Category Archives: bike shops

Another one bites the dust

Oh mamachari, I can’t quit you.

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

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

RIP, Bridgestone battery, You exceeded expectations.

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

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

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

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

Wanted: a bike to carry these two charmers

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

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

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

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


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

San Francisco destinations: The New Wheel

This is actually quite an accurate depiction of what it’s like to ride an electric-assist bicycle in San Francisco.

A few weeks ago, we checked out a new bike shop in San Francisco, The New Wheel. The New Wheel is marketing itself to a particular niche in San Francisco, and I suspect they will be successful. They sell only electric pedal-assist bicycles.

For this trip I rounded up two other families from our daughter’s preschool to keep us company and so I could get the opinions of people who’d never ridden electric-assist bikes before. Preschool was the obvious place to recruit other families interested in electric-assist bikes; as Matt puts it, the building “looks down on us like a Tibetan monastery.” From asking around, we knew that other biking parents (okay, dads) had tried to haul kids up that hill in trailers and on bikes. Like us, they’d given up after a couple of tries.

Electric-assist bikes: interesting!

Cyclists in San Francisco do not give up easily. There is no avoiding the hills in this city, and there are a few intrepid riders who climb preschool hill every day solo. But not pulling a trailer, which one dad reported actually dragged him back down the hill while he was attempting to pedal up. I have discussed before the reasons that parents in the city don’t typically ride with trailers (can’t be seen in traffic, don’t fit in bike lanes): that’s another. Let’s not even discuss what it would be like back going down that same hill. In summary it would be fair to say that there is intense interest in electric-assist bikes in our preschool community.

So we all headed to The New Wheel one Sunday. It was fascinating. In a lot of ways, The New Wheel is not yet our kind of shop. Although they are interested in the family market, they are most strongly focused right now on pedal-assist bikes for commuters. They can attach a child seat or a trailer or a Burley Piccolo to their bikes, but they don’t offer cargo bikes. It turns out that there is a reason for this.

These are the kinds of bikes they sell.

What I learned from the owners at The New Wheel is that there is a wide range of reliability in electric assists for bicycles, and particularly in batteries. As they are focused not just on selling equipment but maintaining it, there is a very short list of systems that they felt were worth selling: BionX and Panasonic. BionX motors sit in the rear hub and respond to torque on the pedals; the harder you push, the more help you get. I’ve written about riding with the BionX before. The mid-drive motors attach to the chain, and add power throughout the gear range. These are stronger motors, but they are significantly more expensive and they work best when riders maintain a steady cadence. After trying one, I can attest that doing that involves a learning curve.

For the time being, this is the only kind of family bike that The New Wheel is selling.

Because they are very interested in the family market they had considered stocking the Yuba elMundo, which comes with the eZee assist. However they found that customers had so much trouble with eZee motors and batteries, which evidently have a nasty habit of cutting out in the middle of the hills where people need them most, that they are negotiating with Yuba to develop and sell a BionX-assisted Mundo instead. The trade-off for increased reliability, of course, is a higher price.

Having this discussion with them made it pretty clear that for our needs, a BionX system is probably our best choice. After-market mid-drive motors, although they themselves are great, evidently have some of the same battery issues that other systems do, namely that there are not many consistently good ones, and no one is currently making cargo bikes with the integrated Panasonic assists. So it would seem that BionX is the most reliable option for cargo bikes, unless you know a lot about batteries or get lucky.

All these bikes have the motor integrated into the design; the mid drive motors are placed inside a massive chain guard.

All of the bikes The New Wheel sells are built as electric-assist bicycles from the ground up, and they all come with integrated BionX motors (e.g. the Ohm line) or integrated Panasonic mid-drive motors (the German bikes). They felt both of these systems worked well on steep hills. The mid-drive motors were more useful for weaker riders. One of their customers, an older woman with a recent hip replacement, was using one of their mid-drive motor-assisted bikes to commute up to the top of the Berkeley hills every day. That is an extremely long and unforgiving grade.

Having already tried a BionX-assisted bike in Portland, I went out for a test ride with one of the preschool dads, Paul, on a mid-drive bike. He took an Ohm with a BionX assist. I was very curious about how it would feel to ride with the more powerful mid-drive motor. The New Wheel is conveniently located in Bernal Heights, next to some brutally steep slopes. After taking some time to figure out how our respective assists worked, we rode up and down the hills for a while. It was such a hoot!

When I rode with a BionX, I liked that it felt seamless with the pedaling and was almost completely silent. Other than feeling like I’d grown massively stronger, I barely noticed the BionX was there.

I rode the extremely girly “Emotion” bike. I’m not particularly proud, but this kind of marketing leaves something to be desired. Bad manufacturer; no cookie!

The mid-drive motor was different. It makes a slight rattling sound as the chain runs through the motor, which I found kind of annoying. It was hard to tell that it was more powerful, because the assist felt so subtle. I suspect for riders who are already used to going up hills, there may be less difference between the two systems until the cargo load gets quite substantial. And it was hard for me to maintain a steady cadence and pressure instead of reacting to the hill by gearing down and pushing harder, which meant that I wasn’t getting the greatest benefit from the system. As a result, Paul consistently passed me on the way uphill even though I had a stronger motor.

