Category Archives: destinations

A weekend in the country

We stopped at Sonoma Train Town en route. Even the kids had a moment of disconnect about driving to the train.

We stopped at Sonoma Train Town en route. Even the kids had a moment of disconnect about driving to the train.

Last weekend we went to visit cousins in Santa Rosa while Matt and our son attended a martial arts tournament. It’s been a while since we left the city and it’s always interesting. All of our cousins shun life in the city, choosing instead to live in homes that range from exurban to aggressively rural. These particular cousins live way, way out in the country, which is a good fit for their interest in activities like developing their own orchard, building a deck larger than our entire living space (with integrated bocce court), keeping goats, and collecting rural-type things that I can’t identify and that must be explained to me. In turn, they stare in disbelief at the news that we no longer own a car. We like them very much.

However it is an unbelievable haul to get to their place. We rented a car, as they are nowhere near any kind of transit (when I asked for a transit route on Google maps the final step after four hours of proposed bus rides was: take a taxi for the last 20 miles) and riding a bike would be about a 12 hour trip each way in the unlikely event that the kids didn’t melt down, which they totally would.

We loved the quiet at their house, which sent us all packing to bed before 10pm. Our current place is great in many ways, but now that we are going to have to move anyway, we have been thinking a lot about what we want in a new place to live, and the main thing is quiet (although we are also looking for a neighborhood that does not have the word “mountain” or “heights” in its name). Our old apartment was in the back of its building and the only noise we ever heard was an occasional fog horn.  Now we live right on a street with five bus lines running down it, and we are next to the hospital, and all day and all night we hear the howling of ambulances and the WOOSH of bus air brakes and everyone gunning their engines to get up the steep hill and cars whizzing back down. I don’t even want to talk about the neighbors with the gongs. Surely they have a special place in hell reserved for them already. Anyway, we loved the quiet up there.

The entertainment value of dressing up in sparring props lasted less than an hour.

The entertainment value of dressing up in sparring props lasted less than an hour.

We didn’t love the time we had to spend in the car. It seemed like a 40 minute drive to get from any place in Santa Rosa to any other place (cousins’ house to martial arts tournament, martial arts tournament to farmers market for our daughter who rapidly lost patience with the competition, martial arts tournament to lunch, etc.) There are a lot of bikes in Santa Rosa, which is beautiful, sunny, and incredibly flat. But the distances seemed daunting. The riders who commuted despite them impressed me. One stopped by the side of our rental car (which was emblazoned with the City CarShare logo), very excited, to ask where we’d picked it up. When I told her we had come from San Francisco she was crushed. “I was afraid of that,” she said. “I wish they’d come up here!”

I like Santa Rosa, but we are used to living in the city, and it seemed empty to me (although the novelty of being able to park everywhere we took a car was amusing). Even the farmers market seemed small, as well as more crafts-oriented than food-oriented, which surprised me given that it’s an agricultural area. There was also a new-to-us hostility to organic food there. All of the market vendors were happy to report that they did not use pesticides and discuss their farming methods, but the Ron Paul yard signs and “Live free or die!” ethos apparently meant that getting certified by the government as organic was not high on their to-do list.

When we came home we were all sore from sitting for so long. I got on the bike to pick up some cheese and crackers and hummus (in our own glass jars, more to come on this topic), just to get moving again. Our local cheese shop is definitely not the kind of place to try to visit by car, as even when I’m on the bike I have to dodge double-parked cars all the way.  But there’s always bike parking right by the front door. It’s so cold in the city in February that my fingers always freeze, even under two pairs of gloves, but it’s still a pleasure to ride again, every time I go out.

We were happy to return to San Francisco, but we’ll be back to visit again. It was nice to get a good night’s sleep.

[Last but not least: Thank you, internet! We’d been asking JCCSF to install new bike racks for months, and were being blown off as recently as Tuesday. After Wednesday’s post, I got an email that evening saying that they’ll be installing 6 new custom bike racks that will hold 12 bikes. In addition, they’re going to try letting parents have keycode access to a locked courtyard with an additional bike rack for preschool and after school drop-offs and pickups. We are thrilled! I know that some readers wrote to to JCCSF on our behalf and it is very much appreciated.]

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Bicycles in New York

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt's company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

This ridiculously hipster hotel is where Matt’s company put him up. He called it the porno fantasy hunting lodge.

Matt spent last week in New York. While he was there, he remembered that what I always want is pictures of bicycles in new places.  There has been lots of discussion of New York City’s commitment to creating major-league cycling infrastructure. From Matt’s admittedly very short-term visitor’s perspective, they’ve been successful.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

You too can ride the streets of New York.

When we went to Copenhagen in 2011, we had no idea that it was one of the bicycling capitals of the world. Probably the only reason we even bothered to get on bikes at all was that bike rentals were advertised on literally every corner. And what a life-changer that turned out to be. To rent our bikes all we had to do was cross the street to the shop directly in front of our apartment and ask. We delayed even that for a while because we assumed they wouldn’t be able to put child seats on our bikes, which was silly in retrospect. We could have spared ourselves days of tedious walking just by asking. New York has enough of a cycling culture now that bike rentals were everywhere too. Alas, no bike share yet.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

I have yet to see cycling infrastructure this good in San Francisco.

San Francisco has a separated cycle track in Golden Gate Park, but it’s not protected from cars by anything but paint. Neighbors also objected to painting the bike lane green to differentiate it from parking, claiming that it would look too obtrusive (in a park!) I like the lanes in the park anyway, but the protected lanes on Broadway in NYC make them look pathetic.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

Bikes only; the rest of you can circle endlessly.

I rode to downtown San Francisco last Friday afternoon. It took less than 20 minutes door to door in the middle of Christmas shopping season, and I parked right in front of the building in the middle of Union Square. Ha ha! I made excellent time in part because for several blocks I was able to ride through intersections where right turns were signed as mandatory for everyone except buses, bicycles, and commercial vehicles. New York has evidently made the same decision to prioritize cycle traffic in the middle of town.

A "Do not enter" sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A “Do not enter” sign for bicycles is a new one for me too.

A different sign Matt found I’ve never seen in San Francisco: the “Bicycle Wrong Way” sign. I have some doubts about whether anyone pays the slightest attention to it, as I suspect no one here would. But it’s nice to be recognized as traffic, even if it is a don’t-go-here signal.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Nothing stops the angle grinder, except maybe the death penalty.

Some things are the same in both New York and San Francisco, however. Bike theft is rampant both places. New Yorkers, I’m sorry to say that not even a hardened chain will protect your bike from a guy with an angle grinder. We learned that the hard way.

New York City: it’s no São Paulo. It looks like a good place to ride a bike. I hope we get to try it sometime.

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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.

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Riding to the Bicycle Music Festival

The Bicycle Music Festival at Log Cabin Meadow

On Saturday, Matt headed off to China for work again. Saturday was also the last day I spent with my son before his departure for grandma (and grandpa) camp in Berkeley. After three weeks at wheelkids, what he wanted to do with the day was show off his new bike riding skills. Okay by me! So after the morning rush of seeing Matt off, and my daughter’s afternoon nap, we rode down to Golden Gate Park for the Bicycle Music Festival.

Pedal!

The Bicycle Music Festival has amplified music, but it’s all bicycle-powered. I had hoped that kids would have the opportunity to ride the generator-bikes, but they all seemed custom, and sized only for adults. And incidentally, I have never seen so many electric assist bicycles in one place in my life. If they’re electric-assist bicycles, is the festival really human-powered? Certainly I can’t imagine any other way to manage the musical parade across town, but it’s an interesting philosophical question.

Is it a picnic or a bicycle festival? Even hundreds of bicycles are unobtrusive.

Pretty much everyone came to the Bicycle Music Festival by bicycle, and brought them onto the Log Cabin Meadow with them. And yet, although the numbers of bicycles were visually impressive, it looked nothing like its closest automobile equivalent, which to me would be tailgating. A group of people with an equal number of bicycles looks like a big picnic. A group of people with an equal number of cars looks like a parking lot full of cars.

Haven’t we seen you somewhere before?

These days we are starting to recognize some of our neighborhood bikes and we’re in that odd place where we nod to acquaintances when we recognize their bikes, although we don’t really know them. It’s like that weird relationship you end up having with other dog owners at the dog park or other parents at the children’s playground.

Riding in the JFK bike lane (the portion open to cars)

It turned out that the actual music at the Bicycle Music Festival was not that attractive to kids, or at least it wasn’t at the time we came. My son could not have less interest in spoken word/rap, even if it was ostensibly about bicycles. Instead he rode around for a while through the field, winding around other bicycles in a self-guided obstacle course. I had no idea he’d picked up off-road riding at camp.

The kids did like this Mundo converted to sound stage. I wouldn’t ride it without an electric assist either.

He quickly grew tired of the festival and asked to ride around the park more. Now that it’s summer, most of JFK Drive is closed off to cars on both Saturday and Sunday, so no problem. We rode to the waterfall and back, and then headed home.

I was initially nervous about taking our son on actual streets to and from Golden Gate Park, but three weeks at wheelkids seems to have worked something close to a miracle. He now rides a straight line, stops at stop signs before the line without falling over, uses hand signals, and watches oncoming traffic. He’s not perfect (he’s six!) but I was impressed.  On hills he stands to get leverage, and although he couldn’t make it home without walking—it’s a single-speed bicycle—he rode a good portion of it. And he got back on the bike for the last stretch near home. He’s not ready for the traffic and hills on the route to school, but he’s closer than I would have hoped. I give full props to wheelkids for this, because we came nowhere near teaching him this stuff on our own. And he loved it.

Check it out! Stopped at a stop sign all by himself!

When we got home, we headed out for sushi and noodles at our neighborhood joint. And who showed up but Adrienne from Change Your Life, Ride A Bike! It was great to meet her; reading her stories about riding with her youngest in San Francisco is part of what gave us the confidence to try riding with our kids in the city. Big city, small world.

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Filed under destinations, electric assist, family biking, rides, San Francisco, Yuba Mundo

Mission Sunday Streets with Loop-Frame Love

People of the family bike en route to Mission Sunday Streets

This year, Sunday Streets is in the Mission four months in a row. Sunday Streets in San Francisco has become so popular since it started in 2008 that it will happen twice in July–both in the Mission and in the Bayview/Dogpatch, down near my sister and brother-in-law’s condo. We are so there.

But the June Mission Sunday Streets was special. Gil Penalosa, credited with founding the entire Sunday Streets movement in 1995 when he developed Bogota’s Ciclovia, came to visit San Francisco to see Mission Sunday Streets (the Chronicle article I linked is appallingly dismissive, referring to Penalosa as a “wobbly” cyclist, which I doubt very much, but anyway). And Loop-Frame Love came down from Seattle to visit us! Okay, she was really in town for a conference, but close enough. I am sort of spacey at times and hadn’t realized that she was a scientist [swoon] but it meant we had three things to talk about: bicycles, kids, and science! How cool is that? Please come back soon, Loop-Frame Love, and stay longer next time. San Francisco has been very good to us, but it lacks Seattle’s incredible family biking community. We’re working on it.

Loop-Frame Love gives our daughter a lift uphill.

Our last visit to Mission Sunday Streets was great, but June’s Sunday Streets was even more impressive. There were thousands more people and many more family bikes out. This time we did not miss the capoeira demonstration. One of our son’s classmates who lives nearby is in one of the children’s classes and took a turn, and we saw some other friends there, including the school librarian. Our PTA president was there (sans triple tandem). From there we returned to Dynamo Donuts at the other end of the route, then turned around to go back.

Because we started much later in the day this year, on our way back we saw the streets reopening to cars. It was sadder than I had thought it would be. A police car and two motorcycles swept down the street with lights and sirens shooing happy pedestrians onto the sidewalk, where they piled up in crowds that struggled to move. On a few side streets people resisted. It is surprisingly depressing to watch a living street return to being a dead space. Cars use streets but they don’t interact with them. No one dances in a street occupied by moving cars.

New sharrow marker along the Wiggle: you can’t miss it.

Loop-Frame Love rode the Brompton (sans IT Chair) most of the afternoon. We also got to show off the new sharrow markers in the Wiggle, which make the route much, much clearer. There have been complaints about the shade of green, which is indeed very jarring. But given that drivers around this area routinely drive into the Muni tunnels despite warning signs, speed bumps, and the absence of a road, then get stuck for hours and block the trains, my sense is there is no much thing as too much visibility on any San Francisco street. That is, unless it is a Sunday Street, and there are not yet nearly enough of those.

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Vacation: all I ever wanted

In 1st grade, our son learned to love reading

Last week my son finished first grade (this beggars belief, but is nonetheless good). When he finished kindergarten last year, we learned that summer camps in San Francisco typically take a week’s breather between the end of the school year and the first week of camp, which left us scrambling. This year we decided to sidestep this issue by staying home with our kids and goofing off all week.

Here comes trouble.

Matt and our son started the weekend off with a bang by driving to Reno for a martial arts tournament on Friday afternoon. My daughter and I headed to the 2nd annual Rosa Parks end-of-the-school-year Parental Happy Hour at the Park Chalet in Golden Gate Park. Although it was odd to be there without my son, we had a great time. My daughter spent most of the time there filching French fries from other families’ baskets and feeding them to unwitting toddlers. Then she ran out into the road (not closed to cars on Fridays) and I decided it was time to head home.

Headed to dinner and a movie in the Tenderloin

On Sunday we rode to the Golden Gate Bridge’s birthday party. On Monday we rode down the Great Highway to the zoo and back. On Tuesday we walked to the children’s playground at Golden Gate Park and rode the carrousel, and then headed out for the first date night we’ve had in, uh, a really long time. During which time a couple of bikes went back to the shop again. So on Wednesday we went back to the beach to build sandcastles—by that point, only the southbound side of the Great Highway was closed.

Taking a break from the swans at the Palace of Fine Arts

On Thursday we went to the Palace of Fine Arts and the Exploratorium—by car, this time, as Matt was not yet ready to face the Presidio hill again. After a long afternoon spent playing with sand and fog and building PythagoraSwitch, we finally talked the kids into heading home. Our daughter was thrilled on the way out to see “A PINK PRINCESS!” It was a lovely young lady celebrating her quinceanera, who was indeed dressed up like a princess, right down to the tiara.

Alas, we did not get the bike-in discount on this trip.

On Friday we drove with one of our son’s friends from school and his sister to Pescadero to pick strawberries. The boys were diligent pickers, and filled up three flats between them. Their sisters took a more relaxed approach. My daughter’s strategy was to walk up to me and ask me to give her some berries to fill her basket. Then she would sit down and eat them all. I have to admit that this was efficient.

Demonstrating the commitment to eating strawberries.

Ultimately we ended up with five flats of strawberries, only two of which we managed to pass off to our friends, and despite making freezer jam, a strawberry cake, strawberry mimosas, and freezing an entire flat of strawberries for some to-be-determined future use, in addition to serving strawberries at every meal and for random snacks, we still have unbelievable quantities of strawberries lying around, not to mention two boys that will not stop asking when we can go berry picking again, and who will eat strawberries until they gag and clench their stomachs in agony if you make the mistake of saying, “Not until we finish the ones we have already.”

Excavating the back yard with a jackhammer

On Saturday we went to visit another of my son’s classmates, who was celebrating his seventh birthday. Like my office, his home is located on the site of one of San Francisco’s former cemeteries, and over spring break, while digging in the back yard at random, he found a big rock that father identified as marble. For his birthday party, he wanted to dig up what he had decided was his tombstone. So that’s what we did. Another dad from school, who works at a major construction rental firm, brought a jackhammer, and everyone dug out the rock.

This is unquestionably from the former cemetery.

It turned out that it was in fact a grave marker. Random tombstones are evidently not uncommon in the city. When San Francisco moved all the graves to Colma, the workers at the time evidently often chose the move-the-bodies-but-leave-the-big-heavy-rocks-in-the-ground approach. The kids spent the rest of the party cleaning out the inscription, while the birthday dad began researching the identity of the deceased and the question of what exactly you do with a tombstone dug up for your son’s seventh birthday. This was unquestionably the most memorable birthday party I have ever attended.

Spotted at Sunday Streets: kid sleeping in Xtracycle FreeLoader

Our last day of vacation was a return to Mission Sunday Streets. This is always great by itself, but was even better with a visit from Jen of Loop-Frame Love, who was visiting San Francisco for a conference. Our son was delighted to see another classmate’s family performing in the capoeira demonstration (and some friends watching from the sidelines), and as usual we hit the doughnut shop. Our PTA president, who was there with their triple tandem, took my mamachari for a test ride and loved it (ha!) Sunday Streets was even more packed than last month, and it was sad to see the party on the streets die off as cars appeared again at the end of the afternoon. So we rode home to catch a last dinner with some of our favorite neighbors, who are, alas, moving to Marin.

Capoeira!

Although I stayed up too late most nights, I am not sure, after this week, that I will ever be able to convince myself to leave San Francisco again. This city is unmatchable. This week, our son starts bike camp. And on the weekend we are going camping with the tombstone family and some other friends from school—we will of course haul our supplies to the campsite by cargo bike. And I can’t wait to find out what will happen next.

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Filed under Brompton, cargo, destinations, family biking, rides, San Francisco

Happy 75th birthday, Golden Gate Bridge!

Hello, gorgeous!

If you live in San Francisco, you know that Sunday was the 75th birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge. We love this bridge. We have walked across it with our kids (although oddly, we have never ridden across it on the west side bike path). Matt and I have both had peek-a-boo views of the bridge from unlikely corners of old apartments. And we know the best hidden places on campus to watch the fireworks—either on the Fourth of July or on the bridge’s anniversary. Living on a mountain is not without its advantages. On Sunday, after our kids went to sleep, it was not possible for us to head out to see them, but you could hear them all over the city. I haven’t heard cheering like this since the Giants won the World Series (outcasts and misfits represent!)

No cars allowed

At the end of 30 days of biking, I said that I realized that our bicycles made us free. The crowds and traffic that mark every summer event in San Francisco have always overwhelmed us. This is no longer the case. This weekend was marked by an unbelievable confluence of street closures, including:

  • The main streetcar lines in the city, representing the western and southern trunk lines, are shut down and the roads they travel on closed for construction, with massive police presence for enforcement,
  • One East Bay bridge closure,
  • A partial shutdown of the Golden Gate Bridge for its birthday,
  • The closure of the entire Presidio (the park around Golden Gate Bridge) to cars in recognition of same, again with the massive police presence,
  • A Carnaval parade in the Mission,
  • The usual Sunday closure of Golden Gate Park to cars.

Looking back at drivers who Did Not Get The Memo

None of these things affected us on our bikes. We were waved through barricades all over the city.

Matt and our son spent the first half of the weekend in Reno at a martial arts tournament. When they returned they wanted to get dim sum. And the kids’ shoes had actual holes in them, so we could no longer put off replacing them. And I wanted to visit the Golden Gate Bridge Festival in the Presidio, just because it seemed like the right thing to do. Historically, this is the kind of travel that we used the car for—unavoidable hills are all over this route. But with every news source and person we knew shrieking, “DON’T DRIVE ON SUNDAY!” we rode. And it was fantastic.

