Tag Archives: bicycle helmet

We tried it: Specialized Hardrock and a Burley Bee trailer

What’s this?

In our effort to try every cargo bike configuration we could get our hands on, we started out traditionally. While in Bellingham, we rented a mountain bike with a child trailer. My kids have ridden on many different cargo bikes now, plus a couple of bikes rigged as child haulers after the fact (Brompton with IT Chair, city bikes with child seats) but this was their first trip in an actual trailer, and my first time hauling them.

The Specialized Hardrock is a mountain bike. For the purpose of hauling a trailer around town, it was not everything I could have wished for: it had no kick stand, no chain guard, no fenders, no lights, and no bell. The brakes evoked a howling chorus of demons with their shrieking and the saddle was indistinguishable from an anvil.

The full rig

However, renters can’t be choosers and after riding the many gravel-strewn bike paths of Bellingham (which are BEAUTIFUL! Seriously, there is no reason to ever get in a car in Bellingham, it was amazing!) I came to appreciate the knobby tires and front suspension. The bike was very light, which made it an excellent climber, as well as easy to pick up when I had to drop it on the ground to stop riding because there was no tree or post to lean against. Also the pedals were okay, and the shifting was smooth.

While I have little basis for comparison, the Burley Bee, by comparison, seemed much better designed for our use. It helped that the shop had just replaced its rental trailer. Our ride was this particular Bee’s maiden voyage, and it was, as a result, spotless. Evidently the Bee is the entry-level Burley double trailer, but it seemed to have everything that we would want in a trailer, if we wanted a trailer, and I actually sort of do want one now.

Seemed cramped to me, but the kids had no problem with it.

My kids were fascinated by the Bee from the moment they saw it. Luckily my kids get along well so the fact that they were crammed in there pretty tightly was not a problem from their perspective until they’d been riding for almost three hours. During that time we took a few bakery, playground and farmers market breaks, plus multiple stops to put the cover on, take the cover off, put the cover on, take the cover off (they were yanking my chain). Anyway, by the end of the ride they were hitting each other and crying, but they lasted longer than I’d expected.

The pros of this setp:

  • A double trailer can fit two older kids (currently almost 7 years and 3.5 years) without too much squeezing. My son is older than the advised age range for trailers but skinny and tall.
  • It is very, very difficult to tip a trailer over and dump the kids on the ground. I did not manage to do it. Go me!
  • The kids adored the wind and rain screens, and could not stop talking about the potential of this particular rig to keep them from getting wet and cold in the winter. The trailer eliminated their primary concern about not having a car anymore. I thought that although the covers were tensioned with elastic rather than zippered they were well designed and quick to attach and remove. The design of the trailer itself was actually very clever, allowing me to add and remove the front covers without anything coming loose or flapping.
  • The Burley Bee has a junk drawer.

    The Burley Bee comes with a fairly large storage pocket behind the kids seats that can hold a couple of grocery bags, toys, garbage, souvenir rocks, jackets, etc. This was really handy and it appears to be waterproof.

  • There are storage pockets on one side of the kids to hold smaller items (but only on one side, which was a really bad design decision).
  • For quite a while my kids considered the ride an absolute blast, and entertained each other by singing songs and chatting.
  • The Burley trailer seemed quite well made, with strong seams and stiff fabric. Admittedly ours was brand new. The Bee trailer we were riding doesn’t offer a stroller-conversion option (this would never be needed for its purpose as a bike shop rental trailer) but some of the higher-end Burley models do.
  • It was simple to convert the trailer from carrying one kid to two kids. The belts allow two kids side by side, one kid on one side, or one kid in the center. Putting one kid to the side didn’t mess up the balance as far as I could tell.
  • This is the biggest hill we climbed in the trailer.

    Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was relatively easy to pull the fully-loaded (probably 120+ pounds counting trailer, kids and gear stuffed in the back pocket) trailer up a moderate hill—we went up a long slope connecting a multi-use path over the water back to city streets. The sign said it was a 10% grade, and the trip kicked my heart rate up but did not make me sweat.

