Electric-assist Bicycle Owners Share Their Story, Adventures

The first time I rode an electric-assist bicycle (ebike) was around 15 years ago.  My workplace, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, actually had ebikes as part of their vehicle fleet.  Our work site is a mile away from downtown Saint Paul and a little over a mile away from the Capitol, and many people have meetings at other state agencies or testify during the legislative session. The ebikes weren’t well known and thus weren’t being used, so staff provided an opportunity to test ride these ebikes. I’d never seen one before, so I wanted to try one out.  In less than a minute, two things happened:

  1. I couldn’t ride the bike without a smile on my face
  2. I wanted to sell my car and buy an ebike

A few years later, I moved downtown Saint Paul.  After living downtown for a year and barely using my car, I sold my car and bought an ebike. This summer, I’ll be celebrating 10 years riding an ebike and haven’t bought a car since.  To be fair, we have a Prius in our household of two people and one cat, but I only use it ~5% of the time.

I’ve owned a few different ebikes over the last 10 years and have learned a lot about them. I know at least 13 state employees, including the MnDOT commissioner, who owns an ebike. Similar to the thrill of seeing a hybrid-electric car on the road once a day 15 years ago, I’m seeing an ebike about once a day now. It’s not just me who prefers this mode of technology! By the way, I bought my last ebike mid August 2017 and I have nearly 2,500 miles on my ebike already. Besides my personal “30 days of winter biking” January 2018 challenge and the internationally-renowned 30 days of biking April challenge, I really haven’t been trying to bike anywhere; I just naturally bike so much more with my ebike.

Thanks to social media, I’ve gotten to meet three other people who also have an ebike and they all agreed to share some of their ebike adventures with you:

James, Saint Paul, March 2018 interview:

I’ve owned an ebike for about a year and a half, two in the last 8 months. I could choose a favorite bike. Each is superb at the tasks I purchased it for. My commuter ebike is for the daily grind, long trips and carrying cargo. My fat ebike is for fun and ease of winter travel.

A common question is about how to handle electrical issues. My first electrical issue was when I took my commuter ebike on a Metro Transit bus down to the Old Cedar Bridge river valley in Bloomington. To reduce weight, I always remove the battery and carry it on the bus in my backpack. When I got to my destination, I put the battery back on, but the ebike wouldn’t turn on. Turns out the magnetic charging connector picked up a tiny washer from the bottom of my backpack and was messing up the contacts.

If I can’t diagnose the issue myself, I go to my dealer, Bicycle Chain in Roseville. They have already replaced my control panel display when the backlight went out. I ride my ebike all year round, regardless of precipitation or temperature. Any good ebike manufacturer knows ebikes are intended to be used outdoors where they will be subject to a variety of temperatures and of course get wet.

When it comes to winter, if you are storing your ebike, the battery should be removed and stored indoors. Ideally it should have a charge of 40-60%. Too low or too high and the lithium ion cells may not last as long. You should also set a reminder half-way through the winter to check the charge level. Excessive drainage (more than 5-10% in over a month) could indicate serious battery problems. Most batteries will go into a deep sleep mode if not used for a month or more.

Before using it in the spring, fully charge the battery. I have ridden my ebikes in torrential downpours and blizzards. Some ebike manufacturers will publish IP (Ingress Protection) Ratings for their bikes. Typically the motor and battery will have different IP Ratings. IP Ratings tell you about how well sealed your motor and battery are from solids and water.Check out Nema Enclosures or the Turbo X YouTube video for more information.

Tips for prospective owners? Learn the difference between different motor sensors (the attribute or attributes that activate the motor and determine how much assistance it gives you). The two most common motor sensors are cadence and torque. Think of cadence as a light switch. It detects if you are pedaling and turns on the motor—it doesn’t care how hard/fast you pedal, only that you are. Torque sensors turn up the motor power depending on how hard you are pedaling—if you are pedaling light, it turns on a little, if you pedal hard, it ramps up power. Torque sensing tends to feel more like a traditional bicycle. Read this review or that review to learn more about the differences.

Go for a test ride! Even if a bike seller doesn’t have one in stock, it is worth asking if the manufacturer can provide a demo ebike. Questions to ask seller: Do you have examples of out-of-warranty replacement costs of batteries? Motors? Controllers? Displays? How many years will parts be available after this ebike is discontinued (e.g. batteries) If purchased online,  wow will I fix electrical and electronic components.

