Category Archives: Seattle

Demand more

Spot the transformation cones in SF (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Spot the transformation cones in SF (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

We’ve ridden with our kids in San Francisco on a near-daily basis since 2011. Over the last five years, we’ve watched the number of family bikers like us skyrocket. Our Bullitt used to draw stares and dropped jaws because parents had never seen anything like it before. It still gets attention now, but it’s usually more along the lines of someone running over to say, “I’ve been thinking about getting that bike! Do you like it?” It is no longer unusual for us to go to a kid-oriented event or location (school, after-school, birthday party) and spot another bike like ours, or a comparable family rig. I recognize a number of families by their bikes that I don’t know by name, because we pass each other or travel together every morning.

Over the same period, bicycle infrastructure has improved, which is part of what draws families onto bikes, but the process has been painfully slow. Both Matt and I have attended multiple SFMTA (San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency) meetings where we watched the agency propose fantastic infrastructure that was then watered down (“parking! parking! parking!”), or more typically, watched the agency propose pathetic infrastructure that was then watered down (“parking! parking! parking!”) We support the SFBC (San Francisco Bicycle Coalition) and they work hard to push the agency to build safe bicycle infrastructure. Yet the SFMTA seems to take a perverse pride in dragging its heels, so that the kinds of projects that other cities manage to roll out in a matter of weeks extend for years. In the meantime, riders keep dying.

Bike path crossing Lincoln at 3rd Avenue (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Bike path crossing Lincoln at 3rd Avenue (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

In the last couple of months, however, things have been getting noticeably safer on some of San Francisco’s most dangerous streets for bicycles. It is no thanks to the SFMTA. Instead, it’s the work of the SFMTrA, the San Francisco Metropolitan Transformation Authority, an anonymous group that on its own initiative, funded only by donations, has begun doing a fraction of the work that we should been have able to expect the SFMTA to do all these years. For example, in places where drivers routinely park in bike lanes, forcing riders into fast-moving traffic, it adds awareness cones or soft hit posts to mark the lane. Astonishingly, these work (at least while they last.) Drivers who apparently have no concerns at all with the prospect of running over my child on his bicycle will make every effort to avoid hitting an orange plastic cone.

Fell heading onto JFK (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

Fell heading onto JFK (photo courtesy SFMTrA)

The SFMTA should be ashamed of its lack of progress on street safety. In the meantime, there are some unexpected new options. This morning I watched cars slow at the sight of the new soft hit posts protecting a particularly harrowing intersection we ride through frequently in Golden Gate Park. I was so grateful that when I got to work I made a donation to SFMTrA so they could buy more equipment. If you bike in San Francisco, you can work with them as well: you can follow them on Twitter (@SFMTrA) or go to their website to add dangerous intersections you’d like to see protected to their interactive map. And if you like what they do, you can donate to help them buy more cones and posts.

Other cities are transforming as well: you can follow and support @NYC_DOTr (New York), @PBOTrans (Portland), @SEA_DOTr (Seattle), or @STP_Fix (St. Paul.) If I’ve missed one, please feel free to post it in the comments. And if you don’t have a Transformation group where you live, maybe you could start one.

I am more optimistic about bicycle infrastructure in San Francisco than I’ve been in quite a while. I’ve decided it’s time to take SFMTrA’s advice, and #DemandMore.

(All street safety installation photos in this post are courtesy of SFMTrA)

 

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Filed under advocacy, commuting, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

It’s a wonderful life

My kids on the G&O Cyclery incredible kids' cargo trike

My kids on the G&O Cyclery incredible kids’ cargo trike

We started looking for a bike that could carry our kids five years ago, when we returned to San Francisco from Copenhagen. Given that there were family bikes all over Copenhagen, and the rental shop across the street from our apartment there had a Nihola trike and child seats just lying around where anyone could rent one, we figured it would not be that big a deal, especially in San Francisco, which has dozens of bike shops. We were so, so wrong.

I stopped counting the number of terrible bike shop experiences that we had while trying to find the kind of bike we wanted, because it was too depressing. Not only was no one selling cargo bikes, most shops weren’t even selling child seats. Asking for “family friendly” bike shops meant we got referred to shops that had a couple of crappy kids’ bikes that weighed as much as anvils (with training wheels, in gendered colors) and stocked a few kids’ helmets. I was routinely ignored when I visited bike shops without my husband, and we were treated like lepers when we brought the kids. We visited one particular shop because they stocked Yepp seats, but when my daughter climbed into one to see how she fit, they yelled at us that it was for display only and she started to cry. I will never forgive them for that. I’m still not sure why we persisted in the face of such open hostility, but we did.

Ultimately we got a recommendation to visit a new bike shop in our neighborhood, Everybody Bikes, and although they have gone through some ownership changes, they were kind to us then and still are now. They don’t really think of themselves as a family bike shop, but they were happy to set up our first cargo bike, the Kona MinUte, to carry our kids. Less than a year later, when we decided we wanted a real two-kid hauling family bike, there were really no local options. So we headed to Portland, which at the time had multiple bike shops that wanted to work with family bikers (Clever Cycles, Splendid Cycles).

My son, in love with one of G&O's many kid bikes

My son, in love with one of G&O’s many kid bikes

Shortly after that things started to get much, much better in the Bay Area for people like us. We found another family friendly bike shop (Ocean Cyclery) and a formerly virtual shop focusing on assisted bikes (The New Wheel) opened a store front in San Francisco, and later started selling family bikes. Then a huge family bike shop (Blue Heron Bikes) opened in Berkeley, which is not exactly nearby but is close enough to visit on a weekend. Sometime after that a virtual shop opened in San Francisco (Vie Bikes) that specifically focused on renting and selling family bikes. Finally, someone had figured out that there was a huge and underserved market of people like us.

In the meantime I’d realized that Seattle was chock-full of family biking bloggers like me, even though there wasn’t a family bike shop there either. From my perspective this was almost as good as having a bunch of family bike bloggers in the Bay Area, because I grew up in the Seattle area and my mom still lives there so we visit regularly. When Madi of Family Ride organized a Seattle cargo bike roll call, I got to meet a bunch of them in person, and it was awesome. That’s where I met Davey Oil (Riding on Roadways) in person, who is also awesome. And in 2013, he and his friend Tyler opened a family bike shop in Seattle, G&O Cyclery.

This Metrofiets is one sweet ride.

This Metrofiets is one sweet ride.

G&O was supposed to open in the summer, but right before the scheduled opening, the building caught fire. So it actually opened in the fall. We visited when we were in town, more than once, and loved it. My kids ran around the shop like monkeys on speed, but Davey and Tyler had kids of their own and they were cool with that. Thanks to G&O I was able to try EdgeRunners with Stokemonkey and BionX assists back to back, and the Juiced ODK, and a fantastic customized Metrofiets that I haven’t managed to write about yet. They stock great cargo bikes and child seats and stellar kids’ bikes and they are willing to try all kinds of eclectic things that might get families on bikes and will talk my ear off about all of it, which in the last five years has become one of my favorite activities. While we were there, people stopped by the shop all day to look at bikes or just to talk. My friend Madi told me she had a cubby there. Unlike most bike shops in the US, they offer employees health insurance. And although they’re based in Seattle, Davey regularly posts advice on to the San Francisco Family Biking Facebook group. Even though G&O is a bike shop it feels like a corner cafe in Paris, the kind of place that everyone goes to hang out. It still kind of amazes me that while five years ago I would have been happy to find a bike shop where I wasn’t treated like a pariah, now there are bike shops where families are genuinely welcomed. G&O is our kind of bike shop. As in San Francisco, it turned out there was a lot of unmet demand for a family bike shop in Seattle too, because this year they were ready to expand.

Unfortunately last Tuesday night there was a natural gas explosion in their neighborhood that destroyed the shop and some of its neighbors. It was like something out of Monty Python (“so I built another castle…”) except it wasn’t funny. I am devastated for them because I love their shop, but I’m also sad because there are so few shops like it; in the US, I could probably count them all without running out of fingers and toes.

Loading my daughter on the Juiced

Loading my daughter on the Juiced

When I write bike reviews, I mention things that I like and don’t like, because even though I love all the family bikes I don’t believe there is such a thing as a perfect bike. But I do think that people who love family bikes can create perfect bike shops. G&O is a perfect bike shop. And now it’s struggling: who gets so unlucky that their shop burns down twice in less than three years?

Businesses don’t always feel like friends. Our son adores the taqueria down the street, and we would notice if something happened to it, but we wouldn’t worry about what life might be like without it. Yet some businesses are different, because the people who run them are different. In Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life the community is better because a bank invests in the people who live there, and in turn the people who live there fight to save it. We haven’t had the chance to visit G&O very often, but even one visit would be enough to know that it’s worth fighting to save it.

If you’ve ever visited G&O, or wish that there were more places like it, there are ways to help listed at Save G&O. If you’re just here for the reviews, we are returning to Seattle this July, and on every visit so far G&O had a new interesting bike or three for us to ride, so it’s worth throwing in for that too. Their building is in ruins, so they’re looking for temporary space for now, but wherever Davey and Tyler land in the next few months, we’ll find them.

