E-bikes are being used in novel ways. In the Bay Area, Marin County cyclists have taken to riding electric mountain bikes up steep climbs to feast more easily on what matters to them most: downhills.
I’VE FLOWN 3,000 miles from Massachusetts to get turned on in San Francisco. At the corner of Greenwich and Columbus in North Beach, a block or two from the City Lights bookstore, I see the young, stringy guy I’m looking for, standing in front of a place I still can’t believe is for real. It’s a two-week-old bike shop called the New Wheel, which deals exclusively in electric bikes—or e-bikes, or “pedelec” bikes, or buzzy bikes, or whatever Americans will end up calling bikes equipped with a 350-watt motor that helps you scoot up hills.
“There really isn’t a good name yet,” says Brett Thurber, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who owns the New Wheel. Thurber is a smart, earnest entrepreneur who believes his stable of e-bikes represents a “complete transportation solution.” He’s clearly devoted to the cause: before he owned a store, he sold e-bikes to customers one at a time, using a trailer-towing e-bike to deliver the machines all over the city, even to nosebleed areas like Potrero Hill.
“It was pretty funny to see Brett with this trailer dragging behind him, with a bike tied down on it,” says Jane Goldman, a friend of Thurber’s who lives in Potrero. “One guy, two bikes. He was sweating even with the motor.”
Thurber is well-positioned to catch a big retail wave. According to green-tech analysts at the consulting firm Pike Research, annual U.S. e-bike sales are expected to more than double in the next five years, from 350,000 to 800,000. Meanwhile, in bike-crazed countries like Holland and China, the revolution has already arrived. In Holland, every fourth bike sold is battery powered. In China, there are 120 million e-bikes on the road.
Bike snobs may grumble, but the new generation of e-bikes hitting Europe and the U.S. are stylish, technically sophisticated, and hard to dislike. Steve Roseman, founder of the San Francisco—based Electric Bike Network, told me that riding one felt like “a fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and made you twice as strong.”
I’ve ridden an e-bike before, but never in a hilly, trafficky city like San Francisco—the perfect setting for a test of their utility. Thurber and I saddle up on a pair of handsome aluminum-framed Ohm Urbans and head for the steepest, most commuter-aggravating challenge we can find. That turns out to be the southeast face of Telegraph Hill, one of the fabled Seven Hells of San Francisco and an incline that organizers of the Coors Classic pro cycling event chose for the race prologue in 1985 and 1988. The uphill grades are somewhere between 20 percent and Oh My God.
After tapping the buttons on my handlebar-mounted computer—roughly the size and shape of a cigarette pack—and selecting level three (next-to-highest in terms of motorized assist), then level four (maximum), I find myself gliding to the top with quiet ease. I pass a haplessly laboring ten-speeder and almost feel compelled to apologize. Automobiles bumper-to-bumpering their way up the hill watch me whiz past and want some of what I’m having. I notice things I wouldn’t notice if I were grinding away under my own steam: the tight, lush scenery on Lombard, the sweet aroma of bursting cherry blossoms, the hangnail on my right pinkie. It takes us maybe five minutes to gain several hundred feet, at which point we jump off the bikes and grandly survey the gorgeous city below, unburdened by sweat, pain, or thirst. Puritan-leaning New Englander though I am, I like it.
Later, I check Coors Classic records for times of the world’s best racers on Telegraph Hill. It took Tour de France champions Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault—their heart rates redlining, no doubt—pretty much the same amount of time it took me and Thurber. Who, I might add, was wearing jeans.