Tag Archives: hills

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

San Francisco problems: bike racks

It seems tasteless to complain about the limits of San Francisco’s bike racks, a real bicycle first-world problem. Many cities are still trying to increase the number of riders on the streets, and here I am frustrated with the fact that I’m finding it increasingly difficult to find a place to park my bike. Part of the reason it’s irritating, though, is that it’s such an easy problem to fix. Bike racks are cheap, there’s plenty of room for them, and the city will install them on request (at no cost to the requestor), but you can end up waiting a long time. Demand is high.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Preschool parking at the street cleaning sign.

Last year my problem was my son’s afterschool program, which is no longer a problem because they installed a bunch of new bike racks. This year I’m still waiting for the request placed at my daughter’s preschool to make its way to the top of the list. In the meantime, we juggle with other families on bikes to lock up to the street cleaning sign. Unfortunately one (non-biking) family has a really aggressive dog that they like to tie up to the same sign (because he’s too aggressive to be around kids at the preschool itself), and although I’ve asked them politely if they could tie him to a tree instead and they said okay, they sometimes forget. The dog will attack me and my bike, and my kids understandably run away screaming when they see him, which means I’m stuck waiting for that family to leave if they arrive first.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Every morning is a cargo bike roll call at Rosa Parks.

Our son’s school has lots of racks, but there are no longer enough to meet demand. The school district has found another large bike rack for us and is working on scheduling its installation, but it’s not there yet, so the school bike racks remain pretty packed. There are street cleaning bus zone signs we can lock to if necessary, but it will be nice to have another real rack.

Around our neighborhood and my office, there’s a different problem: non-bike competition.

A bike rack can't hold much more than one shopping cart.

A bike rack can’t hold much more than one shopping cart.

We live on Parnassus Heights and thus we are well above what’s referred to locally as “the shopping cart line,” but most of our local haunts are in the flats. The library, for example, has a pretty small bike rack anyway, and it’s often occupied by a stolen shopping cart filled with someone’s worldly goods. There is increasing evidence that homelessness is a problem that can be resolved pretty cheaply by giving homeless people places to live (relative to paying for the health care and jail costs of having people live on the streets). But in a city like San Francisco, which is reluctant build new housing even for billionaires, it does not surprise me that subsidized housing is scarce.

At work the bike racks are often occupied by motorcycles and scooters, despite multiple signs saying that this is not allowed, which also direct their riders to the designated motorcycle parking area. There’s usually room for bikes as well, but the motorcycle riders always take the spot closest to the door, and motorcycles are so big that walking around them means walking into a driving lane, and they smell awful, and it’s all just annoying.

Everyone, it seems, is beginning to discover what we’ve discovered: riding a bike is the easiest way to guarantee VIP parking wherever you go.  Even when I have to lock to a parking meter or a stop sign, it only takes one attempt to drive in the city again to make me realize how good we have it still.

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Filed under commuting, family biking, San Francisco

We tried it: Ridekick cargo trailer

The Ridekick cargo trailer, unattached

The Ridekick cargo trailer (unattached) with Brompton

I was pretty impressed with the Ridekick child trailer, but it’s still a prototype so you can’t buy it yet. However I did recently get to try the Ridekick cargo trailer, which anyone can buy right now.

I originally started looking at an assisted trailer as a possible way of getting around the city when I was just back to weight-bearing and much weaker. I had hopes that the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition offered one of them as a membership benefit—they do have other trailers for members to use. But no such luck. However Ridekick was willing to drop one off and let us use it for a while, which was absolutely fabulous of them.

The appeal for me of an assisted trailer was that it was a temporary solution to my problems getting around by bike while I figured out how much strength I’d get back in the longer term. Other people, I suspect, are interested in an assisted trailer for different reasons. My sense after riding with both trailers and assisted trailers is that they are a product for people who need to haul loads sometimes. If you are riding with your kids every single day and rarely ride without them, it probably makes more sense to jump right to a cargo bike or assisted cargo bike. It is more fun to ride with the kids on the bike, in cities with a lot of traffic it feels safer to ride with the kids on the bike, and some of the logistical issues with the trailer, like the fact that it can be a pain to park, go away. But if money is tight or if there are a lot of pickup and drop-off swaps between parents, then a child trailer makes a lot of sense. And if you are hauling a bunch of tools or equipment every day then you don’t need me to tell you to consider a Bikes At Work trailer or a cargo trike or whatever.

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

Learning to use the Ridekick in Golden Gate Park

If you’re looking at an (assisted) cargo trailer, maybe you have a fast and light bike but want to do major grocery shopping on the weekends, or have a long commute and want to bring a week’s worth of clean clothes on Monday and haul them back on Friday. For that kind of thing, it doesn’t necessarily make sense to add a rear rack, and a trailer will probably carry more anyway. Some people will view hauling an unassisted trailer as strength training and other people not so much. If not so much, the Ridekick cargo trailer is worth a look.

