Tag Archives: family biking

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

How do you get your kids on their own bikes?

Our kids, at ages 7 and 10, were still riding on our big bikes at the end of 1st grade and 5th grade last year. It got awkward to carry them both, but it was still doable; that why we got big bikes. We like big bikes and we cannot lie. The kids’ commute is complicated by the fact that they both take a van from school to their after-school program, and the van does not have a bike rack. However there was no way we were going to give up their spots in the after-school program, given that it is both an exceptionally good program and literally across the street from my office. The van to after school does, however, have room in the back for a folding bike. As our son got older and tall enough, we offered him the Brompton to ride. We even considered an assisted Brompton, because he’s scrawny and San Francisco is hilly. Unfortunately we learned that the van driver can’t legally offer him assistance loading his bike, and the regular Brompton is already so heavy that he can barely lift it. However he preferred to ride on our bikes.

From here, in 2012

From here, in 2012

The older our kids have gotten, the more drive-by parents and ride-by parents have told us to “put those kids on their own bikes.” I flipped them the bird or ignored them, respectively. I am not into insisting that my kids turn into Mini-Mes (no matter how tempting that is) and I swore that I would never pressure my kids to ride their own bikes. They could ride if and when they were ready. We did however offer bribes: for active transportation, either walking or biking, we pay them 10 cents/mile. I anticipate that they will eventually ask for a better rate (I always encourage them to negotiate) but that’s still cheaper than paying for transit fares.

To this

To this

In August my son started middle school. The same options were on the table as in previous years: I could carry him to school on my bike or he could ride on his own. Also there was one new option: he could take the bus (or rather buses, given that the trip requires a transfer.) The first week he chose to ride on my bike. Then he decided that this was embarrassing and only little kids ride on the back of their parents’ bikes. Next he tried the bus. For the first couple of days we rode with him. This was not necessary, as it turns out that the bus at that time of day and in this part of town only carries students going to school; admittedly the younger kids ride with their parents. However thanks to this experience I did learn that a city bus full of middle school students reeks to eternity. It was weeks ago and I am still reeling from the experience. After a few trips he decided the bus wasn’t to his taste either. He wanted to try riding to school on his own bike. And since then that’s what he’s done, every day.

To this, in 2016. The Brompton is an all-ages bike.

To this, in 2016. The Brompton is an all-ages bike.

So here we are now, with a 6th grader who has chosen to ride his bike to school. We had to jigger the route to find a relatively flat trip because he’s still building up strength. He is still a slow rider and needs extra time on the hills and prefers that one of us shadow him. I am okay with all of these things. He says he likes the extra time he gets to sleep in when he rides his bike instead of taking the bus. He likes feeling independent. He says he wants to try riding completely solo soon. At this point, it seems like he’s going to keep riding, although there are no guarantees. Our daughter, now in 2nd grade, wants to start riding on her own too. So we may be getting another tag-along as a starter; she’s not big enough to ride a Brompton and there’s still that van ride she takes in the middle of the day.

When we started riding bikes everywhere, we did not know how things were going to go as our kids got older. We know families whose kids took to riding their own bikes and never looked back and have heard of families where the kids decided they didn’t like riding their bikes at all, so we kept our expectations low. Our kids are their own people and I know they will find their own way. I don’t always know why they choose to do what they do. At least for now, though, they’ve decided to continue riding with us. And although we try not to overreact and get mushy (at least not where they can see us,) we’re pretty thrilled.

 

 

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, kids' bikes, San Francisco

An ordinary life

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I want to try the Tern Xtracycle for sure.

I used to write posts more often. Part of that was novelty value. The switch from driving everywhere to biking everywhere was pretty exhilarating and there was a lot to learn. There still is, but despite the fact that I have ridden more cargo bikes than anyone else I know who does not run a bike shop (and some people who do) I’m no longer the best person to assess the handling of family bikes, mostly because my kids, at ages 10 (almost 11) and 7, are really heavy. I still do it though, just on a very extended schedule.

