Figuring out commuter bikes

When we got Matt’s bike (the Kona MinUte) we assumed that we would switch off riding it for a while to get used to bicycle commuting. When we realized that I couldn’t ride the MinUte and our daughter wasn’t safe on it without installing a child seat anyway, that plan went out the window. Moreover, the obvious fun that Matt was having with our son was making our daughter crazy with envy. We were ready to ride.

Still, although we were still thousands of dollars under the budget for even the used car we’d been thinking about buying earlier in the year, and thus willing to buy a second bike in relatively short order, I was nervous about making a bad decision. We knew nothing about bicycles except that riding the Kona was going pretty well for Matt. And I tend to perseverate about even the simplest decisions, an occupational hazard of years working as a researcher. Typically I can get around my own unwillingness to buy anything because it might be the wrong thing by picking up something cheap on craigslist. But my brother-in-law, the only person we knew who was really informed about bicycles, thought that that was a really bad idea because (a) used frames could be rusted or crushed and we’d never know (b) we also didn’t know what size bike I should be riding and (c) we are not handy and had no idea what a working bicycle should do.

Paper: the only material we are comfortable working with

Saying we are not handy is an understatement. Matt once electrocuted himself while changing an ancient lightbulb while we were living in Paris, right in front of the building handyman, who made him go lie down and had me check his pupils for the next several hours. In middle school I got my hair caught in a buffer in shop class, forcing the instructor to sprint for the emergency switch that shut down the building’s power, pulling a chunk of my own scalp out, and earning myself notoriety for years afterward in the form of a safety sign placed directly above that machine and a marquee mention, by name, in the “Terrifying Things That Could Happen To You In Shop Class If You Don’t Put Safety First” annual lecture. Rarely have two people been better matched to desk jobs than we are.

So I started reading reviews. I didn’t know anything about bicycles, but after a lot of reading, I finally progressed to the point that I knew very little about bicycles. My primary goal was to get to work every day with a minimum of bother and to carry my kids and happily that makes a lot of stuff that you can read about bicycles totally irrelevant. There was actually a class of bicycle for people like me: the commuter bicycle. These bicycles, at their lowest maintenance point, which was my ideal point, came with

  • gears that lived inside the rear wheel and instead of on rings that might drop a chain (hub gears)
  • lights that turned on and ran by themselves whenever the wheels of the bike turned (hub dynamo lights)
  • chain guards (even hub gears needed a chain; a guard would keep it from getting dirty and catching my dress pants)
  • fenders (to prevent the stripe of mud blown up my back by the tires after hitting a puddle, so familiar from my years of childhood biking in the Pacific Northwest)
  • step-through frames, for days I wanted to wear a skirt without embarrassment, and to make it plausible to mount a front child seat and a rear child seat at the same time and still get on the bike
  • rear racks to hold panniers and eliminate the sweaty back that would result from carrying a messenger bag
  • a kick stand to hold the bike up in the event that I wanted to ever put anything on that rear rack
  • if I was lucky, a rear wheel lock that kept the wheel from turning when I was away from the bike (in San Francisco, using a rear wheel lock as the only lock would be roughly comparable to attaching a bicycle to a chain-link fence with Scotch tape, but in combination with a U-lock and a cable lock, would presumably politely suggest to bike thieves that they might consider another bicycle)

These accessories all add weight, so I quickly passed on the kind of advice that had people removing what I’d always assumed were essential bike parts, like brakes, to ensure that they were riding something that weighed less than my children did at birth. Even so, unfortunately for me, bicycles that possessed most or all of the commuter extras seemed to come in one of two categories: beautiful slender bicycles rated to carry my weight and a laptop and not much else, meaning that they wouldn’t safely carry my kids (we heard a couple of horrifying stories from parents on campus about the spokes on their rear wheel simply snapping in two, one after the other, as they tried to wheel forward after putting the kid in the seat on bikes like these), or heavy Dutch-style steel bicycles rated to carry a few hundred pounds that were never designed to get up San Francisco hills.

