Monthly Archives: September 2012

Mt. Sutro’s cloud forest: the path less traveled

We looked out over San Francisco from the first flight of stairs to Mt. Sutro. This landing is about 200 horizontal feet east of and 12 stories above our front door.

Although we love our bikes, we still think of ourselves as pedestrians a lot of the time. This is sort of nice, because riding a bike is so much faster than walking that I always think I’m getting away with murder when I arrive more quickly than I could have on foot. It’s also useful in other circumstances. The other week, we needed to head to the other side of Mt. Sutro when the main road was under construction. So we hoofed it through the cloud forest.

The largest courtyard on campus–my son’s preschool graduation was held here.

Our route over Mt. Sutro goes through campus on a path that’s closed on weekends to people who lack an access card. In the back of the hospital and clinic buildings are a series of courtyards where the university flattened out a bit of turf here and there. It makes for nice views from the building and gives the kids a chance to run around.

The next set of stairs, partially obscured by the forest

From the main courtyard we head into the forest. The stairs up the hill are why we will never ride our bikes up there. There are people who ride mountain bikes in the cloud forest, but they have to carry them up the stairs. That’s never going to happen with our cargo bikes.

Coming back down the other side

Our daughter didn’t have the stamina to make it up on her own, so Matt carried her for most of the way. It turned out that there were volunteers and city workers out on the trail clearing poison oak so it’s probably just as well she wasn’t walking.

We did actually meet a mountain biker while we were there. He had stopped to let us pass as we came close. I asked if he wanted to get by, and he panted, that no, he was happy to get the rest. I know how that goes. He had carried his bike up the shorter flight of stairs on the other side of the mountain but it’s still a slog.

Down the stairs, heading to the fire station

We came down the the other side and headed to the fire station to play on the trucks, then to the bakery and the hardware store. Our son was too tired to go back up and down the mountain, so on the way back we ended up walking along the closed road that the city was repaving. It’s a shorter walk but was decidedly less pleasant.

This is San Francisco too.

It’s such a haul up the hills that we don’t go up Mt. Sutro often, but it always amazes me that there is such a place less than a couple of blocks from where we live. Admittedly those two blocks are almost completely vertical. But San Francisco is so densely populated that it is unnervingly wonderful to walk for a few minutes directly into the dead silence of the forest.  It is hard to believe in that moment that this is all part of the city.


Filed under San Francisco

Rosa Parks Fall BBQ

One part of the bike parade

On Saturday we headed to the annual Rosa Parks PTA Fall BBQ. We have been there before, but this was the best year ever, because this was the first year there was a bike rodeo and a bike parade. Attendance exceeded previous records, and so many people came by bike that they had to create overflow parking. We are a mighty bike community.

The Madsen and a few other bikes stayed behind during the bike parade.

My husband says that bikes are to schools as lesbians are to property values: a marker of great things happening. I have been taking photos like crazy on school mornings because the amazing new kindergarten class at Rosa Parks is simply packed with family bike commuters—4 Yuba Mundos, a bike with a Trail-Gator, a bike with a trailer, and so on. Plus the families I wrote about last year keep on keeping on. Not only were many of these families there on Saturday, there was a new bike on the yard, a real-live Madsen. I didn’t meet the family riding it but was told that they recently moved to San Francisco from Japan. I assume that they must live close by because this was an unassisted Madsen.

Two kids on one 20″ bike slay the obstacle course. Who needs Fiets of Parenthood? We have Fiets of Childhood.

Kids on their own bikes were out in full force on the lower yard, and before and after the parade (which was led by the principal). Not every kid who wanted to ride had a bike so they began loading each other up on their bikes to make sure everyone got a spin. I had to laugh thinking about how much angst we’d had over child bicycle seats. With kids old enough to sit up, you can simply seat them right on the top tube. It worked in My Neighbor Totoro, it works for a dad at school still hauling his now-1st grader to school that way, and it definitely worked for the kids. Sure, a spare saddle or a foam pad is a nice addition, but it doesn’t seem to be necessary. And the weight distribution is very good, right between the wheels and probably better for the bike than a rear seat. When they couldn’t fit two kids on the top tube in front of a rider, they improvised, and put one kid on the top tube while the other stood on the back. I had no idea you could fit three kids on a such a little bike. And these kids went fast once they loaded up.

More of the bike parade whizzes by, and Rosa Parks smiles above it all.

I’ve written before about how much I love our son’s school, which not only is a wonderful community for our son but provides me with endless entertainment, including camping with friends from school and digging up tombstones at kids’ birthday parties. It just keeps getting better. The other morning my son and I met two families coming up Webster Street on the way to school and formed an impromptu bike train up to the school yard. This morning I rode and chatted with one of the Yuba moms on the way from school to work; she took that bike, with her preschooler on the deck, up the heinous Post Street hill. They went slowly but never faltered. I never dreamed that I could have so much fun commuting. Fortune smiled when the San Francisco school lottery sent us to Rosa Parks.

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

Upcoming family biking events, in San Francisco and a bit yonder

San Francisco residents rejoice, for there are many exciting family biking events to attend as the weather clears up for fall. This week is a two-fer.

First, on Friday, September 28th, San Francisco families (or anyone who can make it here!) can join the city’s first-ever Kidical Mass ride, organized by the cheerful folks at sfbikingfamilies on Yahoo.

Rolling out with the Portland Kidical Mass crew. After six days in the high 90s to low 100s, it rained for the ride just as everyone headed to the ice cream stand. Surely we can do better than this.

From the Kidical Mass website: “The birthplace of Critical Mass, is holding our first Kidical Mass ride! Kidical Mass will be a contingent within the 20th Anniversary Critical Mass ride. Meet between 5:45 and 6pm, 9/28/12 at the SE corner of the big fountain in Justin Herman Plaza, where the fountain is closest to the grass. . The plan is to peel off to end at Dolores Park around 6:45pm for an after-ride picnic.” The Hum of the city crew will be there for our own second Kidical Mass—we hit Portland’s party-rific afternoon ride in August.

Second, on Saturday, September 29th, the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition is hosting its 6th annual Family Day Celebration from 10am-2pm in Golden Gate Park, off JFK Drive at the 14th Avenue E picnic area (north of Stow Lake and east of the Transverse Drive overpass). Interested families can register online to get information about bike trains to the event and sign up for classes. We will be arriving late due to a critical ballet class, but will nonetheless be there in time for the 11:30am Family Biking Showcase, designed for those who are still on the fence about which rig might best suit their needs. Check out how to can carry multiple kids and fear no San Francisco hills! For those who have bikes already, the closing Family Bike Parade starts at 1:30pm.

Here’s part of the lineup at Portland’s Cargo Bike Roll Call. I’m assuming a similar scene in Fairfax.

Two weeks later, up in Fairfax, cargo bike enthusiasts can attend the Marin Biketoberfest’s Cargo Bike Jubilee. The event is on Saturday, October 13th, from 11am-6pm at the Fair/Anselm Plaza. Last year’s Jubilee included a bike art table, bike parade, bouncy house, and kid bike skills course, as well as the predictable display of cargo bikes. Attendees will include Splendid Cycles, traveling down the coast from Portland. We are unlikely to make it to the Jubilee because Matt will have just returned from Brazil. However our new cargo bike, a Bullitt Bluebird ’71 (“it’s superfly”), will be in attendance, so visitors can see it even before we do! Splendid Cycles offered to ship the bike to us in mid- to late-September, but given that they were planning to be here anyway in October, I chose the “free-to-me shipping because Joel and Barb are driving down anyway” option. Because our bike is occupying a space on their travel rack, it must pay its passage by spending a day entertaining the masses. I am already envying those will catch the first look.

Ride on, families!


Filed under family biking, San Francisco

Cargo bike pocket reviews

Bikes lining up at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

We have tried riding a lot of family bikes over the last month, and for that matter, the last year. We didn’t try everything, although it sometimes felt like it. There are a lot of bikes left that could work for other people. I learned after reading Totcycle’s excellent review of midtails that it’s possible to review bikes you’ve never even ridden so: here goes!

Hard to categorize family bikes (that we have actually ridden)

There are some other configurations out there as well: Family Ride has a Bianchi Milano commuter bike fitted with both a front seat and a rear seat. However that kind of setup starts to get a little difficult once the combined ages of the kids get above about six years. Furthermore, a bike like that is going to need some aftermarket accessories: a decent center stand to keep it from falling over and some way to carry non-kid cargo (like diapers and snacks) are two big considerations.

Cycle trucks

A cycle truck doing a headstand at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

Cycle trucks are bikes with a huge front-end loader that allows people to carry a ton of stuff there. Cycle trucks are similar to a normal bike with a frame-mounted front rack, but typically they have a smaller front wheel too. I don’t hear much about cycle trucks for family biking, as they’re mostly used as delivery bikes. However for one-child families, a cycle truck can be a neat way to haul a bunch of groceries and gear using the front rack/basket, with a younger kid in a front seat behind the handlebars, or an older kid in a rear seat. I could also  imagine putting two (younger) kids on a cycle truck, one in front and one in back, although you’d want to be careful about weight and balance.

Civia Halsted: The Halsted is recommended as a one-kid hauler by Joe Bike, who wrote an excellent summary of what it can do. I also recently learned there’s a family, bikeMAMAdelphia, riding with the Halsted and a cute little boy in a front Yepp seat. This bike looks like a lot of fun, and seems as though it would be good for city families given its relatively petite size. We didn’t take a test-ride because we didn’t make it over to Joe Bike but we knew we wouldn’t be getting one regardless because given our kids’ ages it would be a one-kid bike. The Halsted seems to run about $1,200.

There are some other cycle trucks out there, but this design hasn’t taken off as a kid-hauler in the way that other cargo bikes have.


Family Ride carries my daugher and her youngest on her iconic pink Surly Big Dummy

Longtails are the bikes I see most often hauling kids and cargo here in these United States. They are competitively priced relative to most box bikes (e.g. “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows”) and most of them can handle hills, which feature prominently in the terrain of many West Coast cities, including mine. They look like normal bikes and ride like normal bikes except that someone streeeeeeetched the back out so they can be used to carry cargo and kids in the extra space between the rider and the rear wheel. Two kids can fit on the rear deck with enough space to limit fighting, and there’s also room for a front seat for little kids in the front. Reviews and links are in alphabetical order by manufacturer.

Kona Ute: The Kona Ute is the elder sibling of our first cargo bike, the Kona MinUte. Unlike the MinUte, the deck is long enough to hold two kids with breathing room. We could have managed a test ride of this bike through our local bike shop, but we ultimately didn’t because friends and acquaintances that had ridden it with kids all said that the rear deck is so high that the bike never really felt stable. Only people over six feet reported getting comfortable with it. As a cargo bike, with the load down low in the panniers, the Ute is apparently fantastic. However we didn’t find anyone who’d stuck with the Ute as a family bike long-term; they’d all switched to other bikes, most frequently the Big Dummy or the Mundo. There are great prices on this bike on secondhand, which may be worth investigating for tall parents. List price is $1,300.

Sun Atlas: The Sun Atlas is the cheapest of the longtails (cargo bikes are generally not cheap) at an astonishing price of less than $700. We didn’t take a test ride of this bike for two reasons: first, we didn’t make it to Joe Bike when we were in Portland and no one else had it in stock, and second, the components, as one might expect given the price, are not great. San Francisco is pretty hard on bikes and we have replaced many parts on the Kona MinUte already (brakes, wheels, pedals, tires, derailleur guide) due to local conditions. This has grown tiresome given that Matt needs to ride that bike almost every day, and the days he doesn’t need it, I usually do. We knew that we wanted a bike this time that wouldn’t constantly need to go to the shop. But for people who live in less difficult conditions or ride less frequently, this could be a good option. Carfree with Kids considered this bike, and there are discussions of it on the websites of Joe Bike and Clever Cycles. Note that there appears to be some disagreement as to whether it would work for shorter riders.

How to spend a Sunday afternoon: Meet friends from school, ride around on cargo bikes.

Surly Big Dummy: Our experience riding this bike is here. There are so many other reviews of this bike on the internet that I didn’t bother to sort through them.

Trek Transport/Transport+: Trek recently released the Transport and Transport+ cargo bikes; the Transport+ is sold with an electric assist. It has a very interesting rear bag design that looks as though it can carry quite a lot of stuff, but with those side loader bars this bike appears to be even wider than the Yuba Mundo. Trek specifically states that the Transport is not designed to carry passengers, not even on a child seat. We didn’t look for one to try because we wanted a bike to carry our kids.

Put a FreeRadical on it, Portland.

Xtracycle FreeRadical/Radish: The Xtracycle FreeRadical isn’t really a bike per se but a longtail attachment that can be added to an ordinary bike. It is the ancestor of the American longtail. The Xtracycle Radish is a FreeRadical attached to a donor bike for people who don’t have one of their own. We didn’t seriously consider a FreeRadical because they are reported to be unstable above about 70 pounds of weight and our kids together weigh more than that. They also have a reputation for flex on hills, and there are a lot of those where we live. But for people in flatter locales (which is, okay, basically everyone) or with younger kids, or a single kid, this is a very cost-effective way to start family biking. Plus it gives you access to the many wonderful Xtracycle accessories. The Xtracycle catalog is so extensive and complicated that I have trouble figuring out how much stuff costs though. Davey Oil keeps promising to write more about his beloved Wheelio, a Japanese mixte bike that he Xtracycled. Car Free Days has written for years about their Xtracycles, which did in fact make them car-free.

Xtracycle EdgeRunner: The Xtracycle Edgerunner (link goes to the Momentum review) is the first bike that seems to have been developed specifically for families who are riding in very hilly terrain. Thank you, Xtracycle! Our first experience test-riding this bike is here. Later I wrote an updated review of the 2014 EdgeRunner. The verdict: the EdgeRunner is a category-killer, the best longtail we have ever ridden.

Yuba elMundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Yuba Mundo: Our experience riding this bike is here.


Our MinUte chats up some other school bikes at one of the courtyard racks

As of 2012, three companies had developed a new kind of cargo bike: the midtail. (Okay, update in December 2012: the first midtail was really the venerable Workcycles Fr8. At first I’d classified it as a longtail, but it is short enough–although much too heavy in its kid-hauling incarnation–to fit on a bus bike rack, so I’m now calling it a midtail.) The first American midtail was the Kona MinUte, and it was enough of a hit that two more companies have now developed similar designs: Yuba, a company in Sausalito developing heavy-duty family bikes, and Kinn, a new startup in Portland making only a midtail. As the name implies, midtails are like a longtail, but shorter. The big advantage of the shorter length is that (most of) these bikes are transit friendly: they can fit on a bus bike rack or Amtrak (given some maneuvering). The best place to learn about these bikes is Totcycle’s outstanding summary.

If your kids are widely-spaced, say more than three years apart, you could fit an infant seat on the front of a midtail and put the older one on the deck behind. Then when the little one outgrows the front seat, the older is likely to either be riding solo or riding a trailer bike. Or you might be able to swing a couple more years with one on the front using a Leco top tube seat (which–fair warning!–is not suitable for all bikes). The midtail, which has much more cargo-carrying capacity than a normal bike, also appeals to non-parents looking for a normal-looking bike to haul groceries and other loads that would otherwise require attaching a trailer.

Our first bike was a midtail, the Kona MinUte. Like all midtails it can carry one kid on the rear deck (two kids can fit there too, but only if they’re in a good mood). The rear deck can also be fitted with a child seat for younger kids. We’ve never found a seat necessary once our kids reached three years, but your mileage may vary, and there are seats for older kids if so (the Bobike Junior or Yepp Junior). Adding a seat cushion is a nice touch.

Kona MinUte: Our experience riding this bike is here. Kona can’t decide whether it’s going to keep making this bike or not. As of 2014, they are not producing it, but recently promised to resurrect it. I’ve posted a few times about our MinUte; it is an underrated bike, in large part I think because of Kona’s indecision about whether or not they really want to be in the cargo/family biking market.

I'm embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

I’m embarrassed that this is as far as we got on the Fr8. At three my daughter would be able to ride that front seat for a while.

Workcycles Fr8: The Fr8 is a European midtail that has the capacity, unlike most of these bikes, to carry an child in front that is over the length/weight limit of a normal front child seat. The front seat mounted to the top tube is a saddle, and really best for kids old enough to balance. A big advantage of the Fr8 is the ability to keep two kids separated and still carry a bunch of stuff (the Fr8 accepts standard panniers and has a huge front rack), or to carry three kids after adding two rear seats. However this is a Dutch bike designed for the flat flatlands of the Flatherlands and it weighs 75 pounds, reportedly can’t go up more than a mild hill, and isn’t recommended for an electric assist. (There is evidently a lighter version coming recently or soon called the Gr8.) We live in San Francisco: there is no way. I still feel like I should have ridden this bike when we were in the shop, and I regret that I didn’t. It was 100 degrees that day and we were just so tired because we’d already ridden a half dozen other bikes that morning. If I lived someplace flat I would not have skipped trying this bike, even though the base model costs $2,200. It looked indestructible and is supposed to have a very smooth ride, and there are a lot of nice features like lights, a full chain guard, and fenders included in the price. Mamafiets wrote a nice review of the Fr8.

Yuba Boda Boda: Our experience riding this bike is here.

Kinn Cascade Flyer: We didn’t try this bike in 2012 because it wasn’t released yet. The Kinn is a gorgeous midtail based on a mixte frame, which means that the top tube slopes down toward the seat so it’s easier to step on and off. There are some very clever features on this bike: part of the deck rotates out 180 degrees to hold wide loads or make a better seat; it has a lockbox integrated into the rear deck, the passenger footpegs are adjustable, and it appears to have bars below the deck that will hold standard panniers. The Kinn is the only midtail that allows the attachment of a Follow-Me Tandem. Regrettably, it was made by tall people and has huge wheels, like the MinUte, so may not be the best choice for shorter riders. We still have yet to ride it, because it is a hard bike to find. It went into a tiny production run in Fall 2012 (30 bikes) and sold them for about $2,000; a second small production run followed in 2013. The extra cost gives you those clever design features, nicer parts, and a bike built in the USA.

Box bikes

Our son is almost four feet tall and he still fits on the Brompton with me.

Most parents love front box bikes, aka long johns, aka “those bikes that look like wheelbarrows” because the kids are in front where you can see them and talk to them. When we first started thinking about biking with our kids this didn’t seem like an important consideration. The more we rode with them the more we started to care. I ride the Brompton, which has a front child seat, in places that I probably shouldn’t (it’s not a great hill climber) just because I love having my kids in the front. I can see them and they lean back and look at me. They get a great view and are much more engaged in what’s going on. And my son will sometimes throw his arms around mine to hug me while we’re riding the Brompton and shout, “I LOVE YOU, MOMMY!” I have no words. I will keep him on that seat until he’s taller than I am.

See what I mean? You can put all kinds of stuff in a box bike.

So: front box bikes are cool. They’re also really good haulers, because they have a cargo box. You can carry stuff in a box bike that would never fit in a car, like bookshelves. Front box bikes are also expensive relative to longtails, and most of them have virtually no hill climbing capability. So that’s a bummer.

Babboe: The Babboe is similar to the Bakfiets in looks, listing at around $2,500 instead of $3,500. This is evidently a very popular bike in the Netherlands, and they are planning a roll-out to the US in September 2014 (online at least). Here’s a 2012 review from a family in Ottawa, and a 2013 updated review from bikeMAMAdelphia. These reviewers suggest that the price difference may reflect to some extent what comes standard on the bike (e.g. the Bakfiets comes with a rear rack, the Babboe does not) and the quality of parts (e.g. saddles and tires), but many families are happy making those kinds of compromises for a more affordable price–the same kinds of decisions come up in shopping for longtails as well.

Bakfiets: This is the bike people think of when they think about family box bikes. Our experience riding it is here. There are many other reviews of this bike out there, but one of the best I found was written by a father on the one-year anniversary of getting the bike.

Bullitt: Our experience riding this bike is here. It is one of the rare front-loading box bikes that can climb hills. (This is the bike we bought.)

Four kids pile into the Largo. It was hard to get them to take turns.

CETMA Margo/Largo: I really wish I’d tried this bike too. There weren’t any in stock at the shops we visited (and for that matter, at the shops we didn’t visit). I did see one at the Seattle Cargo Bike Roll Call, and the kids loved it. They were piling four at a time into the box and riding around. The pros of the CETMA, from what I’ve read, are that it offers a very stable ride, can climb at least moderate hills, and that it’s relatively easy to add an electric assist, at which point it can climb steep hills. What’s more, the frame splits into two parts, making the resulting package small enough to transport easily. The CETMA costs $2,850 for a complete bike, although this price does not include the box, which sells for $300. When you add in all the extras you’d get on a Bakfiets, like lights, chain guard, fenders, seatbelts, and so forth, it’s probably comparable. However much of the bike can be customized, because all CETMA bikes are made by one guy who formerly lived in Eugene but recently moved to California. As a result, he stopped producing bikes in June 2012 and began filling them again in October 2012. This meant that we would have had to fall for this bike very hard, because getting one would involve a long wait indeed. Without a test ride that wasn’t going to happen. That said, one of the reasons we got the Bullitt was that its narrow profile made it easier to ride on the busy streets of San Francisco, and the CETMA bikes are definitely not that narrow. I found a video review from one happy customer (but: six months to get the bike!) and a written review from a less-happy customer.

[updated] Christiania 2-wheeler: This is a dark horse box bike that I had never even heard of until I read the comments on the original post. One mom riding a Christiania wrote an extremely detailed review of the bike, as well as how it works for their family, with some great thoughts on similar bikes in its class as well.

Gazelle Cabby: Clever Cycles used to stock the Gazelle Cabby, but they didn’t have one when we visited and no one else did either. The Cabby is distinctive in part because it has a fabric rather than a wooden box. The box actually folds up from the top, and with the top edges together it can be locked with stuff inside, which is pretty neat. In addition, the folding box means that the bike can be made very narrow, which makes parking it much easier. However I wonder about the durability of the fabric of the box, and like most box bikes it’s slow and supposedly hard to get up hills. It is a Dutch bike so it comes with lights, a chain guard, fenders, and a rear wheel lock. When it’s in stock Clever Cycles sells it for $2,800. Family Ride has ridden the Cabby twice (1, 2), and a couple of other families have written up their impressions as well. And in 2013, bikeMAMAdelphia weighs in again with a test ride.

Metrofiets: Our experience riding this bike is here. It can handle hills.

Shuttlebug (and Joe Bike Boxbike): These made-in-Portland bikes are no longer in production.

Urban Arrow: The Urban Arrow is a fascinating take on a front box bike. In 2014, we finally had the chance to ride it for a review. It has a lot of interchangeable parts, so the bike can switch from being a family bike with seats for kids to a cargo hauler with a locked box. It’s also possible to swap out the entire front end and turn it into a cycle truck. Unusually, it comes standard with an integrated mid-drive electric assist, so it is capable of handling hills. However when we were looking it wasn’t available in the US, and given the long lead time (it had been “coming soon!” for three years) I assumed it would never be. As of March 2013, the Urban Arrow is now available in the US: read about bikeMAMAdelphia’s test ride! Here’s a 2013 update on life with the Urban Arrow, again from bikeMAMAdelphia. This bike has become easier to find in the US as of 2014, but it’s still pretty elusive. Note that there have been reliability issues with the first-generation Daum motors, and a couple of shops have reported that Bosch’s support for the second-generation motors has been somewhat spotty. Buying from a trustworthy shop is critical for all assisted bikes. 

Winther Wallaroo: Our experience riding this bike is here.


This is a tandem for grownups, but you could put kid-cranks on it.

Tandems are fun! Okay, we’ve never ridden one, but they sure look fun. One friend rides a triple tandem with his daughters to school. Car Free Days just rode two tandems down the West Coast as a summer vacation. My kids are very excited about the idea of tandems, because riding a tandem would allow them to pedal, which they think is cool. Tandems are also interesting because as a couple of people have now pointed out to me, they have solved the cargo bike braking issue. Modern tandem bikes typically have two sets of brakes: hub brakes to slow the bike and wheel brakes to stop them. Both are controlled by the captain (the rider steering, who usually sits in front, although not always). With two sets of brakes, it’s possible to slow and stop a heavily loaded bike without the brakes overheating, and with a backup system you’re less likely to launch off the edge of a hill if one set of brakes doesn’t have enough stopping power by itself. When I learned that I was even more excited by the idea of a tandem bike. However a weakness of these bikes is that they’re not great for carrying cargo (they usually hold a set of standard panniers at most, plus whatever riders want to carry on their bodies). In addition, for situations where one person gets off one place and another gets off somewhere else, like our commute, it would be weird (and heavy) to haul around an empty bike. On the up side, with everyone on board and pedaling, they’re supposed to go really fast.

This is Shrek 2.

Bike Friday triple tandem: The PTA president at our son’s school and his partner bought a Bike Friday triple tandem on eBay to take their daughters to school. It is big and green, so they call it Shrek 2. My kids go nuts for this bike. ALL kids go nuts for this bike (except for their girls, who are used to it). They offered us the chance to ride it for a couple of weeks this summer while they were away and I was so excited. However our daughter, at age three, is still too small to fit on the bike and so we decided to wait until she was taller (otherwise there would be meltdowns when her brother could ride and she couldn’t). We had hoped to try riding this bike in 2013, but unfortunately I was hit by a car, and while I was incapacitated they swapped it for an Xtracycled tandem. The advantages of a triple tandem bike are pretty obvious: a parent can take two kids somewhere and get help going up hills, plus the kids are excited to help pedal and don’t get cold because they’re doing some work. Plus the coolness factor is off the charts; practically everyone riding in San Francisco recognizes this bike. A downside is that the bike is really long. I have no idea what a triple tandem would cost new; it was custom before they scored it on eBay.

Buddy Bike: The Buddy Bike is another Joe Bike production. It allows special needs kids to ride in the front of a tandem bike holding onto the handlebars. But because the handlebars are quite long the parent in back is really controlling the steering. This is such a lovely idea, although it’s a specialized market. We didn’t try it because our kids don’t fit the profile and because we didn’t make it to Joe Bike (which I am really kicking myself about as I write this).

Circe Helios family tandem:  I heard about the Circe Helios from a blog reader. It’s a longtail! It’s a tandem! It fits on public transit! It’s not available in the United States! [update: Yes it is! College Park Bicycles in Maryland is now importing the Circe Helios. They say it is in stock but have no details or prices on their website, which is] The Circe Helios has 20” wheels, in part to keep the length down to public transit compatibility (I’m not sure whether it would really fit on a bus rack, or just British trains). The back end can be switched from a long tail that holds to two child seats and cargo to a tandem seat with room for a rear child seat (and cargo bags). The stoker seat in the rear can be adjusted to carry any size rider from about a three-year-old to an adult. A couple could buy this bike and keep it through two kids learning to ride, then switch back to riding it solo as a longtail or as a couple in its tandem form when the kids grew up. It’s a lifelong bike.

Outside of Counterbalance Cycles, where we did not try riding a tandem.

Co-Motion PeriScope: When we were in Seattle we had the chance to try a Co-Motion PeriScope at the very friendly Counterbalance Bicycles, a shop located right on the Burke Gilman trail. Co-Motion makes tandems noted for their hill climbing chops. I spent a lot of time convincing my son, who was in a very grouchy mood after falling off a BMX bike he’d been riding, that he wanted to try this bike. It was very disappointing when we discovered he was still about an inch too short to reach the pedals. The Co-Motion is a sport tandem not set up for commuting in any way; it didn’t even have fenders. But it looked like it would go really fast. I like that. We will return to Seattle again; my mom lives up there. When my son is taller, we will ride this bike. The model we almost tried cost about $3,000.

KidzTandem: The KidzTandem is a kid-in-front tandem bike that Clever Cycles sells. Having the kids in front on a tandem has the same advantages as having the kids in front in a box bike. We were very excited to try this bike, even though no one seemed optimistic about its ability to climb hills, and the review I found agreed. Unfortunately Clever Cycles had just sold the only one they had had in stock (“This has never happened before!”) It costs $2,000 and eventually they’ll get another one in stock. I think you can rent it when that happens, and Clever Cycles has very reasonable rental rates.

My husband: “That Onderwater is the goofiest bike I’ve ever seen. It looks like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.”

Onderwater triple tandem: In one of those weird twists of fate, Clever Cycles did actually have a family tandem in the store, the Onderwater triple. It had been custom-ordered for another family and was already sold, so it wasn’t a bike we could test ride. It’s not a bike they usually stock. The Onderwater triple, like the KidzTandem, puts the kid in the front. Chicargobike has an Onderwater that they’ve written about. Like most of the Dutch bikes there are lots of creative ways to carry kids on this bike; in addition to the front stoker seats (up to two), there is an optional jump seat that can be attached in front of the parent, and it’s also possible to put a rear child seat on the back. So you could have up to five people on one bike, and three of them could pedal (no, Dutch families don’t wear helmets, thanks to all that protected infrastructure). Like all the Dutch bikes, it comes with all the goodies: lights, fenders, chain guard (on a tandem, no less). Like all the Dutch bikes, it weighs a ton and you couldn’t get it up a serious hill even if you were being chased by a horde of ravenous zombies. The triple tandem is a custom bike so pricing is unclear. [Update: There is now an Onderwater tandem roaming the streets of San Francisco–a dad riding his kids to school. He said that they make it up moderate hills.]


Matt is looking for a route that doesn’t have anything approximating a hill because we’re riding trikes.

We rode a couple of trikes, the Christiania and the Nihola. There are other trikes on the market (Bakfiets makes one, plus there’s the well-reviewed Winther Kangaroo, Family Ride rode the Triple Lindy, etc.), but I’ve never given them much thought because trikes are totally impossible on hills and we live in San Francisco. I think that they could be fun in flat cities.

Somebody stick a fork in me: I think I’m done for a while. Did I miss anything? Please let me know in the comments!


Filed under family biking, reviews

Last bike standing

Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call: decisions, decisions

In August we rode a lot of cargo bikes trying to find the one that would work for us. We wanted a car-replacement cargo bike that could take two kids and their gear up and down some of the steeper hills of San Francisco. We had headed to Portland to try every plausible option in the multiple shops catering to family bikers there. It felt like a charmed trip, a no-lose proposition.

But by the middle of our week in Portland I was feeling depressed. I had spent much of the day wobbling through the streets of Portland with all the grace of a concussed bumblebee on the rental Bullitt. Matt had dumped the kids on the way home on the rental Big Dummy. It was miserably hot. We had tried every reasonable two-kid hauler we could find, and we still couldn’t figure out what to get. There were other bikes we might have tried given more time, like the forthcoming Xtracycle Edgerunner or a CETMA Largo or the incredibly elusive Urban Arrow (no one can tell me whether this bike even exists), but for various reasons these bikes were unavailable for at least the next few months. And even if we waited there was no guarantee we’d like them.

In hindsight it sort of surprises me that at that point we didn’t bail and decide to buy another car. We had lived without a car long enough at that point that it didn’t seem like the answer (it’s not). I did seriously wonder whether we should just ditch the idea of getting a big cargo bike and stick with the MinUte (short answer: no). For a moment it seemed appealing because we liked the MinUte, we could both ride it without dropping our kids, and it could handle the hills. But as an everyday ride for  our two older kids: no way. When kids scuffle on a midtail deck it’s like a cockfight: there’s no place to run. Trying to ride with them on the MinUte sometimes works beautifully but often means making a City CarShare reservation. Having to do that once a week is not expensive compared to owning a car (about $6 per trip–unbelievable! the same as Muni fare!) but it’s a hassle. And we still get stuck in traffic and have to figure out where to park. For the sake of our sanity, we’d all rather be riding a bike.

To make living without a car workable right now, and for me to manage shuttling two kids around while still making it to work on time during Matt’s overseas business trips, we needed a bike I could use to carry both kids at once. After riding all those bikes, there were four that we believed could work for our situation (to recap: two kids ages 3 and 6 in different schools, steep hills, heavy car traffic). Two were front box bikes and two were longtails.

These are all great bikes, and all of them can be made into serious climbers with an electric assist. I’d recommend them to anyone looking for a family bike (and not just them). All of them make appearances in San Francisco. Of those four, we ruled out the Metrofiets and the Yuba based primarily on size and hassle factor. The Metrofiets is one of the longest front loading box bikes—we loved the space in the box on that bike, but pushing it out into intersections made us nervous even on quiet Portland streets, and parking it would be a challenge in San Francisco. The elMundo is short, but the bars sticking out from the sides in the back made the bike wide enough that it was difficult for me to feel comfortable navigating in traffic when I rode it. In addition, given the demand we’ve placed on our bikes in San Francisco (sometime I will list all the parts on the MinUte that we replaced after they broke due to the hills, crappy pavement, and dirt of San Francisco—thankfully under the first year’s warranty) we would only have considered buying the Mundo as a frame kit, building it up with much better parts than come stock, and upgrading the weaker eZee assist to a BionX. That seemed like a lot of work for a bike I hadn’t fallen in love with.

Splendid Cycles was right: the two bikes that seemed like the best bet after we’d ridden many bikes were the Big Dummy and the Bullitt. Both bikes could carry both kids and both bikes could handle the hills we threw at them. Both of them were narrow enough to handle tight squeezes, either on the move or when parking on the sidewalk. The Big Dummy was easy to ride and despite my initial concerns about weight limits, we saw ample evidence that people could take two older kids up hills on it (and sometimes three). But the kids were in back where we couldn’t talk to them and we kept dropping the bike. The Bullitt was a better climber, and allowed us to keep the kids in front and separated. But we were still having trouble with the steering.

I started considering stupid decision rules. Like: all the bikes I’ve owned start with the letter B! Breezer (RIP), Brompton, and Bridgestone (the mamachari). I should get the one that starts with the letter… shoot!

But then I remembered the advice that guided me to the Brompton, a bike I’ve never regretted getting: buy the cool bike. The person who wrote that was advising people to buy the bike that they most wanted to ride, even if it was impractical. But neither of these bikes was impractical. We couldn’t lose. So the next morning I loaded up the kids and got on the bike I most wanted to ride. We took off without a wobble. It felt like flying. It felt like a miracle. We bought the Bullitt.


Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco

We tried it: Surly Big Dummy (with and without BionX electric assist)

Matt takes three kids for a spin on our rental Big Dummy at the Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call.

Over the last year I’ve had the chance to ride a Surly Big Dummy multiple times, both with and without an electric assist. Our friends from school have lent theirs, and Family Ride has let me use her incredible pink Big Dummy for long rides in Seattle. And twice I’ve ridden a BionX assisted Big Dummy from Splendid Cycles (the first electric-assisted bicycle I ever rode), once for a day and more recently, for a week. The Big Dummy makes frequent appearances in family biking communities in the hilly cities of the northwestern United States.

The Big Dummy grew out of the Xtracycle platform. Xtracycle pioneered the longtail bike concept in the United States with the development of the FreeRadical, which is a longtail attachment that can be fitted to virtually any bike, even a folding bike (useful for people who want cargo bikes, yet live in small apartments with limited storage space—preassembled versions are sold by Warm Planet Bikes in San Francisco). I met someone while commuting home last year who claimed he was riding with one of the first FreeRadicals ever sold. He had his daughter on deck in a child seat, but he had the bike for over a decade. The original wooden deck looked a bit battered but it was working fine.

Biking with Brad shows off a Big Dummy at Seattle’s Cargo Bike Roll Call

Xtracycle’s system is open technology. Surly was the first company to turn Xtracycle’s FreeRadical attachment into a complete bicycle frame. The advantage of having the longtail as part of a complete frame is basically the same advantage of having a complete cargo bike rather than a bike and a trailer, although less dramatic. The FreeRadical is really a separate part, so it’s harder to carry as much weight, and the bike can flex, particularly on hills. Flex means that different parts of the bicycle no longer move in the same plane, which can be disconcerting; under challenging enough conditions, the frame can even break apart. Typically flex is not a big concern for people commuting to work on bicycles, because they’re traveling relatively slowly and they don’t weigh that much. But put a hundred extra pounds on the back of the bike and head up or down a steep hill and suddenly you do have a problem.

