Tag Archives: hills

Xtracycle erumpent

Another EdgeRunner!

Another EdgeRunner!

Last week I spotted the first EdgeRunner I’d seen in the wild. I did a double-take last weekend when I saw it again at the Botanical Gardens. Except that it had different stoker bars. Given that stoker bars aren’t an accessory that people swap out casually, I realized it was an almost-identical EdgeRunner. This bike has been available for what, a month? And I’ve already spotted two? Evidently I’m not the only person who found it appealing. I think this one is a Rosa Parks bike, as I either saw it again or there is a third (!) EdgeRunner in our usual haunts–yesterday morning when I got to school with my son there was yes, a black EdgeRunner parked in the school yard. What’s more, we had dinner with friends last weekend, and the mom, who is in the market for a new family bike, is coveting the EdgeRunner as well.

On Monday, when we were walking with Matt’s parents to brunch, we spotted another Xtracycled bike heading up the hill the other way. Although it was moving fast, I realized it was a Cargo Joe, the folding Xtracycle, and given the speed it was ascending Mt. Sutro and the low hum it made as it went, it was clearly an electric-assist folding cargo bike. We puzzled over that one for a moment, but realized that here in San Francisco, there are thousands of people living in apartment buildings that lack dedicated bike parking (or any kind of parking) but do have elevators. In a hilly city of small spaces, there is evidently a previously untapped market for an assisted folding cargo bike.

We have missed our Bullitt sorely the last few weeks that it has been in the shop.  With it, we don’t need to organize our lives around not having a car. Riding the bike is always better. But not everyone can manage the parking demands and expense of an assisted front-loading box bike, and in San Francisco, which has so few families, the advantages of the front loaders are less widely relevant anyway. As I watched that Cargo Joe glide smoothly to the top of the hill, I couldn’t help thinking that I was seeing the future.

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

Scaling preschool hill

This is the approach to preschool hill, in a drier season.

This is the approach to preschool hill, in a drier season.

Lately the road to preschool has been slick due to a mysterious water leak, and with the cold the street is icing up. The university put down sand but cars are still slipping backwards on the hill (which actually happened to us once too, back when we owned a car, and which is absolutely terrifying).

Mornings this week I’ve come out to the sound of motors gunning as people try to power through the ice slick. San Francisco hills are far too steep to be scalable if there were actually ice on any regular basis.

But our assisted bikes are okay even on a steep and slick hill. It’s still not a fun trip, but it beats walking, and I when I see or hear cars losing traction I can peel off onto the sidewalk. But most drivers wait at the bottom of the hill until we get to the top. Even when the street is dry, they slow down to avoid passing us. Everyone moves pretty slowly on the uphill trip no matter what, frankly. Preschool hill is steep. It makes me paranoid about my brakes.

Anyway, I don’t see a lot of other parents riding bikes, although last year I met one dad on an assisted bike (a Walmart type model scored on craigslist), whose daughter is now in kindergarten. And occasionally there are parents who try the hill unassisted while hauling a trailer or child seat, walk in dripping with sweat, and vow while gasping for breath to never do it again.

At last there are two bikes at preschool drop off.

At last there are two bikes at preschool drop off.

That is, until yesterday, when I saw another bike snuggled up to the mamachari after I dropped my daughter off. I could hardly believe my eyes until I got outside: it was an assisted EdgeRunner! It was made exactly for this kind of job. I still don’t know who’s riding it, but it’s nice to have company at last.

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Filed under electric assist, family biking, San Francisco, Xtracycle

We tried it: Yuba Boda Boda

Hey, Boda Boda!

There are some new entries in the land of midtail cargo bikes. For the last year we’ve been riding the Kona MinUte, the first of these, and until pretty recently, the only bike in its class. Then it was stolen. That totally sucked. But given that we had to replace it anyway, we took a hard look at the two other midtails on the market now, the Yuba Boda Boda and the Kinn Cascade Flyer. Happily for us, Yuba, which is here in the Bay Area, let us ride one of their Boda Bodas for a while last month. Thanks, Yuba!

For background, midtail bikes are a new-as-of-2011 variation on longtail cargo bikes. As the name implies, they’re shorter. Instead of a long deck that can hold 2-3 kids, they offer a short deck that can hold 1-2 kids (as always, the number of kids you can successfully pile on the back of a cargo bike depends on their mood). The disadvantage of a midtail bike is obvious: it can carry less stuff and fewer kids. But there are payoffs for the reduced payload. Midtails look and feel like normal bikes; people who are nervous about handling a big bike will be more comfortable on a midtail than on a longtail. I have never dropped either the MinUte or the Boda Boda with the kids on board and I doubt I ever will. Midtail bikes can also be put on a bus bike rack and on Amtrak for longer trips. And it is a kind of bike that transitions easily from dropping off kids to riding into the office, which is how Matt used it.

Yuba moved into making a midtail bike with some major innovations. Although we liked our Kona MinUte, Kona is not a company that’s made much of a commitment to the family biking market, and that can be annoying. Yuba, on the other hand, cares very much about families. They created the Boda Boda explicitly to carry both kids and cargo, and it shows. The other big innovation is that they developed the Boda Boda with an electric-assist option integrated into the design. The only other cargo bike I know that was developed this way was Xtracycle’s EdgeRunner, a longtail. If you’re riding a cargo bike over a lot of hills or long distances, both these bikes should be on the short list.

The Boda Boda looks wildly different than the MinUte, even though they were both apparently designed by the same person. Putting them side by side in our garage made it very obvious that the MinUte was meant to look like a mountain bike, while the Boda Boda was meant to look like a cruiser. The Boda Boda looks friendlier and has a step-through frame option. Weirdly, the Boda Boda also looks bigger, although it is not in fact bigger. It was a strange and entertaining optical illusion.

Advantages of the Boda Boda:

  • This is an extremely easy bike to ride, both with and without kids aboard. The Boda Boda looks and feels like a beach cruiser, with wide handlebars and a relaxed and upright ride, but has massively increased carrying capacity. We had some friends who were only occasional riders try it, and even when it was loaded they took off without a wobble. This is common to some extent with all midtails, but our loaner Boda Boda had an advantage over the MinUte: a step-through frame. Even shorter riders could get on and off with contorting over the top tube or round-housing a kid sitting on the back deck.
  • The Boda Boda is a slender bike that can move easily through traffic. It has the same kind of rear supports as the Mundo, which are handy because they can hold up the bags or be used as footrests for older riders, but they are much narrower than the ones on the Mundo (as are the bags themselves). A Mundo with the Go Getter bags packed is three feet across, wider than many bike trailers, and it can be nerve-wracking to ride one in San Francisco’s narrow bike lanes and heavy traffic—as a result, I sometimes see Mundos riding on the sidewalk, even though this is illegal in San Francisco. The Boda Boda’s Baguettes, even fully packed, still lie pretty flat and make it possible to weave the bike through pinch points without a second thought (Baguettes can apparently be used on a Mundo as well, by the way).
  • It is very difficult to dump the kids on the Boda Boda (this is true for all midtail bikes). I never managed it, which is more than I can say for the longtails. The weight on the back is so close to the rider that it isn’t hard to handle.
  • The Boda Boda can easily carry one kid, or two kids if they’re in a good mood. The best application for this size of bike is to either carry one kid and a friend (siblings are more likely to fight) or for parents who have two kids and two bikes and are riding with them separately most of the time (that’s how we used our MinUte).
  • Happily, this bike is lightweight for a cargo bike. That means that although it’s not easy to carry, it’s possible. After seven straight years of lifting my kids overhead I have pretty decent arm strength, so needing to carry this bike up a few stairs wouldn’t intimidate me (unless I needed to carry a young child at the same time). However, the much heavier assisted bike: out of the question.
  • It is not appalling to ride this bike up hills. I have been riding a lot with an electric assist lately, because I don’t enjoy walking into meetings covered in sweat (both the campuses where I work are on the top of steep hills). As a result I was slightly depressed by the prospect of riding the unassisted Boda Boda around the city. Although the Boda Boda was, from my perspective, under-geared (see below), it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared. I was able to follow a friend who was riding my assisted mamachari and who had my daughter on board up a moderate hill without major effort. Frankly I think riding with the assist has made me stronger. But still, credit to the Boda Boda.
  • It took less than 30 seconds to load the Boda Boda on this rack. No wobbling on the ride either (which involved going up and down steep hills at speeds I’d prefer to forget).