A summary of a conversation repeated at seven different San Francisco bicycle shops:

“I want a bicycle with child seats that I can use to drop my kids off at school and then go to work.”

“Okay, where do you live?”

“Parnassus Heights.”

“Then that would be an aluminum bike.”

(I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that some people do in fact ride heavy steel Dutch bikes up San Francisco hills. However they never seem to have the kind of load on them that I wanted to haul, namely 75 pounds of children plus 20 pounds of child seats on the front and back, plus all of our nontrivial gear. I am immensely grateful that there are people importing practical bicycles like these to the US, and would love to ride one in another city. But although at 130 pounds I’m not outrageously heavy myself, doubling the weight on the bike without doubling my leg strength seemed like a dubious plan given that the bicycles themselves were no slouches in the weight department. I regularly portage tired kids on long walks and thus did not fear picking up a bicycle in the 30-45 pound range and putting it on a bike rack or carrying it up the stairs. That’s easy dead weight relative to a squirming kid. But figuring out the weight of Dutch bicycles was like watching a nauseating burlesque as the reviews rolled in; they weighed 45 pounds, or maybe 55 pounds, or okay, 68 pounds, and yeah, okay, their riders were walking up a lot of hills. And I had experience riding a Dutch bicycle overseas. My experience suggested that I would be walking up a lot of hills. And this was before adding 20 pounds of child seats or either kid. Maybe one day when I am stronger or when my kids are old enough to ride alone.)

(I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention that there are apparently handy people in this world who convert bicycles that can’t carry a lot of weight into bicycles that can carry a lot of weight by upgrading all of the components, ideally, it seemed, after rescuing a vintage frame preserved for decades under a bag of lawn fertilizer in a grandparent’s garage and swapping spare parts with similarly-minded aficionados through an internet-based mystery-bag-style barter economy. Sometimes this process seemed to involve tools like blowtorches. As wonderfully frugal as that sounded, I had no idea what parts were even involved in this transition, we are, as noted, totally not handy in an actively self-destructive kind of way, and we didn’t have any bicycles lying around to upgrade anyway. All our grandparents were dead and their garages had been emptied by ruthless estate sale agents. Instead we were eager to Support Our Local Bike Shops. You’re welcome.)

At least I knew what I wanted: a bicycle that could safely carry ~250 pounds, that came stock with accessories that made it possible to just wheel out the door without too much thought (hub gears, definitely hub dynamo lights, a chain guard), that was geared to handle serious hills, and that ideally didn’t weigh more than about 40 pounds, since I was planning to add 20 pounds to it before even leaving the shop. My brother-in-law said that there were bicycles all over Germany that fit this description, but they were so ugly that no one in the US would sell them. I wanted an ugly bicycle right here in these United States. Eventually I stumbled upon one.


Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

5 responses to “Figuring out commuter bikes

  1. With bated breath, I await your reveal! How exciting. Love your breakdown of a commuter bicycle. I was pretty clueless on what made a bike, “commuter.” Do you see FamilyRide’s setup on her Bianchi? Was that bike too heavy? She seems to have some steep hills to cover, and my experience with hills, are your leg muscles do double in strength, but it takes a few weeks (or months, like for me).

    • Thanks! I did see Family Ride’s (former) setup, which was awesome, but her kids are younger than mine, so she can still use the Bobike Mini. My daughter was about three pounds away from the max weight for that seat when we got my bike. I also think her Bianchi got an upgrade in gears (yes! I checked: on May 27, 2011) as her kids got older and heavier. People in SF recommended against that bike in its out-of-the-box state, even for people who were commuting solo, unless you were riding exclusively in the Mission/SOMA/FiDi where it’s flat. One of my coworkers rides a Milano but he’s also swapped out parts (he’s handy).

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