Another December means another trip to get a Christmas tree by bike. So far we have failed to match the experience of carrying a tree by bike that we had in the first year, which was laughably easy. Last year the tree fit in the bike just fine, but Matt dropped the Bullitt and lost one of the support struts holding up the rain canopy, which left the kids miserably cold until we got the new part. That meant the post-tree hauling experience was less than fun.
Christmas tree on bike, yet again
So this year we switched back to the MinUte because I was paranoid about losing a support strut again, even assuming that we removed the canopy in the garage. It turns out that a midtail is great for a smaller tree, but a 7-foot tree with attached stand is a bit beyond the scope of our bike. Matt rode for part of the trip and walked the bike for part of it. The tree was firmly attached with bungees, but so back-heavy that the bike wanted to do wheelies. Maybe it would work if we were heavier riders. Next year, it’s back to the Bullitt (with an extremely careful removal of the canopy and full parts inventory before departure).
Moving up: two kids on a Brompton, now aged 8 and 4
However we did resurrect last year’s tradition of me riding the kids home on the Brompton. This was a bigger challenge than last year given that I’m not as strong as I used to be. For the last hill my son jumped off and walked with the tree-bike, so I was only carrying my daughter. Ultimately I made it up a decent hill on an unassisted bike with my daughter, who is now pushing 45 pounds, in the front seat. Not bad.
Although I tend to think bringing a tree home by bike is nothing special when I see all the cargo biking families who’ve posted pictures of themselves doing the same thing, it is evidently still pretty avant-garde here in San Francisco, because the lot manager recognized us from previous years. He did report that some families bring their tree home on scooters. And although our hauling strategy has not yet been perfected, it still beats waiting for one of the hotly contested spots in the parking lot and vacuuming a gazillion pine needles out of the car, an experience which historically made us reluctant to buy a tree at all. It is a big deal that we’ve now had some kind of tree three years in a row, as we’re (a) technically a Jewish family and (b) pretty lazy about the whole getting-stuff aspect of the holidays (my kids typically score socks for Christmas). In my defense, though, I always take the two weeks of school holidays off and spend gobs of time with the kids.
We need happi coats if we’re going to join the mochi pounding crew.
On Sunday we went to our daughter’s preschool for a winter concert and mochitsuki, which was a bit early for a mochitsuki but pretty incredible nonetheless. Watching a pile of sushi rice turn into a gelatinous mass of delicious mochi is one of those have-to-see-it-to-believe-it experiences, plus we got to eat the mochi. My only complaint about the experience is that the bike parking around Japantown is pretty substandard. But evidently the car parking situation was worse, as a bunch of families arrived late.
P.S. A zero-waste Christmas extra: my gift wrapping strategy. We are pretty mellow about the present-aspect of Christmas, but there are some gifts under the tree. One year my son even got a bike (the bike was left unwrapped). But most gifts are wrapped in fabric. Thanks to our exposure to Japanese culture, I picked up a few furoshiki in Japantown years ago to wrap gifts, and I reuse them every year. (For furoshiki wrapping techniques, ask the internet, which is almost as eager to teach people how to use furoshiki as it is to teach people how to wear scarves.) When I run out of furoshiki—I didn’t buy a lot because they are kind of pricey for something I use few times a year—I wrap gifts in my scarves or in our flour sack dish towels, which are free because we already own them. I know, know, dish towels: classy! But they are big and square and hey, white is a Christmas color. For larger gifts, I’ll use a pillowcase. And for huge presents, well, we have sheets and a fabric shower curtain. A watercolor pencil will write on fabric and come out in the wash, allowing the lazy wrapper to skip not only wrapping paper, tape, and ribbon, but a gift tag as well. Some people make their own furoshiki, or pick up square scarves while thrifting, but ever since I had the dish-towel insight I just can’t bring myself to make the effort.
The tree at home and decorated
Presents for other people typically go out in a glass jar that would otherwise have been recycled, a flour sack dish towel that I wouldn’t be traumatized to never see again (they’re cheap), or some of my kids’ artwork (always my first choice, but not always available in appropriate sizes).
Although I have some issues with our original cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, they are mostly along the lines of “this is a good bike that with a little bit more effort could have been a GREAT bike.” If I were a betting person, I would bet that the MinUte is a product that is only really loved by one person at Kona, which as a company seems to focus more on what another family biker once referred to as “the weed market.” I wish this were not the case, but in the meantime, Kona pioneered the first American midtail, and what a great idea that turned out to be.
So I was very disappointed to learn that Kona is discontinuing the MinUte at the end of 2013. I recommend the Yuba Boda Boda to parents looking for an assisted midtail in San Francisco (that’s mostly moms), with the usual caveat about Yuba’s lower-end parts. I recommend the MinUte to parents looking for an UNassisted midtail in San Francisco (that’s mostly dads), with the usual caveats about the MinUte’s historically horrible brakes. There a couple more midtails out there, but to date I have not yet ridden a Kinn Cascade Flyer, so I can’t comment on anything but its smokin’ good looks one way or the other. And the very sturdy Workcycles Fr8 is not appropriate for our hilly neighborhood, plus it is too heavy for bus bike racks on local transit, so it loses one of the key advantages of owning a midtail. On the other hand, if you live somewhere flat, the Fr8 is the only midtail specifically designed to haul three kids, one of whom can be in front, which is delightful.
