On yer e-bike

If hills put you off cy­cling, a bat­tery pack and motor will elec­trify the ex­pe­ri­ence.

New Zealand Listener - - THIS LIFE - by Peter Grif­fin

I was bik­ing along the pil­grim trail in north­ern Por­tu­gal when I sensed the hand of God at my back. I flew up the hill just out of Ponte de Lima, ped­alling past toil­ing pedes­tri­ans on their way to Santiago de Com­postela, an in­cred­i­ble light­ness in my legs. I felt like I was the cho­sen one.

Then I glanced down at the dig­i­tal dis­play on my han­dle­bars and re­alised I’d ac­ci­den­tally bumped my e-bike into “turbo” mode. Well-timed surges of elec­tric­ity, rather than di­vine in­ter­ven­tion, were tak­ing the pain out of the climbs on my week-long cy­cle trip around Por­tu­gal.

I hadn’t wanted to do the trip on an e-bike, but the reg­u­lar bikes were all rented out. Now I’m a com­plete con­vert.

Our cities are grad­u­ally be­com­ing more cy­cle­friendly, but of it­self that won’t flat­ten any hills be­tween home and work for those who com­mute by bike. Take my city, Welling­ton. Bik­ing is great around the flat­tish CBD and wa­ter­front, but try end­ing your work­ing day climb­ing the windy roads into Karori, Wil­ton or, God for­bid, Brook­lyn.

Elec­tric bikes are a sen­si­ble an­swer to cy­cle ­com­mut­ing. You save money and still get a ­work­out, but are less likely to ar­rive at the of­fice a sweaty mess.

E-bikes were in­vented in the late 19th cen­tury but have taken off out­side Europe only re­ally in the past decade as bat­tery and motor tech­nol­ogy have im­proved. In mid-drive mod­els, an elec­tric motor sits be­tween the ped­als and feeds an elec­tric cur­rent through wire coils placed be­tween the poles of a mag­net.

The coils cre­ate a force that spins the motor in the right di­rec­tion, boost­ing your ped­alling power. The elec­tric­ity comes from a lithium-ion bat­tery pack mounted on the bike’s frame or at­tached to the rear car­rier rack. The motor and bat­tery make e-bikes heav­ier than reg­u­lar bikes (up to 25kg), which is some­thing to keep in mind if you need to haul your bike up steps.

How much motor-as­sisted ped­alling you get de­pends on the size of the bat­tery and how hard you work the motor. Rid­ing a 2015 model Cube Re­ac­tion Hy­brid e-bike, I had the choice of five modes: eco, tour, sport, turbo and off.

In eco mode, I had a range of more than 50km; turbo cut that to 20km. The way to go is to switch be­tween modes, sav­ing sport and turbo for the hills and coast­ing in eco or tour on the flat. Some e-bikes with big bat­ter­ies have a range of up to 150km.

Within an hour of ­mount­ing my hired e-bike in the vinecov­ered high­lands near the bor­der with Spain, I was hap­pily tack­ling hills and had ad­justed my brak­ing to suit the bike’s ad­di­tional weight. At each lodge where I stayed, my first pri­or­ity was to find a power socket to recharge at.

Most e-bikes have derailleur-type gears, so rid­ing is very sim­i­lar to a reg­u­lar ma­chine. My hire model was a hy­brid, so I could re­move the ­bat­tery pack to ride it as a standard, but heav­ier, bike. Fully elec­tric bikes, with a motor that con­stantly turns the ped­als, are lim­ited to about a 40km range.

E-bikes don’t come cheap. The one I rode cost about US$3000 ($4200). The lat­est mod­els range from fold­able ver­sions for zip­ping around town to hy­brid city and off-road bikes. Ex­pect to pay $2000 to $5000 or more, de­pend­ing on spec­i­fi­ca­tions.

The power as­sis­tance and weight of e-bikes can catch you off guard. There can be a slight lurch when the motor kicks in and you can find your­self go­ing de­cep­tively fast down­hill and on the flat.

The Dutch po­lice have warned that more peo­ple are killed in the Nether­lands rid­ing e-bikes than mopeds. Baby boomers and se­niors in par­tic­u­lar should ap­proach with cau­tion.

My hire model was a hy­brid, so I could re­move the bat­tery pack to ride it as a standard, but heav­ier, bike.

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