    The Boda Boda fits on a bus bike rack, even a small rack like the one on the university shuttles. One evening when my son forgot his helmet at pickup we rode the shuttle home instead of riding. One of the reasons I really like the midtail size is the ability to do stuff like this instead of being stranded. I wrote once about flipping the front wheel to put the Kona Minute on a bus bike rack; we did the same thing with the Boda Boda. The bike is light enough that lifting it to the rack wasn’t a problem (note that this was the unassisted bike, which is ~15 pounds lighter than the assisted bike). And it definitely impressed the other shuttle riders. “What a great design!” The Boda Boda fits on the rack slightly better than the MinUte, actually, because it has smaller 26” wheels.

  • Yuba has designed some nice accessories for this bike. Unlike a lot of cargo bikes, it has a chain guard. Most of the other accessories are not included in the base price of the bike, but they are probably worth the money. The Baguette bags in particular impressed me; they hold a lot more than they look like they would, and still lie flat against the bike itself. The deck and running boards are bamboo, and they look classy. Some of the standard Mundo accessories, like the front basket and the seat cushion for the deck, also work on the Boda Boda.
  • Many cargo bikes are one-size-fits-all, but the Boda Boda (like all three midtails now on the market) comes in two different frame sizes. This is very nice for shorter and taller riders who report that some bikes are really one-size-fits-most rather than one-size-fits-all. The smaller size has a step through option.
  • Although I rode the unassisted version of the bike, Yuba designed the Boda Boda with the expectation that many people would want an electric assist. The assist system they chose, which is made by BionX, is excellent (the same one we have on our Bullitt). The deck is designed to hold the BionX rack-mounted battery underneath and it’s unobtrusive. For people in hilly cities like ours, this feature, in combination with the excellent accessories and light weight, makes the Boda Boda unbeatable for the family with one child.
  • I often call Yuba the Ikea of bike manufacturers because they make cargo bikes at very approachable price points, and the Boda Boda is no exception. The unassisted Boda Boda is $1000, and the assisted version is $2700. By cargo bike standards, these are excellent prices (the assisted version seems like a particularly good deal). The Kona MinUte has the same base price (and the bags are included, but unfortunately the MinUte bags kind of suck) and is also a good deal, but as noted above Kona is not a family-focused company and there is no integrated electric assist system. That might not be a problem if you have a family-oriented local bike shop, but could be frustrating if you don’t.

Disadvantages of the Boda Boda:

  • This is not specific to the Boda Boda but to its class: like many parents, I prefer to ride with my kids in front of me rather than behind me.  You can see them and talk to them and it’s altogether a better experience (it also feels safer to me, probably because experience suggests I’m less likely to dump a front-loading bike). Realistically, however, the kids in front option is expensive. If you have the money, by all means get a bike that puts the kids in front, because it is fabulous. But most people don’t walk into family biking yelling, “Money is no object!” Also you could never get a front box bike onto a bus.
  • The Boda Boda is really a bike suited for carrying one kid regularly and no more than that. Yes, it is possible to put two kids on the back of a midtail, maybe even three for a short ride. Yes, there are probably siblings in this world who could ride that way regularly without trying to kill each other. However such kids would be exceptional.  I’ve been able to ride a MinUte for almost an hour without my kids fighting on occasion, but more often the ride gets cut short when they start smashing helmets. So the Boda Boda is really a bike for a one-kid family or for a family where both parents ride and split up the kids, or where only the youngest needs to be hauled.
  • The Boda Boda is under-geared for San Francisco. It has eight speeds and they were not enough for riding around our neighborhood loaded and unassisted. Yes, I could climb moderate hills, but trying to get up the steep hill to the main campus on this bike left me dripping with sweat. However, this wouldn’t be an issue with the electric assist version.
  • More expensive cargo bikes come with better parts, and cheaper bikes come with parts that are less good. The Boda Boda comes with many of the same parts that are on the Yuba Mundo, which where we ride would mean making several upgrades, either all at once or over time as various parts on the bike broke. In defense of the Boda Boda, it is a much lighter bike than the Mundo, so the riding experience with those components was much better than on the Mundo (in particular, using rim brakes felt less like flirting with death). Also in defense of the Boda Boda, we had to do the exact same thing with our MinUte, which is also built with cheaper parts. The components may not be an issue for an occasional rider or for someone riding in less demanding conditions.  However I had the chain drop off the front ring twice while riding the bike, and it was a huge pain to rethread given the chainguard.
  • I suspect that Yuba had a price point in mind building this bike, and that was: less than the Mundo. As a result, the standard Boda Boda is pretty stripped down if you want to haul a kid on it. The stock kickstand is totally inappropriate for loading kids, the bike lacks fenders, there aren’t stoker bars or footpegs for a kid riding in the back, and the bags are not included. There is an optional center stand appropriate for loading kids, plus bags, and so forth, but the costs of these upgrades add up and should be kept in mind. The bike I rode, incidentally, came with Baguette bags, which have a neat center outside pocket where my seven-year-old son could tuck his feet, and I definitely think they’re worth the money.  However I suspect that many parents would appreciate a “family package” where the obvious upgrades were bundled together.
  • The Boda Boda is still somewhat in development, and the accessories designed to carry kids are not yet perfected. The Boda Boda deck is much higher than the Mundo deck, so the Mundo stoker bars are too low for kids to hold. When my daughter (three years old) tried using them she was frustrated that she had to stick her face into my butt. My son, who can stay on by himself (although he prefers having stoker bars) simply ignored them.  If Yuba doesn’t come up with stoker bars for the Boda Boda, it would be better to have a bike shop rig up something.  Similarly, foot pegs for smaller kids like my daughter, who couldn’t put her feet into the bag pockets, are apparently not available.
  • I learned recently that some accessories are not compatible with putting the bike on a bus rack. Many San Francisco transit services, for example, don’t allow you to load bikes with front baskets on the bus racks. Normally I would suggest putting Yuba’s Bread Basket on to increase the Boda Boda’s carrying capacity, especially given that it can be tough to use the rear bags if you’re carrying a younger kid in a child seat on the back (Yuba’s Peanut Shell is compatible with the Boda Boda). But for anyone planning to put this bike on the bus, definitely check with the local transit agency first, because the Bread Basket cannot be removed without tools.
  • As with all of the longtail/midtail bikes, there isn’t really good technology yet for covering up kids in bad weather on the Boda Boda. People have jury-rigged rain covers and bundled up kids, but this is one area where front-loading bikes really shine: most of these bikes come with covers.
  • I found the deck on the Boda Boda really high for carrying kids (this is also a problem on the MinUte, which has bigger wheels). On a longtail, this can make the load less stable, meaning you’re more likely to dump the bike and scrape up the kids. On a midtail like the Boda Boda dumping the bike is extremely unlikely; that’s an advantage of the short deck. But there’s still a cost to putting weight up so high. Where I feel the most unstable on midtails and longtails with kids on board is turning at speed (especially at the bottom of a hill), when these bikes will pitch away from the turn like they’re going to roll over. This feeling is very unpleasant, and is much less likely to happen with the load lower down. Yuba built a high deck so there would be space to hold the BionX rear-rack mounted battery. However the Boda Boda would feel much more stable if both the deck and the battery were lower.

There’s been a lot of mugging for the camera lately. My son liked riding the bike. Hence the scary face, I am told.

Overall, I was impressed with the Boda Boda. It looks cute and easy to ride, and it is. That might sound trivial to people who already ride regularly who are considering a cargo bike, but for people who aren’t already riding bikes, it’s really important. The Boda Boda is very accessible.

I liked this bike so much that the electric assist Boda Boda is now what I recommend when San Francisco families with one child who are new to riding bikes ask me what bike they should get. So far two of them have gone for it (knowing that they’re probably going to have to upgrade some of the parts along the way).  Overall, for parents looking to start bike commuting with a kid, the Boda Boda is an excellent choice.

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

Not another “hills of San Francisco” post!

Happily, we don’t live on any of the hills featured in this movie short. But I definitely recognize them (and avoid them). “Russian Hill Roulette” is now several years old, and since it was made, people have identified many steeper streets. Now, nothing in it would make the top six list of steepest hills in San Francisco.

Welcome to San Francisco, and remember: going up can be difficult, but going down can be dangerous, so always maintain those brakes.