The cons of this setup:

  • Attached to a lightweight mountain bike, it was at times terrifying going down hills with the trailer, especially on gravel. Once the weight of the trailer, which was pushing me, flung my bike back and forth like the end of a whip. I ended up aiming the bike toward a strong fence at the bottom to stop us—we slid up alongside where I grabbed it and almost toppled over. The kids cheered and asked to do it again because the trailer itself was very stable. However from my perspective this was a big downside. It might be less of an issue with a heavier bike, but I suspect in that case it would be much harder getting up hills.
  • There are pockets in the rear of the trailer compartment to fit helmets but they did not work well for either of my kids, who complained that their heads were pushed too far forward. If it were just my son, who is beyond the age/weight/size limit, I wouldn’t worry, but my daughter also complained, and she is in the appropriate age range. They also asked why they had to wear helmets given that they were in a trailer, when they don’t have to wear helmets in a pedi-cab. I didn’t have a good answer for that.
  • The kids are there but not all there, if that makes sense.

    It was not easy to talk with them while they were in the trailer. My kids are extremely chatty and I missed their conversation, although given that I was solo parenting there was also an element of relief to have some time when someone wasn’t saying, “Mommy! Mommy? MOMMY!” With a trailer you’re with your kids but not WITH your kids. It’s like having them in the next room.

  • The trailer turned like a semi, often caught on fence corners on the multi-use path, and parking it at normal bike racks when we stopped was a nightmare. Bike racks are currently designed for ordinary bikes and not cargo-anything, including trailers. Parking meters and signs are not any better. Even the narrowest double trailer is about 30” wide, and there are places that that just won’t fit.
  • Even though the Burley Bee was brand new, the fabric floor sagged somewhat when loaded. I suspect it would eventually catch on bumps. I have heard there are trailers with solid floors.
  • Eventually, kids crammed in a trailer will fight. At one point when we were with Family Ride in Seattle, her kids, who were in her trailer, began shrieking, “AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! AAAAAAA! GET ME OUT NOW! GET ME OUT NOW!” as we climbed up a hill. They were almost louder than passing cars, and it was difficult to extricate them on a busy street. I was riding her Big Dummy with only my daughter on board, so it was relatively easy to pop one kid out and drop him on the Dummy once we could pull over. But in a situation with only one adult it could have been very ugly. An experience like this can really make a person think hard about dropping a couple hundred dollars on a trailer, if that person is me.
  • “Stop. Please stop. I really don’t want to have to ask you again.”

    An older, taller kid like my son could reach forward with his feet while in the trailer and put them on the rear tire. This was a bad idea on several levels but it didn’t stop him. (It never does.)

  • The vast majority of the conversation with my kids consisted of their requests for me to stop and take the cover off, put the cover on, now just the wind screen but not the rain cover, now we want the rain cover, we want the covers off. Some of this was the novelty value and I’m sure it would wear off a little, but it got tiresome to keep stopping the bike.

So there are some downsides, particularly for our situation, which is admittedly atypical (we have no car, we live on the side of a mountain in a large city that has no neighborhood schools or school buses and thus we face a long commute with kids, etc.) And yet the trailer has some appeal. Mostly I see its value for traveling.

There are some downsides, but this setup is probably a lot cheaper and more versatile than a triple tandem with S&S couplers.

It is extremely hard to travel with a cargo bike. They aren’t allowed on trains, they often don’t fit on cars, and planes are out of the question. Trailers can usually be collapsed into a travel-friendly package. Most of the places we travel, like my mom’s, are places my kids could ride by themselves, except that it’s virtually impossible to rent kids’ bikes. Believe me, we have asked. With the Brompton and a trailer we could travel and not have to worry as much about renting a car or getting rides.

I can also see the value of a trailer for days that my kids would otherwise object to riding somewhere, particularly cold and rainy days. I would want to think hard about the routes we might take with a trailer, given the pounding it gave my rental bike going downhill, but with a heavier bike it could work very well for foul weather. And having the extra cargo capacity could be extremely useful.

Hey mountain bike, I haven’t forgotten that you made me look even more like a dork than usual.

So at this point I am seriously considering keeping an eye out for a used trailer. I can’t imagine it would be worth buying one new for the kinds of uses we’re considering. However if we could find one for the price of a week’s rental in Bellingham, I suspect it would be worth having around.


Filed under family biking, reviews, travel

Amsterdamized bike lanes

Bike lane markers: they interest me, and probably only me. I still have no idea why sharrow bicycles have no riders (free bicycles!) and bike lane bicycles have riders (oppressed bicycles!) The whole business gives new meaning to the term “vehicular cycling.”

