Monthly Archives: January 2012

The Christmas bike: Jamis Laser 20”

Our son liked his old balance bike so much that he was reluctant to share it with his sister, even as he outgrew it and she grew into it. Until recently we had not considered getting him another bike, as larger-sized bicycles came with pedals, which he had never really shown much interest in using. His initial attraction to renting a kid’s bike in Copenhagen was immediately overtaken by the fun of riding on the back of our bikes. We assumed that he’d come around to riding his own bike eventually, but estimated that that interest would build over the course of a year or two. That didn’t concern us much given that both logistically and traffic-wise it’s unrealistic for him to ride on his own to school and back. We were surprised but pleased when after a few months of riding with us he said he wanted a “big kid” bike with pedals.

We didn’t take our son’s interest in a new bike very seriously at first, but as time passed, he became increasingly insistent that a bike was what he wanted for Christmas. I’m not sure where he learned that a bicycle was a traditional Christmas gift, but fair enough, it was. When we mentioned at one point that there is a bicycle summer camp in San Francisco, where kids can both learn to ride and take day trips across the Golden Gate Bridge, to cooking classes at the Ferry Building, through city parks, and to the zoo, his desire for a bike reached a fever pitch: he wanted a bike, and he wanted to learn to ride it in time for Wheel Kids summer camp.

Although buying so many bikes in a few months was starting to feel ridiculous, we also felt like it would be crazy to miss the opportunity to get our son riding when he was so motivated. And he correctly pointed out that he was now the only person in the family without his own bicycle. So onward: another bicycle. The selection of children’s bicycles is almost as confusing as the selection of adult bicycles, but mercifully, there are many fewer models available and they are cheaper. Our son, a very tall six-year-old, seemed the right size for a bike with 20” wheels, which would probably last him until middle school.  We hardly needed the advice to avoid big-box store kids’ bikes, as there are no such stores in San Francisco. Once again my brother-in-law offered advice that could get us to a decent ride. He recommended Wheels of Justice Cyclery, a Bay Area shop specializing in children’s bikes that not only had the coolest name ever but offered a buyback program, where any bicycle purchased from them could be returned anytime and 50% of the price would be taken off the next bicycle. The idea behind it was to help parents resist the temptation to save money by buying a bike that was too big and that scared kids off of riding for good.

The downside of Wheels of Justice is that they are located in Oakland. Getting there involves a brutal drive that promised to send our kids, no fans of driving anyway, into complete meltdowns. We weren’t absolutely sure about the appropriate size of bicycle and knew we wanted to bring our son for a fitting. So despite our fears, we packed both kids into the car one evening a couple of weeks before Christmas for a trip to what we said was a surprise destination. Our daughter screamed bloody murder for the entire half hour it took us to get off the Bay Bridge and into Montclair. By the time we parked the car, I wanted to kill my brother-in-law for sending us across the Bay. Mercifully, our son passed out cold about five minutes into our daughter’s screaming fit. Less mercifully, we had to wake him up on arrival, at which point we had two howling kids to wrangle. Fortunately Montclair has a frozen yogurt shop, which we carried them into, ordering each an extra large cup. By the time they’d finished eating, they had mellowed to the point that they were only in very bad moods. Onward to Wheels of Justice!

To my surprise, our son had not made the connection between his desire for a bicycle and this trip, and was completely gobsmacked when we arrived at a bicycle shop. His mood immediately ratcheted up to delighted. Our daughter spotted some bikes with streamers and perked up as well. Living up to their promise, Wheels of Justice primarily stocked kids’ bikes, and given that it was the Christmas season, there were a lot of them on the floor. There were also a lot of people buying kids’ bikes; unlike our other bicycles, this was clearly not going to be a purchase heavily discounted from list price. The selection of bikes ranged pretty widely, from simple single-speeds to geared mountain bikes with suspension forks (which I still think of as the thingy that holds the front wheel on the bike that looks like it has springs inside). Thanks to the Wheel Kids site (and once again vetted by my brother-in-law, who has in a few total hours over the last five years spared us many bad decisions) we knew what we wanted as a first bike: a single-speed bike with coaster brakes and a hand brake for the rear wheel (not the front wheel because gripping a front wheel brake too hard could send a kid over the handlebars). Happily, this is also the cheapest kind of decent kids’ bike.

Classic Christmas morning photo

It took a while to find someone to help us as the shop was slammed, but Matt was happy to cruise the selection of commuter gloves while the kids climbed on and off various bikes. When someone in the shop was finally free he confirmed that we wanted a 20” bike after popping our son on and off a couple of bikes, and told us that given what we wanted there were two options: a Jamis Laser or a COBO. They could build us a COBO in the next week that we could reserve and drive back to pick up, or sell us a Laser that night. The guy at the shop didn’t see much difference between the bikes except that they thought the Laser had a nicer paint job. Remembering the drive we’d had already, we bought the Laser.