If watching this seems like a dream come true to you, head to San Francisco next July for the Seven Hells of San Francisco ride. I won’t be there.

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Filed under rides, San Francisco

San Francisco is hard on bikes

Our kids “borrowing” the toys in our Copenhagen apartment’s courtyard

I feel like I should subtitle this post, “why I get whiny about components.”

When we started riding our bikes in San Francisco we did not go by half-measures. We got bikes and we rode them pretty much every day as transportation. We hauled our kids to school and their activities and back, rode to work, and got groceries. It was fun! And we assumed that that was what bikes were FOR. That’s what comes of picking up bike riding in Copenhagen.

We realized pretty quickly that lots of bike manufacturers had different ideas about how we would ride. That’s because we kept breaking things on our bikes. At first we assumed we were doing something wrong. It seemed entirely plausible that we were just lousy riders after such a long hiatus. But our excellent bike shop assured us this was not the case. We were just riding a lot more, and in much more difficult conditions, than the people who built our bikes had expected. What do I mean by difficult conditions? San Francisco streets where we live and work are steep, poorly paved, and dirty.

I have written about my brake paranoia before. We spend a lot of time going down steep hills, and that puts serious wear on the brakes.  It is no accident that I go on (and on and on) about hydraulic disc brakes, which last and last and stop on a dime. We also spend a lot of time going up hills. When we rode rental bikes in Portland we could go for several minutes without shifting, but this never happens here at home. Once, while wandering though Ikea, I saw a piston pressing a carved wooden bottom into a chair, over and over again, supposedly to demonstrate the chair’s longevity. That is essentially equivalent to what we do to our gears.

This street is in average-to-good condition by San Francisco standards. Lots of cars mean lots of damage.

The streets around San Francisco are also poorly maintained. Riding around my office and down the hill from home, the asphalt is so rough that it makes my bell ring as I bump over it. At first it was sort of annoying but also sort of funny. It became less funny when I realized that this was literally rattling parts off my bike. And the streets are dirty. At bike camp, my son was told to wash his bike at the end of the week, every week. We should do this, but we totally don’t. So our bikes look like crap a lot of the time, and all the grime doesn’t do the moving parts any favors either. And it is a rare day that I ride without having to dodge broken glass in the street.

So we learned to care about the components on our bikes. Most cargo bikes come with low to mid-range parts. High quality parts cost money, and my sense is that people already balk at the costs of cargo bikes, which unquestionably cost more than ordinary bikes. Plus a lot of people who take up riding bikes for transportation do so in conditions that are less extreme than ours. This makes sense to me: the barriers to entry are a lot lower in places without serious terrain to battle. And finally, most people who ride bikes in the United States do it as a supplement to car ownership, not to replace driving. They’re not riding every single day. Why not use cheaper parts? Most riders don’t need anything better than that.

The city brought goats in earlier this year to eat the garbage that had piled up around the bus depot across the street from my office. (I hate riding up this hill, incidentally.)

Yet over here in our stomping grounds things are different. Thus I find some bikes difficult to imagine owning because if I bought them, I would have to replace almost every part (or build up a bike from a frame, which exceeds my ambitions). This is essentially what happened with our Kona MinUte. It lists as a $1,000 bike. Thanks to our bike shop’s first year warranty, which replaced everything we broke, it is now really a $2,000 bike (and now we like it twice as much). In its first year, here is an incomplete list of what was replaced: brakes, pedals, shifters, chain, derailleur guide, tires, tubes, chain ring. And this is why we were told to buy a bike from a good local shop: we paid a fraction of the true cost of those upgrades. Even swapping out the crappy disc brakes with excellent hydraulic disc brakes was half-price. That’s because our shop called Kona and insisted that they give us a credit toward the upgrade. And although all of this was great, even better than great, these upgrades meant that the MinUte spent a lot of time in the shop the first year. That was frustrating given that it was supposed to be a daily commuter. It also meant there were some scary and annoying moments, like when the old brakes failed going down steep hills (twice!), or when one pedal snapped in half while riding, or when Matt got four flats in four days.

There was a time that I complained about having to invest so much more in a bike to get a comparable riding experience as people in other places, which reminded me of how much more we pay in rent to live in San Francisco than we would in other places. I am over it. We are lucky to be here, we both work and can afford the relatively trivial price of bike maintenance, and anyway we all have different burdens to bear. However when we went looking for a new bike, we knew that we were willing to pay up front to keep that bike out of the shop, not to mention to keep it from careening down a hill with no working brakes and two kids on board. Our new Bullitt came with outstanding components, and I haven’t regretted our decision to pay for that. In addition to being safer, it’s also more fun to ride a bike with better parts. The Bullitt will never drop a chain, and it shifts cleanly and without hesitation. And it’s never skidded past a stop sign at the bottom of a hill, even fully loaded.

These bikes can now handle whatever San Francisco can throw at them.

At times I have criticized bikes that I perceive to have middling parts because where I ride, it’s something that matters a lot. Should people in other places pay for higher quality parts? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on how often they’ll be riding, how difficult the conditions are, and how much they care. The more you ride and the more hills, wet, and cold you face, the more likely it is that a low-maintenance bike with great parts will be worth the money. Where it’s flat, people often gravitate to Dutch bikes, which are built like tanks. But if riding a bike is a sometimes thing, or if you’re living in sunny Southern California, hitting a lower price point may be far more important than having a bike whose parts can weather all conditions.

But there isn’t a free lunch. One cargo bike may cost twice as much as another cargo bike, even though they look very similar. Cargo bikes aren’t sold based on sex appeal or brand names (because they have neither), so there is always a reason for a price difference. Sometimes that reason simply isn’t relevant to the local conditions or a family’s riding style, but it’s a real reason. And while there’s no wrong decision if it’s an informed decision, it is entirely possible to make a bad choice if you don’t know what you’re choosing. We bought a cheap cargo bike first because we didn’t know any better. We didn’t have to pay for that mistake because we bought it from a great shop. We got lucky.

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Filed under bike shops, car-free, family biking, San Francisco

Getting used to life with a real cargo bike

Heading for the Presidio on the party bike

We’ve had the Bullitt for a week now. Riding an assisted Bullitt in Portland was mostly effortless. Riding an assisted Bullitt in San Francisco is not effortless. I’ve now got two kids and cargo on my bike most of the time and on serious hills, even with a boost from the BionX it’s: “Oh hello, lactic acid.” In San Francisco, riding a loaded, assisted cargo bike on steep hills is the parental equivalent of training for the Olympics, difficult but gratifying. I’m not yet up to carrying this kind of load every day. However with Matt at home for a month or so, I have time to build up strength by switching out to an alternate bike sometimes with just one kid on board. But it sure is fun on the days that we do take the Bullitt. And on the flats we are so freaking fast.

We had an unexpected chance to race a car this weekend. Matt’s parents came to meet us for dim sum, then wanted to go shopping with us in the Presidio, then came home to play with the kids. They drove over from Berkeley. We met them at the restaurant; they arrived late because although miraculously they found parking immediately, they had to walk over from their car. When we left the Outer Richmond, we headed off separately to the Presidio. Ultimately we leapfrogged with them through light Sunday traffic. We all got lost thanks to the road construction, but ended up turning into the parking lot at the exact same time. Then we split up and headed home. I assumed they’d get there first because we had to climb both the Presidio hill and Mt. Sutro, but once again, we arrived simultaneously. On a weekday (or a busier weekend), with more traffic on the streets, we would have beaten them handily.

I’m still not used to the attention that we get on the Bullitt. After several rounds of my son singing “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” I caved and bought a speaker that works with my phone. So now I am whizzing around the city with two kids on board who are blasting TMBG’s “Alphabet of Nations” and dancing along in the box. We are a traveling party-bike. Passing drivers stare so long that they drift out of their lanes as they go by. We hear groans of envy from parents pushing heavy strollers up San Francisco hills. Little kids chase our bike. It is a blast, but disconcerting. “AWESOME BIKE!” is what we hear most often. “Wow, all of us could fit in that bike,” is an occasional addition from groups of people waiting at bus stops.