 

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Filed under bike shops, family biking, Seattle

We tried it: Juiced Riders ODK U500

Well hello, long time no see. Both the world and I have been busy, in my case innocuously. I have a new fall class with about 120 students, and thus have missed multiple anniversaries that I try to mention. It’s been over three years since we sold our minivan and two years since we were able to buy our condo with the money we’ve saved. It’s been three years on the Bullitt and that’s still great, and a year on the EdgeRunner with no regrets. But I digress.

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

A black Juiced ODK in a clump of bikes

Over the summer we had a chance to try the Juiced Riders ODK U500, a newish midtail. Our midtail, the Kona MinUte, was our first cargo bike. Since then there have been other midtails released, including the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer, during which time the MinUte went in and out of production. The Bike Friday Haul-a-Day was a midtail in one incarnation, but according to Bike Friday has now stretched out to longtail length. At some point I realized the cleverly-designed but much-too-heavy-for-San-Francisco Workcycles Fr8 was also a midtail. However I think it is fair to say that the midtail category has not exactly been wildly innovative, as the best-case scenario is pretty much that manufacturers keep producing the same bike.

My daughter wondering why we couldn't stop taking pictures already

My daughter wondering why we couldn’t stop taking pictures already

What makes a midtail? In our experience it’s a bike with a rear deck that comfortably carries one kid on the deck. We have squeezed two smaller kids on the deck of the MinUte, because I’m not so good with “boundaries,” but I learned that if you do that kind of thing with any regularity There Will Be Blood, literally. With a very little kid the frame is sturdy enough to handle both a front seat and the kid on the rear deck, so carrying two kids is not impossible, but that will work only for a limited age range. Anyway, the ODK is a midtail by my reckoning because my two kids would not even consider the possibility of getting on the deck at the same time.

We tried the ODK while visiting Seattle and the always-amazing G&O Family Cyclery. My only regret was that Madi of Family Ride couldn’t come out with us, because I would love to have gotten her thoughts. Anyway, the ODK is unusual in a few ways. Most notably, it is sold only as an assisted bike. Since my reviews are way too long, here is my new obligatory six word review for those who don’t want all the blah-blah.

Juiced ODK: the assisted midtail slayer.

What I like about the ODK

  • The ODK is designed for cargo. A persistent complaint that I have had about midtails is that their decks tend to be really high,
    Pretty stable, even loaded

    Pretty stable, even loaded

    which makes them tippy, especially when hauling kids. That’s less of a big deal on a midtail than a longtail, because the deck is shorter so there’s less fishtailing effect. It’s less of a big deal for the tall than for the short, because the relative height is lower and thus more manageable. However it’s not trivial. I am not particularly short at 5’7” (170cm) yet I notice the tippiness of our MinUte, especially on corners, when it feels like the bike wants to roll over. The Boda Boda and the Cascade Flyer are built with the same high deck. The ODK shaves several inches off by using 20” wheels and the handling with cargo, especially moving human cargo, is noticeably improved as a result.

  • The ODK has a step-through frame. It’s a really low step-through as well, meaning that this bike can easily be ridden by the short or less-flexible. I went out on a test ride with Jen of Loop-Frame Love who pointed out that this would be a fantastic bike for seniors, and I agreed. However it’s also nice for people who have a kid sitting behind and thus cannot swing a leg around the back. The lower the top tube, the easier it is to get on and off.
  • The ODK has an extremely upright riding position. Not everyone likes this, but I do because it helps me see over traffic. With a kid (in this case my daughter) in the back, it also makes me feel less like I’m sticking my butt directly in her face, which seems gauche.
  • The parts on the ODK are formidable on even the cheapest model. Cargo bikes usually carry loads that strain parts to their limits, so the quality of the parts matters more than it might for solo riders. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard (Tektro Dorado for those who care about details like that) and it is immediately clear that they have the kind of stopping power that is appropriate for a fully loaded cargo bike. The shifting is smooth (3 speeds; this bike is assisted and not designed with a big gear range as a result) and the steering is easy. I have ridden enough bikes now that I can tell within a few seconds of getting on a bike whether the manufacturer is trying to save money by using cheap parts: Juiced Riders is not.
  • There are a lot of cool accessories that come with this bike, which I am happy to see is becoming more common for assisted and family bikes. It comes with fenders and a wired-in rear light. It offers a frame-mounted front basket, which is deep enough that not everything would need to be bungeed down.
  • Like all midtails, this bike is short enough lengthwise to be very maneuverable. The ODK is even more so than most midtails because it has 20” wheels, which allow tight cornering. The ODK is also fairly narrow. Overall, this makes it a very easy bike to park at the kinds of dreadful racks that grocery stores, movie theatres, and parking garages seem to have installed sometime in the 1960s and never replaced. The San Francisco standard bike rack, aka the parking meter, offers no challenge for the ODK; our Bullitt, as handy as it is, usually needs some coaxing to snuggle up to a meter.
  • The assist on the ODK, which uses a motor on the front wheel and a throttle on the handlebars is very, very powerful. I have
    At the top of the hill, Jen's turn

    At the top of the hill, Jen’s turn

    learned with some practice that you can add some pedaling power with throttle-assists, although this is not necessary, particularly with this motor. It did not even slow down on the steepest hill we could find in the surrounding neighborhood, which although it did not achieve San Francisco levels of aggression was nonetheless very respectable. As a devotee of pedal assists I have gotten used to contributing noticeable effort on my commutes, particularly when I’m carrying heavy loads like the kids. It was kind of intoxicating to relax and let the motor do the work, pedaling at roughly the level of effort I expended the last time I rode a beach cruiser on the boardwalk. I have seen ODKs on some disturbingly steep hills in San Francisco and now I know why. I don’t think there is much it could not handle, except maybe the 41% grade of Bradford Street in Bernal Heights.

  • The battery options are scaled to a level that allows you to use a lot of assist for a long time. This is a bike that’s intended to be used assisted most of the time; I have seen bikes like this before but they tend to have limited range. The three battery options provide ranges estimated from 40 miles at the low end to 100 miles at the high end. I typically slice estimated ranges in half given San Francisco’s topography; even after this those estimates are very respectable. I rode the model with the biggest battery, and despite my going up and down big hills a few times with my daughter, then having a friend do the same thing, the battery didn’t seem to drop a single bar.
  • The ODK is ridiculously, laughably affordable for an assisted cargo bike. The version with the smallest battery is $2200, and that includes the fenders and the rear light (the front basket is extra). Especially considering the quality of the parts, this is an unbeatable value. Upgrading to the biggest battery adds another $1000 to the price, and that’s still a good price relative to its competition.

What I don’t like about the ODK

  • When you put the kind of battery that can give you 40 or 100 miles of range (maybe) on a bike, you make it really, really heavy. The ODK is really, really heavy. To Juiced Riders’ credit, they are actually willing to report the weight of the bike; with the smallest battery it comes in at just shy of 70 pounds according to their specifications. The version with the biggest battery, which I rode, weighed so much that I couldn’t even lift it. This is not a bike that could be put on an overhead rack or a bus rack, even though it is short enough to fit. It is not a bike that you could carry up the stairs. It is a bike that is, shall we say, permanently wedded to the ground. If you don’t have street-level parking, this may not be a good choice. On the up side, the bike thieves that break into garages with pickup trucks around my neighborhood might very well end up leaving this bike behind rather than risk throwing their backs out. So there’s that.
  • Aesthetics are admittedly in the eye of the beholder. However to this beholder, the ODK is a punishingly ugly bike. This is not
    Eh. Looks aren't everything.

    Eh. Looks aren’t everything.

    the kind of bike that will draw compliments from strangers. The ODK is built for practicality and value and it shows. I hoped with time it would grow on me, and have a certain “so ugly it’s attractive” kind of appeal. I regret to report that this did not happen. Even almost six months after my first exposure and even though I genuinely like this bike, looking at the ODK hurts my eyes. Even the controller is unattractive.

