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My new electric bike

by bdietrich on September 3, 2017

Attention Baby Boomers: I’ve found a fountain of youth.

Until I run down the battery, that is.

I’ve acquired an electric bike. Its 350-watt motor, mounted where the pedal crank is, seems magical in its ability to flatten hills and speed level cruising. Its like getting a push from trotting Dad, or being on a tandem with a Tour de France rider, or feeling that most everywhere is slightly downhill.

Common in Europe and China, they’re catching on in the United States.

I already had a bicycle, but either direction from my house is an uphill climb on a busy road. Pedaling out the driveway was more enduring than alluring.

One reason is that I’m almost 66. So? I have one friend of similar age bicycling across the United States, another planning to cross Nevada, and a third who keeps climbing back on his mountain bike after spectacular crashes. Banzai!

But me? I work out, hike, kayak, and am in decent shape. But I have mild rheumatoid arthritis and a clutch of other nagging issues that remind me I’m not 30 anymore, or even 50. I had hill anxiety.

My initial quest was for a bike easier to mount and dismount. In my earlier days this would be considered a girl bike but nowadays they’re called step-through or “wave” (because of the frame shape) and are considered unisex. Not as strong as a diamond frame, but you don’t have to throw your leg over.

That search led me to e-bikes. They’re touted for commuters (who can recharge the battery at work), the aging, those with knee issues, the overweight, the weak, or anyone who wants to feel like a kid again.

I tried one out on some hills near my local bike shop, Skagit Cycling in Anacortes. It was an IZIP E3 Vibe+, the only model carried with a frame that fit my six-foot height. It’s an upright cruiser style, designed for streets and bike paths.

There are also electric road bikes, mountain bikes, recumbent bikes, adult trikes, folding bikes – you name it. For insight into some of the hundreds of choices, I recommend electricbikereview.com.

Instead of a throttle, my bike has a button to increase battery oomph.

The first level of assist just felt like my regular bike, since the e-bike weighs 54 pounds. Battery and motor alone add 15 pounds.

Level 2, however, gave me an exhilarating push. It was as if, on the flat, I was pedaling mildly downhill, a few mph faster.

Level 3, combined with downshifting through the IZIP’s seven gears, got me up any nearby hill without pushing hard or rising from my seat. No pain, yet I still gained.

Level 4, the highest, gets me up fairly gnarly hills with atomic force.

Sold.

My bike is a mid-drive, instead of having the motor on the rear or front wheel hub. It is pedal assist, meaning the motor only works when pedaling. This actually makes the added oomph feel natural. Since the higher the assist the faster the battery drains, the bike has an estimated range of 20 miles for a very hilly ride, or 40 miles on the flat. And it’s “cheap,” meaning $1,800.

Yes, many electric bikes are at least a thousand bucks more than mine, and you get what you pay for. Which could mean bigger battery, stronger motor, higher speed, lighter frame, suspension to smooth out bumps, disk brakes, fenders, lights, or fancier components.  It’s quite possible to spend five grand, or even more – but you don’t have to.

Compared to my earlier bike, this IZIP feels more stable and less nimble. Its heavy weight required a new bike rack for the car, in which the wheels rest on a tray instead of the bike hanging by its frame. I lift up one wheel at a time.

The e-bike feels safer to ride, because I can tackle hilly roads that avoid traffic, or get off a busy stretch more quickly. I balance better because I’m not as tired, and I’m more alert for the same reason. I get places faster.

Not only do I ride more often, I ride further. This means more exercise, not less. Which led to my first reckoning. After biking to the Anacortes ferry and then biking a circuit of Lopez Island, my battery – which I thought would get me home – ran out of juice on a miserably long hill.

I discovered that as wonderful as it is to go uphill under power, my bike is ponderous and under-geared without it. Level or downhill is fine, but I had some long sweaty uphill walks. Lesson: check remaining power more carefully, and limit forays to 40 miles max on level ground and 25 to 30 on moderate hills.

Yes, a friendly coffee shop might allow a recharge if you bring the charger along, but that could take hours. And persuasion.

Pedaling more, downshifting more, going slower, and being lighter can all extend range. But I should have tried a hill without the battery before buying.

I plug the bike in when I get home. The electricity cost of charging its 8.8 amp hours, or 422 watt hours, is minimal. The lithium ion battery is projected to last three to five years of daily commuting, and much longer for casual use.

The Internet has a lot of information on the nitty-gritty of watts, amp hours, torque, and so on. If you live in a city with a convenient e-bike specialty store, I’d recommend a visit.

If you’re happy with a regular bike, there’s no need for an electric one. But if bicycling has become a chore, an e-bike can make it a treat again.

Yes, bike Puritans might call you a “cheater.” But that will be when you pass them on a hill.

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