Because we live and work on San Francisco hills and want to carry kids whose total weight is approaching 100 pounds, we were discouraged from riding an Xtracycled bike on the grounds that it would not feel stable—70 pounds is apparently where people start to feel the flex, and our kids together weigh more than that. This concern includes Xtracycle’s Radish, which is a bicycle frame attached to a FreeRadical; purchasing a Radish is mostly a way to get a FreeRadical without already owning a donor bike. However there are many San Francisco families in flatter parts of the city who are very happy with Xtracycled bikes. One family we met attached their FreeRadical to a tandem bike after their kids got too big for the Xtracycle to carry them safely. However they report that the Xtratandem is extremely tiring to ride.

The issues that kept us from seriously considering the Xtracycle FreeRadical/Radish are much less significant with the Big Dummy. Because the bike is a complete frame, it has far less flex. Getting a Big Dummy would also allow us to feel solidarity with our family biking neighbors to the north, because these bikes are all over Seattle. And although getting a Big Dummy so I could feel like I have something in common with other family bikers is arguably sort of pathetic, getting the same gear as Family Ride actually has real merit as a decision rule, because she rides everywhere.

The pros of the Big Dummy:

  • The Big Dummy is very easy to ride. There is almost no learning curve; the first time I got on one I just started riding. The first time I rode one with my kids on board was a little trickier; when they get excited, as they always do when trying out a new bike, they jump around a lot. Dynamic loads are much more hassle than static loads. But nonetheless I managed it pretty quickly, and by quickly I mean less than a block. It also corners pretty neatly, even when laden, although with a load all longtails are going to swing out a little wider.
  • The Big Dummies we’ve ridden have really nice components, which make them a pleasure to ride. Shifting is instantaneous, braking is fast and effective, and the bike rides smoothly.
  • The Big Dummy can climb! Family Ride has taken me up the hill to her place a few times now; it’s a long and moderate grade of ten blocks or so. In March, riding that hill on her unassisted bike with my kids was no problem, although I wasn’t breaking any land speed records, and for most of it I didn’t need the lowest gear. In August, when it was significantly hotter, I wilted. She had my son and her youngest on Engine Engine Engine while I had her oldest and my daughter on the Big Dummy, and they dropped me like a lead ingot. It never gets hot in San Francisco. But I made it eventually.
  • On this trip I really started to notice the difference between fast cargo bikes and slow cargo bikes. These are relative terms; no cargo bike is going to go fast by the standards of a road race. The Big Dummy is a fast cargo bike. I really noticed it when I was out with Biking with Brad and Family Ride, both on their Big Dummies, while I was riding the Madsen, which is definitely not a fast cargo bike. When I rode a loaner MinUte in Seattle with my kids and Family Ride was back on her Big Dummy, we could cover serious territory. Maybe I should learn to relax a little and enjoy the ride, but I decided instead that I like the fast cargo bikes.
  • Yes, that is a pinata. I am not worthy to hang out with these people.

    It is astonishing what you can pack on a Big Dummy (this applies to the entire Xtracycle line). The standard bags on the bike, which are called FreeLoaders, fold flat when not in use, expand only as much as needed when loaded, and can carry more than the trunks of many cars the way that Family Ride packs them. She said she got compliments on her loads from homeless guys with shopping carts. Now I have something in common with Seattle’s destitute. Two kids, dozens of pool toys, a large bag of snacks, four towels, a change of clothes for four kids? No problem. Two kids, two kids’ bikes, a piñata, another large bag of snacks, and various other odds and ends I’ve forgotten? Also no problem. Xtracycle, like Yuba, has side bars to keep a heavy load from dragging on the ground or to act as footrests, but they are optional and detachable. I would never use them in San Francisco because I hate having extra width behind me while negotiating narrow bike lanes (personal preference), but they would be useful in other locales. We also liked the FreeLoaders more than we had expected when we rode the Big Dummy in Portland, although unlike a box bike, you do actually have to load them; it’s not throw and go. Oh the humanity.

  • When using the BionX assist, the Big Dummy made us feel like we had cycling superpowers. Normally riding a cargo bike means accepting that even without the kids on board we’ll be slower than everything else on the road, except maybe people on crutches, if only because the bike weighs a lot more. The apartment in Portland we stayed in for the week was almost six miles from where we wanted to be most of the time, because there was an international tree climbing competition in the neighborhood that week (Portlandia!) and basically everything in the city was booked. So we had several evenings when we stayed out later than we should have and had to book back all that way with two tired kids. On Portland’s neighborhood greenways, which allow bikes to go for dozens of blocks without hitting a single stop sign, we could crank up the BionX assists and make it home faster than we’d ever dreamed. “Wow!” Matt yelled at one point, “You know those times when you’re running late and wish there was some magic way you could get there on time? NOW YOU CAN!” Also, being able to hit the throttle and make it through busy intersections with no drag from cargo could be worth the price of an electric assist all by itself. I love the BionX. I would sell our car for one. Oh wait, we already did that. Never mind.
  • Like the Mundo/elMundo, the Big Dummy is pretty short for a cargo bike at about seven feet long, and when not fully loaded with packed bags or the Wide Loaders, it’s also the same width. It can be parked at ordinary bike racks. Bumping it up onto a curb is not a big deal. We ride in the city and this kind of maneuverability is very appealing. As with all cargo bikes except possibly midtails, carrying it up stairs is a complete non-starter, so some kind of walk-in parking is a must. But as with the Mundo or Bullitt, almost walk-in parking would probably be okay with the Big Dummy.
  • Three kid party on the Big Dummy! And that’s my son riding his first geared bike alongside.

    Like most of the longtails, it’s possible to carry three kids on this bike by putting an infant seat on the front and two kids on the back, with or without child seats. As with the Mundo we have on occasion piled three kids on the back of Big Dummies but this is more of a “riding with friends” than a “riding with siblings” kind of thing. Riding packed tightly on the rear deck of a bike with friends is a nonstop party. Riding packed tightly on the rear deck of a bike with your sibling(s) is an opportunity to get payback for whatever imagined slights happened earlier in the day.

  • The Big Dummy is designed to use the Xtracycle line of accessories , which can be overwhelming but is also fantastic. In addition to the extremely cool bags, the child seats that attach to the deck (Yepp) are very swank; they are rubberized with drainage holes to shed water easily, and very nap-inducing for tired kids, although unfortunately, like all rear seats, they are not very nap-friendly once the kids actually fall asleep, as their heads loll forward and they jerk awake, etc. New accessories like the Hooptie give every kid on the deck a handhold. People who like carrying even more stuff can attach an actual Side Car. The catalog is too deep to do justice to here.
  • Unlike many cargo bikes, the Big Dummy comes in multiple frame sizes to fit shorter and taller riders. Just like with t-shirts, one size fits all means that for most people the fit is not going to be great. So you can adjust the seat, but the handlebars may still be too close or too far away, or it can be hard to stand over the top tube. With this bike, fit shouldn’t be a problem.

The cons of the Big Dummy:

  • The kids in back are behind you, by design. This is less fun than having the kids in front, and it means it can be hard to intervene during arguments. With two kids on a longtail the fighting is nowhere near what it can reach on a midtail, with the kids right on top of each other, however. I don’t mean to imply that my kids fight all the time; they actually get along very well. It’s just that the fights stick with me, plus they can totally ruin a ride.
  • Even more than other longtails I have ridden, it is hard to hear the kids in back. A conversation I attempted to have with my daughter on one ride illustrates the problem. “Mommy?” “Yes?” [car passes us with a SWOOSH] “I’m sorry, sweetheart, I didn’t hear you when the car passed. Can you say that again?” “Okay. Mommy?” “Yes?” SWOOSH. “I am so sorry. I missed that again. Could you please say it one more time?” “Okay. Mommy?” “Yes?” SWOOSH. ARGH!
  • The stock kickstand on the Big Dummy is dreadful. It is barely better than the kickstand on a commuter bike. We both hated that we couldn’t trust the bike we rode in Portland to hold any cargo unless one of us was holding it upright. It made loading the bike without two adults around nearly impossible. There is an excellent solution: the appallingly-named aftermarket Rolling Jackass centerstand, which deploys with a hand control on the handlebars (sheer genius!) and releases when the rider rocks forward. The Rolling Jackass is the best longtail stand I have ever seen, the only stand even in the same league as the Bakfiets/Bullitt stands, and I would not get a Big Dummy without it. Too bad it costs $350, not including installation. Xtracycle also sells a KickBack center stand for $150. The Rolling Jackass is better.
  • Even with the Rolling Jackass-enabled Big Dummy (I feel like a mean drunk throwing around all these ridiculous product names), my three-year-old daughter could not get herself onto the bike. This isn’t necessary but it’s nice when the younger ones can get in and out by themselves.
  • The Xtracycle line of accessories focuses on stuff that attaches to the longtail, and pretty much ignores the front of the bike. Surly isn’t traditionally a company that’s focused on the cargo biking community, and thus the Big Dummy does not have a standard front basket or rack. There are all kinds of aftermarket front baskets and racks, but almost none are frame mounted, like the Yuba Bread Basket. Frame-mounted baskets can carry more weight and loading them up doesn’t knock the bike off balance. Having no option for a front frame-mounted rack or basket is an annoying oversight on the Big Dummy. Yuba is on a real tear when it comes to developing desirable family bikes because of accessories like the Bread Basket.
  • There is no rain cover or sun shade for kids riding on a Big Dummy. Some handy parents have developed their own using plumbing supplies and sewing machines. The Yepp seats have lots of holes to use as attachment points. I’m not a handy parent.
  • Classical scholars among us will recall the story of Milo of Croton, who taught himself to carry a bull using progressive resistance training, lifting a calf every day from the day it was born until it grew up. At which point he killed and ate it. I digress. I thought of Milo because of the difference in my experience riding the Big Dummy in March versus in August. Together, my kids were ten pounds lighter in March. I had a lot more trouble getting the bike uphill in August. Some of that was the heat, but it was easier when I swapped out my oldest for Family Ride’s oldest, who is several pounds lighter. I began wondering whether being able to carry my kids at their current weights and beyond was the kind of thing I could work up to, or whether they were already near the limit of what I could reasonably carry on the bike. My go-to source for questions like “how much can the bike REALLY carry?” is the excellent summary of cargo bikes by Joe Bike. It said that the Big Dummy was stable with loads on the back up to 100 pounds. Hmm. With my kids plus their gear, we were already at the 100-pound mark, with years of riding to go. An electric assist would make it easier, but was I going to be pushing the bike beyond where I should? I have already broken one bike. That’s how we got here. On the other hand, I saw some riders, including my own husband, carrying three kids on the Big Dummy for short trips at least, and together those kids surely weighed more than 100 pounds. So this was hard to assess.
  • We dumped the kids on the Big Dummy when we lost control of the bike trying to start on mild hills. I did it on Family Ride’s bike. My son ended up with a bad scrape. After he saw the blood, he insisted on riding Engine Engine Engine for the rest of the day. I felt horrible. Matt, showing far more foresight, dumped the kids and the bike on some grass alongside the road, and they were shaken but fine. For some reason bikes with the weight on the back are much easier for us to tip. Sure, everybody does it sometimes, but twice in one week was a little more often than I like to admit.
  • The Big Dummy has a high top tube rather than a step-through frame. I hesitate to call this a con because the top tube is what makes the frame strong and there are different frame sizes so it should fit even shorter people. Yet even the smallest frame could be an issue for people closer to the five foot mark (not us), because at some point you’d have to lean the bike to swing a leg over the top tube. That would be a recipe for disaster with two kids on board, and as noted it’s not possible for kids of all ages to get on by themselves after the rider gets on.
  • Like most of the cargo bikes we tried that were not the Bakfiets, the Big Dummy lacked many of the accessories that commuting easier. The bike we rode in Portland had fenders, but no lights or chain guard. Family Ride has wired her Big Dummy with dynamo lights, but has struck out trying to find a chain guard. I bike to work in dress pants several days a week. I want a chain guard. It does not seem like that much to ask.
  • The Big Dummy is one of the more expensive longtails at $2000 for the base model we rode without assist, $3500 with the BionX assist. You get some very nice parts for that price and I don’t think it’s unreasonable, but it is still almost $1000 more than a Yuba Mundo. The accessories we’d want for hauling two kids (child seat, bags, etc.—the Xtracycle Family package, plus stoker bars for the oldest) looked to run about $650. A Rolling Jackass center stand would add $350. So an assisted Big Dummy set up to haul our kids and groceries would total about $4500 (before adding dynamo lights).

This the the Big Dummy we rode in Portland, looking very staid in comparison to its siblings in Seattle.

The Big Dummy is a great bike, but it didn’t completely sweep us off our feet (a turn of phrase one could use literally in this context). I assumed coming into our cargo bike test rides that we would ride a bunch of bikes and a clear and obvious choice would emerge. And I thought it was most likely that bike would be the Big Dummy. This didn’t happen. The Big Dummy could clearly work for us, but we had some nagging concerns.

Our experience riding the Big Dummy made me wonder about riding it on the hills in San Francisco. In Portland, even Matt had to crank up the assist to the highest level to comfortably make it up the biggest hill we found when he had both kids on board. And there are much steeper hills than that in San Francisco, and the kids are getting bigger. However it was really hot in Portland (100 degrees) and we nearly passed out from that alone. It will never, ever be that hot in San Francisco. It is a major news event when it gets to 80 degrees here. And families in Seattle are obviously getting their heavily loaded bikes up some serious hills. And I got an unassisted Dummy up some of those hills with two kids on board when it was cooler. So maybe this wouldn’t be a problem.

Five kids on two Big Dummies. Who wouldn’t want to join this kind of party?

Another issue that bothered us was that we both dumped the kids. If it had been just me, I wouldn’t have worried as much. But Matt has much more upper body strength than I do, as well as more experience with heavier loads, and we did not expect that that would happen with him. We both felt very wobbly on the front loading box bikes but we never dumped the kids. We both felt confident on the longtails and yet we kept dropping the kids. I had no idea which issue would be easier to resolve. Stuff like this can really mess with your head.

I suspect that it is unsatisfying to read: “We tried a dozen cargo bikes and after several days we still didn’t know what to buy.” I know that it was incredibly frustrating to experience it. Yet we did eventually choose a cargo bike.


Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews

Here in San Francisco

There is always so much happening in the city that it is inevitable I will miss some of it. Earlier this week, I missed pi in the sky.

Where I would like to be this weekend is back in Portland, representing California in the Fiets of Parenthood. Instead I’m here in San Francisco. I have been told that Fiets of Parenthood was scheduled well after our school year started to prevent outsiders like us from successfully competing. This is laughable, and I’m sure they’re just saying that.Want proof?

For those poor souls stuck at home wistfully following the #FoP twitter feed like I am, I offer San Francisco’s take on Portlandia to pass the time: Catlandia.

(Hat tip to Bikes and the City for the Catlandia link.)

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Filed under family biking, San Francisco

Western Addition Sunday Streets

Looking north up Baker Street

Last weekend we went to the second annual Western Addition Sunday Streets. Mission Sunday Streets is an institution at this point, packed with crowds and activities. Western Addition Sunday Streets has a mellower vibe. It’s also a lot closer to home.

My son shows off his new skills, weaving through a cone course.

This was the first Sunday Streets we’ve attended where our son could ride his own bike. Over the summer he’s progressed from the back of the MinUte to the trailer-bike to finally riding on his own. From his perspective, this was the best Sunday Streets ever.

Heading west on Fulton Street. Most people walked their bikes here.

Unlike the Mission route, the Western Addition route is hilly. It heads up over Alamo Square and over to the Fillmore and Japantown. Our son handled the western approach to Alamo Square on his own, which was amazing to watch. He couldn’t manage the eastern approach, and his ever-more-insistent demands for a bike with gears are pretty understandable.

Bicycle obstacles for us and our neighbors

The Western Addition feels less like an event along much of the route, and more like a neighborhood enjoying the weekend. There were rummage sales and lemonade stands and some families put out balls and toys for passing kids. The bicycle teeter-totter was a big attraction, and the neighborhood friends we saw over Labor Day in Golden Gate Park were there with their bikes as well, in addition to our son’s Japanese teacher and her daughter. We never see these kinds of things in San Francisco (lemonade stands!) unless the street is closed to cars.

“I’m a baby kitty cat!”

This route covers many of the same streets that we travel when we take our son to school, but it feels completely different. One of the things I like about the Western Addition is that it is one of the most integrated neighborhoods in the city. We stopped by a YMCA booth for face painting right outside a housing project. The projects sometimes look scary from a car, but on Sunday it was just a place to stop and talk with the neighbors.

The pies were a hit.

We stopped for lunch at the homemade pie shop that Matt has passed dozens of times on the way to school or on the way home from work, but had yet to visit. I had fears that a restaurant with a name like “Chili Pies” wouldn’t have any food our kids would eat given that they shun all things spicy. But no worries, they had fruit-only pies as well. And there were three kinds of kale salad. San Francisco, you never disappoint.

This bike isn’t in the Public Bikes catalog, which saddens me.

There are a lot more cargo bikes on the streets now. Music bikes, people carrying friends on Xtracycles, a mamachari, and all kinds of kid-carrying rigs (except a Bakfiets! And also no piano bike. This route was hilly.)

Food trucks are so over. Food bikes are the future.

Although these two bikes couldn’t go through most of the route due to the hills, I thought it was so clever that these people were able to capitalize on the popularity of food trucks by setting up food bikes! It’s not the greatest photo, but one bike is welded to a shopping cart and the other is welded to a wheelbarrow. The man is making pad thai in the wok while the woman takes orders.

It’s hard to get a sense of what it’s really like at Sunday Streets from pictures. So I took a video.


Filed under family biking, rides, San Francisco

We tried it: Yuba elMundo

I didn’t manage to get good photos of the elMundo I rode, so here’s a nice-looking Mundo. Imagine a battery behind the tube holding up the seat and you’re mostly there.