Because the Bullitt is such a slim cargo bike, it still slips through narrow bike lanes and alongside traffic pinch points. When I am riding it, it is the best of all possible worlds. It carries as much as a car and travels at least as fast, but can speed past stopped traffic and park in an ordinary bike rack by the front door of any destination. It eats up the hills. Next week, I am taking this bike to Costco. (The San Francisco Costco is unlike its suburban siblings; it is a three-story parking garage occupying an entire city block, and the store itself is located in the center of the second floor, and thus it gets a fair amount of bike traffic.)

Running for the Bullitt

I expected that the Bullitt would substitute for trips that we normally took using City Carshare. Historically that’s meant shopping trips on the far side of a big hill or two that we couldn’t manage with two kids and cargo simultaneously, or trips out of the city. Realistically, we could have used City Carshare for all of the trips that the Bullitt is now handling indefinitely. Our occasional car rentals are usually pretty cheap, maybe $6-$20 per trip depending on length, and even at a once a week pace, it would be a very long time before the bike paid for itself using offsets from car share rentals. But the bike is more convenient. We no longer have to worry about when we go someplace; we’re not going to get stuck in traffic and we won’t have to circle to find parking. And it is so much fun to ride! One week in, when given the choice between City Carshare and the Bullitt, we all run to the bike.

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

You cannot run faster than a Bullitt

This weekend, the Bullitt arrived. We immediately took it out for an 11 mile ride with the kids. Here’s what I’ve learned.

  • After two months without riding a Bullitt I was nervous about my ability to pick it up again. I got the trick of steering it back in about 20 feet.
  • Even with the BionX, San Francisco hills are much steeper than Portland hills. Going up to Bernal Heights I did use the highest level of assist, and I would have been delighted if it went “to 11.”
  • Thank goodness we got the lightest cargo bike.
  • To my surprise, my kids decided to ride together in the box. It’s not all that roomy in there for two older kids, but they were happy. At one point my daughter even stretched out for a nap, although she did not actually nap.
  • The preferred entertainment for two kids in a Bullitt is singing “99 bottles of beer on the wall.” On a five mile ride, that song can stretch into negative numbers. Adding a sound system to this bike has been upgraded from “nice to have” to “critical need.”
  • An unexpected disadvantage of a low box is that the kids assume that they can reach out and pick up anything on the street that interests them while we are moving. We had to have a conversation about that.
  • It is impossible to overestimate how much attention a Bullitt will get on the streets of San Francisco. Lots of drivers pulled up right next to us to ask questions. “I love your bike!” said one.
  • Other bike riders will assume that a Bullitt belongs to a man, and ask my husband questions about it. In response, he will stare at them.
  • This bike can go anywhere in this city with two kids and whatever else we pick up along the way.

On the way back home, on the Panhandle, we spotted: another Bullitt! That was unexpected. It was a milk-white Bullitt (unassisted) with a kid box like mine, but the rider was carrying a big black dog. Given that there are no Bullitt dealers in San Francisco, we were both nonplussed. “Nice bike!” I said. “Yay, BULLITT!” he said. Based on his accent, I think he was Danish. The other riders on the path looked dumbfounded.

On Saturday night before the Bullitt arrived, we had to do a longer-distance errand at night with both kids, and given the distance and the fact that it was dark and our lack-of-a-two-kid-cargo-bike situation, we rented a Nissan Leaf from City Carshare for a little while. We were stuck in traffic for most of the trip. We couldn’t find parking. The kids got fussy. Matt and I were both struck by the fact that we used to do this EVERY SINGLE DAY. We were relieved to return that car. “Okay, that sucked,” said Matt.

Worth the wait

In light of this experience, I hesitate to call the Bullitt a car replacement, although that is arguably the closest equivalent. But the Bullitt is better. Within city limits, it is faster than a car, because it doesn’t get stuck in traffic. With rare exceptions, it can carry more than a car. It can park by the front door of any destination. Our kids enjoy the ride. It turns out we weren’t looking for a car replacement. What we wanted all along was a totally awesome cargo bike.

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

A series of electric assists

This is the first assisted bike I ever rode, a Surly Big Dummy with BionX.

I first tried a bike with an electric assist last March, just over six months ago, a BionX assisted Surly Big Dummy at Splendid Cycles in Portland. It made quite an impression. Later I tried a mid-drive assist at The New Wheel in San Francisco. Then I tried another mid-drive assist and a front hub motor.  Less than a year ago, I could not have identified the difference between these assists with schematic diagrams and prompts from their designers. I wish I knew then what I know now.

The electric assists I have tried:

  • A front hub motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (eZee)
  • A mid-drive motor operated by a throttle on the handlebar (EcoSpeed)
  • A mid-drive pedal-assist motor (Panasonic)
  • A rear hub pedal-assist motor that responds to torque (BionX)

I have pretty strong feelings about what kind of assist I prefer after trying all of these (BionX, although it’s not perfect). Maybe you have no idea what I’m talking about, but wish you did because you’ve been hearing about this electric assist thing and it sounds kind of cool, but you couldn’t pick an electric assist bike out of a lineup. Read on, friend.

General thoughts

Electric assist bicycles are interesting because they are true car replacements for ordinary people. I have met lots of committed, fiercely strong riders who not only ride to work and for errands and on weekends, but also head for the steepest grades in the city to improve their hill-climbing chops. These guys (they are almost always men) are inspiring, but your average mom of two isn’t going to look at them and say: “Yeah! That could be me!” But put an electric assist on a cargo bike and you are looking at a transportation system that can haul the kids, handle a week’s worth of groceries, dodge traffic, and park right next to the front door of any destination in the city—at the same time. All of this for minimal operating and capital costs, plus enough exercise that you no longer get depressed about not making it to the gym since the kids were born. Many of the factors that make riding a bike seem intimidating—I can’t sweat because I need to look decent for work, no way can I make it up that hill, how am I going to carry the kids, I can’t handle the wind—disappear with an assist. All that’s left to worry about is wet weather. I personally got some waterproof outerwear and found out that I liked riding in the rain, but if I had hated it, heck, we could rent a car on every rainy day in San Francisco without coming close to the cost of owning a car. (In other climates people worry about snow, but from what I’ve read this involves getting some studded winter tires and a cover for the kids and then you’re good.)

Some people like throttle assists (operated by a grip on the handlebar, independent of pedaling) and some people like pedal assists (which multiply your effort as you pedal). My anecdotal impression is that people who come to electric bikes from bikes prefer a pedal assist because it feels like riding a bike. Whereas people I’ve met who ride both bicycles and mopeds, or bicycles and motorcycles, seem to prefer having a throttle. Everybody likes what’s familiar. I came to electric bikes from riding a bicycle as my kids’ weights edged up toward 100 lbs. I didn’t care for the throttle assists I tried.

None of the electric assist systems cost much to charge. Efforts I’ve seen to estimate power costs sort of peter out because they’re so trivial. NYCE Wheels, which sells a lot of assisted bikes and has some great articles on their website about the technology, estimated the cost per charge at maybe 18 cents in New York City, but of course prices depend on local rates. The better systems estimate that a charge can carry an assisted bike at the highest level of assist for 20-45 miles.

Currently there are three kinds of batteries that can power the motor on the market (that I know of): sealed lead acid (SLA), nickel-metal hydride (NiMH) or nickel cadmium (NiCd), and lithium-ion polymer (LiPo). The technology for batteries on electric assists is still considered somewhat experimental. Getting the longest possible warranty from a reputable manufacturer is a really good idea. Expect the battery to last only a little longer than the warranty and you won’t be disappointed. Battery replacement is the true cost of maintaining an assisted bike. Compared to the costs of maintaining a car, it’s still bupkis: with a good warranty, it will run $500-$900 every two years at the most.

  • SLA batteries are the least inexpensive electric assist battery. They’re incredibly heavy and take several hours to charge. Bikes with these batteries tend to have limited range (maybe 5 miles). When SLA batteries won’t hold a charge anymore, they have to be disposed as hazardous waste. These batteries are common on e-bikes in China. If you buy an e-bike at a big box store it will have an SLA battery, and it won’t last long. You’ll be replacing entire bikes more frequently than other people replace their bike’s batteries.
  • NiMH (more common) and NiCd (less common) batteries are somewhat more expensive, still heavy, and bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (maybe 10 miles). They were considered an upgrade from SLA batteries at one time, but they have their little issues. One of these is charge memory; occasionally you have to drain the battery down or it will stop fully recharging, and you won’t be able to go as far. When they won’t hold a charge anymore, they will not win any awards for environmental stewardship. However in San Francisco, Sunset Scavenger will recycle them if they’re left taped up in plastic on top of a black can. It’s almost impossible to find these batteries on new bikes, as they’ve been supplanted by LiPo batteries.
  • LiPo batteries are the most expensive, most energy-dense, and lightest weight battery option. LiPo batteries largely dominate the market now. Bikes with these batteries tend to have greater range (20-90 miles). Using them with inappropriate chargers or puncturing them can make them explode (exciting!) They can be stored for long periods (1-2 months) without losing charge.

