Monthly Archives: May 2012


My poor Breezer

The other weekend, I dropped my Breezer off at Everybody Bikes for a series of upgrades I had been putting off for some time. As some of these involved rewiring the dynamo lights, this promised to be a week-long stay. Without my realizing it, Matt had also decided to put the MinUte in the shop for its long-awaited new hydraulic brakes. But I wasn’t worried: we have another bike. I figured I would ride the Brompton all week instead.

Another one bites the dust.

But on Monday, I discovered the Brompton was having issues. It started making a loud buzzing noise from the front wheel. It sounded like a Vespa. People walking in front of me were turning to stare at my bike in horror as I rode. I remembered, belatedly, that it was overdue for the tune-up it was supposed to get after the first month of riding. Now the Brompton was out of commission and in the shop as well.

We typically have three adult bicycles in this house, and two riders, and this seems like it should be more than sufficient, but no. By Tuesday we had no bicycles in our household sized for a person over four feet tall. I figured I could make it to the end of the week on the university shuttle. But by Thursday morning I had lost my mind, and I was cruising craigslist for a cheap bicycle to get me to the weekend. This was especially the case because I realized there was no other way I could get to the Golden Gate Bridge birthday festival.

My mamachari

Fortune smiled. Nothing else could explain how I found a genuine mamachari, a Japanese mama-bicycle, listed in Oakland. Apparently they’re also known as oba-chari (for obaasan, or grandmother). “Chari” is Japanese slang for bicycle, from charinko. The etymology of charinko is unclear, ranging from the onomatopoeia for the ringing of a bicycle bell (“Cha-ring! Cha-ring!”) to a typical Japanese modification of the Korean word for bicycle, jajeongeo (“self-rolling-cart”). See also “takusei” for taxi or “seikuringu” for cycling.

This puffy sprung seat rocks when I ride like a ship at sea–it’s hysterical.

I had heard of mamachari so I assumed they weren’t particularly obscure, but I think I may have been assuming too much. Mamachari are workhorse Japanese bicycles used by parents and grandparents to take kids to school and to pick up groceries. Basic models are dirt-cheap in Japan, $150-$300, viewed as largely disposable, and yet even more practical than the vaunted Dutch bicycle. Child seats on the front and back are ubiquitous, rear wheel locks are a given, step-through frames and chain guards ditto, and the kickstands are wide enough to leave two flailing kids on board safely. They’re single-speed or 3-speed with an internal hub. They come with bottle dynamo lights and the parts are crap but they are basically bombproof; these bikes live outside for years. Given that Japan has hills, there are also electric pedal-assist mamachari, which run the equivalent of $1000-$1500 brand new (whereas a much less practical electric bike with comparable tech in the US will cost you twice as much). These bikes are so useful and so desirable to parents in other countries that on the rare occasions they are exported they typically sell used for more than they cost new in Japan.

Bridgestone: In Japan, it’s not just tires.

I recognized the photo I saw in the listing as a mamachari, and it was priced like a used mamachari in Japan. I assumed there was a catch but wrote right away. I heard nothing and guessed that I was out of luck. But on Friday evening I got a message: would I like to test-ride the bike Saturday morning?

Our daughter loves that the child seat has handlebars.

Matt was in Reno with our son so I headed over to Oakland with my daughter the next morning. The second she saw the bike she begged to take it home. The woman who was selling it had no idea what a mamachari was; she had bought it from a co-worker who had brought it over when he moved to the US with his family from Japan. She’d used it for a year and a half to take her daughter to preschool but had just had a second child, and upgraded to a larger bike (a Yuba elMundo, which she loved).

When I saw this bike in person I thought: “I will probably never have a chance to buy a bike like this again in my life.” And it was so cheap! And there was nothing obviously wrong with it. I figured in the worst-case scenario, it would get me through the weekend. So I bought it and then rode it all weekend. It is not without its issues. I figured out pretty quickly it needed new brakes (always with the brakes in San Francisco). And yet I love this bike. It is so awesome.