So although I liked riding up hills with the mid-drive motor, especially hills that I could barely move on by myself (I tried turning the assist off halfway up the hill a couple of times; it was unspeakably brutal), I didn’t like it any better than riding a BionX-assisted bike. Yet I suspect that I would feel very differently about these two systems if I were a novice rider. The owners of The New Wheel said that in fact they steer experienced riders to the BionX-assisted bikes like the Ohms, and novice riders to the mid-drives. I suspect that’s because if you have practice going up hills already, you’d have to relearn how to ride effectively with the mid-drive motors. Basically you have to convince yourself that neither the motor nor the hill is there, and just pedal blissfully on. In contrast, if you’re getting an electric bike in order to start riding a bike again, you don’t have to unlearn any existing hill-climbing habits. This information, by itself, was worth a trip to The New Wheel.

My son’s desire for this bike has not waned in the slightest.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also mention that The New Wheel is really, truly committed to family biking, even if they don’t yet stock any real family-hauling bikes. The proof was in their children’s bikes, which were the nicest I have ever seen. The preschoolers could not stop riding their gorgeous balance bikes. Our son test-rode a beautiful 20” Torker (not listed on their website) and has been begging us ever since to trade in his Jamis for this bike. He is willing to put his entire saved allowance to the cause. This was, however, not even the nicest bike available; they do not currently stock, but they do sell, a German bike for kids that comes with an internally geared hub, dynamo lights, fenders, a double-kickstand, and a chain guard. They said they didn’t stock it because they assumed that no one would be willing spend that much money on a kid’s bike. I only wish The New Wheel had been in business when we bought our son’s bike last Christmas. It would have spared us a trip across the bay and he’d be on a better bike right now. At any rate, if you are looking for a child’s bike, I have never seen a higher-quality collection. And they also have very nice children’s helmets, and they know how to fit them, too.

The New Wheel: stop by and check it out!

If I were in the market for an electric-assist commuter bike to handle the steepest San Francisco hills, I would start at The New Wheel. It is a great shop with incredibly nice owners and they are impressively informed about electric assists. We will almost certainly return when it is time to buy another kid’s bike. My only regret is that they do not yet sell family-hauling cargo bikes that can handle steep hills. For that, you still have to go to Portland.


Filed under bike shops, destinations, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, trailer-bike, Yuba Mundo

Upgrading the Breezer Uptown 8

That’s right, my Breezer didn’t have enough stuff hanging off it yet. I needed more.

One day when we were visiting our local bike shop, Everybody Bikes, I was complaining that it was getting increasingly difficult to get up hills as our kids gained weight every month. My Breezer Uptown 8 handles hills well with reasonable loads (like a single rider and a preschooler) but it was getting to be a slog with a 6.5 year old on the back. The shop owner suggested I gear the bike down. But it has an internal hub, I said. Oh, you can still change out the rear cog for a larger one, he said, and that would give you the equivalent of two extra low gears (at the cost of losing the two highest gears, which I never used: whatever). The cost? About $20. Whoa. Sign me up!

What’s more, the brakes were getting soft, again. This issue seems to crop up every couple of months. The Breezer’s brakes aren’t as bad as the original brakes on the Kona MinUte, but San Francisco does seem to eat through bicycle stopping power.

My new front basket, the Soma Gamoh.

I also wanted to be able to carry more cargo on the bike. They suggested a front basket. Putting one on would require rewiring the front dynamo light, but they could do that with some time.

And my kids wanted a cargo kickstand. They hated my little stock one-legged kickstand; they thought it was too wobbly, which was true. And that would argue for a front wheel stabilizer, for basically the same reason.

At last, a kickstand that is not pathetic.

Finally, we wanted to attach the custom rear rack for our new trailer-bike. And that meant rewiring the rear dynamo light, which attached to the stock rack.

This had all turned into a kind of major project, but upon reflection it seemed worth it. Two weeks ago the Breezer went into the shop for all these changes at once. For much of last week I came back for tweaks (the front light stopped working, then started again, the kickstand wasn’t in, then it came in, we had to fit the adjustable trailer-bike handlebars to our son, ad infinitum). Now the Breezer is back in action, and while some of the modifications are a bit kludgy—there was no pretty way to attach a stabilizer on my big fat down tube, and a trailer-bike always looks ad hoc—they all make the bike work better. The gearing change alone would have been worth it.

This is the Frankenstein of wheel stabilizers, but it gets the job done. Anyway no one has ever waxed rhapsodic about the Breezer’s clean lines.

Lowering the gears turned out to be the cheapest adjustment I have ever made to my bike, and the most practical. The rear cog original to the Breezer has 18 teeth, while my new rear cog has 22 teeth. It didn’t seem to me like four teeth would make a difference, but ignorance like that is why I don’t work at a bike shop. It makes a massive difference. I have had to completely relearn my gears, but the un-laden Breezer now cruises up serious hills like they’re barely there, and that’s without my first gear making much of an appearance—I’m almost always able to keep the granny gear in reserve. Laden up with a kid on the back or the trailer-bike (a bonus 30 pounds) or a heavy bag in the front basket, going up hills is significantly more challenging, so no worries: this bike will still keep me honest.

