Earlier this fall, I performed an of-the-moment transportation experiment. Several days every week for a month, I ditched my beloved hauler of a minivan for an electric bike. Aside from an e-bike’s tailpipe-less upsides, I wanted to find out if such a device could satisfyingly replace both van and traditional bike as my daily conveyance for stretches at a time.
E-bike proponents swear their rigs can do the work of commuter cars, and if that sounds like a dubious proposition—an e-bike is neither meant to yield a true cycling workout, nor to execute family trips to Costco—just look across the Atlantic. Unlike us, the Europeans are buying approximately one million e-bikes a year. What, I wondered, are we missing?
Soon enough, I receive Big White—the new, 61-pound loaner e-bike that shows up at my doorstep on a pretty October day. The next morning, after unplugging Big White just as I would an iPhone or laptop, I take a maiden trip to the office on her.
Riding through my hilly Austin neighborhood, I feel like a different kind of bike rider. My commute has a distinct Texas style. Where I live, west of downtown, there are no bike lanes or shoulders, but there are plenty of drivers who insist that the car is king. I ride and train on my pedal-powered racing bike a lot, and sometimes drivers come around me when there’s little room to spare.
My e-bike changes the game. On one steep stretch of Westlake Drive, the charged machine has me traveling, with only a slight amount of pedaling, at 21 miles per hour uphill—or three times as fast as I'd go on a regular bike. My joy is genuine, and my speed is just fast enough that the woman driving the Suburban behind me decides to follow rather than attempt a pass. As I approach the intersection with Redbud Trail, I’m in the middle of the lane.
That’s right, I own the whole road—at 8:30 a.m., on a Tuesday. In Texas. On a bicycle.
Electric bikes are neither de-tuned motorcycles—most reputable e-bikes today are “pedal-actuated,” meaning they add to pedaling power as opposed to just providing a throttle to twist—nor mopeds. They run on lithium-ion batteries, using the same core technology that you’d find inside a laptop computer or a Tesla. And battery-fueled bikes come in different flavors: road, mountain, cargo, commuter, cruiser, folding, and fat-tire.
Big White is really an urban-carver known as the Stromer ST2. Among electric bikes, the ST2 is a Rolex, from price ($7,000) to heritage (Stromer’s parent brand: Switzerland’s BMC bicycles) to thoughtful design: a big battery sleeves into the oversize down-tube; the aluminum frame looks sculpted; and an informative computer smoothly incorporates into the bike’s top-tube. Stromer generously consented to loaning me a brand new ST2, complete with powerful head and taillights, and fenders over its fat, slick tires, for a month.
The first couple days with the Stromer are an e-bike honeymoon. Courtesy of ample electricity and a little leg power, Big White takes me door-to-door, home to office, in under 25 minutes—about the time I need to drive the more circuitous route I often trace (by my kids’ school) with the van. Upon returning to my place from work one night, Big White’s computer tells me that the 48-volt, 814-watt-hour battery has barely blinked, as 76 percent of my power remains even after traveling 15 miles.
One warm evening I even leave my perch of a home upon Big White to buy a pint of ice cream at the supermarket. I put in enough effort to make my lungs and legs feel like they deserve the sugar and butterfat, and I have a blast mixing fitness intervals with electric boost. I fly on the 4.2-mile return trip. When I pull the Dulce de Leche out of my messenger bag, it’s still frozen. On my best day on a racing bike, I couldn’t match that kind of delivery service.
Really an urban-oriented e-bike’s goals are twofold: Provide a cycling-style experience by requiring occasional effort and gulps of fresh air. Secondly, deliver enough power so that one needn’t arrive at a store or office in a messy lather. Big White, in my first few days with it, had nary a misfire.
