cargo bike with a 250-pound load limit (common on bikes intended to carry one person) is ridiculously inadequate. That requires both more materials (=higher costs) and in most cases, a redesign of the frame (=higher costs, engineers have to eat too). If you are carrying those kinds of loads, you’ll also need a different kind of wheel, one with more or thicker spokes to support the weight (=higher costs). If you’re carrying kids, then getting more frequent flats in exchange for thinner, lighter weight tires is a bad deal, so you will probably want heavy flat-resistant monster tires (=higher costs). If you are heading down a steep hill with a heavy load, you will want much better brakes than are common on single-person bicycles (=much higher costs, and worth every penny). You can of course save money by building a bike yourself, but the relevant parts will still cost more.

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

The Rosa Parks racks in front of school, and this was before most of the riders arrived

And then there is the assist. There are the mighty-calfed among us, who laugh merrily at the very idea of putting an assist on their bicycles. “Why I carry 300-pound loads of construction materials up the mighty hills of Chicago all the time!” they crow. “You lazy bums don’t need to waste your money on an electric assist! You need the exercise!” And then there are the rest of us, who may be coming to riding after a long layoff, or in the wake of an injury (cough, cough), or who simply don’t view riding around town with kids as a way to achieve Maximum Heart Rate. And even if none of those things applied, the people who “see no reason for an assist” typically have no clue what’s involved in family biking. Carrying 300 pounds or more is a very different proposition with live weight than it is with dead weight, because kids have a terrible habit of not staying where you put them, and on a moving bike, an active kid, let alone two fighting kids, can sometimes overcome your pedal power. Moreover people in flat cities often have little idea what I mean when I say San Francisco is hilly. Here’s a hint: if it’s not taller than you are, then around here we don’t call it a hill. When you ride with (or without) kids up and down the hills of San Francisco, an electric assist starts to look very appealing indeed. Alas, an electric assist is far from free.

The prices of electric assists are pretty easy to understand, because they work almost exactly like the prices of bikes: the more they can do, the more they cost. You can get a low-end electric assist for $500. This is often a great option for a single person who needs an occasional boost, and who doesn’t mind the larger size, greater weight, shorter lifespan, and environmental consequences of using a lead-acid battery. (Yes, they sell e-bikes at Walmart that cost $500 together; these are the kinds of assists they have, and as one might imagine, the bike itself terrible.) Prices go up from there. You’ll pay more for a pedal assist that works almost without you noticing than you will for a twist-throttle assist on the handlebars that may feel like it will give you carpal tunnel syndrome. More powerful batteries that can easily push a cargo bike cost more than the kind designed for bikes with less intense loads. More range for a longer ride also commands a higher price. On the high end, the BionX D that we have on our Bullitt retails for $2,500; regular readers will know we paid less because fortune smiled and our battery died a week before its warranty expired. Again, you can save money with a do-it-yourself assist, but the parts suitable for a cargo bike are still going to cost more than the parts suitable for a lighter bike.

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers' market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

Someone in our neighborhood has an Onderwater triple tandem! And they let my kids sit on it at the farmers’ market! It was hauling a trailer. So hardcore!

All of this is before we get to accessories. Racks and baskets and bags to carry kids and gear cost money. Anyone who has every purchased a car seat knows that child seats cost money. Lights cost money, and you’ll need them if you’re riding at night. If you’re riding a bike for transportation, you might find it worthwhile to add dynamo lights to your bicycle, as they are very bright yet unappealing to steal, and these cost more money than clip-on lights. Some front loaders come with rain covers, which cost even more money, but can extend the number of months you ride in the year. And after spending all that money on the bike, it’s also rare than people feel comfortable locking up with a cheap lock; tougher locks cost much more than the cable I locked up my bike with as a kid.

In summary, the price of cargo bikes goes up more or less in lockstep with the quality of the parts. That means that what you are buying as the price goes up is (a) greater safety, to some extent, as with the wheels and brakes. We came to cargo biking relatively early in the scheme of things, which means, like, 2011, and made various screw-ups with crappy brakes and non-Clydesdale wheels and so on. If I can no other good in this world, I would be thrilled if I could prevent someone else from making these same mistakes, which have the potential to make family biking seem scary instead of fun. You are also potentially buying (b) greater convenience, to some extent, as with less flat-prone tires and dynamo lights, and (c) more ability to handle difficult terrain, as with the gears and the assist.

