Grandma got bak

My grandmother was born in 1915, five years after our house was built here in Portland. This weekend, she paid us a visit from her home in Virginia. She’s mentally sharp but frail and severely arthritic, with a history of falls. Naturally, the first thing I could think of is “how are we going to get her on a bike to show her around town?” I feared that getting in and out of the bakfiets might be too challenging, or the position uncomfortable, so I made arrangements a preceding day to borrow a neighborhood friend’s antique Indonesian pedal rickshaw. My test ride of said conveyance — one high fixed gear, piggish handling and a single crude brake — was not too encouraging.

Not knowing whether she’d be game or able to take any sort of bike ride home from the airport, with her luggage, we picked her up with the Flexcar parked two blocks from our home. She emerged from the gate area in a wheelchair. Further discouragement.

But the next morning, against the protests of my wife, grandma and I hatched a plan to line the bak with pillows and a fleece or two, and try. I offered to lift her 110-lb form in and out, but she wanted to swing a leg in herself and work from there. She insisted she was perfectly comfortable. So I called to Martina and Carl to mount up the tandem Brompton, and off we went.

P1010792.JPG I pointed out to her the iron rings embedded in the curbs, meant for tying up horses, a historical feature preserved by code from the time Portland was developed, when bicycles were the fastest things in the streets. I pointed out the many corner stores, converted for residential use in decades past, that today would not conform to code for lack of parking. We rode by the neighborhood potter and hatter, and by homes with chickens, and food gardens. We rang the bell a lot and waved; many people were too stunned to wave back. Others cheered. Another white-haired lady called out “Am I next?”

Grandma remarked that all the street corners seemed so sharp, and the streets narrow, unlike the speed-engineered sprawling places she has lived much of her life. This reminded her of her girlhood in suburban Chicago. Was she nostalgic, or bemused? Had there been no progress in her life? She was surprised that places like this exist today, or are being reclaimed. My mother, too, on an earlier visit, said she was surprised that Portland’s east side bungalow and arts-and-crafts neighborhoods “hadn’t been razed in the 80s.” No wonder I boycotted the 80s.

We rode through Sunnyside schoolyard full of playing children, and then swung over to Belmont to see the on-street bicycle parking. Then through 33rd and Yamhill, with the huge sunflower/mandala painted by neighbors in the street to reclaim it as public space.

We rolled down Salmon. “This is our high-stress commute; how do you like it?” She chuckled nearly continually. We stopped at the shop. “This isn’t like other bicycle shops!” she kept exclaiming. (“It’s like an art gallery!” is another common reaction). She bought a stylish cap.

P1010793.JPGWe proceeded onto Madison, mixing it up with busses and trucks on the right and left of the bike lane. And then we crossed the Hawthorne bridge. I told her that there are nearly 15,000 daily bicycle crossings of the Willamette now, close to 20% of all vehicles on the Hawthorne. This seemed to be the highlight of the trip for her. She craned her neck to take in the broad blue Willamette view, the dramatic downtown cliffs of glass, metal and stone. She removed her shoes and stuck her feet off the front of the bak to feel the wind in her toes. “I feel like a teenager again!” We peeled off down the defunct Harbor Drive freeway onramp, whose weathered ruin feels to me like a prop from Planet of the Apes, the automotive century, the prime of my grandma’s life. The riverfront was teeming with people enjoying the clear warmth of the day. There’s a large circular fountain shooting arcs of water from the periphery into the center. We rode right through it under the arches of water, catching only a bit of refreshing spray, to the cheers of onlookers.

We returned via Ladd’s Addition and Clinton Streets, stopping a few times to chat with friends. Back near home, she said she was up for more so on we rode to the top of Mt. Tabor. I pointed out downtown in the distance, and she seemed impressed that we had come so far, so fast, so easily.

We also went out to dinner this way, parking on the sidewalk right in front of the restaurant door, and returning after dark. When it came time for her to fly home, she asked if we’d be riding the bakfiets to the airport, and seemed disappointed that I hadn’t left the extra half hour necessary to do that.

I believe that for us in America, and for my son especially, the balance of our lives will resemble a return to some of the logistic conditions of my grandma’s girlhood, or to those of modern Europe or developed Asia. We will live and work in neighborhoods, within a radius of only a dozen miles or so, or else be farmers, or hermits, or professional itinerants, or otherwise exceptional. It will be a recovery rather than a regression, sometimes painful like any forfeiture of investment, but ultimately joyful for those who wake soonest from various American Dreams involving dependence on cars.

