On yer e-bike
If hills put you off cycling, a battery pack and motor will electrify the experience.
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.