Nic Smith has been commuting on an e-bike for a few months now, and wouldn’t change a thing. Here’s her story…

ebikenicportraitThe best way to illustrate what it’s like to have an e-bike is to tell you that whenever I share the experience with someone who’s never ridden one before, their response is generally ‘Holy shit!!’ and a cackle. People just laugh at how much fun it is to suddenly blast off, with just one turn of the pedals. And I’m still laughing. I’ve had my beast for nearly four months now and I still don’t take for granted the freedom, the mobility and the fun it’s given me.

Six months ago when I first contemplated buying one, it was because a woman I chatted to while waiting at traffic lights told me that her electric bike had changed her life.  She said it cost her $2.50 a week (in power) to get from Te Atatu to the city and back each day – that was what piqued my interest. If she’d told me how much fun it was to ride one, I would have bought one the next day.

I had a racing bike at the time, and thought that was a big step up from the mountain bike I used to schlep to work on (from Waterview to the university) a couple of times a week. Even with the light-weight racing bike, I’d still arrive at work beetroot red, sweating buckets and wanting a shower before cracking into the day. And of course I’d have to take a change of clothes, toiletries and all that malarkey.

That’s all a thing of the past now because with the e-bike you can wear whatever you like knowing you’re never really going to break a sweat. And of course I get there in half the time…

Which raises a couple of issues, to do with safety and I guess ‘cycling etiquette’.

  • You can go considerably faster on an e-bike. I like speed, and I tend to travel in maximum power-assist mode, cruising at around 30kph or a bit more where I can. This wouldn’t ever be a problem, except for the fact that so many of Auckland’s cycle paths are shared with pedestrians, many of whom lope along with earbuds in. Aaaaargh! Not cool. The problem is, if you’ve got earbuds in and can’t hear me coming, I’m doing all the traffic awareness work for both of us. I do give pedestrians a wide berth, and I slow down and use my bell especially if I think they can’t see or hear me coming – but if a walker changes direction suddenly or flails their arms around, one or both of us is going to get hurt. If we have to have shared paths, can we please all try to share awareness of each other a bit more? [Ed note: we don’t have to have shared paths, ideally – international best practice tells us the pedestrian/bike relationship shouldn’t be a zero-sum game, even if some city planners assume it is!]
  • Which leads me to the etiquette bit. I travel at such a steady clip now, that regular cyclists cruise along in my slipstream. Twice in one week, I’ve had the experience of being tailed that like by men, and it wasn’t fun.  I’d be fine about it if they just asked at the lights or whatever – but to just shadow someone uninvited for any length of time is creepy and feels like stalking. I’ve never travelled fast enough before to have this experience (even on the racing bike), so maybe it’s something experienced cyclists take for granted? But I think it’s just good manners to ask if you can freeload like that. Plus – guys, if I know you’re there and intend to be for a while, I know not to brake suddenly.

I do sometimes feel a weird tension from some men when we pull up alongside each other at traffic lights. They look me and my bike up and down in a way that I assume suggests they think that e-bikes aren’t really authentic. One old-school cyclist did tell me he thought using e-bikes was ‘cheating’. What?? It’s not a race and it’s not a competition. Get over it! E-bikes get people exercising and traveling further, and get people out of their cars, which is good for the environment – so I don’t get the cheating thing at all.

So what’s it like on my day-to-day commute? It now takes me less than half the time to get to work that it did on my ‘racing’ bike. I’m incredibly fortunate my commute is 95% dedicated cycleway (go the Northwestern), and with the recent upgrade (thanks, Causeway Alliance and Well Connected Alliance!) now I get to enjoy a flax-lined and almost flattened out safe path – plus the thrill of the Grafton Gully, before one last uphill at the end of my journey. Hill? My bike eats hills for breakfast, so hills don’t induce any ‘North Face of the Eiger’ trepidation that I’ve previously read about on here.

I can get to work and back twice (40km) on one battery charge, which might not sound like much [ed: judiciously used, some batteries can give you up to 100km per charge], but remember I’m permanently in maximum power support, so that’s pretty good going. My bike has a throttle as well as power assist, so taking off from lights is really pleasant, using just my thumb to surge us forward.

A few months in, my bike still thrills me every time I use it.  Do yourself a favour and try one. Soon.