Riding the mamachari on the Great Highway, along the Pacific Ocean

When I took it into Everybody Bikes for a brake check, I had a microcosm experience of bicycling in America. The woman who works there was charmed by my new mamachari: “I’ve heard of these! But I’ve never seen one in real life before!” She thought it was awesome, so practical. The man who owns the shop was appalled. “How much did you pay for this bike? I hope it was, like, nothing.” He took it out for a test ride, and admitted that yes, it rode surprisingly smoothly, but, “The parts are… these wheels… they suck.” I told him I knew it was a POS; that was the point of mamachari. But it was an INTERESTING POS. And he admitted, that yes, the kickstand was amazing, and the rear wheel lock was the best he’d ever seen, and the child seat/cargo basket was beyond awesome. But the parts of the bike that he cared about? It’s true, they suck. This is bicycling in America: the parts of the bike that matter to aficionados are not the parts that matter to everyday riders. How else to explain that my sister, who is married to a former bike mechanic, has no rear rack or front basket on her commuter bike?

I told the owner I didn’t want to change anything about my mamachari that didn’t directly affect safety because I wanted to preserve it in close to its original state. He said, after staring at it for a while, that they would replace the front brake and true the wheels for me. I’m guessing he would like this bike a lot more if he were married with a kid. When I then said that I loved the retro bottle dynamo light, everyone working in the shop looked at me like I’d just admitted that I liked to eat garbage. My husband laughed and laughed. He said I’ve become too hip for our hipster bike shop.

I’ve only ridden this bike for a couple of days, and I shouldn’t ride it much more until it has a new front brake, but I’ll write more when I have more experience. It is full of surprises! In the meantime, although I may have a ridiculous number of personal bikes now, I have no regrets at all. When the Japanese parents at my son’s school saw my bike this weekend, they said, “So, so urayamashii!” I think I chose well.


Filed under family biking, San Francisco

Along the Great Highway

Welcome to zoo parking.

On Monday we tried taking the holiday with no plans. What this ended up meaning was that our kids begged to watch movies all day. When we tired of this, we insisted that they go out somewhere with us. Their first few choices were closed for Memorial Day. Eventually we settled on the zoo.

The beach wants the Great Highway back. Eventually it will prevail.

The San Francisco Zoo is at the southwestern corner of the city and far enough away that we’ve never ridden there before. But we’ve been expanding our range lately, and for the first time ever we didn’t even consider driving. Instead we headed west through Golden Gate Park and then south along the Great Highway, which runs along the ocean at the western edge of the city. There is a multi-user path alongside the Great Highway. But we didn’t need the path. The Great Highway is constantly overwhelmed by blowing sand, and closed to cars increasingly often as it piles in deep drifts along the road. Monday, it turned out, was a surprise closure of the Great Highway all the way from Golden Gate Park to the zoo. Thank goodness we’d ridden our bikes.

What is it with kids and bike racks?

Riding along the Great Highway during the closure was amazing. Usually this road is overwhelming; fast and noisy and terrifying. But on Monday, as we rode, all we heard were birds chirping, waves crashing into the shore, and the laughter of children building sandcastles alongside the road. We stopped to let our kids do the same before meandering on to the zoo. Although we slipped occasionally in the sand, we weren’t going fast enough that we risked falling over. Instead the bikes just stopped moving, and we pushed until we got to clear asphalt again.

After arriving at the zoo riding our bikes looked even more prescient. The rate for parking a car is now $10! And the lot was packed. But as usual there was plenty of space available on the bike racks right by the front entrance. The racks overlook the zebra enclosure, and it was hard to convince the kids that there were even more wonders to see if they left the bike racks and entered the zoo itself. But in a way I agreed with them; I enjoyed being outside the zoo more than going inside. Riding along the Great Highway was one of the best trips we’ve ever taken.


Filed under family biking, rides, San Francisco

Happy 75th birthday, Golden Gate Bridge!

Hello, gorgeous!

If you live in San Francisco, you know that Sunday was the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge. We love this bridge. We have walked across it with our kids (although oddly, we have never ridden across it on the west side bike path). Matt and I have both had peek-a-boo views of the bridge from unlikely corners of old apartments. And we know the best hidden places on campus to watch the fireworks—either on the Fourth of July or on the bridge’s anniversary. Living on a mountain is not without its advantages. On Sunday, after our kids went to sleep, it was not possible for us to head out to see them, but you could hear them all over the city. I haven’t heard cheering like this since the Giants won the World Series (outcasts and misfits represent!)

No cars allowed

At the end of 30 days of biking, I said that I realized that our bicycles made us free. The crowds and traffic that mark every summer event in San Francisco have always overwhelmed us. This is no longer the case. This weekend was marked by an unbelievable confluence of street closures, including:

  • The main streetcar lines in the city, representing the western and southern trunk lines, are shut down and the roads they travel on closed for construction, with massive police presence for enforcement,
  • One East Bay bridge closure,
  • A partial shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge for its birthday,
  • The closure of the entire Presidio (the park around Golden Gate Bridge) to cars in recognition of same, again with the massive police presence,
  • A Carnaval parade in the Mission,
  • The usual Sunday closure of Golden Gate Park to cars.