What I liked about the cargo trailer:

  • It made heavy loads disappear. One day I packed it up with over a dozen hardback library books and then bought milk and yogurt (in glass bottles) and some other groceries. Starting to pull a load like that in the trailer nearly yanked my little folding bike backwards, but a push from the assist made riding normal again. We live on a fairly substantial hill, yet I had no fears about making it home.
  • The Ridekick trailer works with any bike! I had never seriously considered putting an assist on my Brompton, as that would make it too heavy to carry, and I got a folding bike specifically for times I needed to actually take a bike places I couldn’t ride one. But putting the Ridekick trailer on the Brompton was no problem. I wish that these trailers were more available as rentals because they’re also a great way to try out riding with an assist—not being able to imagine what an assist feels like and to judge whether it is worth it seems to be a real sticking point for people who are considering one. I think that is very understandable given the price and hassle of installing electric assist on a bicycle.
  • This may be my personal issue, but riding with a cargo trailer made me feel more protected from traffic. When I started riding again I was still pretty jumpy when cars pulled up behind me, given that I had been run over from behind. Although it’s a very unlikely way to get hit on a bicycle statistically speaking, I needed time to get over my wariness. With a cargo trailer behind me I knew that it was pretty likely any car would be slowed down significantly by running over the trailer before it managed to get to me. If that had happened I would, of course, have felt pretty bad about destroying Ridekick’s trailer, but not THAT bad. (This concern in reverse, however, is one of my greatest reservations about riding with a child trailer.)
  • I have tried a throttle assist on bicycles (the Yuba elMundo) and it wasn’t my favorite, but I may not have given it enough time because the throttle assist on the Ridekick really grew on me. As a weaker rider it was really nice to feel like I could push the throttle to the max and get pulled up the hill when I needed that. The throttle itself is a push toggle and it’s quite sensitive. By pushing it lightly I could keep the assist low enough that I actually felt like my pedaling was adding something. In practice because I was trying to build strength I tended to max the assist when I was fading and catch my breath, then let it go and use the momentum the bike had gained to pedal part of the way on my own again. This got me up quite a few big hills that I couldn’t have done solo, let alone with a kid on board (I usually have a kid on board). I suspect that a lot of people could use the Ridekick this way: to build up strength. For regular use I still prefer a pedal assist but for occasional use the throttle makes a lot of sense.
  • By comparison to a decent assisted bicycle, the Ridekick cargo trailer is pretty cost-effective at $700. Yes, there are big box store style e-bikes that sell for $500 but they are junk—they have very limited range, weigh as much as boat anchors, and have batteries that will die within a few months and can’t be replaced. The Ridekick has a lot more useful life than that. It’s not useful in all the ways that an assisted bicycle would be, but for many people’s needs, an assisted bicycle would be overkill.

My reservations about the Ridekick:

  • Probably my biggest problem with the cargo trailer was that I had the chance to try the child trailer first. I liked the child trailer much better, even as a way to haul cargo. The cargo trailer is much smaller, capable of holding a couple of bags of groceries. The child trailer could haul a couple of bags of groceries AND two seven year olds, or several bags of groceries and one kid, or a giant pile of donations to Goodwill. I kept thinking of the cargo version as a single person’s trailer. It wasn’t right for the volume of stuff that I wanted to carry. I don’t think I’m the target market for this trailer.
  • All trailers, including the Ridekick, can be tricky to park. It’s actually a lot smaller than child trailers, so it wasn’t that big a deal, but at the racks at my office, for example, I had to scoot it around a little to make sure it wasn’t hanging out into the car parking places where it might get run over.
  • The battery is in the body of the trailer itself, which is fine and makes sense given that batteries are heavy, but unfortunately that means there is no way to tell how much charge is left without stopping to open the trailer. So I had a fair bit of range anxiety at the end of the day when I was riding with it. This turned out not to be justified at any point, because its range was actually pretty generous—I rack up about 10 miles up and down some major hills just going to and from work and dropping off and picking up a kid or two—and I never actually ran the battery down despite using it, especially at the beginning, pretty profligately. However I never knew how much power was left until I stopped riding, and that made me edgy. This was particularly the case because at the time my limp was so pronounced that I had a lot of trouble walking my bike up hills.
  • I did not like the attachment for the trailer. It screws on using a plate attached through the rear axle, which is pretty traditional for trailers. My sense was that it was both too easy and too hard to release. It was too easy because there after a couple of weeks the trailer fell off the bike while I was riding—in regular use, you need to tighten the screw regularly. FYI. It was too hard because if the screw was tightened appropriately, you needed tools to take it off. Given that the market for this trailer is almost certainly an occasional user, I felt like it should work like the Burley Travoy, which has a snap-in attachment that can be operated by hand. The wiring for the assist, interestingly, worked just that simply. To remove the assist wiring from the bike you only needed to pull out the plug, and to reattach it to push the plug back in. I wanted the trailer itself to attach and release that easily.
  • An issue that I suspect is more Ridekick’s problem than mine is that everyone who saw me seemed to think the trailer was homemade. People told me it was very cool and then asked me how I’d put it together, which ha ha. I suspect that the Ridekick cargo trailer would sell better if it looked a little more professional, somehow. This is the market that I’m pretty sure the Burley Travoy is targeting—the ride to work on Monday with a bunch of work clothes in the bag and return with the trailer full of dirty clothes on Friday set.  Or maybe the Ridekick just needs a bigger logo. In neon colors. I don’t know.

So the Ridekick cargo trailer: pretty cool although it’s not quite right for us (the child trailer, on the other hand, I want for traveling).

