Muffy Van Moof's Maiden Voyage


I went to the dentist and when I returned to the bicycle rack I discovered my broken lock laying on the pavement. No bike. I looked at the security guard standing by the door, pointed, and gave him a look. He said, “Oh. That was your bike?” I gazed up at the security camera bolted to the wall above my head and realized they’re largely a form of public safety theater. Then I remembered I’d had this bike for over fifteen years and it was a miracle that it lasted so long. I actually won it at a raffle when I volunteered for the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition so, all in all, I had a good long run with it. It was a sunny day so I walked home from downtown.

I’m a big believer in multiple redundancy so I had a reserve bike to fall back on. It’s a 1980s vintage woman’s bike that I inherited from a friend. It feels like it’s made of cast iron and isn’t my preferred configuration, but it does the job. I’m a pudgy middle aged guy so I’m not racing the Tour de France any time soon. I just need to get around town.

As I wandered back home through the city from the dentist I indulged in a long anticipated purchase of an electric assist bicycle. At first I was scornful of e-bikes. They seemed like yet another application of too much technology for no apparent reason a la “the toaster with a brain” or the WiFi enabled toothbrush. The beauty of a bicycle is its simplicity. Why mess with a perfectly good arrangement?

But San Francisco has lots of hills and the difference between a fast easy bike ride vs. an arduous uphill journey is rendered moot with just a teeny tiny bit of extra oomph. In my daily trips I have a variety of options. I could walk or pedal up those hills, I could take a bus or streetcar, I could use a ride hailing service, or I could drive. The electric bike makes almost all my trips viable without a vehicle unless the weather is particularly bad or I’m carrying big heavy things. Not having to deal with traffic congestion or parking is a tremendous upgrade. And the distances I’m willing to go on a bike expanded greatly with the electric boost.

The other factor in my decision to splurge on an electric bike is the way they’re now a ubiquitous part of the landscape. They’ve exploded in popularity over the last couple of years. It’s hard to find a spot in the city where people aren’t riding around on them. Families with little kids, weekend adventurers, ordinary commuters, tourists, older folks, and even young guys who might otherwise be on motorcycles… That reassures me that over time there will be people who can service the equipment and suppliers who will be available to replace and upgrade the various components.

There’s a Van Moof store a few blocks from my home and the clerks were happy to give me a test drive and show me all the features. But when it came to the actual sale I was directed to their website. These days physical shops are about brand presence in strategic locations, not sales. Van Moof is based in the Netherlands, the bikes are manufactured in Taiwan, and thier storefronts are in Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Tokyo, San Francisco, New York.... The bike was ordered, shipped, and eventually arrived at my door in a big box. It was specifically designed to be self assembled by the consumer at home with a little allen wrench and some YouTube instructions with minimum fuss. I’m the least mechanical person I know and even I could put this bike together. I tend to name the inanimate objects in my life and I instantly dubbed her Muffy.

For her maiden voyage I took Muffy Van Moof out to Tiburon to the north of the city to test the battery range. My route went through my neighborhood near Dolores Park, along the Wiggle to Golden Gate Park, then across the Richmond District to the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County. From there it was a mostly straight shot from Sausalito to Tiburon along the designated bike trail that hugs the waterfront.

Read the rest of this piece at Granola Shotgun.

Johnny Sanphillippo is an amateur architecture buff with a passionate interest in where and how we all live and occupy the landscape, from small rural towns to skyscrapers and everything in between. He travels often, conducts interviews with people of interest, and gathers photos and video of places worth talking about (which he often shares on Strong Towns). Johnny writes for Strong Towns, and his blog, Granola Shotgun.