Found it! This no-helmet bike lane marker is in Golden Gate Park.

When I last went out photographing bike lane markers I could only find the ones with helmets, despite the fact that the whole endeavor was cued by Family Ride‘s mention of Seattle’s only without-helmets bike lane marker, which she refers to as Amsterdamize. I had a recollection there were some in San Francisco but couldn’t remember where. But success! I recently found some on the Music Concourse at Golden Gate Park. Then I saw more of them in the Presidio. Bike lane markers without helmets are apparently confined to parks in San Francisco. I guess the city only feels the need to encourage helmet use on gritty streets. Is this the reason some people carry helmets rather than wearing them?

I still think that the bike lane markers showing riders wearing “helmets” should actually look like riders wearing helmets rather than riders who happened to find frisbees stuck on top of their heads. But maybe that’s just me.

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Filed under commuting, San Francisco, traffic

Carrying helmets: why?

San Francisco representatives of the “helmet carrying” movement: their backpacks are safer than houses

You can wear a helmet while riding a bike, or you can not wear a helmet. There are arguments both ways; personally, I choose to wear one, but I understand that reasonable people choose not to, for reasons that are just as valid.

But lately I have seen something that makes zero sense to me: people who do not wear helmets, but still carry them around. And I have seen a lot of this lately. This choice seems to combine all of the disadvantages of wearing helmets (inconvenience, lack of style) with all of the disadvantages of not wearing helmets (reduced safety, judgment of passers by). Why?


Filed under advocacy, commuting, San Francisco, traffic

I do, in fact, wear a helmet

It looked even less like a helmet when it was fitted wrong

I never really liked the look of helmets. But I never really liked the look of rain pants, either, and I wear those. When we rode bikes in Copenhagen, we didn’t wear helmets, mostly because we got blank stares from the bike shop owners when we asked about renting them (they did, however, have helmets for the kids to rent).

The blank stares reflected the fact that there is little reason to wear a helmet while riding a bicycle in Copenhagen, where there is extensive protected bicycle infrastructure and drivers know that hurting or killing someone who is not in a car would have consequences. Like losing a driver’s license. Pedestrians and bicycle riders in North America may now laugh bitterly.

So I was delighted to discover that there was a helmet I would not be depressed to wear, by a Danish company no less, the Yakkay. It costs a freaking fortune, compared to other helmets, but honestly, even expensive helmets are not that expensive compared to other things, like, say, a tank of gas these days. The Yakkay does not look like a helmet. It looks like a goofy hat (see also the Lazer CityZen). My kids call my Yakkay the hat-helmet. It has some advantages over a traditional helmet; one of them is that like a hat, it provides ample sun protection. It can also be difficult to fit correctly, which is a hassle and annoying for an expensive helmet, but not really a long term kind of problem.

My kids think my helmet looks goofy. I can't argue with that.

What I did not anticipate when I started wearing this helmet is the widespread perception by the rest of the world that I wasn’t wearing a helmet at all, and “the rest of the world” includes bike shop owners. I get lots of compliments on my “hat,” and occasionally, I get dirty looks or comments about how I should be wearing a helmet if I’m riding with my kids. This IS a helmet, I say, rapping my knuckles on it. “OH!” is the typical reply. “That’s COOL!” But I have begun to realize there are a lot of people who pass judgment without bothering to ask.

Why wear a helmet at all? My mother was surprised that this was actually a serious question. Of course bicycle riders should wear helmets, right? I don’t think it’s so clear-cut, but there are some reasons one could go either way.

Why not? It’s not clear whether helmets are really that protective, relative to the costs. There’s no such thing as a risk-free activity, and we all make choices that balance cost, safety, and convenience. People may drive (less safe) instead of riding the bus (more safe); people eat processed food (less safe) rather than preparing food themselves (more safe); people cross against the light in the crosswalk or fail to make a complete stop at stop signs. Some people find the cost of purchasing and the inconvenience of remembering to carry a helmet not worth the potential increase in safety. Bicycling simply isn’t that dangerous in most circumstances, and helmets don’t protect against many of the likely risks. A culture that demands helmets make bike share programs much more difficult, and creates the perception that riding a bike is a dangerous thing to do, rather than just another form of transportation. Pedestrians and drivers don’t wear helmets, despite the fact that in some circumstances their need for them may be greater. My colleagues at SF General joke darkly that pedestrians in the city probably should be wearing helmets, at least in certain neighborhoods.