The new fork-mount for the headlight is unlovely but very effective.

The dynamo lights had to be rearranged to fit around the front rack, but this has actually increased my visibility. And the front cargo rack, a Soma Gamoh, is large enough to hold two grocery bags. It’s not frame-mounted, but it can take a lot of weight with the fork-mount. Combined with my two panniers I doubt that I’ll ever have to shuttle home after a grocery run again, especially now that the bike is geared to take the extra weight up hills. And the improved brakes will now stop me on the way back down.

Because I’m ignorant, I’d never realized it was possible to make these kinds of changes to a bike. Apparently some bikes aren’t worth upgrading, and last week I overheard a conversation with another customer in which our shop told him exactly that. Nevertheless: I used to get frustrated by the limitations of our bikes. Now I don’t bother getting annoyed until I’ve asked whether it’s something that can be changed.  It’s been enlightening for me to realize that having a local bike shop hanging with us through the last several months means that we can often remake our bikes into the rides that we need them to be.


Filed under bike shops, Breezer, cargo, commuting, family biking, San Francisco

Bicycle loans at San Francisco Fire Credit Union

This behemoth fixie could be yours! (Yes, it’s really a fixie. I asked.)

When I started talking about commuting by bike with some of the parents at our son’s school, I realized that a lot of people found our plan for buying a cargo bike unfeasible. Our plan was: pay cash. In the case of our most recent bike, that was absolutely literal. I went to the ATM and got out some cash. (It was a cheap bike.) But most cargo bikes are expensive, far beyond even the daily withdrawal limit allowed by ATMs, which I personally have never even come near. And Matt and I are save-y people.

For normal American families who have two cars and are thinking about cargo and family biking, there is often a transition problem. Most people have a fair bit of debt already: cars, student loans, consumer debt, maybe a house (a long shot in San Francisco, more likely elsewhere). If you want to ditch a car and switch to the bike, what do you do in the interim period, while waiting for the money from selling a car when you don’t yet have a bike? If you’re not sure about getting a bike but want to try it out, how do you afford a relatively expensive bike while holding onto the option of driving? Sure, it’s possible to get something cheap on craigslist once you know enough—astonishingly, this has even happened to me—but most people don’t start at that point. I was talking to a lot of people who were interested in trying out this riding-a-bike-with-kids thing but didn’t feel able to throw a thousand dollars in cash, sometimes much more if they lived on a steep hill and needed electric assist, at the idea. And they certainly didn’t have the confidence to try finding a used bike.

These bikes could also be yours: a selection from the awesome Splendid Cycles.

So when I heard that Portland credit unions offered bicycle loans (always Portland!), I thought that sounded very clever. It elevated bicycle purchases to the status of cars or motorcycles by treating them as installment loans, rather than “max out your credit card” loans. And it solved the transition problem of going from a car-using family to a bike-using family. Sure, it involved taking on more debt in the short term, but for families who really used the bike,  they’d start saving money soon enough–less gas, lower insurance rates, the freedom to drop a second car if relevant. And personally, although we believed we were committed, it took several months before we started defaulting to riding a bike with our kids rather than driving the car. And this is true even though getting our car out of our parking place is a nightmare. Finding a way to buy new riders time made sense to me.

How about a Brompton? If you live in PORTLAND, there’s no shortage of choices at Clever Cycles.

So I asked our credit union if they offered bicycle loans. They said no, never even considered it, but tell us more. So I did. They said, huh, interesting, we’ll get back to you. And I assumed I would never hear anything more again. So it was unexpected to say the least when I got an email earlier this week from the CEO of our credit union saying that they had decided to offer bicycle loans starting June 1st, 2012. There is a $5,000 maximum and terms of up to three years (update: the rate is currently 7%). But how cool is that? San Francisco Fire Credit Union is open to all city residents. If you’re looking for a new bike and think a bike loan might make getting it easier, well, now there’s a way.


Filed under advocacy, bike shops, Brompton, cargo, family biking, San Francisco

Bellingham destinations: Kulshan Cycles

Surprise! We visited a bike shop in Bellingham! Unbelievable, right?

There are places in Bellingham that I recognize and places I don’t. It’s been about 20 years since I lived there, and like anywhere else it changes. From my jaded urban perspective many of these changes are improvements; it is possible, for example, to get a decent meal in a restaurant, if you aim squarely at the paper-napkin-but-the-heavy-kind level. With this target firmly in mind we headed one evening to a brewpub. We were not the only people who had this idea, it turned out, and the place was packed; even if the only patrons had been riders of the bicycles parked in front, they wouldn’t have been able to seat us. So they gave us a beeper and told us we could go anywhere within four blocks for the next hour. We took the kids outside because they were being raucous. It was the best decision we could have made, because a block away was Kulshan Cycles.

This is only 1/3 of the store.