Although it is not a company that is focused on the kid market, Kona does some things really, really well, and one of them is gearing. The MinUte is geared like a mountain bike, so yes indeed you can haul your 50+ pound kid up really steep grades on this bike. And with an aluminum frame, the weight of the bike isn’t fighting you all the way up those hills. To the best of my knowledge, there is no other cargo bike with the same weight+gearing advantage currently on the market. RIP, MinUte. If you’ve been thinking about getting one, you’d better hustle.
This very stylish 2013 MinUte belongs to a Rosa Parks family and is completely tricked out for kid-hauling
The things that irritate me about the MinUte would probably be irrelevant if the family cargo biking market hadn’t taken such great leaps in the last few years. Now you can buy a bike that comes with kid-carrying parts designed for the bike. Workcycles, Xtracycle, and Yuba will not let you down on this front, and that makes their bikes inherently more appealing for a parent picking up cargo biking. Getting a MinUte involves some kludging that feels a little old-school now. If you live near our bike shop, Everybody Bikes, or one like it, they’ll do that for you, because they’ve set up so many of these bikes already, but otherwise you’re on your own. Kona does not have a standard set of stoker bars for kids to hang on to, wheel skirts to keep feet from being trapped in the spokes, or pegs for foot rests. If you buy a MinUte from Everybody Bikes they’ll set up you up with all of these things on request, and it will look really good too, but that’s their initiative and not Kona’s.
But we live in a hilly neighborhood near this particular bike shop, so it’s not just us on a MinUte: we have neighbors with MinUtes as well, and one family joins us at Rosa Parks every morning—how cool is that? For parents with one kid or two widely spaced kids, a midtail is probably the best kind of cargo bike. Granted, you don’t really need a cargo bike with only one kid, but it can be handy—I find a midtail less unwieldy than a bike seat with an older child, plus you can carry more non-kid cargo. Matt likes the MinUte’s carrying capacity so much that he plans to keep riding it after our kids are on their own bikes. Assuming, that is, it is not stolen again after Kona stops making them, which would break our hearts.
And as mentioned, most midtails can go on a bus bike rack, or on Amtrak using their standard bike racks. Score! Lifting them up to a bus bike rack is not without its challenges—the MinUte, which is the lightest one I’ve tried to put on a bus, is definitely a lot of work to position, but eh, there are lots of heavy bikes in the world, and in my own personal case, my arms are not the weak link.
This neighbor DIYed a nice kid seat with a wooden back, which is drilled directly into the wooden deck.
When we got the replacement MinUte, we learned that Kona had not ignored all of the issues that came up with the first year’s model. The MinUte now has a much nicer centerstand than before, only a fraction narrower than the best-in-class Ursus Jumbo at half the price. Kona now allows you to swap out the standard wooden deck for a plastic deck with holes predrilled to hold a Yepp seat. I’ve been told that the standard brakes are better. The bags are still not so great, but hey, they are included in the price of the bike, so it’s hard to complain too loudly about that. Again, it’s really more a good thing that could have been great.
We will miss being able to tell people where they can buy a MinUte like ours—although the Bullitt gets the most attention, all our bikes are kid-haulers, and as a result they all get noticed. I wish Kona were willing to jump into the family market wholeheartedly. The MinUte fills a niche for families in hilly cities and I’m not sure there’s another bike out there yet that can do the same thing. But Kona is discontinuing the MinUte, so I will have to hope there is something new in the works.
[Note: As of April 2014, release of the Ridekick child trailer has been postponed to 2015.]
When I thought about getting back on the bike after my injury, I thought immediately about electric assist. We live on a big hill. I was surprised that I could get up part of it on the Brompton by myself when I tried riding for the first time last weekend. But a little more experimentation made it clear that I wasn’t able to ride up all of it. This is better than I’d expected, but still: not useful. It doesn’t help much to go partway up the hill. And when I tried to walk the bike up the hill instead, it made the pins in my leg ache so badly that I had to lie down. This was predictable but still unwelcome.
A mid-drive spotted near work
What’s more, it’s not very useful to be riding again if I can’t pick up and drop off a kid occasionally. I figured I would get my strength back eventually, but in the meantime I needed a better solution. Option one is a new mid-drive electric-assist bike, but that’s really expensive for short-term use and depending on how much strength I got back, could potentially be overkill in the long term. Ideally I wanted a temporary assist that I could stick on the Brompton, which is basically the only bike we have that I can use right now given my limited strength and range of motion. I did try getting on the MinUte, and technically it’s possible, but it wouldn’t be safe yet with a kid on the deck. I can get on and off the Bullitt, but it’s too heavy for me to ride for the time being.
Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!
I knew what I wanted, but unfortunately I didn’t know of any temporary, immediate on-off electric assists currently in production. At least, I didn’t until a blog reader pointed me to the Ridekick trailer (thanks David!) The only Ridekick currently on the market is a small cargo trailer with an electric assist built in. It was cute and it looked like it would do what I wanted, but when I went to their website, I saw that they were taking pre-orders for what looked like my rehabilitation holy grail: an electric assist child trailer.
This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.