This used to be real estate
Now it’s only fields and trees

Where, where is the town

Now, it’s nothing but flowers

The highways and cars
Were sacrificed for agriculture

I thought that we’d start over

But I guess I was wrong

Once there were parking lots
Now it’s a peaceful oasis

you got it, you got it

This was a Pizza Hut
Now it’s all covered with daisies

you got it, you got it

I miss the honky tonks,
Dairy Queens, and 7-Elevens

you got it, you got it

And as things fell apart
Nobody paid much attention

you got it, you got it

Nothing but flowers
David Byrne rides too

45 thoughts on “Grandma got bak”

  • Bruce Wilson

    This is such a wonderful story.

    When my late father was still alive (he died in March at 82), I had considered getting a pedicab so that I could share my love of cycling with him. I didn't because he said that if I got one he'd refuse to get in it as he didn't think it was safe. I have to think what he'd have said if I'd suggested a bak!

    Reply
  • Rick Wilson

    Absolutely lovely post, Todd.

    So then what you have here is an Omabakfiets?

    Reply
  • Andy B from Jersey
    Andy B from Jersey August 16, 2007 at 7:21 am

    Excellent!
    Can I rent a Bak next time I'm in town so I can cruise the city with my friend's wonderful and cool 87yo grand ma? She'd love it!

    Reply
  • AllanF

    I'll share that on our Bakfiets when we first bought it we made short trips with my pregnant wife sitting on the rear rack and my 3 y.o. son in the box. (We did this because it was faster and easier than messing with two bikes for really short trips.) Plus we liked talking and being together as we rode... ever the tandemists. Eventually, my wife's belly became too big for her to sit on the rear rack, so we had her swap places with our son. Huge improvement. More comfort for the passengers, and better handling for me. It was great fun too. The car-cagers obviously gave us all kinds of double looks.
    Now that the baby is here, we still ride that way when all of us are headed out somewhere close by. I expect we'll be riding that way for a long time to come too. It is just so convenient and obvious. Such a shame outside of Amsterdam and Beijing high-occupancy biking is such a foreign concept.
    In Oregon it is even illegal (see 814.460) to ride a passenger without specially designed contrivance. Is there no aspect of life which has not been legislated? But I digress. Beautiful story Todd.

    Reply
  • Todd

    Andy B, yes you can rent a bakfiets, with or without a cool grandma. That's what Nick did for Bridge Pedal: http://picasaweb.google.com/nickwusz/BakfietsAndBridgePedal . He lives out in the 100s so rode it 50 miles that day. Favorite: http://picasaweb.google.com/nickwusz/BakfietsAndBridgePedal/photo#5099168940680627218 .

    While we're talking rentals, many people have helpfully suggested that we use this here website to describe exactly what kinds of products and services Clever Cycles offers, what stuff costs, etc., rather than just bloggage. Believe me, we're on it.

    AllanF, it's worth clarifying that the law requires a "seat" for passengers, fixed to the bike. Thus, when my son stands on the Brompton top tube for our short hops, we're outside the law, but when he's in the bak, or on the back of the Xtracycle (designed as a seat by the manufacturer), it's legit.

    Reply
  • Chuck Hood

    What a terrific story. Now that my family and I are moving to Oregon, I hope we get to not only read about these experiences, but actually live them as well. I only hope that Eugene is as bike friendly as Portland.

    Reply
  • vj

    Oh, this story just brings tears to my eyes. Thank you Todd. I'm having a bad week (hence, my lack of appearance at the shop), But the thought of you taking your grandmother out in a bakfiets is so wonderful and so crazy and so beautiful that, well gosh. Thank you.

    Reply
  • Dave Sohigian

    Looks like Carfree USA Blog picked up this story.

    Reply
  • Bruce Wilson

    Anent the story of the wife on the rack and the kid in the box, or vice versa, to they make tandem bakfiesten? Or perhaps sociables?

    Reply
  • Andy B from Jersey
    Andy B from Jersey August 17, 2007 at 3:57 am

    BTY, when I say I'm from Jersey, I'm in New Jersey. I haven't quite yet come to my senses and moved out to the West Coast like thousands of other like minded progressive New Jerseyians (like my friend with the grandma that lives in town).
    At least there is some hope around here though. Philly recently ranked high on a "Bohemian Index" survey and is very cool bike town. Also Bloomberg has finally saw the light and is pushing a major Green initiative in NYC with bikes as a critical part of the equation. Now if only people here in Jersey would catch on.
    Oh Yeah. Also if I did live in Portland I wouldn't need to rent a Bak, I would have bought one already.
    And next time, I'll tell you a story about my now 77yo mom who used ride her single speed, coaster brake Oma style bike all around the big hills of her home town in war torn Germany. She would love to ride again and your story has given me a great idea of how to get her on 2 wheels again!
    Peace.