  • The ODK has a twist throttle assist operated by hand, not a pedal assist that operates as you pedal, and throttle assists are the kind of manufacturing choice that makes me question how serious a company is about commuting. Even during the test ride, operating the throttle was starting to hurt my wrist. This is admittedly a personal preference, but it’s less personal than my aesthetic opinion, because I suspect that a long ride on this bike could become unpleasant. There is a “cruise control” option, which I am sure would be fine on an extended ride on a multi-use path, however my longer rides tend to be city rides with a lot of stop and go. This issue isn’t insurmountable, as the ODK is inexpensive enough for an assisted bike that a bike shop with the right experience could convert this to a pedal assist at a price that would still make the ODK a good value. However it would be far better if Juiced made pedal assist an option, even if it were a more expensive option. Not everyone lives near an experimentally-inclined electric bike shop, it would be more cost-effective if the manufacturer did it, and it would not risk voiding the warranty. And it would be better for commuters, particularly commuters with kids, for whom every available hand matters pretty much all the time.
  • The 20” wheels on the ODK make the ride a little bumpy and slow; this is a tradeoff for the low deck and maneuverability. Any speed you pick up on this bike will be coming from the assist, and you will care about the quality of the pavement.
  • The ODK is not really designed for carrying kids. Apparently the rack makes it possible to mount a Yepp Maxi, which is good.
    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    ODK with Yuba kid hauling parts

    A bike I saw, however, although set up with Yuba accessories for an older kid (probably a better fit for my daughter, age 6), which were nonetheless a little limited; foot pegs and wheel skirts were not available, for example. (I have had some concerns in the past about the quality of some of Yuba’s parts, but I definitely appreciate that they are all-in on the kid-hauling accessories.) Like our Kona MinUte, setting up the Juiced ODK for kid hauling requires some hacking and creativity, probably from a bike shop with experience with the bike and with these kinds of accessories in stock.

  • The ODK’s standard one-sided kick stand is pretty much a joke for a bike that is supposed to haul cargo, as with any load that wasn’t perfectly balanced it’s likely to fall over, unless it were windy, in which case it would definitely fall over. Juiced offers a center stand option that I did not get to try. Like hydraulic disc brakes this is the kind of thing that should be standard on cargo bikes.
  • Like any assisted cargo bike, the price point on the ODK is a big jump for people who are used to solo unassisted bikes. It’s a good value for what it’s offering, but it’s still out of reach for many families.

Things I’m clueless about

  • Juiced Riders as a company is new to me so I can’t speak to the long-term reliability of this bike, or the support that the company will offer. It’s a good sign that it’s invested in high-quality parts, and that it seems to be working with shops that have a good reputation. However there’s no way to know for a while.

Overall, I was impressed with the ODK. The midtail bike market has been pretty stagnant in the last few years and the ODK offers a lot of significant improvements for people looking for an assisted cargo bike. The lower deck and step-through frame alone are long-overdue innovations for midtail bikes. Because of its weight, its throttle assist, and the limited accessories for kid-carrying, it won’t suit everyone’s needs. Nonetheless I’ve seen enough of them around San Francisco now that it looks like they suit a lot of families very well. Within a minute of riding it I thought “this is the midtail slayer” because even though it has some obvious limitations, it fixes so many of the problems I have had riding other midtails. It might be ugly, but it can really haul.

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Filed under cargo, commuting, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle, Uncategorized, Yuba

We tried it: Butchers & Bicycles MK1-E

I am one of the worst people on earth to offer an objective opinion about a tricycle. We have tried them before and the experience was off-putting. My conclusion then was that trikes are great when stopped and terribly unstable in motion, which is just the opposite of bicycles, and also diametrically opposed to my transportation needs. There are lots of reasons that a tricycle could work for other people: for example, the Exploratorium has an XL Bakfiets that it wheels along the Embarcadero and sets up with little science exhibits for people walking by. This is a perfect use for a trike.

My family is not a museum, however, and I have had a chip on my shoulder about trikes since August of 2012. But a while back I started hearing about a different kind of trike, a tilting trike, which seemed to resolve one of my biggest issues with tricycles, namely that they are a bear to turn. The first Butchers & Bicycles promo trailer I saw did something I had previously thought was impossible: it made a tricycle look kind of badass. What’s more, there was an assisted version, which held the promise of allowing a tricycle to move at speeds approaching those of a bicycle and to go up hills, which were some of my other major issues with tricycles.

I was ready to get over years of tricycle-skepticism, so the weekend before we went to Europe, we rented an MK1-E from Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before is rolling out their family bike rental program in San Francisco, and presumably eventually the world, and which is amazing because it means that you don’t have to travel to another city (as we did) to try a bunch of different family bikes. And as is fitting for San Francisco terrain their rental bikes are all assisted, because second-hilliest-city-in-the-world-and-yes-it-gets-windy-here-too-blah-blah-blah. My take: the MK1-E would never have been right for us and it’s got some kinks to work out, but it could definitely be a good fit for other families. My six-word review?

MK1-E: first trike I’d ride twice.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

And here it is, the MK1-E.

Some terminology: there are at least two kinds of tricycles. Some have two wheels in the front, and these are called tadpole trikes. Some have two wheels in the back, and these are called delta trikes. The MK1-E is a tadpole trike, which allows you to carry the kids in front.

What I liked about the MK1-E

  • The tilt-steering is amazing. Whee! Sure, it looks cool in the videos. Nonetheless I tried to assume nothing, because I have been fooled before. And anyway this is a Danish trike and Kierkegaard tells us to trust our own senses. However if you trust mine, I can attest that turning this trike is just as fun as it looks, and super-snappy as well. It makes tight turns, the kind of turns that seem unimaginable when looking at it. Because it’s quite short, I would even go so far as to call it nimble (for a cargo bike/trike).
    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Here I am figuring out the tilt steering with an empty box.

    Warning: this kind of agility does not come intuitively to the inexperienced rider. The usual rules for test-riding cargo bikes apply: do not be fooled by the fact that trikes are stable when stopped (years of test-riding cargo bikes and yet I was fooled). It takes some practice to get the hang of riding a tilting trike and I would suggest practicing with the box empty. I went around the block a couple of times and was then ready to haul some real weight. No problem. My squealing cargo enjoyed the tilting turns too.

  • The box is swank. Like a Bakfiets, the MK1-E allows the kids to sit straight upright with their legs at a 90 degree angle. Trikes are all height and width, unlike trailers or longtails. What’s more this trike, like a lot of the European kid-haulers, puts a lot of effort into their comfort. The bench seat is padded (and has a locked compartment inside) and there are three-point belts. The weather cover is unbelievably well-designed. It is tall enough that my 9-year-old didn’t bump his head and has waterproof zippers that allow you to
    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    My two older kids fit easily in the box, which is kind of amazing, really.

    open the front and the back for ventilation. The front door to the box is more like the door of the cabin we rented at Camp Mather than anything I had seen on a bike/trike before. Part of the reason I tried to ride with the kids in it at first is that they saw that box, dove in, and didn’t want to get out. And although my kids are a bit old for the target market at ages 6 and 9, they both fit just fine in there. There is a little box behind their heads as well, where the battery is stored (more about this later) and which has extra room for a small bag. If you took two kids shopping they’d end up with bags piled around them for sure, but you could probably add a shopping cart’s worth of stuff on top of those two kids that way.

  • The kids sit in front. I’ve waxed on about this many times before, so I’ll keep it brief: having kids in front is awesome, it’s easier to talk with them, it’s easier to break up fights if more than one kid is in there, you don’t have to worry about what’s going on, etc.
  • The MK1-E has a front stand. The trikes we’ve ridden in the past didn’t have parking technology. You stopped pedaling and (ideally) it stopped moving, the end. This raises some issues. First, good luck stopping on a hill, or even a mild slope. Second, with a tadpole trike, when the kids climb into the front of the box, it can tip forward and go into a nose stand. This kind of thing is disconcerting at best and dangerous at worst, and back in 2012 led to an “I’m not getting back in there” protest from my son. Apparently someone at Butchers & Bicycles had the same bad experience that we did, because there is a pedal that allows you deploy a super-stable 2-legged stand right at the front of the box. When the kids climb aboard the trike will not tip. To raise the stand, push the trike forward and up it goes.
  • The parts on this trike are really nice, suggesting that the manufacturers assumed that you might be riding in conditions that are not ideal (e.g. a flat, separated path with no cars, no other riders, no pedestrians, and no traffic signals—in other words, the kind of conditions shown in all cargo bike ads and never experienced by their actual riders). Yes, Virginia, there is a tricycle with hydraulic disc brakes, and it is called the MK1-E. The rest of the parts are in the same class. Butchers & Bicycles did not stint.
  • This trike is assisted, and the assist is a mid-drive, which tend to be powerful. It’s a fully-contained system and built into the trike. It comes on smoothly and is powerful enough to move this
    Here's the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    Here’s the Bosch assist, looking very subtle.

    trike, which is not light by any stretch of the imagination, up some meaningful hills. It is also almost completely silent, which I did not expect. The controller is intuitive, and placed next to the left grip where it’s easy to adjust. Using this assist with a fully-loaded trike on the flats or a mild incline is like flying; in the park, whizzing along, I felt like Batman. This is not an experience I associate with a lot of cargo bikes, our beloved Bullitt excepted. There’s something about going fast with a load in front that evokes it.