The e-bike industry hopes to impress many American riders. According to the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry, European consumers purchased 1.1 million pedal-assist electric bikes in 2014—a 26-percent gain in year-over-year sales. The size of the nascent U.S. e-bike market is a modest 100,000 annual sales, estimates Pete Prebus, a blogger who founded Electric Bike Report five years ago and is helping e-bike manufacturers organize 2016’s traveling Electric Bike Expo. “Growth will still take some time. We don’t yet have Europe’s big cycling culture and infrastructure,” says Prebus. “We still need to get past the idea that bikes are just toys, or made for hard-core riding.”
E-bike supporters believe that car-addicted Americans might be enticed by a couple obvious upsides to electric cycling. For one thing, e-bikes can skip past cluttered parking lots and head straight to the bike racks. They’re also potential game-changers for gridlocked commuters. According to the nonprofit PeopleForBikes, 22 states have laws in place that permit e-bikes to use designated bike lanes and paths, and pro e-bike advocacy currently exists in a handful of other states, too. Just last month, there was a serious victory for two-wheel voltage when California clarified its laws regarding e-bikes by distinguishing them from mopeds and, in many cases, opened its bike lanes to electric bikes. Details of the law included categorizing e-bikes into three classes, from those supplying pedal-assisted power with a maximum motor-boosted speed of 20 miles per hour to similar-performing models featuring throttles to pedal-assisted bikes with motor-boosted top speeds of 28 miles per hour. Complicated, yes. But still progress.
Everything was simpler a decade ago, when it was a miracle that any e-bike, like those built by former Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, traveled more than a dozen or so faultless miles. Following his successful career as an auto executive, Iacocca became a modern forefather of e-biking with his battery-fueled, EV Global Motors bicycles. Too bad the heavy lead-acid and nickel-metal-hydride batteries of the day faded fast, and so ultimately did the visions of Iacocca and other early e-bike builders.
Today’s lithium-ion batteries, on the other hand, could be the biggest reason why e-bikes will someday roll into the mainstream. Li-ion batteries are durable, potent, and lightweight—and continue to evolve courtesy of companies like Panasonic, Samsung, and Tesla. Unfortunately, Li-ion batteries are also expensive. Good e-bikes can run the price of a used commuter car: top electric bike manufacturers as well as high-profile bicycle companies including Felt, Specialized, and Trek sell most of their e-bikes for $2,000 and up. Upscale electric-bike components from Shimano and Bosch add smoothness as well as cost. Stromer, meanwhile, is unashamed of sticker prices that could amount to a down payment on a new Honda Accord. The company sells one model for $9,200.
“Our goal isn’t to create an affordable bike,” says Brent Meyers, Stromer's national sales manager. “It’s to redefine what people think is possible in an electric bike.”
I spend days at a time probing the limits of Big White. While my van sits idle, and the two-wheeled commutes and errands pile up, I begin to grasp this about my high-voltage ride: it loves a control freak.
While impressively powerful, Big White’s gearless electric motor has a sweet spot that for a time proves frustratingly elusive. There are multiple ways to manage the motor’s level of participation: the 20-speed Shimano drivetrain; three different levels of power output (selected via handlebar-mounted, thumb-controlled buttons); the integrated bike computer’s adjustable torque setting; and a Stromer smartphone app that, courtesy of Bluetooth, invites me to custom-tune the bike via characteristics including speed and range.
Initially I decide to participate at the level of riding a bike—I choose the gears, and leave Big White’s motor, along with its torque sensor, incline sensor, gyroscope, and abundant other technology, to decide the rest for me. Big White should run like a Rolex, right?
In fact, the Stromer can behave more like a mercurial St. Bernard. While I coast on flat terrain, the bike sometimes slows unevenly, perhaps due to a torque-related issue called “cogging” that can affect certain electric motors like the ST2’s. And Big White’s ability to add charge back to its battery via braking energy—known as “regenerative braking”—occasionally seems to intrude on the bike’s momentum. E-bike experts like Prebus say “regen” returns are generally modest, and mostly important to electric-bike riders wanting to squeeze every last mile out of their batteries. I’m not the guy gunning for distance records between charges.