    Reply
  • Allan Folz

    Todd, I don't see any language in the statute referring to seats. It refers to the bike's design and being safely equipped. Thus it seems a defendant has a lot of leeway to argue what constitutes safely equipped. I would argue axle foot pegs is safe equipment, as are the heafty rear racks on a Bakfeits and the large, wooden platforms typical on long-tails.

    Best.

    Reply
  • Jonas Nockert

    What a fantastic post! I'm all smiles over here after reading it, Portland seems like such a great place to be biking in too :)

    Reply
  • Henry

    Hi Todd, One more cheer from Amsterdam for your great post. Our customers periodically rent 2- and 3 wheel bakfietsen for adult and "very adult" people transport. Occasionally a family will use a trike to carry a child temporarily stuck in a wheelchair. Sometimes its a down's syndrome or otherwise "challlenged" teenager getting a tour of Amsterdam. Many, many brides and grooms are ridden away from their weddings in our big trikes. Everybody returns with big smiles and fun stories.

    Groeten,
    Henry

    Reply
  • Andy B from Jersey
    Andy B from Jersey August 23, 2007 at 4:59 am

    I just got an email from my friends grandma who lives in town (Yes she's in her 80's and she's internet savvy). She checked out the blog, loved the idea and says she can't wait for me to come to Portland and give her a ride in the Bak. Too bad I can't make it to town until at least next summer.

    Anyone want to take her for a ride for me till then??

    Reply
  • shara alexander
    shara alexander August 27, 2007 at 6:00 am

    My daughter Frances (4) and I just read your story. We really loved hearing about your grandma's trip around town on the Bakfiet. I keep thinking this is the way I would like to get my mother around town when she gets older. My mom doesn't really drive, and I love to bicycle. Unfortunately, my mother is not as game as your grandmother. Before I even had the chance to try it she had an actual nightmare about me bicycling her around the city. It takes two to tango.

    Cheers to your beautiful grandmother!

    Reply
  • Yeti

    Good for her! No wonder she's made it to that age with that kind
    of attitude.

    I've never seen anything like that in Oslo, but you do get the occasional
    80+ year old who is still cycling.

    Reply
  • Bruce Wilson

    Anyone here familiar with this?

    http://www.triobike.com/

    Reply
  • Andy B

    The Triobike looked very interesting however they got the bike geometry all wrong! The Mountain Bike rider position is way too aggressive for the style of rider they are marketing too. The seat also looked narrower than the one on my road bike! Fix these two minor points and I think they got something.

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    Who's going to make a bike like this from local materials? By local I mean extract, process, and manufacuter from raw materials all from within a 500 mile radius.

    I applaud the use of these bikes but I wish they weren't imported...

    Reply
  • AllanF

    By local I mean extract, process, and manufacuter from raw materials

    LOL. Where do these people come from? Actually, I know where they come from.

    Anon, may I ask by "raw materials" does re-smelting the metal from derelict automobile parts count by you or must the steel come from virgin iron ore and coke?

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    Allan,

    Frankly, I don't know a thing about making steel, but I do know that we all need to start thinking local economy. Importing these things will not ultimately prove to be the answer.

    Reply
  • Todd

    Anon, I'm guessing that your reasoning is based on peak oil and the presumed unsustainably high costs of moving things far? Please consider that certain goods moved much further than 500 miles long, long before motor transport. Sea freight in particular is exceptionally efficient; think tea and spice. Or think Chinese bicycles: it takes less energy to get a container of them across the Pacific to the US west coast than to truck said container from east of the Rockies. Riding one of those efficiently-shipped bikes for less than a day instead of driving a car offsets the energy cost of shipping from the other side of the planet. No, the one really egregiously profligate thing that must go long before the energy of getting bicycles from afar becomes significant is driving around in personal vehicles heavier than what they carry, even if it's to patronize local farmers' markets and engage in other ostensibly virtuous sorts of economic activity.

    Reply
  • Bruce Wilson

    One thing I like about the Trio--which, as I understand it is not available yet in the US--is the flexibility. If you don't need the buggy on the front, you can take it off and go on your merry way on a regular bike.