Looking back at drivers who Did Not Get The Memo

None of these things affected us on our bikes. We were waved through barricades all over the city.

Matt and our son spent the first half of the weekend in Reno at a martial arts tournament. When they returned they wanted to get dim sum. And the kids’ shoes had actual holes in them, so we could no longer put off replacing them. And I wanted to visit the Golden Gate Bridge Festival in the Presidio, just because it seemed like the right thing to do. Historically, this is the kind of travel that we used the car for—unavoidable hills are all over this route. But with every news source and person we knew shrieking, “DON’T DRIVE ON SUNDAY!” we rode. And it was fantastic.

Bikes backed up at the end of the running race (nice Mundo)

Our preferred dim sum restaurant is near our old apartment, on the other side of Golden Gate Park, and parking a car there is a nightmare—but the bike racks in front of the restaurant? Unclaimed. On Sunday morning, riding through the closed-to-cars streets of Golden Gate Park on the way there is also unbelievably pleasant. There were hundreds of runners in the park, some of whom actually tried to race me. This is ridiculous. Even I, with a kid on the back of a heavy bicycle, can effortlessly outpace a fast runner. It turned out they were there for a footrace, and the finish line backed up the bicycles heading out of the park, so I guess the runners got their own back. I ended up behind a Yuba Mundo dad carrying two skateboards for his sons, one of whom was riding on the rear deck.

Looking down at the bridge festival

After dim sum we headed into the Presidio for the bridge festival. This was billed as an afternoon-to-evening event, but one of my yoga teachers was offering a sunrise class for the festival so I knew it was an all-day affair, and I figured it was better for the kids to get there early before the crowds got thick. On the way we passed the house of some of our son’s classmates who live in the Presidio and while catching up, played in their backyard, which has stunning views of the ocean and the coast. On the way in we also saw the first wave of unwitting drivers being turned away at the gates; this was a sight that would become familiar by afternoon.

Playing on the beach under the bridge

At the Presidio people were already staking out spots for the evening fireworks. Because we had no ambitions on that front we just watched the battleship Nimitz head under the bridge, and the fireboats spout water, and the kids built sandcastles on the beach. There was bike parking everywhere and three food plazas filled with representatives from food carts throughout the city—for once, we’d hit an event with organic ice cream and paella instead of cheap soft serve and nachos.

Family Bilenky!

And most of the people we saw once we reached the park had heeded the advice not to drive, so, oh, the bikes we saw. I have never seen so many tandems (most were rentals). I saw an amazing cargo bike, with a flat bed in the front and a child seat in the back. “I love your bike!” I yelled, “What IS it?” It turned out to be a custom Bilenky, made in Philadelphia. The dad riding it had bought it when he lived in Manhattan. Now that he lived in the Presidio, he could ride it along the waterfront, but he was frustrated that it couldn’t handle hills and was thinking about an electric assist.

Hebb electric bicycle

At our next stop, fittingly, we saw a Hebb electric bicycle, and when I asked the woman riding about it, she told me that she used it to commute from the outer Avenues to her office on the top of Nob Hill (some of the steepest grades in the city, which make the hills around our place look like gentle slopes). She obviously loved her bicycle. It is not my kind of electric assist—the Hebb has a front hub motor that is independent of the pedaling, rather than a pedal assist—but it was the right bike for her commute. She even offered to let me ride it, which was very sweet, but in the crowds, given my inexperience and the potential speed of that bike on the flats, it seemed too risky.

My spendthrift road-bike adviser leaves us in the dust.

We rode back out of the Presidio to the kids’ shoe store, which was the emptiest we’ve ever seen it as everyone was headed toward the bridge by then. And we rode home down my normal commute route, meeting some road bikers along the way, who were entertained by our child-hauling ways. One of them told us we should make the kids work and get a tandem like he had for his kids: a Co-Motion, which can handle huge height differentials like those between parent and child, and can climb serious hills. I told him my brother-in-law had told us the same thing (he has!) but it was a pricey bike. “Think of it as a car replacement,” he told me. “The maintenance cost for a car is over $3,000 a year. That means you can buy an expensive bike every year instead and still come out ahead!” I told him my brother-in-law had used that logic for a decade and it was not making my sister happy.

I was so bummed that this stand was not actually selling chalk, glass, and ice. Just mildly spicy food.

When we got back near home we stopped by Everybody Bikes to pick up my Breezer, which was ready at last after a week. The shop was dead when we arrived, but things picked up 15 minutes later as a half-dozen people piled in after discovering their bikes had flat tires after months in the garage. They were all planning to ride those bikes to the bridge festival. Usually, our neighborhood is packed on weekends, but it was clearing out.

In past years, we would have avoided the bridge festival if we could, fearing the crowds and the traffic. Golden Gate Bridge itself would never have missed us, I know; it is, in the end, just cables and steel. But I feel better having gone. Celebrating the places we love with everyone else in the city is what makes us part of San Francisco. And on our bikes, I feel like we belong here.


Filed under destinations, family biking, rides, San Francisco

Solar eclipse

A view of half the sun

At the end of last week there was a solar eclipse in California. Further north (and over much of Japan) there was a full solar eclipse. Here in San Francisco there was a partial solar eclipse. I have seen these twice before, once as a child and once in graduate school.

More than anything else, I love the way that partial solar eclipses can be seen in the shadows cast as it happens, an innumerable overlay of tiny crescent suns on grass and sidewalks.

Our neighborhood is not just family-friendly but friendly in general, and one of our neighbors showed up at the commercial strip a few blocks from our house with an impressive telescope so that passersby could see the eclipse reflected through it. Our daughter is too young to understand any of what was happening, and was annoyed that we had stopped on the sidewalk when we were so close to the ice cream store. But our son, at 6.5 years, is almost old enough to understand that something interesting was happening, and I coaxed him over to see it.

This telescope was brought to you by cargo bike.

In hindsight I realized I forgot, in all the excitement, to take a picture of our neighbor’s bike, which he had used to carry the not-insubstantial telescope to the corner (complete with its impressive battery pack). It was not a dedicated cargo bike, but it got the job done, and it seemed in no way remarkable that he was offering views through the telescope while still geared up in his helmet and neon bike jacket, or that he had brought it to the corner this way. Because how else would you get a large telescope to a busy street corner in San Francisco?

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Filed under cargo, San Francisco

Maker Faire San Mateo

Being pulled in all directions at Maker Faire

Last weekend we went to Maker Faire in San Mateo. I had never heard of Maker Faire before last week, but it’s a big event that pops up around the country featuring, appropriately, people who make things and the things they make. These are mad scientist kinds of people. Legos, robots, hovercraft, steampunk: that kind of thing. And although May in San Mateo is pretty hot, there seemed to be a heavy emphasis on things that blew fire. My kids were enthralled.

This robot dragon shoots flames. Also there are couches inside.

I heard someone say that Maker Faire was Burning Man for capitalists. This seems like a reasonable enough description to me. There was the usual crafty emphasis on display with a swap tent and a fair number of handcrafted giveaways, like the circuit kit my son picked up, but there was an awful lot for sale as well. And where people are buying and selling tech, can overpriced junk food ever be far away? In this case, no it could not. At least there was decent beer.

More than a penny-farthing.

But enough about robots and beer. Luckily for us, it turns out that crafty people like bikes. Although I came in with no expectation other than that my kids would get to play with robots (robots that SHOOT FLAMES—righteous!) we were all impressed by the outrageous bikes at Maker Faire. We liked the Two Penny bike best, a combination bike made up of two penny-farthings welded together. It actually seemed far safer than the sum of its parts. (I only recently learned that the origin of “penny-farthing” was that these bikes looked like a penny and a farthing next to each other—little wheel, big wheel. Clever!)

There was a fun-bike mini-velodrome.

In addition to the Two Penny, the ship-bike, and various other random hodgepodges, all of which evidently could be ridden, there was an area for Cyclecide, where people could try out all kinds of random bikes, including one that hinged in the middle so it wobbled right and left while being ridden and another with odd-sized wheels that bounced the bike up and down like a lowrider. Plus tall bikes, kids’ bikes, side-by-side tandems, and a bunch of others, most of which I lack the imagination to understand or describe. The most impressive of these were entered into the figure-8 pedal-car/bike race, which evidently could get a little rough, as the commentators all seemed to be competitors who’d been sidelined after getting mowed down.

To infinity… and beyond!

My kids were violently opposed to the idea of riding any of the bikes made available for attendees (provided you signed a liability waiver). They wanted to make rockets from paper and blast them from the massive air compressor provided for this express purpose. Admittedly this was a pretty appealing alternative.

Do you have any idea how many bikes I could buy for the cost of one electric car? Too many, that’s how many.

Maker Faire is pretty obviously about promoting alternative transportation, what with the crazy bikes and the hovercraft. (More appealing to the masses, frankly, were the electric cars and motorcycles, not to mention the flaming robots. The bike area was relatively under-populated.) One of the ways this was encouraged was in materials describing how to get to Maker Faire, because the San Mateo fairground is not rich in auto parking, and prices for the parking that was available were high. For the ambitious (and childless) there was a bike train from San Francisco at an estimated time of 90 minutes each way, assuming a fast pace. Or you could bike from CalTrain. There was also free parking at Oracle, served by a bike route and a shuttle to the event. I tried both.

The boat-bike was cool, but I doubt that it actually floats.

Unfortunately there is work to be done on promoting alternative transportation that is practical, rather than cool but functionally useless. The shuttle was horrifically late, and there was no shade while we waited. The bike route was unmarked, and the instructions were terrible, so I ended up riding for quite some time on a pretty awful stretch of El Camino Real, a six-lane drag strip down the Peninsula, in the blazing sun, being buzzed and honked at by cars. Good times. A bike ride is a bike ride, and I try to take them as they come and enjoy the experience, but this particular trip made that more challenging than usual.

Maker Faire bike parking was packed, although not exactly valet parking. I always appreciate free attended bike parking, but the advertising was confusing.

Maker Faire also advertised free valet bicycle parking, which was a misnomer. They meant free attended bicycle parking, but there was no valet. Many cyclists accustomed to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition definition of valet bicycle parking (which means a person takes your bike, gives it and you matching tags, and parks it for you in a secured area until you come back and retrieve it) were given a lot of blowback from the Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition members (who defined “valet” as “we’ll watch your bike after you lock it to a portable rack”) about not bringing their own locks. Free attended bike parking is more than fine, but calling it valet parking confused almost everyone. Moreover, although many kinds of wheeled transportation were allowed on the grounds of Maker Faire, security specifically excluded bicycles, even my little Brompton, which is smaller than most strollers, which were out in abundance. And the SVBC folks did not have any knowledge of the supposed bike routes to either the train stations or the parking lots suggested for cyclists willing to ride the last five miles, which is part of the reason I got dumped onto El Camino Real. Apparently SFBC has been spoiling me rotten, so that now I expect valets who are in fact valets and who can give decent directions.

Are you sure you want to push that button?

Overall Maker Faire was fun, but kind of overcrowded and ad hoc. I don’t know if we’ll go again. That said, if the bike people who came there, the Fun Bike Unicorn Club (FBUC), ever host their own event, we are totally there.


Filed under Brompton, folding bicycle, traffic, travel

Change is good

The bike lanes on JFK Drive in Golden Gate Park mostly look like this now–unblocked by cars.

This morning I was talking to a dad at my son’s elementary school. With all three of our bikes in the shop (two for brakes, one for an annoying whining sound from the front dynamo), Matt and I played “hot potato” about who had to drive our son to school in the morning. I lost. But it’s always nice to catch up with other families before school lets out. My son’s last day of first grade is tomorrow!

This dad asked me if I had ridden in the new JFK bike lanes yet. These are striped to have auto travel lanes in the middle, parked cars alongside, then a door buffer zone, then a bike lane by the curb. When they were first installed drivers seemed to have trouble giving up parking at the curb, which meant I was constantly weaving around cars in the bike lane. With time and some improved signage, this hasn’t happened in a while. When I said that I had ridden on them, he asked if I liked them as much as he did. He thought they were amazing, and that having cars completely separated from bikes, and bikes protected by parked cars, was a fantastic innovation. “They should do that all over the city!” he exclaimed.

What impressed me about hearing this, unsolicited, is that no one in his family rides a bike. They like the new bike lanes as drivers. They feel they’re safer. I would never have thought these new lanes would appeal to drivers as much as they do to riders. There are changes in the air, and I like them.


Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic

Panniers and the Bobike Maxi (and Bobike Junior)

Bikes can be rigged to carry lots of cargo, but kids+cargo is harder

It can be difficult to tote around both a kid and the gear that goes with a kid on an ordinary bike. When the kids are older than 9 months or so and younger than three years, a front seat like the Bobike Mini, Yepp Mini, or iBert can resolve this problem. The kid goes in front and you can put standard panniers in the back. Personally, of those three seats, I’d get the Bobike or the Yepp because either can be fitted with windscreens.

