Peppy is the word. Also, zippy, snappy, and really quite frisky. After the relaxed granny stylings of my first electric bike loan from eCycles, bike #2 – designed by the proprietor himself, Christian Hoff-Nielsen – was a revelation.
First up, it absolutely nails the branding: ONYA Bike. “We wanted to make it Kiwi,” says Christian. “In your car, on your bike…” It tells you what it is, and it tells you what to do. Get onya bike. Good onya!
As befitting New Zealand’s first folding e-bike, the ONYA is instantly distinctive: it’s a small-wheeled bike, inspired by (and extrapolated from) the familiar Dahon folding-bike geometry.
As Christian says, why reinvent the wheel, let alone the frame? “Bike design is about evolution, not revolution. And people have spent decades getting these things right.” If you’ve ever ridden a Dahon (ask Jena!), you’ll understand the advantages of this particular style. It’s unisex, and easily adjustable so anyone can use it whenever they need. And, as you raise the handlebars and the seat, the distance between them expands to accommodate the larger rider. One size fits all.
The ONYA’s major point of difference is also the bike’s best-kept secret: the rectangular top tube that accommodates the battery. It’s an electric bike that doesn’t look like an electric bike. Magic!
The ONYA is a recent arrival – like Christian. He moved to Waiheke eighteen months ago with his New Zealand-born wife Darleen (they met in Brussels, in an MBA class – Chris reckons getting together with the smartest person in the class was the smartest move he ever made) keen to give their four young kids some fresh air and open spaces after life in European cities.
They’ve taken on the proprietorship of Waiheke’s eCycles, which was started by Cycle Action Waiheke stalwart (and engineer and tiny house proponent!) Rob Vaassen under the slogan “The future is here”. Having tasted what was available in the way of e-bikes, they saw a few niches in the market and decided to leap into creating their own bike.
Cue a quick, efficient process: Darleen came up with the name, and Christian’s background in automotive engineering gave him a head-start on the design. Rob and Christian visited 50 factories in China to find the right people to work with, drew up some designs in May 2014, and had a prototype ready in September. The bikes were in production by October, and on the market by Christmas. Zippy as anything!
To details. There’s a lot to admire about the ONYA F-19. Fat tires to cover lots of ground, with reflective rims for side-on visibility; and a comfy but streamlined fabric seat to accommodate every kind of rear. The bike also comes with a sturdy carrier and stand and solid mudguards, and feels altogether robust enough for any environment.
It has seven gears, and – something that should be standard on all e-bikes, if you ask me – built-in lights and a horn for honking at car that horn into your space. (There’s a key to turn on the electrics, although Christian says maybe they’ll rethink that feature next time. As someone who’s always losing things lose, I’d approve).
The integral battery is tidily hidden inside the frame; there are three levels of power-assist, and the bike itself plugs into a wall-charger to charge up, via a usefully long cord. It also has a key to turn it on, like a scooter or indeed a car, although future iterations may do without that.
Best of all, it folds down to next-to-nothing, in a three-step process that I worked out without instructions, with satisfying clicks at each step of the way. Apparently, they’ve been selling a lot to yachties, who like to keep everything shipshape but love to arrive at new ports with land transportation ready to go; and campers, and tourists – taking an ONYA on the Naked Bus would be a great way to see the country!
It also strikes me as something a business could buy a small fleet of, and store in a handy closet or under people’s desks, for a DIY company bikeshare.
The frame is aluminium and relatively light at 19kg. Even a weakling like me could hoist it on and off a bus, thus extending one’s range considerably. (Although I wouldn’t count on jauntily swinging it like a handbag or hoisting it into an overhead locker, unless you’re quite strong).
The current edition comes in white, green, black, metallic black, metallic orange, or a shimmery gold. And the price is perfectly respectable at $1800. (Compared to the electric Dahon and the electrified Brompton, which are much pricier).
How was the ride? Well, I’ll admit it took me a wee while to get used to the wee wheels. I felt a little bit like that kid in ET to start with… partly because of the BMX-y feel to the wheels, and partly because people really do look at you when you’re riding this bike (unlike the previous one, which passes for a regular bike).
That said, I think it’s very cunning of Christian, Darleen and Rob to make sure the bike is such an eye-catcher! Growing up, my family had a Chow Chow dog, which was fairly exotic at the time – and riding the ONYA reminded me a bit of taking that dog for a walk. Why yes indeed, he does look like a panda/teddy bear, and of course you may pat him. Why yes indeed, this is an electric bike, and it’ll take you 40km on 10c worth of electricity, wanna try it?
So yes, be prepared to feel like a salesperson every time you ride it. Some gadget-wise kids at Motat stopped me – “Hey, that’s an electric bike, right?” – so they could explain it to their parents. And when I took it on the train one day, I could have sold five of them between Britomart and Mt Albert.
Engine-wise, I’m no expert, but the rear-hub motor felt noticeably different at first from the front-wheel of the SmartMotion eMetro – you’re aware you’re being pushed along from behind. It felt faster, too, even though the 250W motor is slightly smaller. While I got used to it, I had to pay a little more attention to my steering, just because of the different set-up and wheelbase, but also because the throttle is a little easier to deploy without meaning to. And, as with the SmartMotion, I yearned for a bigger, harder gear at top speed. Even with electrification, it’s still great to feel that you’re involved.
The ONYA was definitely fun, even if it might not be the one to woo me away from my preferred retro rides (I’m such a creature of habit). And I can report that the menfolk in the family loved it. There may even have been a few attempts at BMX-style “hopping”.
And, flying down the road in the middle of the night, with the throttle on full and my LED lights blazing, I felt… futuristic. I may not have had a friendly alien bundled up in my front basket, but I was convinced: the future is here.