It was Steve Kenny who put the bug in my ear. “Have you heard of these things called electric bikes?” he said.
Showing me a webpage full of battery-assisted Schwinn bicycles, the then-councilman said he thought they could be the answer for all those who want to bike to work but not get hot and sweaty.
The idea had appeal, so I investigated.
The first thing I learned was that Schwinn was not the way to go. They’ve had a lot of customer complaints, and my e-mails to them went unanswered.
Things got worse when I contacted two local bike shops—Rotations in Southampton, and Bikehampton in Hampton Bays—and was told that they didn’t carry electric bikes. They thought they were undependable.
Then, last November, I heard a report on NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Correspondent Anthony Kuhn said that in China E-bikes are selling like hotcakes. One dealer estimated the number of battery-assisted bicycles in Shanghai alone to be over a million.
Back on the web, I found a number of websites offering E-bikes, but how could I trust what they were offering? Further research (including a chat with an environmentally conscious Massachusetts house painter who puts an E-bike on his truck and uses it to go back and forth each day between his home and whatever jobsite he’s on) took me to a store on Manhattan’s Upper East Side called NYCeWheels.
“It’s true that your local bike shops won’t promote electric bikes,” the NYCeWheels rep told me, “but that’s because they don’t understand them, and the earliest imports weren’t very good. Now they’ve improved, and we’re selling a lot of them.”
Last month, I decided to test-ride one.
In his NPR report, Mr. Kuhn said that the bike he rode in China was good for about 30 miles between battery charges and might get 42 with assisted pedaling. (You plug the battery into an outlet at night to recharge it.) The guy at NYCeWheels said that was optimistic. A big guy like me, he said, was more likely to get 12 to 18 miles.
I took two E-bikes for a ride. One was a heavy, 60-pound behemoth made in China called the eZeebike Torza. It had a lithium battery and one motorized wheel. The handlebar had a throttle and a dial by which you could adjust the power.
I started out at NYCeWheels’ shop on York Avenue, cut over to East End Avenue, then rode north past Carl Schurz Park and back on York to 84th Street. The last few blocks involved a significant hill.
I found the bike took a little getting used to. If I stopped and rested my foot on the pedal, it sometimes wanted to take off on me. (A quick squeeze of the handbrake stopped that.) But otherwise (and forgetting the fact that the battery inexplicably died during my second loop) it worked as advertised.
The second ride was on a folding bike equipped with an after-market power kit called Bionx (pronounced “Bionics”). This is a Canadian product, and you can find YouTube videos of it on NYCeWheels’ website.
This bike was much lighter, had a battery pack attached to the frame, and came with an optional throttle that let you increase power as needed. I think I preferred it to the eZeebike.
The principle in both cases is the same. If you’re on level ground, the bike operates like a regular bike. In fact, the Bionx has a feature that allows you to put some energy back into the battery through the handbrakes when you’re going downhill. But when you exert yourself, the motor kicks in. I can tell you, sailing uphill at 15 miles an hour is a blast!
Neither system is cheap. An eZeebike costs between $1,100 and $3,550, depending on the model. The Bionx adapter kit starts at $1,100, but with options can cost up to $1,600. The guy at NYCeWheels said that you can mount the Bionx system yourself, or have a bike shop do it. It will take two or three hours of labor.
NYCeWheels’ owner, Bert Cebular, says his sales have been brisk, with business doubling in the past year. “Electric bikes are getting more and more popular,” he said. His customers include office commuters, delivery boys and people who just want to bike but need a little help.
I’d say that E-bikes are if not an idea whose time has come then one that is almost here. If you’re a little old or out of shape, or if you want to bike to work in proper dress, contact NYCeWheels (nycewheels.com) or by phone at (212) 737-3078. They’ll tell you how you can order a fully assembled electric bike ($200 shipping charge) or a Bionx adaptor kit (about $30 shipping).
It could be a great alternative to sitting in County Road 39 traffic.