Another one bites the dust

Oh mamachari, I can’t quit you.

A couple of weeks ago, I noticed that the battery on the mamachari was getting a lot less range per charge. I use the motor pretty sparingly, only to go uphill, and while it used to go around the city several times without needing to be recharged, now it could go only once. And it was getting worse. I fully charged the battery one morning before taking my son to summer camp. On the way home, on the first hill, the battery gave out. So I rode home, up a mountain, with 50 pounds of my son on the back of an unassisted single-speed 65 pound bicycle. It was hell.

On Friday I charged up the battery to full and went to pick up my daughter. A half-block from home, the battery gave out. The mamachari’s assist is dead. RIP. Even the backup battery doesn’t work now, because it’s wired through the factory installed battery.

RIP, Bridgestone battery, You exceeded expectations.

This wasn’t completely unexpected. The woman who sold it to me told me the mamachari was six years old with all its original parts, and the bike was really cheap. We both knew the battery was on its last legs, and I have used it a lot over the last couple of months, more than I had planned. I’m mostly impressed that it lasted this long at all. It’s been used as an almost daily commuter by three families for six years, all of whom were carrying children, in the Berkeley Hills and on really steep hills in San Francisco. Most electric assist bicycles warranty the batteries for only two years. It had an amazing run.

I started thinking about whether I wanted to try to replace the battery on this bike when the range started to drop. I decided that I like the mamachari enough that the answer was yes. How to do that was the question. It is a Japanese bike, and parts for those aren’t exactly thick on the ground in the United States.

Luckily for me, there is Mama Bicycle in Japan. I learned a lot about mamacharis from his blog, and he recently posted that he has been looking for a way to export mamacharis overseas. If he can figure out a way to do it, I’m sure he will make a fortune. I know a dozen families in our preschool alone who would buy one. However shipping a heavy bike like a mamachari is problematic. But all I needed was a battery—that could be presumably be shipped as a normal parcel, assuming he was willing. And he was! Mama Bicycle is the best! If you’re in the market for a mamachari outside of Japan, he is your guy.

When I sent a photo of my bike, he identified the model on sight. Happily, Bridgestone sells replacement batteries for its bikes in Japan, and it’s legal to ship them to the US. Mamachari batteries aren’t cheap, even in Japan. But I can’t begrudge the cost given that the bike itself was. Moreover, if this replacement battery lasts as long as the first one did, the cost per month of my new battery will be equivalent to a couple of Muni rides each month. I ride the mamachari way more often than that. (Plus we are flush because we just sold the minivan, which makes it hard to begrudge the cost of a new battery to get the mamachari back online.)

Wanted: a bike to carry these two charmers

In the short to medium term, however, we’re in a bit of a bind bicycle-wise. The Breezer has been vetoed as a child carrier by our bike shop given the strain I’ve put on it already. The mamachari is out of commission until a new battery arrives from Japan, which I imagine will take quite a while by economy shipping. That means that all our bike riding is now on the Kona MinUte and the Brompton + IT Chair. The MinUte is great but it’s primarily Matt’s bike. The Brompton is what I’m riding now, and although it is still completely awesome, riding with a kid on board gets a little cramped on rides longer than a couple of miles. And while it’s not as bad going uphill as a mamachari with a dead battery (nothing else I’ve ever ridden is that bad) it’s not the greatest bike on steep inclines either. And even though the MinUte owns the hills, it gets a little cramped for two kids at once. There has been squabbling.

What we really need for the long term is an electric assist bike that one of us can use to carry both kids. And now that we have some ready cash on hand, that’s exactly what we intend to get. When our local bike shop told us we should stop using the Breezer as a child carrier and get a real cargo bike, we realized we needed a new strategy for the next school year. Our local bike shop doesn’t sell any cargo bike other than the Kona Ute and MinUte and never will. They suggested we find someplace that did.

We spotted this bike parked in the flowers at lunch while we were in the South Bay last week. Not a family bike, but it was so pretty there.

So next week, we are headed to Seattle and Portland and their many family bike shops to try out every cargo bike we can find (and if you’re a local, we’d love to meet you while we’re there! We’ll be attending both cities’ August Cargo Bike Roll Calls and the Portland Kidical Mass.) This isn’t the only reason we’re going: we’re also visiting my mom and we have friends in the area who’ve never met our kids. However the bike issue, in combination with the tens of thousands of frequent flyer miles Matt has racked up going to China for work, made the decision to head north pretty easy. With any luck, by the time that school starts we will have a family bike that can take all of us anywhere we want to go.


Filed under bike shops, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco

15 responses to “Another one bites the dust

  1. Ken

    I recently saw a Trek cargo bike with electric assist – their advantage to you would be the availability of spares, plus being a Bionix motor there is a lot of blog activity & advice on these motors and batteries in the US – try V for Volt.

    I have a Trek Valencia Plus with disc brakes and 24 gears, frankly I’m amazed that you only have a single speed? Think how much easier it would be, but I think the price tag is $2800 for the cargo bike… still you have the proceeds from the minivan and every trip you make saves money.

    My Trek is paying me back at the rate of $7.50 per commute for fuel alone on a $2400 price tag. Break even is 320 journeys (fuel v battery) and the battery is guaranteed for 2 years/600 charges, so I’ll be in clover for 280 journeys after that :-))

  2. GRJim

    Might want to throw the new Xtracycle Edgerunner into the mix.

  3. You are so welcome to take the Madsen while you’re here in SEAtown. Also, I’m not sure how tall you are, but I’m also happy to loan my Dummy for a test ride. 🙂

  4. TR

    I had Box Dog Bikes build up a Big Dummy. It’s not a bike they usually sell, but they did a fabulous job, metal fenders, dyno light… I’m sure you could work closely with them to put one together with an electric assist.

  5. Hi Dorie. I am your battery guy. 🙂 I e-mailed to you a moment ago. I completely understand how important the battery is for you and your children. Hope I will successfully ship it to you. I also amazed that you have three bikes too. Cheers.

  6. Hi, new Twitter friend. We are heading to Seattle next week too to visit my fellow Madsen-owning friend who just moved up there. I’m hoping to hit the Seattle roll call and the Portland one on the way home, so maybe I’ll meet you there. Good luck in your new bike search!

    • Fantastic! I hope to see you there. We’re in Seattle 8/9-8/11 if you want to DM me.

      • We are leaving CA on the 9th and will probably arrive in Seattle the evening of the 10th, so the roll call will be our first Seattle outing… if I can convince everyone to go. It is an 11 mile, hilly ride from our friends’ house in SW Seattle and the husbands seem to be less than enthused. But I will insist that we go to the Portland one!

  7. Shannon

    Your mention of Kidical Mass led me to wonder if there’s ever been such a ride in San Francisco. As far as I can tell from the interwebs – and my memory (such as it is) having lived and biked here since 1993 – there has not been. I think it needs to happen! Perhaps in conjunction with the 20th anniversary of Critical Mass festivities during the last week of September? And you should be the parade marshal 🙂

    • I don’t think there’s ever been a Kidical Mass in SF because Critical Mass is so… controversial. When I asked at SFBC about one everyone visibly flinched when I said the name. It would probably have to be called something else, but it’s such a great idea. I would be willing to submit a proposed ride to the SFBC calendar if you think up a name for it! (Probably. After I go to Portland and figure out what’s involved, that is.)

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