Occasionally, while I pedal the cranks slowly and at slow speeds, the motor also seems undecided about kicking in. Perhaps a brake sensor switch had gone awry, Prebus would later tell me. He rides a similar e-bike and has no drivability issues.
I put in a call to Stromer, and marketing manager Scott Anderson believes the problems lie with me. “Put the bike in power mode ‘3’ [the highest power level],” he writes via email. “Focus on shifting only the rear gears.”
Options narrowed, Big White becomes more responsive. One fall night, the e-bike saves my flesh. Riding home from work, uphill through my neighborhood and in the dark, I hear what the Stromer’s bright headlight can’t spot: the irked bark of a dog, which is only becoming louder. I am hard on the pedals. The muted electric motor subtly whines. Big White takes me up, up, up at a crazy clip, and the barks fade.
The e-bike’s performances keep me tallying pluses and minuses. “No” for trips to the dry cleaner—nowhere to hang shirts. “Yes” for a downtown book festival: there’s no need to hitch saddlebags with spare clothes to Big White’s rear rack (which can hold a 37-pound payload), because I arrive sweat-free at Austin’s state capitol on a warm day. “Yes” to the bike’s integrated, computerized locking feature. The Stromer is pricey, and when I lock the bike it reassuringly immobilizes itself. If stolen, Big White will send me distress texts via GSM communications technology, and allow me to track its location with my smartphone.
After several weeks of e-biking, I want to give an unequivocal “like” to Big White’s impressive battery and motor, too. In the end I come to appreciate them—and the Stromer as a transportation tool—almost all of the time.
Big White’s impressive power allows me to rule downtown Austin’s bike lanes, and I have to resist the temptation to treat push-bike cyclists like slalom cones. Occasionally I catch a sneer upon passing a hardcore roadie who apparently thinks that I’m not only uncool on a nerdy, big-hub electric bike—I’m also cheating.
I can read his mind: Where’s the sweat equity on an e-bike? I’ve come to care less. The roadie can continue working. I’m getting to work, and—increasingly—getting there fast.
I don’t, however, want to leave the bike lane and only mix with traffic. Big White’s boost cuts out at a governed 28 miles per hour, and often that’s insufficient to keep up with the vehicular flow. The flip-side? Motorists are unaccustomed to a bike rider who’s pedaling casually and yet still doing nearly 30 miles per hour. One morning I’m forced to swerve around the Ford Escape that makes a right turn just ahead of me. The driver is wide-eyed at how fast I come upon her.
But that big battery—which Stromer says can take a rider as far as 90 miles per charge—along with the stout motor weigh a combined and portly 20 pounds. On a day of sketchy weather, I humbly learn when I should definitely leave the e-bike on its kickstand.
Partway through a Friday trip downtown on the Stromer, a hard rain commences. Headed downhill, I enter into an off-camber, right turn about as slowly as possible. But the technology gods are not with me. Big White’s rear wheel, carrying all sorts of weight and momentum over the wet pavement, slides abruptly. I go down.
One brake lever snaps like a twig, and the taillight shatters. Otherwise the bike and I are mostly OK, and I get no argument from the Stromer in retreating uphill to my house.
Yes, what had been an urgent errand now has to wait, and I’m reminded that Big White specifically and e-bikes in general really are their own animals. They’re neither traditional bikes, nor are they gas-fueled vehicles that use two wheels or four. Learn how to harness an e-bike’s juice and your commute may shrink in time, hassle, and expense. At the very least, your “drive” will be easier on the environment, and more exhilarating than it is in some highly sealed car.
Give me mild weather and some routes that don’t always mix with heavy traffic, and I’d ride the likes of Big White for work and many errands a good 75 percent of the time. The e-bike wouldn’t replace my bike—no way. It would give my minivan a break. That said, all bets (and the e-bike’s battery) are off if the weather is mostly bad, or traffic is overwhelmingly aggro. Then I’ll happily slide behind a steering wheel, and have windshield wipers and airbags at my service.