LeBlanc: Electric bicycle puts extra oomph in every pedal stroke

Call me soft, but e-bikes have their place

This feels like cheating.

I’m zooming up Lamar Boulevard like a Tour de France champion, hardly breaking a sweat on a route that, most summer days, leaves me panting and exhausted. That’s because with every pedal stroke I’m getting a little electric boost, compliments of the electric bicycle I’m riding.

I used to scoff at electric bikes. I’m a real commuter, I thought, logging 15 to 20 miles a day on my muscle-powered machine, getting exercise and flipping out with happiness and endorphins. Electric bikes? Those were for wimps.

Then came blistering summer after blistering summer. And did I mention I’m 50 now? I guess I’m going soft, but I went weak in the knees with love for the e-bike I borrowed recently. I’m not alone, either. Electric bikes — already popular in Europe and Asia — are popping up all over Austin.

“An e-bike can flatten the hills and beat the heat so nicely that even a very marginally athletic person can use a bike for transportation,” says Nicole Zinn, owner of Rocket Electrics, the Austin shop that loaned me the bike. (Other bike shops in town also sell electric bikes.) “When an e-bike is looked at as a car replacement, rather than a bike replacement, people see the value of its utility as a two-wheeled transportation tool.”

The 54-pound, $2,800 Easy Motion Neo City model I’m riding is powered by a lithium ion battery the size of a loaf of French bread attached to the bike’s down tube. It’s made with recyclable components and snaps out for recharging, which takes about three hours.

It costs about 2 cents to charge that battery, and depending on terrain, rider weight and how hard you pedal, an electric bike like the one I’m riding will take you 30 miles or more. My daily commute of about 18 miles gets me from home to the swimming pool where I train, on to the American-Statesman offices and home again with juice to spare. BH, the manufacturer, says a battery typically lasts three to five years or about 1,000 charges; a replacement battery costs about $500 (up to $1,000 for other e-bikes).

I’m not suggesting an electric bike as the perfect way to get fit, but I will note two things — electric bikes might encourage sedentary types to hop on a bike and get at least some exercise, and they make a lot of sense for commuting. You get the advantages of a bicycle — easy to park, convenient, cheaper than a car and fun.

The first patents for electric bikes date to the 1890s, but the batteries were so bulky that the bikes were more like motorcycles. Since then, batteries have gotten smaller, lighter and more efficient. Electric bikes were first mass produced in China in the mid-1990s. They exploded in popularity about 10 years ago, with the advent of the lithium ion battery.

About 34 million electric bicycles were produced in 2013, according to Edward Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association. Most of those were sold in China, but about 160,000 were sold in the United States, he said.

Not all e-bikes work the same way. They can be pedal-assist, meaning the rider gets an electric boost with each pedal stroke. Others work more like motor scooters — turn the throttle and the engine kicks in, even without pedaling. The bike I borrowed did both, but I didn’t use the throttle. It had four levels of pedal-assist. I used it mainly on the “standard” setting but switched it two steps up to the highest level on big hills.

Motor vehicle registration is not required for electric bikes, but you must be 16 years old to ride one. Austin Energy offers a $150 to $250 rebate for buying a two-wheeled electric vehicle as part of its Plug In Partners program.

So what about laws governing electric bikes? Texas was the first state in the country to pass e-bike legislation in 2001. As long as it weighs less than 100 pounds, doesn’t exceed more than 20 miles per hour without human assistance (you can pedal it faster) and it is equipped with an electric motor, it’s considered a bicycle. As such, you can take it anywhere you can ride a bicycle. That’s a big advantage over gas-powered motor scooters, which have to stay on roads — and stuck in traffic.

Robin Stallings, executive director of BikeTexas, a nonprofit organization that lobbies for cyclists, compares the difference between regular bikes and electric ones to the difference between mechanical and electric typewriters. He’s got an e-bike of his own and says riding it feels like ice skating.

“It’s such an easy glide you hardly have to pedal,” he says. “I like to use an electric bike because it’s faster, cheaper and more convenient for trips under 3 or 4 miles — especially when I have to wear a suit and don’t have time to take shower.”

The e-bike turned my 45-minute sweaty slog home into a breezy, 25-minute ride. And on days when I’ve already logged a long run or swim practice, it’s easy on a set of legs that don’t quite feel like cranking at full power.

As for that nagging feeling of cheating? John Dawson, manager of Rocket Electrics, told me to get over it.

“Are you cheating with an electric drill? People can’t get their brains around the fact that it’s more than exercise. It’s not about machismo,” he says.

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