Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Bicycle Electric

Sometime last year, I was riding home with my family along 22nd Street. There is a very mild incline between South Van Ness and Valencia streets and I was really feeling it. We had been out all day and I had carried Declan on the back of the bike the whole time. Despite this, I felt like I was doing pretty well. Just as I was feeling good about my progress I heard a bicycle coming up fast on my left. It was a woman on a Townie extracycle with a preteen girl sitting on the back reading a book (a much larger kid on a much larger bike with really bad geometry). She flew by me like it was nothing! I was utterly demoralized. She was older than I, on a heavier bike with a heavier load and leaving me in the dust.

James found the whole thing terribly funny and let me feel sorry for myself for a few blocks until he pointed out that the woman who had passed me so handily on her damned bicycle was, in fact, not a stronger cyclist than I, per se, simply one that had the benefit of an electric assist! I have been a little obsessed by electric bicycles ever since.

The Bike Electric

Recently I was asked to test ride a Gazelle with electric assist by Soraya of My Dutch Bike. I jumped at the chance. I didn't have many ideas about what it would be like but I knew I would get some insight into what makes electric bicycles so popular.

There are a lot of technical things that can be said about bicycles. I am not qualified to say anything about any of them. I know nothing about how electric assist hub systems work and I do not know what the one on this bike is called. Those seem like unimportant details in this particular critique. It is enough to say that Gazelle makes a perfectly acceptable bicycle, that I do not like cushy Selle Royale saddles and being very upright is always pleasant.

Gazelle, Electrified

As soon as I got on it and took off down Market Street I could feel the difference. With the lowest setting engaged, by the second pedal stroke I could feel the hub in the front wheel kick in with just a little bit of help. Not enough to be intrusive, but more than enough to set me at a much faster pace than I would normally experience. It reminded me of being given a gentle push along by a cute boy on a fixie- pleasant and helpful but I am still in control. With higher settings I got more help and my normal level of exertion was sending me flying! I was passing bicycle messengers and lycra roadies and taxi cabs while wearing heels and a skirt and a great big smile because I was making such wonderful progress pedaling at the same level of exertion I always use but actually getting somewhere fast!

Over subsequent days I discovered all kinds of interesting things while riding this electrified Gazelle. If I took my regular routes to get places I found I could cut my travel time by 30% without utilizing a greater level of energy than I usually do (and I didn't have to have the assist on its highest setting to do it). Even better, if I used the highest setting and took the super hilly routes I usually go around I could cut my travel time by 50% and not be any more fatigued than I would be on my Batavus taking the long way around. My knees didn't hurt and neither did my back at the tops of really big hills and starting from a stop with a heavy load was so much easier and less joint jarring. Over the week it was with me I found myself going on errands and to parts of town I have stopped going to because of the fatigue factor (I hadn't consciously decided to stop doing these things, I just stopped going because I didn't want to wear myself out).

One of the most surprising things I found was that I wanted a helmet for the first time in years! When I ride my Batavus I am slow enough that I always have time to react to things. The door zone is not usually much of an issue for me because I have time to look several cars ahead to see where the problems may come from. With the assist engaged I was passing parked cars so much faster that I knew I wouldn't be able to react fast enough if someone opened a door at me and that made me uncomfortable. There was nothing to stop me from slowing down but the easy ability to just zip along constantly crept up on me (riding with the electric hub turned off was unpleasant as there was a lot of resistance from it). The more I was on the bike the less I felt like I should be in the bicycle lane as I was constantly moving in and out of it to pass other riders and was obviously not part of the flow. Riding with others was an exercise in restraint as they would have to strain to keep up with me if I didn't pay attention (I have to admit I kind of liked that because I am usually the one dying to keep the pace). There was no longer any incentive to take the scenic route because I could just get there so much faster.

The reactions of others to the bike was interesting as well. One person I rode with one night was very animated about it when he discovered I was riding an electric assist bicycle. We had just crested an absolute monster of a hill at the end of what for me had been a very long day. I commented that it was so nice to get to the top of the hill and not be exhausted. My friend instantly let me know I was cheating and should only use my own power to get places. I laughed at his vehemence, especially as he had just reached the top of the hill on a fixed gear bicycle I have never tried. He was committed to his way of riding, which was the opposite in some respects of what I was doing. There was some understanding when I told him how surprised I was that I liked it and that not having pain and fatigue was letting me ride so much more than I would otherwise. As long as there was more riding happening it was kind of OK in his eyes.

Walking away from the bicycle I was happy to see that I really enjoyed getting back on my Batavus (it just fits me so well) and not spoiled by my experience in the land of the electrical assist. I was also very pleasantly surprised to find that I had gained some riding strength over my week with the Gazelle. All of the extra hill riding and longer cross town rides made a real difference to my strength level. A few of weeks of being back on my unassisted Bat has not made me wish for an electric hub, but it hasn't made me not want one, either. I really loved how it opened up the City to me in a way I hadn't realized was that closed to me. Not needing as much time to get around made getting things done so much easier. However, all the speed and ease made the slow ride I love harder to achieve and I found myself speeding up the number of things I would put on my to do list in a way that I am not terribly comfortable with (I lived like that for way too long already). However, saying that I find myself missing the speed across town.

I did come away thinking of people I would like to give this bicycle to. My Mom lives in the desert and quite a ride from many of the places she goes to daily. Trying to ride after 9 in the morning can be impossible when the heat starts to kick in. She has found herself on the side of the road needing to be rescued from heat exhaustion a couple of times when she underestimated the weather. Were she to use the maximum setting and not pedal too hard she could ride through the heat with a great deal more comfort than she would find from her normal bicycle or from walking. This would get her out of her car quite a lot. For a parent who needs to get across town quickly to pick up or drop off children this bicycle would be ideal. They would be able to handle the challenge of heavy weight on the bicycle without being slow or tired. For someone who has a very long or hilly commute to a job that requires nicer clothing this would eliminate the need for extra clothes or crowded cross town buses.

So there are a whole bunch of words about an electric assist bicycle I rode for a few days. Would I buy one? Sure, if my general needs were in line with one. If I were still riding 18 miles each way to work or having to go across town to pick up Declan everyday like I was last year I would have to seriously consider something like this. If my knee finally starts to give out like the orthopedist said it will then I am going to be on Soraya's doorstep looking for a little electric assist. You never know.


  1. What a great testimonial, go Adrienne!

  2. Well, that woman on the townie with the preteen on the back would be me.

    In the spring of 2008 I started reading the science behind global warming and, truly terrified, developed a sense of urgency on the need to de-carbon my life. One of the important ways was to reduce my car driving, and so I researched options.

    Since a lot of my driving involved shuttling my daughter around, I thought about an Xtracycle, and since I live up a pretty monster hill and my daughter was 80 lbs, I knew electric-assist would be necessary.

    I got the bike, the xtracycle, the electric motor kit (with a thumb throttle--I find I like having control of when the motor is on or not) and after some bumps and problems, got it all working. (I highly recommend Len at Electric Bike Outlet.) We then got rid of our minivan and dropped down to one car and a City Carshare membership.

    Fast forward two years later. My daughter is 95lbs, finds riding on the back of mom's bike embarrassing, and I can hardly get her up the hill, but the electric-assist Xtracycle is still useful. I use it to do a week's worth of grocery shopping at a time (5 bags!) and to go to my acupuncture appointment at the top of Bernal Heights. I take it to the symphony and the opera when I don't want to work up a sweat at all, and I still occasionally use it to transport my 13 and even my 17 year old daughter (110lbs) around. Sometimes my husband and I get the kids to ride with us on their own bikes on family outings, but with our hill, we have to be really, really persuasive. They would much rather take Muni. The good news is that now that they are older and can take Muni on their own, I have to drive less.

    The electric-assist really has replaced a lot of car trips, and as the electricity it uses is minuscule, it is a big win for the environment. Since I'm a fairly cautious rider, I rarely go much over 14mph on it, though I will for spurts if I'm cold, late, wanting to make a light, etc.

    I have found, however, that the electric-assist can be a little too easy. In order to get more exercise, I have also gotten myself a regular bike that I use if I'm just transporting myself, even though it inevitably means I am pushing the bike up the last two blocks home. Sometimes after a long ride, I do feel it in my knees and wonder how long they will hold out, but for now the riding feels good.

    There is much I've gained from bicycling besides just lowering my carbon output. Bicycling connects me to the city in ways I hadn't expected. I interact with people more; I see the sky, the trees, the crescent moons, and the constantly changing light that makes San Francisco so breathtaking. Even though riding a bike in this city is sometimes challenging, I always feel better, physically and mentally, after riding my bike than I do after driving my car.

    I am convinced that bicycling--regular or electric--creates a healthier local environment, a healthier, more interconnected community, and a healthier planet. It is worth doing for so many reasons that I now take it as a challenge to do such and such a thing by bike rather than by car. (I did a lot of my holiday shopping this year by bicycle, for instance.)

    My terror over global warming hasn't abated, and practically speaking, I realize riding my electric bike or my regular bike won't make much difference. But in the end each of us must do what we can and hope the urgency will catch on. I can see how people on a regular bike might view an electric-assist as "cheating," but we really should look at it as one less car for one less trip and rejoice.

    Thanks for the article and reporting on your experiences with electric-assist. I hope it will encourage people not currently riding a bike due to hills, age or physical problems to give it a try. Electric bikes are fun, easy, not all that expensive (compared to cars), and a great way to beat the line of cars waiting to turn into the Whole Foods parking lot!

  3. Taomom- Small City : ) You have haunted my speed dreams for the last year or more : ) Nice to see you here! Thank you for the thoughtful reply.

  4. Tony- I am putting that hub on your fixie!

  5. huh. this was a really interesting and informative article. thanks!
    (let's race! ;)

  6. Adrienee: wonderful post as always

    Taomom: a comment like that suggests you have a blog of your own in you! Why ot try it.

  7. I live in Dallas, so nothing is really "uphill" but I am intrigued by an electric bicycle as a way to live in a city with virtually no public transpo and a driving culture. Dallas has everything spread out, and an electric bike would allow me to get exercise AND complete errands like the grocery store (3 miles away), the bookstore (5 miles away), etc. without driving--which is my goal. Thanks for the review.

  8. hi, most of the bikes that i have been reading in many blogs are just one sitter. isn't it possible for a bike to be a 2 sitter? and how much load can a certain electric bike carry? im looking for a battery that can carry 100KG and can drove 100KM. if you have some info about this please give me a feedback. thanks.

    SMITH | home medical equipment

  9. Very courteous, patient andvwell organized chap and great at taking the time to describe any fixes that he as made. Also keeps good service records and encourages customers to do same. electric bikes auckland