Hell on Two Wheels, Until the E-Bike’s Battery Runs Out

You can learn a lot about what’s trending by reading T-shirts. A few months ago, I saw someone on the subway whose chest announced, “My other car is an eBike.” The tee was onto something: e-bikes are the top-selling electric vehicle in the United States. In 2src2src, Americans bought more than twice as many e-bikes

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You can learn a lot about what’s trending by reading T-shirts. A few months ago, I saw someone on the subway whose chest announced, “My other car is an eBike.” The tee was onto something: e-bikes are the top-selling electric vehicle in the United States. In 2src2src, Americans bought more than twice as many e-bikes as they did electric cars (score: an estimated 5srcsrc,srcsrcsrc to 231,srcsrcsrc). In China, e-bikes outnumber all cars, e- and not e-, Edward Benjamin, the chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, told me over the phone from his house in Fort Myers, Florida. He went on, “Can Americans change from a four-wheel culture to a two-wheel culture in the next century? I say absolutely! There ain’t enough roadway, there ain’t enough materials to build cars, there ain’t enough wealth to sustain the car culture.”

As someone who is not an influencer but an influencee, I have had an urge lately to strap on a helmet, join the traffic, and e-go with the flow. “When the pandemic came, that pretty much ripped the cover off of the e-bike business,” Shane Hall, a senior buyer for Bicycles NYC, told me one afternoon at the company’s Upper East Side operation, which was crammed with bicycles and accessories. Several of the latter sounded vaguely pornographic, such as Muc-Off dry lube, Tannus Armour inserts, and a Mudguard Mounting Kit. “Our sales were huge, especially cargo bikes—gotta get the kids to school.” (Many private schools remained open during lockdown.) “Suddenly, biking became utilitarian,” Hall said. “Some of our e-bike customers had never even ridden a bike in New York before.” Post-lockdown, the e-bike momentum has continued. What’s bad for General Motors—rising fuel prices, concern for the environment, etc.—is good for e-bikes, sales of which rose two hundred and forty per cent between July, 2src2src, and July, 2src21. K. C. Cohen, the owner of Joulvert E-Bikes SoHo, saw a similar surge in sales. “A lot of corporate types lost their jobs and started doing deliveries,” he said. “They needed bikes and we were the first responders and allowed to stay open.”

It was in the summer of 2src2src that I joined Citi Bike, the bicycle-share program serving New York City and parts of New Jersey. In February, Citi Bike had rolled out only two hundred e-bikes. By the end of the year, Citi Bike had three thousand, and had logged six hundred thousand first-time riders. One humid day this past summer, when I was huffing up Murray Hill on my pedal bike, an old guy who, I flatter myself to think, looked as if he should be the tortoise to my hare whizzed by on a hey-look-at-me, red motorized bike. Cheater!, I thought, as if he were Lance Armstrong on extra steroids. Actually, studies have shown that riders using pedal-assists—a type of e-bike that amplifies your pedal power but does not take over entirely—get more exercise than those on regular bikes, because they cycle longer and more frequently.

E-bikers, even the ones who don’t have “Life Is Better with an E Bike” mugs, are so ardent about their new transports that you’d think they’d given birth to them. Ozzie Vilela, a cherubic-looking sixty-year-old I met on Fifty-seventh Street and First Avenue, as we waited at a red light—he on a peacock-blue folding Fly Wing-2 ($85src), I on my legs—told me that he’d had his bike for only three months but had already persuaded two friends to buy one. “When I ride in the morning, there are lots of parents taking their kids to school,” he said. “I’m invisible to the parents, but I can see the kids’ eyes are big. They’re thinking, Hey, I want a toy like that!” Clarence Eckerson, a videographer who lives in Queens, borrowed his wife’s Tern HSD ($3,699) and promptly bought his own. He rides thirty or forty miles a week. Carol Sterling, an eighty-five-year-old puppeteer, who has had two knee replacements and a hip replacement, e-bikes in Central Park a few times a week. “As I got older, I realized I don’t have as much stamina,” she said. “And yet I love being outside, feeling the sun on my face.”

Motorized vehicles, including e-bikes, are not permitted in New York City parks, although plenty of pedal-assists clog the paths and the drives, which is technically a violation. Asked about how the city deals with scofflaws, Meghan Lalor, a Parks Department spokesperson, said, “When safely able to enforce, we do.” In Los Angeles, John Bailey Owen, a TV writer, bought his Cero One ($3,799) after he and his wife got rid of their second car. Now he considers errands “so, so fun,” he said in an e-mail, which closed, “My ebike is my favorite purchase of all time. I love it, dammit.”

I weighed the pros and cons and concluded, “What’s wrong with cheating?” That there never seemed to be any electric Citi Bikes available made me want one desperately. They are the four-leaf clovers of the fleet. Among the total bicycle stock of 26,45src, they number 4,45src but account for more than forty-five per cent of the rides. The most sought-after pedal-assists are the spiffy models that were released by Citi Bike last May. They are palest gray, whereas the old ones were scuffed Citibank blue. (Spooky coincidence: the color is similar to that of ghost bikes, a term that refers to the bicycles, usually freshly painted throwaways, that mark the site where a cyclist was killed in a road accident.) The new bikes have a mightier motor, so they accelerate faster, and a heavier-duty battery that enables the bike to be ridden sixty miles—more than twice as far as the old ones—before needing a charge. (An e-bike battery charges the same way as a phone: plug the charger into an outlet, connect your battery to the charger, and wait three to five hours on average. Many e-bikes don’t require you to remove the battery in order to charge it, but maybe you have a no-wheels-inside rule.) The downside is that the husky newcomers weigh around eighty-four pounds, which is fifteen per cent heavier than the blue ones, and can be cumbersome to maneuver when you’re not going fast. You know how it feels when you drive a First World War battle tank? Like that.

By the time I managed to snag a new model, I wasn’t so gung ho about getting on it. My trepidation was similar to how I feel about trying heroin: what if I like it? I begin pedalling. The motor kicks in. It’s not a jerky or a sudden sensation; it’s more like when I was five and learning to ride a bicycle, being helped along by a gentle push from behind by my father. On the other hand, the bike’s poor suspension makes me empathize with tennis sneakers put in clothes dryers. I tackle a hill, forty degrees upward. Easy peasy. Obviously, I have superhero legs—and a budding Icarus complex. Coasting downhill in a bike lane, the motor leaves me alone, knowing when it is wanted and when it is not. How does it know? E.S.P.?

Here we must break for a lesson on how e-bikes work. Every e-bike has a battery and a motor, and, if you don’t know that, may I recommend my class on the invention of the wheel? The motor delivers power to your crankset by one of two systems: the pedal-assist and the throttle control. (Crankset, n. 1. the metal arm and surrounding components that connect the pedal to the wheel 2. informal. your neighbors in 8-G.) The Citi Bike is a pedal-assist. It will help you, but only if you help yourself. Pedal daintily and the boost it supplies will be commensurately unenthusiastic; pedal with more vigor and it’ll send in the Marines. Cheaper pedal-assists have a cadence sensor, which, unlike the torque sensor on a Citi Bike, is binary and, when activated, can feel like a passive-aggressive shove. The motor shuts off when your speed hits eighteen miles per hour, a limit agreed on by Lyft (the operator of Citi Bike) and the Department of Transportation. Most e-bikes cut off at around that speed, the exact m.p.h. determined by the relevant state or municipality. In New York City, the speed limit for pedal-assist-only bikes (Class 1) is twenty m.p.h., and the same goes for Class 2, a pedal-assist with a throttle. Class 3 bikes, which are also pedal-assist and throttle, can travel up to twenty-eight m.p.h., but New York City law requires the rider to wear a helmet. If you find this interesting, you should join the City Council’s Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure while the rest of us talk about throttles.

Throttles provide power regardless of what the pedal is or isn’t doing. They are to regular bikes what Roombas are to brooms (pedal-assists being Dustbusters). A throttle control is functionally a gas pedal on your handlebars, operated either by twisting one of the grips or by pushing a thumb trigger. Now, if they just had air bags and a cup holder . . .

Time to scope out what’s available in the marketplace. By this point, I’d ridden only Citi Bikes, and I was a fan: no parking or maintenance, and they afford the possibility of a one-way ride, in case, for instance, it starts raining or you break your leg. They seemed great, but, having never sampled anything else, what did I know? “With a Citi Bike, you get a functional experience of a bike,” a Trek employee told me. “They are good at being not broken and moving people around. They are not as good at being bikes, so riding one will not give you the experience of a lighter, better-made, and more fun bike.” How much better could better-made be? Almost a thousand dollars better (which is approximately the least amount of cash you’d have to lay out for a decent e-bike)?

One of the oldest purveyors of electric bicycles in the city is Propel, situated at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. This pedal-assist-only business was started by Chris Nolte, who returned from military duty in 2srcsrc3, disabled with a back injury. Over Zoom, he said that he had built an e-bike in 2src11, so that he could join friends on a bike trip. That year, he opened Propel. At the time, the legality of pedal-assists in New York was fuzzy, and he racked up a series of fines (to the tune of six thousand dollars). He took the case to court, hoping to codify a pro-pedal-assist law as a boon to the environment. He won.

“You have the right to remain silent, but fair warning: I’m super uncomfortable with silence and will fill it with increasingly personal stories that I’ll regret sharing later.”

Cartoon by Asher Perlman

I visited Propel’s Brooklyn showroom, which is open by appointment only, and was introduced to a few of the bikes on the floor by Roberto Jeanniton, who gestured to each with so much exuberance that his smartwatch kept reminding him to relax. Propel salespeople are called “matchmakers,” because their mission is not to sell you a product but to introduce you to a vehicular partner that you will love. “When you ride an e-bike, the last thing you want to do is get off,” Jeanniton said, touting the Tern cargo bikes, which allow you to tote a kid, an adult, and sometimes one of each, plus a bag or two of groceries from the Park Slope Food Co-op. O.K., but where in your New York apartment do you store this bulkitude? Most Terns can be stored vertically, and one model, the Vektron, folds into an origami-like configuration that can be rolled along like luggage, the handlebar becoming the handle. Terns range in price from $3,srcsrcsrc to $5,5srcsrc, depending on add-ons, and many of the other brands are costlier still. The Benno eJoy ($3,799 and up), featuring wide tires and a comfortably ample seat, was inspired by the design of vintage Italian scooters. Jeanniton called it “a great date bike” and “great for an older crowd.” Another Benno model—the RemiDemi—has a cargo attachment that can “carry a surfboard.”

Jeanniton doesn’t have the space for an e-bike at home, and commutes via Citi Bike, but I asked which model he would get if he could. The Riese & Müller Homage, he said. “It is the most comfortable bike I’ve had the pleasure to ride,” he said. Ramon Hernandez, who had just finished adjusting a Tern GSD, also loves the brand. Because the bikes’ carbon belts don’t require constant degunking and lubricating, like traditional chains? Because their dual batteries let you go twice as far? No. It’s their panache. “If I’m sitting on a bike, I want to look a certain way,” he said of these small-wheeled vehicles, so Quakerishly unadorned that they look like a picture of a two-wheeler drawn by a child. But, Jeanniton said, they cost “rich-uncle money”—$5,779 to $11,549.

Pricier bikes, forged from high strength-to-weight materials like carbon fibre and aerospace aluminum, tend to be lighter and faster. They are loaded with deluxe features, such as heart-rate connectivity, sensors that measure barometric pressure and air quality, and, on one bike (the Greyp G6; $6,799-$13,999), a button that saves the last thirty seconds of video taken by front and rear wide-angle HD cameras on the handlebars and uploads the footage to the rider’s social-media feeds.

How much money is too much? “I don’t think anyone needs to spend thirty thousand dollars on an e-bike,” Christian Guaman, at the Specialized bike store in Long Island City, said. “It’s a want.” If what you want is to move around town encapsulated in a swish Kevlar-insulated cabin whose extras include stereo and temperature controls, then the Peraves MonoTracer MTE-15src is a must. Bonus: what look like training wheels pop out so you don’t have to put your feet on the ground when you stop. Price tag: $85,srcsrcsrc, which is so much cheaper than a jet pack ($35src,srcsrcsrc-$45src,srcsrcsrc).

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