So last week sometime, I was biking home up Keats Way. The way home from work for me tends to be a little more difficult than the way there. While my commute by way of elevation is sort of a U shape, with high points at both ends and a dip in the middle, the U favours the way to work. Getting home requires more effort. Keats Way is one of the roads where 2/3 of it is slope-y one way, and one third the other. It’s easier to get to work than home. So, I was huffing my way up Keats Way when I saw a woman on a bike behind me in my rear view mirror. It isn’t uncommon for the university students to pass me on their bikes on my way. They are, after all, younger and more get-go-ish, and also do not have heart concerns. I envy them so much for that. Anyway, so I wasn’t all that shocked when this woman gained on me, but when she passed, I was surprised. She wasn’t one of the University crowd. She may not have been older than me, but she wasn’t a student. And she was on a cruiser bike with fatter wheels and a retro look, and she was putting out pretty damned well no effort at all to pass me. It was sorta disconcerting. I didn’t get it at first, and then just as she was passing me, I clued in to the fact that she was on an e-bike. And away she went, leaving me panting away. She was a good 150 meters up the road when I lost sight of her.
This left enough of an impression on me that this week, I did a considerable amount of research into the niche subculture that is the electric bike. I was pretty taken with the idea by the time I was through.
I used to think that e-bikes were only those stupid looking bikes that tried to make themselves look like scooters. I never liked those things. They seemed to always gum up the roadways with their girth, and the drivers were often treacherous on the MUPs, when I saw them there. I still maintain those ones are not to my liking at all, but what I didn’t know was there’s options that don’t look anything like that. There’s e-bikes out there that are pretty well indistinguishable from a regular bike, much like the one that smoked me on Keats Way. In fact, they look super nice. I found out that you can even retrofit your existing bike to an e-bike with little effort.
The thing that hooked me is that I came to understand that being on e-bike doesn’t mean you’re somehow cheating the system, or will get no exercise. At least, not for me. You can do that if you want, but it isn’t necessary. We are a single-car family, and I am the one without the car 90+% of the time. I spend that time on my bike, and while it’s fine, I really am demolished by the time I get home, and not in a good, fun, “I have had a workout and I feel great” way. More like, “this is going to kill me, and I hope it isn’t today”. And in spite of the fact that the hills by and large favour the way to work, I still get there all sweaty and shitty and panting and I look like some hobo off the street about to have a cardiac event rather than the information-worker professional I’m supposed to be.1 Biking for me is really only fun when I’m not in a hurry and can enjoy the ride, which invariably isn’t what I’m doing. As a cycle commuter, I’m always in a damned rush to get anywhere; for better or worse, it’s well and truly my primary use case in biking these days. An e-bike apparently solves that issue.
I was intrigued enough that this weekend, I went down to Cycle Electric and took a couple of bikes out for a test run. The first one I took out was a folding e-bike from Emmo. The reason that I took it out was because it was an inexpensive option (and that is saying something here—if there’s one thing I’ve learned, this rabbit hole is preposterously expensive), and because I could fold it and presumably bring it into the office with me. I was thinking that the best theft deterrent there is, is to park the bike in my cube. A folding one might make that feasible. And it seemed weird to me that I could get a whole electric bike for considerably less cash than even a retrofit.
The ride was… okay. I didn’t get the feeling that I was much better off using it, to be honest. I don’t know if that was because my expectations having read so many sites and viewed so many YouTube videos were skewed, or maybe because I was riding it wrong somehow, or maybe the geometry of the bike was so very different from the diamond shape bikes I’ve been riding since just after birth ;). It was fine, and I think it made life a little easier, but beyond the throttle function, I wasn’t nearly impressed enough to go with something like that.
But then I tried a standard hybrid bike treated to an e-bike retrofit from Bionix. Now, that was different! My god, it was strange. I was pedalling away from the shop and I was wondering if it had even come on because I couldn’t hear a thing out of the motor, but when I looked up, I was doing nearly 20km/h without exerting any more effort than I usually would, and I didn’t even realize it. Somehow, this system offers pedal assist that just sorta works. It took me some time to realize that putting forth a third of the effort I usually put on the bike resulted in more speed by nearly 5km/h than I would normally get, and that wasn’t even on the highest level of assist.
And the throttle on that thing! It’s just wrong. It’s wrong that I could be on a hill, not wanting to pedal anymore, hit a single button and the bike just takes over and climbs the hill all on its own. That was the real kicker. And given the amount of battery power the kit provides, I should technically be able to get myself to work and home again and never rotate the pedals once, if that was what I wanted to do. That throttle is just awesome.
That test drive pretty much sold me on the idea of a retrofit. It felt so much better than the built-in one, it was sorta crazy. I get that probably the higher-end folding dedicated e-bikes would be able to compare, but then they’re kinda silly for the price. For that, I could probably get a decent used car. The retrofit does indeed seem to be the way to go.
I’m about 85% of the way to deciding to get this done. My holdouts are honestly only the cost, and the concern about theft. If I’m going to magically make my run of the mill little hybrid commuter a valuable target I need to rethink my lockup strategies, especially in light of the fact that we’ve already had one bike stolen right out of the racks at the office this year.
But I keep on thinking, “wouldn’t it be awesome to get to work and not be a sweaty mess in fear of my life?” and then thinking, “Yes, yes, that would be good indeed…”
- Yes, I am aware that one can get to work, shower and change. My work place is not well set up for that. While we do have one shower, I sorta fear it, and I’d really rather not use it, to say nothing of the overhead it’d take to bring clothes along every day—the bike is heavy enough, thank you very much. ↩