We also still carry our kids on the bikes, but it’s almost always one kid at a time. They’re moving to riding their own bikes and our son is now old enough to ride the bus to school on his own (well, buses: there’s a transfer), or at least as much “on his own” as it is to ride the same bus as 100 other middle school students. We still commute by bike, sometimes by bus. We rent a car when we need to cross the Bay Bridge as a family (no bikes allowed on the western span) or when we go camping in Central California, or whatever. We take cabs to the airport. We take the train when it’s an option, which is rare, unfortunately. We do not miss owning a car, and in related news, we like being homeowners in San Francisco.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don't try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

We rode to the Japanese Tea Garden. Pro tip: don’t try to drive to Golden Gate Park.

What people call “alternative transportation” is our ordinary life, and honestly, I kind of stopped paying attention after a while because it doesn’t seem remarkable. At least once a week, one of my colleagues stops at my office, and asks, “Did you bike to work today?” And I say, “Of course I biked today. I always ‘biked today.’”

Alternative transportation is not a bad term though, because it means that we have alternatives. We aren’t tied into getting places any particular way, or to a huge cost sink of a car. Looking for parking has long since become a foreign concept to me, and the biggest maintenance expense we have ever racked up on one of our cargo bikes was in the low three figures. And to this day, when I ride past the line of cars backed up at stop lights, or behind construction equipment, or in the endless wait for summer camp pickup, there is a part of me that thinks, “Suckers!” Obviously I have room for self-improvement.

We travel all kinds of ways, and I wish everyone could. Both Matt and I have aging parents who probably should not be driving, but they live on steep hills without transit on roads with a posted speed limit of 35mph, successfully designed to encourage drivers to take it to 50+mph (and they do), and there is definitely no 8-80 bicycle infrastructure; there aren’t even consistent sidewalks. Their only alternative to driving is to move. We know kids who grew up in places without transit or sidewalks, and to this day the thought of taking the bus terrifies them. Car culture doesn’t allow alternatives, and thus it traps people who are unable to drive, and similarly traps people who are able to drive into taking those who aren’t everywhere they need to go.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

Our daughter has moved up to the Torker; our son has moved up to the Brompton.

It doesn’t have to be that way, though, and here we are, hanging in in the new normal, proving that even carrying kids by bike can become unremarkable after a while. We see more families on the road with us every year; it makes the commute fun. When I was riding my daughter to summer camp earlier we saw another EdgeRunner with kids on it and she yelled, “One of us!” There are still plenty of people who haven’t tried it yet though. Every week, we get buttonholed by parents walking to their cars who say, “That bike looks awesome! Do you love it?” Yes. Yes we do. It’s still awesome.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco

Is it too good to be true?

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Two kids on our Kona MinUte, not an everyday thing

Our path to all-bikes-all-the-time did not always run smoothly. At various points, we got crappy advice (I have refrained for years from listing “San Francisco Bike Shops That I Hate” by name so I won’t start now), and at other points, we were unwilling to listen to good advice. Probably the best example of the latter was the Co-Rider/Bike Tutor debacle. The idea of an inexpensive front child seat for older kids on a step-through frame seemed so promising that we wanted very much to believe it would work. Even though the quite reliable and well-informed owner of Ocean Cyclery was leery of this seat, he installed it for us. When it dumped my daughter in the middle of a ride into a busy street, we realized that reality didn’t always conform to what we wanted to happen. Another depressing example was our issues with the terrible brakes on the first-generation Kona MinUte, which kept failing on steep hills with a kid on board (I’ve been told that the brakes on newer models are better). Our local bike shop, for the record, advised upgrading to hydraulic disc brakes on the MinUte from the beginning. Thankfully our kids were never hurt, although we had some very close calls. We have gotten better about listening since then.