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

The Ridekick is the only assist I know of that you can use with a Brompton and still have the ability to lift the bike up by hand.

Probably the greatest thrill of riding with the Ridekick attached was being able to take my Brompton anywhere with a kid on board. Getting it up the hill where we live was simply impossible for me for most of last year, if not to this day. The commutes with the Brompton+Ridekick were some of the most memorable I’ve taken all year because I had such great conversations with my kids during those rides. On one trip home my son (almost 8 years old and still fitting on the Brompton front child seat!) relayed me the entire plot of a series of Avengers comic books, which although it did not really interest me at all, was exciting because he was so excited about it. On another trip my daughter taught me some of the Japanese songs she learned at preschool. I love carrying my kids on that seat more than any other bike seat, but the Brompton gets less use than I’d like because of the hill. With the Ridekick cargo trailer, I could carry them and all our stuff and not have to worry about any of that. “Make it go fast!” they yell when we got to a hill. And I could.

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, electric assist, family biking, folding bicycle, San Francisco

A reliable bike

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Great Highway's Sunday Streets last weekend. They saw lots of friends.

The Bullitt+Roland heading out to Sunday Streets

The things that I write about on the blog are only a portion of what’s really happening. This is a problem inherent to life, I think: you get so busy living that there is only so much time to talk about it all. This can lead to some false perceptions. One that’s come up lately, I’ve realized, is the sense that the Bullitt spends a lot of time in the shop. That’s not really true. It’s just that the times it goes to the shop it really ticks me off. After almost a year the Bullitt has been impressively reliable, with only a couple of exceptions that are, frankly, the result of our ignorance.

The first exception relates to the gearing. I have an aversion to pinning up my pants to keep them from getting caught in the chain, although I’m getting over it. The standard setup on a Bullitt is a triple front ring, which is great for hauling up hills, but as many riders already know, is basically incompatible with a chain guard. So when we bought the Bullitt, we put an internally geared front hub on it, the FSA Metropolis Patterson crankset.

The Metropolis is unquestionably cool, and you won’t need to roll up your pants. Unfortunately, it is not built to withstand the kinds of loads and riding we do. It is very sensitive to people doing things, like, say, pedaling over a speed bump and smashing unexpectedly into a hidden pothole on the far side, or to a rider shifting down after hitting a quicker-than-expected red light with a fully loaded cargo bike and then pushing off on a steep uphill from a dead stop.  These are not what I would call conventional bicycle riding situations, unless of course you are a family living on a steep hill in San Francisco, in which case they’re like daily rituals. So we broke the Metropolis. Twice. After the second time, we replaced it with a triple front ring, which withstands anything we throw at it (and if it didn’t would be cheap and quick to fix anyway). That wasn’t particularly expensive, but it was very time-consuming.

I miss the Metropolis, because it shifted like a dream when it wasn’t broken and had a lot of range, but it was not to be. In the meantime, I’ve learned to embrace skinny pants. Sure, they may not be the most flattering look, but they don’t catch in bike chains and they are wonderful at compressing a broken leg that tends to swell up at the end of the day. Although maybe that’s just me.

Hanging out with the Rosa Parks bike fleet

Hanging out with part of the Rosa Parks bike fleet

The second exception came up pretty recently. The Bullitt went back to the shop for another time-consuming repair when we broke over a dozen spokes at once on the rear (BionX) wheel. This turns out to be a BionX and San Francisco-related thing (San Francisco is hard on bikes). The first time we didn’t realize what the issue was so we had the bike shop replace the spokes and re-true the rear wheel. The folks at The New Wheel were the ones who warned us that it would happen again unless we put a stronger rim and spokes on that rear wheel. One week later, we learned how right they were when three of the new spokes popped. That’s a lesson to all of us, yes? Go to the pros with your electric assist bike! So we took the Bullitt back to the shop and now we have a thicker rim and spokes and they are hanging in without incident. This was pretty cheap, but once again, time-consuming.

There have been other odds and ends, but they don’t affect our ability to ride the bike. Matt dropped the BionX controller and destroyed its display, which now looks like something out of a slasher film. It still works, though. One of the fiberglass poles holding the rain cover has split twice—the first time probably due to the combination of wind sheer and the kids messing with it, and the second time due to some drunk baseball fans snapping it in two. Splendid told us how to order spare fiberglass poles, which are now sitting in the garage for the next time it happens. I think they cost $15. If you happen to have obnoxious sports fans roaming your neighborhood, you too may want some spare poles.

The two big repairs represented several weeks in the shop taken together, and those messed with our lives. The Bullitt has become what our car used to be, and we use it almost every day. I wrote about those incidents because they were such an unpleasant shock—with the Bullitt our lives are pretty easy and without it they start to derail.

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

Two kids in the standard Bullitt box, still

But it did not fail it when we needed it most. All last summer while I was bed-bound for 23 hours a day, Matt used it to carry both kids to school and preschool and summer camp. At the time, our daughter was still attending preschool on the top of Mt. Sutro, and our son’s summer camp was up one of the toughest hills we have ever had occasion to ride regularly (9th Avenue from Irving to Ortega, for locals reading along). And although there were days that we needed to call in friends for a carpool or a family member to walk someone home, mostly Matt managed all of that extremely grim summer solo. So how can I hold a crankset and some broken spokes against the Bullitt? Especially when I know they won’t happen again? Also, Matt is awesome.