  • This trike is clearly built for commuting. It has the NuVinci n360 drivetrain, which I’m not sure I’ve discussed before, but which I’ve also tried on an Edgerunner. Basically it’s an internal hub with an infinite number of gears, which you adjust by turning the gear grip so that your little avatar bicycle in the view window on the handlebars appears to be riding on the flats or riding up a hill, to reflect the actual terrain around you. And then the gears do the thing without you having to worry about petty details like which number makes sense for this hill, because there are no numbers. It’s an internal hub, so you can shift while stopped. The chain is enclosed, and the MK1-E has daytime running lights, fenders, a bell and a rear rack: all the usual suspects.
  • Everything is adjustable. I started out with the seat down low, as I always do on test-rides, but this is not really necessary with a trike, so I popped it up; you can do this without tools because it has a little flip lever for just this purpose. However unlike a quick release, the seat post is not removable, so having this feature doesn’t increase the odds that someone will steal your saddle. The handlebars are also adjustable using a lever, just like on the Bullitt; a couple of blocks into my ride I was feeling a little cramped and then realized, hey, I can just raise the handlebars, so I did. I don’t know the official word on what size rider can handle this trike, but I suspect it’s a very wide range indeed. With the upright posture you have on a trike, the reach is not going to overwhelm the short, and the seat and handlebars can go way up for the tall.
  • The trike is very short, with respect to length. Next to the Bullitt, viewed from the side, it looked tiny. And yet it is still a real cargo… bike-like thing with wheels that I’m trying really hard to
    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    It was hard to get these two lined up evenly, but the MK1-E is shorter both front and back.

    avoid calling a bike because it’s a trike. This is handy on turns and also could be useful in certain parking situations, where length is an issue. There are several questionably-placed bike racks in San Francisco that spring to mind.

  • No worries about stopping and dumping the kids. It won’t tip over if you don’t get a foot down, because it’s a trike, and trikes are stable when stopped. This is very hard to get used to if you are even an occasional bike rider. At red lights I kept trying to stabilize the MK1-E, which eventually I pictured kind of rolling its eyes at me.
  • As usual, a decent front-loader will set you back several grand: the MK1-E lists at $6200, while the unassisted version is a somewhat more palatable $4300. Seats, seat belts and rain hoods are extra.

What I didn’t like about the MK1-E

  • Tricycles are wide, like as wide as houses, and the MK1-E is no exception. This is the obvious tradeoff, of course, for being short and giving the kids lots of headroom (curse you, Euclidean geometry). The MK1-E owned the bike lane and sometimes even more. I wasn’t particularly worried about getting doored, because that front box would most
    Side by side, however, the Bullitt appears much smaller than the MK1-E.

    Side by side, however, the Bullitt is much narrower than the MK1-E.

    likely take out the distracted driver’s door and not even rattle the kids inside, but it did mean that there were times in traffic when I couldn’t pass like I normally do. When I rode it on and off the sidewalk to park, or in front of our house, I realized pretty quickly that my usual “go up through the curb cut” method was not working, because the trike is so wide that only one wheel could fit in the curb cut and the other one either slammed down or had to be wrenched up. The MK1-E made me a driveway-spotter, because I needed that kind of width. It was a little nerve-wracking getting it through the bollard-protected entrance path to Golden Gate Park the first time I tried. We chose a narrow bike for its maneuverability in San Francisco; this trike is far from that. If you’re used to riding with a trailer, the MK1-E would probably be an improvement, because the width is in front so you can see whether the load you’re trying to thread will fit, but if you’re used to a bike, it is definitely an adjustment. What’s more, there are lots of situations where a wide tricycle will be very difficult to park. Poorly placed bike racks are often too close to each other, or to nearby bollards or street lights, and that front box takes up a lot of room.

  • The battery does not fit tightly inside its compartment. What that meant was that when I went over a serious bump, it disconnected and the assist turned off. The first time it happened I thought I had overheated the assist going up the hill, and trying to go up the hill behind the Conservatory of Flowers on a big heavy trike unassisted is pretty much the opposite of fun. For the record I was bringing it like a boss up that hill while unassisted, albeit a slow and deliberate boss. However it is not really
    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    The not-entirely-secure battery. Maybe I should have put a purse on top of it to hold it down.

    supposed to be possible to overheat a mid-drive assist (so far I have not been able to manage it, anyway). The guy from Vie realized what had happened when we swung back to grovel about breaking the trike in less than 20 minutes. He reconnected the battery and showed me how to do it as well. So okay, but then I went over the streetcar tracks, and it disconnected again, and then hit an asphalt crack, and it disconnected, and criminy. So I started thinking, “Maybe I could get a mini-bungee, and find a way to strap it down, I wonder if there are attachments…” And then I thought, “Wait a minute: shouldn’t a battery that stays put when you ride over a bump really be a given on an assisted trike?” Our BionX battery locks into place, and now I know it’s not just to keep it from being stolen. I’m sure that any of the shops carrying the MK1-E, which seem to be excellent, can kludge a fix for this issue, but this is actually the kind of screw-up that made me wonder a little about the build. Going over uneven pavement is a fact of life, so much so that it even happens sometimes in the cycling paradise that is Copenhagen. Maybe I am overly paranoid.

  • The assist [note: see comments below as this motor has since been upgraded]  is what I have begun to think of as “European-style” and that is my new shorthand for an assist that it is not necessarily ideal for the hard-riding conditions endemic to hilly cities on the west coast of the United States. It comes up gradually, and there is no boost button, so you can’t get a fast start at an intersection. It won’t give up on a hill, but when fully loaded on a steep hill you will be working really hard, and going really slowly. For the purposes of comparison, Matt and I hit some of the serious hills around our neighborhood (some of these go up to a 25% grade, although we stayed in the 12%-18% range), figuring that our bike and trike could take it, which for the record, they both could. I was carrying our daughter on the MK1-E and Matt was carrying our son (who is heavier) on the Bullitt, which we recently upgraded to the BionX D assist. And he skunked me every single time. We’d start out together and I would be working harder and harder as he peeled away, he’d reach the top at about the point that I got 2/3s of the way up. Then he’d wait for me, not even breathing hard, and I would be panting and ask to take a little break before we went up the next hill. For a while he thought it was funny, but eventually it became clear that the boys were getting bored of waiting around for me (“Are we done yet?”) To be fair: I am the weaker rider of the two of us. And also to be fair: the assist will not quit and strand you in the middle of the hill, which the old BionX would do sometimes when pushed to its limits (we have not yet reached the limits of the BionX D). But good grief, it was hard. It is no Stokemonkey.
  • While the assist won’t give up, I found that on the steepest hill we rode, the trike’s steering got away from me. The good news is that it’s very hard to dump a trike, so I didn’t. It was still unnerving. I wanted to see what
    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    Check out that cover; super-sleek.

    the assist could do, so we headed up the hill to the kids’ old preschool, which is perched on the edge of Mt. Sutro and easily the steepest hill we’ve ever ridden on a daily basis. And as mentioned, it kept pumping out the power as I struggled up, but about halfway up the weight of my daughter got away from me, at which point the MK1-E did what I think of as “the trike thing” and dove for the curb. We drifted over and I walked it back down (no problem thanks to the hydraulic disc brakes). So… I’m not sure what to make of this. I suspect that I would get better with the handling over time; this was, after all, my first ride on this trike and it had been three years since I rode any other trike. Perhaps more relevantly, that’s a real nightmare of a hill, way outside the range of most people’s daily rides. So while I didn’t like it when it happened, it’s not ever going to be an issue for people living in places like Portland, or even the less outrageous neighborhoods of Seattle and San Francisco. However, that’s what will happen on the MK1-E at the limits of your strength and/or riding ability on a steep hill. Now I know. [Note: see the comments below, the MPF assist on this test bike has since been upgraded to the Bosch, which is both more powerful and noisier according to commenters.]

  • It weighs a ton. To the extent that I have any intuition on these things, it felt like it was on the heavier end of the family carrying bike/trike set. Some of that is because of all the lovely features that have been piled on (tradeoffs!) Some of it is probably the nature of the tricycle riding experience (seated upright, pushing a third wheel, etc.) I would love to try the Bosch mid-drive on a lighter bike to see how it handles the same hills, and get a fix on how much of the effort I needed to put out was simply a function of how much weight it was pushing.
  • Here I have to make my usual complaint that cargo bike (and trike) manufacturers seem to focus on either the front end and ignore the back or vice versa. The MK1-E has a rear rack that can hold panniers and I believe a Yepp seat, so it’s actually doing pretty well on that score, but because we have so much experience now with the more versatile racks on midtails and longtails, I would love to see a front-loading bike or trike that came standard with things like a towing rack. This is a minor quibble, but I keep mentioning it in the hope that one day the universe will respond

Things I am clueless about

  • We did not have occasion to test the battery power. I have no idea what kind of range this trike has while assisted.
  • This is a relatively new company and bicycle, so there’s not much to say yet about people’s experiences with it. Having excellent parts is a good sign with respect to potential longevity of the trike, however.

 

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

Matt made me stop to get this picture; I was totally booking here.

For reasons of width alone, we would never have seriously considered the MK1-E for ourselves. We are narrow-bike people all the way, because we live in San Francisco. However (assuming that the battery were firmly attached) I can imagine lots of places and situations that this trike would be a great choice. I was particularly impressed that it could fit two older kids so easily. And outside of the extreme situations I put it in, it is a lot of fun to ride. I’ve ridden a lot of family bikes now, and there are some I feel no great desire to ride again. But this trike? I would totally ride it again, as long as it wasn’t anywhere too steep.