Kulshan Cycles was a store that I did recognize. It turns out they’ve been in business in the same location for 37 years, longer than my family has lived in Bellingham. I had a vague memory of going in once before, but whatever I remember pales in comparison to reality. It was in some ways the strangest bike shop I’ve ever visited.

A display like this is always a good sign.

In San Francisco, bike shops specialize. There is a shop that sells only folding bikes, and a shop that only  does repairs, a couple that sell only electric bikes, and about a bazillion that specialize in either mountain bikes or fixies. Bellingham is not big enough to have specialty bike stores. Instead, it has Kulshan, which does absolutely everything. I know just enough about bikes now that I was blown away by the diversity.

We had to drag them off these bikes, literally.

My kids ran to the kids’ bike section. The display bikes in various sizes made the only practical use of training wheels I’ve ever seen—the store had attached them to boards so that kids could use them like stationary bikes. Mine spun on those bikes for about 40 minutes, and it was very easy to see which bike fit each kid. In the meantime I walked around their enormous store, increasingly impressed.

This Brompton featured my high school colors. Nice touch.

They sell Bromptons, and had a display Brompton that I could practice folding and unfolding. And speaking of the UK, they sell Pashleys, which I had only ever heard of before, as heavy 3-speed English bicycles are about as practical as Hummers in San Francisco. They’re not very practical in Bellingham either, which is hilly, but they had one just in case.

Well hello there.

They sell mountain bikes. They sell commuter bikes, and nice ones at that. And they sell many cargo bikes! An orange Batavus Personal Delivery, which I knew listed at over $1000 (later I checked: list is $1300) was on sale for $750! It’s also not a good climber, which perhaps explains the screaming deal. But if you are in the market for a Bat, I’m guessing that even with shipping it would be tough to beat this price. They had a Trek Transport, which I’d never seen in person before. They had nearly every Surly under the sun in stock, but had recently sold their Big Dummy.

Pretty commuter bikes

At this point I had started talking to the guys on the floor. One of them told me he had built his own Xtracycle-type bike the year before the FreeRadical came out, and had put a child seat for his son on it. Then he showed me the child seats they sold; a rack-mounted seat even cheaper than the Topeak (which I now think of as the finger-slicer). They stocked that particular seat because that was what had sold historically, but had ordered and installed Yepp seats for customers recently.

Unicycles: are they more or less practical than fixies? Discuss.

I told them I was blown away by the selection. “Oh, have you seen our overpriced fixies?” they laughed, pulling out a bike painted the same flat black color as cars that speed on country roads late at night with their headlights off. I know nothing about fixies except that they have no gears and that in San Francisco they are primarily ridden by people who hate children, but evidently this one was an exemplar of the genre, as it cost $3000. And this was at a bike shop willing to sell a Bat for almost half-off. In San Francisco I presume it would sell for $5000.

When I told them I was visiting from San Francisco, they asked if I had an electric assist on my cargo bike. Because it turns out that they also sell electric assists, primarily the BionX, and given the local topography, that market has been growing. They had a loaner Trek with a BionX in the back that they let customers use for a few days if they were thinking about electric bikes, and did I want to borrow it? It was very tempting, but that bike didn’t have child seats, and they’d need a day to put them on, and we didn’t have another day.

Trailers and child seats

Would they rent it to me on a future visit? They were willing to consider it. Will I be calling them to try to rent a bike the next time I’m headed to Bellingham? You bet. But if that doesn’t come through, it turns out that there are other shops that rent bikes in town: Fairhaven Bike & Ski (which is the same vintage as Kulshan, and also offers rental trailers), Jack’s Bicycles, and Fanatik, none of which I visited but all of which I will check out if necessary, because the next time we visit Bellingham, we’ll be rolling on two wheels.

My son wanted the Sumo wrestler horn. I told him he already had a horn.

In the meantime, Kulshan has unicycles. They have beach cruisers. They have Sumo bike horns. They have multiple child trailers, which make sense to use outside of major cities. They have t-shirts with bike-friendly messages in sizes down to infant. They had a balance bike displayed on a repair stand, and that made me laugh. The employees were clever and friendly and funny and happy to see kids in the store. I liked Kulshan Cycles. Not every small city has a bike shop like this, but all of them should.

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Filed under bike shops, cargo, commuting, destinations, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, travel

Destinations: Splendid Cycles

Little shop, big idea

I really had no idea what to expect when I visited Splendid Cycles. You can’t tell much about a bike shop will be like from a website (assuming one exists), although you can get a sense of what they sell. And I liked what they were selling. Joel, one of the owners, seemed pretty nice when I emailed him (and turned out to be just as nice in person). Yet visiting the store made it clear how much I have been missing by relying on the internet to learn about cargo bikes.

The average bike shop I have visited tries to have something for everyone, and that often means aiming directly at the market of people who are thinking about getting a bike for the first time. But it is fairly difficult to hit the price point that novices think is reasonable for a new bike (as I’ve mentioned before, based on talking to non-riders, of which there are many up the hill in my neighborhood, that price is: $100). But almost all bike shops seem to have a few bikes near the front door in the $300 range or so, not too overwhelming for the perennially broke college student, but a pretty stripped-down machine by any measure. The other day while chasing down my daughter in a bike shop I overheard a family discussing why two bikes that to their eyes looked identical were priced at $350 and $700 respectively. Like me several months ago, they had no idea.

Ahearne Cycle Truck: not a kid-carrier, but hauls other cargo

However cargo bikes are more expensive than other bikes. At their cheapest, new cargo bikes run about $1,000. The price difference reflects the fact that these bikes are capable of doing much more than carrying a student around campus. When you’re hauling real weight, on other places than the seat, everything has to be somewhat higher quality and differently designed, or you end up like my colleagues who tried to put child seats on their bikes and immediately broke all their spokes. And as cargo bikes become more capable, and as you add more accessories, like child seats and cargo bags, their prices rapidly rocket past that $1000 mark even for the least expensive models.

(As with everything else, handy people have more options. People who feel comfortable working on bikes can pick up bikes or trailers or Xtracycle FreeRadicals on craigslist and turn them into something greater than the sum of their parts. I admire their skill, but I’m not one of these people. And I would guess that in this I’m like most parents, unless by happy coincidence they happen to be bike mechanics or living with one.)

Big Dummy with BionX: definitely a family-friendly bike (also: seating for visitors, nice touch)

Which brings me to Splendid Cycles, because it is the only bike shop I’ve ever seen that is exclusively selling bikes that replace family cars, but that still retain most of the advantages of ordinary bicycles. For our lives right now, visiting Splendid Cycles was a revelation.  We don’t use our bikes just to noodle around the park on weekends (although that’s fun too), we use them to move ourselves and our stuff and our kids around town. I had always assumed that this required certain compromises: going more slowly, adding after-market accessories to make a Franken-bike, giving up going up and down hills, or being unable to get the bike inside if you live above ground floor. You can get a heavy Dutch bike if you live on the ground floor, in the flats, and don’t mind going slowly. Or you can cobble together family bikes from child seats and odds and ends like we’ve done and maneuver through traffic and actually make it up real hills, slowly, if you’re strong. Or you can go to Splendid Cycles and be blown away by seeing a dozen bikes that don’t require you to make those compromises.

Metrofiets cargo bikes

Splendid Cycles carries Metrofiets cargo bikes, which I had heard of but never seen in person before. As cool as they are, I realized immediately when I saw them that a Metrofiets would never fit through our narrow basement door. (Less than one minute in the shop and I’d already justified a trip across Portland.) The Winther Wallaroo looked even better for carrying kids, with outstanding seating, but had the same problem from my perspective: unlikely to make it into our basement. They carry Ahearne Cycle Trucks, which look pretty clever for carrying cargo but are not really designed to carry kids, so those aren’t our bikes either.

They had a Big Dummy, which is designed to haul kids, among other things, and another one of which I used to carry my own kids across Seattle a week later.

Bullitts, both with and without child seat

And rounding out the kid carriers, they had a bike I’d never seen before, the Bullitt. From the perspective of a city rider, this is probably the most interesting bike they sell. The Bullitt is narrow and lightweight; even with the child seat on it could probably be carried it up a flight of stairs. It can make it through traffic pinch points and climb hills. It is not perfect for our needs; the narrow child compartment probably limits its capacity to one of our (now older) kids. On the other hand, you could put a trailer-bike on the back (Joel’s great idea, not mine, he was full of them). It could be a great dad bike, but I can’t imagine riding it while pregnant; it does not have a step-through frame. But if you’re done having kids it would be something to consider.

Wallaroos, rigged for all-weather riding

Walking into Splendid Cycles opened an incredible sense of possibility; there were so many bikes we’d never imagined that could do what we wanted them to do. Our kids would have loved this shop; getting them out of a Wallaroo, once spotted, would be almost impossible. And to top it off, at Splendid Cycles they know a lot about electric assists, which make these bikes reasonable options for people who live on hills. I didn’t understand the strengths and limitations of the BionX and whether it could handle San Francisco elevations when I walked into Splendid Cycles. Now I do, and yes it can. Overall I learned more about both cargo bikes and electric assists in person at Splendid Cycles than I’d learned in hours of reading reviews. It was amazing to be able to talk to Joel, who wasn’t figuring this out as he went along like we’ve been; he’d already thought about what was involved in riding with kids or cargo in traffic and on hills and had put together a half-dozen bikes, which were sitting right there, with electric assists, to solve our kinds of problems.

This kind of expertise and fit for our needs comes at a price. And at one point that kind of price left me in shock, but I now realize that these bikes are worth it. They cost as much as the first car I drove, but that car was a junker, whereas these bikes are as reliable as bicycles can be.  Furthermore, the bikes are more practical for moving around the city than that car. These are true car replacements, except we’d never have to worry about parking again.

Thanks to Matt’s bike maintenance class, we’ve recently learned more about the compromises manufacturers have to make to get the price of cargo bikes down around $1,000 (crappy brakes, tires more likely to get flats, etc.), and we’re now spending money to upgrade the MinUte to become more like the bike we want. So in many cases it’s a choice between paying up front for quality or paying later for repairs and upgrades. There are legitimate reasons to choose one or the other, but it wasn’t a choice we realized we were making at the time.

From my perspective, Splendid Cycles isn’t a Portland destination so much as a destination in its own right. It would justify a trip to Portland by itself for the right family. I met a father from Eugene visiting the shop who’d decided just that. It was definitely worth visiting given that I was already in Portland.

Worth the trip

Joel pointed out that Oregon has no sales tax, and that having Splendid Cycles ship a bike somewhere would cost less than the sales tax in less enlightened locales. I am an employee of the state of California and thus feel guilty for even mentioning such a thing, but for less tormented souls, this is yet another reason to talk to Splendid Cycles about cargo bikes.

There are lots of reasons to be impressed by Portland’s bike culture, but its breadth still amazes me. I never imagined a bike shop like this could exist. Splendid Cycles has put all its chips on our kind of bicycles. It is a bet that the world will change to make space for many families like ours, and that one day hauling kids on bikes will be as unremarkable here in the US as it is in cities like Amsterdam and Copenhagen. I don’t think this will happen here while our kids are young enough to ride on our bikes, and I am envious that Portland can support a shop like this. I wish there was a Splendid Cycles in every city.

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Filed under bike shops, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking

Bicycles in Beijing

Rental tandems in the Huohai lake historic district

While I was riding around Portland and Seattle (more to come), Matt was in China for business. Because he knows I love bicycles, he took some pictures of the ones he saw while he was in Beijing. Most of Beijing is evidently terrifying by any mode of transit, and Matt claims that even standing still and breathing there feels risky. However a portion of the city, the Huohai lake historic district, is off-limits to cars and thus packed with bikes, bikes, bikes. He sent me these photos labeled “Copenhagen East.”

Little bike, big seat

In virtually all of the photos I’ve seen of bikes in China, riders have not shrunk from carrying passengers on bikes, even if said bikes were technically not designed for this purpose. The rear seat on this bicycle is disconcertingly far back on the rear wheel, which must make the bike itself fishtail like crazy. So I find it especially impressive, or alternatively crazy, that the rear seat is large enough that it could almost certainly carry a second adult. And that seat does not lack style. Compared to the sea of gray plastic child seats I see mounted on rear racks in this country, it is a nice change of pace for the child seat to outclass the bike.

Three-seat tandems, city-bike style

But if you really want to ride in style, you can rent a three-seater tandem. Compare these rides to the surreys you see in American parks: there is no comparison. I especially like that they come with fenders, chainguards, and front baskets, as though they were actually viable commuter vehicles, which seems pretty improbable. But it’s nice that that’s the assumption; tandems in this country seem primarily targeted to the road biking set. This is a shame given that kids love tandems.

Really basic bike shop: no walls, no ceiling

By contrast, the bike shops of the lake district are a lot more ad hoc. In Portland they put everything on cargo bikes, and I imagine that this is handy when you have a flat by the side of the road: rolling bike shop to the rescue! But in Beijing a bike shop is evidently a guy on the sidewalk. Despite having a lot less real estate at his disposal than even a tiny San Francisco bike shop, this guy has nonetheless provided customer seating. I thought that was a classy touch.

Maintenance lessons for the next generation

In keeping with the customer-focused theme, the owner of this open-air shop started giving a young customer a bike maintenance lesson while Matt was there snapping photos. I like that they’re working on another mama-bike–you can see it’s balanced on the child seat in the back, and has the usual commuter accessories: fenders, chainguard, front basket. The bikes in all of these photos probably sell for the equivalent of less than $100, and every single one of them is a more practical commuter than over 90% of the fixies I see in San Francisco’s Financial District. The US is a great country, but also crazy.

Soft and Lazy Restaurant, clearly catering to the tourist trade

Unlike me, Matt was not able to bail on many of his business obligations to ride bikes around a strange city, more’s the pity. So his impressions of actually riding a bicycle in Beijing will have to wait for another time–there will be at least two more extended trips this year, and I have faith that eventually he’ll make it out of the taxi. He said he came back feeling much like this perhaps-too-honestly-advertised restaurant. Chinglish: it’s funny because it’s true.

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Filed under bike shops, commuting, destinations, travel

Electric assist: BionX PL350

Portland's bike shops make me want to gut myself in envy

I am not usually good at getting to the point, so let me try here: I am so buying the BionX.

Despite the fact that I have speculated about electric assist a lot, until this week I had never tried one. I knew enough to know that I wanted a pedelec system (which works only when you’re pedaling) rather than an off-on throttle (where pedaling is irrelevant). Otherwise I might as well just buy a scooter. I just want to be a little stronger, so that going uphill is less of a Bataan death march at the end of a long day, or to ride with my daughter to preschool.

Surly Big Dummy with BionX

So before I went to Portland I wrote to Splendid Cycles, knowing that they carried cargo bikes with electric assists. Joel, one of the owners, said I was welcome to take one of their bikes up a hill in Portland (and they do have some hills there). They could not have been nicer, all their bikes are amazing, and most of them would be appropriate for hauling kids and/or cargo up the side of a mountain. I ended up riding a Big Dummy with the BionX PL350, a system widely praised in reviews, apparently the most responsive of pedelec systems. It adds about 17 pounds to the bike, counting both the motor and the battery. (BionX also has a 15 pound version with comparable power and a longer battery life. It costs more.)

Todd on the Bullitt (I took this picture for his wife)

Joel rode an assisted Bullitt, which is very cool in its own right; it was the first box bike I’ve ever seen in person that I have thought would be practical in San Francisco, as it is lightweight and narrow (and fast). Because my kids were already in up in Washington with my mom, I was cargo-less. So I brought my friend Todd along. Todd and I went to grad school together and although we are both pretty junior he’s now the chair of his department at Lewis & Clark. Guess which one of us makes our advisers proud? But he remains a relentlessly good sport about the crazy things that I propose. At 145 pounds, Todd is cargo overkill, the equivalent of almost four kids. But better too much weight than too little; my kids are growing.

Todd doesn’t really ride bikes, so Joel carried him in the Bullitt while I was figuring out how to use the BionX on the way to the hills. And I carried him back to the shop on the Big Dummy.

Most of Portland, to my mind, is pretty flat. The neighborhood streets we first rode on certainly were; on those streets, on an unloaded Big Dummy, turning on the BionX was wildly entertaining, but hardly seemed necessary. You turn it up and you go a little faster. It’s like magically getting stronger without the bother of having to train. There are four levels on the way up, which are activated by pushing the + button. I perceived them as ranging from “I barely notice anything” to “I barely need to pedal.” There are also four levels in the other direction (push the – button), for regenerative braking to charge the battery a little; this was fun, because it meant that I barely needed to use the brakes.

And then we got to the first hill. Todd hopped off the Bullitt and onto the Dummy. From a dead start on an incline, I could barely move the bike. With the assist on level 1, we were moving slowly. And with it ramped up to level 4, getting both of us up the hill was like going up a slight incline with an unloaded bike. It was unbelievable. On the way down, the regenerative brakes slowed us to a crawl even though together with the bike we weighed ~350 pounds.

On the second, steeper, longer hill, still with Todd on board, I was already moving on the way up, and managed to make it about 100 (very painful) feet before I switched on the assist. Near the top of that hill I was back at level 4, moving pretty quickly, and laughing so hard I couldn’t speak. And it was at that point that I realized that I would, if necessary, give up almost anything else I owned to have this assist.

Although there are hills in Portland, the city has built switchback ramps to make the climbing easier. Let us take a moment and contemplate this.

The BionX doesn’t take the experience of hills away; it was still work to get up that second hill. But even with a person who weighs more than I do on the back, on a heavy bike, going up was manageable, and it didn’t make me want to die. It made we want to find an even bigger hill and storm up that one too. I didn’t want Todd to get back in the Bullitt; it was more fun to talk with him on the Dummy. He commented that the motor was completely silent. “If I didn’t know it was there,” he said, “I’d just think you had really strong legs.”

With Todd on board I ended up keeping the assist on level 1 or 2 for the stop signs, even on the flatter ride back. Starting a bike loaded with kids has always been slow for me; it takes time to get that much weight moving. But with the extra boost of the assist, we took off at the intersections at the pace of a racer.

The BionX has some quirks. Some of them are counter-intuitive. It is responsive to pressure on the pedals, so to get more assist on the way uphill, I learned to shift up to a higher gear. The harder I pushed, the harder the motor worked. This happens automatically at intersections, but on the hills sometimes I geared down low enough that I wasn’t getting as much help. I suspect gearing down to reduce the assist would actually be a useful way to train to ride hills unassisted if one were so inclined.

There is an awful lot going on at the right handlebar grip on a BionXed bike; occasionally I found myself changing the assist level when I meant to shift gears, or shifting gears when I’d intended to brake. I’m guessing that this kind of thing is temporary.

Finally, the motor cut out once. We were on a flat street, fortunately, and when I asked Joel what happened he said the sensor had jogged loose. He nudged it and the assist starting working again. There is a reason it is so twitchy, evidently, but I didn’t understand the explanation. However it is also apparently possible to set up the control so that it doesn’t cut out like that.

Todd drove me back downtown after our ride, patiently listening to me babble gibberish, which was something along the lines of “OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD!!!” I couldn’t stop grinning, not even when I was sideswiped by a jogger on the walk back to the hotel. I found myself laughing randomly when I tried to explain what riding with the BionX was like to other people. I’m laughing now.

The BionX would change our lives. A lot of our remaining driving miles are, “No way am I riding up THAT hill” trips. Joel said he’d taken a fully loaded Bullitt+BionX up a 25% grade. We have a hill like that near home and we find alternative routes even when we’re driving. He noted that the BionX could get overheated on steep, extended climbs (>20 minutes) in hot weather, at which point it would reduce the assist level to protect the motor from overheating. But our hills are short and broken-up with stop lights, and it never gets hot in San Francisco. With really serious cargo loads an EcoSpeed would be better, but two kids and groceries are evidently not what people have in mind when they talk about serious cargo.

How much do I love this assist? I would have bought one on the spot if it would work on the Breezer, even if I had had to talk Splendid Cycles into prying one off of a bike in the shop. But I will have to give up my Breezer to use a BionX; it won’t work with an internally geared hub. That’s not going to happen right away—there’s the non-trivial issue of figuring out what bike to ride instead—but it is most assuredly going to happen.


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

San Francisco destinations: Roll San Francisco

Welcome to Roll San Francisco

The bike shop my sister hauled me to on Saturday has an interesting concept. Roll doesn’t sell bicycles as much as it sells services. It’s not a business model I’d ever considered.

Most bike shops, to my mind, are kind of 20th-century enterprises. They tend to have limited websites, if any, and don’t bother to post inventory or prices anywhere. A few lack the attention to cleanliness and presentation that you would find at even the most slovenly used car dealership. Virtually all of them seem naively optimistic about the level of knowledge that new customers bring in the door. These aren’t always bad things—I for one would happily never set foot in a used car dealership again in my life—but they can be off-putting. It had been a long time since I’d ridden a bike when I bought one, and I certainly could have used reminders that I would need a lock and should pump up my tires once a week. There is a certain hobbyist flair to the bicycle shop (and in many cases, bicycle manufacturing) enterprise that leads me to believe that many of the people involved grew up thinking that “business” was a dirty word.

They fix unicycles, don't they? (Because someone asked them to.)

My sister was excited about Roll because the owners have thought about some of these issues. They recognized, rightly I think, that there is an abundance of stores in San Francisco that can sell you a bike, and that they didn’t want to compete with them. They do have a couple of bicycles for sale (literally: they had two bicycles for sale) but they are mostly about what happens after you buy the bike. They’ll repair anything, and by anything I mean that one of their current jobs was blasting the rust off a frame that someone found in an attic, which had been made by his grandfather, which they would then build up into a functioning bike. They posted the prices of all the services they could think of right on their website (admittedly not yet updated to include blasting rust from a 50-year old frame). They are open from 8am to 7pm so that you can drop a non-functioning bike off in the morning before leaving for work, and pick it up on the way home. You can make an appointment in advance online. Transparency! Availability! Online scheduling! What’s not to like?

Front and center

The owner we spoke with, Renita, was a long-time bike commuter who had evidently been saving up a list of her irritations with traditional bike shops for a while. There is, for example, just one other bike shop in the city I know that keeps comparable hours; that is Warm Planet, which is open 7am-8pm M-F because they primarily serve Caltrain commuters (they offer free valet bicycle parking). Traditional bike shop business hours (Renita: “They’re better than banker’s hours”) have annoyed me as well; once when my tire was low after I arrived at work, I figured I might as well pick up a pump to keep at the office. But the bike shop near my office didn’t officially open until 2pm, and I was warned that I’d be lucky if they actually showed up by then. I had a class to teach that afternoon, so I ended up getting a pump during lunch at the hardware store in Laurel Village. Good thing I don’t have Presta valves.

Bicycle surgical unit, complete with sink to scrub in

I mostly spoke to Renita, because Sam, the mechanic, was keeping busy working on bikes. They are evidently doing a land-office business, because they just hired a second full-time mechanic. The shop was packed with bikes when we came in, but it was not overwhelming. Renita was justifiably proud of their setup, noting that they wanted to put the bike stands and tools up front, where everyone could see them, rather than hidden in the back. There is a back cubby, however, where they do all the scary things that no one wants to watch that involve tools like saws. I could not help thinking of this room as the operating theater.

Step up to the bar

She was also proud that they had something else I had never seen in a bicycle shop before: seating and books, as well as a television that played bike-oriented shows (at the time we were there, an incredibly boring bike race). I am used to standing around bike shops waiting to be helped and staring at the walls by now, but have never enjoyed it. Including seating was an inspired move, particularly given that they wanted a space where women and kids would feel welcome. My sister and I agreed: mission accomplished. They even have a child seat in stock, a Topeak. It’s not the model I would have chosen (either Bobike or Yepp would be better) but it’s nice that they made the effort.

And they aren’t snobs. Like Sosuke in Ponyo, they love all the bicycles. Hence the custom Seven we spotted between two decidedly-not-custom bikes, a Giant and a Cannondale.

The frame-mounted front rack, my new Holy Grail

When I saw the front rack on a Storck (which I was told was the only aluminum frame Storck model, like I would know that Storck primarily makes carbon bikes, which I guess I know now) I asked if they installed frame-mounted front baskets. Sure, she said, they had a metal fabricator on call that could create one and add it to any bike. (I’ve since realized that a Soma Gamoh would serve our needs more than adequately. But FYI.)

We don’t live anywhere near Potrero Hill and getting to this shop would be a five-mile slog for us. This would not be ideal if our bikes actually needed repair, but I understand why locals seem to be swarming it. My sister has a bike mechanic hanging out at home in the form of my brother-in-law, but I imagine she’ll be back for larger jobs he’d prefer not to do. Overall, although I can’t speak to the quality of their work from just wandering around taking pictures, I was impressed. This is a different kind of bike shop, and it’s different in a good way.


Filed under bike shops, destinations, San Francisco