 

Karen, Saint Paul, March 2018 interview: (one week before ebike purchase)

My end goal of bike commuting from the western edge of Saint Paul to my work in Oakdale off the Gateway trail. I wouldn’t even try, ebike or not, if it wasn’t for bike infrastructure around me. I used to live near Summit and Snelling, and there just wasn’t that many destinations I felt comfortable riding a bike to.

But when we moved to near the border of Minneapolis, west of 280, I was delighted by the off-street bike paths, the U of MN transit way, Dinkytown Greenway, Como, along the river. At first I started I with the Nice Ride share bikes. Then we finally got our dusty old bikes fixed up and enjoyed going many places in St. Anthony Park which didn’t have Nice Ride stations.

Then I went on vacation and spent a few days in Amsterdam and took out the gearless hotel loaner bike. I was amazed at how easy biking was when everything was soooo flat. Then when I got back home and I was walking up a steep hill and and woman my age and size went zipping by on an ebike. I knew then my long dream of biking to work was within my reach. For me it was all about the biking infrastructure. I had no interest in biking in the streets with cars. But separated bike paths made me feel comfortable.

One week later: I just got my first ebike, a Pedego Interceptor! My first trip was to Surly, and shortly after I did a couple of trips for about 10 miles.

Initial thoughts: I can tell already I will be so much more likely to bike on this ebike than regular bike, it’s just way more gratifying (get places quicker), easier, and fun!  I took it up a hill I’ve commonly done with regular bike straight into a chilly, stiff wind with no worries; it was SO nice not to struggle up the hill if I don’t want to.

This is not weather I’d just go riding for fun normally, but it was fun, so I did it. It just seems to provide so many options. If you want exercise, you can ride for that. If you what to get some place faster, that’s an option. If you just need it for convenient, easy transportation, you got it.  

I love it. Just what I expected!

A week later, my observations so far: time goes differently when I’m on the ebike; of course, it still take longer to get somewhere than in a car – but it doesn’t seem long. I sort of feel this way when I’m on nice trains, like in Europe, or on LRT when its not crowded – the time doesn’t drag on like on a plane or a car. I biked from Oakdale to 35 E to check out Gateway trail part of my future commute and then came back again on my lunch hour and was amazed how quick the hour went.  It was not even a very nice day, lots of wind one way that made the extra power very nice!

With the ebike the bike trails sort of feel like getting it feels like getting on a freeway when I’m in a car!

 

Jenny, Saint Paul, May 2018 interview:

One year ago, I replaced my car with an electric pedal assist bicycle. My primary motivation was to foster a more sustainable lifestyle: living car-free is one of the highest impact actions an individual can take to reduce contributions to climate change.  

In financial terms, this past car-free year has also seen a lot of improvements. I paid off a couple of loans, reducing my monthly bills by several hundred dollars, and saved ~$600/month on car-related costs. When I did this budgeting initially, I was surprised by just how much it cost to own a car: auto loan, fuel, insurance, registration, maintenance, repairs. In contrast, my ebike-related costs have averaged just $100/month, and much of that went to non-recurring costs like nicer pedals or winter gloves. Overall my monthly spending has decreased by $965 over the past year – which mostly went into retirement accounts, but also funded fun things like vacation and home improvement savings.

In conclusion:

I could write so many stories about my own ebike adventures.  But I wanted to focus on other ebike owners, people I’ve met in person, gone on group rides with, and inspired me to buy my current ebike And yes, I absolutely love my Pedego ebike!  I’ll gladly give anyone a test ride, give you tips & suggestions on ebikes to consider, and ebikes to avoid. Also, I’d be happy to share with you how I secured a bike loan through Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union.

I’ll leave you with one final story. Last week while I was writing this article in my head biking to work, auto and bike traffic came to a halt on Upper Afton Road. City staff (or their contractors) were filling in cracks on the road and traffic was reduced to one lane. Two other bicyclists and myself weren’t sure how to proceed. There weren’t anyone on the sidewalks and I broke my personal rule of never riding on sidewalks to gleefully continue on my commute, as there were no pedestrians on the sidewalk. The other two cyclists happily followed.

One cyclist sped ahead and I caught up to the other bicyclist after I noticed that she too has an ebike. I’d never seen her before, so I introduced myself and where I work. She did the same and it turns out she’s also a state employee who owns an ebike!! Because the ride was an awesome one that morning for a few reasons, I tweeted about it, tagging where she works. She saw the tweet and quickly replied!