Our son, who is a model of patience and discretion among six-year-olds, accepted that this was the last he would see of his bike until Christmas, and even pretended on occasion over the next two weeks that he didn’t know he’d be getting one. His first ride was on Christmas Day, and he needed one of us to hold the back of his jacket the whole time. His second ride was a couple of days later, and by the end of that ride, he was riding on his own. Admittedly his strategy for finishing a ride still involves riding headlong directly at one of us and yelling, “Grab my bike! I need to stop now!”

The Jamis Laser has some weaknesses, but I’m not sure that there is much we could buy that is better. Our son is familiar with our bikes, and immediately noticed the lack of fenders, lights, and a bell. He has argued that these are gaps that compromise safety and function and would like these accessories added to his bike as soon as possible. (Of course, he is six years old, and thus I suspect that he would cheerfully accessorize with anything and everything up to and including streamers on the handlebars.) I’m not sure that we can add fenders to the bike (we asked, and the verdict was that it is unlikely), but the rest is easy enough; however I feel like the bell at least should come standard. Our son also wondered why his bike didn’t come with a U-lock, as it has not escaped him that we lock up our own bikes even within the already double-locked building garage (I myself have often wondered the same thing about my own bike). Finally, we all find this bike to be pretty heavy for a child. Our son is strong for his age but lifting the bike is real work for him; this was a big disappointment after the ultralight balance bike.

We were surprised and delighted to see one of his 1st grade classmates, a friend since the first day of kindergarten, riding the exact same bicycle, right down to the color, on New Year’s Day. His parents don’t bike commute to school, so we didn’t realize they even had bikes, but like us, they were out for a family ride on Sunday in Golden Gate Park: one parent had a child seat for their daughter, the other carried her balance bike, and their son rode alongside on his Laser. Seeing our friends out like us on bikes, and our kids’ matching bicycles, pretty much made our day. What can I say? We’re cheap dates.

Girl on Schwinn

In defense of the Laser, there is a lot of crap out there people expect kids to ride. Other than an amazing old Schwinn one girl was riding, our son’s bike was the most functional bicycle we saw in the parade of new Christmas bikes in Golden Gate Park over the last week of the year. The awesome Schwinn was, according to the rider’s grandmother, 35 years old and her mother’s bike before her, stored  in the garage (under a bag of lawn fertilizer…) awaiting a new generation all those decades. That bike did have fenders, as well as huge sweeping handlebars and a kickstand and a full chainguard. The Laser, to its credit, also has a kickstand and a chainguard. The Schwinn did not have a hand brake, and that is a strong point in the Laser’s favor, because the only way that poor girl could stop the bike quickly was to reverse the pedals, at which point she would fall right off the bike. (I suspect it would be easy to add a hand brake.) Both bikes weigh a ton considering that they are meant for children. The absence of hand brakes was epidemic among other kids’ bikes we saw, many of which seemed to rattle aggressively even after they stopped moving. Based on their lack of major brand labels I assume that these bikes were purchased at Target or Walmart. Although I understand the temptation, because those bikes are cheap and because employees at Target/Walmart typically don’t treat kids like they are radioactive, I’m glad we went to a real bike shop (and I’m particularly glad it was kid-friendly). Despite my annoyance about what’s missing from the Laser, it is clear that we could have done much worse.

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Running around San Francisco

Until mid-week I was consumed with writing grants and reviewing grants. Both of these are a huge time sink, but only one (writing them) has any possibility of my getting paid for my time. I have a lot of ambivalence about reviewing grants, given that it seems to be a process where I crush people’s dreams on an all-volunteer basis. Then again, it would probably feel even worse if I took money for it.

So on Saturday Matt and the kids went solo to Oshogatsu Matsuri (Japanese New Year festival) at the Japanese Cultural and Community Center of San Francisco (JCCCNC). This is a great event and I was sorry to miss it. They open up their gymnasium and put out tables where the kids can do thematic crafts, adults can pound mochi, and there are kendo and taiko drumming demonstrations, many of which involve our son’s classmates. If you bring a white t-shirt, they’ll screen a print of the art for the New Year on it. JCCCNC is strictly nonprofit, and all of this is free; they don’t even sell t-shirts in the event that you forget. We always forget and kick ourselves. In the Year of the Rabbit we were at least able to pull our son’s shirt off his back (he was wearing a sweater, we didn’t leave him naked) and get one. The logo for this year, the Year of the Dragon, which I have since seen on the schoolyard, was awesome.

She went right for the sensei

At least our kids got to hit people with bamboo swords in the kendo demonstration. Next year we’ll bring t-shirts. Always next year.

