Wednesday, April 24, 2019

I didn't need or want an ebike, but now I'm glad I've got one!

While ebikes have been a growing part of the bicycle business for several years, I'd always figured I didn't need one and frankly, I didn't want one. For decades I've managed to get around just fine on a bike where I'm the only motor and I didn't see any reason to complicate matters. It was somewhat ironic then when Bike Friday started doing more and more ebikes for our customers that I became "the ebike guy." While Alan Scholz, our company's founder, did the bulk of the preliminary research and development for Bike Friday's new line of ebikes, my job in the service department involves adding electric motors to customer's existing bikes and troubleshooting bikes with problems. As I've been known to grumble now and then "adding a bunch of electronics and a motor to a bike doubles the universe of potential problems." I also may have said the ebikes are "bikes for lazy folks." Statements like this are why Bike Friday doesn't have me working in the sales department.

As I got to work with more ebike customers, I saw that I was very wrong about the "lazy folks" comment. In many, many cases a person gets an ebike so that they can keep riding. One 80 year old customer wanted to keep riding with his slightly younger, faster pals. Another wanted to bike to work instead of drive and the motor took care of the one big hill in her way. A mom uses the extra oomph of an ebike to help her carry her two kids to school on the back of her Haul-a-Day. These are not lazy people.

Still, I have a flat commute to work. I'm no longer young, but I'm reasonably fit. I sure didn't (and don't) need an ebike. But Alan, who is a bright guy, kept bugging me. "You won't really get it until you have one. Test riding customer bikes isn't the same." And Alan kept giving me stuff. "This motor was one I was checking out for research, but it's a bit heavier than what we'd want for a customer's bike. You should put it on your bike." The next week we had a warranty issue with a battery because of a cracked mounting bracket. "We can't sell it to a customer, but I bet you could make it work on your bike." Eventually, the pile of parts was either going to bury my workbench or get put on a bike. I installed all the various bits on my Pocket Companion.

My first commute was a couple of miles per hour faster, but it wasn't life changing. Riding an ebike is like riding a tandem with a strong partner. With the pedal assist system we use on the Bike Fridays, the motor only kicks in when you are pedaling. You select how much (or how little) of a boost you want. With e-assist I'm quicker getting across an intersection when the light turns green. My top speed isn't changed. Ebikes by law have a regulator that stops the motor from applying power at a certain speed. You can pedal faster than that speed, but it is you doing the work, not the motor. But my average speed went up because where ebikes shine is helping you at times when conditions would slow you down. On my flat commute, in addition to the intersections, I noticed the boost most on days when I was riding into a headwind.

But it was on my days off that I really began to bond with my ebike. I've always been a strong climber, but with the ebike I really don't even have to think about hills. Yes, I gear down and pedal, but Sparky (as I've renamed my bike!) is like a little pal saying "let me help you with that." Hauling a couple of big boxes of books to the thrift store with the bike trailer? No problem, Sparky is there to help.

They did a study in Norway and they found that in general ebike riders get about 80% of the workout they would riding a non-electric bike over a given distance. But they also found that ebike riders tend to ride about 20% farther on average and their average speed is about 20% faster. My own experience echoes this. I'm having fun, riding more and riding farther.

I've told my friends that I've gone from being an ebike skeptic to being an ebike enthusiast and I'm dangerously close to becoming an ebike evangelist. Alan was right, I had to own an ebike to really get it. I still don't really need an ebike, but I'm damn glad I've got one!


Gary B. said...

Great to see you posting, Kent. We've been wondering if you were still at Bike Friday. I have to admit - you're the last person I expected to be on an e-bike.

nobby said...

Excellent post, Kent, and thank you for sharing.
I have a mid drive on my upright and am thing of fitting one to my Bacchetta 'bent.

I hope you are planning a post on your solar charging system. I am sure that it will be an informative read.

Vik said...

I have a longterm Bike Friday e-Tikit prototype that I tried for an extended period. To be honest the motor and battery seemed like a lot of hassle on a bicycle that was already pretty great at getting me around town. Sure hills were faster and easier, but I don't optimze my life to be as easy as possible. Having to work to overcome reasonable challenges is a very rewarding part of life.

If someone truly replaces a car with an e-bike that seems like a good choice, but simply for recreational purposes I don't see how things are better by adding more batteries/motors to the world and reducing the mild challenges people face. This all just seems like more green smoke screen where we market feel good products to people so they can buy their way to thinking they are doing something to save the planet while just creating more pollution and products that have to be disposed of.

When the first commercial e-exoskeletons are being sold what are we going to say? Don't worry that 5 block walk to buy groceries will be so much easier now and you can walk up that big hill in your neighbourhood without getting your heart rate too high? People are going to be able to climb bigger mountains with their exoskeletons. Is that progress? Sure you can argue that if everyone just sat on their sofas watching Netflix 24/7 that would be worse than if at least they left their homes occasionally moving their bodies in exoskeletons to mitigate the awfulness of walking a few blocks that's marginally better. But, it seems like that is a false comparison since walking and biking for recreation are not problematic without batteries and motors.

The future of walking/hiking?

It seems to me that trying to add more consumerism and convenience to our lives is not moving us in a helpful direction.

JanS said...

Hi Kent, thank you for your new post. You are right, ebikes may help in some situations you mentioned and even I understand what Vik says and I mostly agree, still it is much better when one uses ebike regularly instead of a car. Much less energy spent and much more fun if plain bike is not an option.
I also do not need ebike and have to admit have never tried one yet. My commute is not difficult. With other errands I try not to hurry or take a train or bus instead. But that may change with different job in future and definitely with age. So I really do welcome you keep sharing your experience. Thank you, and actually thank you a lot for all your posts!

Peter Wang said...

Kent do you have any recommendations for a kit for electrifying a 3-speed cruiser?

Kent Peterson said...

Hi Peter,

My friend Bob had a good experience with the kits from Hilltopper.

I've worked with the stuff from Grin Technologies and havw found it to be very nicely done.

I have had good experiences with the Bafang motors and this kit looks like a good deal, although I don't have any direct experience with it.

I hope this helps.