I know I’m not the only one with an ebike. But it’s still a neat treat to figuratively run into another ebike owner on such a regular basis. I guarantee that you cannot ride an ebike for the first time without having a smile on your face, and you’ll have adventures you never thought were possible.

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13 Responses to Electric-assist Bicycle Owners Share Their Story, Adventures

  1. Bill Lindeke
    Bill Lindeke June 15, 2018 at 3:20 pm #

    Thanks for writing this Melissa. I really hope these become commonplace. It could really help vault bicycling into the mainstream, and get modeshare into the 30%+ range. The city and/or state should subsidize these, in fact. It would be a great investment for combating CO2 emissions from transportation. We could fund it with a tax on gas.

    • Melissa Wenzel
      Melissa Wenzel June 16, 2018 at 6:40 am #

      You’re welcome. With the rising popularity of adding ebikes to bike-sharing programs, I could see this market exploding!

    • Karen June 17, 2018 at 8:49 am #

      Thanks Melissa for being such a great ebike adovocate.

      I’ve now got 940 miles on my ebike since the snow melted and absolutely love the ebike commute to work.

      • Melissa Wenzel
        Melissa Wenzel June 18, 2018 at 7:53 am #

        You are very welcome. Being an ebike owner for 10 years makes me pretty passionate and proud, and it has been great to connect with other ebike owners recently. I want to normalize biking, ebiking, women biking, biking in areas that are extremely hilly, biking in areas with few off-road regional trails, etc. And you all help normalize all of these things too (well, with the exception of James and the “women biking” part!!)

        (-:

  2. Frank Phelan June 21, 2018 at 7:32 pm #

    I have a couple questions. First, I currently ride primarily so I can stay out of the nursing home in 30 years, and to save money, and for clean air. So if I got an e-bike, would I be burning fewer calories? Is it less of a workout overall? Or if it’s quicker and that increases my my willingness to bike to more places, would it be a wash that way?

    Second, what about security? A few times a year, I bike a few miles to meet someone, who drives us about 10 miles to breakfast. A more expensive bike is a more attractive target for thieves. Maybe more likely would be vandalism. How hard is it for someone to take the battery? Because disassembling and reassembling the bike would be a drag, as would lugging around a relatively heavy battery. I assume I couldn’t just stick it my pocket.

    Finally, are e-bikes like computers? Could I expect to ride the same one for ten years? I can easily do that with y conventional bike, with tune-ups for routine wear and tear.

    • Melissa Wenzel
      Melissa Wenzel June 22, 2018 at 12:42 pm #

      Hi Frank, these are all great questions. I will answer them from my perspective and anyone else with an ebike can chime in.

      From a mile-to-mile perspective, yes, you’d burn less calories than using a regular bike. My personal best, on the calmest day with temps in the 60’s, biking on a flat trail, was 22 miles on a regular bike in one day. With my asthma and arthritis, that was the best I can do. Using a Nice Ride bike going uphill 6 blocks causes an asthma attack, for comparison. I think my personal best with an ebike is 53 miles in one day. I can ABSOLUTELY say that I bike more, farther, more frequently because of my ebike.

      Ebikes are heavy and NOT easy to steal. The batteries are locked into place so theft isn’t a worry. I do sometimes hear of batteries being stolen on the national site, but to be honest, we’re talking urban LA, Chicago or NYC. Yes, it can happen. I personally haven’t heard of any Minnesota ebike owner having that problem. I’ve had an ebike for 10 years and never had an issue once.

      The last question is the trickiest. With my last ebike, pictured with Jenny’s Pedego, I had electrical issues that were harder to diagnose. I decided to spend more money and get a Pedego bike, because I know and trust the co-owners who only know Pedego ebikes. Just like a regular bike, it’s nothing but a bunch of parts and because I bought a brand that’s only growing, the bike or parts are very likely not to become obsolete. So if something’s wrong, yes, it’s like a computer. You upgrade the software or hardware as needed.

      I believe you could ride the same ebike for 10 years. You’d probably have to replace the battery once if you used it year-round and put a couple of thousand miles on the bike each year.

      Jenny’s had her ebike for over 3,000 miles since last summer and I don’t believe she’s replaced (or is even think of replacing) her battery yet. They’re good for a minimum of 500 charges. With 40 miles per charge, a conservative number, you’re looking at 20,000 miles before needing to replace it. Though some say that like any other battery, it doesn’t stay at peak 4 years later compared to day one.