Then they walked to Everybody Bikes to fix a popped stroller tire and because they were outside for longer than one hour, and frankly almost a mile is a long way to walk with two kids and no stroller, stopped at the Old Jerusalem Café next door (no longer a hookah bar; we do have some limits). Matt was able to make good on his New Year’s resolution by signing up to take a bike maintenance class. I would have resolved the same thing but he thought of it first. It’s probably for the best as we don’t have the greatest history with any kind of maintenance, so if he is injured in any way I will know I’m out of my depth. At any rate Everybody Bikes offers classes on Monday evenings. We are all hoping for the best. Basic bicycle maintenance does not appear to involve power tools so that’s a big advantage.

We really need a way for one adult to haul two kids around outside the neighborhood, when we’re split up like this. Our son is willing, in fact eager, to bike, but hasn’t managed starting or stopping on his own, so leaving home, traffic and stop signs would be an issue. Long bike, tandem, long bike, tandem: decisions, decisions. For the sake of the hills I’d like a tandem—we could get some help from the stokers—but I’d also like to be able to carry the kids’ stuff around, which argues longtail. But either way we’ve spent a motherlode of money on bikes lately, and dropping the kind of money that definitely involves a comma on yet another bike seems… excessive. I’ll admit that in terms of value for the dollar our bikes are knockout performers; we’re on them 4-7 days a week in the middle of winter (granted, a California winter) after only a few months of riding, we ditched a very expensive campus parking pass, and we now fill up the tank of the not-exactly-fuel-efficient minivan less than once a month. But still.

On Sunday our son had a playdate with a friend from his old preschool while Matt waited for a new water heater, which they evidently spent dancing to the Black Eyed Peas, so I’m glad I missed it. Did I mention that we spent most the weekend without hot water? It made leaving the house at every opportunity really appealing. Our daughter had a birthday party at Acrosports, an old armory building that now holds circus arts and tumbling classes. Our son has been to a couple of parties there, but on the one occasion that we tried to sign him up for the class, was slow to warm to the idea of jumping off things and possibly hurting himself. This is a characteristic of his personality that has grown on me quite a lot over the years.

Running on the trampoline

Our daughter, however, has no such hesitation, and her only issue with Acrosports was trying to decide whether to go on the trapeze, the bungee jump, or the zip line at any given point in time. Matt couldn’t believe it was legal to put a preschooler on a zip line. I’m resigned to it given that she’s done more dangerous things without first putting on safety equipment.

Ultimately she ended up taking 2 trips on the bungee jumper, 3 on the zip line (“I want to go FAST!”), and I lost count on the trapeze. At one point she fell on her head after smashing into someone while swinging on the giant rope. When I picked her up she yelled, “I want to go again!” Although red-faced and obviously winded she ran around like she’d mainlined a stash of methamphetamines collected by a student preparing for the MCATs and in a rare moment of self-awareness she agreed, after 90 minutes, that she would in fact need a nap today.

We walked to Acrosports, meaning I carried her all the way there and back; we took the university elevator because I’m a glutton for punishment but not insane. It’s only half a mile but it’s basically a straight shot downhill and then back up (which is why I didn’t bike; there is little joy in that particular ride). Our neighbors who live up the block drove to the party. I still find this bizarre; parking is horrific so they ended up in a spot that was about 200 feet from where we boarded the elevator to go back home.

When our daughter was sleeping Matt took our son to the Exploratorium. This would normally have been a nice trip through Golden Gate Park and then the Presidio by bicycle but Matt brought his parents and nephew. To my knowledge, none of them has ever ridden a bike, and they hate driving in San Francisco, so ultimately Matt packed all of them into the van and drove there himself. It was easier for them, and we came home to celebrate his mom’s birthday; everyone got a cupcake.

So it was a lot of weekend, the kind that makes us happy to live in San Francisco, where there is so much to see and do and learn, but also a little overwhelmed. The kids were frustrated that they didn’t get to ride somewhere; our daughter spent Sunday night telling her grandmother about the holiday lights ride. I am eager for summer, when the days are less packed and we can ride late into the evening.

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Patient Zero: The Specialized Hotwalk balance bike (with pirates)

What's missing from this bike?

Technically speaking, I now realize, the first bicycle to enter our household was not the Kona. It was a balance bike that was the index case in this newfound obsession. Way back in 2007, when our son was turning two, my sister and brother-in-law brought over what I now realize was a very generous birthday gift, a balance bike. We assumed, may we one day be forgiven, that this was one of those gifts that reflects the taste of the giver, a bicycle gift from a lifetime bicycle obsessive, comparable to the decorative crystal candy dishes given as wedding gifts by our great-aunts that reflected their ambition for us to lead a far less itinerant lifestyle. At the time, balance bikes were not the hot-ticket holiday must-haves that they are today, and our primary reaction was confusion.  Our son was too young for a bicycle, and this one seemed to be lacking some critical parts.