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

Ages 10 and 7 and they STILL squeeze into a standard Bullitt box

We started down the family biking road before there were many resources or options. Now we have two monster cargo bikes, a Bullitt and an Xtracycle EdgeRunner, which can handle whatever we throw at them. They were not cheap, although I maintain that they are a good value. Part of what we paid for was versatility, and part of what we paid for was safety: there is no question that these bikes were designed to do what we do with them, and both the manufacturers and the bike shops where we purchased the bikes are committed to quality. We learned the hard way that this is something that matters because it is what keeps our kids safe. There are national standards in the US that define what features make a car safe(r). These standards do not yet exist for bikes, and that means that finding an appropriate family bike remains a question of trust.

File under "questionable ideas"

File under “questionable ideas”

Even back in the early part of this decade, the prehistoric years of US cargo bikes, there were more and less expensive options, and rest assured that I desperately wanted to believe that the less expensive options would work for us. So when people I had come to trust told me that the bikes I liked were not suitable for San Francisco, and that ultimately a safe and reliable cargo bike would cost much more than I had imagined spending, it was a very difficult thing to hear. I suspect that the only reason we were able to accept it was that we had already had a couple of bad experiences that came from believing there was a way to do what we wanted at a price that we liked. And there was not. We had to decide whether we were willing to (a) make family biking a sometimes thing, (b) risk our own and our kids’ safety, or (c) spend a lot more money than we had hoped. The family biking equivalent of “fast, good, cheap: pick any two” is “versatile, safe, cheap: pick any two.” It’s easy to find an inexpensive bike that’s safe for recreational family riding (short distances, mellow terrain, no weather challenges), or an inexpensive bike that can be used in many situations if you don’t mind risking your life, or an expensive bike that’s safe for daily riding with kids (like every day commuting, especially in annoying terrain). But the Holy Grail of a family bike that is inexpensive, safe, and suitable for carrying kids every day? A bike like this does not exist (yet.) I wish it did.

The fact that cargo bikes are much more expensive than normal bikes is almost always the thing that makes people want desperately to believe in things that are too good to be true. I’ve written about why cargo bikes cost what they do before. Cargo bikes are not expensive because their manufacturers and the shops that sell them are making huge profits; they are not. In more than one case, I have learned that bike shops are run by people who have chosen to make less money than they could in order to make these bikes more accessible. They do it for love.

We've been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

We’ve been seeing more and more bikes like ours around the city: Solidarity!

I have reviewed a lot of bikes on this site. I have avoided reviewing even more bikes. I haven’t mentioned it before, but some of those choices have to do with safety, because quite frankly we have made enough mistakes. I’m not always a huge fan of the bikes I review, but the fact that I write about them at all means that I believe that they are safe enough to ride for at least some kinds of families, even if they’re not a good fit for mine. Over the years, I’ve frequently gotten questions about whether I am going to review a bike that other families are interested in buying. In some cases I haven’t reviewed them because I haven’t seen them locally here in San Francisco, or in Seattle, where my mom lives and where we visit regularly, and thus I know nothing about them (one example: Douze.) In other cases it’s not ignorance that keeps me from writing a review. I have ridden certain bikes that I would not be willing to put my kids on, not even for a test ride. I have been warned off riding certain bikes by people that I trust and who know me well enough to advise that I would not be willing to put my kids on them, not even for a test ride.

The bikes that I avoid reviewing almost always promise the three-fer: they claim to be versatile, safe, and inexpensive. They are often sold direct to the consumer, without the intervening reality check of a bike shop. There is not much point in naming names on the internet, because the manufacturers never last very long. Eventually people realize that the bikes are either not really versatile or not really safe, though more often it’s the latter. In the interim, though, I never really know what to say about the inevitable excitement that accompanies each new cargo bike that promises all the things but that makes compromises that ensure that I will keep my kids from even coming near it. I know that in the absence of reviews, or in the presence of reviews written by people who don’t regularly ride cargo bikes (reviews based on test rides in which the rider did not carry cargo of any kind annoy me), that each new bike makes a wildly compelling promise. Many people are understandably eager to believe—I know that I was—and end up buying a bike that at best will disappoint them. Yet in the slightly-modified words of my beloved dissertation adviser, these bikes ultimately fall of their own weight. They are too good to be true.