We started this year knowing that there was trouble in the wind. The university decided to kick everyone out of faculty housing, our daughter’s preschool, disastrously, was taken over by a for-profit corporation, and the campus where I work was scheduled for closure with everyone on site told we would move “somewhere.” As bad as all of that was, we could not have predicted how much worse it would get when I was run down by a distracted driver in April. For a week we assumed that our car-free days were over. But with my right leg shattered it turned out that I couldn’t drive either, so here we are. I’m riding again and the Bullitt is still hauling the kids. I can’t yet do everything that I used to do, but the bus and rideshare make up the difference.

Thinking about future careers at preschool

Thinking about future careers at preschool

And in other ways, we seem to have turned the corner. In July our daughter started at a new preschool, a Japanese immersion program that is a feeder for Rosa Parks. She loves it so much we have to drag her home every evening. The office move keeps getting postponed another couple of years into the future. University housing can’t kick us out as long as I’m disabled, but we have other progress on that front as well. I am walking again, and people tell me my cane looks badass. We’ve been taking long weekends with the kids to try to make up for their having such a bummer of a summer–the other week we camped in a (handicapped accessible) yurt, and we’re headed to the coast this weekend. It’s been one hell of a year, and it’s not over yet.  But life is a little easier with a reliable bike.

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Filed under Bullitt, car-free, electric assist, family biking, injury, San Francisco

Tipping point

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

At some point I speculated that 2013 would be the year of the electric assist bicycle. Not to toot my own horn here, but I was so right. The other day we stopped at an intersection and the rider next to us said, “Hey! All three of us are on electric assist bikes!” When I went to return books at the library the other day, the other bike on the rack was assisted. When I’m on the main campus, which is on a hill that could charitably be called “non-trivial” it is like an e-bike showroom up there. I would guess that about a quarter of the bikes I see hauling up our hill these days are assisted. That is new as of this year.

I get stopped at the bike racks at work by people wanting to know how to find cheap e-bikes on craigslist. Although I am admittedly kind of the poster child for that, I would only recommend doing that if you are comfortable replacing the battery shortly afterward (which is something I had to do). Very few people flog assisted bikes on craigslist until the batteries are on their last legs, and batteries are the most expensive part to replace. Caveat emptor.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets--they must be doing a land office business.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets–they must be doing a land office business.

There is really no such thing as a super-cheap electric assist bike, unless of course you are comparing them to a car, in which case every single one of them is laughably cheap. And I and everyone else riding one can testify that an assisted bike will make driving in the city seem ridiculous. I mean, my leg is still really weak, and the most recent x-rays show that the bones look like they’ve been attacked with a chisel–it surprised me that this is considered to be great progress–and I walk with a cane, and I now have a handicapped parking sticker. However it is still typically easier for me to go anyplace within about three miles on a bike (granted, an assisted bike) because I can park so much closer that I don’t have to hobble nearly as far. Riding a bike doesn’t stress my leg like walking on it does. When I talk to normal people with assisted bikes they say that they never tackled various hills until they put assists on their bikes. Then once they did, they started riding everywhere instead of driving. That’s pretty much how it went for us.

San Francisco is the kind of city that is made for assisted bikes. There are, famously, a lot of hills. It’s the second hilliest city in the world, and this is not a competition that you want your city to win (or show or place). To pile on the injury, it’s also extremely windy.

Going up this hill into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Going up a hill like this into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Aside: I find it slightly annoying when people in flat cities claim that it’s hard to bike in their extremely flat city because of wind, or that a 10mph headwind is like a 14% grade. I ride up a 14% grade to our home every day and many of those days I ride into a 10mph or 20mph headwind AT THE SAME TIME. Riding into the wind is hard, but it’s not the same as riding up a hill. They’re both hard, but they’re a different kind of hard. The truth is that if you live somewhere flattish then it’s either easier or cheaper to ride bikes everywhere, so go ahead and cherish your good fortune.

Anyway, San Francisco: lots of hills, lots of wind, but also lots of great bicycle infrastructure. And we carry kids-as-cargo and groceries and library books and so on. Getting over ourselves and getting an assist was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, transportation-wise. In my current condition, I’m not sure I could ride in the city at all without one (and with the gimpy leg, walking the bike up hills is not a good option–I can do it, but the price is having to go back on my narcotics that evening). Our friends who have assisted their bikes will say the same thing: the assist is life-changing when you ride a bike for transportation. An assist makes driving not worth the bother. The sight of a bicycle being carried on an SUV now seems outrageously weird to me. Even if you’re hauling a racing bike, it would be cheaper and more fun to tow that baby on an assisted cargo bike.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

So for the people who keep asking me whether it’s worth paying so much to put an assist on a bike: if you’re already seriously considering it, then yes it is. And there are ways to make the cost less appalling up front; for example, The New Wheel in Bernal Heights will finance the purchase of an assisted bike or an after-market assist for an existing bike, plus they’re super-nice people.  Is it necessary? It is for me (at least for now), but it’s not for everybody. For people who are enjoying the ride unassisted, there’s no need. But if you can’t bring yourself to ride every day just yet even though you want to, and are wondering whether the assist will tip the scales: it will.

