Yes, e-bikes really are magic; they have a role to play everywhere

Magnum e-bike photo
© Gerhardt Cycles

OK, I’m a convert. Mass adoption really could change urban and suburban transportation.

I’ve written before about how e-bikes could transform our cities, and yet, strangely, I had never actually ridden one. That changed this weekend when I had the opportunity to meet up with e-bike expert/retailer Don Gerhardt, and take a ride on a Magnum Ui5 Urban Hybrid Bike.

And boy, was I impressed.

To be fair, given this was my first ride on an e-bike (except for the ELF), so this write up should be considered more of a comment on/review of the product category (e-bikes) versus the product (the Magnum). Still, as I shot up a hill from a standing start, and without the slightest hesitation about keeping up with traffic, I found myself agreeing 100% with Lloyd:

E-bikes have a role to play everywhere.”

As someone who has ridden primarily for transportation, not exercise, for the last 20 years—and also as someone who regularly wimps out and takes the car when the North Carolina heat gets too much—I was struck by how effectively a bike like the Magnum cancels almost any of my usual excuses for not biking around town. It’s sturdily built, it has in-built lights and luggage carrier, a really nice comfortable ride, premium-feeling components, and as much or as little electric ‘boost’ as you see fit to add. While purists will no doubt still scoff at ‘cheating’, I can’t help but feel that e-bikes could get a whole lot more people out of their cars and onto a saddle.

And the more bikes there are on the roads—electric or not—the more our cities and suburbs will cater to them.

Another nice feature of the Magnum, alongside such convenience items like a tool-free adjustable handlebar stem, was the ‘pedelec’ assist mode, which Don tells me is more commonly used in Europe. Essentially this senses your effort on the pedals and uses an algorithm to provide boost proportionate to that effort, adjusted according to the level of assist you’ve set it at. You can still use the ‘throttle’ to add extra boost, or use it in throttle-only mode—negating the need to pedal—but this feature does make it feel, to this newbie at least, a lot more like riding a regular bike. (Albeit with a certain amount of super powers.)

Like I say, I’m no expert on the subject so I’ll refer you all to a more detailed video review below. But even as someone who had expected to enjoy e-bikes, and was already sold on their general utility/value, I’m left considerably enthused for how these machines really could change urban transportation for many of us. Of course, to do so we need ongoing investment in decent bike infrastructure, as well as common sense rules and etiquette about who rides what where. Don was very vocal about the need for e-bike riders to treat the rules of the road with respect, and their fellow road users with courtesy. There are going to be a lot more e-bikes around in the near future. So let’s not go giving them a bad name.

The Magnum Ui5 retails for $1699 MSRP. Not cheap, compared to a regular bike. But this is NOT a regular bike. If you’re on the East Coast, you can get one from Don Gerhardt here. Otherwise, check out Magnum E-bikes for more details.

© Riide

It’s been going on for years. April wrote in 2014 that many people think an e-bike is cheating. Sami wrote “I remember many cycling enthusiasts scoffing: “It’s cheating.” But so much has happened in the last few years that this idea should really be relegated to the dustbin of history. I have written about this before:

..there are places where e-bikes have a real role to play; in cities like Seattle with lots of hills; for people who have really long commutes; or possibly, for people who are pretty sedentary and would have trouble switching from a car to a bike for commuting to work.

I would extend that now to say that e-bikes have a role to play everywhere. In the last few weeks there have been a series of articles about how they are changing lives, changing the way people get around.

Citibikes at Grand CentralCitibikes at Grand Central Station/CC BY 2.0

In the New Yorker, Thomas Beller discusses the electric bike conundrum. He starts with a cycling friend who says “It’s a cheat!” and then admits they work for many people, if not him just yet.

“There is this one hill just before the G. W. Bridge that is a good six-degree grade, and it goes for half a mile,” he told me. “If you commute to Manhattan on your bike, you have to find a way to get up that hill. A lot of people are just not willing to commit to that much exercise on their way to work.” Recently, though, he has noticed a lot of people cruising effortlessly up the hill on electric bikes. “It’s a purely pragmatic decision for them,” he said. “It’s just a much cheaper and faster way of getting to work than a car. So they use an electric bike.”