Front hub throttle assist

I tried the eZee front hub motor that comes standard on the Yuba elMundo. This is a 500 watt motor. You can tell there is a motor on the bike because the front wheel has an oversized hub. There are lots of other manufacturers that make front hub motors, and kits made in China, where electric bikes are fairly common, are often found on eBay. However eZee seems to be one of the more reputable manufacturers. On the elMundo there is also a battery attached to the frame, just behind the seat tube (that’s the part of the frame that attaches to the seat) and in front of the rear wheel; however the battery could be placed somewhere else on other bikes (a rear rack, a down tube, anyplace that would hold the weight). The suggested range for this assist system is 20 miles.

  • How it works: You activate the motor by twisting the right handlebar grip away from you. The more you twist, the more assistance you get. When the motor is on, your pedaling appears to add nothing. You can turn the motor on and off with a controller on the left side of the handlebars. The controller is pretty basic; just a switch with lights. The look screamed “high school science fair project” to me.
  • What it feels like: It feels like skitching. Skitching is when you are pulled along by something other than the bike, like when lunatic bike messengers grab onto a passing car. You’re hitching a ride. I have never skitched on a bike because that would be insane, but I have skied. Using a front-hub throttle motor feels a lot like being pulled on a rope tow while on skis (except obviously you’re on a bike).
  • Noise level: Medium. I definitely noticed the sound of the motor while I was riding. I wouldn’t call it noisy, but people walking along the sidewalk alongside noticed the sound, and it also muffles the noise of passing traffic somewhat.
  • Pros: You never have to work going uphill. The eZee motors work with many batteries. They are the Microsoft Windows of electric assists. The system is reasonably priced as electric assists go, although not so cheap that you wonder whether they’re a fly-by-night manufacturer.
  • Cons: A downside of using any of the throttle assist motors is that your power is limited to what the motor can pump out. Pedaling adds nothing. Unfortunately a 500 watt eZee front hub motor didn’t really have the kind of power needed to get two kids up steep hills in San Francisco. I saw one elMundo overheated and out of commission (two older kids on deck, bike on a hill) during our recent Kidical Mass/Critical Mass ride. I have heard other similar stories, although I haven’t personally witnessed them. There is also something weird going on with eZee right now; none of its products seem to be in stock. Using a throttle-operated assist doesn’t feel like riding a bike.
  • Battery type: LiPo. I’ve seen warranties on eZee batteries of either six months or a year.
  • Cost: around $1450 for this motor with a 36v battery.

Mid-drive throttle assist

This is the EcoSpeed Bullitt; the motor is not visible, but note the console above the handlebars.

I tried the EcoSpeed aftermarket mid-drive assist mounted on a Bullitt at Portland’s Splendid Cycles. This is either a 1000 watt or 1500 watt motor; the answer seems to depend on how you frame the question. Mid-drive motors are more efficient than hub motors, so comparing watts between systems isn’t helpful. Unlike many assist systems, the controller did not limit the maximum speed (many state laws limit the top speed on assisted bicycles to 20mph). This discovery led to the following entertaining conversation. Me: “Uh, is this system even legal in California?” Splendid: “Well… no. Maybe. It’s a gray area, legally speaking.”

You can tell there is a mid-drive motor on the bike because there’s a bulbous protrusion near the chain wheel attached to a second chain. The motor drives the second chain and pulls the bike along. On the Bullitt, the batteries were mounted under the front box. You can fit a lot of batteries under the pallet of a long john, and mid-drive motors are pretty efficient; EcoSpeed claims their system can go 35-45 miles.

  • How it works: Twist the right handlebar grip and away you go. More twist, more speed. You can spin the pedals for fun but it’s not necessary, nor does it add any power or speed. The controller is a complicated-looking little computer on the handlebars that details the remaining battery power, speed, mileage, etc.
  • What it feels like: Hard to describe. It’s kind of like riding a train? I could feel that the motor was moving the bike underneath me, but it didn’t feel like I was being pulled; it wasn’t like a front hub motor.
  • Noise level: Unbelievably loud. It sounded like a moped.
  • Pros: This is an insanely powerful motor. It would be great for a construction company. Attach a trailer and you could haul, I don’t know, a load of concrete blocks up steep hills for miles on end. It would be overkill for hauling my kids around the city. Nonetheless, they thought it was wildly entertaining. They still ask about “the fast motor” sometimes.
  • Cons: It’s really noisy and really expensive. It may or may not be street-legal. The motor is so powerful that evidently it sometimes breaks chains on bikes. Using a throttle assisted bike doesn’t feel like riding a bike. To be honest the EcoSpeed scared me a little. I think this assist is best suited to someone who really understands the mechanics of electric assists. I am not that person.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The battery supplied by EcoSpeed has a two year warranty. There’s an option to supply your own battery.
  • Cost: $4,195 for the motor with battery, $150 for the computer.

Mid-drive pedal assist

Two types of bikes at The New Wheel: the Focus has a mid-drive pedal assist, the Ohm next to it has a BionX assist.

I tried a Panasonic mid-drive pedal assist on a purpose-built electric bike at The New Wheel in San Francisco, a BH Emotion Diamond Wave+. Some of the European assisted bikes have really weird and complicated names, I’m sorry to say. I’m going to refer to this bike as the Emotion because that was the name emblazoned on the down tube.

The Emotion has a 250 watt motor that’s built into the frame of the bike; you can tell it’s there because the chain guard looks really fat, like it’s been pumped up on steroids. Because the manufacturer built the system into the bike the torque/motion sensor is hidden inside the frame. There is also a battery mounted behind the seat tube and in front of the rear tire. Like many of the higher-end electric assist bikes, it comes with lights, fenders, chain guard and rack; this bike is designed to be used for transportation, not as a toy.

Mid-drive motors are so efficient that it would be a mistake to think that the comparatively low wattage means that you’re sacrificing power. On this bike I could easily scale hills that I’m fairly certain would have knocked out the eZee entirely. (The New Wheel is cleverly located near some of San Francisco’s more scorching hills. In my neighborhood the hills top out at a 25% grade; there are steeper hills near the shop.)  The BionX and EcoSpeed motors could handle the same hill; in fact I was riding with a friend who was on a BionXed bike (350 watt motor) at the time and he was just peachy. However the suggested range of the Emotion was 45 miles, whereas the suggested range of the BionX bike he was riding (an Ohm) was 35 miles.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the left side of the handlebars where you set an assist level of low, medium, or high (or off). Once it’s on it sends power as you pedal to multiply your effort. On low I wanted to gear down to make pedaling comfortable. On high, gearing down for the hill was optional.
  • What it feels like: Using the mid-drive pedal assist motor felt like riding a beach cruiser along the waterfront regardless of how steep a hill I attempted to scale. People do that kind of thing for fun on vacation. If you ride on a lot of hills already, the experience of using a mid-drive pedal assist is both intoxicating and a little spooky. If you always wanted to ride a bike but don’t because you live on a steep hill, this bike is a dream come true.
  • Noise level: The motor itself is silent. There was a slight rattling from the chain when the motor was running. It was fairly quiet but I noticed it, although someone walking on the sidewalk next to me wouldn’t have.
  • Pros: I like all of the pedal-assist systems because they feel like you’re riding a bike, but you don’t have to suffer (unless you want to). However this system is probably the most sophisticated I’ve ever used in that it doesn’t require you to think about how you’re riding: set the assist and forget it. The mid-drive motor works with internally geared hubs. The motor and battery are unobtrusive. There is a neat feature on most of the European assisted bikes, the “walking assist”, where you can push a button and the bike gives a trickle of power that makes it feel like you’re walking a bike that weighs 10 pounds instead of 50 pounds.
  • Cons: The biggest con is that these systems are currently only built into one-person commuter bikes (but see below for notes on the Stokemonkey). So although you could add a child seat to a bike like this, there isn’t any way to use the assist system to haul serious cargo or two kids, even though the motor is capable of handling those loads. Beyond that there’s only trivial stuff. If you’re using to riding a bike on hills, learning to use this kind of assist appropriately can be a little weird. The goal is to maintain a steady pedaling rhythm and not bear down on the hill, or even necessarily shift down (unless it would make it easier to maintain cadence). I had to remind myself not to *try* to climb the hill. It was like The Matrix: “There is no hill.” But if you haven’t been riding on hills a lot, this won’t be an issue. You’ll take to it immediately. Another minor issue is that people who like to tinker get frustrated that these are closed systems; you can’t mess around with the bike. However I have trouble believing that people like that would have the slightest interest in this kind of bike anyway.
  • Battery type: LiPo. The entire bike has a two-year warranty.
  • Cost: The entire bike, including the electric assist, costs $3,300 at the New Wheel; they offer 12-month 0% interest financing as well.