(All that said, one of these days I will start checking my blog email again (sorry, it’s been a weird time), and yes, I’m willing to name names off the internet.)

Looking out over our neighborhood

Looking out over our neighborhood

If you are in the market for a family bike, there is no such thing as truly objective advice. Manufacturers and bike shops want to sell you bikes, and they’re pretty straight up about that. Periodicals rely on reviewers who often don’t ride with kids, and they make money from advertising bikes so they’re unlikely to say anything negative. Bike reviews by family bikers are typically written by people who test rode a few bikes, bought one of them, and really like it, which doesn’t provide much basis for comparison or offer a lot of insight into newer models. Speaking for myself, although I have ridden many bikes and am financially unconflicted because my job doesn’t let me make any money or even request discounts, I don’t have anything like the resources to review all the bikes on the market, I think everybody should ride bikes for transportation because it’s cool, I can’t speak to the reliability of any bike that I don’t actually own, and what’s more even on my best day I am wildly idiosyncratic, have kids who have grown out of peak family biking age, and live in a place with unconventional topography.

Who can you trust? A while back I decided to trust family bike shops. Although they definitely want to sell you bikes, they are informed enough to compare different types of bikes, and know a lot more than I do about manufacturing quirks and reliability, which are critical issues that go way beyond what anyone can learn on a test ride. I realize that not everyone has the luxury of living in the San Francisco Bay Area or Portland or Seattle, where good advice is at worst a trip across town away. Yet many of these shops are run by people who will send long emails or talk your ear off over the phone, even though they may not expect it to result in a sale. I took advantage of this long before we bought our first cargo bike. And I have learned that when they tell me something is too good to be true, even though I don’t want to believe it, they are right.

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Filed under cargo, family biking, reviews

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: Yuba Spicy Curry    

Lately my reviews have been slowing down. This is not an accident. My kids, now ages 10 and 7, are getting big enough that I’m increasingly distant from the range of kids normally carried by bike. Our son will be starting middle school next year, and for multiple reasons will be on his own bike then. Plus, after years of reviewing, I have dropped my kids on unfamiliar bikes often enough that they can be understandably wary of trying out new models with me. Under the circumstances, I’m not sure how many more family bike reviews I can really do. This is a shame, because my son in particular is now experienced enough with various family bikes that he offers a helpful and fairly unusual perspective on what’s it’s like to be a kid passenger on different kinds of family bikes, when I can convince him to do it.

Boy on bike

Boy on bike

Anyway, late in 2015 I managed to coax my son onto Yuba’s Spicy Curry for a test ride. Vie Bikes, which as I’ve mentioned before rents and sells family bikes to those of us in San Francisco, was having an open house where families could try all the bikes. We had tried most of the models they stock already, because that’s what I do for fun, but we had yet to try the new Yuba.  I joked at the time that this was the only spicy curry that my son would ever try, which was one of those jokes that is actually less funny because it’s true.

(Aside: if you live in San Francisco and ride with kids, or want to, Vie is incredible—they will bring test bikes and child-sized helmets and kid seats to your home to try! There’s no need to get cranky kids across town and hope their mood will allow a test ride. I wish they had been around when we were shopping for our bikes, but alas, no such luck. Once they asked if they could advertise on this blog, which I would support except for the fact that no one can advertise on this blog, because my job considers that a potential conflict of interest, which is a bit of a reach but not a point worth arguing. So consider this my unpaid endorsement.)

The Spicy Curry is a different kind of bike for Yuba. In the past, I’ve had mixed feelings about the Yuba offerings, which are undeniably inexpensive, but that managed to hit those price points by making some compromises that make me uncomfortable when hauling kids in a hilly city like San Francisco. For example, their base models of the Mundo and Boda Boda did not come with disc brakes, which for the terrain we ride is frankly unsafe when carrying a kid or two. The Mundo in particular felt as heavy as a cargo ship or a 1970s land yacht, which on the one hand meant that it could move major weight, but on the other hand  meant that getting it started from a stop could be miserable. Thus for years I considered Yubas to be flat earther bikes, and kind of resented that because some of their family biking accessories are fantastic.