Then once your kid reaches 30 pounds or 3 years, there are some decisions to be made. Most American rear seats (Topeak, etc., which I think of as “the finger-slicer” since the recall) for kids attach to the rear rack of a bicycle. This limits the weight that you can put on the seat to the weight you can put on the rack, and this sometimes tops off at 40 pounds. Furthermore, you can’t use the rack for anything else. You can add a front basket to substitute, but in most cases front baskets don’t hold much, and when they’re loaded up, they tend to make the bike tip. In combination with the laughable kickstands available on most bikes in the US, there is a nagging worry that the bike will fall over with you and/or the kid on board. In my limited experience with a rack-mounted rear seat, this is justified.

Nonetheless I was pleased to see that there is a partial solution for carrying cargo on rack-mounted rear seats, the Topeak Ma-Ma-San bag, which attaches to the back of a Topeak seat. I saw one when we were visiting San Diego. It doesn’t hold a lot, but at least you won’t be stuck on a ride without a supply of diapers.

Matt caught me making a “Copenhagen left turn”

But we started riding with our kids in Copenhagen, so our first choice was not an American rack-mounted seat but a European frame-mounted seat. Both the Bobike Maxi and the Yepp Maxi (as well as our Bobike Junior) attach to the frame of the bike. The Bobike has a tongue-in-groove attachment on the seat tube, and two braces for the footrests on the seat stays. So these seats are balanced on a tripod, and each of the legs of the tripod is fixed to the frame of the bike. The attachment points remain on the bike more or less permanently, but the seats can pop on and off as needed; very handy. What’s more, this attachment system means that the rear rack is completely independent of the child seat. You can still put stuff on the rack. Specifically, you can put panniers on the rack.

The bars holding the footrests block half the rack

The problem we faced is that the footrests sweep diagonally down and block about half of the length of the rear rack. Most panniers are designed to take up the whole rack. I know this because I ordered a lot of panniers on Amazon during the time when I was looking for a way to carry cargo and a kid at the same time. This was the period when I discovered the miraculous bungee net and also when I seriously tested the patience of our office receptionist and of Amazon’s return policy. I have an Amazon Prime membership through work, so for a while I was getting a different bike bag every week, each of which I took downstairs to bike parking, discovered would not work with the child seat installed, and immediately boxed back up for return. I was most disappointed that the Detours panniers recommended for the Breezer by She Rides a Bike didn’t work, as they looked lovely. But the clips were over nine inches apart, and took up the entire length of the rack. I needed bike bags with narrow clips and a narrow profile, but none of the listings for panniers ever noted the distance between the pannier hooks.

A close-up of the Bobike Maxi mount

Family Ride solved this problem a different way, by getting an extra-long rear rack and installing folding metal baskets underneath her Bobike Maxi. I considered this but it wasn’t ideal for me because the dynamo lights on my Breezer are wired directly to the existing rack, so changing the rack was a much bigger job. I also didn’t like the rattling of the metal baskets on a friend’s bike (without a child seat) that I’d tried.

Basil pannier hooks are less than a handspan apart

My pannier breakthrough came while I was visiting one of the many bike shops in San Francisco that is hostile to children on the advice of a childless friend. This was an understandable mistake on her part, as they advertise themselves as child-friendly. However this is a lie. As one example, the employees were appalled that we wanted to use a living, breathing child—our daughter—to test out the Yepp Maxi child seat they had on display. Their concern did not revolve around safety, because the seat was sitting on the ground. Their primary issue instead seemed to be that putting gleeful children in child seats messed with the store’s SoMa aesthetic, which was all high ceilings, reclaimed wood plank flooring, bikes in lollipop colors, smooth jazz, Yakkay helmets and leather wine carriers that strapped onto top tubes. Nonetheless, while I was there, I saw some Basil panniers, and picking one up, I realized that it had very closely spaced hooks. Was it really that simple? Yes it was. Dutch panniers are sized to fit around Dutch child seats.

Bobike Maxi and Basil pannier: ready to roll

I did not buy a pannier from this bike shop because they were, not to put too fine a point on it, jerks. And our local shop, Everybody Bikes, does not carry Basil bags. So in gratitude for Amazon’s extremely generous return policy, which I had used to the hilt over the last months to order over a dozen bags and keep nothing but a bungee net, I ordered the narrowest Basil pannier I could find there, the Basil Lady Sport. There is a black version that is not particularly ladylike–Matt once asked if he could borrow it for work–and a purple-flowered version that is more so. Both fit under either the Bobike Junior or the Bobike Maxi, although they need to be squeezed a bit to go under the footrests. (And like virtually all Amazon products, if you leave them in your cart long enough without actually purchasing them, they’ll go on sale.)

Removing the guards on the Bobike Maxi (otherwise the entire rack would be blocked)

The side protectors on the Bobike Maxi have to be removed to make this work. I checked with the shop that installed our seat and learned that these shields are not necessary for safety—if you have a pannier on the back, your kid’s feet won’t go into the spokes anyway. The Bobike Junior doesn’t have side guards at all. I have heard that the Yepp Maxi foot rest guards are not removable, so no promises about whether panniers would work with a Yepp seat. Go Bobike or go without panniers, I guess.

A side view of a pannier clipped under the Bobike Maxi

My panniers are bigger than they look. I have two, and each can hold about 1.5 paper grocery bags. I have put a box of wine on one side and yogurt and milk in the other, plus various fruits and vegetables, and altogether this can add up to quite a bit of weight. This slows me down going uphill, but it gets the shopping done. They look professional enough in solid black that I can take them to university meetings and they do not look out of place among the other non-bicycle bags, particularly given that there is a zippered cover over the hooks. They come with an integrated rain cover, which is very helpful. The rain cover pops out of a zippered pocket on the bottom of the bags. You can expect to lose the pull-tab on that zipper to the spokes within a couple of weeks. It still works, though.

Panniers under a child seat turn an ordinary bike into a cargo bike. My Breezer carries not only my kids but a week’s worth of groceries on the same ride. Finding my panniers was worth all that effort.


Filed under Bobike, Breezer, cargo, commuting, family biking

Kona MinUte on a bus bike rack!

Kona MinUte on a bus bike rack! Who’s your daddy?

One of my complaints about the Kona MinUte has been that it is just a couple of inches too long to fit on a bus bike rack. In the city, and given the way we use the bike, this is a noticeable limitation—my usual strategy when we’ve forgotten a kid’s helmet or have too awkward a load or have a tire low on air is to load my bike onto a bus rack (or in the case of the Brompton, under my seat) and head home that way. This isn’t an option with the MinUte. Or rather, it hasn’t been.

But I had never seen another medium-tail bike so I assumed that this was just the way things were. That is, until I saw this beautiful medium-tail bike on the BikePortland twitter feed. I had no idea who made it; I had to read the logo on the bike: Ahearne. So I wrote to Ahearne Cycles to ask (a) did it fit on a bus bike rack? And (b) was this a model they were producing? Joseph Ahearne wrote back: the answers were yes and no. The bike was custom, a one-off. But it was customized to fit on a bus bike rack. To make it work, the front wheel rotated 180 degrees to shorten the wheel base just enough to fit on the bus rack. That way, the front fork pointed backward instead of forward, shaving 3-4 inches off the length.

Heavy rotation

I thought “Joseph Ahearne is brilliant!” but assumed this had no relevance to the MinUte. That is, until Mission Sunday Streets earlier this month. We were eating donuts on the back deck when another rider bumped into the bike, knocked it over, and spilled my daughter’s milk all over the sidewalk. She was traumatized and he was apologetic, and he kindly bought her a replacement. But I was transfixed, staring at the front wheel, which in the fall had rotated exactly 180 degrees. Could we put it on a bus bike rack just like that custom Ahearne?

It wasn’t until this weekend that we found a bus with a bike rack that would let us fiddle around and see. Last week we realized that the university parks its shuttles, complete with bike racks, in the lot behind my daughter’s preschool on weekends. Matt was game to ride the MinUte (although without any kids on board) up the brutal hill to preschool to try it out—the kids and I walked. When we got there, we flipped the front wheel 180 degrees and tried it out. Bingo! MinUte on a bus rack!

The front wheel doesn’t fully seat in the rack, but the support arm holds it in place above

It is still a tight squeeze. The MinUte has big wheels (700c, or 29”, rather than 26”) and they are already a little larger than the front wheel space allotted on a bus rack—the bottom of the rack has a crosspiece that’s supposed to sit at the back of the front wheel, and the space is a little narrow for such large-diameter wheels. As a result, the front wheel doesn’t fully seat on the bottom of the bus rack. However after some efforts to dislodge the bike (meaning we yanked on it), we concluded that the spring-loaded support arm at the front holds the bike steady nonetheless.  I would trust this setup on a cross-town ride.

Here’s a close-up of the support arm bracing the front wheel, just above the reversed fork.

We’d also been talking about putting a front basket on the front of the MinUte. To get it on a bus rack, this will have to be frame-mounted; a traditional basket mounted to the handlebars and/or the fork would prevent the front wheel from making the full 180 degree rotation needed to load it. So now we have to get a special frame mounted front basket on order to get the front carrying capacity we wanted. This is a price we’re willing to pay.

A mere bagatelle! This is a big deal for us. We can carry two older kids on the back deck of the Kona MinUte (they’re now 3 years and 6.5 years, and our oldest is extremely tall). With the newfound ability to put the bike on a bus rack, we have dramatically extended our range. We can now take them much further than we could ride on this bike by ourselves. (But I should note that we have not put the bike on a moving bus yet. We are taking this one on faith for the time being.)

Another view, because it’s awesome! Admittedly it looks goofy with the handlebars reversed.

There are still some things I’d change about this bike. We’re definitely upgrading the brakes, and the kickstand, although burly, is less stable than we’d like when we put two kids on the deck. A chain guard and dynamo lights would be welcome additions to a bike that Matt uses to commute. And as mentioned, we want a front rack. But these are all changes we can make over time—the only thing we felt was impossible to change was our inability to load it onto a bus. And now we can.


Filed under cargo, family biking, Kona, Muni, San Francisco

Carrying helmets: why?

San Francisco representatives of the “helmet carrying” movement: their backpacks are safer than houses

You can wear a helmet while riding a bike, or you can not wear a helmet. There are arguments both ways; personally, I choose to wear one, but I understand that reasonable people choose not to, for reasons that are just as valid.

But lately I have seen something that makes zero sense to me: people who do not wear helmets, but still carry them around. And I have seen a lot of this lately. This choice seems to combine all of the disadvantages of wearing helmets (inconvenience, lack of style) with all of the disadvantages of not wearing helmets (reduced safety, judgment of passers by). Why?


Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, traffic

Mother’s Day

What greeted me instead of my placement Sunday morning

On Mother’s Day I was exhausted after a long (for me) ride the day before in the wine country. Although I rode out on an errand late in the evening, I didn’t do anything else on my bike on Sunday. Instead we drove to Berkeley to have brunch with my mother-in-law. This is always a slog but we had a nice time once we were there. But when I came down first thing in the morning, the kids were already awake. They wanted to show me the cards and vignette they’d made me.

My daughter was enormously pleased that she’d found a “D” for my name to put on the necklace she made.

My son had made me a poster (which his sister tore, unfortunately, but we taped it back up) and a two-sided card, as well as a display that he felt evoked all of my favorite things. This display included the wire model tandem bicycle Matt had brought back from his last China trip (complete with tiny wire brake cables; I still love the way that Chinese bicycles, apparently even the model ones, come complete with all accessories), the bicycle key chains they had gotten from Bike to Work Day, stuffed toys, and a necklace made by my daughter at preschool.

Two bicycles in hot pursuit of salad and broccoli

The stuffed animals were holding heart shaped cookie cutters my children use for cutting out playdough. The tiny police officer is in plank position; according to my son, “That’s mommy doing yoga.” The bicycles are, by this point, self-explanatory. One side of my son’s card shows two more bicycles, “One is going to salad and one is going to broccoli, because you love bicycles and those are your favorite things to eat.” On the other side he’d drawn himself and his sister, complete with name-tags in the event of any confusion, “Because we’re your favorite people!”

My son’s butterfly poster is more true than I realized at first; being a mother made me transform into something new.

It’s true that we eat salad for dinner twice a week at my instigation. It is a struggle, to be honest. Most of the time I would rather have a glass of wine and a bowl of cereal, but these aren’t the eating habits I want to model, particularly because I remember what my health was like when I actually ate that way. So instead I have embarked on this long journey of trying to eat primarily vegetables at every meal (except breakfast, when we eat fruit). I could not have been more surprised to learn that apparently, I have been successful in convincing my children that this choice expresses some underlying preference on my part.

And of course my son and daughter are two of my favorite people. Not only are they incredible in their own right, they see me as a better person than I really am. Who could ask for more on any day of the year?

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Filed under family biking