 

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Filed under Copenhagen, electric assist, family biking, Portland, San Francisco, Seattle

Family bike shops that I like

I get asked questions about family biking a lot (Always welcome! Feel free to email! I will be painfully slow to respond, but it will happen eventually). One of the more common questions I get from people is where I think they should shop for bikes. This can be an awkward question to answer. There are thousands of bike shops and only one me. Admittedly there are far fewer family-oriented bike shops, but still. I live in San Francisco and mostly travel north from there, because that’s where my family lives. There’s no way that I could ever be truly objective, let alone offer advice to people in say, Minnesota.

That said, at least I have no conflicts of interest. I am a professor of public health and health policy at a university medical center with an extremely strict policy about any kind of giveaway that could be even vaguely construed as professionally-related. Although my primary work is in tobacco control, active transportation could easily be viewed as related to public health, because, well, it is in fact related to public health. Under the terms of my contract, I can’t be compensated for anything I say on this blog or accept any discounts or freebies (loaners are okay, but I have to give them back). So if nothing else it’s safe to say that my wildly subjective opinions are based solely on my wildly subjective experiences.

So anyway, below is a list of family-focused bike shops that I’ve liked and would visit again. It is a short list. First, as mentioned, I haven’t really visited THAT many bike shops, plus I only included shops that would actually call themselves family bike shops (which excludes our local bike shop). Second, I only listed places where we’ve made two or more purchases. My apologies to all the other family bike shops—I’m sure you’re great, but I have no way to know. Third, to the extent that you can trust anonymous reviews, they all get great reviews.

Shops are listed in order of their distance from my house. I admit that this is a totally useless organizing principle to anyone but me, but hey, it’s my blog.

Ocean Cyclery (1935 Ocean Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Enablers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Not that I saw
  • Kids’ play area: No, but noodling around on kids’ bikes is encouraged
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Yuba (Mundo, Boda Boda)
  • Assisted bikes: Yes, BionX both for the Yubas and as an after-market addition
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, and a buyback program to help afford bigger bikes as kids grow!
  • Child seats: Yes, and a lot of expertise with them
  • What we bought there: My old Breezer, Bobike Maxi, Bobike Junior, accessories, service
  • Other: Ocean Avenue is a nice commercial strip with places to retreat when the kids get antsy, like the burrito shop next door. Transit access is excellent (it’s on the K line) and the former hippodrome around the corner is an outstanding place for test rides, especially for kids.

Ocean Cyclery is the first real family bike shop I ever visited, and they made it very easy to start biking for transportation. It is the shop where I often send people who ask me about different kinds of child seats, who want to buy bikes for their kids, and who tell me that they’re not sure they’re up for this “riding for transportation” thing that we’ve got going on but still want a bike, something inexpensive so they can ride with the kids on their new bikes in the park on weekends. Ocean has the widest selection I’ve seen in San Francisco of what I consider traditional family biking goods: child seats, trailers, and kids’ bikes. One Christmas they had a bike in the front window with a Bobike Mini on the front and a Bobike Maxi on the rear ready for test-rides, the only time I’ve ever seen such a thing in a bike shop. They offer a buyback program for kids’ bikes to make it easy to upgrade as your kids grow, and also have a great selection of bags and accessories. On the cargo bike side, they carry Yubas (assisted and unassisted). The owners, Jeff and Sabina, support the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition and they are incredibly nice. As a bonus, Ocean has possibly the best location for test riding bicycles in all of San Francisco: it is a block away from the city’s former hippodrome, which is now a sleepy flat oval road surrounded by homes. Even little kids can safely try out bikes there. If you’re interested in family biking but not sure where to start, Ocean Cyclery is your bike shop.

 

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

All the pretty assisted bikes live here.

The New Wheel (420 Cortland Avenue, San Francisco, California)

“The Curators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: No, but older kids will adore the tools and parts hung on every square inch of the bathroom walls; our son had to be forcibly extricated
  • Kids’ play area: No; however younger kids can play with kids’ bikes and older kids will gravitate to the shop’s iPad
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No
  • Cargo bikes: Xtracycle EdgeRunner
  • Assisted bikes: All their bikes are assisted, and they will put after-market BionX assists on other bikes
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes, plus, unusually, a good selection of helmets for infants
  • Child seats: Yes, the Yepp rear seat
  • What we bought there: Our son’s Torker Interurban (20”), Xtracycle EdgeRunner, our daughter’s helmet, BionX upgrades, accessories, regular service visits
  • Other: Cortland Avenue is a quiet and increasingly upscale commercial strip so there are restaurants and shops, plus the Bernal Heights library about a block away if the kids lose patience. Getting there is a serious haul by bike but the 24 Muni line will drop you right in front of the shop.
The New Wheel is out at Sunday Streets offering test rides, FYI.

The New Wheel comes out to Sunday Streets to offer test rides of assisted bikes, FYI.

The New Wheel is a focused bike shop. They carry only electric-assist bikes (okay, and unassisted kids’ bikes—it’s illegal for kids to ride assisted bikes in California). They’re actually even more focused than that: they carry extremely reliable assisted bikes that anyone can ride. The whole electric assist market is still pretty nascent, and has only recently become more than a private enclave for the do-it-yourself set. For someone new to the idea of riding a bike, let alone riding an assisted bike, the obsessive hobbyist end of the market can feel completely overwhelming, to put it politely. It felt that way to me. The New Wheel is not set up like a traditional bike shop, with mystifying parts and accessories piled up on every surface. Instead they have bikes in front to test ride, and some reasonably identifiable accessories mixed in with actual art. It is a very non-threatening place for a new rider to visit. If you want an electric-assist bike, you should go to The New Wheel. Their expertise with assist systems is in a class of its own. Plus, they always have the most recent BionX software upgrades and know how to tweak the system to maximize the torque for hill-climbing. They also reset our BionX so that it kicked in at 0.5kph instead of 2mph, which has been a total game-changer for us. Many of their commuter bikes have mid-drive assists, some of which could probably scale anything short of a vertical wall. Also, they have the prettiest assisted bikes, with none of the hulking beasts that anchor (literally) the less expensive and less reliable end of the market. In keeping with the curated feel, they offer one family/cargo bike: the EdgeRunner (assisted, obviously), as well as one kids’ bike in each size. Everything in their shop promises years of trouble-free riding. Brett and Karen, the owners, are kind people who have immense patience with my wild ideas, and they are also big supporters of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition. Their service is top-notch, way beyond expectations (you can bring your unassisted bike here for service too). Because The New Wheel is an all-assisted bike shop, it is located in Bernal Heights, among the steepest hills in the city, including Bradford Street, with its 41% grade. That’s kind of inconvenient for me personally, but hey, why not?

 

There are so many bikes it's tough to get a good shot.

There are so many bikes it’s tough to get a good shot.

Blue Heron Bikes (1306 Gilman Street, Berkeley, California)

“The Aggregators”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh, we didn’t visit the bathroom. Sorry.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a Lego table in the back corner, plus an extensive collection of kids’ bikes that they’re encouraged to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: No, although you can sometimes use the deck of a Bullitt for this
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Surly, Xtracycle, Yuba, and more
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair
  • What we bought there: Brompton accessories
  • Other: Gilman Street is a small commercial strip with some options for food and entertainment. The shop is right on the Ohlone Trail and easily accessible from North Berkeley BART.
The Lego table

The Lego table

A question I get a lot: “I want to try a lot of different kinds of cargo bikes. Is it worth traveling to Blue Heron in Berkeley?” My answer: Yes. Yes it is. They have all the bikes. They have cargo bikes I’d never seen or heard of before, and after the years I’ve spent obsessing about cargo bikes this is a rare experience for me. So if you want to compare riding a Bullitt with a Brompton with an Xtracycle with a Yuba with an odd-looking longtail that just came off a container ship from Japan, all in both assisted and unassisted versions, well, now you know where to go. It’s pretty obvious that Berkeley real estate is less expensive than San Francisco real estate, because they also have piles of commuter bikes and dozens of different kids’ bikes. As a result, Blue Heron Bikes is the Bay Area’s one-stop family bike shop. Even better, it is located along the Ohlone Trail, a shared bicycle-pedestrian path that runs past the North Berkeley BART station, and it has a large flat paved area in the back, which allows safe test rides for all ages. The owner, Rob, is passionate about family biking and patient with families who come in and are understandably a little overwhelmed with all the options they find. I’ve now met more than one family who bought a Bullitt there and made an adventure out of getting it back to San Francisco by ferry or BART, carving out an ad hoc Silk Road for family bicycles. Nonetheless, I feel resentful that Blue Heron is located in Berkeley and not in San Francisco.

 

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Why not test ride in the shop itself?