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Filed under electric assist, injury, San Francisco

We tried it: Ridekick electric assist child trailer (prototype)

This kind of thing is my problem.

This kind of thing is my problem.

[Note: As of April 2014, release of the Ridekick child trailer has been postponed to 2015.]

When I thought about getting back on the bike after my injury, I thought immediately about electric assist. We live on a big hill. I was surprised that I could get up part of it on the Brompton by myself when I tried riding for the first time last weekend. But a little more experimentation made it clear that I wasn’t able to ride up all of it. This is better than I’d expected, but still: not useful. It doesn’t help much to go partway up the hill. And when I tried to walk the bike up the hill instead, it made the pins in my leg ache so badly that I had to lie down. This was predictable but still unwelcome.

Spotted near work

A mid-drive spotted near work

What’s more, it’s not very useful to be riding again if I can’t pick up and drop off a kid occasionally. I figured I would get my strength back eventually, but in the meantime I needed a better solution. Option one is a new mid-drive electric-assist bike, but that’s really expensive for short-term use and depending on how much strength I got back, could potentially be overkill in the long term. Ideally I wanted a temporary assist that I could stick on the Brompton, which is basically the only bike we have that I can use right now given my limited strength and range of motion. I did try getting on the MinUte, and technically it’s possible, but it wouldn’t be safe yet with a kid on the deck. I can get on and off the Bullitt, but it’s too heavy for me to ride for the time being.

Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!

Introducing: the Ridekick electric assist trailer!

I knew what I wanted, but unfortunately I didn’t know of any temporary, immediate on-off electric assists currently in production. At least, I didn’t until a blog reader pointed me to the Ridekick trailer (thanks David!) The only Ridekick currently on the market is a small cargo trailer with an electric assist built in. It was cute and it looked like it would do what I wanted, but when I went to their website, I saw that they were taking pre-orders for what looked like my rehabilitation holy grail: an electric assist child trailer.

This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.

This is a complete stealth assist system, if you want to look super-tough on hills.

Although I’m not the world’s biggest child trailer fan (hard to see in city traffic, don’t always fit in urban bike lanes, won’t make it up many San Francisco steep uphills, can be terrifying on many San Francisco steep downhills, we prefer to have the kids in front), we had been considering getting a bike trailer for travel, and for upgrading our one-kid bikes to two-kid bikes on occasion. The trailer also has the advantage of offering weather protection, just like the Bullitt, but in a far more portable package. The Ridekick assisted child trailer also seemed way more promising than an ordinary trailer because with an assist we’d no longer have to worry about drag on the bike.  The pull of a weighted trailer can really be a problem on hills and in strong winds, both of which San Francisco has in abundance. And if the assist were up to it, I could attach it to any bike and make it up hills with one or both kids even in my reduced state.

So I wrote to Ridekick, hoping against hope that the child trailer was close enough to production that I could get one by August. The answer was no. But they were coming to San Francisco in August with the prototype to look for venture capital funding, and would I like to try it? Yes!

This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.

This is the cargo hold with the battery for the assist.

We met Dee and Mark from Ridekick in Golden Gate Park.  They are great people. The prototype trailer that they brought is built up from the same Burley Bee model that we rented last year when we visited my mom in Bellingham. To my surprise, the assist doesn’t really intrude into the trailer’s cargo space. There’s a lithium ion battery with an on-off controller attached, about the size of a hardback book, that slides into the rear cargo compartment and that’s basically it. There is a throttle attachment that they Velcro-tied onto our handlebars, and then strung the wire for it back along the frame with more Velcro ties. It clipped into the wire coming from the motor at the rear wheel bolt, which is the same place that the trailer itself attaches. For novices like me: a Burley trailer attaches with a hitch plate that is threaded onto the same bolt that holds the rear wheel onto the bicycle frame. The trailer frame has a drop-in pin that goes through the hole in the hitch plate, with a back-up strap that loops around the bicycle frame in case it fails. Ridekick estimates that the trailer can go about 15 miles on a charge, depending very much on local conditions (how much weight and how big a hill?)

Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.

Technically both boys are too old for the trailer, but we never pay attention to stuff like that.

"Oh, if I must."

“Oh, if I must.”

My kids hadn’t ridden in a trailer for a year and were thrilled to get back in one. They also brought a friend. For our first test ride, we attached the assisted trailer to the Kona MinUte and then Matt took the two 7-year-olds for a spin through Golden Gate Park.

Something I may not have mentioned before is that Matt is less enamored of new bike experiences than I am. He mostly just treats all the experimentation I do like my weird hobby. He’s not big into optimizing his riding experience. The first bike he got was the Kona MinUte, and when it was stolen, he bought another one just like it. I got him a new pannier for Christmas one year when he complained that the ones that come standard on the MinUte were not office-appropriate (definitely true), but he has never used it. When we got the Bullitt he said for two months that we should have replaced the car instead, although he has since come around. So Matt was actually pretty grouchy about coming down to Golden Gate Park on a Saturday morning for “another bike thing.” He had had other plans.