The Spicy Curry, in contrast, was built from the ground up as an assisted cargo bike for hills. It is very different from their other models, from my perspective in a good way. I have been kind of regretting promising 6-word reviews of all the bikes because at times inspiration does not strike, and then I delay writing the review, and that is exactly what happened in this case. Anyway, here’s the best I could do.

Yuba Spicy Curry: small, lightweight, value.

What I like about the Spicy Curry

  • The Spicy Curry is designed as an assisted bike, and has a pedal assist mid-drive electric motor included as standard. I am an unabashed fan of pedal assists, which work seamlessly without requiring riders to mess with
    Mid-drive assist for the Spicy Curry

    Mid-drive assist for the Spicy Curry

    stuff on the handlebars much. Twist throttle assists that require my hand be engaged for the assist to be engaged mean that I have one less hand available to deal with other stuff going on, and with kids on the bike there is always other stuff going on. Plus I like to be able to signal with either hand. The mid-drive assist is the up and coming style of cargo bike assist, after a long spell in which the only mid-drive options in the US seemed to be the now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t Stokemonkey and the ridiculously loud, powerful, and heart-stoppingly expensive Ecospeed, both of which required a knowledgeable after-market installer. An advantage of a mid-drive assist is that it works with the gears, so that the experience is less like getting a boost and more like finding that you are simply a very strong rider all of a sudden. Another selling point for mid-drives is that they are typically have a lot of torque, meaning that they can conquer hills that make other assists burn out, and they don’t typically cut out the power when the ride gets steep. (Our old BionX system would sometimes overheat on steep hills with both kids in the box, although the new BionX D on our Bullitt does not.) The battery sits neatly under the rear deck. The controller is pretty intuitive.

  • Riffing on the EdgeRunner before it, the Spicy Curry has a low rear deck over a 20” wheel. Originally longtail cargo bikes simply extended the frame of the bike at standard height. That was fine if the loads were tied down at wheel level as intended. However when parents figured out that kids could sit on those decks things got hairier, as that put a lot of (live, squirming) weight way above the frame. Longtails and midtails with high rear decks are tippy (meaning that I have dropped those bikes with the kids on board) and feel like they’ll roll right over if you take a corner too quickly. Putting weight on top of a lower deck is much more stable, and makes it possible to carry more weight safely.
  • The Spicy Curry, unusually, seems designed for shorter parents. It felt like the frame had been shrunk by 10% or so. I can’t remember ever riding a cargo bike like it before. The only model that seems even vaguely comparable is the extremely adjustable Haul-A-Day, which can be tweaked down for shorter riders as well as extended out in multiple dimensions for taller riders. The Spicy Curry has a low top tube, making the frame kind of step through-ish, the height of the frame is low, and there is surprisingly little distance between the seat and the handlebars. This wasn’t the greatest setup for me personally, as I am what the bike industry considers to be “normal” height, however I’ve noticed for some time that shorter riders, who are disproportionately mothers, sometimes have trouble managing “one size fits all” cargo bikes or even the smaller versions of cargo bike frames, which honestly don’t necessarily suit short people as much as they suit people who are slightly shorter than “normal.”
  • Transportation accessories come standard on this model. In this case that means that the Spicy Curry comes with full fenders and permanent, hard-wired lights that run off the main battery. These features are still unusual on US bikes
    Front headlight

    Front headlight

    across the board, despite being totally expected and normal on European and Japanese bikes. Given that no one is racing bikes that are clearly designed for transportation (those readers familiar with the Pixar oeuvre can say along with me that “race cars don’t need headlights!”) these things should be standard on cargo bikes. So I salute Yuba for including them.