Clever Cycles (900 SE Hawthorne Boulevard, Portland, Oregon)

“The Experts”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes, and diapers too. Like Ikea! But cooler.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a large corner with a couch, toys, and books, plus kids’ bikes out the wazoo to try
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes
  • Cargo bikes: Babboe, Bakfiets, Brompton, Metrofiets, Nihola, Surly, Workcycles, Xtracycle, Yuba, plus we spotted dark horses like the Kidztandem and Onderwater—seriously, it’s unreal
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and they developed and sell the Stokemonkey assist.
  • Kids’ bikes: Yes
  • Child seats: Yes, yes, yes
  • What we bought there: rental bikes, accessories
  • Other: Hawthorne Boulevard is a commercial strip featuring distressingly fast car traffic with some options for food and entertainment (basically a nearby bar as I remember it). Head back onto the nearby quiet and leafy streets of Ladd’s Addition for test rides instead.
Why not a hot tub?

Why not a hot tub?

Clever Cycles is the drag queen of family bike shops: it’s faaaaaaabulous! Honestly it’s difficult to describe, let alone oversell, Clever Cycles’ raw, unadulterated family biking appeal. I say this even though the first time I walked in, the bike at the front door had a huge growler full of beer attached to it. Honestly this seemed a little off to me for a family bike shop, but that is only because I do not live in Portland. Portland is so beer-crazy that I assume local hospitals give it away to new parents in lieu of formula. Clever Cycles is a venerable institution in the world of family biking, as its owners were importing, designing, and selling family bicycles and electric assists before we even had children. There was clearly unmet demand back then, because the shop has expanded through its various incarnations to the point that it’s now gigantic, at least to my eyes. It does not look like any other bike shop. It looks more like a bike museum (admittedly I have only visited one bike museum, in Davis, California). In the front showroom the box bikes look almost petite, and the kids’ bikes are parked in long rows on oriental rugs. There is so much space that the mechanical parts of the shop are tucked away in back, with rows of even more bikes. Their accessories are so extensive that I would embarrass myself with the omissions if I tried to give details. However they were the first U.S. shop to discover and carry the Brompton child seat, back when the idea of carrying a kid on a Brompton sounded roughly as plausible as throwing a kid all the way to the moon. In the realm of family biking I suspect they have accumulated more firsts than even they can remember. Clever Cycles has the largest selection of rental bikes that I have ever seen, including Bromptons and family trikes. The shop also rents out portable hot tubs that it delivers to customers by bike, because this is Portland. I mean, obviously. Unusually, Clever Cycles sells some clothing too. My only frustration with Clever Cycles is that it is so well-suited to its locale (as it should be) that it is rather less well-suited to mine. Nonetheless, at least one owner is a former resident of San Francisco, and so even if their stock doesn’t reflect our issues—it’s hard to imagine a shop making a go of selling unassisted bakfietsen in San Francisco, although one shop tried and moved to Sausalito—they have the expertise to speak intelligently about them. Even some of the offhand comments they made back in 2012, when we first bought our Bullitt, turned out to be more prescient than I had hoped (they were skeptical about adding the Patterson). At some point I realized that I was not totally ignorant about family bikes anymore, but I know enough to know my limits. The people running Clever Cycles are experts.

 

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Bullitt line-up at Splendid Cycles

Splendid Cycles (407 SE Ivon Street, Portland, Oregon)

“The Visionaries”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Uh… once again we neglected to check the bathroom.
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a corner with a bench and a basket of books and toys
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, plus the deck-of-a-Bullitt option
  • Cargo bikes: Bullitt, Butchers & Bicycles, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: No
  • Child seats: Yes, various options for the Bullitt and Yepp seats for the Xtracycle
  • What we bought there: our Bullitt, rental bikes, Bullitt parts and accessories
  • Other: Splendid Cycles is located on a weird little corner underneath the freeway and near some industrial/construction companies, which I offer as a warning because when we first got there, we thought we were in the wrong place. The shop is also directly adjacent to a lovely bike path that runs along the river. Portland, I sometimes find you kind of schizo. Who zones this way?
The kid zone

The kid zone

I first visited Splendid Cycles after we realized that we might actually be able to stop using our car in San Francisco if we had the right bike. The BionXed Big Dummy that they had available for test rides was the first assisted bike that I ever rode, and after hauling my extremely patient friend Todd on its deck up the hills around the shop I couldn’t stop grinning and thinking, “This could totally work!” Joel and Barb, the owners of Splendid, imagined a world full of crackpots like me and decided they could help make it happen. And so they did something that I would never have the courage to do: they opened a shop that sold only cargo bikes. And holy smokes, they were right: there really were a lot of crackpots like me out there. Splendid is best known for selling Bullitts (and in fact it serves as the source for all the Bullitts sold in the family bike shops we visit, as it imports them). But there are lots of good reasons to ride longtails as well, and Splendid had child seats on Big Dummies long before the EdgeRunner made its debut in less forward-thinking shops. They rent bikes as well, which is very helpful when learning to maneuver cargo bikes—in some cases (mine) there is a learning curve. I’m still awed by the sheer bravado involved in opening up a bike shop that doesn’t carry any “normal” bikes, but you’d never guess it was anything out of the ordinary from talking to Joel and Barb, who are down to earth and incredibly helpful and also know way more about cargo bikes than, like, everybody. When they started their shop cargo bikes were pretty much a boutique niche and everything was somewhat customized. The rain cover for the Bullitt was their development, and getting it made riding with our kids in all weather conditions completely unremarkable. Both the covers and the larger wooden boxes that hold more kids are accessories they developed with local Portland businesses. When we bought our Bullitt we had the option of getting a larger wooden box but declined in favor of the standard box both because we couldn’t get a rain cover for the wooden box and because we wanted a narrower bike. Not long after that, they’d developed rain covers for the larger wooden boxes and now they have 3-child Bullitt boxes and rain covers for those too. They are already selling Bullitts with the super-powered BionX D on them, which is not an option yet here in San Francisco, no matter how often I call. (One of the problems of being an early adopter is that now I’m always envious of the latest innovations.) They never stop coming up with new cool things, many of which are so popular that they stop being innovations. Then they put the only-slightly-less-cool older bikes on the incredible sale page of their website. Honestly, I didn’t really catch on to how impressive it all was at first because Joel and Barb are so mellow. They put their bike shop on an industrial corner and concentrate on the bikes rather than the bling. Splendid has all the right things without any unnecessary extras, and they are always coming up with more awesome ideas that make family biking (and the somewhat-less-interesting-to-me cargo biking) easier and more fun. Whenever there is discussion about adding bike lanes in San Francisco, there is always blowback from some people about how it’s only for hipsters, and that you can’t shop for groceries or carry kids on a bike. These people are wrong. Splendid Cycles is building a world where people can carry anything and everything on bikes.

 

The G&O logo is a family bike.

The G&O logo is a family bike.

G&O Family Cyclery (8417 Greenwood Avenue N, Seattle, Washington)

“The Tinkerers”

Family-friendly hit list

  • Changing table in the bathroom: Yes
  • Kids’ play area: Yes, a train table right in front, plus some balance bikes that kids can ride
  • Customer seating suitable for nursing a baby: Yes, stools by the counter (and the deck of a Bullitt), not to mention a La Leche League sticker in the front window
  • Cargo bikes: Brompton, Bullitt, Metrofiets, Soma Tradesman, Surly Big Dummy, Xtracycle
  • Assisted bikes: They carry assisted cargo bikes and will add after-market BionX, Bafang, or Stokemonkey kits to other bikes.
  • Kids’ bikes: Cleary bikes (all sizes), Soma BART
  • Child seats: Yes, including the elusive Brompton Pere chair (in stock!)
  • What we bought there: Brompton parts and service, Xtracycle EdgeRunner accessories (frame-mounted front rack, Rolling Jackass center stand)
  • Other: Greenwood Avenue has great options for food and entertainment when the kids start to lose it, including the Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company (formerly the Seattle outpost of 826 Valencia)
The train table

The train table

G&O stands for Tyler Gillies and Davey Oil, and while their shop is less than two years old, I knew Davey well before then, when he had his own blog, Riding on Roadways (now folded into the shop blog). I love G&O because it has and does all the things that people learn they want once they start riding around with kids. It’s a bike shop that grew out of family biking. Almost all the bike shops we visited when we first started riding talked about family biking as something extra, “oh yeah, we’ll do that when we have time, later.” In most cases, of course, later meant never, but even shops that pick up family biking sometimes do it half-heartedly. But not here! This is a shop that had a changing table in the bathroom and a La Leche League sticker on the front door the day that they opened, and that puts the kids’ play table right out in front with the bikes. You can tell when you walk in the door that no one is going to freak out about your trying out a Yepp seat by actually putting a kid in it, something that happened to us (twice, in fact). G&O has launch parties when customers come to pick up their new bikes. They make a point of keeping accessories in stock that don’t necessarily make money, like the Brompton child seat, because “why should you have to wait for us to order it?” You want obscure kid-hauling stuff, like a helmet sized for a toddler? They’ve got your back. Despite the huge increase in family biking lately, things like toddler helmets are in fact considered obscure, and cargo bikes don’t necessarily have all the things families want yet. I think of Davey and Tyler as tinkerers because I know that there is nothing you can dream up that they won’t try to make work, as long as it’s safe. When I visited their shop last year, they were installing a Yepp mini front seat on a giant mountain bike with a telescopic fork, and the whole rig was covered in mud. It was the weirdest combination I’d seen in a while, and I stopped dead and said, “Really?” And Tyler smiled and said, “It’s what they want.” That visit to G&O is also where I found the frame-mounted front rack that now graces my EdgeRunner (maybe grace is the wrong word there, I concede that it’s not pretty), when I test rode Davey’s own personal EdgeRunner, which has the same rack. G&O also tested the first true pedal-assist Stokemonkeys, and have put more kinds of assist systems on a Bullitt than I knew existed. And of course they’ll take care of non-family bikes too. Servicing family bikers is like building for accessibility—what’s good for people in wheelchairs is good for everybody, and what’s good for families on bikes is good for all riders. Seattle is lucky to have G&O.