It is in this context that I say that Matt loved the Ridekick child trailer from the moment he started riding with it. Generally neither of us is a big fan of throttle assists (the kind that go when you push the button, whether you are pedaling or not), but in the context of pulling well over a hundred pounds of weight behind the bike, the throttle assist is extremely appealing, especially at intersections. At steep intersections it is sometimes impossible for us to start a heavily loaded bicycle, even with the BionX, because the BionX doesn’t kick in until your speed exceeds 2 mph. Although Golden Gate Park is a little thin on steep hills—its grades top out at about 12%—Matt took it on a moderate hill, probably 10% grade, behind the Conservatory and had no trouble hauling both 7-year-olds up. When you’re riding with an assisted trailer, you don’t have to feel like you’re dragging an anvil.

It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.

It was a struggle to get him out of the trailer so his sister could have a turn.

When he came back I took our daughter for a solo turn around the park on the bike. Despite the fact that I was on the MinUte, which is a huge hassle to get on and off for me at the moment, I loved the Ridekick child trailer too. It resolves a lot of child trailer problems all at once. There’s no drag from the trailer unless you want to work harder. When you get tired, you can have it push you along for a little while. Taking breaks like this, interspersed with pedaling, got me up the same hill behind the Conservatory that Matt had ridden. That felt amazing! And it’s something that is currently completely out of reach for me on an unassisted bicycle.

There is probably a limit to the Ridekick’s capabilities. We have the advantage that we are using to riding up hills, and so we just need an extra boost now and again when we have extra weight on the bike. Even I, in my reduced state, tended to use the assist for a while, then pedal solo for a little bit, then repeat. My guess is that a weak rider could burn it out on the steepest hills, given that Matt has overheated the BionX on the steeper hills in our neighborhood occasionally. We’d have to ride with it a lot more to be sure. Then again, how many families really deal with hills like ours on a regular basis?

In the world of trailers, which tend to be useful but not that fun, the Ridekick assisted child trailer is a killer app, both useful AND fun. Normal trailers drag, and pulling them can be exhausting. As a result, even though most cargo bikes ride like tanks, cargo bikes are a lot easier. Still, in a situation where one parent drops off and another one picks up, you’d need two cargo bikes (which is exactly what we have now, but that’s a big commitment to start). But an assisted child trailer? Awesome! The assist means that riding is not a chore, it could be passed between parents’ bikes as needed, and it can keep the kids warm and dry, all for a (suggested) price of a single unassisted cargo bike. And as a rehab tool, it would be amazing.

If we could have, we would have bought it on the spot. But there is only one in the entire world. Our kids were crushed. “Can we keep it, please?” our daughter begged. “It goes fast! Can we keep it?” Alas, no.

Evidently Ridekick has gotten a fair bit of interest from parents who would like an aftermarket kit to assist their existing trailers. This doesn’t surprise me, but they still don’t even have the basic model in production. Ideally they could find a partner with an existing child trailer company (e.g. Burley, Chariot, Wike) and add the assist option to their standard product lineup. I’m sure there is sufficient demand.

This trailer is so much fun!

This trailer is so much fun!

How cool is the Ridekick assisted child trailer? It’s so cool that if it had been on the market when we started riding with our kids, we might never have gotten cargo bikes. Even with my misgivings about the width of trailers versus bike lanes and having the kids behind me in city traffic instead of in front, having a trailer that could glide up hills, as well as being able to swap it between bikes, would be worth compromising in other areas. I have zero regrets about getting cargo bikes, especially given that the Ridekick child trailer isn’t actually available yet, but an assisted trailer would have been a much lower stakes way to ease into family biking, and it would travel well. I could be biased by the fact that this trailer allowed me to ride up hills that I couldn’t have otherwise attempted, but I loved the Ridekick.

 

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Filed under Brompton, commuting, family biking, Kona, reviews, San Francisco, trailer-bike

The year of the electric assist

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

At Rainbow Grocery (not even locked up)

Over winter break we noticed a lot more bicycles on the streets than there were at the same time last year. It’s now rare that I’m the only rider on the streets on my route, whatever route that might happen to be. Last week, riding from our son’s school to downtown, I was surrounded by so many other riders that in combination with being tailed by a bus, which blocked cars from potentially rear-ending any of us, I relaxed and started looking at other people’s bikes instead of focusing on traffic.

As is increasingly common, there was an assisted bike in the group, this one ridden by an older gentleman dressed up for work in the Financial District. He looked like the kind of person who wouldn’t be riding an unassisted bike. On most work days I look like that kind of person myself.

Spotted near work

Spotted near work

It is no accident that I pretty much stopped taking transit entirely when an assisted bike (the mamachari) entered our lives. We live on the top of one big hill and I work on top of another, and before that particular craigslist score there was always calculation involved in riding to work: “Am I going to have to look presentable today?” (I don’t have the patience or free time to carry a spare set of dress clothes and shower at the office, assuming that my office even had a shower, which it does not.) With an assisted bike that problem disappears. I can choose to work harder on the way home at the risk of sweating, and I often do. But I can also choose to use enough assist that I arrive at work with no more evidence of having ridden a bike than rosy cheeks and the complete absence of commuter rage. “Wait, what? You came here on a bike?” is the kind of thing I hear a lot these days.