Which brings me to the opposite question: why? The short answer to that question for me is that I don’t live in Copenhagen. In a city like San Francisco, where trauma physicians can make a serious argument that pedestrians should be wearing helmets to walk across the street, wearing a helmet while riding a bike starts to look pretty reasonable. I’m going faster than a pedestrian, so if I’m hit I’ll land harder, and I don’t have the same legal right-of-way.

Not that that necessarily matters. Recently, while riding the university shuttle, I watched the driver mosey between two parked trucks into an intersection only to stop dead just before mowing down a man in a wheelchair. “Oh my god!” he cried. “I didn’t even see him!” Seriously? Dude, it is your JOB to drive safely enough that you don’t mow down people in wheelchairs in the crosswalk. But “I didn’t even see him” is the driver’s equivalent of the “Get Out Of Jail Free” card in Monopoly. It works when mowing down pedestrians and wheelchairs and it works when mowing down bicyclists.

San Francisco, like a lot of cities, is undergoing a commuting shift. There are more bicycles on the road than there used to be, and there are, sadly, drivers who view that as an unacceptable imposition on the world that they were used to experiencing. With the protection of a two-ton vehicle, these drivers can express their opinions very dangerously indeed. That’s no reason to get off the road, but it does make me modify some of my choices. I don’t ride my bike on Masonic, for example, or any of the other streets in San Francisco that are widely recognized as high-speed arterials for driving. And I wear a helmet.

My son's helmet has flames on it, and he'll wear it everywhere he can.

There’s also the issue that although wearing helmets is optional (but encouraged) for adult riders in San Francisco, it is required for children. We are very fortunate that our children have never objected to wearing helmets, which is by no means a universal sentiment among the small. They like playing dress-up and we let them pick their own helmets (within their size range), and that helped. But part of the reason we’ve been so fortunate is that we ourselves wear helmets and have never given the impression that it’s an imposition or a hassle. It’s just something we do before we get on the bike, like checking the brakes or packing the lock. Many of the parents who have complained about their kids not wearing helmets admit that they themselves either don’t wear helmets or that they complain about it. We’d much rather wear helmets without complaint than risk not riding at all because our kids refuse to wear their helmets.

My daughter wears her helmet while practicing riding her balance bike in the basement, because it has pink hearts on it.

I do a lot more stupid things to fit in and smooth our daily lives than wearing a helmet when I ride a bike. My helmet is either cute or goofy, depending on whom you ask, and it keeps the sun off my face, and that makes wearing it even less of a burden. It provides some extra protection against accidents (just as a helmet would for a pedestrian or driver), and weighed against the marginal imposition it makes on my life, I choose to wear the helmet every time.

Other people make different choices based on their life circumstances, and I have zero problem with that. I don’t judge other riders for not wearing helmets, and I’ll defend their choice when it comes up in conversation with people whose knee-jerk response to seeing a bicycle rider without one is to call them crazy or stupid. That said, I won’t ride with adults who aren’t wearing helmets when I’m with my kids, as the idea that wearing helmets could be optional is a can of worms I am not ready to open with them.

So I have this crazy hat-helmet, and in the tempest in a teapot that is the question of whether bicycle riders should wear helmets or not, I now get to experience the moral high ground and various minor inconveniences of wearing a helmet as well as the opprobrium of people who think I’m setting a bad example for my kids and risking my own life by not wearing a helmet at all. It is not something I expected when I bought the Yakkay, but I can live with that too. Knowing what I know now, I will not, however, ever buy their kids’ model, even though I think it’s super-cute.

Helmets are also handy while picking dandelions in the park.

I think that there are much bigger problems to worry about in North American cycling than helmets or the lack of them. I find advocacy about helmets, whether pro or con, tiring. When cities in the US have the infrastructure to make cycling feel safer, like extensive protected bike lanes and stronger legal protections, I suspect that bicycle helmets will become a quaint relic of a more dangerous time, used only by certain specialists, much like chainmail.

Until that happens, my feeling is that arguing about whether or not to wear helmets is like arguing about whether a red fire truck is more visible than a neon green fire truck. Maybe one color will make drivers pull over more quickly and thus help get the truck to its destination a little more quickly, but a better use of everyone’s time would be preventing the fire in the first place.


Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco, traffic