Although I’m not the world’s biggest child trailer fan (hard to see in city traffic, don’t always fit in urban bike lanes, won’t make it up many San Francisco steep uphills, can be terrifying on many San Francisco steep downhills, we prefer to have the kids in front), we had been considering getting a bike trailer for travel, and for upgrading our one-kid bikes to two-kid bikes on occasion. The trailer also has the advantage of offering weather protection, just like the Bullitt, but in a far more portable package. The Ridekick assisted child trailer also seemed way more promising than an ordinary trailer because with an assist we’d no longer have to worry about drag on the bike. The pull of a weighted trailer can really be a problem on hills and in strong winds, both of which San Francisco has in abundance. And if the assist were up to it, I could attach it to any bike and make it up hills with one or both kids even in my reduced state.
So I wrote to Ridekick, hoping against hope that the child trailer was close enough to production that I could get one by August. The answer was no. But they were coming to San Francisco in August with the prototype to look for venture capital funding, and would I like to try it? Yes!
This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.
We met Dee and Mark from Ridekick in Golden Gate Park. They are great people. The prototype trailer that they brought is built up from the same Burley Bee model that we rented last year when we visited my mom in Bellingham. To my surprise, the assist doesn’t really intrude into the trailer’s cargo space. There’s a lithium ion battery with an on-off controller attached, about the size of a hardback book, that slides into the rear cargo compartment and that’s basically it. There is a throttle attachment that they Velcro-tied onto our handlebars, and then strung the wire for it back along the frame with more Velcro ties. It clipped into the wire coming from the motor at the rear wheel bolt, which is the same place that the trailer itself attaches. For novices like me: a Burley trailer attaches with a hitch plate that is threaded onto the same bolt that holds the rear wheel onto the bicycle frame. The trailer frame has a drop-in pin that goes through the hole in the hitch plate, with a back-up strap that loops around the bicycle frame in case it fails. Ridekick estimates that the trailer can go about 15 miles on a charge, depending very much on local conditions (how much weight and how big a hill?)
Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.
“Oh, if I must.”
My kids hadn’t ridden in a trailer for a year and were thrilled to get back in one. They also brought a friend. For our first test ride, we attached the assisted trailer to the Kona MinUte and then Matt took the two 7-year-olds for a spin through Golden Gate Park.
Something I may not have mentioned before is that Matt is less enamored of new bike experiences than I am. He mostly just treats all the experimentation I do like my weird hobby. He’s not big into optimizing his riding experience. The first bike he got was the Kona MinUte, and when it was stolen, he bought another one just like it. I got him a new pannier for Christmas one year when he complained that the ones that come standard on the MinUte were not office-appropriate (definitely true), but he has never used it. When we got the Bullitt he said for two months that we should have replaced the car instead, although he has since come around. So Matt was actually pretty grouchy about coming down to Golden Gate Park on a Saturday morning for “another bike thing.” He had had other plans.
It is in this context that I say that Matt loved the Ridekick child trailer from the moment he started riding with it. Generally neither of us is a big fan of throttle assists (the kind that go when you push the button, whether you are pedaling or not), but in the context of pulling well over a hundred pounds of weight behind the bike, the throttle assist is extremely appealing, especially at intersections. At steep intersections it is sometimes impossible for us to start a heavily loaded bicycle, even with the BionX, because the BionX doesn’t kick in until your speed exceeds 2 mph. Although Golden Gate Park is a little thin on steep hills—its grades top out at about 12%—Matt took it on a moderate hill, probably 10% grade, behind the Conservatory and had no trouble hauling both 7-year-olds up. When you’re riding with an assisted trailer, you don’t have to feel like you’re dragging an anvil.
It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.
When he came back I took our daughter for a solo turn around the park on the bike. Despite the fact that I was on the MinUte, which is a huge hassle to get on and off for me at the moment, I loved the Ridekick child trailer too. It resolves a lot of child trailer problems all at once. There’s no drag from the trailer unless you want to work harder. When you get tired, you can have it push you along for a little while. Taking breaks like this, interspersed with pedaling, got me up the same hill behind the Conservatory that Matt had ridden. That felt amazing! And it’s something that is currently completely out of reach for me on an unassisted bicycle.
There is probably a limit to the Ridekick’s capabilities. We have the advantage that we are using to riding up hills, and so we just need an extra boost now and again when we have extra weight on the bike. Even I, in my reduced state, tended to use the assist for a while, then pedal solo for a little bit, then repeat. My guess is that a weak rider could burn it out on the steepest hills, given that Matt has overheated the BionX on the steeper hills in our neighborhood occasionally. We’d have to ride with it a lot more to be sure. Then again, how many families really deal with hills like ours on a regular basis?
In the world of trailers, which tend to be useful but not that fun, the Ridekick assisted child trailer is a killer app, both useful AND fun. Normal trailers drag, and pulling them can be exhausting. As a result, even though most cargo bikes ride like tanks, cargo bikes are a lot easier. Still, in a situation where one parent drops off and another one picks up, you’d need two cargo bikes (which is exactly what we have now, but that’s a big commitment to start). But an assisted child trailer? Awesome! The assist means that riding is not a chore, it could be passed between parents’ bikes as needed, and it can keep the kids warm and dry, all for a (suggested) price of a single unassisted cargo bike. And as a rehab tool, it would be amazing.
If we could have, we would have bought it on the spot. But there is only one in the entire world. Our kids were crushed. “Can we keep it, please?” our daughter begged. “It goes fast! Can we keep it?” Alas, no.
Evidently Ridekick has gotten a fair bit of interest from parents who would like an aftermarket kit to assist their existing trailers. This doesn’t surprise me, but they still don’t even have the basic model in production. Ideally they could find a partner with an existing child trailer company (e.g. Burley, Chariot, Wike) and add the assist option to their standard product lineup. I’m sure there is sufficient demand.
