Biking in electric mode
One of the great things about living in Helsinki is that we have a really nice public transportation system, which basically means that many people do not need to own cars. Some do, because of hobbies or kids hobbies or badly chosen workplaces, but most people in Helsinki choose to live without a car.
So obviously I live in neighbouring Espoo, where car ownership is the norm. This makes life without a car a bit more complicated.
I’ve so far been fine with bicycling and the use of public transportation, but I’ve recently gotten a bit weary of the fact that the bike travel is a bit of a hassle always. With a car, you open the lock, step in, and drive. With a bike, you first dress up in clothes that you think make you look sexy in a middle-aged kind of way, but which mostly result in spontaneous deaths by laughter by any seagulls you pass. Then you pack half of your stuff in a pannier (forgetting the stuff you’re actually going to need in your other bag that you use with public transport, ‘cos panniers are just impossible to carry and backpacks just make you sweat like the proverbial pig), pull on a helmet and goggles and open enough locks to keep anyone from stealing the building the bike is attached to. Only then can you drive to the office, where you arrive looking like you just went through a car wash that ran on sweat instead of water. Though obviously you’re totally high with endorphins, so you don’t really care about the disgusted looks of you coworkers and just bask on your own righteousness for living maybe two minutes longer again than anyone else.
And the same thing going back in the afternoon, but this time without a breakfast in your belly.
So I started figuring out if there would be an easier way to get my endorphins without being stinky all the time (and streamlining the travel hassle). I figured I would give e-bikes a try.
E-bikes aka pedelecs be cool
For those who do not know, e-bikes (or to be precise, pedelecs) are electrically assisted bicycles. When you peddle, an electric motor kicks in, and boosts the power of your legs. They do not work without peddling (‘cos that would make them electric vehicles, kinda like mopeds, and most of the EU law takes a very dim view on people rolling around with electric unlicensed vehicles), and the max assist speed is limited to 25 km/h, after which all speed increase comes from your own barley engine. But basically they’re the closest thing for an exoskeleton you can buy off-the-shelf these days.
I bought a Staiger Sinus BT-20 from the very friendly folks at Elektrobike (I highly recommend them!) about a week ago, and have been driving now about a 100 km with it during the week.
It’s, simply put, marvellous.
It turns what was a sweaty run into a brisk stroll. You still have to pump those legs, but it smoothens the uphills and accelerations into what feels like a strong backwind helping you on a gentle upward slope. And you get really, really surprised looks from twentysomethings on their superlightweight fixed gear bikes when you catch up on them on uphills.
Another bonus that I suspected might happen is that it turns out that driving an e-bike cuts about 5 mins on my 30 minute commute. So that’s 10 minutes per day of time not spent commuting. Assume conservatively three times per week, 30 weeks/year turns out to be about 15 hours/year of more free time. Might not seem much, but if I value my free time at say €35/hour, it’s certainly a way to justify myself the higher cost of the e-bike.
What I did not expect was the effect it has on my driving style: when I no longer need to worry about conserving momentum (that is, slowing down because of people congregating on the driveway), I can afford to be a lot nicer to anyone else sharing the road. No need to do human pole slalom, just stop and let the engine worry about bringing you back to speed. Lower the gear, peddle nicely, no sweat broken.
While I do adore the MAMIL -look (Middle-Aged Man In Lycra) as much as everyone, there’s something to be said about the ability to drive in your street clothes. Obviously, wet weather will be a problem, but I got myself a rain poncho from Rose which should solve most of the issues. We’ll see - the Finnish weather will be showing its worst in the next few weeks. But most of the time I can save yet another few minutes by not having to change clothes back and forth.
And yeah, I don’t need to use the pannier anymore for commute: because it’s just a brisk stroll instead of a sweaty run, I can use my regular backpack. So no more of "prkl, left my wallet in my other bag".
Spoiler: it's a bit on the heavy side
What’s not to like? The obvious - the e-bike is bloody heavy. It’s like 25 kg, 10 kg more than my normal bike, and it does show. My e-bike has front suspension, which has come in really handy: the curbs are murder, even though the tyres are a bit thicker than usual for a trekking bike (47/622). If I had to carry it up and down stairs a lot, it would definitely not be my first choice for a bike.
Also, turns out it’s really hard to figure out a place to attach an U-lock on it, since the battery (which is fairly large and heavy) occupies a big chunk of the body triangle.
The range? The range isn’t actually that much of an issue. So far I’ve only charged the battery once, so it’s way better than your average smartphone, but since you can choose the assist power (from “Eco” to “Turbo”) you can pretty much forget about the range. The bike will let you know the distance you can still drive in the given mode, and you can optimise your power use accordingly. The bike comes with a humongous charger you probably wouldn’t like to carry with you (so whether this bike is useful for longer trips is a bit of a question still), but home charging for a few hours is not a problem. And even if the power runs out, it just becomes a regular - albeit a bit heavy - bike.
Overall, my verdict is: E-bikes are ready for primetime use. Their price will need to drop a bit (don’t buy one with a cheap Chinese battery; you may see very fast degradation) before they become a choice for everyone, but the range is sufficient, the technology is fairly mature, and the weight isn’t a problem for most use. They’ll also be getting progressively better every single year, so the more you wait the better bang for the buck you’ll get, but jumping onto the bandwagon today is already totally fine.
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