Almost one full year ago, I built myself an experimental electric bike to see what all the hype was about. As a profanely vocal proponent of muscle-only transportation, I was skeptical of the idea at first. But in the spirit of a good experiment, I decided to just add the thing to my bike fleet and see how it went for a year.
As the months and seasons have rolled past, I have found myself blazing around town more frequently, with greater speeds and heavier loads than I ever thought possible, which has turned me into an unapologetic convert. The electric bike combines some of the distance-devouring advantages of a car, with the city-friendly flexibility of a bike (you can bypass all traffic jams and jump freely between roads, bike paths and even dirt and unpaved areas to find the most direct route, and park for free right at your destination).
This is why electric bikes give me the feeling of Justice. You are riding a bike like you should be, creating virtually no pollution or noise, but you have a tireless olympic sprinter in your back pocket that you can unleash at the twist of a throttle. You can EAT gigantic hills for breakfast and DUST entire pelotons of spandex-riders from the comfort of your flipflops and flannel shirt. These things could have a revolutionary impact on the lazy modern lifestyle and make cities of all sizes vastly more livable places. So my official position on the matter is now that Electric Bikes are Awesome.
But Isn’t this Just Modern Lithium-Ion Laziness?
After that first article, several Mustachians questioned my sanity. Had I sold out to the forces of convenience and comfort? My answer was that time would tell and I’d do my best to use the power responsibly. I figured that for any given longer-than-walking-distance trip, there are two categories of people:
- Those who use a bike, and
- Those who do not use a bike
Since I was already in category “1” for at least 95% of my 1-10 mile trips, you’d think that I would have nothing to gain and everything to lose from juicing my bike. And indeed, it could have gone this way: Over the past year the technology has caught on rapidly and I now see plenty of e-bike riders out on the streets just coasting while the motor does all the work.
But when I look in the mirror, I notice that I have no desire to be any less fit. In fact, more fitness would be quite welcome, which means I need to pack more effort into each day. This is just basic muscle math, the kind that should be part of the driver’s exam before you’re allowed to operate your first car. So anyway, I chose to do things a bit differently, setting up a few ground rules for my use of electric boost:
- For casual trips like riding downtown to meet someone for lunch, I don’t even use the e-bike. I take my nice low, slow, inefficient cruiser bike instead.
- When riding the e-bike, I try to leave the motor off whenever possible. So it functions like a super-heavy (60 pound) city bike that provides more exercise than normal.
- Before turning on the motor, I give it all I’ve got, sprinting to fight the bike (and usually a trailer full of tools or groceries) up to at least 20 MPH on leg power alone. Once I run low on steam, I twist the throttle and feel the electric joyride take over as we blast up to much higher levels of speed. It feels like taking off in an airplane. I keep pedaling the whole time.
- Since this could still steal away some of my exercise, I resolved to do more biking than before. Running out to get some last-minute cilantro halfway through salad construction, or missing supplies halfway through a a day of house construction, and so on.
In other words, I chose to use the power of electricity as an extension of my biking abilities rather than a replacement. And so far, so good: I haven’t lost any biking condition over the last year, but I have felt an increase in freedom and productivity as I can get around town more quickly, even when I’d normally feel too busy or tired to embark on a bike errand.
The other bonus is that my bike can now hang with standard city traffic on 25-30 MPH roads. I can safely* take a full lane just like a motorcycle without slowing anyone else down, which provides an adrenaline-filled shortcut through certain parts of the city I had previously avoided due to lack of bike friendliness.
A Secret Superpower Against Heat, Heavy Loads, Hills, and Time Itself
Many Mustachians are fairly young and fit, already have bikes which serve them well, and are still ‘stashing cash vigorously for financial independence. For these people, an electric bike is probably an unnecessary luxury.
But for another large group, they could be just the thing. The lawyer who lives in a hot, humid climate and is currently afraid to bike the 4 miles to the office for fear of arriving sweaty. The beginner cyclist in Seattle or San Francisco who lives at the top of a perilously steep hill (especially if combined with kids or groceries in a bike trailer). Even the Longmont, Colorado tech worker who would love to bike to work in Boulder more often but could swing it more often if only that 1-hour ride time could be cut in half. If you have a reasonable surplus of money and feel there’s a shortage of biking in your life, an e-bike could be just the ticket.
The Expensive E-Bike Conspiracy and My Prodeco Storm 500 Experiment
As part of this yearlong experiment, I decided to check out more of the electric bike scene. I tested more kit-built bikes from friends, shopped more e-bike shops, and visited the headquarters of high-end manufacturer Optibike, testing out everything they make.
This proved to be a fun visit, as founder Jim Turner has been making ebikes since the late 1990s and seems to care about nothing besides quality. From the custom frame with a motorized crank that drives the chain out to the top-line individual components, these bikes are for wealthy no-compromise buyers. They’re also for record setters, as an Optibike R-11 set the world record for climbing the 14,000 foot Pike’s Peak highway.
My take on Optibikes? Beautiful and without compromise, but I noticed that my homemade high-power conversion based on a cheap city bike was just as fast, at close to 40 MPH**. For real speed in this price range, I’d personally go for the 50MPH 4500 watt Steath Bomber or the highly German Motostrano Spitzing.
I also enjoyed a visit from Amber Wason, co-founder of Riide, who brought me her low-weight, high-style take on the concept. This thing was a joy to ride, because it behaves like a normal bike. You can barely tell it’s electric.
I noticed a bit of a pattern: the more expensive a bike company’s product, the more they tend to speak critically of cheaper competitors. I would often ask what they thought about the Prodeco Phantom, which you can buy on Amazon for under $1700. “Oh, you do NOT want a Prodeco! Cheap Chinese crap that’ll fall apart!” Yet when I looked at reviews of that same bike on Amazon, they were generally quite positive. Who should I believe?
I decided that the only way to resolve the dispute was to buy one myself. So I forked over the dough and received the shipment a few days later. Since it was mid-winter, I spent the first month testing the bike out both on and off-road during snowfalls.
It was a surprisingly solid bike with good components, smooth shifting and really great disc brakes. It had plenty of power to peg the needle at its safety-limited 20 MPH speed, even when ascending steep hills. Range seemed pretty good as well, at over 20 miles when combining reasonable speed with pedaling.
Since I was already fully loaded with bikes myself, I decided to use friends and family as longer-term test subjects for this bike after the initial month. It has made the rounds and is still performing well for a friend of mine. Just one caution if you’re interested in this particular model – it is very tall, so if you’re shopping for someone under about 5’9″, you might check out the models with step-through frames instead.
So Should you Buy One Yourself?
Maybe. While cheaper than a car or motorcycle, these things are still much more expensive than great conventional bikes, which can be had for under $500 these days. Many normal people ride a single, basic bike for much greater annual distances than I ride all of my bikes, including the electric ones, combined.
On top of this, the prices on electric bikes will probably continue dropping for the next few years. I wouldn’t buy one if I was in debt for anything besides a mortgage. In fact, I wouldn’t have even bought one (yet) for myself if I didn’t have this blog as an excuse to test it out and report back to you, because I don’t commute to work.
But if it will genuinely replace some of your car use, which costs you about 50 cents a mile, the economic case may be a good one. And if it will entice you to spend more time pumping your muscles out in the real world than you currently do, the case is much stronger. It is hard to overstate the benefit of just getting out there. So if you’re sure you are ready and you can easily afford it, I think it’s a winning invention.
List of Good Mid-priced Ebikes:
(I have no affiliation with these bike companies, just happy to support the growth of this good technology. Please suggest more in the comments and I can add them to this list)
My 500 watt Ebike Kit
(^^^ watch for their occasional 15% sales and use coupon code MMM for 6% anytime)
A promising looking cheaper kit on Amazon
Possible Battery for Above
The Hill Topper Kit (clean Republic)
RadWagon (just found this Aug 2016) – looks great for the price
Bikes from Evelo (note the Omni wheel)
Stromer ST1 (expensive but you could try a nationwide Craigslist search)
The Copenhagen Wheel (available someday)
Jason Kraft from EbikeKit has a neat side project in development for those not looking for 2-wheelers, the Liberty Trike is a 7.5MPH adult mobility machine that seems much more capable than similar stuff on the market. A huge advantage for those currently car-dependent for medium-length neighborhood trips.
* Safety tip:
As a frequent rider on city streets, I have always found that oncoming cars tend to turn left and cut me off dangerously, even when I have the right of way. The extra speed of the e-bike made this problem even worse. But by adding really bright LED front and rear lights and leaving them flashing at all times while riding in the city, this problem was virtually eliminated overnight. It tells the drivers that you mean business and they treat you more like a motorcycle and less like a bike. You still need to be on guard at all times though, ready to hit the brakes and hurl a few Driver-Educating Expletives just for good measure.
** A word on speed:
Commercial e-bikes for on-road use are generally limited to 20MPH (throttle) or 25MPH (pedal assist). This is a fine rule and beginner cyclists will find this to be plenty of speed.
Kits have no such limitation, which is why my bike goes much faster, which technically may make it slightly illegal. However, this is a rule I don’t mind breaking with caution: on bike paths, I keep the speed down as they tend to be curvy and narrow. And of course I slow right down if other people are present on the path. On the other hand, on the open road the speed is very welcome.
If phone-wielding teenagers are allowed to legally drive 3-ton 300 horsepower pickup trucks on residential streets, then surely it is acceptable for a 185 pound man with a motorcycle license and some basic motocross training to enjoy his 0.6 horsepower electric motor without a speed limiter installed. But I am definitely increasing my risk by riding at higher speeds!