He also talks to a bike advocate who makes a very good point, comparing it to getting gears on a bike, that it is all about making moving easier.

How do you deal with technology and the frailties of being a human being? Bicycles are mechanical augmentation of walking, really. It gets pretty ethereal—why is it bad to have a motor when you are already using gears? Who gives a sh*t if you are using a motor?

Read it all in the New Yorker.

Electric bicycle EVELOEVELO/Promo image

From Should you buy an electric bike? Your questions answered!In the Guardian, Philippa Perry writes Why I’m proud to ride an e-bike. She gets right to the point:

The idea of power-assisted cycling seems to exasperate some people. When I talk about e-bikes, I hear: “It’s cheating!” and “The point of cycling is exercise.” It’s not cheating because we are not racing, life is not a competition and neither is going to the shops. Nor does it mean you don’t exercise on an electric bike – you still have to pedal – it’s just that your pedalling can be assisted when the wind is against you or you need help up a hill.

She is talking about pedelecs, which are what electric bikes are in Europe. They have no throttle but give you a boost when you pedal, are limited to 250 watt motors and have a maximum speed of 15.5 MPH, all of which I think North American e-bikes should be limited to as well; it really is necessary if they are going to play nice with bikes in the bike lanes. (Derek will probably disagree; he keeps showing these monsters)

Philippa also notes how e-bikes are great for all kinds of people, and collected some great quotes:

“Since getting his electric bike my 80-year-old dad has been given a new lease of life”; “I live on the South Downs – I’d have to use my car far more often if I didn’t have one”; “All the rage here in hilly Oslo, especially for hauling kids and bulky goods”; “Perfect for cobbled, windy Edinburgh”; “As an ex-athlete with knackered knees, I need the electric bike for hills I could not otherwise do”; “On my e-bike I can keep up with my fitter friends so we can ride together”; “Good for the days I would’ve opted for the car because too tired to go on my regular bike”; “If we didn’t have one, we’d have to have two cars”; “I’ve got a walking disability and the electric bike means I can get out.”

But she does it because it’s fun. More in the Guardian.

faraday side© Faraday bikes

From What’s the perfect urban electric bike?Behind the paywall in the Financial Times, David Firn writes about How an e-bike can ease the return-to-work commute.

He normally uses a regular bike to get to work at the pink paper, but tried out an e-bike this summer because “London gets hot enough to make me wish I arrived at work a little fresher.” He is also on a legal Pedelec, so has to work a little.

Did it take the sweat out of summer commuting? Well I would be lying if I said I arrived at work dry, I was doing some of the work, after all. Despite a bit of a glow, however, I definitely was not too damp in any of the wrong places. That left me with just one question: is an e-bike cheating? The answer is: I don’t care. I may have burnt fewer calories, but I am sure it was offset by a boost to my endorphins and that is always the best way to start a day in the office whatever the season.

Actually, studies have found that cyclists who switched to e-bikes didn’t burn a whole lot fewer calories; they often just went faster. See Riding an Electric Bike is NOT Cheating. Here’s the Data to Prove It.

me on boarCyclist over 60 years old on e-bike/CC BY 2.0

When I tested a Boar electric fat bike, I used it to go a lot farther. I wrote:

Before this test drive I would have flat out dismissed a fat-tired e-bike for city use. But as we age and those hills seem to get longer and higher, and as our cities get more congested with cars while every parking lot sprouts a condo, I can see this being a viable option for a lot of people, young and old. And even Mikael at Copenhagenize sees a role for e-bikes among older users, noting that in the Netherlands, the average age of an e-bike rider is over sixty.

E-bikes are getting better every day as batteries improve and more companies pour into the market. They let people ride longer and more comfortably in hot and cold weather. They are great for cities if they actually get people out of cars, which anecdotally appears to be happening. They are most definitely not cheating.

guy on scooterGuy smoking joint on electric scooter with loud boom box playing old heavy metal music/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Again I will make a plea for changing the rules to ban these electric scooters that are too fast and too big to be in the bike lanes. The Europeans have it right with their pedelec rules, where nobody really cares if it is electric- just get out and ride.