The Stokemonkey

Once upon a time, there was an aftermarket mid-drive pedal assist system specifically meant for cargo bikes , the Stokemonkey (designed and sold by Clever Cycles in Portland). Although the motor was created for longtail cargo bikes, Stokemonkeys have also been used on front loading box bikes (this is not recommended by the manufacturer, however).  I have, sadly, never ridden a bike with a Stokemonkey. However reports from people who have ridden them claim that the motor is silent, the assist is seamless, and that a stoked, fully-loaded cargo bike can easily climb any hill. The Stokemonkey was withdrawn from production when the cost of parts increased, but is apparently coming back at an unknown (to me, at least) future date and price. Yeehaw!

Rear hub assist that responds to torque

The BionX system can go on any bike with a rear derailleur, including this Yuba Mundo.

I have now ridden two different bikes with aftermarket BionX pedal assists, both in Portland: a Surly Big Dummy and a Bullitt. In both cases the motor was the PL-350 (350 watts), which is the model recommended for climbing steep hills. The BionX controller gives you the option of choosing between four levels of assist, which range from a 75% assist to 300% assist. There is also a thumb switch that acts as throttle, giving the bike a burst of power at the highest level. This is a handy feature when you’re crossing an intersection. The BionX system only provides an assist if you’re moving at least 2 mph, however, so the initial start has to be powered by the rider. This ensures that the bike won’t jerk forward if you accidentally brush a pedal while stopped.

The BionX is a rear hub motor. You can tell it’s there because the hub of the back wheel is much larger than normal. The (proprietary) battery comes in two versions. One is an odd and obtrusive tear-drop shape, which can be mounted in a couple of different places but usually goes on the down tube. The other is a less-obvious flat pack that mounts below a special rack. Although the rack mount is unquestionably more attractive, I have heard from more than one bike shop that the rack mount can be problematic, because that much weight placed high on the back of the bike can make it very tippy. Add kids to the rear deck and the problem is intensified.

The BionX system is an unusual pedal assist system for two reasons: first, it responds to torque, and second, it has regenerative braking.

The BionX provides more or less assist depending on how hard you press on the pedals. For this reason, riding with an assist feels the same as riding without the assist, except you’ve grown massively stronger: push down hard on the pedals and you rocket forward. For people who’ve been riding on hills for a while without an assist this is an intuitive system to use because it mirrors the way they already ride.

Regenerative braking means that as you go downhill and brake, the battery recharges a little. This is a little bit of a gimmick, but not totally. For some reason, many people I talk to about electric assists to seem to think that pedaling the bike should provide all the charging they need for the assist system, as though an assisted bike were some kind of perpetual motion machine. I suppose this is technically possible, but only if you worked exactly as hard as you did on an unassisted bike, in which case, what would be the point of having an assist? Setting aside the expectation of a free lunch, however, regenerative braking has some advantages. The first advantage is that you can use the system to slow the bike while going downhill by setting the controller to a negative assist, turning it into a hub brake. On steep hills where brakes can overheat, which are all over San Francisco, this feature is outstanding. I am paranoid about brakes, so the news that BionX assists came with an independent second braking system had the same effect on me as a face mask full of nitrous oxide at the dentist. Whee! The second advantage is that regenerative braking can decrease range anxiety, because after going downhill you have a little bit more range.

  • How it works: There is a controller on the right handlebar that allows you to set an assist level; there are four levels of assist (and four levels of negative assist that act as a brake). There is also a thumb switch that acts like a throttle and gives a burst of power at the highest level of assist. The controller is also a computer that provides information on speed, distance traveled, and remaining battery life. It is a slick little machine, the iPhone of controllers. Once an assist level is set it sends power to multiply your effort. You can set an assist level and forget it, and just ride around faster than usual with no fear of hills.
  • What it feels like: They call this system BionX for a reason. When it’s on it makes you feel like you’ve suddenly developed super strength, but without the sordidness, health risks or expense of taking performance enhancing drugs. Because it responds to effort (torque), it really does feel just like riding an unassisted bike, except that the experience has become much, much easier. You still use the gears, but don’t ever slow down so much that you wobble on the hills.
  • Noise level: Completely silent.
  • Pros: This system feels more like riding a bike normally than any other assist I’ve used, and yet is powerful enough that I had no trouble hauling two kids up steep hills. In Portland, riding the BionXed Bullitt, I didn’t even need the highest level of assist to clear the local hills without difficulty on brutally hot days. On the hottest day we were in Portland (with a high of 105F), however, I did turn the assist to the highest level and it allowed us to go fast enough to catch a breeze even though I was putting in minimal effort because I feared I might pass out from the heat.
  • Cons: The BionX system currently only works on bikes with a rear derailleur and not with internally geared hubs (however BionX will be releasing a system with a 3-speed internally geared hub next year; this system will only be for purpose-built assisted bikes, however, as the torque sensor has to be built into the frame by the manufacturer). Having to get the speed up to 2mph before the assist kicks in can make starts on a heavily loaded bike very wobbly. There is no walking assist, which would be helpful. (If you make the mistake of trying to use the throttle button as a walking assist, as I once did, the bike will lurch ahead faster than you can follow it.) The BionX system is proprietary and does not allow the use of less expensive batteries from other manufacturers. This really ticks off people who like to tinker with their assists: BionX is the Apple of electric assists.
  • Battery type: LiPo. BionX offers a two year warranty.
  • Cost:  Ranges from $1200-$1800. The more expensive systems are better hill climbers and have greater range.

My conclusion

After riding all of these systems, the one that seemed best suited for our needs was the BionX (but how about a walking assist, BionX?) However, because the battery technology for all electric assists is still a little spotty, I wouldn’t get an assisted bike without the kind of gearing that would have a sporting chance of getting me up serious hills if the battery failed. Our new cargo bike has a wide range of gears.

Our needs are not everyone’s needs. I suspect a mid-drive pedal assist bike would be the best choice for an inexperienced rider facing steep hills. If I wanted to carry seriously heavy loads on a cargo bike, an EcoSpeed would be the better choice (or if it were available, a Stokemonkey). Personally, I didn’t really like being pulled along by a front hub motor, and the version I tried was underpowered for San Francisco hills. However many people like these motors better–I recently talked to one dad who wouldn’t consider any other kind of assist–and it’s possible to buy stronger assists for a front hub. Moreover there are some relatively inexpensive front hub systems available. Battery experience with these systems may vary.

No electric assist with any longevity is inexpensive, and some of them cost more than the bike itself. However I know many families in San Francisco who ride bikes but own a second car only to get the kids to school on top of a steep hill or because they can’t get a week’s worth of groceries home on a bike. Compared to car ownership, an electric assist is a bargain indeed.

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

Mt. Sutro’s cloud forest: the path less traveled

We looked out over San Francisco from the first flight of stairs to Mt. Sutro. This landing is about 200 horizontal feet east of and 12 stories above our front door.

Although we love our bikes, we still think of ourselves as pedestrians a lot of the time. This is sort of nice, because riding a bike is so much faster than walking that I always think I’m getting away with murder when I arrive more quickly than I could have on foot. It’s also useful in other circumstances. The other week, we needed to head to the other side of Mt. Sutro when the main road was under construction. So we hoofed it through the cloud forest.

The largest courtyard on campus–my son’s preschool graduation was held here.

Our route over Mt. Sutro goes through campus on a path that’s closed on weekends to people who lack an access card. In the back of the hospital and clinic buildings are a series of courtyards where the university flattened out a bit of turf here and there. It makes for nice views from the building and gives the kids a chance to run around.