      Let me know if you ever want to test ride my ebike. Jenny did that for me, and I ended up buying the exact same bike as she did. I had a different style in mind, but the owner convinced me that the one Jenny had was the one I should get. A year later, knowing the difference between the two styles, she was absolutely right.

      • Frank Phelan June 26, 2018 at 10:01 am #

        Thanks for the dope Melissa.

        I wonder why the frames are so heavy? I’d think lighter would be a huge advantage as far as speed and range.

        Maybe when I’m done paying for kids to get through college I’ll get serious about this.

        • Melissa Wenzel June 26, 2018 at 2:23 pm #

          I’m not sure the frames are much heavier than regular bikes (think: Nice Ride Bike) but they do have to carry the extra weight of the battery, motor, electric wires/sensors, etc. And because these bikes go faster, they have to be able to withstand a bit more use/abuse (okay, maybe that’s just me). And to be honest, once a bike gets to be quite a bit more heavy than a regular bike, the variations of “heavy” versus “heavier” doesn’t really matter with an ebike except for bringing it up stairs, putting it on the front of the bus, etc.

      • Jenny June 28, 2018 at 10:34 am #

        Yep, my ebike is at 4500 miles in about 12 months, and the battery is going strong. I did have an issue with the (non-electric) locking mechanism recently, and as part of diagnosing it the bike shop tested my battery’s capacity. It was about 8% less then “brand new,” which is pretty darn good for a battery. I haven’t noticed any difference in the usable range.

        Other than that, the only real problems I’ve had with my ebike are those I have with all bikes: a couple flat tires, and a frozen derailleur from winter cycling.

        I typically use my electric assist bike to shorten the time my work commute takes (1-1.5 hours each way on my road bike), which allows me to bike commute every day. I put in a similar level of bicycling effort (as monitored by my heart rate), but thanks to pedal assist I average ~15mph instead of ~12mph. On really hot days when I don’t want to get super sweaty on the way to work (or if I’m not feeling well) I put in lower effort, use a higher level of pedal assist, and go at a slower speed. In that sense, an electric assist is a lot like a derailleur – you can increase/decrease in order to make pedaling easier/harder.

        From a calorie-burn perspective, I think it’s basically down to personal choice in how you want to use the electric assist. It’s theoretically possible to put in very little effort by using a high pedal assist, and pedaling lightly… but even then that’s better (for many reasons) than sitting in a car. Personally my overall “vigorous activity” calorie burn has increased substantially for the past year (of ebike ownership) compared to the year before.

  3. Paul June 24, 2018 at 10:11 am #

    I’d be curious to hear from anyone who’s bought and used one of those kits that convert a conventional bike to an ebike. They sell for around $150. Are they as good as “dedicated” ebikes? Seems like you could cut down on some of the weight by attaching to an old aluminum frame.

    • Melissa Wenzel
      Melissa Wenzel June 26, 2018 at 8:24 am #

      Me too. I haven’t heard of anyone I know that has one/uses one. But I know ~15 ebike owners where the bike was built for that.

      I keep getting ads on Facebook and other socila media outlets that the newest, best “ebike kit” is now available or is on kickstarter. Because many people have a bike, want an ebike, but don’t want to buy a second (or 3rd, 4th, etc) bike especially at ebike costs.

  4. Anon June 28, 2018 at 11:03 am #

    Thanks, Melissa! Do you have recommendations for affordable e-bikes here in the Cities? My partner and I are about to have a kid, and we are living basically on her income and my student loans. An e-bike seems preferable to a new car (for many non-financial reasons, too!) but I’m not sure how feasible $2-3k is on our budget. Any suggestions/thoughts welcome! (Including your experience with the Affinity Plus loan.)

    • Melissa Wenzel
      Melissa Wenzel June 28, 2018 at 1:04 pm #

      Hmmm…..it’s been recommended to not necessarily buy a new ebike for less than $2,000. You get what you pay for. MANY more bike shops are selling ebikes, so take one for a ride, and ask what the differences are between higher priced ones and lower priced ones. Most shops will have a variety of price ranges. And BE SURE that they can repair an ebike, electronically-speaking, if they sell them.

      Craigslist and Facebook marketplace both have ebikes for sale. Be wary of “too good to be true” ads. Don’t buy from those sources unless you’ve thoroughly vetted the ebike.

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