Friday, December 21, 2012
Biking with Kids
I didn't always have this life. I used to commute by bike only in the summer, when my husband (a teacher) took care of the chauffeuring. Otherwise, it was me, in the car, driving the kids to school and daycare, then to work. But then I heard about a family I knew going "car free"—and though that life seemed too extreme for me, going "car light" seemed like a possibility. So I started asking Google about my predicament, and I found blog after blog after blog describing families biking with their kids. I followed links to Dutch and Japanese bicycles, and gazed longingly at their lovely and practical designs. For more than six months, I agonized over which bike to buy. I created folders on my computer collecting images of bikes, made spreadsheets, and dragged my family to New York and Boston to test ride unusual specimens that weren't for sale at my local bike shop. I even contacted local frame builders to see how much it would cost to build my own bike from scratch. Answer: too much.
Why did I go to all this trouble? I guess you could say I was obsessed, but at the time it seemed reasonable to figure out exactly what I wanted. The problem was there were so many choices, but none of them were perfect and many of them were a chimera—beautiful pictures online but many miles away, unavailable to test out. Early on, I crossed a few types off my list: box bikes (the traditional bakfiets and the amazing Bullitt) because wasn't sure I could steer them; the Surly Big Dummy and the Kona Ute, because the top tube was so high, I would have to tip the bike low to get off it; and the Madsen, because I was skeptical about riding around with a wide plastic tub behind me in city traffic.
Sure, people cobble together kid-toting setups using an ordinary bike, a trailer, snap-on lights, and an orange flag. But I couldn't bring myself to ride on the streets with a trailer—at below the eye-level of drivers on the road, it seemed like an easy-to-overlook obstacle. I couldn't talk to my kids in a trailer; they would be too far behind me. And turning tight corners with a wide load behind the bike would be impossible. (And pretty soon, my preschooler would grow out of his child seat.)
Besides, if I was going to commute every day by bike, I wanted a new bike—and I wanted it to be beautiful. A bike I would look forward to riding, would be proud to own and tinker with...
To be specific, these were my criteria:
• step-through frame
• upright geometry, swept-back handlebars
• 8+ gears
• good brakes (not necessarily disc brakes, but they have to be strong)
• low maintenance (good components)
• easy to ride, to walk uphill, to load and unload (no squirrely front wheel when loaded, no struggling up mild hills, no rattling over bumps and potholes, no tipping over while I get stuff/kid on board)
• double kickstand
• chain guard or full chain case
• child seat or rear deck with handlebars (40-90 lbs of kid(s))
• bag for work stuff (would like to use my own pannier/messenger bag, if possible)
• basket (for last-minute stuff)
• wide tires (my route is so full of potholes and bumps!)
• dynamo lights (for those late fall, early spring days that are warm enough to ride but getting dark early)
• sprung saddle (something comfortable but not ridiculous)
And here is the list of bikes I was seriously considering (including the mamachari, which was too far away to try out):
1. Yuba Mundo (disc brakes, stand alone kickstand, bags, running boards, stoker bar) + Peanut Shell (up to 48 lbs) = $1,500
2. Yuba Boda Boda Crusier—add custom dynamo lighting, basket, fenders, stoker bars = $1,700
3. Breezer Uptown 8 (or other step through) + Xtracycle Free Radical = $1,500 (or more depending on the donor bike)
4. Workcycles Fr8 (with child saddle up front and Bobike Junior on rear) = $2,800
5. Workcycles Gr8 (with child saddle up front and Bobike Junior on rear) = $2,400
6. Brompton ($1,900) + IT chair ($300) = $2,100
7. Bridgestone Angelino Posh Assista (has electric assist + 3 gears...but only available in Japan!) = $1,800? + $1,070 to ship = $3,000?
Yuba Boda Boda Cargo Cruiser.
I liked its classic Schwinn-ish looks, its light (for a cargo bike!) frame, its maneuverability and handling, its gearing (so I can climb the two big hills on my commute), and the fact that I can carry kids, groceries, work stuff, kids' stuff, and STILL not get up to the 200-pound + rider weight limit.
It's not perfect, and I was disappointed that I had to request several customizations (some of which should really have come standard): double kickstand, front-wheel stabilizer ("deflopilator"), dynamo lighting, fenders, front basket, and longer handlebars for my little passengers. I'm also getting custom (crocheted by a seller on Etsy!) rear-wheel guards, basket liner, and pillow for my little passengers on the deck.
Needless to say, all this customization made this the coolest bike I've ever owned, and I got used to insomnia as I continued to have to imagine what this amazing vehicle would look and feel like when it finally arrived at the shop. The only Yuba dealer in the area is Ferris Wheels in Jamaica Plain, so that's where it was all happening, and they estimated the bike will be ready for me to take home in a week or so.
When I got it, I rode it home, and it was fast! Then, all the neighborhood kids (and parents) wanted a ride. I spent at least an hour toting around kids of all sizes and letting the grownups have a go. I was thrilled. This was my dream bike! I have been riding it two or three times a week since I got it. My commute is a quarter of a mile to the public school down the hill with my older son, 3.5 miles (and one big uphill) to preschool, 4 miles to work, and 5 miles (with another grinding hill) home.
I have that gleam in my eye: it'll happen...someday.