It’s coming up on a year of electric assist for us, and there’s no question it’s been life-changing. Example: we sold our only car (30 Days of Biking is no challenge whatsoever this year).  To my surprise, because we’re about as fashionable as any other harried parents (which is to say: not at all) we appear to have been out in front on this issue. From what I’ve seen so far, 2013 is the year of the electric assist in San Francisco. Assisted bikes are everywhere; I spot them while riding around, while walking in our neighborhood, and there’s always at least one locked up nearby every time I stop to park my bike. Cargo bike riders who don’t have one typically say they want one, even if the need to carry a bike up a flight of stairs or the extra cost makes adding an assist unfeasible.

Look, there's another one

Look, there’s another one

I don’t ride much where it’s flat, but people who do seem to ride more with assisted bikes as well. The assist is like the cover on the Bullitt; in winter we could dress up our kids to ride without it, but it’s easier to get them out the door by skipping the cold weather gear and letting them cozy up under the cover. I could get myself out the door on an unassisted bike, and I have, but it’s a lot easier knowing that I can get a little help when the hills get steep or the wind gets fierce or when I’m tired at the end of the day. It’s also easier to take a bike knowing that I’m not going to walk into a meeting at work dripping with sweat. Unless I’m crossing the bay (and sometimes even then), it’s always easier to ride a bike now. And so that’s what we do.

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Filed under car-free, commuting, electric assist, San Francisco

To Panhandle or not to Panhandle

Who wouldn't want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

Who wouldn’t want to ride in Golden Gate Park?

On the western side of San Francisco there are many excellent bike lanes through Golden Gate Park, which stretches nearly half the length of the city. Even outside the park to the north and south the streets are pretty quiet (with a few exceptions), so it is very easy to get around by bike as long as you don’t mind the hills. Which whatever, where besides the Mission are there are not hills in this city.

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

Transitioning from the park to the Panhandle

At the edge of the park the Panhandle begins. The Panhandle is a one-block-wide, ¾ mile long stretch of greenway, and it extends even further east. A nightmarish three blocks at the far edge of the Panhandle then drop you into the Wiggle, and from there bike lanes, some protected, run all the way to the eastern edge of the city and San Francisco Bay. (Protected bike lanes for those three blocks of Oak Street have been in the works for some time and postponed repeatedly.)

Unfortunately the streets on either side of the Panhandle, Fell and Oak, are basically freeways in the middle of the city, and noisy. There is a break in the middle for the death highway of Masonic Avenue, which even with a dedicated bike signal is not the most fun street to cross. Supposedly Masonic is a designated bike route. Ha ha.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There is a lot of foot traffic on the shared-use path.

There are two paths on the Panhandle: the southern path along Oak is a pedestrian-only path, and the northern path along Fell is shared-use. For reasons that mystify me, runners and walkers mostly shun the southern path and so there are always multitudes wandering idly among the bikes. And there are always off-leash dogs. A couple of weeks ago I slowed when one came close, but not fast enough because it suddenly jumped right into my path, knocking me and my son to the ground. My son fell under the bike and although he was unhurt, he was so upset that he burst into tears. The dog ran off. Of course its owner was nowhere to be found.

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

Walkers blocking the Shrader Valve on the way out of the Panhandle

So anyway, although the Panhandle has its appeal–no car traffic to contend with–it has some issues as a place to ride.

There is an alternative. Like all alternative routes in San Francisco, it is steeper. Heading east, Page Street runs above the southern edge of the Panhandle then drops down suddenly to join the Wiggle. In reverse, obviously, it goes up just as suddenly.  I know many riders who prefer Page Street to the Panhandle. They tend to be solo riders.

Recently, to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, we headed out for Mexican food (eating out contrary to ethnic expectations on holidays means never having to wait for a table). Because we were already south of the Panhandle we took Page, which we don’t normally ride. It was nice; there were multiple sidewalk sales, and families were sitting out on their front steps chatting with each other. Even though there are lots of stop signs to slow you down, it is a pleasant alternative to the Panhandle in the downhill direction.

After dinner we had the choice of following the Wiggle back or turning around and climbing up Page. Matt had both kids in the Bullitt and to my surprise he wanted to take the hill. As he headed up, a pickup truck going down the hill slowed, and the driver stuck his head out the window. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” he cheered. “GIT IT, OLD MAN!” I laughed so hard I almost fell off my bike. Oh how I love San Francisco.

Git it, old man!

Git it, old man!

We made it back to Golden Gate Park with only the usual stares that the Bullitt draws from families walking on the street. I scratched Matt’s back at a stoplight and said, “Git it, old man.” He laughed. “He was supportive,” I said, “That’s what matters.”

“He was ACCURATE,” he replied. “Like I care. I’m fitter now than I ever was in my so-called prime.” And this is true. We have been married for 14 years, and by any historical standard Matt is smokin’.

I’m used to the Panhandle and its quirks. But I can see us taking Page more often in the future too. Git it, old man!

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

Yes, but…

They don't always fight.

They don’t always fight.