 

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, cargo, destinations, electric assist, family biking, kids' bikes, Portland, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

We tried it: BionX v. Stokemonkey

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

Test riding the stoked EdgeRunner in Seattle. Thanks to Davey Oil for the chance to ride, and Madi Carlson for the great photo!

One of my colleagues recently taught me two great tricks. The first is to never use the word “but” when talking to people because it  always ticks them off. The second was that anything could be summed up in exactly six words. She writes six-word biographies for every graduating student in her program. It is amazing. Given that I am a chronic offender in the Too Long: Didn’t Read sweepstakes, I’ve decided to open all of my reviews with the six word summary. Here’s one now.

BionX: Easy to use

Stokemonkey: Powerful

I’m sure that the respective producers of BionX and Stokemonkey electric assists now wish that they could reach through the screen and punch me in the face. Good thing it’s a virtual world.

There are basically two heavy-hitters in the world of electric assists for cargo bikes. They are BionX, which is a rear-wheel assist (motor on the rear wheel hub), and Stokemonkey, which is a mid-drive assist (motor on the frame running through the chain). The Stokemonkey was out of production for a long time, and now it’s back. I had the chance to try both assists on the same bike, the Xtracycle EdgeRunner, while we were visiting Seattle over spring break, thanks to the lovely G&O Family Cyclery. G&O was the only shop I have ever seen that had both kinds of assists on the same model of bike, which I rode on the same hills on the same day, with both my kids on the back. It made for a near-perfect comparison. The kids ate a few crackers between the Stokemonkey ride and the BionX ride, but still.

I have already written about other brands and types of assists—there are front wheel assists, like on the original Yuba elMundo, and other companies make both rear wheel and mid-drive assists. I’m concentrating on BionX and Stokemonkey because most people shopping for an add-on family bike assist end up choosing between these two, for reasons that center around power and reliability. Both have good odds of hauling a loaded cargo bike around, and they have the reputation of being the least likely to die within a few months of purchase (or immediately after the warranty expires). People who know a lot about electric assists may end up finding or hacking something better. Nevertheless your average rider wants something that does not require the patience and ability to read through and comprehend the forums on Endless-sphere. (Note: when I refer to “pedal assist” here and everywhere else, I am using the EU legal definition, meaning an assisted bike that will only move if you are already pedaling. Although there are other definitions, this is the one that most people I speak with intuit when they hear the term pedal assist.)

BionX

We have a lot of familiarity with the BionX, because it’s the system on our Bullitt. It has served us well, although it is not perfect.

  • How much does a BionX cost? $1800 installed by The New Wheel in San Francisco (SF-suitable system with 48v battery)
  • How much does a BionX weigh? 14.1 pounds including battery

What I like about the BionX

  • The BionX is easy to use. This is a set-it-and-forget-it system combined with a throttle. You can get a boost across intersections by pushing the red button (the throttle), or set a level of assist from 1 to 4 and feel super-powered as you blaze through the city. The pedal assist is the best of any electric assist that I have tried, and I have tried a lot of them now. The BionX was the first assist that I ever tried, and in a way it spoiled me for other assists, because it is truly intuitive to use. There is no learning curve. Anyone who has ever ridden a bike can master it immediately. Many people end up leaving the bike in a relatively high gear and using the different assist levels as gears, and this actually works pretty well.
  • It is pretty powerful. BionX systems come in different flavors, and we got the most powerful, with a 48v battery. It works well in San Francisco on our daily rounds, which feature a number of serious hills (Twin Peaks, Alamo Square, Lone Mountain) and various unnamed elevation changes that would qualify as hills in a less topographically challenging city. Families in Seattle, which has less steep hills yet is nonetheless pretty hilly, seem content with the 36v battery system. The cheapest and least powerful systems are probably best for handling stiff winds in areas with mild hills.
  • It requires minimal maintenance. There are people who will argue this point. The consensus from the bike shops that we patronize is that they use their assists in a different way than we do. We rarely use the throttle; instead, we use the assist levels to maintain a steady speed and effort level. We do not burn through power trying to race other riders. We have the shop check the wiring every few months. With one major exception, which is that we initially had spokes on the rear wheel that were too thin, which broke by the dozen, the system has not given us grief. We replaced those spokes with much thicker ones and haven’t had issues since.
  • It is silent. Lots of assists make a humming noise, or much louder noises. The front wheel assists I have tried definitely sound like motors, and the EcoSpeed mid-drive frankly sounds like a motorcycle. One of the reasons we like riding bicycles is the relative quiet and the opportunity for conversations with our kids, and so the noise of some of these systems was a deal-killer for us. This is not an issue with the BionX. It is the ninja of electric assists.
  • It has regenerative braking. This means that you can use the BionX system to slow (or stop) the bike and recharge the battery while going downhill. It is debatable whether regenerative braking adds much to battery capacity—there is loss in any system. In an area like San Francisco, where steep hills abound, careful route planning can actually mean you get some power from the regenerative braking, although this may not apply outside the city. It is inarguable, however, that using the regenerative braking through the motor saves a lot of wear and tear on the bike’s brakes. And it offers me a lot of peace of mind, given that we have had brakes fail in the past. I view the BionX regenerative braking like skydivers view a backup parachute.

What I don’t like about the BionX

  • Starts can be slow and difficult. The system is set up to kick in once the bike reaches 2mph. If you are trying to start a loaded bike from a dead stop on a steep hill, you may have trouble getting to that speed. This is particularly the case if, like me, you have a bad leg. Outside of G&O, which is on a moderate hill, I could not get started with both kids on board. I had to walk to bike to a level area. This is evidently something that can be modified—you can reset the controller so that the assist kicks in at a much lower speed [update: as low as 0.5 kph]. Now that I know this, it is high on our to-do list. That modification would help a lot, yet it does not change the fact that no matter what, the initial effort on the start is going to be human-powered. This is our biggest issue with the BionX. It was less of a big deal before I was injured.
  • It gives up on really steep hills. There are hills in San Francisco that we cannot get up with a fully-loaded bike—the system overheats, which means it’s back to pure pedal-power at the worst possible time. For people outside of San Francisco, this may be no limitation whatsoever, because SF is the second-hilliest city in the world, also very windy, blah blah blah. This actually turned out not to be a huge deal for us. The system is powerful enough that it can handle most of our trips, and we prefer to take alternate routes for 18%+ grades whether we are riding assisted bikes or not. On the extremely rare occasions where there there is no alternative, there’s always transit or car-share.
  • The proprietary battery limits the range. Also it’s annoying. The BionX system is completely self-contained. It’s like Apple computers. You can’t get a battery any more powerful than the battery they supply. You can’t set up a backup battery to extend your range, except by carrying another battery and swapping it in, and their batteries are expensive. There is a big logo on it, which is irritating. However the main issue is that you have no way to control the range other than by picking one of their batteries: you get what you get. The range is not unreasonable, and it handles most of our needs, but there are times when we have to be sure to carry the charger and find a place to plug it in, or suck it up and accept that some of the trip home will be exclusively human-powered. Thankfully that is a much less painful prospect now that we no longer live on a steep hill.
  • The system can be finicky.  Matt has dropped two controllers and when you drop them, they break. In one case, the controller seemed to be fine but then the bike started jerking when the assist was on max, because it wasn’t really fine. Replacing the controller costs $100. Argh! The bike shop suggested that we super-glue the third controller in place. There is a certain amount of loose connection hassle with some of the controller parts—the wire to the regeneration system sometimes works loose, and so on. We have the wiring checked regularly and so we haven’t had those problems. I classify this in the same category as our constant brake checks. A certain amount of attention is required.

Stokemonkey

And then there is the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden a stoked bike for exactly one day, so I can’t offer an opinion that is nearly as informed, and for obvious reasons I have no idea about maintenance.