— Nic Smith

Heads up: Mercury is offering free e-bike test rides in Aotea Square on weekends before Christmas: 10am – 3pm, Saturday and Sunday 3/4, 10/11, and 17/18 December.


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17 responses to “Me and my e-bike: ‘I’m still laughing!’

  1. Glad to hear you are loving your ecommute! For me, being able to tow roadies in my slipstream is a privilege and something I keep an eye out for. I end up working a whole lot harder because I end up going faster than my bikes 42kph cutoff! When I was on road bike I loved being able to draft and race ebikes. It makes it fun and a bit social. You end up sharing an experience which IMHO is what life is about.

  2. A good overview but a couple of thoughts: first, whoever is in front has right of way – no ifs or buts. It is up to the rider to travel at a speed and in a manner that is safe. So if you are worried about a pedestrian suddenly changing direction, then clearly it is necessary to slow down and give as wide a berth as possible. [It’s similar to ski slope etiquette. The uphill skier always has to give way to the one lower down, no matter who is the better skier.] Saying “you just turned in front of me with no warning!” is simply no excuse.

    Which kind of leads on to the second thought… tailgating accidents will always be the fault of the follower. I agree with you that you shouldn’t have to worry that you can’t brake suddenly because someone is right behind you. Ordinary road rules apply, surely, which is again that it is up to the follower to leave sufficient room for the unexpected. (I know that lycra roadies do use slipstreaming but they are knowingly co-operating, and expect it.) It’s not fair to impose yourself onto someone else when you have no idea whether that person is a willing accomplice.

  3. Great to hear you’re enjoying it so much. ebikes def have value in a hilly city like ours and for people wanting a less strenuous commute or leisure outing. Personally I really value the high tempo exercise I get from my 40-60min daily commute on a road bike. I would be interested to know what level of physical output regular ebike riders are achieving. As we all know, maintaining a good level of fitness is critical to one’s wellbeing and getting the heart rate up for periods of time is a good measure.

    1. Hi Marty, great question. I’m using a 50/50 approach. I spent a few months cycling to work and back without a motor. Heat rate averaged 109bpm. Calorie burn 275 each way. Now, with my motor I’m down to 90bpm and around 200 calories. In essence I’m just taking the sting out of the ride.

  4. Interesting to know that it is actually an imposition to trail someone.
    I often wonder, but end up thinking that is not affecting them at all, since it makes no difference to their effort levels and probably don’t know you are there.
    But clearly there’s also the mental nervousness similar to being tail gated in a car. I’ve experienced it in a car, and you remind yourself to concentrate on what’s ahead, but you can’t help watching the rear view mirror…

    1. On a normal bike or an ebike I don’t mind someone sitting on if I am on a decent road.
      If I am on a shared path, rough patch or in traffic I don’t want anyone behind me who might collide with me if I need to brake suddenly.
      As I have mirrors on my bikes I know when they are there.

  5. By the way that person tailing you is (should be) hugely appreciative of the tow!

    1. Thanks for letting me know. I’d still prefer it if they said a simple “D’ya mind mate?” so i know they’re there and as a chick it doesn’t feel ummm, hostile…

      1. I’m sure there are annoying creeps around but do we really need to shame everybody into being scared of being perceived as one of them?

        1. No shame necessary: given the increasing diversity on our cycleways, we reckon Nicola’s performing a useful public service in letting people know a) there’s a real risk of this behaviour being perceived as uncomfortable, and b) that a courteous connection goes a long way to undoing that perception.

          One of the really nice things about traveling by bike is the moments of human connection and graciousness along the way, so let’s use our powers for good 🙂 Who knows, it might even catch on amongst the driving community!

          1. Totally agree with this 🙂 overall great article.

            Just felt there are also undertones of ‘chicks v men’ in there.

            Something like “and as a PERSON it doesn’t feel ummm, hostile…” Might be less devisive.

  6. Hi Nic, great article! I’m a commuter cyclist who also switches to a roady at weekends. I can say that if you pass someone on a pedal only bike, and they can keep up with you, they are also likely to tow behind you. This is more annoying, as it is harder for the person on the front in that instance, and no motor to help out 🙂

    I think a lot of riders taking a tow from you are used to jumping on the back, and accept that seeing as you have motor assistance, then it is no skin off your nose if you tow them a long for a bit.

    I know in roady circles, that road rules for rear end collisions DO NOT apply to riding with other bikes in tow. The person in the front is responsible for the safety of everyone! If you don’t and you have to take sudden action, then you could be taken out from the people behind, hence it is considered in your own best interests in a roady bunch.

    Highlighting all obstacles, and if necessary, slowing the whole bunch down so they can all negotiate obstacles safely. In your circumstance, you may or may not be a willing accomplice, but as you are on the front, if you don’t want people to have an accident or crash into you, then you’re unfortunately left with looking out for these ‘hangers on’ as well as yourself.

    I know, annoying eh! But even worse when you only have your own legs for power in a strong headwind and you have to think of the safety of freeloaders! Haha. It seems rude of them, but I just accept it as part of riding an ever more crowded commuting route, swallow my pride, don’t let it get to me, and do it anyway.

    Hand signals, or saying you are slowing down, and even just conservatively slowing your speed when a potential situation is developing in front (two pedestrians walking towards each other in a diminishing gap that you need to squeeze through is one situation I have seen multiple e-bikers accelerate and hammer their way through) are some ways to communicate with those around you.

    Even some use their bell when approaching pedestrians, and that communicates to the pedestrians AND any riders behind you.

    Saying that, if I am ever being towed along, I periodically peer ahead to see if the coast is clear, and ride conservatively, as I don’t always trust the person on the front 🙂

    Likewise at the lights, where you feel you are having unapproving looks (probably just your perception, often I’m just checking out someones bike!), try speaking to them. I do it all the time as sometimes I’m in commute mode, and sometimes lycra mode, and you can see there are differences in the way people perceive you when you pull up at the lights. I always try have a smile on my face, and mention the weather, or how cool their bike is if I feel some tension, clears the air nicely.

    Sometimes I have said having an ebike is like cheating, but only as a joke with someone I been chatting to (I wish I had a motor today! Always gets a laugh!). Pay it no mind. The cheatig comment actually is really funny when you think about it, you are exactly right, cheating at what?? Haha.

    I fully support ebikes (when ridden safely). Often I am asked my thoughts on ebikes and I say they are great as people can go faster, further, with less sweat, and often it is people that would not otherwise ride who are getting out there, so it is one less car, and despite motorised assistance, is more exercise than in a car or on a bus as your legs are still turning!

    And I get it the other way as well, “I love dropping you peddlers!”. Gotta say it is interesting you feel judged when actually the most judged of all cyclists are roadies 🙂

    Compared to even 3 years ago, the numbers of riders has increased hugely, and just in the last 12 months ebikes have really taken off. We’re all here to stay, we’re all a bit different, and we just gotta manage as best we can.

    Keep it up, and I’ll be sure to say gday if I see ya out there!

    1. Wow, thanks for the wordy response. I’m actually already very chatty at lights and I agree, the social side of it is cool. Not trying to be negative but a lot of guys put out a “don’t talk to me” vibe. Strong silent types – yawn… I’ll be sure to say gidday back to you though bro!

  7. Wind tunnel tests by Specialized Bikes suggest that the bike in front doing the towing also has a 4% reduction in drag, so it isn’t costing you anything.

    It also shows that the rider behind doesn’t have to follow dangerously closely – even three bike lengths behind gives about a 20% drag reduction.

    I would consider it my fault if I hit a rider in front.

  8. Nice article and mirrors my thoughts so closely it is scary.
    I think ebikes have the potential to change our cities and the ways we use them. If only all the hype given to the Tesla went to ebikes.
    I can’t stop banging on about mine.
    The problem is both of my normal bikes (both quality lightweight, carbon bling etc.) are gathering dust and every time I get back on one I have jelly legs.
    One of the potential problems I see is how the law treats ebikes.
    Here in Oz most states have a 250 watt maximum which is below the fun limit IMO. Parts of the US have a 750 watt maximum which is getting there.
    California has done some great work.
    New York is a different story

    BTW the answer to unwanted hangers on is a bigger motor 😉

  9. Nice story 🙂 I’m also a recent convert. I purchased a Marin bike off TradeMe a few months ago and challenged myself to ride to work and back without a motor to start. Round trip, 17km. Then I retrofitted by bike with a rear hub motor. It’s taken the sting out of my ride and I often put my bike into cruise control but still power 50% with my legs. I love my wheels and would never go back to my 4 wheel unit for all the tea in China.

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