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    This isn’t about peak oil.

    You are operating from a paradigm that looks at cost and efficiency as its holy grail.
    Big ship = efficient. So more big ships = more efficient?

    That paradigm was applied to agriculture and they called it the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution is a short term win and a long term disaster.

    I challenge you to use a new paradigm that looks beyond efficiency at the benefits “locally made” has on your life and your community.

    A locally made bike = good for the user, and good for the local community/economy who mined, made and sold it. And if it’s environmentally responsibly built, it’s also something that is truly sustainable. More locally made bikes = good for more local users, and good for more of the local community members. The folks who will run these businesses, (need to have real brains to run successful small business) will own buildings in the local area, sit on boards of other businesses and schools in the area, they will be a part of the local banking and financing of new enterprise in the area. Their brainpower is invested in your local area. The list of benefits goes on and on. They’ll have to care, because where they do business, eat, sleep, raise their families and shit will all be in the same place.

    As along as the scale stays to community or local size, I think we have a real solution.

    And to define local, I am saying materials extracted, processed, and the product manufactured within 500 miles of end use.

    Short term, with all the infrastructure for container shipping that’s currently in place, (as along as you don’t really count the cost to build it or what it takes to maintain it), sure, container shipping these bikes appears to work for folks on the coasts. And getting them out there does a bunch of goodwill expanding people’s minds to see new transportation possibilities, etc.

    But if we can cut straight to local production, why not?

    Rather than further hijack this blog entry. Feel free to email me direct at brendankehde”at”hotmail.com if you wish to continue this discussion.

    Reply
  • Mark Stosberg

    Brendan (anonymous),

    I don't see interest in local economies and efficient bicycles as competing. I think people are already working developing a US-made bakfiets, but it is not ready yet. By getting them on the streets now, even if they are remotely produced, we are building a market for the future locally-made bakfiets, and saving a lot of remotely-made gas in the meantime.

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    Agreed. Brendan

    Reply
  • Bruce A. Wilson
    Bruce A. Wilson August 31, 2007 at 4:16 am

    HPM's Long Haul looks a lot like a bakfeits, and it is made in Eugene, just up the road from you guys.

    But, for anon., what about those of us who live in places that don't have deposits of iron and other metal ores? Also, consider the effects of metal refining on local ecologies. You've seen pictures of Pittsburg when the steel industry was still strong there, haven't you?

    "Mary had a little lamb
    Its fleece WAS white as snow;
    She took it down to Pittsburg--
    And look at the poor thing now!"

    Reply
  • Anonymous

    Bruce,

    Great things to consider before making a purchase! It seems to me that whether your region supports the use of those products (carrying capacity - resource richness of an area) and how much pollution it takes to produce something do seem to come to mind more quickly when you think about getting something from your local economy.

    Reply
  • John G

    That is a great story. My grandfather passed away a few years ago and would have loved this. He lived in Ann Arbor and we used to go to the Michigan football games together. Getting over there was a bear, though, with all the traffic etc. This would have been awesome. For the first few games that is. Until it got cold and rainy! Although they do have covers right?

    Where can I buy one of these in California? Anyone know? Or even in the US?

    Reply
  • Todd

    John: I've heard rumors of a Bay Area bakfiets dealership opening, no details yet. Meanwhile we're the closest source, and we've shipped a few south. One is in operation in Brisbane: http://brisbaneca.blogspot.com/2007_08_01_archive.html#544496016531810218 . In your linked blog post you ask how they operate in hills. Can't answer briefly, except to say there's no hiding the fact that they're heavy bikes, that you go slower, that they remain comfortable and stable when ridden at walking speeds, and that they can be geared low enough to move at walking speeds at more-or-less full cadence. Yep, they have great covers for foul weather.

    Reply
  • Mark Stosberg

    I thought readers here would be interested to know that I've started doing some bakfiets blogging myself.

    See my stories and photos from the first Saturday with the bakfiets, and "it can haul groceries", explaining my perspective on the importance of bakfiets as a transportation option in the US.

    Reply
  • Cara Lin Bridgman
    Cara Lin Bridgman September 7, 2007 at 10:58 pm

    Hi Mike,

    Saw you are based in Richmond, IN. Did not know Earlham had a bike coop. I graduated from Earlham in 1988 and spent my last two years getting around on a bike--especially ghosting around the Heart no-hands.

