Archive for Product Reviews

Celebrate the Festival of Lights with Mini Monkey Lights

This seems like an oddly appropriate topic for the first day of Hanukkah.

A couple of months ago, I got an offer from MonkeyLectric inviting me to try out their new Mini Monkey Light.

Their timing was perfect.

I’ve been doing a lot more after dark riding this year as I’ve tried reducing the number of wheels required to attend various meetings by half. Especially since I can ride Downtown from my Westside apartment as fast, if not faster, than I can drive there, with less aggravation and no expensive search for parking at the other end.

And a lot more fun along the way.

The problem was one of safety.

I’m a firm believer in being seen. If I’m going to ride at night, I want to be lit up like a Christmas tree. Or in keeping with today’s theme, a Hanukkah bush.

But finding the side wheel reflectors required under state law has proven virtually impossible. And anyone who actually relies on reflectors to capture the attention of the city’s huge population of texting drivers had better make sure their medical insurance is current.

I had no better luck finding lights to attach to my spokes, as the only one I came up with only managed to stay attached until I hit the first massive pothole. Which, given the state of L.A. streets, was about a half block from home.

Besides, anything named Mini Monkey Light had to be fun. Right?

So I quickly agreed, and sure enough, it arrived just in time for my next Downtown meeting. A meeting my riding partner and I were over half an hour late for, as I struggled to make sense of the cryptic instructions that seemed to be missing a step or two.

But after installing and uninstalling and reinstalling it more than once — okay, more thrice — I finally managed to get it hooked up and working. And soon found my office lit up with an ever-changing series of brightly colored lights.

Since those installation issues delayed our departure, that put us on the road well after dark, providing an immediate test of the Mini Monkey Light.

The first thing I noticed was that everyone else seemed to notice. Drivers gave me a wider than usual berth, perhaps unsure what kind of crazy cyclist would ride with a spinning kaleidoscope lights on his front wheel.

The 10 exceptionally bright LEDs formed an ever-changing pattern of spinning 8-bit graphics, providing a series of blocky patterns that rotated around the wheel if I rode slowly; a solid circular loop pattern if I rode faster. Although that seemed to happen at little higher speed than the company said, becoming a solid loop around 17 – 18 mph, as opposed to the promised 15 mph.

The result for my first 12.5 mile trip using the lights in rush hour traffic, not a single close call. Which is almost unheard of in L.A. traffic, day or night.

Same thing on the way back, as the design of the lights offered increased visibility from virtually any angle — even from the rear. In fact, I found myself choosing to ride caboose, allowing the brilliant cacophony of light to call attention to our petite peloton. Yet not feeling the slightest bit more vulnerable despite the more exposed position.

Not to mention, it was fun.

Okay, a blast.

As I rode, I saw pedestrians, drivers and other riders turn to look, many with just a touch of mirth apparent on their faes. And I found myself having more fun that I have in ages.

Something that seems to be repeated every time I use them.

Surprisingly, even with the heavy battery pack containing three standard AA batteries, it didn’t seem to affect my speed in the slightest. Mounting the battery pack to the wheel hub reduces the effect of the added weight; I found myself easily maintaining my usual cruising speed of 18 – 20 mph with the light installed, and able to sprint at much higher speeds.

And after roughly 20 hours of use, the light is still going strong; the company says the batteries should last up to 40 hours.

Which brings up a few minor complaints, aside from the cryptic instructions.

Mainly the way the light unit is connected.

It’s designed to be attached to the wheel using zip ties — like modern plastic handcuffs — which makes it difficult to remove for daytime riding.

The Mini Monkey Light is most practical for riders who will install it once and leave it there. As opposed to someone like me who mostly rides during the day, and doesn’t want to leave unnecessary lights on the bike when they’re not going to be used.

I found myself attaching the waterproof light and battery pack with the supplied zip ties, then cutting them off the next morning; a wasteful and inconvenient process that quickly went through the handful of zip ties that came with it.

The solution I found was to use twist ties, like you get in the produce department of your local grocery, to attach the light unit. I still haven’t found a viable alternative to zip ties for the battery pack, though, which has to be attached tightly so it will stay in place without slipping around the hub.

That allows me to attach and remove the light unit quickly, though I still have to go through the awkward process of slipping scissors through the spokes to snip the battery pack off the hub.

The other problem is hooking up the wire that connects the two units.

The wires connect via a simple polarized plug-in connection, which can only go in one way. Unfortunately, the connector itself is small and awkward; difficult to manage during the day, and almost impossible fumbling in the dark with cold fingers.

That’s one thing they really need to address before the product starts shipping in February. There’s got to be a more convenient way to hook the wires together. Or at least better indicate how they should connect together.

But other than those relatively minor problems, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone. In fact, I may consider getting another one for the back wheel.

It may be overkill in terms of safety.

But it works. And at just under $50, it’s affordable.

And more fun than a barrel full of…

Well, you know.

My apologies to MonkeyLectric — and you — for not getting to this sooner; the last few months have been remarkably hectic. Then again, it would help if drivers would just stop running us over so we could focus on happier subjects more often.

And this time of year especially, be sure to take lights with you during afternoon rides, even if you don’t intend to be out after dark. A simple flat or some other unexpected delay can easily keep you out after dark. 


One quick legal note.

Dj Wheels reports that Christine Dahab, the allegedly drunk/distracted driver finally charged in the June late night Culver City collision that left a number of riders strewn about the roadway with various injuries — some serious — will be arraigned on Thursday.

The hearing will take place starting at 8:30 am in Department 144 of the Airport courthouse, 11701 La Cienega Blvd, 9th Floor, Case #SA079472.


Best wishes for a very happy Hanukkah!

The Urbana Bike — a very friendly and forgiving monster of a bicycle

The Urbana Bike at the beach.

Yes, it’s a monster.

Not in the Frankenstein sense, with frightened villagers carrying pitchforks and torches. But more like the creature from Young Frankenstein — big, a little awkward maybe, yet friendly and playful.

And more than ready to put on the Ritz.

In other words, this is a very serious, fun and exceptionally user-friendly monster of a bike. Think of it as an urban assault bike, the two-wheeled equivalent of a full-size Hummer — a bike able to go anywhere. And over just about anything.

SI was surprised to get an email a few months ago, asking if I wanted to try out a new bike. After all, I’d never done a product review before. Mostly because no one had ever asked me to.


Next thing I knew, there was a massive box waiting at my door. And inside was the biggest bike I’d ever seen, in a shocking shade of magenta. Although they call it Sangria.

Naturally, there weren’t any assembly instructions enclosed; while I used to do my own wrenching, this was far different from anything I’d worked on before. So even though I blundered my way through putting it together, I had still it fully assembled and ready to ride within 20 minutes.

Or so I thought.

...turned into this in just a few minutes.

Used to quick release hubs, I was afraid to over tighten the nuts on the front wheel. And sure enough, two blocks into my test ride, it was flopping back and forth like a bad toupee in a hurricane. My next attempt wasn’t much better, lasting about six blocks.

After finally tightening the crap out of it, it’s lasted nearly three months without needing another adjustment.

Make no mistake, though. This is a very big, and very heavy bike; when I stepped on the scale holding it and subtracted my own weight — admittedly, not the most accurate means of measurement — it came out at a whopping 42 pounds.

But it doesn’t ride like it.

Despite the weight, the Urbana rolls as easy as any bike I’ve ridden — and a lot easier than many I’ve tried. The 8 speed Shimano Nexus internal gear hub shifts easily and accurately, and is geared so efficiently that that even on the steepest hills, I never had to shift below third. And the Shimano Nexave drum brakes stopped it every bit as fast and surely as my much lighter road bike.

Before I agreed to accept the bike, I made sure it was insured; after all, I this is L.A., where bad drivers and worse roads can turn any bike into so much scrape metal.

The Urbana rep said “Don’t worry about it. This bike is indestructible.” When I said that sounded like a challenge, she responded “Go ahead. You can’t break this bike.”

She’s right. Because I tried.

No matter how bad the pavement, those big tires handled it with ease.

I started out riding in my own neighborhood, on streets so badly degraded they might as well be the famed cobbles of Paris-Roubaix. Yet the oversized, balloon Niddepoule — or Big Sidewalk — tires rolled right over the cracks and potholes, as if I was riding a newly paved street.

And nothing changed, no matter where I rode it or what I tried to do to it.

With my own bike out of commission, I rode the Urbana at CicLAvia. I took it to the beach. I even rode through the Westwood stretch of Wilshire Blvd known as the Gauntlet, where countless right lane ruts, potholes and rippled pavement challenge even the most experienced riders — and aggressive, high-speed traffic means falling is not an option.

In every case, it handled the worst roads with ease. Rather than swerving around potholes like I do on my own bike, I aimed for them. And the worst that happened was that the rear wheel might bounce a little before regaining solid traction.

Despite the weight, it rode comfortably, even over longer distances. The only time I found it tiring was coming back up the beach, where the upright riding position made pedaling into the usual afternoon headwind a chore.

It also climbed with surprising ease, thanks to the low gear ratio. Even riding up Temescal Canyon proved easier than expected.

There was still one more challenge the bike had to pass. The rep had described it as a one-size-fits-all frame, easily adjustable for any rider.

So I took my tiny, five-foot tall wife outside, and within 30 seconds, I’d adjusted the Urbana down from my six-foot frame to fit her perfectly. And even though she hadn’t been on a bike in the nearly two decades I’ve known her, she was soon riding easily on those same broken streets I’d tested it on.

As she was riding, our neighbor stopped by to say hi. A native of Uganda, she’d never been on a bike; yet within moments, she was rolling unsteadily down the street, thrilled to be riding for the first time. And thanks to the bike’s step-through design, when she finally lost her balance, she just stepped off and let the bike fall harmlessly beneath her.

Even my petite wife could ride it with ease.

In the three months I had the bike, I rode up and over curbs, across grass and gravel, and off steep drop-offs, yet nothing phased it.

Like a serious SUV, it handled dirt, grass and mud with the same assurance it rode over pavement — and the heavy-duty fenders meant I stayed spotless, no matter what kind of muck I pushed it through.

And despite my best efforts, I just couldn’t break it.

That’s not to say it’s perfect.

The oversized wheel base means carving a turn just isn’t an option; this bike lumbers through corners I’d normally lean into. While the V-shaped handlebars make adjustments easy, I found them tiring on longer rides, and longed for the more relaxed position provided by the swept-back bars of a classic Schwinn.

View from the cockpit; thanks to Becky for suggesting the water bottle solution.

It was hard to figure out how to carry a water bottle, until a friend suggested the perfect solution of mounting it on the handlebars. And the heavy-duty serrated pedals ate the soft plastic soles of my Sidi mountain bike shoes; a pair of harder soled trail shoes fared much better.

As much as I enjoyed it, though, I won’t be trading in my road bike anytime soon. For me, the Urbana would make a nice second or third bike. But it could be ideal for a number of riders and uses:

  • Beginners — The Urbana’s intuitive design, forgiving ride and ease-of-use makes it perfect for cyclists just starting out, while its durability means it will survive beginner’s mistakes. And the sheer size and weight will do more to deter thieves than most locks.
  • Heavier riders — When I bought my current bike, I had to find a frame that would support my then 220 pounds; I could only imagine what it would be like with another 50 or 100 pounds to carry. According to the manufacturer, the Urbana’s frame will support up to 400 pounds with ease, and it offers an optional larger seat for greater comfort. It’s also available as an e-bike, making it very forgiving for anyone who may be reluctant to ride for fear of not being able to go uphill or make it all the way back.

    Sadly, though, it ate my mtn. bike shoes; harder soled shoes fared better.

  • Winter cyclists — The big balloon tires make it perfect for road surfaces slick from rain or snow, while the heavy weight should allow it to carve through several inches of ice and snow — although that’s not something I was able to test here in L.A.
  • Urban and off-road commuters — No matter how difficult your commute, or how bad the roads or trails you have to ride, the Urbana can handle it. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to find a surface it couldn’t cover. And seriously, I pity any car that hits one of these.
  • Bike share programs — The Urbana really does fit all, in just a few seconds with just a few simple adjustments, while its strength and durability make it ideal for a bike that will inevitably take a lot of abuse as it passes from one rider to another. In fact, I’m told that Urbana will soon be unveiling a turn-key bike share system of their own.

The Urbana may not be my dream bike.

But seriously, it’s been fun. And when I drop it off in the morning, I’m going to be sad to let it go.

Because this really is one hell of a fun little monster.

Note: No payment or any other compensation was received in exchange for this review.

Darn it.

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