  • How much does a Stokemonkey cost? $1250, not including the battery (varies) or installation ($125 at Clever Cycles in Portland)
  • How much does a Stokemonkey weigh? 21 pounds, not including the battery

What I like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is incredibly powerful. I would go so far as to say it is virtually unstoppable. The chain or the frame will break before the assist gives out. This is not always obvious when you are riding, because weirdly, it doesn’t feel like it is helping. However I know that the ease I was feeling while hauling 100 pounds of my children up a big hill was not natural, especially with a broken leg. If I hadn’t been sure while I was riding the stoked EdgeRunner,  it became obvious when I rode the BionX EdgeRunner, because it took a lot more effort to get up the same hill. Neither was particularly hard, but the Stokemonkey was definitely easier. I doubt there is any hill that would overpower it. Maybe a vertical wall.
  • Starting on a hill is easy. When you push the throttle, the pedals start moving and the bike starts moving. Even with warning, it was hard to be prepared for this. However I had no fear of stopping mid-hill on the Stokemonkey. It cranks right back up to full when you hit the throttle. Starts are my biggest weakness, and so this feature was, for me, the Stokemonkey’s greatest appeal. It destroys all fear of hills. No matter what the incline, it will always start.
  • It is compatible with multiple batteries. If BionX is the Apple of electric assist, Stokemonkey is the Windows environment. You can wire any battery into it, or, if you are like me, your bike shop can do it. That is a cost savings, and there is also a learning curve involved—I have no idea how to pick a battery. Any shop installing the Stokemonkey should have a good idea though.
  • It is pretty quiet. It is not totally silent like the BionX, and I don’t think that any mid-drive assist could be that quiet, because mid-drive motors run through the chain and there is some noise involved with that movement. I found it unobjectionable. There is one exception to the generally quiet nature of the Stokemonkey. If it is installed on a box bike it will be pretty loud, because the noise of the chain will echo through the box.

What I don’t like about the Stokemonkey

  • It is controlled by a throttle only. If you want the assist to kick in, you have to hold the throttle down. It did not take long for my thumb to get sore doing this. I might get used to it over time, but I doubt that I would ever stop finding it annoying.  There is not set-it-and-forget-it option with the Stokemonkey. I’ve ridden enough assisted bikes to know that this is not really workable for us. There are too many hills and too many places where we need to take our hands off the handlebars to signal.
  • It is not pedal assist, yet you must pedal. Truly, the Stokemonkey is neither fish nor fowl. When the assist comes on, the chain moves, and so the pedals also move. You have be right there ready to move your legs. Even with warning, I kept whacking my ankles on the pedals on starts because I wasn’t ready for this. On the flip side, when you release the throttle, the pedals keep moving for a little bit on their own, so again, whacked ankles. Personally I found this a small price to pay for instant starts on hills, but still: ouch. Word from people who have stoked bikes is that you get used to this and adjust relatively quickly. In the interim, wear thick socks.
  • The learning curve is not insignificant. Using a Stokemonkey was described to me as being a bit like driving a manual transmission car. Amusingly enough this analogy came by way of Davey Oil, who does not drive. Nonetheless it is pretty accurate.  The bike will start to shudder if the Stokemonkey thinks you are in the wrong gear, and then you have to shift down to make it settle. My son, sitting on the back of the bike, noticed this immediately, and he found it both fascinating and disconcerting. “You need to shift, mommy!” In combination with the pedals whacking me in the ankles, it required a lot more attentiveness to the assist while riding than I was expecting. This comes at the price of paying attention to other things, like traffic. With this system I would need to spend time getting comfortable on quiet streets without the kids on board before I would feel confident taking it out on a daily commute.
  • The Stokemonkey is only really suitable for certain bikes, mostly longtail bikes. [update: I was wrong, modifications to the original statement follow.] Stokemonkeys are not appropriate for early-model Bakfietsen with roller brakes, or presumably any bike with borderline brakes, because the bike can then get up hills that it can’t safely get down. The mounting of a Stokemonkey is evidently somewhat complicated. This seems to be the case for a lot of mid-drive assists.

The winner: everybody

That was our experience, and to my surprise, it did not feel like a definitive win for either the BionX or the Stokemonkey. I had assumed that when I tried the Stokemonkey I would feel like an idiot for getting the demonstrably less powerful BionX (not that we had a choice at the time) and that I would immediately want to swap out to a Stokemonkey. Although I was really impressed with the Stokemonkey, I didn’t feel like it was a BionX-killer. Moreover, I have no good sense of what I would want when we get a new bike, which for various reasons is on the horizon.

Both systems have strengths and weaknesses, and moreover, both systems can be tweaked/are currently being re-engineered. Grin is working on a pedal-assist, set-it-and-forget-it version of the Stokemonkey, suitable for EdgeRunners only, which [update] has just been released. This resolves my biggest issue with the Stokemonkey (and it means I could probably justify buying an EdgeRunner to myself). On the other hand, resetting the BionX controller to a lower start speed would probably resolve our issues with starts on hills, and San Francisco has a dedicated BionX shop that can handle any maintenance issues. In contrast, getting a Stokemonkey would be a long-distance operation for us. Moreover, BionX is releasing a higher-torque model suitable for super-steep SF hills this year. There isn’t an easy answer. On the other hand, there are no bad decisions to make here either.

In the meantime, I’m incredibly grateful to have had the chance to try both systems on the same bike (which is, incidentally, an awesome bike). Thanks G&O! Thanks Xtracycle!

 

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Filed under bike shops, EdgeRunner, electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Seattle

Hills v. hills: San Francisco and Seattle

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Mugging for the camera at the airport

Last week was our spring break, and the kids and I headed north to visit my mom while Matt flew to Australia for work. This kind of thing is why I make no pretense that our car-free, zero waste schtick is carbon neutral. That said most of our travel is for business, and I believe I speak for both of us when I say that a tax on business travel that would ensure we did far less of it would be pretty awesome.

Anyway, we took the Brompton, which in circus-mode can carry both me and the kids. Flying with the Brompton was an unrelieved nightmare, due to Allegiant Airlines. They are dead to me. Their motto should be: “We will terrify your children.”

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Madi demonstrates the two-kids-on-a-Brompton option.

Nonetheless it was nice to have the bike once we got to Seattle. However I was surprised to find that despite the photos I have posted, even people who know family biking were impressed that it is possible to carry two kids on the Brompton. It’s fun, although not something I would do regularly on long rides. And I asked my son to run up the hills because I’m not the rider I used to be. And this brings me to: hills. Seattle is a hilly city, but hills in Seattle are different than hills in San Francisco.

A lot of San Francisco was built on landfill, which means that there are large chunks of the city (e.g. the Marina, the Financial District) that are perfectly flat. San Francisco doesn’t have a fixie culture because everyone is a masochist. It has a fixie culture because it’s possible to live without ever leaving the Mission. However once you want to go somewhere else, it gets tricky. The hills loom like walls, and although it’s possible to thread the needle sometimes using routes like the Wiggle, eventually people like us who go to work in offices (in Laurel Heights) and have kids in school (on the other side of Lone Mountain) have to start climbing. And San Francisco hills take no prisoners. Once we load 1-2 kids on deck, even with an assist we’re working hard. So riding in San Francisco is often: la-la-la-la-OMFG-OMFG-OMFG-wheeee!-la-la-la, etc.

Seattle is hilly in a more consistent way. In comparison to the totally-in-your-face hills of San Francisco, Seattle’s hills feel almost passive-aggressive. They meander up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down and up and down. I kept wondering where the steep hills were, because from my perspective there weren’t any. However the relentless low-key up and down is not the kind of terrain I’m used to riding and it wore me out (this has happened before—I got smoked by Madi from Family Ride on a deceptively mild-looking but seemingly endless hill in August 2012, while being fried by the equally foreign 80+F temperatures).

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

Bullitt-surfing is understandably more of a San Francisco thing.

From the hill perspective, if riding in San Francisco is like occasionally ripping off a band-aid and screaming in agony, then riding in Seattle is like slowly peeling band-aids off by the dozen while feeling the adhesive tug on every single hair. Except that riding bikes is way more fun than that, of course. There’s nothing wrong with having to make an effort, it proves I’m alive and makes me stronger. I’m sure that if we lived in Seattle I would get used to Seattle hills and find them normal. Admittedly sweating on the way to work is a non-starter in my life, but this is why the universe has provided electric assists.

And speaking of assists, on this trip we stopped by the newly-opened G&O Family Cyclery, which had the Holy Grail of assist comparisons available for test rides: a Stokemonkeyed EdgeRunner and a BionX EdgeRunner. I love EdgeRunners (I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike-I-will-not-buy-another-bike) but had never tried an assisted version before. They are even better than the unassisted versions. We took the stoked and BionX EdgeRunners up and down the hills of Seattle, and if it wasn’t the same kind of challenge we face in San Francisco, it was still a fascinating experience.

My dissertation advisor had five mottos. One of them was, “Whenever you go away on a week of vacation, there’s always two weeks of work waiting for you when you come back.” Alas, this is painfully true, so coming soon: BionX v. Stokemonkey.

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Filed under bike shops, Brompton, EdgeRunner, electric assist, San Francisco, Seattle