  • Yuba makes and supports a range of nifty family and cargo hauling accessories which can be attached to this bike. That includes a large frame-mounted front basket, the Bread Basket, an early and excellent Yuba innovation. Another neat Yuba innovation is the Ring (for once a descriptive name that does not aim for cutesy but land directly on saccharine), which can be used as handlebars or a back rest for kids on the deck. Yepp seats can be latched on the frame for younger kids, and there are seat pads available as well as stoker bars or the two-kid corral (very similar to the Xtracycle Hooptie, probably not accidentally) that Yuba labels Mini Monkey Bars; as the name implies this version is smaller than the Monkey Bars developed for the Mundo (see above). There is also a set of side bars called the Carry-On, which appears to be designed to carry large flat loads or provide footrests for kids. (Yuba also sells a variety of bags for its bikes that don’t seem to last long; I would say that this area is not their core competency.) These accessories all cost extra money, but no rider would want or need all of them at once, plus the fenders and lights are included, and that makes the prospect of making the bike a kid-hauler somewhat less daunting.
  • Although Yuba has not historically been known for investing in great parts, this model raises their quality substantially. The bike has eight gears, which don’t provide huge range but don’t really need to given that it’s an assisted bike, and shifting is smooth. Hydraulic disc brakes are standard and stopped cleanly on our test ride, which included some decent hills with ~60 pounds/27 kilos of my son on the rear deck. The handlebars, saddle, pedals and so on were all unremarkable from my perspective (I am not especially picky about these things). The tires are Schwalbe Big Apples which, although not as puncture resistant as Marathons, offer a cushy ride. This is not the older, creakier style of Yuba. The bike rides nicely and makes clean turns. There is no chain guard but given that there is only one ring on the front the potential clothing damage from this is less risky than it could be.
  • The Spicy Curry is lightweight for an assisted cargo bike at 55 pounds, making it lighter in fact than the original unassisted Mundo. (Yuba lists the weight of the Spicy Curry right on its splash page, which is the kind of thing manufacturers only do when the bike is not outrageously heavy.) While I wouldn’t want to carry it up a flight of steps every day, it’s easy enough to bump it over curbs, and hauling it up and down a few steps here and there or grabbing the deck to move it around an obstacle wouldn’t kill me.
  • Like all longtail bikes, this model is relatively easy to park, as it can use a standard bike rack without much maneuvering. As much as I like our Bullitt, I admit that it can be tricky to snuggle it up to some bike racks or to parking meters.
  • The neon green color does not photograph well in my opinion, but it is surprisingly attractive in real life.
  • Last but not least: value, value, value. The list price of the Yuba Spicy Curry is $4,300, which although not cheap, is less expensive than most other assisted longtails. I mean, there are cheaper models out there, but they weigh more, which cuts into range, and the parts are not as good. And we have learned from hard experience that there is a certain level of parts quality below which it is not safe to go on a family bike.

What I don’t like about the Spicy Curry

  • Things than are positives can also be negatives: the Spicy Curry frame seemed small enough that I felt cramped on it. I am 5’7”/170cm and ended up squeezing my arms in to ride the bike, given that the
    You can sort of see the tight clearances here.

    You can sort of see the tight clearances here.

    space between the seat and the handlebars was so much smaller than on other bikes we ride. I talked to riders taller than I am who tried the Spicy Curry and ended up hitting the back of their thighs on the rear deck or their heels on the frame when pedaling. That didn’t happen to me but I can see exactly how it happened to them. This concern would rule the Spicy Curry out for us if we were looking for a new cargo bike (we are not.) While a smaller frame is great for people who’ve had difficulty handling larger bikes, there’s an obvious tradeoff here.