The next set of stairs, partially obscured by the forest

From the main courtyard we head into the forest. The stairs up the hill are why we will never ride our bikes up there. There are people who ride mountain bikes in the cloud forest, but they have to carry them up the stairs. That’s never going to happen with our cargo bikes.

Coming back down the other side

Our daughter didn’t have the stamina to make it up on her own, so Matt carried her for most of the way. It turned out that there were volunteers and city workers out on the trail clearing poison oak so it’s probably just as well she wasn’t walking.

We did actually meet a mountain biker while we were there. He had stopped to let us pass as we came close. I asked if he wanted to get by, and he panted, that no, he was happy to get the rest. I know how that goes. He had carried his bike up the shorter flight of stairs on the other side of the mountain but it’s still a slog.

Down the stairs, heading to the fire station

We came down the the other side and headed to the fire station to play on the trucks, then to the bakery and the hardware store. Our son was too tired to go back up and down the mountain, so on the way back we ended up walking along the closed road that the city was repaving. It’s a shorter walk but was decidedly less pleasant.

This is San Francisco too.

It’s such a haul up the hills that we don’t go up Mt. Sutro often, but it always amazes me that there is such a place less than a couple of blocks from where we live. Admittedly those two blocks are almost completely vertical. But San Francisco is so densely populated that it is unnervingly wonderful to walk for a few minutes directly into the dead silence of the forest.  It is hard to believe in that moment that this is all part of the city.

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We tried it: Yuba elMundo

I didn’t manage to get good photos of the elMundo I rode, so here’s a nice-looking Mundo. Imagine a battery behind the tube holding up the seat and you’re mostly there.

I have said before that Yuba is the Ikea of bicycle manufacturers. This sometimes gets taken as a slur against Yuba, but I intend no disrespect. Ikea meets a market demand that no one previously realized was there: at certain points in their lives, people want cheap furniture that looks decent. Yuba realized there was a market demand that no other manufacturer was meeting directly: inexperienced riders wanted inexpensive bikes that could carry a bunch of stuff.

Xtracycle pioneered that market with the FreeRadical longtail extension, but there are some limitations to their model. The first is that the FreeRadical will fishtail and flex under weight (that means you feel like the bike will fall apart while riding it loaded, even if it won’t—although with sufficient weight, in difficult conditions, it actually might). The second is that installing it onto an existing bike frame, or for that matter even understanding how it works, requires a certain baseline level of comfort with bicycles. Xtracycle attempted to address the second problem with the release of the Radish, but as the Radish is simply a FreeRadical attached to a bike frame, there are still problems with flex. They addressed the problems with flex by partnering with Surly to create the Big Dummy, which uses a solid frame, but that bike is substantially more expensive, and offers some complicated choices. Having talked to a lot of inexperienced riders, I can attest that although the Xtracycle line of products is incredible (seriously, it’s awesome), it can seem very confusing.

Enter the Mundo. Yuba keeps it simple. (I rode a Mundo for a couple of weeks earlier this year and reviewed it here.) For $1200 you get a bike with a strong frame that can carry massive amounts of weight, mountain bike gears to climb hills, fenders for foul weather, and a lot of cargo and kid-carrying options (these cost extra). Hitting that price point means that Yuba has made certain compromises: there is no free lunch in the world of cargo bikes. For one thing, the bike is heavy, and even with a lot of gears, getting up steep hills involves major-league suffering. Thus Yuba created the elMundo, the electric-assist version of the Mundo.

I found riding the elMundo fascinating. If you’ve read my review of the Mundo, most of the reasons the Mundo wasn’t the right bike for us are still an issue with the electric assist version.  The elMundo is not our future bike. However our situation is somewhat unusual, and after riding the elMundo I think that unless there is a sea change in what other manufacturers are doing, it will soon dominate the family/cargo bike market.  That is in large part because Yuba has created a bike that is simple enough, cheap enough, and capable enough that it is drawing in people who had previously never imagined that they might commute by bike with their kids. There aren’t a lot of choices to make with the Yuba line, and that can be a good thing.

The pros of the elMundo:

  • Longtails ride a lot like normal bikes. The learning curve is minimal. I’ve gotten comments that I harped excessively on getting used to a bike in my reviews of front box bikes, but I think it’s important for people to have a sense of how long that might take, or they will rule certain bikes out the first time they get on them. (There are multiple attempted reviews of the Bullitt, for example, that essentially say: “Yuck, I couldn’t ride it.”) The elMundo is no exception to the general “easy to ride” rule; although of course it gets tougher with the kids on deck because they squirm and that can mess with balance.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo can carry major amounts of weight without the bike feeling unstable or fishtailing. Yuba claims that you can carry over 400 pounds of cargo on the rear deck. A very nice (although somewhat out of date) summary of cargo bikes from JoeBike notes that cargo bikes can usually safely carry rather less weight than their manufacturers suggest, and other bike shop owners have told me the same thing. However the Mundo line is still rated to carry twice what other longtail bikes can.
  • Unbeatable price! The elMundo lists for $2600, basically the price of a Mundo with the assist thrown in at what must be very near manufacturer cost. There is no other electric assist cargo bike I have heard of that approaches this figure. For example, the hopefully-soon-to-be-released Xtracycle Edgerunner, which looks to be a very nice assisted longtail, is supposed to list for $3500. That’s a good price for an assisted cargo bike too, but it’s still almost $1,000 more than the elMundo. Novice riders in particular are extremely price-sensitive.
  • The elMundo, like the Mundo, has good acoustics. This sounds like a weird thing to say, but having the kids behind you instead of front means that you can’t see what they’re doing. Being able to hear them reasonably well as a rider helps smooth the ride (kids, left unobserved together, will eventually fight). Plus it’s entertaining. You as the rider still can’t be heard by them, but it’s better than nothing.
  • The elMundo has a good kickstand, which now comes standard (the older versions of the Mundo had the better kickstand as a more expensive option). Poor kickstands are legion among longtail and midtail bikes. Putting live weight on a bike is different from putting dead weight on it, and having a decent kickstand is critical to being able to load the bike safely with two younger kids, or being able to add cargo to a bike with kids on it (and kids come with a lot of stuff). You can’t put the kickstand down without getting off the bike, but the bike is unlikely to topple while parked.
  •  The electric assist, which works using a twist-throttle on the right hand grip, is very simple to operate and powers smoothly up mild to moderate hills. The further you turn the throttle, the more power you get from the motor. I always overheated getting the Mundo up San Francisco hills, which was extremely undesirable given that I commute in work clothing. The elMundo is better.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are relatively short for cargo bikes, at just shy of 7 feet, and that means that they are much less painful to park and store. Although the Mundo is wide in back, you’ll be able to fit it into a normal bike corral if you roll in forward. However you will still need walk-in parking, or close to walk-in parking, and there is no way you could carry the bike upstairs. The Mundo takes up a lot of room at the conventional San Francisco “bike rack”, which is a parking meter, but it won’t completely block the sidewalk as a Bakfiets or trike would.
  • The elMundo (as well as the Mundo) can take an infant seat on the front, which makes it possible to carry three kids (two on the deck, one in front) with minimal squabbling.
  • The elMundo can carry a lot of cargo in addition to kids. Yuba’s Go-Getter bags, which are Mundo-specific panniers on the rear rack, are gigantic and don’t sag because they are supported by the side beams on either side of the rear wheel. If you don’t like the Go-Getter bags, you can install Xtracycle FreeLoaders (this would be my choice). The optional front Bread Basket is frame-mounted. It takes some getting used to, because it doesn’t turn with the bike’s front wheel, but that frame mount means that it can carry a lot of weight. For example, friends with an elMundo bungeed a 16” kid bike with training wheels to it last weekend. We carried a week’s worth of shopping on a Bread Basket.
  • The Mundo and elMundo have some nice design features. For example, the side beams that stick out on either side of the rear wheel can be used as footrests for riders on the deck or as a way to easily haul a second bike. The bike is accessible to riders of a range of heights with an adjustment of the quick-release seat. A front wheel stabilizer to keep the bike from toppling due to the weight of the front wheel is standard. The deck and optional foot boards are made from bamboo; very pretty. The color choices (orange and black) are more attractive than most. And if you don’t have much storage space, the Yuba can be balanced “standing up” on the back of the frame (photo here), assuming that you don’t have a child seat on the end of the deck.

The cons of the Mundo:

  • The eZee electric assist on the elMundo is underpowered. I had heard reports that it failed on steep hills, which I believe. It struggled on moderate hills, slowing substantially on the longer ones, even with no kids on deck or other cargo. (My definition of a moderate hill is roughly 10% grade, which is maybe atypical but is consistent with San Francisco topography. However note that the bike was unloaded.) Ultimately I climbed hills faster by turning on the assist for a while, then turning it off and pedaling for a bit, then turning it on again, etc. This worked but did not improve my mood. A BionX assist is much more efficient and did not struggle at all on comparable grades, even with a two-kids-and-all-their-gear load. However a BionX assist is substantially more expensive, and a BionX rear wheel is only rated to carry 220 pounds. Given that safe cargo weight limits on longtails can be exaggerated this might not make much practical difference. However several hundred dollars in price difference for a BionX assist is not trivial.
  • The eZee battery is very wide, and that means that the elMundo has lost the Mundo’s front triple ring, because there is not room at the back for the chain to run freely with three front rings. The elMundo has only seven gears in the back instead of the 21 gears on the Mundo (3 in front x 7 in back). Converting a Mundo into a elMundo costs ~$2000 at San Francyclo, more than the $1400 price difference between the two bikes at purchase, in part because of the parts swap on the front ring.
  • The eZee assist is a throttle assist rather than a pedal assist. (There are after-market eZee assists that have a pedal-assist option, and evidently at least one person has put one on a Mundo, but I’m focusing on the stock elMundo.) This is a personal preference, but I am much happier using a pedal assist, in part because the effort of pedaling is multiplied when riding instead of replaced. When I turned the throttle on I stopped pedaling, and this made riding the elMundo feel like switching between a bike and a moped.
  • Front hub motors like the eZee are somewhat noisy. The sound of the motor, when it was on, negated some of the good acoustics I liked when riding the bike unassisted. The motor wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as after-market mid-drive motors—the one I tried was like a Vespa—but it was louder than manufacturer-installed mid-drive motors like the Panasonic, and I found even that mild rattle vaguely annoying when I tried it.
  • The Mundo and elMundo both have cheap parts. What that means from a practical perspective is that they can be less than fun to ride at times. There is mild rattling while the bike is moving and I noticed bad pavement more than usual (and this bike was better maintained than the Mundo I rode earlier in the year). When I tried to shift gears, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. That probably wouldn’t matter much to me if I lived in Chicago, where people can ride for hours without changing gears, but I live in San Francisco, and I rarely ride for more than a few minutes without needing to shift. Having ridden bikes with better components, and discussed these issues with the shop, I feel confident that this is not my incompetence; instead, it’s that the stock gearing uses cheap parts. Similarly, the stock brakes on the elMundo are terrible. Not only is there a rim brake on the front wheel, the rear disc brake was weak and slow to stop the bike, even when it was unloaded (the Madsen has a similar setup, which I also disliked, but the brakes on the Madsen worked better; I have no idea why). Again, maybe a San Francisco-specific issue; I am paranoid about bicycle stopping power.
  • The elMundo felt sluggish. This is difficult to explain, and I doubt that I would have noticed if I hadn’t spent a few weeks riding many other cargo bikes. However after that my conclusion was that some bikes like to go fast (Big Dummy, Bullitt), and some bikes want to go slowly (Bakfiets, elMundo, Mundo). I felt like I was constantly fighting the elMundo to get up to the speed I wanted to travel.
  • When I rode the Mundo, I had issues with the side loader bars that stick out from either side of the rear wheel. In many ways these are very handy, because they provide nice footrests and support the Go-Getter bags. However for me their width was frustrating on city streets in narrow bike lanes. I was never sure whether I could thread through pinch points in traffic, particularly at intersections when cars move to the right curb and block half the lane. With Go-Getter bags the problem is exacerbated, as they’re so big that the width of the bike in the rear then becomes almost 36 inches, wider than most bicycle trailers. For this reason, I thought that the Mundo, when I rode it, was more of a suburban or small city bike than a big city bike.
  • From a parental perspective, riding with the kids in back is less fun than riding with the kids in front, because you can’t really talk to them. Moreover you can’t easily break up fights. Technically there is room on the back deck for three kids (and the Mundo/elMundo can certainly handle the weight) but putting three kids in close proximity like that is like putting both of our kids on the deck of our Kona MinUte: sometimes we get lucky and they get along swimmingly on a long ride, and sometimes they start smashing helmets in less than a minute, at which point we have to walk the bike.
  • With a longtail loading the bike is more complicated than it is with a box bike. Box bikes don’t have any issues with, say, a mega-pack of toilet paper. However if you ride a longtail there’s always going to be some repacking with bulky items.
  • My daughter, who is three, can’t climb up to the deck and into the child seat unassisted. It is useful when kids can load themselves onto the bike, although this issue is less critical given that the elMundo has a good kickstand.
  • Both the Mundo and elMundo are very difficult to walk while loaded and to start up an incline while loaded without tipping over. I dumped my kids on the Mundo, and given time, the same thing would happen with the elMundo. Although I often feared dumping my kids with the front box bikes, it never actually happened. Longtails are less stable than box bikes.
  • The top tube on the Mundo and elMundo is fairly high. That’s part of the reason it can carry so much weight without complaint, and that’s no small thing, but I suspect that shorter riders would have trouble getting on and off the bike for this reason. It involved more contortion than I would have liked and I’m 5’7”. Update: Check out the comments below for a nice discussion of how a 5’2″ rider gets on and off the bike.
  • Like most of the longtails, the elMundo comes without any of the commuting accessories that make bikes easier to ride in a lot of situations.  Although fenders are standard, there is no chainguard, there are no dynamo lights, and neither one appears to be an option. Adding a child seat is $170, the Go-Getter bags are $130 each, the front Bread Basket is $130, stoker bars for an older kid are $60, and seat cushions for the deck are $30 per kid. Getting the bike to the point where it can carry two kids and a reasonable amount of cargo would cost a fair bit on top of the list price of the bike.  And there is no rain cover for the kids. And I’d still have to tie up my pants.

When I rode the Madsen, I realized pretty quickly that I wouldn’t be comfortable riding it in San Francisco without substantially upgrading the parts. And frankly that seemed like too much work given that there were other choices. The same is true for the elMundo. Yuba sells a frame kit, and it is possible to buy that and build it up with much higher-quality parts: better brakes, better gearing, better tires, probably dynamo lights, a stronger assist, and so forth. I suspect that would resolve many of my issues with the elMundo: it could stop quickly, could climb hills better, wouldn’t resist shifting gears, and probably wouldn’t be as sluggish. The question is how much that would cost.

BionX Mundo. Nice!

Some parents at our son’s school recently bought a customized Mundo with excellent parts that had been returned to the shop by another customer.  The shop (Roaring Mouse) had also installed a BionX assist. It is a beautiful bike and they have zero problems climbing San Francisco hills—I saw the mom at Sunday Streets last weekend pedaling casually up to Alamo Square—but they said that their bike was quite expensive even though the price had been significantly reduced because it was a customer return. I suspect that a Yuba Mundo/elMundo upgraded to the point that I’d enjoy riding it would cost at least as much as a Surly Big Dummy. At which point I have to ask: why not buy a Big Dummy? It would be a lot easier.

And yet. I am picky about these issues because I live and work on steep hills in what I am told is the second hilliest city in the world (and this is not a competition you want to win). My situation is not typical, perhaps not even in San Francisco. I see a LOT of Mundos and increasingly, elMundos, in the city now, primarily in the Richmond and the Sunset. Families who live in these areas and commute to local schools and/or along the Wiggle have no need for a bike that can scale steep hills. There are few serious grades in those parts of the city, the streets are wide and mostly empty of moving cars, and they can rent a car if they want to go to the Randall Museum. I would be surprised if families who live on Nob Hill or Potrero Hill could make an elMundo work for them without serious after-market modifications, but there are lots of families who don’t need to go those places.

The elMundo is cheap and its parts are sufficient for most riders. This bike makes it easy to take up commuting by bike with kids, and in flat cities, the same is true of the Mundo. There are no complicated decisions to make, riding it is painless, the bike is inexpensive, and it will get most people where they need to go smoothly. This is why I think the elMundo will be a category-killer.

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