This trailer is so much fun!
How cool is the Ridekick assisted child trailer? It’s so cool that if it had been on the market when we started riding with our kids, we might never have gotten cargo bikes. Even with my misgivings about the width of trailers versus bike lanes and having the kids behind me in city traffic instead of in front, having a trailer that could glide up hills, as well as being able to swap it between bikes, would be worth compromising in other areas. I have zero regrets about getting cargo bikes, especially given that the Ridekick child trailer isn’t actually available yet, but an assisted trailer would have been a much lower stakes way to ease into family biking, and it would travel well. I could be biased by the fact that this trailer allowed me to ride up hills that I couldn’t have otherwise attempted, but I loved the Ridekick.
It sometimes strikes me as excessive that Matt and I have four bikes between us. Yet we are close enough in height that we can share, or perhaps we would have even more bikes. Matt rides the Kona MinUte to work, and I am the only one who rides the mamachari (it’s too girly for him). We both use the Bullitt to haul our kids around and for major shopping. And the Brompton, although it’s kind of slog getting it the hill where we live, is handy for multimodal trips (and it’s not actually necessary to ride it up the hill, not when there is an elevator, and buses).
Home storage of the Brompton (with my sneakers for scale)
Although four bikes, even if one fits in our boarded up fireplace, feels like a lot, we do actually use them all. Admittedly, our kids also each have a bike, and then there is the trailer bike. But when I thought about it, it didn’t feel outrageous to have all these bikes because we actually used them all last weekend. And this weekend wasn’t that different from most weeks.
Yes, the MinUte is a real cargo bike.
Matt rides the Kona MinUte to work by preference, although he sometimes takes the Bullitt and has occasionally taken the Brompton. The MinUte is most useful for his commute because it can carry one kid and stuff like work supplies and groceries, but is roughly the size of a normal bike. The bike traffic on Market Street, which is his route downtown, can be pretty heavy, which makes a full-size cargo bike tough to maneuver, and there are often heavy winds, so although taking the Bullitt is nice for the kids, it isn’t the greatest without them. (Last week he had to take the wind cover off the Bullitt while he was downtown to keep it from blowing over once he dropped our son off—with weight in the bucket, wind isn’t an issue, and even if it were it would be worth it with kids aboard. But without them that cover is like a giant sail.) Matt also takes the MinUte to his martial arts class in the evenings, so he can pick up groceries on the way home. It’s not bad for dropping off library books on the weekend either.
Loading up: three kids in the box of our Bullitt bicycle.
The Bullitt, ah the Bullitt. We take the Bullitt when we’re riding with the kids. At this time of year, they are positively obnoxious about the thought of riding on any other bike. They like the comfy seat and the weather cover and the fact that they can sit and read in the bike and talk to us. They like asking their friends to join them in the bucket. The wails that ensue when our daughter learns that our son got to ride the Bullitt to school are matched only by the wails that ensue when our son learns that our daughter got to ride the Bullitt to preschool. We also take the Bullitt for trips when we know we’ll be carrying heavy loads.
Half a dozen pizzas? Please.
On Saturday morning, while Matt and our daughter were taking a martial arts class, I loaded up our son and headed to Rainbow for groceries. Taking the Bullitt to Rainbow is fabulous because we can do all our shopping while cars are idling outside waiting for a spot to open up in the lot. Also I enjoy riding to Rainbow because their lovely, cargo-bike friendly racks have stickers on them saying, “Thank you for biking!” It was a lot of shopping and thus a little cramped in the bucket for our son on the way home, but we’ve yet to throw a load at the Bullitt that it can’t handle. However, like any cargo bike, the Bullitt can be a bear to park in San Francisco—parking is our number one topic of discussion with other cargo biking parents in San Francisco. I also worry about it being stolen in certain neighborhoods. And without the kids, it can be a lot of bike. Even so I’d probably ride it all the time if it weren’t for the parking issue.
Parking wasn’t a tight squeeze on this trip, but you never know.
The mamachari is what I ride when I am going someplace where I’m worried about bike parking or bike theft, or when Matt has the Bullitt. It is slow but assisted and can carry either kid. I rode it to the Rosa Parks school auction on Saturday night because Matt rode the Bullitt, and also because the mamachari has a step through frame and I was wearing a dress. Then I took it to the farmers market on Sunday morning, because it’s a small enough bike that I can walk it right up to the stands, at which point I can dump whatever produce we buy directly into the baskets. As a result, our farmers market shopping takes about 15 minutes these days.
Our son is now well over four feet tall and he still fits on the Brompton.
I rode the Brompton down to Golden Gate Park on Sunday afternoon to meet a lovely family considering buying their own IT Chair (and not for the first time, either). I would ride the Brompton more if it weren’t for the big hill we live on, but I’ve taken it to the park many times because it’s easy to stash it in odd corners and because the kids love to ride it when the weather is nice. If they can’t be in the Bullitt, the other bike with a front seat is the bike they choose. Even at seven years old, our son still likes riding it. And for days that involve a bus ride or a train ride or meeting Matt somewhere after he’s taken a business trip that involved a rental car, there is no better choice than the Brompton. It is also our alternate farmers market bike, although the bag is not quite as great for produce as the mamachari’s double baskets.
Two adults and four bikes: we could certainly survive with fewer, but this turns out to be the right number to make our lives easy. It’s true that added together, our four very nice bikes cost almost as much as a cheap used car, but they cost almost nothing to own and maintain (we could have bought a fifth bike with what it cost to replace the tires on our old minivan). Plus it’s easier to get around the city on our bikes than it was with one car and transit. And given that we literally swapped our car for our bikes—plus a car share membership for trips out of town—we feel like we’ve come out ahead.
Matt’s first thought was, “Where is that box of wine we just bought? I need to drink it all now.”
In the realm of people who have had bikes stolen, we were incredibly fortunate. Our renters insurance was up-to-date, and our agent had just assured us a few weeks prior that the bikes were covered. In addition, we have always carried replacement-value insurance. When Matt talked to the police, they told him that the frame had almost certainly been cut, making the bike itself not worth the effort of recovering (assuming such a thing was even possible). When he called our local bike shop, Everybody Bikes, they immediately put together a summary of the cost of the bike and value of the upgrades and sent it to our insurance company. (Thanks, Michael!) And in the meantime, given that we have a spare bike or two now, Matt had something to ride.
So the sequence of events went like this.
Friday afternoon: bike stolen.
Friday evening: Matt got a police report, filed an insurance claim, and commenced drinking.
Saturday: our bike shop sent a valuation of the bike to State Farm.
Monday: State Farm called us saying that our claim was approved and they were sending us a check.
The following Friday: we got the check for the value of the bike less our deductible in the mail.
Thank you, State Farm! And I am grateful to our agent, Ken Bullock, as well. You never really know whether the insurance is going to be there until you need it, and I’m really glad it was.
Over the weekend, once Matt sobered up a little, we talked about a replacement bike. The first question was whether he wanted a midtail or a longtail as a replacement. Matt is still very fond of the Big Dummy, and considered it or the Edgerunner as options. But we both thought that another midtail bike would have the most longevity for our needs. Matt expects he will ride that size of bike on his commute for years to come. It can pick up groceries as well as an extra person but doesn’t really look like a cargo bike, it’s lightweight compared to a real cargo bike, and it’s transit-friendly. I’d like one too someday, for the same reasons (although we are so done with new bikes this year).
Which midtail was the question: there used to be one, but now there are three. Another MinUte or one of the others?
Matt loved the look and features of the Kinn Cascade Flyer and so did I, but it wasn’t going to solve the problem of getting him on a bike soon. The most obvious issue was there weren’t any in the Bay Area, and it’s not clear when or if they’ll be showing up here–the first production run of 30 bikes has sold (I asked), although a demo is supposed to appear in town eventually and more bikes will be produced in the spring. The second problem was that the bike appeared to be under-geared for San Francisco. I learned recently there is an option to get a Kinn with mountain-bike gearing, but we didn’t know that at the time.
Load up the Boda Boda.
We had just ridden the Yuba Boda Boda for a few weeks, and this bike is not without its charms. The main issue for Matt, which made him rule out this bike with little discussion, is that he really hates the cruiser aesthetic and the Boda Boda is designed to look like a cruiser. This is one of those reasons to reject a bike that seems silly on one level and totally reasonable on another. Our other concern was that the Boda Boda is also under-geared for San Francisco, and Matt didn’t want an electric assist bike. The Boda Boda is a great choice in San Francisco if you know you’re going for the assist, but if you’re not it would require regearing (and that would be a pain). And Matt is tall enough that he didn’t care about having a step-through frame.
The same bike, but different
We bought our first MinUte because it was the only available midtail at the time. Ultimately we bought another MinUte to replace it because it was still the best midtail for us over a year later. The MinUte is geared for San Francisco hills (the gearing is probably one of its best features). Kona has significantly upgraded some of the things that bothered us about the old bike: for example, it has a new Yepp-compatible deck option and a dramatically better kickstand. And although we were initially worried about our ability to actually order a bike given that it was the end of the year, our bike shop actually had one last MinUte frame kicking around. We got a pity discount and they added the same upgrades we’d put on the first bike all at once. It was ready to ride in a couple of days.
There are still things I would change about the bike if I could. But I also realized that the Kona MinUte, despite being the bike we’ve both ridden the longest, is the only bike I’ve never really reviewed like the many other bikes we’ve test-ridden. So that’s coming up soon. In the meantime, even though the new MinUte looks a little different than our first bike, it’s still familiar. And it’s nice to have it back.
The MinUte deserved better than an ignominious end.
On Friday the Kona MinUte was stolen. Normally Matt rides with our son to school, drops him off, and then heads into work, where he keeps the bike inside his office. But on Friday he had a morning meeting, so after the school drop-off he rode downtown and locked the bike up to a city rack. When he came back it was gone.
U-lock untouched, cable snipped, and the bike is gone.
When your bike is stolen, everyone has a theory. He had locked up, after some consideration about the best option, at what he felt was the safest place nearby, the busy and very public Yerba Buena Gardens. I thought at first that he must have inadvertently have locked up to a sucker rack—one where the screws had been loosened to allow easy theft. But this was a legitimate city rack, both screwed and epoxied into the ground. Matt rides with a high-quality Kryptonite lock and uses it both and a cable whenever he locks up outside. The Kryptonite lock was untouched. Both the police and our local bike shop believe that the only possibility is that the MinUte it was stolen by thieves with an angle grinder, who cut the frame, loaded the bike into a van, and took it away to strip it for parts at their leisure. This is unfortunately a familiar story in San Francisco, although it happens more commonly with bikes left overnight.
I wouldn’t carry two kids on a $50 beater bike from craigslist (which was probably stolen anyway).
Some people have suggested that if we don’t want our bikes stolen, we should really be riding crappy beater bikes instead of nice cargo bikes. However there is a limit to how crappy a bike we can ride safely with our kids on board. And rest assured that crappy bikes are stolen too. Our son’s school principal had a beater he used to ride down to Civic Center for district meetings, which he left locked to a wrought iron fence with a U-lock. Then one afternoon he came out to find that thieves had sawed through the iron railings to steal his rusty bike, whose value he estimated at roughly $20. The district was less than thrilled about the cost of repairing the fence, and he had to find another way to get to meetings. I have heard similar stories countless times. Thieves are indiscriminate and they can’t be undersold. And any bike you ride regularly is a pain to replace, even a cheap one.
The MinUte could do almost anything–and we assumed that it would be around forever.
As victims of bike theft go, we are pretty fortunate. Our bikes are covered by our renters insurance, and although I resent that we’ll have to pay the deductible, we can afford it. We have more bikes than people in our stable, so Matt still has something to ride (he has been riding the Bullitt). Our local bike shop is preparing an estimate for the insurance adjuster so we don’t have to do it ourselves. And they are already investigating our options for a replacement—given that bike manufacturers are just closing out 2012 models and switching to 2013, this may be more complicated than we had expected.
The Kona MinUte carried home our Christmas tree last year.
Is there anything we could have done differently? The one thing that comes to mind is locking skewers. On the advice of a friend who has been locking up a wildly expensive bike around sketchy neighborhoods in San Francisco for over five years without it being stolen or stripped, we put Pitlocks on everything on the Bullitt (and they’ve already prevented the saddle from being stolen). If the MinUte had been Pitlocked, it would not have been worth stealing for parts, because they couldn’t have been removed even with an angle grinder. Our replacement bike will be Pitlocked to the hilt.
The kids are still confused about where the MinUte has gone.
Anyway. We were pretty depressed about all of this on Friday. The MinUte was our first bike, and the bike that made us realize we really could ride everywhere with our kids. We had put a lot of time and effort into making it work for our lives. We were fond of that bike, and the thought of its frame being casually cut with an angle grinder so it could be hauled away and disassembled is vaguely nauseating. What a waste.
I am more sanguine now (although we still have moments of “DAMMIT!”) Nothing in the world is permanent. Even our children will leave us one day. We did the best we could to protect the bike from theft, but anything can be stolen by someone who wants it badly enough. We are fortunate that the bike was insured, and that it was not the only bike we have. And in the grander scheme of things, I have no doubt that our lives are better than the lives of the people who stole it. We miss the bike, but we’ll be okay.
On Sunday my son and I headed downtown on the Kona MinUte to Japanese class. I thought, “Gee, I hadn’t remembered the MinUte being this bumpy to ride.” Then I heard a swish-swish-swish sound, and asked my son if he was sticking something in the spokes (hey, it’s happened). Nope. Flat tire. When did I lose all my bike karma?
Studying Japanese on the train downtown
Fortunately we weren’t far from home, so I walked the bike back up the hill and then we walked back down the hill to the streetcar stop. We were late, but Muni came through; thankfully, there was no parade downtown this week. It had been so long since we tried this that I had forgotten one of the advantages of riding Muni: we ended up studying Japanese all the way into downtown, which made for a stellar class. A passenger across from us knew Japanese and helped as well. (Experiences like this explain why people keeping leaving their hearts in San Francisco.)
Blue Public Bike with a Bobike Junior seat
On our way up from the train station I saw a woman whose bike had a Bobike Junior seat on it, the first other than mine that I’ve seen. She said she knew a couple of other people with Juniors as well, and she was still hauling her nine-year-old son (!) on hers. They were headed to Sunday Streets as volunteers.
The downside of riding Muni is the waiting. On the way home it took as long for our train to arrive as it would have to ride all the way home (thanks in part to one train going offline right before it arrived at the station, horribly frustrating my son, who believed the arrival time board).
For novelty value, my daughter rode on the MinUte for about 10 minutes before returning to her plush mamachari seat.
After we got home Matt and the kids enjoyed a rousing game of “put the bike tube underwater in the tub to find the hole” and then my son asked to go out for a ride. Sure!
We headed to Golden Gate Park to show him the drop-off site for this month’s summer camp, check out waterfalls, and visit the bison. This was an impressive ride for a six-year-old, even with the street closure, at over six miles.
Riding with my son has made me reassess my definition of hills. I would have said before this weekend that this was a pretty flat ride, with a slight downhill heading west and a slight uphill heading east. After watching my son, who had to get off the bike and walk some of those “slight uphills,” as well as take multiple rest stops, I realized I’ve lost perspective by comparing them to my daily commute. It was a brutal ride for a little kid on a single-speed bike, but he never complained.
Although it was raining and cold, my kids wanted ice cream.
So we bought both kids ice cream when we got to the bottom of the hill heading home, and we took the long way around on that last leg. And we saw my son’s first grade teacher, who is native Japanese. “A mamachari!” she said.
Our son wants a bike with gears. Although I despair that it seems like we can’t manage to find a bike with any longevity (except the MinUte! and the Brompton. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that those are also our most expensive bikes. Mamachari TBD.) I can’t argue with this. How much farther and faster could he go on a better bike?
One of my complaints about the Kona MinUte has been that it is just a couple of inches too long to fit on a bus bike rack. In the city, and given the way we use the bike, this is a noticeable limitation—my usual strategy when we’ve forgotten a kid’s helmet or have too awkward a load or have a tire low on air is to load my bike onto a bus rack (or in the case of the Brompton, under my seat) and head home that way. This isn’t an option with the MinUte. Or rather, it hasn’t been.
But I had never seen another medium-tail bike so I assumed that this was just the way things were. That is, until I saw this beautiful medium-tail bike on the BikePortland twitter feed. I had no idea who made it; I had to read the logo on the bike: Ahearne. So I wrote to Ahearne Cycles to ask (a) did it fit on a bus bike rack? And (b) was this a model they were producing? Joseph Ahearne wrote back: the answers were yes and no. The bike was custom, a one-off. But it was customized to fit on a bus bike rack. To make it work, the front wheel rotated 180 degrees to shorten the wheel base just enough to fit on the bus rack. That way, the front fork pointed backward instead of forward, shaving 3-4 inches off the length.
I thought “Joseph Ahearne is brilliant!” but assumed this had no relevance to the MinUte. That is, until Mission Sunday Streets earlier this month. We were eating donuts on the back deck when another rider bumped into the bike, knocked it over, and spilled my daughter’s milk all over the sidewalk. She was traumatized and he was apologetic, and he kindly bought her a replacement. But I was transfixed, staring at the front wheel, which in the fall had rotated exactly 180 degrees. Could we put it on a bus bike rack just like that custom Ahearne?
It wasn’t until this weekend that we found a bus with a bike rack that would let us fiddle around and see. Last week we realized that the university parks its shuttles, complete with bike racks, in the lot behind my daughter’s preschool on weekends. Matt was game to ride the MinUte (although without any kids on board) up the brutal hill to preschool to try it out—the kids and I walked. When we got there, we flipped the front wheel 180 degrees and tried it out. Bingo! MinUte on a bus rack!
The front wheel doesn’t fully seat in the rack, but the support arm holds it in place above
It is still a tight squeeze. The MinUte has big wheels (700c, or 29”, rather than 26”) and they are already a little larger than the front wheel space allotted on a bus rack—the bottom of the rack has a crosspiece that’s supposed to sit at the back of the front wheel, and the space is a little narrow for such large-diameter wheels. As a result, the front wheel doesn’t fully seat on the bottom of the bus rack. However after some efforts to dislodge the bike (meaning we yanked on it), we concluded that the spring-loaded support arm at the front holds the bike steady nonetheless. I would trust this setup on a cross-town ride.
Here’s a close-up of the support arm bracing the front wheel, just above the reversed fork.
We’d also been talking about putting a front basket on the front of the MinUte. To get it on a bus rack, this will have to be frame-mounted; a traditional basket mounted to the handlebars and/or the fork would prevent the front wheel from making the full 180 degree rotation needed to load it. So now we have to get a special frame mounted front basket on order to get the front carrying capacity we wanted. This is a price we’re willing to pay.
A mere bagatelle! This is a big deal for us. We can carry two older kids on the back deck of the Kona MinUte (they’re now 3 years and 6.5 years, and our oldest is extremely tall). With the newfound ability to put the bike on a bus rack, we have dramatically extended our range. We can now take them much further than we could ride on this bike by ourselves. (But I should note that we have not put the bike on a moving bus yet. We are taking this one on faith for the time being.)
Another view, because it’s awesome! Admittedly it looks goofy with the handlebars reversed.
There are still some things I’d change about this bike. We’re definitely upgrading the brakes, and the kickstand, although burly, is less stable than we’d like when we put two kids on the deck. A chain guard and dynamo lights would be welcome additions to a bike that Matt uses to commute. And as mentioned, we want a front rack. But these are all changes we can make over time—the only thing we felt was impossible to change was our inability to load it onto a bus. And now we can.
Have I mentioned that I am a professor at a medical center? I study health policy, specifically relating to preventable cancer risks (the big three being tobacco use, poor diet, and sedentary behavior). University faculty have an established career trajectory. After a certain number of years, your work is reviewed and you are either promoted or fired. Eventually everyone’s number comes up.
And so once a year, in early May, I end up with all of my coworkers in a windowless conference room all day, discussing each others’ activities and achievements while consuming immense quantities of caffeine, and then voting on who will be promoted. It is stressful and exhausting, but like Winston Churchill said: democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.
The university where I work, however, prefers the traditional academic Star Chamber method, so once the department makes a recommendation, candidates get to wait a year or longer, sometimes much longer, for the final verdict. And the university has, in the past, overturned departmental votes. All of this backstory is relevant to me because for over a year I have been in limbo. My university separates decisions about promotion from decisions about whether you get long-term job security (tenure). Thanks to some unusually bad timing on my part, I ended up having both questions under review simultaneously. My department voted for both, but the university kept its counsel.
This bike is too small.
Getting promoted is not a sure thing, and thus success is a cause for celebration. The traditional celebratory purchase by the successful candidate is a matched set of pretentious chairs. (Note: it is not necessary to be an alumna/us of a pretentious university to buy a pretentious chair.) I was recently informed, in writing, that my promotion was approved by the university. Hooray! I am not going to be fired! But here in the HotC household we are opposed to sedentary behavior. Tradition or not, I had no intention of buying chairs.
This bike is too big.
So I decided to buy a bike that cost the same amount instead. In any logical world, my celebratory purchase would be a cargo bike with an electric assist to haul both my kids up the ridiculous mountain we live on, which I have been dithering about for some time. However there were a few reasons to consider a different kind of bike. Most critically, I was still unable to decide what kind of cargo bike I really wanted. Another medium-tail? A long-tail? A box-bike? And I could still ride our existing cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, when Matt is away and I needed to haul both kids, even uphill. What’s more, an electric cargo bike would cost more than a set of pretentious chairs. And getting another cargo bike seemed contrary to the somewhat impractical spirit in which people buy pretentious chairs. Despite my opposition to the chairs themselves, I wanted to get into the spirit of things.
All this suggested that if I were going to get a bike, I should perhaps get a different kind of bike altogether. And so I did.
This… isn’t a bike at all.
(Last but not least: I still have another personnel action pending, for the equivalent of a lifetime appointment at this university. My mentor waited three years before getting word about her appointment, so I am not exactly holding my breath waiting for updates. The traditional celebratory purchase for people in this happy event is a house. Yet we are in the somewhat odd situation of not really wanting to buy a house, as we would be perfectly happy to remain in campus housing until we die. And so if I secure this outrageous good fortune at some future date, I will get a cargo bike—with electric assist—instead. Two new bikes would easily qualify as ridiculous excess. But then again, even two bikes are cheaper than a house, and Family Ride says you can never have too many. Who am I to argue with that kind of expertise?)
Saturday was the #virtualfamilybikegangride. Thanks for the inspiration, cargo biking families! I had a complicated morning, because I had to give a talk on campus just after Matt and my son left for a week in Boston. This violated one of my parenting principles, which is Do Not Work On Weekends (Especially When Your Spouse Is Out Of Town And You Must Pay A Sitter), but it made my department chair and my dean happy, and this is worth something too, given that I am currently up for review. And I was home in time to make lunch and attempt to get my daughter down for a nap. No nap, unfortunately, but the effort meant we got a late start.
"I say 'Cheese!' and 'Shy cookie!'"
For a change of pace, we took the Kona MinUte, now that my daughter is old enough to ride on the deck safely. At my kids’ current ages (3 and 6.5) the medium-tail really shines, as it can carry either or both of them without any need to attach a child seat. There are things I would change about that bike (e.g. compatibility with bus rack, better brakes, more stable kickstand, chain guard, dynamo lights, front basket—and even making the possible changes would run a tab higher than the list price of the bike), but it is very easy to use for multiple purposes, and that alone makes it probably our best ride almost all of the time.
Bikes and helmets locked; let's play!
My daughter wanted to go to the park, and was thrilled at the chance to ride Daddy’s bike. We headed to the Koret Children’s Quarter at Golden Gate Park, a quick downhill from home. I am always amazed to find ample bike parking there, as it is packed with both people and bikes, but I think that most people must be unaware of the racks under the Sharon Building, or just like to keep their bikes on the playground itself. Also there are mostly kids’ bikes on the playground, which suggests that a lot of people are driving with the bikes in the car.
The weather was unbelievable for San Francisco, sunny and warm, verging on hot. And I was struck once again as we arrived at how effortless it is to travel this city by bicycle, assuming you’re not facing a hill. We rode past dozens of cars circling for parking or stopped, complete with fuming drivers, hopped off, locked up the bike and helmets, and went to play. No waiting, and easy. And for the first time all day, even as I watched my daughter express her lust for danger by climbing up various ladders and ropes, hanging off monkey bars, jumping off decks and barreling down giant slides, I felt relaxed.
Delighted to get a second ride.
After some time on the playground we headed to the carrousel, and as we are regulars there, even got a free second ride on request. (Nothing will ever top the day, years ago, that we were the first and only family to arrive one morning and the operator ran the carrousel for my son for almost 20 minutes nonstop, blasting Tom Waits rather than the usual Julius Fucik. But my daughter, who was as yet unborn on that occasion, was delighted just the same.)
Slowing down at the Academy
I wasn’t sure where to go next, except that we should ride somewhere, and after some consideration (and probably because it was getting seriously hot by San Francisco standards) my daughter decided on the California Academy of Sciences. We visited the Rainforest (a poor choice given it was even hotter than the outdoors), went to the aquarium to see colored jellyfish (“Medusas!” yelled one little girl) and even saw a pregnant daddy seahorse, which was hanging out in the seadragon tank, presumably as encouragement. Although it was getting toward dinner time, we stopped at the café for a pink jellyfish cookie, then headed home.
My goal while Matt is away is usually just to keep the kids occupied enough that they don’t obsess about his absence. With our son away as well I was concerned that our daughter would be more lonely than usual, but she was cheerful all day long. As sometimes happens, I screwed up at bedtime. But when I went in later to check on her, she forgave me, as she always does.
"I love you and you love me," my daughter says. "We love each other." Yes, we do.
For most of the rest of 30 days of biking, I will be either commuting or riding with my daughter. When I have time alone with her, I am always struck with amazement that we have this brave and strong little girl, who lights up our lives like a second sun. I couldn’t ask for better company.