Remember when you were learning to ride a two wheeler, and a parent would run along behind you and give you a bit of a push and suddenly you were rushing forward without effort? That’s what an e-bike feels like.
My brother compares his to a flying carpet. I’ve never ridden a horse, but I did read a lot of horsey books as a child, and the electric bike reminds me of them: the sense of a live thing, gathering itself and exerting itself, running up hills at your command. An iron pony, perhaps. A flying horse. A unicorn Pegasus!
If, like me, you’ve never ridden an e-bike before, your first impressions will be all about that secret power. I can sum up the feeling in a word: magic.
Chris and Darleen at Waiheke’s ECycles have a missionary zeal for e-bikes – they rent them, sell them, and also “electrify” ordinary bikes using an aftermarket kit. Bikes in general make so much sense on that gorgeous hilly island, and e-bikes in particular. And not just for tourists; locals love ’em, and the local buses go out of their way to help cyclists get around. No wonder Chris and Darleen have heaps of converts.
They kindly provided me with a zippy, pre-loved SmartMotion eMetro to test-ride. I picked it up at their Newmarket shop, Bikes & Barbers (so-called because the bike shop shares space with a barbershop. It’s a curious arrangement, but it works. In theory, you can browse bikes and then take care of all your tonsorial needs – Brazilian wax included! This digression brought to you by the letter B).
Tomas, the friendly sales chap, handed over the bike. “So, what do I need to know?” I asked. “What should I do differently from a regular bike?”
“Nothing,” he said.
“Wait, actually there is one thing. If you’re heading out to pick up your takeaways, you’ll want to leave a little later than you usually do. Because you’ll get there faster.”
In truth, there’s not much to know: you just hop on, and the bike tells you what to do. You and the bike develop an instant bond, almost exactly as things played out in my favourite pony books.
The eMetro is a great e-bike to start out with. It’s a hack pony, basically: originally designed for posties, with a slightly old-fashioned styling that’s not unattractive. In practise, I found it not so much sit-up-and-beg, but more sort of lean-in-and-get-going, but still with the comfortable upright posture.
SmartMotion bikes, like Chris & Darleen’s own brand Onya (get it? Onya bike! – see also the amazing cargo Onya), are designed in New Zealand and built in China. (Maybe one day we’ll build them here, reckons Tomas; maybe we’ll even make the frames out of bamboo or that eco-equivalent to carbon fibre, hemp! Right on).
The battery, which sits tidily under the carrier, is unobtrusive, but it does add to the weight of the bike; you’re probably not going to be slinging this one over your shoulder and running up and down the stairs to your third floor flat, but that’s all the more reason to build basement bike storage into all new apartment buildings, right developers?
That said, the whole bike still only weighs 23kg, so if you’ve ever had to lug a recalcitrant five year old anywhere, you could probably carry this if you had to. And that battery is worth its weight in gold. Charge it up (a full charge takes about four hours), and in exchange the 300W motor gives you 50km of full electric assist while pedalling. These things run at 80% efficiency, too. Chew on that, Volvo and co.
The motor is in the front hub, so it’s like a slightly headstrong horse that pulls you along – very useful going uphill! (The next-level eCity model has the motor at the rear, and has 7 gears – on reflection, if I were buying, I reckon I’d prefer more gears, as I eventually found the top gear not top enough at high speed for me). This particular bike had spent a year doing circuits of the island, so it was worn-in, but not at all worn out.
Everything else about the bike is… well, like a normal bike. Indeed, you can ride it perfectly well without turning on the power. Or, you can turn it on and select one of three levels of assistance. LOW is your dad gently pushing you down the footpath with your training wheels on. MEDIUM is mum taking off the training wheels and giving you a bit more of a shove, so you get the hang of things. And HIGH feels like your big brother unexpectedly launching you from the top of the driveway. You’d better be ready for that level; and you’d best take it down a notch when cornering.
The power only kicks in if you’re actually pedalling, though. Freewheel for a bit, and the bike stops helping out – until you hit the pedals again.
There’s also a hand throttle which you can use to add maximum oomph when needed. Very useful when taking off at the lights, and extra fun if you’re next to a MAMIL who won’t make eye contact, or a dismissive driver. Heh. Plus, as I discovered, when you’re feeling very lazy indeed, you can just rest your feet on the pedals, crank the throttle, and pretend you’re zooming through Rome on a Vespa.
For me, the first e-bike revelation was less about speed and more about terrain. Everyone goes on about how e-bikes flatten the hills. That’s because E-BIKES FLATTEN THE HILLS. It’s spooky – and if you live somewhere with hills between you and the places you want to go, it’s wonderful.
I mean, I love walking up hills, but biking up them does horrible things to my back and sweaty things to my armpits, and nothing for my composure. When I get where I’m going, damp, red-faced, and bent over and hobbling. But on this electric bike? I swan in like I’ve just stepped off a bandbox. (Could this be why cars caught on? And if so, could this be how we’ll fall out of love with them?)
I rode this thing everywhere, and took it on trips I might usually have reverted to the car for. I went to town and back, several times; to night school; to a dinner party (via Farro for supplies, in a flirty frock); to the hairdresser in Mt Eden via a network of greenways and back streets that I didn’t know existed.
I lent it to my partner for a busy day at university that involved side errands in Grafton and elsewhere. He reports that the bike made a complicated day absolutely painless; and for both of us, it made an ordinary day a secret joy.
The other instant revelation was how empowering an e-bike would be for anyone who’s gone off bikes – or never tried them – because of things like hills, age, basic fitness or other physical limitations. Like 86 year old Ted Watson, featured on the radio programme This Way Up last year. He lost his drivers’ license due to age, but regained his independence and confidence with a new e-bike, and rides for three or four hours a day: as he says, “It has genuinely transformed my retired life.”
I also kept thinking: if more people on bikes means fewer people in cars; and more people on bikes is more evidence that we need better streets for bikes, then it’s not overstating things to say that more people on e-bikes will constitute a transport revolution.
My instinct has always been that kids cycling will be the catalyst for safer streets and connected bike paths in our city. But you know what: once the folks at Selwyn Village get their hands on these things, I’m predicting separated bike lanes in my suburb overnight. E-power plus grey power: watch out, Auckland!