Bikes backed up at the end of the running race (nice Mundo)

Our preferred dim sum restaurant is near our old apartment, on the other side of Golden Gate Park, and parking a car there is a nightmare—but the bike racks in front of the restaurant? Unclaimed. On Sunday morning, riding through the closed-to-cars streets of Golden Gate Park on the way there is also unbelievably pleasant. There were hundreds of runners in the park, some of whom actually tried to race me. This is ridiculous. Even I, with a kid on the back of a heavy bicycle, can effortlessly outpace a fast runner. It turned out they were there for a footrace, and the finish line backed up the bicycles heading out of the park, so I guess the runners got their own back. I ended up behind a Yuba Mundo dad carrying two skateboards for his sons, one of whom was riding on the rear deck.

Looking down at the bridge festival

After dim sum we headed into the Presidio for the bridge festival. This was billed as an afternoon-to-evening event, but one of my yoga teachers was offering a sunrise class for the festival so I knew it was an all-day affair, and I figured it was better for the kids to get there early before the crowds got thick. On the way we passed the house of some of our son’s classmates who live in the Presidio and while catching up, played in their backyard, which has stunning views of the ocean and the coast. On the way in we also saw the first wave of unwitting drivers being turned away at the gates; this was a sight that would become familiar by afternoon.

Playing on the beach under the bridge

At the Presidio people were already staking out spots for the evening fireworks. Because we had no ambitions on that front we just watched the battleship Nimitz head under the bridge, and the fireboats spout water, and the kids built sandcastles on the beach. There was bike parking everywhere and three food plazas filled with representatives from food carts throughout the city—for once, we’d hit an event with organic ice cream and paella instead of cheap soft serve and nachos.

Family Bilenky!

And most of the people we saw once we reached the park had heeded the advice not to drive, so, oh, the bikes we saw. I have never seen so many tandems (most were rentals). I saw an amazing cargo bike, with a flat bed in the front and a child seat in the back. “I love your bike!” I yelled, “What IS it?” It turned out to be a custom Bilenky, made in Philadelphia. The dad riding it had bought it when he lived in Manhattan. Now that he lived in the Presidio, he could ride it along the waterfront, but he was frustrated that it couldn’t handle hills and was thinking about an electric assist.

Hebb electric bicycle

At our next stop, fittingly, we saw a Hebb electric bicycle, and when I asked the woman riding about it, she told me that she used it to commute from the outer Avenues to her office on the top of Nob Hill (some of the steepest grades in the city, which make the hills around our place look like gentle slopes). She obviously loved her bicycle. It is not my kind of electric assist—the Hebb has a front hub motor that is independent of the pedaling, rather than a pedal assist—but it was the right bike for her commute. She even offered to let me ride it, which was very sweet, but in the crowds, given my inexperience and the potential speed of that bike on the flats, it seemed too risky.

My spendthrift road-bike adviser leaves us in the dust.

We rode back out of the Presidio to the kids’ shoe store, which was the emptiest we’ve ever seen it as everyone was headed toward the bridge by then. And we rode home down my normal commute route, meeting some road bikers along the way, who were entertained by our child-hauling ways. One of them told us we should make the kids work and get a tandem like he had for his kids: a Co-Motion, which can handle huge height differentials like those between parent and child, and can climb serious hills. I told him my brother-in-law had told us the same thing (he has!) but it was a pricey bike. “Think of it as a car replacement,” he told me. “The maintenance cost for a car is over $3,000 a year. That means you can buy an expensive bike every year instead and still come out ahead!” I told him my brother-in-law had used that logic for a decade and it was not making my sister happy.

I was so bummed that this stand was not actually selling chalk, glass, and ice. Just mildly spicy food.

When we got back near home we stopped by Everybody Bikes to pick up my Breezer, which was ready at last after a week. The shop was dead when we arrived, but things picked up 15 minutes later as a half-dozen people piled in after discovering their bikes had flat tires after months in the garage. They were all planning to ride those bikes to the bridge festival. Usually, our neighborhood is packed on weekends, but it was clearing out.

In past years, we would have avoided the bridge festival if we could, fearing the crowds and the traffic. Golden Gate Bridge itself would never have missed us, I know; it is, in the end, just cables and steel. But I feel better having gone. Celebrating the places we love with everyone else in the city is what makes us part of San Francisco. And on our bikes, I feel like we belong here.

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Wine country weekend

Calistoga=hot springs+vineyards+palm trees

On Saturday I met my sister and we headed to the wine country for a long ride. This was my first attempt at driving somewhere to ride a bike. I’ll admit that it was a little overwhelming.

As things head into summer, the wine country gets more and more crowded. Napa in particular turns into a parking lot on the one highway rolling through it, as everyone is trying to go to the same places on a single road. I hadn’t been there in summer for years, not since a visit in graduate school with friends where we ended up sitting in traffic for four hours at the end of the day while watching cars pull over to disgorge visibly drunk passengers (and sometimes drivers) who threw up at the side of road. What is it with driving and vomiting?

Road closed (to cars): no problem!

But the wine country is pretty and it seemed like a nice way to spend a few hours with my sister without interruption. It took longer than I remembered to get up north, with all the traffic, but I didn’t mind much because the company was good. When we got to Calistoga, the road was closed. No problem! We headed away from the town center until it was easy to park, then rode our bikes back.

Walking around looking at muscle cars: this seemed weird.

It turned out that the road was closed for a classic/muscle car festival. The irony inherent in closing off the street so that people could walk around and look at cars amused me.

At any rate, by the time we finished lunch and started riding it was pretty late. But it was still extremely hot, around 90 degrees. Living in San Francisco, west of the fog line, I haven’t been within 10 degrees of that temperature in years. So I was moving pretty slowly.

One of Calistoga’s rare and pretty bike paths

To my surprise, the wine country does not offer much in the way of dedicated bike paths. So we mostly rode on the road, which offered a marked bike lane in the form of the road shoulder. Sometimes it was generous and sometimes it was narrow (like 8” wide along a rock wall). Mostly the pavement was smooth, but sometimes it was so rough it set my bell ringing. There were hills, the long and rolling kind, but that was fine. The heat was overwhelming for me, though.

My sister shows off one of the rare winery bike racks we spotted

And then there were the drivers. People go to the wine country to drink. And they drive from winery to winery. The inevitable result is drunk driving. I came to appreciate the sight of limos, as they were almost guaranteed to be driven by sober people, who obeyed the speed limit, did not honk at people on bicycles (or to be fair, other cars), or swerve unpredictably.

What, St. Helena? No bike racks?

My sister had planned a route of 22 miles, but we agreed after riding a little while that we should cut the ride short. We had stopped a couple of wineries by then, and one even had a bike rack. We had seen some entertaining and quintessentially California sights, like palm trees growing in the middle of vineyards. I had my first experience of hitting a head wind so strong that I had to pedal down a long hill, which I actually enjoyed because it cooled me off. From a bike, wineries look oddly out of scale, like Vegas-sized attractions, given that they’re meant to catch the attention of people whizzing by at 50 miles per hour. We headed to St. Helena to visit a bakery and chocolate shop and then turned back. Our shortcut ended up being 23 miles in total. Oops! Numb hands, numb seat.

My attempt to get a shot of the Silverado Trail sign

Would I go back to the wine country for a bike ride? Probably not, but it was still fun. Bike rides are always fun. And I liked having several uninterrupted hours of adult conversation with my sister. But it was too much driving for too little biking, and the drunk driving was unnerving. Next time I think we’ll ride around the city visiting wine bars.

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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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Families ride!

We love Seattle!

When Stacy at A Simple Six heard I was headed up to Seattle for spring break, she introduced me to Family Ride (she knows everyone!) We don’t have much opportunity to ride our bikes with other families in San Francisco. We have friends who ride with their kids to school, and we see them on the playground in the morning, but there are no city rides along the lines of Kidical Mass, unless you count Bike to School Day, which I don’t, really, as it is once a year. Anyway people in San Francisco tend to flinch when they hear anything that sounds like “Critical Mass” in this city; its reputation is mixed at best. I know I do. So I’d only taken my kids on a ride with friends just for the fun of it once before, when we had the Yuba. But after spending the day with Family Ride, I wish San Francisco had more kid rides, even if they were called Spawn of Critical Mass.

All lathered up after a nice long ride in the rain

We didn’t have much choice about the day we visited; my mom works in Seattle one day each week, so that’s when we went. After scoring incredible good fortune weather-wise while in Portland and during most of my stay with my mom, my luck finally ran out when we headed to Seattle. It rained the entire time we were in the city. I grew up in the constant drizzle of the Pacific Northwest, and although generally I find any non-temperate climate appalling and think that central heat is a wonder of the modern age, I can handle drizzle. Unfortunately I didn’t think to pack rain clothes. My kids spent the entire ride in rain gear cobbled out of garbage bags. I got wet. And soapy! Evidently the rinse cycle on our washer leaves something to be desired, because after a couple of hours pedaling in the rain, my pants actually began to lather up. I was glad I packed a change of clothes.

Four little monkeys

Despite all of this, we had a great time. Family Ride was an awesome host, arranging a ride with multiple stops to dry out and refuel the kids. Mine were on what I think of as “vacation strike” and eating a diet that consisted largely of chocolate chip cookies. But a stop at Theo Chocolate led them to expand their horizons by consuming several handfuls of chocolate samples as well. Theo Chocolate was an inspired stop; the kids clambered on the bike rack and had to be coaxed inside. My son was so enamored that he spent the entire trip home telling me about his plans to open a Theo Chocolate branch in San Francisco when he grew up.  I only wish that we had taken the tour, because he has little understanding of the chocolate making process and wants to start trying to create new flavors at home, and it is difficult to communicate to him that the specialized equipment involved makes this the kind of thing you need a factory to develop. Plus I have no idea how to import cacao beans for personal use.

Let's think of some other things that start with C... oh, who cares about the other things! C is for Cookie!

The end of the line was a Dutch bike shop, complete with café and a return to chocolate chip cookies. This was the first time I’d been in a Dutch bike shop, and it was interesting—all the bikes there looked great for riding in the flats, but improbable for hills. Family Ride told me she knew a mom who actually had a bike like this and lived on a hill, and she walked it home every day. I don’t think I could live like that. From there we turned around and headed back. The official detour for the closed path was on a sidewalk, and it felt like living dangerously to ride there, as this is totally illegal in San Francisco.

My kids were both wildly impressed with the pink bike

How good a host is Family Ride? She let us ride her new pink Big Dummy for the day! It is a great bike, and although I did not come anywhere near testing its capacity to haul stuff, it carries two kids with ease. I felt very lucky, and also tried very hard not to drop it. I was successful, although the turning radius was wider than I expected. Keeping the seat down helped me maneuver it.

Guess which hill? There's no way to ride on it.

I also got a taste of Seattle hills, which are different than San Francisco’s but challenging nonetheless. Here the hills tend to be either steep and short or long and shallow. In Seattle they were long and moderate—10 or more blocks at a time of real climbing. None of it is so steep as to be impossible, but after the first three or four blocks, the prospect of going another six or seven feels very grim indeed. I’m pretty impressed that Family Ride does this every day with two kids on deck.

30 days of biking: almost as crazy as Theo Chocolate calling their World Bicycle Relief bicycle "not a bike"

Talking with Family Ride was what tipped me over the edge to try 30 Days of Biking, even though it was going to require a commitment to do some things that normal people would consider genuinely crazy, like haul my bike to Sacramento so I could ride around the block while attending a conference where I could not, this time, avoid several sessions and visit bike shops. But if Family Ride could go around the block before midnight in pajamas the first year to make all 30 days, hauling a bike to Sacramento and barely riding it seemed like small beans by comparison. She said that 30 Days of Biking was what made her the hard-core bike commuter that she is today—and she rides everywhere, at all hours. It is very impressive. I’m still a reluctant night rider and whine about hills. But with such a good example, maybe I can get better.

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