Your circumstances and skills may save you money. If you live in territory that’s flat and/or you have one skinny kid, and/or you are already very fit, you can save money by not getting an assist, and by choosing less powerful brakes. If you know how to build a bike or have electrical skills, you can save money by doing some of the work yourself (that said, I have met only one person who built her own battery instead of buying it retail and she was an electrical engineer). You may conclude on reflection that you don’t need the carrying capacity of a cargo bike, and a child seat on the bike and/or a trailer is sufficient for your needs. They are all good options.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

This cargo trike is super-affordable, however.

So cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes to buy and always will be. However there is good news. First, as those hoping for a price break may already have discovered, they last basically forever, retain their value well, and sell quickly on the secondhand market. Second, the maintenance costs are pretty much bupkis. Even if you ran down the entire battery on your brand-new assisted cargo bike and recharged it from zero every night and rode so hard that you had to replace multiple parts on an annual basis and insured it like it was made of platinum, you would still be hard-pressed to spend more than a few hundred dollars a year once you bought it. Compared to the “cheap” used car or moped people sometimes mention as “equivalent,” which can run up those kinds of expenses annually on insurance alone or oil changes alone, let alone the cost of gas and regular maintenance, and which depreciate at a rate that is equivalent to financial hemorrhage, cargo bikes are cheap at twice the price. All the cost is upfront. That’s not trivial, which is why bike shops are increasingly working on the financial side to spread some of that cost over time. Alternatively, you could do what we did and finance your new cargo bike(s) by selling your car.

So our bikes save us money, but more importantly they save us time and stress. They also make me the only parent at my office who gets regular exercise. There have moments in the last few years when we thought we might have to buy a car again at some point, and the thought filled us with despair. There’s no way to put a price on any of that, but altogether these things are worth much more than we’ve spent. All things considered, a cargo bike is a screaming good deal.



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

What we did this summer

Rare photo of both household adults together in the wild, at the Conservatory of Flowers

Rare photo of both household adults together in the wild, at the Conservatory of Flowers

All’s well that ends well. I have completed my surgical hat trick of being operated on at every UCSF campus, and am feeling fine. Better every day, in fact. After that, I took two weeks of vacation and used the SF Public Library’s Family Pass program to take the kids to nearly every museum in San Francisco and environs. A friend of mine once described the experience of using the library’s family pass program as entering the family version of Eddie Murphy’s “White Like Me” sketch on Saturday Night Live. “Oh you have kids? You can visit for freeeeeeeeeeee!” Even so the family passes used to be something of a hassle to use, as getting into popular museums involved sprinting down to the local branch first thing in the morning at the beginning of the week. The SFPL recently joined the rest of us in the 21st century, though, and now you can download passes electronically for any available date. It is, in a word (an overused word): awesome. I realize I may be undercutting my own best interests next summer here by putting that out on the internet. You’re welcome.

The SF Exploratorium: it was surprisingly easy to get a family pass through the library program (until now, I guess)

The SF Exploratorium: it was surprisingly easy to get a family pass through the library program (until now, I guess)

My other vaguely public service type action over the last few weeks was also internet-related. Those of you active on Facebook may be aware already that there are a couple of very active family biking groups local to Seattle and Portland. I am ashamed to admit that I have known about both for years, and posted to both, and yet it never really crossed my mind that such a thing might be nice to have in San Francisco. However I recently met two families who had moved to San Francisco from Seattle, and finally felt guilty enough after meeting them both at a local taco shop during our homestay vacation (Hi Cate and Elisabeth!) that I created a San Francisco Family Biking Facebook group myself. It’s a public group (for the time being at least) and anyone is welcome to join. Hope to see you there!

These racks filled up and later arrivals had to go to the overflow racks

These racks filled up and later arrivals had to go to the overflow racks

Another thing I did this summer was try some new family bikes to hit the market: the new mid-drive Xtracycle EdgeRunner and the Juiced ODK. And we hope to do a short-term rental of Yuba’s new Spicy Curry from Vie Bikes one day soon as well. In the meantime, today was the first day of school, and Team Bicycle remains strong at Rosa Parks Elementary. We’re going to need more bike racks.



Filed under family biking, San Francisco

In and out

How my kids see me lately, in compost form.

How my kids see me lately, in compost form. Mostly sleeping.

There are times when everything goes well, and times when it does not. In the last six months or so, things have been pretty quiet around our place, because I have been dealing with a persistent and annoying bout of anemia.

Having my leg smashed into shrapnel was my personal introduction to invisible disability, where I suddenly understood that not everyone who looked able-bodied and took the elevator up and down a single floor was being lazy. Dealing with anemia has been my personal introduction to chronic disease, and I can’t say I’m a big fan. I’ve found spoon theory is a pretty accurate depiction. Spoon theory proposes the analogy that every activity in life requires a spoon, and that when you are dealing with chronic disease you get only a limited supply of spoons. Once you run out of spoons you can’t do anything else for the rest of the day. So for example, last weekend we went sea kayaking with our kids. This was fun, but in exchange I had to stay in bed for the rest of the weekend.

As one might imagine, this kind of limited energy has put a crimp on our usual summer plans, which usually involve biking around the city all the time. Some days I can ride, and some days I find that I can’t. Things are getting better, and lately I have been riding more days than not. However I have been heavily triaging on all fronts. I haven’t fallen too far behind at work, however updates to the blog have been limited, it’s been months since I last checked my personal email, and so forth. Also I have been very grouchy, because seriously: who would want to live this way?

Fortunately for me, this turns out to be a curable condition. Less fortunately, it means that I have to have another surgery. Tomorrow. That’s right: three years in a row! I’m sure that’s not a world record, but it’s definitely a personal one. Nonetheless I’m grateful that this isn’t going to last forever, and that I have the chance to get better.

When we started riding with our kids, I took my strength and good health for granted. Riding up the hills of San Francisco was difficult but not impossible. I assumed that using an electric assist would make me lazy, not yet realizing that at certain times, it would be the only thing that allowed me to ride at all. In hindsight, this is all very humbling. And surprising: I would never have believed, five years ago, that it was possible to keep riding after getting run over, when I needed a cane just to walk, or when I needed to stop and catch my breath every few steps while going up a staircase. And yet I could ride through all of that. I have heard people say that there is no form of transportation more efficient than a bicycle. It is experiences like these that make me realize what that really means, and that somewhere there is a (possibly assisted) bicycle (or tricycle) suitable for everyone. Now all we need are more safe places to ride.


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

We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is a mid-drive, which tend to be powerful. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that made me wonder a little about the build. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist [note: see comments below as this motor has since been upgraded]  is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. It is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the assist could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, it kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know. [Note: see the comments below, the MPF assist on this test bike has since been upgraded to the Bosch, which is both more powerful and noisier according to commenters.]

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.


Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.



Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

Things we’re all too young to know

I wonder why I remember some moments and not others. Obviously, going to Copenhagen made a big impression: without that trip, this blog wouldn’t exist. My memory stutters along, large gaps strung together with brief glimpses between like photographs, and short films that fade on either end into nothingness. I have taken my kids to parks more times than I can count, but I remember “going to the park” as the morning that my son, at less than two years old, wouldn’t sleep, so we walked over to play on the swings at 5am, and he sat on my lap on the big kid swings and laughed as the sun came up. “Going to the park” is also the afternoon my daughter ran off, barefoot, in a crowd at Golden Gate Park, leaving me searching for over half an hour until another mom spotted me looking panicked and carrying her shoes, and came over to ask if I was looking for a little girl. She had wandered over to the carrousel and was on her 10th free ride. She’d told the operator she’d lost her mommy, which was true, although it hadn’t exactly been unintentional. I remember we had ridden the Brompton that day.

I wonder why those particular events stuck in my memory rather than a hundred other times when my kids did more or less the same things. Why do I forget so much? The memories that are left take on the weight of all the other experiences I have forgotten, invested with more than they really contain. On reflection I think that they are times that I felt alive. I spend a lot of my time working in an office or sleeping. These things are not memorable because it feels as if nothing is happening. Time spent watching television blends into a slurry of sameness, and the driving parts of the road trips I’ve taken are largely, and happily, forgotten. I remember more of my bicycle commutes than I do of our old car commutes. I remember going to Disneyland as a child, but nothing of the drive there. The dark side of this forgetting is the expectation that the time drivers lose is truly forgettable, which turned out to be extremely untrue when one of them ran me down. I don’t know how to value the time that was lost, or the time that will be lost.

Four months ago, I learned that a friend from childhood (a lifelong non-smoker) had been diagnosed with Stage 4 metastatic lung cancer. Now that I work in cancer prevention, I know that there are cancers that are unlikely to kill you (endometrial, skin), and cancers that are likely to kill you pretty soon (liver, pancreas). And then there is lung cancer, probably the only cancer that can make people wish they’d been diagnosed with liver cancer instead.

With an old friend, the memories crowd each other even with all the things that I’ve forgotten. We were lab partners in high school chemistry, a subject in which she excelled and in which I definitely did not excel. She showed me how to see the phosphorescence in the bay, we drew cartoons of the ridiculous books we read, and we dated the same boy, sequentially and cheerfully. During summers in college I would come home after long bike rides to read emails she’d written from Costa Rica or Madagascar, and there are bits of knowledge I carry even now from them, like that countries that were once French colonies have less wildlife than their neighbors because the French ate everything. When we sailed in the afternoons in Birch Bay the water was so shallow that the sun baked it all afternoon until the bay became the world’s largest hot tub. In graduate school we hiked through the Berkeley Hills and shopped at the Davis farmers’ market. I visited her in Bodega Bay during the summer that she had to haul buckets of water every day to save the patches of wild strawberries that she studied for her dissertation. When she became a postdoc in the UK I learned that American PhDs were worth more than European doctorates, which turned out to be useful knowledge when I lived in France. She and her husband visited when my children were born, bringing fruit and cheese and crackers before I was even ready to leave the house. Her work changed over time, to tracking the viruses used in bioterrorism, so every few years the FBI would call me with more questions about our past as her security clearance grew more rarified. And so I remember more than I would otherwise, more than I could write about or share. But it never seemed to matter when I remembered and what I forgot, because there was always more time. Until suddenly, there wasn’t.

Even with so many memories there are some that return, again and again. I remember one summer afternoon, when we met at the park by the bay. I rode my bike, the red Nishiki 10-speed mixte that I rode everywhere then, and she rode hers. I locked up while she did aerial cartwheels on the grass. We walked to the beach and looked through the tide pools, dissected some of the dead wildlife, and considered checking out the body of a seal. We decided against it because we hadn’t brought gloves and it was starting to smell. We talked about everything and nothing.

What makes that memorable? Why does my mind keep returning to that afternoon? My red bike. A green cable lock. The fractal edge of a rocky beach. The sun in the sky. How does one memory hold so much weight? She says she is not afraid to die. I wish I remembered everything.



Filed under rides

People of the bicycle

I think this study was conducted on the day that I realized it was time to get some fenders on my bike.

I think this study was conducted on the day that I realized it was time to get some fenders on my bike.

This week we got a notice from school that the San Francisco Unified School District Commute Study results were out. I had a vague memory of this study when it was in the field, asking people about how they’d gotten to school, which unfortunately happened during one of the rare weeks when it actually rained. So I have good reason to suspect that the active transportation numbers are an underestimate. How did our kids’ school do?

  • Percentage of bicycle commuters in SFUSD overall: 1.5% (ouch!)
  • Percentage of bicycle commuters at Rosa Parks: 6.5%

Relatively speaking, it’s totally awesome; more than four times greater than the citywide average. Objectively speaking, well, we’re a long way from Copenhagen. However, our kids are in a citywide program, so there is reason to expect more driving, rather than less of it. Yet there is less driving—a lot less driving.

  • Percentage of car commuters in SFUSD overall: 56%
  • Percentage of car commuters at Rosa Parks: 48%

I have no idea what the car commuting percentages are like in less urban locales. I presume based on talking to people who live elsewhere that, outside the districts that still maintain a robust busing program, basically everyone drives. As SFUSD points out in its flyer, walking and biking to school can improve health and concentration. However from my perspective the bus is a great option as well—no need to park, it’s okay to drink a glass of wine, the kids sometimes don’t get as wet, you avoid having to climb steep hills or cross terrifying intersections unprotected, etc. My suspicion is that SFUSD is underselling the bus option because it cut most of its bus routes to save money. Nonetheless, people using passive transportation at Rosa Parks take a lot of buses. In fact the school soccer team is called the Rosa Parks Buses (best name ever). Rosa Parks and buses, it’s like a thing.

  • Percentage of bus commuters in SFUSD overall: 16%
  • Percentage of bus commuters at Rosa Parks: 24%

Don't even start with that "you can't carry [X] on a bike" nonsense.

Don’t even start with that “you can’t carry [X] on a bike” nonsense.

As mentioned, I suspect that overall this was an underestimate of the families using active transportation, but the relative numbers, given that our kids attend a citywide program, are enough to make the case that we are the people of the bicycle and the bus.

But perhaps you are, as yet, an aspiring San Francisco family biker, rather than an established one. And if you are like many of the people who email me, you may be wondering what bike to get. If so, have I got news for you. I mentioned a while back that Vie Bikes in San Francisco was planning a launch of a family bike rental program. Well, it’s here, with an impressive lineup that includes Bullitts, Boda Bodas, and the Butchers and Bicycles trikes. Apparently you need a promotion code if you want to book one; happily, anyone is welcome to use mine: HUMOFTHECITY001.

And last but not least, Sunday Streets is back in season, with the usual opener last weekend on the Embarcadero that we have not yet managed to attend in any year. On April 12th it’s in the Dogpatch while we are out of town, but we’re definitely eying May 10th in the Mission and June 14th in the Sunset (despite a date that all but guarantees maximum fog presence). Hope to see you there.


Filed under bike share, car-free, commuting, destinations, family biking, San Francisco