  • Speaking of tradeoffs, the tradeoff for a low deck that makes the bike less tippy is that taller kids like my son can drag his feet on the ground, which will slow the bike down whether you want it to or not, and can also do serious damage to their shoes. We have this issue on our EdgeRunner and while he’s gotten better about keeping his feet up, there have been moments. Also, it is not my idea of a good time when he loses a shoe outright doing this, which always seems to happen in terrifyingly wide intersections with short light cycles. I hear some people have both more and less cooperative kids than mine, which may be relevant here.
  • I found the handlebars were set very low on this bike, making for a pretty aggressive racing-style riding position. I like to ride upright when I’m noodling around town, because it allows me to see over the top of normal cars (unfortunately not SUVs). It was not really possible to get this kind of view on the Spicy Curry we rode. I’m pretty sure you could get a stem extender to bump the handlebars up a couple of inches, and it would be worth it. I’m not sure why the bike is set up this way, though, given that in almost every other way it’s designed for transportation.
  • Although many of the Yuba accessories are great, the kickstand that comes with the bike is crappy and unsuitable for real loads. It’s a side kickstand rather than a center stand, so you would need to hold the bike up when loading or have it tip over. There is an upgraded center stand you can pay extra for, but I can’t imagine anyone not needing it, so it’s annoying that it’s not standard.
  • The mid-drive assist on the Spicy Curry does not have a quick start or boost button, which can be nerve wracking when starting on a hill. This is pretty common with mid-drive assists generally and not unique to this bike. Nonetheless it made me edgy on certain parts of our ride. There are various points on my regular commute where it’s not possible to stop where it’s flat, and before we upgraded to the new BionX system there were times when we had to hop off the (fully loaded) bike and walk it over to places where we weren’t fighting gravity to get started. Ultimately I was able to start on every hill we rode with the Spicy Curry but there were some uncomfortable moments when I felt unsure, and this was with one kid rather than both. I suspect that this is one of those “only in San Francisco” issues but it comes up frequently for us.
  • Like all mid-drive assists, the Currie motor on the Spicy Curry is not silent. It’s not bad for a mid-drive but you’ll definitely know when it’s on.
  • To my surprise, my son managed to accidentally trap his arm in the space between the two bars on one side of the Mini-Monkey Bars on this bike. He is skinny like a skeleton and because he has no body fat to squeeze it
    The third time he stuck his arm in there I took a picture.

    The third time he stuck his arm in there I took a picture.

    actually took some panicked maneuvering to get him free. Then of course he did it twice more on purpose, don’t ask me why, I don’t know why my kids do this stuff. At least the next two times I knew I could get him out without disassembling the bars. Anyway, I would be wary of this and if I owned the bike I would probably tape a pool noodle or two over the bars to keep it from happening again. The spacing seems unfortunate on these and I hope it changes in future models.

  • Also to my surprise, my son complained about vibrations from the motor when riding on the deck of the Spicy Curry. As a rider I didn’t notice it, and this is not something I have heard from him before, but it bothered him enough that he commented on it more than once. When I asked him about other mid-drive bikes we’d ridden, he said the issue was unique to this bike. I wasn’t sure what to make of this. He can be idiosyncratic. At a minimum, if we were in the market for this bike, I would be sure to spend more time test riding to make sure he didn’t find it so annoying that he would start a bike-riding strike.
  • As with some other longtail cargo bikes, it was difficult to hear my son talking on the rear deck, and he sometimes had trouble hearing me. I don’t know why this is more of an issue on some models of longtail bikes than others. It wasn’t the worst we’ve experienced but it could be annoying. This problem can of course be resolved by getting a front loading bike instead, but those are much more expensive.