A couple of years ago we went to Copenhagen and rented bikes. The first day we rode with our children through the city was one of the best of our lives. They were single speed bikes and they were as heavy as boat anchors, and we got lost more than once, and it rained. I did not care. We could go anywhere we wanted, and the kids were screaming with joy and hugging us from their child seats behind us, and sometimes the sun came out, and it was glorious. We have had many memorable days with them since, and a surprising number of them were on our bikes, but that was the first. With the memory of that day and that feeling it seemed impossible not to return to San Francisco and buy bikes and ride them everywhere. Most days it is as good as we had hoped it would be, some days it sucks, and some days it is better than we could have imagined.

We stayed near these gardens, one of the few places no bikes were allowed.

We stayed near these gardens, one of the few places no bikes were allowed.

There are lots of reasons that people tell me it doesn’t make sense for them to ride bikes (not that I ask). I think of these now as the “yes, buts.” They are all the reasons that we didn’t think it made sense to ride our bikes before that day changed our lives. It’s too hard to ride with kids and groceries. San Francisco has too many steep hills (and we live on the side of a mountain). The city has too much car traffic to feel safe, and the roads are so terrible that they destroy bikes, and bike theft is rampant. For parents, there’s the loneliness of having so few families in San Francisco anyway, with even fewer of them on bikes. Yes but, yes but, yes but. Our reasons not to ride made perfect sense and they kept us in our car until that day in Copenhagen when suddenly they no longer mattered. We came home and we started saying: we can and we will. And we did.

Yes, but San Francisco has hills!

Yes, but San Francisco has hills!

I hear the “yes buts” all the time when we talk about our lives now. In San Francisco people say the same things that we used to say. When they come from people outside the city the things people say are different and yet they’re still the same. Yes, but you can ride your bikes everywhere because San Francisco has nice weather (after a fashion) and here it snows. Yes, but there are lots of bike lanes in San Francisco and there aren’t any here. Yes, but the drivers there are friendly to bikes (if sometimes clueless) and here they’re aggressive. Yes, but the city is so small that nothing is very far away. Yes, but you can live without a car because San Francisco has great public transit and two car share companies and all those ride share services.

Everyone’s life is different. There are families riding in hilly cities with worse weather and less bicycle infrastructure than San Francisco. There are families riding in smaller cities that go massive distances or face bigger challenges. There are families that deal with snow and aggressive drivers.

Walking is exhausting. Let's ride bikes instead.

Walking is exhausting. Let’s ride bikes instead.

Personally I don’t care if people want to drive everywhere, although I love having company when families join us on their bikes. I do have issues though, with the claim that our lives enjoy some magical convergence of necessary possibilities. There are things that make it easier for us to ride our bikes and we are grateful for them, and there are things that make it harder for us and we deal with them. There is a man in San Francisco who rides a tricycle up and down the Embarcadero with the oxygen tank he needs to breathe in the basket. I have been passed more than once on the Panhandle by a man with no legs, whose bike is powered by his arms. Who knows what’s really possible? We didn’t know until we tried.

Change feels hard and scary and unnecessary until something happens and it becomes impossible not to change. Before our children were born it seemed impossible to live without sleep for over a year, and after each of them was born we learned to live with it. It was unpleasant but it was possible and they were worth it and now we couldn’t imagine life without them.

Some changes are impossible to miss or to avoid. And some changes could slip away without grabbing onto them. We could have spent that time in Copenhagen and come home and despaired that San Francisco will never be anything like it–San Francisco, for example, will never be flat–and felt the loss of it at some level forever. Instead we came home and bought bikes, and less than a year later, sold our car. Standing over The Pit and watching garbage stream out of the city I could have returned to living and shopping the same way and pushing away a nagging sense of guilt. Instead we embraced zero-waste (which is a work in progress). And it has been… fun!

When I think of what I’m most grateful for about that trip, it is that it started to break me of the habit of saying, “Yes, but…” We tried something new to us that seemed crazy to everyone at the time and it worked. I’m still not really a big fan of change, but change and I are working it out. We can and we will, and we do.

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Filed under Copenhagen, family biking, San Francisco, travel

Preschool EdgeRunner

Finally, another bike at preschool.

Finally, another bike at preschool.

This morning I saw the EdgeRunner I’d spotted last week parking next to my mamachari outside preschool as I was leaving. As the dad was unloading the bike and his son, Walking Mom came up the hill. Walking Mom is a friend from preschool who pushes her 3 and 5 year old five miles from home and up preschool hill in a double stroller every morning. Then she goes to work all day, and comes back in the evening to pick the boys up and walk them the five miles home. She is incredible. “We saw you going up the hill!” she yelled to the EdgeRunner dad , “That was AWESOME!”

When I talked to him he was still panting. “Well,” he said, “[gasp] we made it! [pant] I’m [wheeze] getting old.”

I sound exactly like that every morning.

“It’s just a really steep hill,” I said, “even with the assist.”

It's possible to ride up this part of the hill unassisted, but probably not with a four-year-old passenger.

It’s possible to ride up this part of the hill unassisted, but probably not with a four-year-old passenger.

Every morning I feel like that dad. I’m simultaneously grateful and vaguely disbelieving that we made it up preschool hill again, even with the assist, even after almost a year. Looking up the hill I’m never quite sure I’ll make it.

When I look at the assists on our bikes I feel so happy that they’ve made something possible that was previously impossible. Anyone who calls an electric assist cheating can meet me at the top of preschool hill.

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Filed under car-free, electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle