Thursday, January 31, 2008

Tired of Looking at Beautiful Bicycles? Behold the 650B Franken-Xtracycle

Please note that the new blog and webstore are now at I consistently get questions about the Bobike seats generated by the two posts about them here. You can purchase Bobike seats and small parts at the new webstore.

I've updated this post since I finally got a shot of my wife using the bike and wanted to show how the two handlebars setup allows us both to ride the bike by simply adjusting the seat (not that it takes much imagination to figure it out, but people always like pictures.)

(The other handlebars don't hit my knees, in case you're wondering--it the most common question.)

This bike was made to carry my child and became 650B because of the fork choice. It went Franken because I wanted both my wife and I, who differ in height by a little more than half a foot, to be able to use it.

Once my son was old enough to sit on his own I went through a couple of biking-with-child options. Option one was slapping a helmet on him, putting him in a mei tei on my back and hopping on my bike. He was very secure, the bike riding position allowed him to look forward over my shoulder and also took a lot of pressure from the baby carrier off my shoulders. However, though this method of riding your bike with baby-in-backpacky thing flies in Amsterdam my wife stated without ambiguity that I could continue said practice when and if we moved there. The "But he has on a helmet!" appeal feel on deaf ears. Even short excursions using option one were prohibited. In honesty I was a little anxious about the safety of the arrangement and would only take Silas on errands that didn't leave our neighborhood using this method.

Option two was a Burley child trailer. I never liked it. Silas didn't like it nearly as much as riding on my back. Attaching and unattaching the trailer to the bike put a cramp on our bicycle lifestyle (I'm just borrowing that from Peter). Parking bike and trailer were like backing up a truck with boat trailer into a driveway. Silas was encapsulated in a pod a good five feet behind me, which seemed against the whole spirit of riding a bike. And he let it be known that he wasn't happy about it.

Enter the Bobike Maxi combined with an Xtracycle conversion.

You tell me if that boy is happy. This idea didn't occur to me at first because I don't like how a heavy load feels over my rear wheel. A heavy load over the rear wheel makes bike handling dodgy at best. And as you can see Silas doesn't skip meals. Patrick Barber first suggested this solution to me. By using a rear child seat in conjunction with an Xtracycle, the child's weight is placed between the wheels. The hunch was that this would ameliorate the handling problems associated with rear child seats. So I ordered the Xtracycle and a Bobike rear child seat.

That's the Xtracycle part. The Franken and 650B part came later and were both caused by the desire for both me (6'0") and my wife (5' 51/2"--don't short her that last half inch unless you're ready to face 115lbs of fury) to be able to use the same child carrying bike. My idea was that by using just the right size frame, one very long stem, one very short stem, one set of drop bars and one set of albatross bars, I could replicate our contact points. All that would need to be done to switch between riders is raising or lowering the seat.

I don't know how many of you have seen an uncut Kogswell P/R fork, but it's looong. Matthew specs the longest steerer tube possible for maximum versatility. I figured that a P/R fork would allow me to use a frame small enough for Lucy to comfortably mount and still allow my handlebars to be even with the saddle.

The two sets of brake levers are coupled by these nifty 2:1 cable couplers from Problem Solvers.

Laughing at myself while doing so, I reduced the tread of the Ritchey Logic triple by using a much narrower than recommended bottom bracket spindle and got it down to 147mm. The non-drive side chainstay didn't want to cooperate, but a couple of smacks with a 3 pound hammer persuaded it otherwise and bought me just enough clearance between the chainstay and crankarm to make it work.

The Xtracycle attachment comes in 26" and 700C versions, which are identical except for the location of the brake posts. I used the 26" model with a v-brake (Shimano Alivio) on the rear and moved the pads to the top of the slot. They hit the 650B rim just fine. The v-brake works very well with the road levers and travel agent.

I'm very happy with the experiment. Does it handle like a longtail cargobike? Sure. But it doesn't handle poorly at all. Most importantly, the handling doesn't change very muchl with Silas's 25 pounds in the child seat. It feels flexy when out of saddle with or without child aboard, but out of the saddle performance shouldn't matter with this type of bike.

Most importantly we have a convenient, practical way to continue using a bicycle for errands and transportation. We have a dedicated bike for the child that doesn't require any fuss or accessory attachment. Getting him in and out of the seat is easy and the well placed kickstand on the Xtracycle makes the bike very stable when loading or unloading. The cargo capacity of the Xtracycle wasn't the point of the project, but it has been a nice added bonus. It makes errands which might be problematic on other bikes a cinch, like this trip to put out garage sale signs.

My only complaints are with some unforseen consequences of the small frame size. It forced me to mount the Bobike seat very close to my seat, and I had to cut down the footrests on the Bobike to keep my heels from striking them. A larger frame and/or mixte frame with seatstays that attached to a higher point on the seattube would allow the seat to be attached in a better position. Moving the seat back a couple of centimeters would solve the heelstrike problem and also make for a better view from the child's seat. I often find Silas leaning his head out to look around me. I'm not positive this is because his view is obstructed, but suspect that moving his seat back would result in a better view and more contentment.

Overall I'm happy enough with the Bobike and Xtracycle combo that I'd like to save up for a Surly Big Dummy to see if it improves the current setup. An unintended consequence is that although I hadn't previously thought much of the Xtracycles I'm impressed with its ability to make easy work of errands that can't be accomplished on the vast majority of bicycles.

Even babies know Brooks are sweet.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Wilmington Alley Cat

The first (as far as anyone there knew) Wilmington Alley Cat race was held last Sunday. It was very well organized with a fairly short course that didn't scare anyone away. Some people had no intention of racing and rode leisurely; some were a little more competitive. Everybody enjoyed meeting up with other cyclists. There seems to be a descent-sized group of people in the downtown area who get around on their bikes and a fledgling bike culture is developing. It was refreshing. It felt good to ride hard enough to get myself winded after being on the bike very little during the last two months of moving. The race was won on a climb the organizers manufactured in flat Wilmington by placing a checkpoint at the top of a seven story parking garage. No one was able to pass on the way back down and with the finish line nearby the order of arrival at the top of the climb was maintained till the end.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Almost Settled

Moving across country is never easy. Moving a family and a business complicates things further. We decided to make it even harder by vacillating on our destination mid-move. My wife moved ahead of me in order to try to find a spot for the business and was absolutely horrified by Wilmington. The area where her family lives is an absolute nightmare for anyone who prefers to walk or bike as transportation. Miles and miles of five lane (center turn lane) roads with no shoulders, 45-55mph traffic, and commercial buildings separated from the road by massive parking lots--the too-typical development layout of post-war America. We considered/decided on Asheville for a while, and I even rented a place there on a month-to-month basis. We came to Wilmington for Christmas where the pull of family convinced us to should find a way to make it work here so that my wife would have family support raising our son and any future children.

After about a week of searching and some despair at ever finding anywhere pedestrian and bike friendly in Wilmington, I found the NorthSide downtown. The development pattern downtown is also one that has been played out in many American cities in the last half century--middle and upper class flight from urban areas because of crime fears and public schooling woes, re-filling of the urban areas by the "creative-class" taking advantage of the low prices white-flight caused in the urban centers, gentrification leading to the repopulation and rising dense urban areas by professionals, dink-ers, and some families as the hollowness of suburban life became more pronounced, rising prices as urban centers once again became desirable. Much of downtown Wilmington is already too far on the end of that scale to be affordable for most--including us. The neighborhood north of Market downtown, called NorthSide, was considered a bad neighborhood just a few years ago. Some ambitious development along the Fourth Street corridor and--crucially--the destruction of some particularly nasty public housing projects has re-invigorated the area. The central business district zoning of the area allows for a maximum of flexibility and a dense mixture of residential and commercial spaces.

We found a house built in 1902 that has undergone an excellent restoration. We've waded through several layers of bureaucracy to make sure that we can live and work on the same property, put up signs for the business, etc. It is ridiculous that this is only allowed in exceptional circumstances most places. It took four trips to the city planning department and I'm now being told I have to go through the same process plus have the property inspected by the equivalent county department. Land of the Free, right? Hopefully we'll be moving in Thursday. I've long wanted to live and work on the same property. Living and working in close proximity was the human standard from the time of the agricultural revolution until the mid-19th century. Now this arrangement is so atypical that it is almost considered perverse, and there are many obstacles in the path of those who'd like to combine work and home.

The business and home will be well-situated, I believe. We couldn't really hope for better in Wilmington. Luckily, downtown is a place apart from the rest of the city and county. There are many services withing walking distance. Being downtown means that traffic is slower and bike-friendly. The only gap is a good grocery store, which I haven't yet found nearby. We'll be on Brunswick at Fourth, and there's a faux-trolley (no tracks, just a bus made to look like a trolley) that goes through downtown and runs down Fourth every ten to fifteen minutes. That's nice--even better is that the trolley is free to ride. The area is covered by free wi-fi because of a joint public/private venture to aid the neighborhood's renaissance. We're only a few blocks from the Cape Fear riverfront and boardwalk.

As long as the county doesn't throw us a major curveball, this will be our new location and we'll be pretty much back to normal operation in about two weeks.