I have said before that Yuba is the Ikea of bicycle manufacturers. This sometimes gets taken as a slur against Yuba, but I intend no disrespect. Ikea meets a market demand that no one previously realized was there: at certain points in their lives, people want cheap furniture that looks decent. Yuba realized there was a market demand that no other manufacturer was meeting directly: inexperienced riders wanted inexpensive bikes that could carry a bunch of stuff.

Xtracycle pioneered that market with the FreeRadical longtail extension, but there are some limitations to their model. The first is that the FreeRadical will fishtail and flex under weight (that means you feel like the bike will fall apart while riding it loaded, even if it won’t—although with sufficient weight, in difficult conditions, it actually might). The second is that installing it onto an existing bike frame, or for that matter even understanding how it works, requires a certain baseline level of comfort with bicycles. Xtracycle attempted to address the second problem with the release of the Radish, but as the Radish is simply a FreeRadical attached to a bike frame, there are still problems with flex. They addressed the problems with flex by partnering with Surly to create the Big Dummy, which uses a solid frame, but that bike is substantially more expensive, and offers some complicated choices. Having talked to a lot of inexperienced riders, I can attest that although the Xtracycle line of products is incredible (seriously, it’s awesome), it can seem very confusing.

Enter the Mundo. Yuba keeps it simple. (I rode a Mundo for a couple of weeks earlier this year and reviewed it here.) For $1200 you get a bike with a strong frame that can carry massive amounts of weight, mountain bike gears to climb hills, fenders for foul weather, and a lot of cargo and kid-carrying options (these cost extra). Hitting that price point means that Yuba has made certain compromises: there is no free lunch in the world of cargo bikes. For one thing, the bike is heavy, and even with a lot of gears, getting up steep hills involves major-league suffering. Thus Yuba created the elMundo, the electric-assist version of the Mundo.

I found riding the elMundo fascinating. If you’ve read my review of the Mundo, most of the reasons the Mundo wasn’t the right bike for us are still an issue with the electric assist version.  The elMundo is not our future bike. However our situation is somewhat unusual, and after riding the elMundo I think that unless there is a sea change in what other manufacturers are doing, it will soon dominate the family/cargo bike market.  That is in large part because Yuba has created a bike that is simple enough, cheap enough, and capable enough that it is drawing in people who had previously never imagined that they might commute by bike with their kids. There aren’t a lot of choices to make with the Yuba line, and that can be a good thing.

The pros of the elMundo:

  • Longtails ride a lot like normal bikes. The learning curve is minimal. I’ve gotten comments that I harped excessively on getting used to a bike in my reviews of front box bikes, but I think it’s important for people to have a sense of how long that might take, or they will rule certain bikes out the first time they get on them. (There are multiple attempted reviews of the Bullitt, for example, that essentially say: “Yuck, I couldn’t ride it.”) The elMundo is no exception to the general “easy to ride” rule; although of course it gets tougher with the kids on deck because they squirm and that can mess with balance.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo can carry major amounts of weight without the bike feeling unstable or fishtailing. Yuba claims that you can carry over 400 pounds of cargo on the rear deck. A very nice (although somewhat out of date) summary of cargo bikes from JoeBike notes that cargo bikes can usually safely carry rather less weight than their manufacturers suggest, and other bike shop owners have told me the same thing. However the Mundo line is still rated to carry twice what other longtail bikes can.
  • Unbeatable price! The elMundo lists for $2600, basically the price of a Mundo with the assist thrown in at what must be very near manufacturer cost. There is no other electric assist cargo bike I have heard of that approaches this figure. For example, the hopefully-soon-to-be-released Xtracycle Edgerunner, which looks to be a very nice assisted longtail, is supposed to list for $3500. That’s a good price for an assisted cargo bike too, but it’s still almost $1,000 more than the elMundo. Novice riders in particular are extremely price-sensitive.
  • The elMundo, like the Mundo, has good acoustics. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but having the kids behind you instead of front means that you can’t see what they’re doing. Being able to hear them reasonably well as a rider helps smooth the ride (kids, left unobserved together, will eventually fight). Plus it’s entertaining. You as the rider still can’t be heard by them, but it’s better than nothing.
  • The elMundo has a good kickstand, which now comes standard (the older versions of the Mundo had the better kickstand as a more expensive option). Poor kickstands are legion among longtail and midtail bikes. Putting live weight on a bike is different from putting dead weight on it, and having a decent kickstand is critical to being able to load the bike safely with two younger kids, or being able to add cargo to a bike with kids on it (and kids come with a lot of stuff). You can’t put the kickstand down without getting off the bike, but the bike is unlikely to topple while parked.
  •  The electric assist, which works using a twist-throttle on the right hand grip, is very simple to operate and powers smoothly up mild to moderate hills. The further you turn the throttle, the more power you get from the motor. I always overheated getting the Mundo up San Francisco hills, which was extremely undesirable given that I commute in work clothing. The elMundo is better.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are relatively short for cargo bikes, at just shy of 7 feet, and that means that they are much less painful to park and store. Although the Mundo is wide in back, you’ll be able to fit it into a normal bike corral if you roll in forward. However you will still need walk-in parking, or close to walk-in parking, and there is no way you could carry the bike upstairs. The Mundo takes up a lot of room at the conventional San Francisco “bike rack”, which is a parking meter, but it won’t completely block the sidewalk as a Bakfiets or trike would.
  • The elMundo (as well as the Mundo) can take an infant seat on the front, which makes it possible to carry three kids (two on the deck, one in front) with minimal squabbling.
  • The elMundo can carry a lot of cargo in addition to kids. Yuba’s Go-Getter bags, which are Mundo-specific panniers on the rear rack, are gigantic and don’t sag because they are supported by the side beams on either side of the rear wheel. If you don’t like the Go-Getter bags, you can install Xtracycle FreeLoaders (this would be my choice). The optional front Bread Basket is frame-mounted. It takes some getting used to, because it doesn’t turn with the bike’s front wheel, but that frame mount means that it can carry a lot of weight. For example, friends with an elMundo bungeed a 16” kid bike with training wheels to it last weekend. We carried a week’s worth of shopping on a Bread Basket.
  • The Mundo and elMundo have some nice design features. For example, the side beams that stick out on either side of the rear wheel can be used as footrests for riders on the deck or as a way to easily haul a second bike. The bike is accessible to riders of a range of heights with an adjustment of the quick-release seat. A front wheel stabilizer to keep the bike from toppling due to the weight of the front wheel is standard. The deck and optional foot boards are made from bamboo; very pretty. The color choices (orange and black) are more attractive than most. And if you don’t have much storage space, the Yuba can be balanced “standing up” on the back of the frame (photo here), assuming that you don’t have a child seat on the end of the deck.

The cons of the Mundo:

  • The eZee electric assist on the elMundo is underpowered. I had heard reports that it failed on steep hills, which I believe. It struggled on moderate hills, slowing substantially on the longer ones, even with no kids on deck or other cargo. (My definition of a moderate hill is roughly 10% grade, which is maybe atypical but is consistent with San Francisco topography. However note that the bike was unloaded.) Ultimately I climbed hills faster by turning on the assist for a while, then turning it off and pedaling for a bit, then turning it on again, etc. This worked but did not improve my mood. A BionX assist is much more efficient and did not struggle at all on comparable grades, even with a two-kids-and-all-their-gear load. However a BionX assist is substantially more expensive, and a BionX rear wheel is only rated to carry 220 pounds. Given that safe cargo weight limits on longtails can be exaggerated this might not make much practical difference. However several hundred dollars in price difference for a BionX assist is not trivial.
  • The eZee battery is very wide, and that means that the elMundo has lost the Mundo’s front triple ring, because there is not room at the back for the chain to run freely with three front rings. The elMundo has only seven gears in the back instead of the 21 gears on the Mundo (3 in front x 7 in back). Converting a Mundo into a elMundo costs ~$2000 at San Francyclo, more than the $1400 price difference between the two bikes at purchase, in part because of the parts swap on the front ring.
  • The eZee assist is a throttle assist rather than a pedal assist. (There are after-market eZee assists that have a pedal-assist option, and evidently at least one person has put one on a Mundo, but I’m focusing on the stock elMundo.) This is a personal preference, but I am much happier using a pedal assist, in part because the effort of pedaling is multiplied when riding instead of replaced. When I turned the throttle on I stopped pedaling, and this made riding the elMundo feel like switching between a bike and a moped.
  • Front hub motors like the eZee are somewhat noisy. The sound of the motor, when it was on, negated some of the good acoustics I liked when riding the bike unassisted. The motor wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as after-market mid-drive motors—the one I tried was like a Vespa—but it was louder than manufacturer-installed mid-drive motors like the Panasonic, and I found even that mild rattle vaguely annoying when I tried it.
  • The Mundo and elMundo both have cheap parts. What that means from a practical perspective is that they can be less than fun to ride at times. There is mild rattling while the bike is moving and I noticed bad pavement more than usual (and this bike was better maintained than the Mundo I rode earlier in the year). When I tried to shift gears, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. That probably wouldn’t matter much to me if I lived in Chicago, where people can ride for hours without changing gears, but I live in San Francisco, and I rarely ride for more than a few minutes without needing to shift. Having ridden bikes with better components, and discussed these issues with the shop, I feel confident that this is not my incompetence; instead, it’s that the stock gearing uses cheap parts. Similarly, the stock brakes on the elMundo are terrible. Not only is there a rim brake on the front wheel, the rear disc brake was weak and slow to stop the bike, even when it was unloaded (the Madsen has a similar setup, which I also disliked, but the brakes on the Madsen worked better; I have no idea why). Again, maybe a San Francisco-specific issue; I am paranoid about bicycle stopping power.
  • The elMundo felt sluggish. This is difficult to explain, and I doubt that I would have noticed if I hadn’t spent a few weeks riding many other cargo bikes. However after that my conclusion was that some bikes like to go fast (Big Dummy, Bullitt), and some bikes want to go slowly (Bakfiets, elMundo, Mundo). I felt like I was constantly fighting the elMundo to get up to the speed I wanted to travel.
  • When I rode the Mundo, I had issues with the side loader bars that stick out from either side of the rear wheel. In many ways these are very handy, because they provide nice footrests and support the Go-Getter bags. However for me their width was frustrating on city streets in narrow bike lanes. I was never sure whether I could thread through pinch points in traffic, particularly at intersections when cars move to the right curb and block half the lane. With Go-Getter bags the problem is exacerbated, as they’re so big that the width of the bike in the rear then becomes almost 36 inches, wider than most bicycle trailers. For this reason, I thought that the Mundo, when I rode it, was more of a suburban or small city bike than a big city bike.
  • From a parental perspective, riding with the kids in back is less fun than riding with the kids in front, because you can’t really talk to them. Moreover you can’t easily break up fights. Technically there is room on the back deck for three kids (and the Mundo/elMundo can certainly handle the weight) but putting three kids in close proximity like that is like putting both of our kids on the deck of our Kona MinUte: sometimes we get lucky and they get along swimmingly on a long ride, and sometimes they start smashing helmets in less than a minute, at which point we have to walk the bike.
  • With a longtail loading the bike is more complicated than it is with a box bike. Box bikes don’t have any issues with, say, a mega-pack of toilet paper. However if you ride a longtail there’s always going to be some repacking with bulky items.
  • My daughter, who is three, can’t climb up to the deck and into the child seat unassisted. It is useful when kids can load themselves onto the bike, although this issue is less critical given that the elMundo has a good kickstand.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are very difficult to walk while loaded and to start up an incline while loaded without tipping over. I dumped my kids on the Mundo, and given time, the same thing would happen with the elMundo. Although I often feared dumping my kids with the front box bikes, it never actually happened. Longtails are less stable than box bikes.
  • The top tube on the Mundo and elMundo is fairly high. That’s part of the reason it can carry so much weight without complaint, and that’s no small thing, but I suspect that shorter riders would have trouble getting on and off the bike for this reason. It involved more contortion than I would have liked and I’m 5’7”. Update: Check out the comments below for a nice discussion of how a 5’2″ rider gets on and off the bike.
  • Like most of the longtails, the elMundo comes without any of the commuting accessories that make bikes easier to ride in a lot of situations.  Although fenders are standard, there is no chainguard, there are no dynamo lights, and neither one appears to be an option. Adding a child seat is $170, the Go-Getter bags are $130 each, the front Bread Basket is $130, stoker bars for an older kid are $60, and seat cushions for the deck are $30 per kid. Getting the bike to the point where it can carry two kids and a reasonable amount of cargo would cost a fair bit on top of the list price of the bike.  And there is no rain cover for the kids. And I’d still have to tie up my pants.

When I rode the Madsen, I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be comfortable riding it in San Francisco without substantially upgrading the parts. And frankly that seemed like too much work given that there were other choices. The same is true for the elMundo. Yuba sells a frame kit, and it is possible to buy that and build it up with much higher-quality parts: better brakes, better gearing, better tires, probably dynamo lights, a stronger assist, and so forth. I suspect that would resolve many of my issues with the elMundo: it could stop quickly, could climb hills better, wouldn’t resist shifting gears, and probably wouldn’t be as sluggish. The question is how much that would cost.

BionX Mundo. Nice!

Some parents at our son’s school recently bought a customized Mundo with excellent parts that had been returned to the shop by another customer.  The shop (Roaring Mouse) had also installed a BionX assist. It is a beautiful bike and they have zero problems climbing San Francisco hills—I saw the mom at Sunday Streets last weekend pedaling casually up to Alamo Square—but they said that their bike was quite expensive even though the price had been significantly reduced because it was a customer return. I suspect that a Yuba Mundo/elMundo upgraded to the point that I’d enjoy riding it would cost at least as much as a Surly Big Dummy. At which point I have to ask: why not buy a Big Dummy? It would be a lot easier.

And yet. I am picky about these issues because I live and work on steep hills in what I am told is the second hilliest city in the world (and this is not a competition you want to win). My situation is not typical, perhaps not even in San Francisco. I see a LOT of Mundos and increasingly, elMundos, in the city now, primarily in the Richmond and the Sunset. Families who live in these areas and commute to local schools and/or along the Wiggle have no need for a bike that can scale steep hills. There are few serious grades in those parts of the city, the streets are wide and mostly empty of moving cars, and they can rent a car if they want to go to the Randall Museum. I would be surprised if families who live on Nob Hill or Potrero Hill could make an elMundo work for them without serious after-market modifications, but there are lots of families who don’t need to go those places.

The elMundo is cheap and its parts are sufficient for most riders. This bike makes it easy to take up commuting by bike with kids, and in flat cities, the same is true of the Mundo. There are no complicated decisions to make, riding it is painless, the bike is inexpensive, and it will get most people where they need to go smoothly. This is why I think the elMundo will be a category-killer.


Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

The mamachari returns

The resurrected mamachari graces the California Academy of Sciences bike racks.

When I left for our Pacific Northwest trip the mamachari was out of commission. With no working battery, my 65 pound single-speed bike was technically functional, but I had no interest in taking it out on hilly neighborhood streets.

Before we left I had written to Mama Bicycle, who has written many times about his willingness to try to export mamacharis to a soon-to-be-appreciative world. I asked him if he could identify a replacement for my mamachari’s battery, and if there was one, ship to the US. He was delighted to do it. I don’t think that bicycle people could possibly be nicer. Unquestionably, if you are interested in a mamachari and you live outside of Japan, he is your guy.

Oh, how I love Japantown. If Japan is anything like it, it must be totally awesome.

When I sent photos of the Bridgestone battery he identified the model immediately, found that they were still being sold in Japan, and figured out how to send one. I was so impressed! My mamachari’s battery is a NiCd, fortunately, which meant it was legal to send by air from Japan to the US (evidently newer lithium-ion batteries have an occasional spontaneous combustion issue, so they’re harder to ship). Nickel-cadmium batteries have their issues (charge memory, safe disposal, weight, range), but they have a couple of points in their favor too. One is that they seem to last forever—the original battery on my bike was in continual use for about six years. The other is that they’re fairly cheap. Even with the non-trivial cost of overseas shipping, it cost less than the least expensive lithium-ion battery sold in the US. For several more years with this bike it seemed more than worth the cost.

Although he was confident that he had identified and shipped the correct battery, I was nonetheless a little nervous about getting a battery shipped from Japan sight unseen. What if it wasn’t the right model, and I’d wasted my money on a battery that didn’t fit my bike? And I’m guessing he may have had some anxiety about shipping one to me, too, especially given that he couldn’t ask for payment until it arrived (his Paypal account had to be upgraded to take US dollars and it took a while).

New battery on top; old battery below. The only difference is that the new one holds a charge.

When I returned to San Francisco, our office receptionist was very excited to announce he had a package for me from Japan. I opened it up when I got home, and I’ll be: it looked identical to the old battery. It fit into the battery compartment perfectly. After a few hours of charging, I took it down to the basement, loaded it, and took the bike for a spin around our basement. WOW! Evidently the old battery was under-charging for quite a while, because the mamachari was suddenly extremely peppy.

The new battery didn’t have a connection to the backup battery like the old one, so given that and the new battery’s increased range and power, I took the spare battery off the bike. Now I’m riding a 50 pound mamachari. It makes a difference.

“I need a bike!”

We are back to having three working bikes: MinUte, Brompton, and mamachari. On Labor Day, when we were out with a neighbor, his son wanted to show off his new bike-riding skills. She hadn’t ridden a bike for over 20 years and she is short. So we loaned her the mamachari (the obvious choice as it is single-speed, hard to tip, and can nonetheless get up almost any hill) and headed to Golden Gate Park. She took off with a bit of a wobble, but after a block began yelling, “I need a bike! I need a bike! Look at me, I’m riding! I so need a bike!” Two hours later she was still yelling, “I need a bike!” By the end of the afternoon, another friend we’d met at the park had arranged to loan her their old folder.

So thank you so much, Mama Bicycle! You are awesome! The mamachari’s return has not only made our lives better, it also recruited another parent to family biking in its first week back in action.

And check out what I spotted at Western Addition Sunday Streets! Another (unassisted) mamachari!

My daughter loves being able to ride to preschool again. Like my son, when she arrives on a bicycle she is treated like royalty. Their friends jump up and down, waving wildly. “Turn on the pink power, mommy!” she yells. “I’m riding the mamachari! I’m riding the mamachari! Look at me, I’m riding the mamachari!”


Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco