Monthly Archives: September 2012

Shrader Valve

This is the Panhandle bike path marking for the upcoming Shrader Valve.

The connection from the Panhandle to Golden Gate Park is a bit complicated. Before the western edge of the Panhandle, bikes veer off the path to the right at Shrader Street. The bike light at Shrader Street directs you into a marked bike lane on Fell Street, which in turn leads to the protected bike lanes of Golden Gate Park. The turn is called the Shrader Valve.

Starting from Market Street at the Ferry Building, through the Wiggle to the Panhandle, and through the Shrader Valve to Golden Gate Park, you can ride a bike in marked lanes on a relatively flat route from San Francisco Bay at the eastern edge of the city to Ocean Beach at the western edge, and back again.

Bike light is green! Follow the arrow into the Fell Street bike lane, and it’s a straight shot from there to the ocean.

I finally got a picture of the Shrader Valve intersection this afternoon on the way home from Western Addition Sunday Streets. It’s not just for tires anymore!


Filed under commuting, San Francisco

We tried it: Wallaroo

Hello, Wallaroo! My son became so enamored of straddling the top tube of bikes that he began trying it even on bikes that lacked a top tube.

The Wallaroo is one of two family-carrying vehicles in the Winther lineup. The Wallaroo has two wheels, while the similarly-designed Kangaroo has three wheels (another tadpole trike). We don’t have enormous faith in the hill-climbing capabilities of trikes, so we weren’t torn up about the fact that we were unable to try the Kangaroo because no one had it in stock. (This is my last box-bike/trike review from our Portland trip, by the way, from here on out it will be longbikes.)

A huge caveat here: Matt was the one who actually rode the Wallaroo. I was getting a little fried with all the test-riding, had accumulated a lot of bruises, and was feeling wobbly enough after switching from bike to bike all day that I was questioning my ability to get the kids home on our rental bikes. I saved my last burst of steam for trying out the Ecospeed electric assist. (It was wild. I’ll write about that later too. My posting backlog is daunting.) If Matt had been blown away by the Wallaroo I would have ridden it myself, but early spoiler, I guess, he wasn’t.

Squeezing out the door (a tight squeeze, even in the cargo bike shop). It was hard to get a good shot of the kids or the box itself once they discovered the covers.

When I first saw the Wallaroo last spring it impressed me. It looks like a bike with the trailer mounted in the front instead of being hauled behind it. Seriously, it looks like someone popped the compartment off a bike trailer, yanked the front wheel forward on the bike, and dropped the kids in the space created. But on closer inspection the compartment is actually much nicer than the one on an ordinary trailer, as it has a hard floor and padded seats for the kids, as well as a pretty classy set of five-point restraints. I’m guessing that this is because a cargo bike can haul a lot more weight without complaint than an ordinary bike pulling a trailer can.

The Wallaroo was built using the Bullitt platform, with some modifications. The first is that the bike is almost a foot longer, and the second is that it’s a step-through frame. Learning to steer it has some of the same issues that arose with the Bullitt. However we looked at the Wallaroo after a couple of hours of Bullitt-riding, so that wasn’t as much of an issue as it might have been otherwise.

Because the Wallaroo is a box-bike, it has all the same issues as most of the others: it’s tricky to park and hard to lift. Walk-in storage would be a must.

The pros of the Wallaroo:

  • The child cabin is seriously swank. It’s padded and cushioned and has very nice five-point restraints. The floor is hard plastic rather than fabric, so it won’t sag. There is both a rain cover and a sun cover and they fit tightly; this is a weatherproof box that can hold kids for a long ride. Two kids have a lot of elbow room. The trike model has removable seats that can be used at the destination.
  • The quality of the child compartment is echoed in the components of the bike. The bike shifted smoothly and braked gracefully and generally had all the parts that make a bike nice to ride and that I sometimes don’t notice until I get on a bike that doesn’t have them, and I say, “Oh yeah. I miss the nice components.”
  • The Wallaroo is a good climber for a box-bike, as it’s built using the Bullitt platform and made of aluminum, although something about the increased length and width, and possibly the step-through frame, seemed to reduce the bike’s nimbleness relative to the Bullitt. What’s more, this is a bike that can be assisted (with a switch-out of the bike’s original internal hub and replacement of the stock brakes with hydraulic disc brakes) and will then climb any hill pretty easily.
  • My kids were fascinated by the novelty of a box bike with molded seats, and the box is built with a low-step platform so even little kids can climb up by themselves. This is often useful. Mine did just that and started playing peek-a-boo with the various covers, then insisting we zip them up, unzip them, etc.
  • The step-through frame makes the bike accessible to even the shortest riders.
  • The Wallaroo has an excellent and rock-solid centerstand (which appears to be identical to the Bullitt centerstand). It can pushed down with one foot while the rider is on the bike, and the bike can be rocked forward to release it.
  • Like other box bikes, there’s room behind the rider for a trailer-bike or a child seat, although I suspect in bad weather there would be fighting over who got to sit in the weather-protected front and who had to deal with the rain in the back, and a trailer-bike would make this rig reeeeeally long.
  • Front loading box bikes can carry a ton of weight without the rider much noticing, and they cruise over rough pavement and potholes. The Wallaroo is no exception.

The cons of the Wallaroo:

  • Like all the front box bikes, the Wallaroo has linkage steering, where the front wheel, which is way out in front, is linked to the handlebars through a mechanism under the box. This can be hard to pick up (harder for some people than others; harder for me than most, it would seen). Even after a couple of hours of practice on the Bullitt, Matt found the starts very wobbly. This is unnerving with two kids on board.
  • The Wallaroo on the move

    Like the Metrofiets, this bike is almost nine feet long, and all the length is in the front. That means that you have to push the bike way out into the intersection to spot oncoming cars. With the Metrofiets, I missed cross-traffic twice when I tried to compromise between pushing the kids out into the street and being able to see better, and started heading into the intersection with when a car had right of way. This is an unpleasant experience, and it’s worse with the Wallaroo than the Metrofiets because the Metrofiets has a bigger front wheel (24” v. 20”). With the Metrofiets the part that you worry might get run over is only the wheel, not the kids’ feet.

  • The child compartment, because it’s not open at the top or sides, compromises one of the main joys of riding with kids in a front-loading box bike. It’s actually not particularly easy to have a conversation with them or to see what they’re doing when you’re on the seat. Sitting on this bike in the store, I found myself trying to lean way over to the side to check on what they were doing in there. Much like a bike trailer, a fight inside could escalate pretty far before you knew you needed to intervene.
  • The ultra-plush child seats take up a lot of room, meaning that there is very little space for any other cargo in the box. Moreover, there’s no way to squeeze a third kid in there—only two-child families would want this bike. There is a briefcase-sized pocket behind the seats themselves, but it wouldn’t hold a grocery bag. With the BionX assist there is a rear rack (with this bike, because it has so much weight down low and in front and a step-through frame, Splendid Cycles uses a rack-mounted battery, even though that would make an ordinary bike tippy). So shopping would have to be done either without the kids—pile up groceries on their seats—or using panniers.
  • Despite the fact that this bike is clearly designed as a kid-hauler, with a step-through frame and fenders, some of the features that make these kinds of bikes so easy to ride were missing: the Wallaroo had no lights and no chain-guard (the Kangaroo trike has a chain guard). These could be added but they’ll cost extra. I don’t know why all these options aren’t packaged with the bike; it’s difficult to imagine the rider that wouldn’t want them, it’s not like the weight difference matters on a gigantic cargo bike, and manufacturers get better prices than individuals on parts like these.
  • This is a very wide bike at 31”, which makes traditional bike parking a non-starter. It would not fit through our basement door, which is 27″ wide. In addition, it’s longer than any of the other front-loading box bikes. In a city, there will be noticeable limits on where this bike can go. Some of the narrow older bike lanes in San Francisco would be difficult to navigate.
  • Like all the front-loading box bikes, the Wallaroo is expensive relative to some other cargo bikes. The model with roller brakes, which I personally would not trust within San Francisco city limits, is $3400. Adding hydraulic brakes and internal hub gears with a wider range raises the price of the bike to $3800, and the BionX-assisted version runs $5200.
  • Even more than the Bakfiets, this bike is single-purpose. You use it to haul kids—not infants, because there isn’t an obvious way to put children who can’t yet hold up their own heads in the seats—until they’re old enough to ride by themselves. I couldn’t think of a practical use for the Wallaroo beyond this. Traditional box bikes stick with an actual box, because it is versatile enough that you can put other stuff in there (groceries, furniture, Christmas trees). Even traditional bike trailers for children convert to other uses more easily. So this is a bike you would get for a few years of child-hauling, and then sell it and move on.

The kids are doing something in there. It’s hard to tell what.

Ultimately the reason I didn’t want a Wallaroo was that it wasn’t what I look for in a box bike. My feeling was that if I’m going to pay the extra cost to get a bike with kids in the front, I want to be able to talk to them. I learned just by sitting on the bike in the store that that wasn’t really an option. However it wasn’t something I realized until I walked in with both kids and we all got on. Realizations like these are why we went to try out a bunch of cargo bikes in person. Now that we’ve done that, I admire the families who have purchased cargo bikes sight unseen even more. I would never have the nerve. Looking at a bike is so different from riding one.

I thought for a while about what kind of family this bike is designed for. I suspect that a lot of bikes and trikes that are designed with a child compartment like the Wallaroo’s are appealing to parents who don’t have much experience on bikes. They offer a way to get around that’s like pushing a stroller, but with dramatically increased range. I suspect for this reason the Kangaroo may be a better seller than the Wallaroo, as it is a trike, and inexperienced riders love trikes (at least in concept) for the promise that they can’t tip over (which is not totally true, but pretty true). For new riders who worry about safety, the seating in the Wallaroo/Kangaroo resembles car seats in a compartment similar to the back seat of a car, which can feel very comforting. We used to be those people. We’ve changed.

I think that this bike could work well for a non-urban parent (or one in a city with Amsterdam-level bike infrastructure) dealing with extreme weather conditions, long rides, and maybe some moderate hills. However in that situation, I personally would probably get a trailer before I got a Wallaroo, because it has more capacity for other kinds of cargo and could be used for trips out of town. Yet there are clearly parents for whom this is the right bike. But we have become people who ride bikes by preference, either alone or with children, in fair weather and foul. We have more confidence in ourselves and our bikes, and our children have become more adventurous than we could have imagined. They want to tell us about the birds overhead or the midday moon, to stand on the deck, and to reach over to play tickle fingers with other children. So the Wallaroo is no longer the kind of bike that would be right for us.

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Filed under family biking, reviews

We tried it: Bullitt (with BionX electric assist)

Hello, Bullitt!

While we were in Portland, we rented bikes from Splendid Cycles for the week. They knew the geography of San Francisco, and their suggestions were that we try riding a BionX-assisted Big Dummy and a BionX-assisted Bullitt. The Big Dummy was an obvious choice, beloved of hilly-city families up and down the west coast, but the Bullitt was a dark horse if there ever was one. The Bullitt is a serious cargo bike, the choice of San Francisco bike couriers, and it can carry a lot of weight. (Here is a great review by Josh Volk of Slow Hand Farms, whom we later met, and another from Wisconsin, and another from a dad in New Zealand.) However both a quick once-over and a detailed review by Totcycle made it clear that the standard Bullitt setup is so narrow that carrying two older kids at once in its box was improbable at best. One kid, sure: even my friend Todd has ridden in the box of the Bullitt, and he’s taller than I am. But two kids? Why couldn’t we rent a BionX-assisted Metrofiets or Winther Wallaroo?

You can actually fit a 3.5 year old and an almost-7 year old in the box of a Bullitt, but it’s a tight squeeze.

Joel at Splendid Cycles suggested that we could put a trailer-bike on a Bullitt for our son (rapidly approaching seven years old, and tall), and that appealed to him. There is also an alternative box built in Portland that holds two kids, which is about the size of a Bakfiets box. Joel encouraged us to give the Bullitt a try because, as he put it, the bike was “a hill-climbing monster.” But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to haul a trailer-bike every day. Given the length of the Bullitt, the combination would be like riding Family Ride’s Engine Engine Engine (bike + trailer-bike + trailer) everywhere we went. My son had another idea: he wanted to try straddling the top tube, like another kid at his school who rides a spare saddle that her dad sticks on the top tube of his mountain bike (see school bike #3 in this post). The Bullitt actually appears to be designed for that, with two footrests behind the box for a short passenger. However I was skeptical that our son would actually follow through. It was months before he would even get on the front seat of the Brompton. Once he did, he loved it, but I wasn’t going to buy a bike based on the hope that one day, before he grew up, he might like straddling the top tube. And even if he got on, I thought it was unlikely that he would be willing to ride that way for more than ten minutes or so.

This is an awesome way to ride with two kids if you’re used to a front seat. Conversation yes, fighting no.

I rarely have occasion to eat as much crow as I did that week in Portland for doubting my son’s willingness to ride what we ultimately referred to as the Bullitt’s jump seat. It was difficult to pry him off that top tube once we were confident enough to ride the bike with both kids on it. He rode it standing for multiple trips of 5-7 miles. All that practice on the Brompton IT Chair definitely paid off.

The Bullitt is the lightest of the cargo bikes we tried by a long shot (it’s an aluminum frame). Even loaded down with a cargo box, child seat, and BionX hub and battery, it weighed maybe 65 pounds.  That’s light enough that it is slightly more flexible than other box bikes when it comes to storage, as it’s not a nightmare to bump it up a step or two or onto a curb to park it, and it’s narrow enough to make it through any doorway with ease. And this is definitely not a bike I would feel comfortable leaving outside all night in San Francisco. Well, okay, actually there is no bike that would fit this description. But anyway, anyone who got this bike would ideally have walk-in parking. However, unlike the other box bikes, it wouldn’t be the end of the world if it was almost-walk-in parking. Nonetheless it needs a lot of space: like the Bakfiets, the Bullitt is 8 feet long.

The pros of the Bullitt:

  • The Bullitt climbs like a monkey! I try to keep this a family-friendly blog, but OMFG! At first I was skeptical, because we did have a BionX assist on this bike, and that wasn’t a fair comparison to anything but the BionX-assisted Big Dummy we were also riding. So to test my perception I turned off the assist for a while. That slowed me down, but just to the speed of an unloaded regular bike. It was easier than the Big Dummy with the same load on hills, even using the same level of assist. With two kids on board and the assist turned off I could still get up the only hill of note we found in Portland during our stay, Alameda Ridge (a moderate but short hill roughly comparable to the western approach to Alamo Square in San Francisco), without dropping down to the bike’s lowest gear. I barely used the smallest front ring on the Bullitt while we were in Portland. With the BionX this bike was unstoppable.
  • Bike goes fast!  It felt pretty hardcore to drop road bikes while my daughter was leafing through the complete Curious George collection in the box in front of me. More than any other bike I’ve ever ridden, this bike wanted to GO.
  • According to a friend we saw in Portland who is not really that into bikes, “That is a sexy, sexy bike.” Like Totcycle, I wondered if I was cool enough to ride this bike. When I was having trouble with the steering on a hairpin turn one afternoon, I nearly ran over another rider. I yelled, “Sorry!” and he replied, “SWEET RIDE!” This proves that people in Portland are extremely nice. But this was a common response to the Bullitt even from people I wasn’t mowing down at the time. And people do very weird and wonderful things with the Bullitt in its cargo form, e.g. the Sperm bike.
  • The Bullitt may be 8 feet long, but it turns on a dime (assuming a competent rider). It cornered better than the Big Dummy, which is no slouch in that department either.
  • The components on the Bullitt are the nicest of any bike I’ve ever ridden. It was an experience that forever spoiled me for cheap bike parts. Hydraulic disc brakes (even though they needed adjustment on our rental bike) stopped the bike instantly, and shifting on the bike was as simple as thinking “I need to shift.” The handlebars are on a quick-release for different riders or steeper climbs. Like all the long johns, the Bullitt swallows rough pavement and potholes, but even in that very competitive group it had the smoothest ride of all the bikes we rode. The child seat was a tight squeeze for two kids but luxurious for one, like a leather armchair. The box had a sound dampened floor, so there were no echoes even when the bike was unloaded, and had slits along the sides so water and crumbs didn’t pile up. There are two different rain covers available for kids.
  • The Bullitt’s centerstand is almost as good as the best-in-class Bakfiets centerstand. It doesn’t rest on four points, so it isn’t quite as stable, but it is easy to pop down from the seat (even with a kid standing on the top tube in front) and pushing the bike forward releases it. Being able to prop the bike up without getting off is very useful on a loaded bike. Being able to trust it when you walk away (I’m looking at you, Kona MinUte) is even more useful.
  • The actual couch in the apartment might as well not have been there.

    The bike is very narrow (this is also a con). That means it can fit in small spaces, including bike corrals. Our rental apartment didn’t have space in the attached storage shed for two cargo bikes, so we wheeled the Bullitt through a tight hallway and parked it indoors every night. With the centerstand down, the kids treated it like a spare couch. They called it the Bullitt-fiets.

  • This is the point where I do my usual paean to the wonders of having the kids in front. It’s easier to talk with them. It’s also easier to keep them from fighting, although in their preferred 1-in-the-box-1-on-the-top-tube configuration there was no fighting.
  • Like other front box bikes, it’s possible to mount a trailer-bike or a rear child seat (or both) behind the rider which allows you to pile on more kids. The Bullitt can carry 400 pounds; weight is not an issue.
  • Box bikes have boxes; this one is no exception. With or without a kid in there you can throw all kinds of stuff in there willy-nilly, with no worries about weird load shapes or having to pack carefully. One kid can nap easily; throw a pillow in there and they’re out. (Two kids might if they’re tired enough not to hit each other when they get drowsy, but I wouldn’t count on it.)
  • Climb in, climb out. Climb in, climb out. Climb in, climb out. Joel and Barb at Splendid Cycles are VERY patient people.

    The Bullitt has the lowest box of any of the box bikes we tried, which meant that even our three-year-old could climb in and out unassisted (and she did). That was handy. Other people’s toddlers did the same thing when they walked by the parked bike, to my amusement and their parents’ mortification.

  • Thanks in part to the extremely low center of gravity (even the child seat sits at the bottom of the box), the Bullitt is hard to tip once you get moving, even with one kid lurching around inside the box after removing her seatbelt or the other one actually JUMPING UP AND DOWN on the footrests behind the box while a distracted parent is crossing an intersection. Or both of them doing those things at the same time. We had many occasions to be sorry that we had ever called that top tube placement “the jump seat” because our normally cautious son viewed that term as an engraved invitation. Nonetheless, despite some close shaves, we never dropped this bike, not even on difficult starts.

The cons of the Bullitt:

  • Like all front-loading box bikes, the Bullitt has linkage steering, so the front wheel is connected to the handlebars through an attachment that runs under the box. It seems in principle that once you’ve figured it out once, you’ve got it, but the Bullitt is not that simple. It messed with us. Splendid Cycles has a whole Bullitt tutorial where Joel goes out with new riders and coaches them through the first few blocks of mortal terror (for me, anyway), and it is both totally necessary and totally inadequate. The first few blocks with the Bullitt were awful. It was a bona fide miracle that I didn’t dump the bike (that and the fact that I have learned from hard experience to keep the seat way down on the first test ride of any bike).  Apparently many people are not so lucky. It must require serious reserves of zen-like inner calm to watch people take your expensive bikes out of the shop, panic as they lose control of the steering, and drop them on the ground every single day.
  • Seriously, the learning curve on this bike is painful. After the first day of riding, I thought, okay, I’ve got it now. So it made me feel wildly inadequate to get up every morning for the next few days and have to spend a few blocks learning to ride the bike AGAIN. I had my son run alongside the bike for the first block those mornings just to feel stable enough to put him on board. By the sixth day it was better. Six days? Almost three weeks later I’m still carrying an impressive set of bruises on my legs from those rides. I felt like I had a dysfunctional relationship with this bike: “I hate myself for loving you, Bullitt!” I assumed at first it was just my incompetence. Then we went to the Portland Cargo Bike Roll Call, where I talked to Josh Volk (see his review of the Bullitt above), who is super-nice. He volunteered, without prompting, that he loved his Bullitt with the passion of a thousand burning suns but it had a serious learning curve; he’d been riding bikes for years, and riding a Bullitt for three months every day, and he still couldn’t ride it no-hands. Granted, I have never even had the ambition to ride no-hands on a bike with my kids on board, but I found this conversation a little depressing. [Update: With hindsight it seems that a big part of my problem was learning to ride with two kids jumping around on the bike at the same time. Other people report getting comfortable with the steering far more quickly. Also, Josh can now ride no-hands, see the comments.]
  • The Bullitt is a narrow bike. This is a pro when you’re trying to squeeze through small spaces or fit into a normal bike corral, but a con when you’re trying to carry multiple kids. Both of my kids could fit in the box but like a trailer, fighting was inevitable after a while. If our son hadn’t fallen in love with riding over the top tube, this bike would have been a complete non-starter. You could probably fit two younger kids in there though. But with the box set up to carry kids, the Bullitt can’t carry as much as other box bikes, because the box is so much smaller. Take off the sides and you can carry almost anything, but then you have to worry about the kids tumbling off the side. There is the option of getting a custom two-kid box, Bakfiets-sized, built in Portland. But the sample box had no sound dampening, no drainage holes, and no rain cover, and is much less well-integrated with the rest of the bike. Plus you’d give up some of the advantages of a narrow bike. Still, a possibility.
  • Only relatively tall people can ride this bike given the height of the top tube. The recommended shortest rider is evidently around 5’4”, but I suspect you’d want a couple of inches more to feel really comfortable. I’m a little over 5’7” and had no issues other than the usual contortion over the top tube, which is comparable to the one on the Surly Big Dummy or Yuba Mundo, maybe a little lower. Matt, who’s a couple of inches taller, was also fine. But that’s us; not everyone is as tall.
  • Despite the many nice components on the Bullitt, it is set up a lot like a courier bike: there were no lights and no chain guard. It did have fenders. Lights are easy to add but cost extra. A chain guard is harder to manage with the mountain bike gearing we were using (and loved). There is an internal hub option that makes it possible to mount a standard chain guard. In a less hilly locale than San Francisco, going with the internal hub would be the obvious choice. But I often bike to work in dress pants and we do live in San Francisco.
  • The kind of mind-blowingly awesome components that came on the Bullitt do not run cheap. The list price of the bike we rode, which came with hydraulic disc brakes, mountain-bike gearing, fenders, a Brooks saddle (!), and the BionX electric assist, was $5400. Without the assist the bike runs $3100-$3800, roughly comparable to a Bakfiets. The bike we rode was on sale (scratch and dent after too many test rides?) for $4650, a screaming deal by comparison to list price. That’s not that far from the price of a good commuter electric bike like the Ohm, with the Bullitt having far greater cargo and kid hauling capacity. Nonetheless it’s a head-spinning chunk of change. We were in the fortunate position of having cleared far more cash than this from the sale of our minivan, so the price of every bike we looked at was affordable for us, but I don’t think our situation is that common.

It was a party every day on the Bullitt.

At the end of the week, I was surprised at how much I liked this bike. My kids found an unexpected configuration where they both fit easily on the Bullitt, and they loved riding it. I was used to riding the Brompton with my son in front, so having him standing over the top tube was no problem for me. He’d fit there for a couple of years to come, plus we could add his trailer-bike rack to it, and that would also allow us to carry standard panniers. But Matt, who does not take our kids on the Brompton, did not like carrying our son in front, and putting both kids in the box was not particularly fun for anyone. And although the Bullitt was a ton of fun to ride by the afternoon of each day, every morning it made me feel like I was relearning how to ride my old yellow banana-seat Schwinn on the day my parents took off the training wheels.

Should we get this bike in the expectation that when we were used to it, we’d get the payoff of laughing at every hill in San Francisco?  Would our son tire of riding standing up if we did? It would be great to have the cargo flexibility of a box bike to match our midtail, and we loved having the kids in front. But this was not the only box bike that would work for us, and it would be an unconventional choice to haul two kids. Yet although the Bullitt wasn’t a bike I considered very seriously at first, I found it hard to rule it out after riding it for a while. The Bullitt is just so… cool.

[This is the bike we bought.]


Filed under bike shops, electric assist, family biking, reviews

The end of the road is not the end

Looking up and looking down: welcome to San Francisco.

My sister took this photo on a lunch-time walk. Last week I mentioned the impressive 41% grade of Bradford Street, above the Alemany farmers market. However the steepest hills of San Francisco begin where the road ends. Some San Francisco hills (and neighborhoods), like this one, are only accessible on foot, by staircase. But what beautiful hills they are.

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Filed under San Francisco