The model that my brother-in-law chose was actually an informed consumer purchase. The tires, unlike those of many balance bicycles, were filled with air rather than being solid rubber. The bicycle was light enough to be picked up easily by a toddler. And although our son was at the time too young to appreciate it, the bicycle was also covered with pictures of pirates. You can’t buy that kind of quality décor in these modern-day balance bikes.

Arrrr...

This bicycle was valued enough to survive the most recent move from our old apartment, and after five moves in as many years we had become ruthless about what we were willing to pack. I had never paid the slightest attention to this bike beyond the practical considerations of finding a place to put it and helping our son ride it. This bicycle is the only reason we owned a pump. I had to look up the brand’s history by year to realize it was the Specialized Hotwalk. Is it a real bike if it doesn’t have a serial number?

Despite our reservations at the time we got it, our son was committed to learning to ride the Hotwalk. At two he was too short to ride even with the seat lowered as far as it would go, but he found it fascinating, and thanks to a growth spurt that continues to this day, which has led pediatricians to predict his adult height at somewhere around six and a half feet, he picked it up quickly enough. He grew bored quickly with his initial efforts to crab-walk it along and started pushing off hard enough that he cruised down entire city blocks without stopping. Other parents watched with amazement as he literally rode circles around their older kids on bikes with training wheels. To this day, although he has long since outgrown it, he still feels most comfortable on this bike, and will at times rip it from his sister’s hands in an effort to ride it. He jumped directly from this bike to a pedal bike. He makes no secret of his disdain for training wheels, which he has never used. This can be embarrassing when we meet other families at the park.

With the benefit of hindsight, I realize that this bike is the reason that our determinedly cautious son, who to our joy has never needed to be rushed to the emergency room after causing himself a debilitating injury, was even willing to consider climbing aboard a rental bike during our stay in Copenhagen. Riding in a child seat and as a stoker places some basic balancing demands on kids, and although wild kicks and swings are pretty trivial for an adult rider to correct when kids are small, they get more challenging as the kids grow heavier and longer-limbed. Our son’s comfort with the balance bike translated easily to comfort climbing on and off the back of an adult bike, and has made it much easier to haul a 45 pound passenger on our commutes.

"Klaxon Velo Dinosaure" according to the package label

As our daughter grew bigger, she wanted to follow his lead, and in the last few months, has begun to move beyond walking the bike to coasting. We added a dinosaur horn to the bike to make it hers, and she has learned to honk it wildly when other bikes are approaching, or might be approaching, or are visible in the distance, or when she needs to indicate that she has a horn. When we took the kids to Golden Gate Park after Christmas, we found a dozen kids her age with balance bikes in a rainbow of colors delivered by Santa.

"We go fast!"

Unlike them, she had a few months of riding under her belt, and thus led their spontaneous little balance bike gang around the Music Concourse. Honk, honk!

Our move to bicycle commuting was driven by our kids’ delight in riding. I realize now that although their eagerness to ride was triggered by renting bikes in Copenhagen, it really grew from the years our son spent on the balance bike, learning the freedom of powering himself through the world much faster than he could walk or run.

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Outerlands

Our trip to Angel Island was okay and all, but the next bike ride stayed a little closer to civilization, which in the mind of the littles means commerce. Views are swell, but views while you’re eating something are better. We’ve been out to the Financial District and the Mission but weren’t feeling the love for Market Street. Eventually we remembered there’s a whole other half of the city to our west, the Outer Richmond and Outer Sunset, aka the Outerlands. We rode there on the last day of winter vacation, right after New Year’s.

I am the windmill, koo koo ka choo...

A trip to the Outerlands meant biking through Golden Gate Park, a smooth slight downhill all the way to Ocean Beach, and the park is always good. It had been a long time since we headed deep into the Avenues, which feels weirdly residential until you get to the beach; long, long streets full of houses. They have driveways! And sometimes yards! And frequently people park their cars in those yards. But the commercial strips get few and far between as the Avenue numbers roll up, with a sudden perk up at the end of the N-Judah line. We hopped on our bikes in the morning and rode the 3.5 miles down to the beach and the windmills, coasting much of the way. I had no idea they were remodeling the decrepit southern windmill, but it looks awesome. Not open for visitors yet, however, and no signs saying when it would open, either.

Recently Java Beach opened a real restaurant, the Beachside Café. The last time we’d been to Java Beach was before we were married, or even engaged. Remembering our failures on the food front on our last trip, our first stop was Beachside for brunch. I never expect this in the outer Avenues, but bicycle parking was tight, and alas, there are no racks, and there certainly aren’t parking meters. We eventually found an unclaimed stop sign across the street.

Beachside and Java Beach are cleverly located at the end of the N-Judah line, and eating brunch there made it clear that their business is totally Muni-based. The café would be quiet, then a train would rumble by and stop, then 20 people would rush into the restaurant to order coffee and pastry forming a line out the door. Five minutes later the café would empty out again. Fifteen minutes later, repeat. My conclusion at the end of our meal was that their door banged really loudly every time it opened and closed, and it would be nice if they could fix that. The food was good too.

It’s fun to ride in the Outerlands. Everything is pretty flat and if you time your ride to miss the Muni stops, there’s not much competition for the streets. We made our first visit ever to Other Avenues, a really old-school coop a little east of Beachside. Their bulk section isn’t as extensive as Rainbow’s but it’s pretty impressive. And they had bike racks, and a giant ball and chain holding the driftwood bench outside the store that the kids liked rolling back and forth. No pictures, alas, our camera flashed the “recharge battery” light right when we got to the windmill. SFBC discount still applies at Other Avenues.

From there we figured as long as we were in the neighborhood, more or less (and our definition of “nearby” expands substantially when we’re rolling on two wheels), we figured we would swing by Devil’s Teeth Baking and pick up lunch. This is more eating out than we normally do, but we’d gotten lazy about grocery shopping over the holidays. Worth the trip, however, because Devil’s Teeth has one of the city’s newest parklets. It is the first parklet I’ve ever seen over angled parking, which gave the benches a thematic zig-zag feel. They had kids’ chairs on the sidewalk and chalk for drawing. When we got in there wasn’t much left to buy; they said they’d been slammed that morning. But their good reviews are well-deserved.

The weather has been amazing lately, as if there is no rainy season to come at all, and I always end up overdressing in two jackets and having to peel them off as we ride. California’s drought is our gain.

Both Beachside and Devil’s Teeth had another innovation I hadn’t seen before; they’re now partners with Green Apple, which leaves a selection of used books on a shelf in the corner of each store for $5 apiece—they’re good books, too, and if I hadn’t had two grants to write the next week at work (and every night after the kids went to bed) it would have been difficult to resist. I hadn’t seen a store with the Green Apple partnership before; I wish they did that in our neighborhood. I never thought I’d say this, but we need to get to the outer Avenues more often.

We rode home through the Park, crossing up to JFK Drive in a search for the “squishy bushes” (some kind of beach succulent? Ice plant?) that our son had talked about every day when we brought him home from nature camp. No luck, but we hit the jackpot anyway, finding two waterfalls crashing down at the northern edge of the park we’d never seen before; they were astounding, I would have been less surprised to see a live sasquatch there. We stopped with a half-dozen other bicycles whose riders were enjoying the view while our kids pointed and yelled. We were passed by over a dozen cars that never slowed or seemed to notice there was something to see. We’ve driven on the same road and never noticed the falls either. Who knew there was so much to see?

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Angel Island

All aboard!

While our kids were out of school over winter break we took the ferry to Angel Island. This is one of those trips that never would have seemed feasible before bicycles. There are no cars allowed on the island (other than those of the staff and summer trams) and the island is too large and the stay too long for it to be reasonable to walk with the kids; they would barely have made it past the docks on foot, and then we would have had another four hours before the ferry returned.

Bathroom break ad infinitum

After going on our bicycles I’d say that it was a mixed success. Matt and I had fun but even though we did the hauling, the kids got tired and frustrated and cold. By the middle of the afternoon they were engaged in their usual protest strategy of spending a half-hour in the bathroom apiece because they didn’t want to go anywhere anymore, even though the bathroom in question was a glorified outhouse in the middle of an empty field nowhere near the ferry dock that would get us home.

Alcatraz Island

But up until lunch, we all had a good time. The kids adored the ferry ride, especially spotting the buoys decorated in Christmas colors, and they liked the first half of the bike ride and eating lunch on the top of a hill looking over the old and new Bay Bridges. We rarely get to spend extended time with them outdoors as their default expectation is that after an hour in the park it’s time to go to a café. But in the off-season on Angel Island, there are no cafés. The costs of urban living: they are not fans of the concept of “wilderness,” not even half-hearted wilderness like an island you ride to on a ferry that has flush toilets and that was once the Ellis Island of the West.

Nobody here but us bicycles

In fact, in winter on Angel Island there’s not much of anything. There were almost no visitors on the ferry with us.  Six bikes in total made it onto the island, two ridden by mountain bikers who immediately hit the unpaved fire road, and two ridden by tourists tailed by a walker who’d chosen not to rent a bike for the trip. The first couple outpaced us immediately and we outpaced the second; even with the kids aboard, we ride faster than pedestrians. Everyone else was walking. We barely saw other visitors during our entire loop around the island. It was a startling change from a normal day in the city.

Angel Island actually sports some serious hills; the whole route is paved but it’s got elevation galore. None of it exceeded what we see on a daily basis in San Francisco, but none of it was familiar either, and it’s much easier, we’ve found, to climb a hill you know than to climb a hill you don’t. Case in point:  on the way up the seriously steep hill to the old Nike missile site, Matt started weaving with the combined load of cargo bike, our son, and our gear, and three-quarters of the way up he had to get off and walk. Since he ended up crosswise in the road, I had to stop and walk as well. When we got to the top we saw a sign telling bicycles that the hill was too steep to ride down, and walking your bicycle was required. No such sign on the uphill side, however.

Two Bay Bridges

The views on Angel Island are amazing. If our kids had been older they would have appreciated them more. They preferred to stop and look at things closer to the ground and complained that we wouldn’t let them climb on the restricted access crumbling old buildings. We didn’t pack enough food and snacks, underestimating the time the trip would really take, and they were hungry and cold.

By the time we got back both kids were exhausted. Our daughter started complimenting random teenagers on their braces. “You have shiny teeth! Where did you get shiny teeth?” and trying to make snow angels on the disgusting ferry carpet. At this point in the preschooler repertoire, the decision to take off underwear and run around shrieking cannot be far behind. Our son got so frustrated with waiting to get off the ferry dock that he punched Matt in the crotch. It was a low moment.

With hindsight I’m glad we went, but I wouldn’t go again with the kids for a long, long time. But someone else going to San Francisco, with older kids or no kids at all, would probably like this ride quite a lot.

A thoughtful visitor assembles found bones into a skeleton. We try to convince our kids not to destroy it.

What I would do again is ride the ferries with them. Riding to the docks is entertaining enough to suit them, they loved riding the ferry and looking out the windows, and in a pinch, the kiosk on board is chock full of snack foods in neon packaging. We could have hopped off in Sausalito and ridden home across the Golden Gate Bridge (the western bicycle path will soon be closed until April), laughing all the way.

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The Breezer Uptown 8 (step-through)

Nice bikes… too nice

I knew what I wanted: a bicycle with all of the bells and whistles that commuters typically have to add to bicycles, unless they buy heavy, expensive Dutch bicycles: lights that didn’t need to be charged, gears that couldn’t drop off the chain, ability to hold tons of weight. Basically a dorkcycle.

It was easier to find the child seats I wanted, thanks to our European experience. And in retrospect there is good advice out there suggesting that you pick the child seat before the bike anyway. We’d become familiar with the Bobike Maxi, but our son, nearing six, had aged out of that seat. At that point most people stuck the kid on a trailer bike or their own bike, but we had length and school drop off and pick up problems that made that idea a non-starter. The other option to haul older kids was a longtail bike (and this idea still has some appeal) but my husband was riding a sorta-kinda cargo bike that seemed to be meeting that need.

Bobike has a seat that doesn’t get much attention in the US, the Bobike Junior. It holds a kid aged 6-10 weighing up to 75 pounds. It looked like what I wanted, assuming that I could find a bike that would take the weight. This is not a cheap child seat, but we were looking at using it for not one but two kids over the next decade, and what’s more we’d bought car seats around the same price point that didn’t get as much use. (And of course, if we’d bought a second car, we probably would have had to double our car seat collection too.) It seemed insanely difficult to find reviews of this seat in English, but eventually I found someone who’d not just noticed it and thought it looked interesting and then balked at the price, but actually hauled a kid on it for years. That was the indefatigable Adrienne of Change Your Life, Ride A Bike, who not only sang the praises of the Junior, but lived in San Francisco and recommended a local bike shop that stocked it. I had previously assumed that the seat was only available in the US from the family biking Promised Land of Clever Cycles in Portland, Oregon.

Both of these were helpful recommendations. The Bobike Junior is an outstanding seat, and the only way that I could imagine hauling an older child on a normal bike. And Ocean Cyclery has been great to us, as one of the few San Francisco shops we’ve visited that has extensive familiarity with child seats (owned by an American/Dutch couple with kids of their own), welcomes kids who show up in the shop and start tearing around, and stocks an extensive selection of bikes set up for both commuters and kids themselves. The last time we visited, the bike in the front window was a commuter step through with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the back. Other than shops with “Dutch” somewhere in the name, I’ve never seen anything similar elsewhere. And although I try to harp on price too much, reminding myself that we could buy a dozen bicycles without hitting the price point or storage problems we’d face acquiring a second car, Dutch bicycles sell at prices that made me concerned making a bad decision, especially given their weight. Maybe they’re a good value on a per pound basis. Whereas Ocean primarily carried bicycles with price tags way under $1,000.

Moreover, Ocean carried a line of commuter bicycles that I’d never seen in person, but was reading crazy-good reviews about from all over the place: Breezer. I do research for a living, and at this point have descended to the kind of intellectual tail-eating where I conduct systematic reviews and read articles about how to process too much information. As a result I no longer trust my own individual judgment much because research tells me it’s much less reliable than the experiences of lots of other people. And lots and lots of other people liked the Breezer Uptown. Big, heavy men liked it and said it hauled 300 pounds without a shudder. Almost everyone said that riding an Uptown was like riding a couch, in terms of nonexistent saddle soreness or lower back pain. It had a mountain bike pedigree and was, as a result, geared for hills. It came with every commuting accessory: fenders, dynamo lights, internal gears, a chain guard, even a rear wheel lock. And even loaded up with all of those extras, the bike weighed only 35 pounds; light enough that even after adding two child seats, I’d still only have achieved the weight of the single-speed Dutch bikes we’d rented in Europe when they were carrying nothing at all. I could imagine lifting this bike (and I do in fact lift it every time I park it at work).

There were, admittedly, comments that the Breezer Uptown was unlovely, with all the practicality and style of a vacuum cleaner. And it was not a bicycle that was setting any land speed records. These concerns struck me as aesthetic and irrelevant. I was looking for a dorkcycle, and anyone riding a bicycle in the United States is already hopelessly unfashionable anyway. I wanted to haul 75 pounds of children plus our gear up the non-trivial hill we lived on every day. I didn’t care if the bicycle looked like a cinder block if it was comfortable to ride and could climb. If anything, having a bicycle that didn’t turn heads might reduce the odds of it being stolen. Bicycle thefts in our neighborhood have progressed to the point where prevention means U-locking your bike inside a safety coffin in your bedroom.

Ocean Cyclery had a Breezer on the floor that I could try, although they warned me I was too tall for the medium frames they had in stock and it wasn’t really ready to ride. The shop is located near a weird but friendly test ride: a street converted from an old horse-racing track in the middle of the city that made a perfect 1-mile loop, with a couple of hills heading on and off. They were right that the frame was too small for me, and the front fender was loose and rattled the entire time, but even so the bike was more comfortable than anything else I’d been on in my visits to seven other bike shops in San Francisco. The owner thought my desire to put two child seats on the front and back was a nifty idea; it was something he’d wanted to do with his own kids before realizing they were too far apart in age. And unlike every other bike shop where I’d proposed this idea, he immediately understood why this meant I’d need a step-through frame. After hearing where we lived, he thought (and my brother-in-law confirmed) that the 8-speed was the best bet to get me home every evening.

I made a deposit on a Breezer Uptown 8 that afternoon. Buying a new bike in the late fall meant that the price was way below list; in the same range as the (estimated, wildly varying) price of buying a used bike of dubious provenance and trying to upgrade it to something like what I wanted, and astonishingly, cheaper than buying it online and having to assemble it myself (which I couldn’t do anyway). Bonus! The owner was sure it would arrive and be ready before my husband’s next trip to China, making it possible for me to ride my son to school while Matt was away. Of course it was late. We drove to school that entire week.

As always, my bike needs more stuff hanging off it

When the bike arrived, my daughter was ecstatic. On my first ride she insisted on climbing aboard and shrieking, “I’m riding it! I’m riding it!” until my significantly more cautious son couldn’t take the humiliation any longer and jumped aboard despite the absence of the stoker bars he’d grown accustomed to. He likes riding the Bobike Junior on my bike. I like this bike too.

I did not dip my toe slowly into bicycle commuting. My first few rides were with both kids on board up hills with double-digit grades. Because I was totally ignorant I did that with the hub dynamo lights on, which meant even more drag. Even so, I did not have to walk. For the first month I never took off either child seat, even when the kids weren’t riding along, because I didn’t know how, meaning that I was regularly hauling an extra 20 pounds no matter what. I take my son to school on this bike once a week, haul my daughter around all weekend long, and on days that they’re not on board, load up two panniers and a front basket with most of our weekly groceries. I ride this bike pretty much everywhere but the Tenderloin (where it would be covered with piss and/or vomit if I were lucky enough not to have it stolen) and the Mission (where it would simply be stolen). I have never been saddle-sore, and only rarely, after a long ride with kids and gear, have I felt any pain at all after riding. Braking on the downhills with a kid on the back can be unnerving—it takes quite a bit more preparation than it does when riding alone—and I’ve nearly popped a wheelie going up some steeper hills in the city with one of them on the back, but more informed people tell me that these things would happen on any bicycle.

Off road, on road

The Breezer, as I’d hoped when I bought a bike tricked out with every commuting accessory known to nerds, makes it easier to ride my bike most of the time than to drive our car. Thanks to the Bobike oeuvre, that’s true even when I’m going somewhere with one kid in tow. When I step onto this bike I feel like I’m ten feet tall. The lights come on with the flick of a switch. The lock is always on board, although given where we live I think that all bikes should come with a U-lock holder in lieu of the largely-decorative rear wheel lock. Even with kids on board, it glides up the endless San Francisco hills, and I can even afford to keep the lights on. I’ve only had to walk it once, when I lost momentum because Matt was weaving in front of me (and he had reason). As I’ve gotten stronger I’ve been able to reserve the first gear more and more for heavy loads. I wouldn’t call this a fast bike, but I’m just trying to get to work with my teaching clothes looking decent, and anyway I ride through Golden Gate Park most days and it’s gorgeous there, so I’m in no special hurry. And once I started taking the child seats off when the kids weren’t on board, my commute got noticeably faster. On days when I’m whizzing down the hill out of the park past a row of stopped cars, our household’s Pixar obsession has led me to yell, “Ride like the wind, Bullseye!”

I can imagine that someday when the kids are older and riding on their own I may want a prettier, faster bike. For the foreseeable future I feel like I’ve made the right decision, even though this bike, like Matt’s Kona, isn’t always everything I want it to be. I would be happier if the bike could still carry both kids at once, and if the rear rack were longer so it fit panniers when the Bobike Maxi is attached (panniers do at least fit under the Junior) or if came with a front rack. The front light could be brighter. I would happily swap the top two gears for an even lower first gear. These are not big complaints.

When I am riding around the city, my Danish helmet and our child seats draw lots of attention and compliments. No one has ever complimented me on my Breezer. I cannot bring myself to care.

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Filed under Bobike, Breezer, commuting, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

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.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Welcome to 2012

In charge at Paris Velib

Historically the highest-value benefit to membership in the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition for us was the 10% discount at Rainbow Grocery. Although I find Rainbow’s extensive array of vitamins and supplements a little disconcerting, the crowds on the weekends overwhelming, and the prices on certain items laughably outrageous, we like shopping there. The employee-owners always seem cheerful and happy to help with questions, the selection is unbelievable, and with thoughtful shopping there are deals aplenty. I also find it sort of entertaining that by making a philosophical commitment to not selling meat they’ve spared themselves losses from shoplifting, which is probably part of the reason I’m getting such great prices on rye flakes and sea salt.

I find myself increasingly unwilling to patronize stores that treat children like second-class citizens—kids are people, albeit small and incontinent people—and on this front going to Rainbow is always a pleasure. E.g.

My daughter: “I’M IN CHARGE! I’M IN CHARGE!”

Me: “This is an employee-owned cooperative.”

My daughter: “I’M IN CHARGE! I’M IN CHARGE!”

Rainbow employee-owner: “Okay, you’re in charge.”

Rainbow ended the SFBC discount on December 31, 2011, and although they had their reasons, we were disappointed. So on the last week of the year we headed over to get some soy sauce and SAF instant yeast. Although I found two other kinds of yeast I had to get help to find the SAF, which was with the dried fruit, obviously. Afterward, the guy who had found it for us spotted my daughter’s collection of temporary tattoos and they spent a few minutes comparing their ink.

At checkout the cashier reminded me that the discount was ending soon, and I said that it was a shame for us, as we’d only recently realized that we could bike in the city with our kids. “Biking in this town is too dangerous,” he exclaimed. Sigh. But this wasn’t an entrée into the usual finger-shaking about potentially killing our kids; instead, he said he’d stopped riding years ago, that it was safer in the 1980s. That was a surprise. But, but, I said, all the new bike lanes? Seemed to help? Too much traffic now, he replied.

Dorothea Lange photographed our son's school in 1942; 70 years later it looks the same

Point taken, I guess, traffic is in fact outrageous, although I’ve seen worse. I’m not sure that the solution is to suffer along with everyone else, however. One option, which we tried when our son was much younger, is to ensure that everything you need is within walking distance. That worked for a while but eventually became unfeasible; for one, we were unable to get a placement in a neighborhood elementary school (not that I am complaining, as our placement is wonderful and as recently discovered, within bicycle range). And as a pedestrian I noticed traffic as well, often in the form of cars whizzing down what were originally intended to be quiet residential streets in an effort to get off the congested major thoroughfares. Taking Muni everywhere keeps you out of a car but not out of traffic.

At this point it seems as though everyone realizes something needs to change, but change is painful. We’ve found that our bicycles opened up a world of options for us, but a year ago, if anyone had told me that, I would have said they were delusional. Short of sending everyone to Copenhagen, I have no idea how to expand people’s sense of possibility. But I see more bicycles every day. Is it something I notice because I notice bicycles now, or is it something anyone would see?

We may have lost the Rainbow discount, but we’ve made back that discount and then some. Last week I did something I would never have conceived as either possible or desirable one year ago: I turned in my coveted (and expensive) all-campus faculty parking pass. Between that and our savings on gas, our relatively extravagant bicycle and accessory purchases are actually saving us money. That wasn’t an explicit goal but it’s another way bikes have made our lives better.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco, traffic