2018-12-04

E-Biking: A Primer


I.

I spent more than three years driving fifty miles to work, and fifty miles home again. In rush-hour traffic, that meant driving for a little over an hour in the morning, and for about ninety minutes home, day after day, every single day. On most days, there were multiple car accidents along the way, and of course on the worst days the accidents would obstruct the flow of traffic and turn my hour-long commute into something more like two or three hours.

When one is exposed to a lengthy commute for a long period of time, one develops coping mechanisms. I began with satellite radio, which helped a lot. Eventually, I cancelled my subscription to cut costs and transitioned to music streaming services from Google and Amazon. Then I tried audio books, to some level of success. The radio and my CD collection were always sure bets to improve my commute, and I invested in a vehicle that is fun and comfortable to drive, to minimize vehicle-related stress. I also developed a zen-like attitude toward driving, which successfully kept me calm even in the most trying of traffic situations. I made my daily commute as pleasant as it possibly could be, and I’m really happy about that.

Despite how much lemonade I had managed to squeeze from that particular lemon, though, when I transferred to a new job much closer to me, I couldn’t contain my excitement. I live only about ten miles away from my office, which translates into a barely fifteen-minute-commute when I take the highway. I certainly never have to worry about being late to work ever again, and my exposure to dangerous traffic is now only a quarter of what it was a year ago. That’s good.

But do you know what’s better? Biking to work.

II.

A ten-mile bike ride for a healthy person is a triviality. Unless you sprint the full ten miles, it doesn’t much qualify as a workout. Still, as longtime readers know, my fitness bike is a Windsor Clockwork Plus (reviewed here, here, and here), a single-speed track bike. I love that bike, and I love taking it out for long rides. That bike proved to be a virtual godsend last year, when I was dealing with chronic lower-back pain as a result of a muscle imbalance.

Despite how much fun I have on that bicycle, however, it wouldn’t be practical to ride it to work. For one thing, because it’s a single-speed track bike, I only average about 16 miles per hour. This means my commute would be just shy of forty-five minutes long. That’s forty-five minutes of brisk riding. Brisk riding means sweating. Sweating means I’d need a shower. Needing a shower means dressing in riding gear for the ride to work, stopping at the gym (about six miles away from the office), showering, ironing my clothes, dressing for work, and then cycling another six miles uphill, likely getting sweaty again, and finally showing up at the office. The combined hassle and extra time here just made a traditional bicycle commute infeasible.

After starting to lose interest in a bike commute, I started wondering, Wouldn’t it be great if there were a way to bike to work without all that sweat and hassle?

To ask this question is to run down the list of possible alternatives. I had considered buying a motorcycle years ago, but ultimately gave up on that idea after seeing how many fatal motorcycle accidents there are in my area. Every year, approximately three thousand Texans lose their lives in car accidents. Roads here are treacherous without the additional dangers of motorcycle travel. So that idea was out. My next idea was to consider a motor scooter. Motor scooters are easier for beginners to drive, taking a lot of the guesswork out of the ride. If I committed myself to driving along residential roads, I could avoid the most dangerous traffic patterns while spending pennies on the dollar, relative to driving my car to work every day. The only major downside I could think of was that I wasn’t sure that I was ready to become a “scooter guy.”

Eventually, however, I overcame that fear and set to work researching scooters. I settled on one that got the best reviews and seemed to have the  best specifications on the market. The price was right, too. All I needed to do was save my money for an eventual purchase.

As I waited, I started watching for special offers on scooters, just in case I found an interesting alternative to my “final” decision. It was then that I discovered something much better than I ever expected to find.

III.

Electric bicycles are a near-perfect form of transportation. They are dream machines. They offer all the advantages of low-cost transportation like scooters and motorcycles with almost none of the disadvantages. In fact, they cost less than most road-worthy scooters and require much less maintenance. They completely eliminate the need for gasoline, specifically, and their energy requirements are literal pennies. The average electric bicycle offers a range of more than thirty miles per charge, and even humble beach cruisers intended for recreational use by senior citizens can get you moving up to twenty miles per hour with minimal physical effort on the rider’s part. They require no special licensing in most jurisdictions. They’re allowed on bicycle paths. In short, there is almost no down-side to riding an electric bicycle.

I discovered electric bicycles while looking for special discounts on scooters, and once I started researching them, I realized that they offered the perfect solution to my commuting conundrum. Were I to buy a scooter, I’d need a special driver’s license, which means I’d have to lose a weekend to taking a special motorcycle riding course, pay hundreds of dollars, lose probably another day to getting my new driver’s license at the Department of Public Safety, since thousands into the actual scooter itself, and then worry about fighting traffic. On a bicycle, I’d avoid all of that nonsense. On an electric bicycle, I could get to work in half an hour without breaking a sweat. No need for a gym, no need for a shower, no need for a lot of extra prep time.

Conceptually, I was sold. All I needed now was to select the right e-bike for me. Research is always the fun part.

IV.

Electric bicycles come in only a few “flavors.”

First, there are beach cruisers. These are stylish, casual bicycles intended for, well cruising around, as at a beach. They typically have hub-drive (on the wheel) motors, U-shaped handlebars, step-through frames, and low speeds. To be honest, I am not sure what is the appeal of a beach cruiser e-bike. Cruising along casually down a beach path is surely a lot of fun, but not something a person would need much electric power to do. One might as well get a beach cruiser without the electric motor and achieve the same result without the added expense. I suppose, however, that for older people, or the mobility-impaired, these bikes have some significant appeal.

Next, there are electric mountain bikes. These bicycles are often full-suspension (front and rear), featuring mid-drive (where the pedals are) motors, fancy brakes, and high torque. These are very popular electric bikes, because they offer riders an experience that blends the benefits of mountain biking with the benefits of dirt biking. Since they are not intended for the road, they often feature very powerful electric motors that can help riders climb up trails quickly, while their hydraulic brakes and full suspension make them thrilling on complex downhill routes as well. Mountain bike purists will obviously want to avoid this kind of bike because it’s no longer really a mountain bike so much as a low-powered dirt bike. Arguably, such bikes are destructive to some mountain biking trails and courses, and a fast-riding electric mountain bike may even be a safety hazard to other riders on the trail. This definitely wasn’t the kind of electric bicycle I wanted to buy.

There are also a number of electric road cycles available on the market. These are confusing bicycles. They pair powerful mid-drive motors with a road bicycle aesthetic: drop handlebars, a racing posture, thin road-race wheels, and so on. Despite their road racing accoutrements, they are heavy bicycles. The extra weight comes primarily from the electric motors, which are surprisingly heavy, and the fact that these motors must be supported by a frame sturdy enough to carry them. Say goodbye to carbon fibers. Moreover, many of these electric road bicycles are targeted for the European market, which has strict regulations on the maximum speed of a road-legal e-bike. What you end up with, then, is a bicycle that looks like a road racer, aesthetically, but which can’t go very fast. I’m not sure what kind of person would want an electric road racer, frankly. Perhaps it’s a good option for someone who wants to get into road racing, but does not yet have the leg strength. Who knows?

Finally, there are the commuter bikes. Commuter bikes are unconstrained by the requirements of either road racers or mountain bikes. They take the basic shape of a mountain bike, but with the more comfortable riding posture of a cruiser. They typically come with hub-drive motors, which are a bit lighter than mid-drive motors, enabling them to cover a greater distance at the same level of power output. They often come with extras that matter to commuters: wheel fenders to protect the rider against mud; rear racks that riders can use in conjunction with bungee cords to carry cargo; front suspension for comfortable riding; but not rear suspension, which is another weight-saver and distance-increaser; and a wide, comfortable gel seat for lengthy, casual riding. They are, quite simply, built for people to use as a commuting vehicle to-and-from work.

Now that sounds like the e-bike for me!

V.

Electric bicycles operate just like normal bicycles, but with three main quirks.

The first quirk you’ll notice is not the most obvious: Electric bicycles are heavy. Their weighty motors and sturdy steel frames mean that, when using only the rider’s leg strength to pedal them, they can feel a bit sluggish. Start in a higher gear, and you’ll feel like you’re climbing a steep incline on a single-speed bike. (I should know!) Most e-bikes also feature fatter tires than the average regular bicycle, and while these fatter tires don’t necessarily feel heavier, they do give e-bikes a bit more stability. So the combination of the heavier weight and the more stable wheels make the bicycle tend to feel a little bit more like a big, solid object. I’ve never driven a motorcycle or scooter before, but I imagine the feeling is somewhat similar. Weight and stability are noticeable factors here.

The second quirk you’ll notice is definitely the most obvious: the pedal assist. Most electric bicycles work by sensing when the rider is pedaling, and delivering power according to the rate of that pedaling. The faster you pedal, the more power the e-bike’s motor delivers, up until one of the following occurs: the motor’s built-in speed limit kicks in, the motor’s power limitations are reached, the limits of the rider’s pedaling cadence are reached. On a flat or downhill grade, as you start to pedal, you notice the motor kick right in with a thrilling burst of torque. Next thing you know, you’re traveling faster than your pedaling speed would otherwise tell you. It’s quite fun. On uphill stretches, it’s unlikely that you’ll reach anything near the bicycle’s top speed, but the motor ensures that you’ll climb even the steepest grade with ease and comfort. Depending on the e-bike’s speed limit settings, you may find that the pedal assist prevents you from going faster than about 20 mph / 35 kph. In some locations, this is the legal limit for an electric bicycle. Anything faster than that would make it more of an electric scooter or motorcycle. Should you find yourself capable of overriding these settings, however, you should be able to get up to 30 mph and beyond with very little physical effort.

Lastly, there’s the throttle. Some e-bikes have a twist throttle, much like a motorcycle, while others have a push-lever throttle. By law, e-bike throttles cannot provide more than enough power to go 20 mph. It is possible to ride an e-bike without pedaling at all, by relying solely on the throttle to make the bicycle move. Most users, however, will prefer using the pedal assist. For one thing, it’s only natural to want to move your legs around when you’re riding a bicycle. It feels kind of funny to bike around without using your legs. For another thing, it’s much easier to control your speed with your pedaling cadence than it is to do everything with a button. Also, why buy a bicycle if you have no intention of pedaling?

VI.

There are a few things you’ll want to consider if you’re thinking of buying an electric bicycle.

The first, of course, is the “flavor” of bicycle you want, as per the above. In my view, the commuter e-bike is the one that makes the most sense for the most people. It’s a versatile vehicle that can handle a wide variety of riders’ needs without focusing so much on a single need that it becomes impractical in other contexts.

Beyond the “flavor,” you will want to think about some component issues. The bicycle’s brakes are a major factor because, at higher average speeds of travel than you’re likely used to riding, along with a heavier overall ride, stopping safely becomes a big factor. Traditional caliper brakes are going to be a bad choice here, and even mechanical disc brakes may give you less stopping power than you’d prefer. Hydraulic disc brakes are likely the best choice for most applications. E-bikes also come with a variety of wheel and tire sizes. Fat tire bicycles are generally best on rougher terrain and thinner tires are better on smoother roads. There are a lot of gradients along the tire width continuum, so make a choice based on your own personal riding needs. Tire quality is also an important issue here. Again, at higher average speeds you might find that you’re wearing down your tires a little faster than you would on a traditional bicycle, so choosing a tire that lasts will make you happier in the long run. You’ll also want to ensure that your e-bike has a frame, a fork, wheels, and spokes strong enough to carry the weight of an electric motor. Any lack of structural integrity will be quite dangerous at high speeds. I have seen YouTube videos showing broken front forks because the rider built a front-drive e-bike using a cheap fork, or one made of the wrong material.

You’ll also want to consider your power needs. Inexpensive e-bikes typically offer 250 watt (average) motors, but pairing powerful batteries with powerful controllers means that peak power can get much higher than that. Some e-bikes even get up to 1000 watts of peak power. I say “peak” because the bike will not generate that much power throughout the course of your ride. Generally, that refers to the maximum burst of power when throttling from a full stop, or when pedaling as fast as you can with no built-in power limitation. More is not always better with power. A lower-powered e-bike will have a longer range per change, so you’ll be able to ride much further and spend a little less money on charging. Timid riders will also find high-torque e-bikes a little unsettling, and would just keep them on low-power settings, anyway; thus, the casual rider should probably avoid high-powered e-bikes despite the “more is better” allure. You’ll be happier and save a lot of money in the process.

Of course, the primary consideration for e-bike newcomers is, Should I buy an electric bicycle at all? I spent some time above discussing why an e-bike was right for me. There are a number of YouTubers out there who have replaced their family’s second vehicle with an e-bike. That is, if you need to get around town and you don’t explicitly require a car, then an e-bike solves this problem for you. Head downtown and go to a restaurant. Ride to the movies. With a backpack or the right baskets or bike racks, you can even ride to the store. As long as you’re not towing someone or something, an e-bike is a perfectly viable form of transportation for most purposes. That said, you’ll be outside in the open air, and some people, strange as it may seem, don’t want that. So I would say in general that e-bikes are an excellent choice for anyone who does not definitely need a car. Taking a road trip? You’ll need a car for that. Moving furniture or heavy equipment? You’ll need a car for that. Taking your baby to daycare? Car. Taking someone out on a date? Car again. But for virtually any other purpose and to any destination within 20 miles of where you are, an e-bike is a fully sensible option for anyone.

The most important thing I’d like the reader to understand is that riding an e-bike is not physically strenuous. This is not something that will make you sweat and pant. You’re not going to get tired when you ride an e-bike. This isn’t fitness, it’s transportation. So, for those people who worry that riding an e-bike is too physical, or who don’t want to be bothered with exercise when they’re trying to get somewhere, please consider an e-bike. No fitness required! The flip side of this is that some people who want to get a workout while they’re going places will be less happy with an e-bike than they would be with just a really nice road bike. If the whole reason you want to bike is the thrill of the bike itself, then you might as well stick to a traditional bicycle.

VII.

Well, I hope you’ve found this electric bicycle primer useful. I am an excited novice to this world, but it’s been a fun one in which to immerse myself. In a subsequent post, I’ll provide an introduction to the specific e-bike I decided to purchase, and I’ll give it a review. I didn’t want to mix that review with a discussion of e-bikes in general, however, because then readers wouldn’t get what they wanted out of a review.

So, in closing, I’ll say simply that electric bicycles are an exciting form of transportation, both because they’re fun to ride, and because they have the potential to change the way the rider thinks about transportation. If you get used to riding your e-bike, driving a car may ultimately end up being your second thought. Bicycling as a default mode of transportation would be a major social revolution. Traditional bicycles are unlikely to create such a revolution, but I firmly believe that if more people gave e-bikes a try, they would find themselves preferring them over cars.

I hope you will decide to give e-bikes a try some day.