We're moving along now, and are so close to wrapping this whole thing up. Last time, we saw that an e-bike could be an equalizer if you commute in a lot of traffic, or up and down a lot of hills, but less so if you don't. Our final part will explore all of those other things that could factor in to your potential e-bike decision.
A crazy thing happened over the course of my experiment. I started riding the e-bike. A lot. It became really easy to make the call in the morning to hop on it instead of into my car. I still felt a bit of guilt over not riding a "real" bike, but I tried to round things off by pedalling my meat powered version at least once a week. Or, once every two weeks. Or so. As hinted at above, a lot of things started to add up to the e-bike being a really awesome way to travel around a city.
Load it up
The first nice thing is that you can load as much weight onto these things as you want and it doesn't really matter. Commuting on a regular bike is an exercise in advanced logistics, where everything is pared down to a minimum and then stuffed into a tiny bag. With the e-bike, it's like heading out on a two-week family vacation with children, and you start bringing things along that you might think about using maybe. As well, if you decide to stop on the way home and do some shopping, just find a place to strap it to the bike and be on your way. It's liberating.
Dress for success
Another nice thing is that you don't have to worry as much about what you're going to wear. The electric assistance cuts down on your sweat levels, so it's possible to throw your work clothes on and make your way in to work. Or if it's nasty or cold out, you can bundle up or throw on a fully waterproof ensemble, with no worries that you will be soaked in your own sweat bath after the first kilometer.
Function follows function
It's not that you don't think about function with a regular bike, but it's a different kind of function. Weight is a huge factor, as well as rolling and wind resistance. This leads to compromises with comfort and safety. With all that electric power, you can just blast through silly notions like skinny tires for rolling speed, and set your bike up to handle all the potholes and loose corners that cause your other bike fits. Pretty quickly, you figure out that you can bomb where you once dawdled. Indeed, I hope Trek fully embraces this in their next generation of bikes. I'm envisioning something close to a bike version of a Supermoto.
Time is saved in other ways
All of my measurements were based on travel time, ignoring time lost in other ways. First off, versus a regular bike, you can usually skip the at-work shower. I never went so far as to wear my work clothes in (but I know some people who do), but the 5 minute clothes swap is far quicker than the usual shower-and-change process.
Versus the car, you can eliminate the daily search-for-a-parking-spot-and-then-hike-in-from-parts-unknown. My drive commutes were via a variety of means (50cc scooter, car) and often I could add 10-15 minutes to my drive time depending on how long I searched for a spot and how far my walk was. If I include this in my calculation, the e-bike is more than competitive.
A month or two into this test, I received the first old man injury of my life: a torn calf muscle playing tennis. This sucked, and led to me doing not much of anything for a month or so. Once I could walk again, my physio suggested that it would be possible to ride a bike, as long as I didn't stand to pedal, or climb any hills. This would have allowed me to ride my regular bike in a 4 block circle around my house. Because I had the e-bike, I was able to start commuting at least a full month earlier. It helped me to remain active and…
The impact on fitness is higher than you think
Once I was ready to ride my regular bike, another crazy thing happened: I wasn't as dramatically out of shape as I had thought I would be. All I had done for several months was ride around on an e-bike. Everybody knows that's not real exercise. But somehow, when I went on my first mountain bike ride post injury ( a 2 hour climb into the Wyoming Alpine), it wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. I was still last to the top and everybody made fun of me a bit, but that probably would have happened anyhow.
When people get scientific about things (see p. 471 of (this study), the suggestion is that your energy expenditure drops by 24% for a given trip on an e-bike versus a regular bike. It's like you've taken a rasp file and gnawed off the sharp edges of your ride, making things softer and gentler, but still leaving a lot of what you came for.
This has been a tumultuous time for me and my relationship to the bicycle. I've had to shift my mindset and begin to look at the bike as a tool and not an object of pleasure/pain. By embracing this tool, I've started to have more fun on my bike commutes than I ever did in the past. What I've found is that an e-bike is a great at extending your limits. If you're a sometimes commuter, it's much easier to make the call to ride a bit more. If your commute is just out of the range at which you're comfortable, this makes it easier to go that extra distance. This is what most cyclists don't understand. We all have some limit at which it's too much for us. That might be reached by riding twice in a week, or 324 times in a year. It might happen at 5 km or 70 km. We all have a limit, and all an e-bike really does is allow you to push through it.
For the non-cyclist, this could be a total game changer. It can take those pain points that kept you off a bike and significantly diminish them. One could actually argue that it makes it too easy for cyclists to get in over their heads. But if I were the kind of person who never rides a bike, but thinks about it, I would do myself the favour and immediately try one of these things.
In the end though, it really comes down to whether or not I'm going to put my money where my mouth is. Would I buy an e-bike? As I ponder a winter of either driving to work, or slogging away on my old commuter, more than ever the e-bike is very appealing. Having one available to me has definitely increased the amount of time that I spend on a bike, and I would imagine it would be the same for most people. That sounds like a pretty great thing to me.