Tipping point

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

Electric assist is great when you have a lot of library books to carry.

At some point I speculated that 2013 would be the year of the electric assist bicycle. Not to toot my own horn here, but I was so right. The other day we stopped at an intersection and the rider next to us said, “Hey! All three of us are on electric assist bikes!” When I went to return books at the library the other day, the other bike on the rack was assisted. When I’m on the main campus, which is on a hill that could charitably be called “non-trivial” it is like an e-bike showroom up there. I would guess that about a quarter of the bikes I see hauling up our hill these days are assisted. That is new as of this year.

I get stopped at the bike racks at work by people wanting to know how to find cheap e-bikes on craigslist. Although I am admittedly kind of the poster child for that, I would only recommend doing that if you are comfortable replacing the battery shortly afterward (which is something I had to do). Very few people flog assisted bikes on craigslist until the batteries are on their last legs, and batteries are the most expensive part to replace. Caveat emptor.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets--they must be doing a land office business.

The New Wheel was giving test rides at Western Addition Sunday Streets–they must be doing a land office business.

There is really no such thing as a super-cheap electric assist bike, unless of course you are comparing them to a car, in which case every single one of them is laughably cheap. And I and everyone else riding one can testify that an assisted bike will make driving in the city seem ridiculous. I mean, my leg is still really weak, and the most recent x-rays show that the bones look like they’ve been attacked with a chisel–it surprised me that this is considered to be great progress–and I walk with a cane, and I now have a handicapped parking sticker. However it is still typically easier for me to go anyplace within about three miles on a bike (granted, an assisted bike) because I can park so much closer that I don’t have to hobble nearly as far. Riding a bike doesn’t stress my leg like walking on it does. When I talk to normal people with assisted bikes they say that they never tackled various hills until they put assists on their bikes. Then once they did, they started riding everywhere instead of driving. That’s pretty much how it went for us.

San Francisco is the kind of city that is made for assisted bikes. There are, famously, a lot of hills. It’s the second hilliest city in the world, and this is not a competition that you want your city to win (or show or place). To pile on the injury, it’s also extremely windy.

Going up this hill into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Going up a hill like this into a 10mph headwind is TOTALLY DIFFERENT from riding into a 10mph headwind on the flats.

Aside: I find it slightly annoying when people in flat cities claim that it’s hard to bike in their extremely flat city because of wind, or that a 10mph headwind is like a 14% grade. I ride up a 14% grade to our home every day and many of those days I ride into a 10mph or 20mph headwind AT THE SAME TIME. Riding into the wind is hard, but it’s not the same as riding up a hill. They’re both hard, but they’re a different kind of hard. The truth is that if you live somewhere flattish then it’s either easier or cheaper to ride bikes everywhere, so go ahead and cherish your good fortune.

Anyway, San Francisco: lots of hills, lots of wind, but also lots of great bicycle infrastructure. And we carry kids-as-cargo and groceries and library books and so on. Getting over ourselves and getting an assist was the smartest thing we’ve ever done, transportation-wise. In my current condition, I’m not sure I could ride in the city at all without one (and with the gimpy leg, walking the bike up hills is not a good option–I can do it, but the price is having to go back on my narcotics that evening). Our friends who have assisted their bikes will say the same thing: the assist is life-changing when you ride a bike for transportation. An assist makes driving not worth the bother. The sight of a bicycle being carried on an SUV now seems outrageously weird to me. Even if you’re hauling a racing bike, it would be cheaper and more fun to tow that baby on an assisted cargo bike.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

Of course I am not opposed to straight pedal power under the right circumstances. Although even in a paddle boat I was pretty slow.

So for the people who keep asking me whether it’s worth paying so much to put an assist on a bike: if you’re already seriously considering it, then yes it is. And there are ways to make the cost less appalling up front; for example, The New Wheel in Bernal Heights will finance the purchase of an assisted bike or an after-market assist for an existing bike, plus they’re super-nice people.  Is it necessary? It is for me (at least for now), but it’s not for everybody. For people who are enjoying the ride unassisted, there’s no need. But if you can’t bring yourself to ride every day just yet even though you want to, and are wondering whether the assist will tip the scales: it will.

5 Comments

Filed under electric assist, injury, San Francisco

5 responses to “Tipping point

  1. Ken Dickson

    I’ve used a Trek Valencia electric assist since 2010, and there is one point on my commute where I need to share a lift with other cyclists, most of them dedicated commuters on racing bikes. The attitude of the other cyclists has changed from disinterest/downright sneering in 2010 to really interested and questionning in 2013 – how outlooks have changed for the better in 3 short years – all I have ever answered is that the electric assist is not a sign of laziness, it just enables me to keep cycling despite really bad knees :-)

  2. Augsburg

    We were early adopters of electric assist bikes. At the time, the e-bikes seemed like a good idea for hilly Seattle. They worked fine at first, but after a couple of years, both the electronics and the batteries failed. We ended up with very expensive but useless bicycles. We did not have the stomach to invest more money in new batteries, when we saw the offshore produced electronics were failing too. I hope the newer varieties of electric assist bicycles are better made.

    • Ken Dickson

      I deliberately paid more for a Trek electric assist bike rather than one of the cheaper electric bikes solely so that when the batteries & electronics (they are just additions to a standard Trek bike) wore out I would have the option to strip everything off, replace the rear wheel and still have a competent respected brand cycle that I could use or sell, as an alternative to battery/electronics replacement. Hopefully by the time I find that the batteries are failing there will be cheaper replacement options in the marketplace.

      • That was probably a good plan. The two e-bikes (e-Zee brand) we purchased in about 2008/09 were far from cheap. About $2,000 each out-the-door. But they were not really convertible to unassisted use.

      • We did the same thing, except with the cheap craigslist assisted bike (which who cares). There are still some battery issues but I think BionX and Panasonic are taking them seriously and offer far better warranties than there were on older systems.

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