Things I’m clueless about and some hearsay

  • I’m not sure just how steep a hill that the Spicy Curry’s assist can handle. At one point before my son joined me I found a steep hill (they’re never far away in San Francisco), “street grade over 18%” according to the SF Bike Coalition map, and figured I’d give it a go. I made it about a quarter of the way up before starting to wobble and losing my nerve. It’s possible that the assist could have handled it but I had slowed down enough that I was afraid I would lose control of the steering and topple over. Of course it was sunny enough that day that a bunch of neighbors were out enjoying the weather in deck chairs on the sidewalk, and after checking to see that I was okay they all laughed at my ambition. I suspect this is a situation that would not be relevant for something like 99% of riders, who don’t face this kind of hill daily, or may even ever. It makes for a funny story, though.
  • I didn’t ride the Spicy Curry long enough to get any sense of its range. Like most assists I’ve seen it claims that you can ride 20-35 miles on a charge (depending on terrain and load). Given that the bike is pretty light for an assisted cargo bike this stated range doesn’t strain credulity.
  • I have no idea how reliable this bike would be in the long term. This is a new model for Yuba and in general bikes seem to be a bit wonky at the margins in the first year of production, and then in future years the manufacturer cleans up whatever issues arose. Yuba has been around for a while so I wouldn’t be concerned that the company is going to disappear.
  • In the hearsay zone, the mid-drive motor is made by Currie (hence the name Spicy Curry), which produces e-bikes as well as motors, and the e-bikes seem to have something of a hit or miss reputation with respect to longevity. Thus if I were interested in buying this bike I would get it from a shop that I could count on to fix any problems that arose.
And here it is again.

And here it is again.

Overall I think that the Spicy Curry fills an interesting and under-appreciated niche. My sense is that it is targeted to shorter parents, whom many manufacturers have neglected. That’s not a good fit for our family but I can think of several families we know that would find it very appealing. In addition, it seems to have found a sweet spot with respect to the price relative to the quality of the parts. Although this bike isn’t designed for a rider like me (I felt like I was too tall, or maybe too long-limbed, which is not something I get to say often) it is designed for local conditions, and riding it changed my perception of Yuba for the better. This bike isn’t for everyone, but honestly it’s nice to see that there is enough of a market for cargo bikes now that manufacturers can begin to specialize.

 

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, reviews, San Francisco, Yuba

Christmas tree by bicycle, 2015 (and the 5th year in a row)

Loading up...

Loading up…

It’s December, the time of year that we head to the Christmas tree lot and draw stares as we load up a tree on our bicycle. This is the fifth year in a row that we’ve done this. Given that there were earlier years when we didn’t bother to get a tree at all, our son (now 10) has only the vaguest memory of bringing a tree home with a car. Our daughter (now 6) has no memory of that at all.

Over the years we have tried various bikes to bring the tree home but honestly, this was just messing around, because we have a Bullitt, and it is the rare case when the Bullitt is not the best tool for the job. What can’t it do? I suppose it can’t literally fly, but beyond that, it’s got us covered. Anyway, we used the MinUte the first year because we didn’t yet have the Bullitt, and again another year after we’d foolishly lost a Bullitt part. It’s not that tricky; virtually any bike can carry a tree. However it’s cold in December, so ultimately the appeal of dropping the tree on the front, securing it with two bungee cords, and skedaddling on home has won out. It’s much faster than loading a tree on a car. The drivers who were loading up their trees at the same time that we were can attest to that (to their dismay).

See? Easy!

See? Easy!

This is the second year in our new place, and now our route to the Christmas tree lot is straight uphill. Our kids had ambitions to ride their own bikes last year, but having tried that particular hill once, preferred to be carried this year. They begged me to carry them both on the Brompton, and yes, even at their advanced ages I can still do that. However I was not excited about the idea of carrying them both up a steep hill on an unassisted bike so I made them ride the EdgeRunner.

Bringing a tree and two kids home by bicycle is still the kind of thing that will get a family noticed, even in San Francisco, where it is not completely outlandish. Every year I watch drivers in oncoming cars notice our little convoy: their cars slow, their heads swivel, and their mouths open. It is entertaining. I would rather be normal, of course, but until more people get in on this action, I’ll settle for being noticed.

They're getting taller

They’re getting taller

There was rain forecast last weekend—it has actually been raining, which is great—and the kids had swim classes at noon, so we had a narrow window to get this particular errand done. We’d never timed ourselves before, but this year we did, and it turns out that in less than 90 minutes, we had ridden to the lot, picked up a tree, brought it home, put it up in the living room, and decorated it. At various points I also made everyone stop for photos. In normal parental time units, this is something close to actual time travel. Ho, ho, ho.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, EdgeRunner, family biking, San Francisco, Uncategorized