    Hi Todd,

    Stokemonkey still great after a rest all summer (I was in the US). I brought back a Brooks B67. Right off the bat, it is the most comfortable saddle I have ever used. I thought I read somewhere about leather saddles needing breaking in?

    As for the Stokemonkey, it is a huge help. Last spring, when I picked up a friend, her sister could not believe I arrive on a bike and expected Abus to ride on the back (I used a swimmingpool kickboard to pad the xtracycle snap-deck). It was 15 km home; the last half climbing from near sea-level to about 280 meters. It was great to be able to carry on a conversation, something not possible on a motorbike.

    And for Anonymous, it is great to support local industries, but in Taiwan, so many of the best bike parts are made for export only: Xtracycle and Surly, to name two. I bought my Surly in the US and carried it back to Taiwan. My Xtracycle, was much better, shipped from Taiwan factory to my home--but the money went directly to the US. And the Stokemonkey had to travel from China to Todd to Kentucky to Taiwan. I expect daily use to more than off-set the shipping.

    Reply
  • Erik Sandblom

    Cara Lin, the Brooks B67 is comfortable because it has springs. I got an unsprung Brooks Swift for my Brompton last week... it needs breaking in. I tried a sprung saddle on my Brompton but since the Brompton has its own simple rubber suspension, the two suspension systems bounce each other around and it's all very bouncy.

    Reply
  • Kurt

    How about a Stokemonkey update? May is the last blog post. Thanks.

    Reply
  • Todd (admin)

    Kurt, that May post's last comment was September 5. I have nothing to add.

    Reply
  • Mike C

    @Kurt: Todd (admin) is keeping mum until he has some substantive stuff to report - see see http://clevercycles.com/blog/?p=188#comments

    @Erik: I have many many miles on B-17s and Champion Flyers (same width but with springs)... the Swift is just a different animal. I've now accumulated a few hundred miles/kms on one and I'm comingto the conclusion that it's just too narrow for my particular posterior - i.e. I think my I.T.'s are better suited to the 17cm width of the B17 family. By the way, Sheldon Brown has some good info re: the comparative widths of various Brookses on the Harris website - see the "wider/narrower" links near the bottom of many of the saddle pages: http://sheldonbrown.com/harris/saddles.html

    Reply
  • Erik Sandblom

    I tried a couple of different Brookses in order of width. I started with the B17, then the Team Pro, then the Swift, then the Swallow. The Swift was the only one I didn't go back with basically right away.

    It seems to me that which saddle fits you has more to do with anatomy than with what kind of riding you do.

    I also think sprung saddles are sadly underrated. But again, that might have to do with anatomy. I don't weigh very much, so a heavier person might have more trouble with bouncy springs than I do. I just find springs smoothen the ride.

    Reply
  • Bruce Wilson

    A friend of mine has just had twins and is looking for cycling options, especially for when they get a little older. She has, of course, looked at trailers, but doesn't like that they are (of course) BEHIND one; she likes the idea of being able to see what they are up to.

    I'm trying to get her to consider a bakfeist. If she does, she'll be the first in our community that I know of.

    Can you suggest any resources (other than this site and www.dutchbikes.us) I can point her to?

    Reply
  • Mark Stosberg

    Bruce, there's the bakfiets cargo bike blog, the Bakfiets and more blog from Amsterdam, and I've put up some content myself, about my new bakfiets in Richmond, Indiana

    Reply
  • Bruce Wilson

    Thanks, Mark.

    Reply
  • Ian Hopper

    Wow... this is a great story! It makes me want to pedal MY grandma around town in a Bakfiets, though she's 96 and probably wouldn't get in. Todd, is that the "long" version that she rode in?

    Reply
  • [...] more of a reality. You can do a week’s worth of grocery shopping, transport small children or even adults, or pick up a couch. Best of all, you can do all these things while not having to drag along a [...]

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  • Dave

    I read this when it was first posted. I saw it in "old posts never die". It's empowering and inspiring. I have the honor of knowing another ninety-something who still enjoys petrol-free transportation...
    http://www.flickr.com/photos/cold_iron/4017131913/

    Reply
  • [...] Dude, Where’s Our Car 2. Grandmas Got Bak 3. Tips for Happy Riding4. The Shoes Ruse 5. The Truth about [...]

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  • Melissa Holliday
    Melissa Holliday August 19, 2010 at 5:09 pm

    Oh how I envy your grandma. What a wonderful way to tour around town. I've never seen a bike like that in Nebraska. I ride a recumbant.

    Reply
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