Last month I mentioned that I bought a mamachari. When I saw it on craigslist, I assumed that given the less-than-a-new-bike-at-Walmart price that there must be something wrong with the electric assist. I was wrong and there was not. So for the past three weeks I’ve had the option, when I want to, of riding an electric pedal-assist bicycle. It is even better than I dared to hope.
This particular bike and its assist do not work miracles. My mamachari is a single-speed and it weighs 65 pounds. The motor, which sits in the rear hub, is not especially powerful compared to the BionX-assisted Big Dummy I rode in Portland; it is several years old and a first generation pedal-assist and evidently Japanese bicycles limit the power anyway. It does not have a throttle: if you want power, you have to pedal. With a 35 pound preschooler on the back the combined weight makes this bike really slow, even with the assist. Guys wearing lycra on light road bikes pass us going uphill, although we pass regular commuters. On mild to moderate hills the assist is helpful although not always necessary, but even with the assist it is still work to crank that much weight up a steep hill.
All that said, this bike is a game-changer, because on the mamachari I fear no San Francisco grade. On a pedal-assist bike, San Francisco flattens out to something approximating a normal city. My daughter is getting regular rides to preschool because we now have a bike that’s capable of taking the hill safely. When Matt took her up to school once on the Kona MinUte, having her weight on the back meant he had to fight against having the front wheel lift right off the ground (this has happened to me on other hills). Plus he nearly passed out from the effort and has refused to ever do it again. On the mamachari, not only do we have the assist, but the weight of the battery, which is low on the bike and further forward, ensures that the front wheel stays safely on the ground. It is a lot of work even so—my heart rate usually doubles on the way up and I always end up short of breath—but I don’t break a sweat.
My mamachari was imported from Japan by a coworker of the woman who sold it to me. She works at Lawrence Berkeley Labs, which is about 2/3s of the way up a very long and steep hill. We live in San Francisco, which has countless hills that are steeper, but very few of them are long. The Bridgestone Assista does not seem to have been designed for the kind of extended use needed to haul it up the hill to LBL, so the previous owner of this bike wired a backup battery into the front basket that kicks in when the original battery’s charge runs down, and used the assist for the entire trip (I found her electrical skills awe-inspiring). The range on this bike is now apparently about 20 miles with hills, although I have yet to use the backup battery.
This bike is really, truly a Japanese bike and it has some quirks. The electric assist controller and the battery charging instructions are written entirely in Japanese and my Japanese is pretty rudimentary, so I had to get some help with translation. The kanji and katakana on the controller read: “Off,” “On,” and “Eco.” Because the bike has no gears, I think of the pedal assist as creating three virtual gears: “Cruising,” “Going up a hill,” and “Riding into a headwind.” In Japan traffic is on the left, so the brake cables were reversed, which was especially disconcerting when I got it because the front brake wasn’t working at all. (Before I replaced the brake, riding the mamachari was a bizarre inversion of normal life because I casually rode it uphill and carefully walked it down.) The mamachari has 650b wheels, which are standard in Japan, and big wheels look odd to me on such a slow bike. And this bike is meant to meander. You sit bolt upright on a mamachari and putter along. It’s very relaxing.
There are lot of ways that it’s clear that the bike is meant to be disposable. The wheels are junk (and would be hard to replace, given the quirky size and the integrated rear hub motor) and the original brake levers were plastic. They felt like they would snap in half when I was pulling them (without much effect at first). When I had the front brake replaced the bike shop also switched out the brake levers for metal ones, and that feels a lot safer. It has a hub dynamo front light that looks pretty ratty and works, uh, most of the time. The fenders are plastic.
And yet I am amazed at all the ways that a “disposable” Japanese bike is relentlessly awesome.
The back support of the rear child seat (with integrated waterproof cushion) can be flipped over to turn the seat into a huge rear basket when a child is not on board. The rear wheel lock is virtually hands-free, and so well-machined that it makes Dutch rear wheel locks and the one on my Breezer look like something out of the Stone Age. Plus it is integrated with the battery lock, so when the rear wheel is locked the battery cannot be removed.
The kickstand reminds me of a giant paperclip but it is bombproof. I can put my daughter on board and watch her lever herself to the side until she is almost out of the seat and the bike does not even wobble. The seat has the largest springs I’ve ever seen and riding the mamachari literally feels like bouncing on an exercise ball. And for reasons I don’t understand, the mamachari is rock-stable at low speeds and can take corners more tightly than even my Brompton. And this is without even mentioning the giant front basket. I can’t put panniers on the mamachari but haven’t yet missed them. The Bridgestone frame is also the prettiest and lowest step-through I have ever seen. Even the bell is mellow.
When I ride this bike people ask me where to buy it (craigslist, or barring that, Japan), or if they can buy it from me (no). It is easily the most coveted bike we own, at least in our demographic, and although the mamachari initially left our local bike shop unimpressed, they have been reassessing it in light of its popularity. My daughter begs to ride the mamachari at every opportunity. When we are on the streets she shouts to everyone she sees, “I’m riding a mamachari!!!” And then she turns to me and says, “Turn on the pink power, mommy. I want to go FAST!” And yet the mamachari is a bike that is so obviously only cool to parents that no bike thief would be interested in stealing it. Why is no one importing these bikes?!?
To my surprise, my mamachari even has a pedigree of sorts. My brother-in-law wrote to tell me about it. “You now own a distant cousin to what bicycle aficionados consider the greatest production bike brand that ever was: Bridgestone USA. It was an office of three in Walnut Creek (or maybe it was San Leandro) that designed bikes to be built by Bridgestone Japan and sold only in the US. They were around for about a decade and were super duper smart bikes like never before or after (Kona and Salsa are the closest thing to them now). Bridgestones were known to be the best bang for the buck at any price range and were spec’ed in ways where nothing ever needed to be changed out at the time of purchase and nothing was on there just because it was new or cool. They also were the winningest bikes in history for folks who paid for their own rides (like amateur world champions), while at the same time being the only brand to really push utility bikes in the US. I had one in Minneapolis and it was most awesome. I should have kept because it’s now a serious collector’s item. If Bridgestone USA was still around, I suspect you’d be riding one or three.”
The mamachari is the ride of choice on our trips to preschool, of course, because of preschool hill, which is why I bought it in the first place. But it is also my ride of choice on a new route in San Francisco, because it can take any hill that I didn’t realize was there from reading the map, because it is relatively uninteresting to bike thieves, and because it can carry almost anything I might want to borrow or buy (a dozen library books? no problem). I still usually ride the Breezer on my ordinary commute; I’m used to those hills and the mamachari is overkill. The Breezer is also the only mule that can haul the trailer-bike. And the Brompton serves its own niche, so it will always have a place in our lives.
Even without the assist, the mamachari would be fun to ride on weekends, when we’re going someplace flat, because it is such a mellow ride and because it is so easy to haul kids and other stuff. Yet although I adore this bike, it may not be with us forever. Having tasted the freedom that the assist gives us, I want a lighter pedal-assist bike with gears, so I don’t need to rely on the motor quite so much on moderate hills. Plus, to be honest, the combination of the weight plus a weak motor means that it can’t really go up every hill in the city, although it’s close. But I’d be better off on a frame that is designed for people who are bigger than the average Japanese mama—at 5’7” and change I’m a bit tall for this bike. Plus the mamachari is too heavy to go on a bus bike rack, which maxes out at 55 pounds.
Although I will keep this bike at least until my daughter outgrows the rear seat, I think the mamachari’s ultimate destiny may be to carry my 5’2” mother up the somewhat mellower hills of my hometown. After all, in Japan it could be called either a mamachari or an obachari. And that way I would never have to part with it entirely. I am attached to all our bikes to some extent, but the mamachari, the first bike I ever felt confident enough to buy used on craigslist, the first bike that could ever haul our daughter up to her preschool, the bike that laughs at most San Francisco hills, and the bike that has already taken me to more new destinations than any other, is already special. It may have been intended to be disposable, but I’ll love it forever.