Sunday 11 March 2018

A few months of owning an e-bike

After buying the e-bike in late December, I’ve used it almost every day (skipping the days when the tropical cyclone was being a bit of a nuisance or I wasn’t in Auckland). It’s been great – absolutely worth the money that I paid for it. Having the e-bike has meant I can go way, way further than I used to – even heading out to the airport for a 50 minute ride just to try it out. Bernard Hickey asked for an honest evaluation six months after buying the e-bike. Here’s one after 2-3 months.

Hills and Distance
This is by far and away the best benefit of having the e-bike. A trip that used to take me about 15 minutes from City and Newmarket campus now takes 7. On top of that, I arrive far less sweaty and able to get into work straight away, rather than needing another 5 minutes to recuperate. As alluded to earlier, my typical manual bike range was probably around 5km on a good day – if everything was flat I could go much further (I biked about 20km around Mission Bay and St Heliers without any issue on my old bike), but the hills around the city really zap my energy (and I’m not that fit). With the e-bike, I did about 30km in a single trip without feeling tired at all (although I did stop for ice cream in the middle).

I managed to get some pannier/saddle bags for my bike on sale for about $60, adding 60L of carrying capacity onto the bike. I can also wear a large backpack, and now it’s actually practical for me to do a weekly supermarket trip on the bicycle. No need for a car, and I can get about 3-4 shopping bags worth of stuff back home easily. This has become particularly important because the 277 shopping centre in Newmarket has been closed for upgrades, which means Greenlane is the nearest supermarket (3.5km instead of 700m). As a bonus, the pannier bags are also great for board games, and I can get a large selection of games along to any game night. Also as a bonus, these pannier bags come with built-in waterproof covers that are also a reflective bright yellow, helping make the bike more visible at night.

It is so much easier to go to events now, rather than sitting at home and feeling like it will be a huge hassle to go anywhere. When I really did want to go a friends place, I’d have to pay a ridiculous amount to Uber/Zoomy there, but now I can just ride the bike. There’s something about the freedom/liberation that comes with having access to transportation; I’m not an expert, but it’s probably something that’s well known in social sciences. It also helps with Pokemon Go – being able to get to raids quickly means actually spending less time on it overall. I’ve also done a few trips where I’ve just gone out to random places for dinner, cycling about 10km to get to some highly reviewed place on Zomato just to try it out. I never would have bothered before if I had to public transport there and back.

My complicated three-step bike security system seems to be working. Apart from the standard bike chain and my SmartHalo alarm, a critical step is the rear wheel lock. If it hadn’t come with the bike, I probably wouldn’t have bought one. Essentially, it’s a key-lock that puts a bar through the spokes of the rear wheel, effectively rendering it stationary. No one can ride it away, meaning that if someone wants to steal the e-bike then they will need to pick up and lift it into a truck or whatever. It’s pretty heavy, so that’s not easy to do quickly without being noticed by someone. Also by that point, the alarm detects enough motion to go off, and the (very) loud alarm should mean they drop it and run. The weird thing about security is that you don’t really know if it’s working unless your stuff gets stolen (in which case you know that it didn’t work), but thus far it has had a 100% success rate in keeping my e-bike safe.

Assist Levels
When I first got the bike, I was told that an assist level of 2 or 3 would be enough in most cases. The way that the sensor/motor works on different bikes, but on mine it seems that setting the assist level essentially sets a target speed for the bike. If the bike is going below the target speed, then the motor turns on, and if the bike is going above the target speed, the motor is off. Level 1 is about 12km/h, Level 2 is about 18 km/h, Level 3 is about 25km/h, Level 4 is about 30km/h, and Level 5 is uncapped (always on). When you first ride the bike, Level 3 feels fast enough. After awhile, riding on the road next to cars and buses going past at close proximity at 50km/h, Level 3 doesn’t feel like enough. Since I predominantly use my bike for commuting, and I’m often trying to get there as quickly as possible, level 5 is the most common setting that I use now. Is it bad for the battery lifespan? Probably. Does it get me where I need to go faster? Probably not given that traffic lights are the main problem. Does it make me feel a little less anxious about being late? Yes.

Basically, saying that e-bikes are faster is really oversimplified. The main pain for most cyclist is hills, and you definitely go faster on hills with an e-bike. The motor also really helps with acceleration, getting you up to speed quickly which makes you feel faster. However, on most e-bikes the top speed is capped at about 32km/h, which may be fast enough in most circumstances, but is actually slower than the top speed that you can achieve on a standard bike. On the flats, I have noticed that I can get to about 35-38km/h, which is a little bit slower than on my old mountain bike. I’m pretty sure that I can put this down to the added weight on the bike, meaning that you need to generate quite a bit more force to keep accelerating after the motor has cut out. While you can get to the top speed on an e-bike more easily, it may not as high as you’re used to. This is perhaps most important when you are on the road, where there are cars and buses going at 50km/h and you sometimes need to take the lane and might struggle to keep up.

“It’s still just a normal bike when you run out of battery”
This oft touted benefit of using an e-bike in comparison to buying a motorcycle or moped that stops running when it runs out of fuel is strictly speaking true. Except that you’ve probably gotten used to riding an e-bike over the last couple of months. The e-bike is maybe 8-10kg heavier than your old non-electric bike. Your legs aren’t as strong as they used to be when you were struggling up hills every day. The combination of these two factors means that actually, riding the e-bike around without the electric assist is not that easy. Doable for short distances, but if you run out of battery far from home, don’t expect to be able to just ride it like it’s a normal bike the rest of the way.

Battery Capacity and Voltage
The battery indicator on the computer for most e-bikes is based on the voltage. There is a relationship between voltage and battery capacity – for a 36V battery, at fully charged it is probably actually outputting 40V, and it drops down to around 30V when it is running out of charge. The bike computer typically tells you that you’re running out of battery around the 32-33V mark, while the battery itself probably waits until you’re closer to the 28 or 29V mark. Does this matter? Well it turns out that voltage is proportional to your bike’s acceleration – on a fully charged battery, it actually does feel quite a lot faster than when the battery is close to dead. By the time the battery is down to 32V, full power isn’t enough to get you up the hill anymore. So it means that you end up charging the battery often, which means putting the battery through more charge cycles, which maybe means reducing the overall lifespan of the battery (but maybe not). In practice for me, I’m charging the battery once it drops to about 50% capacity as indicated by the battery, which I suspect is about 32V. This also means that the range may be a little less than what is actually claimed if you’re recharging the battery once it gets to about 50%.

So that’s a follow-up on what I’ve found out about the e-bike after riding it for almost three months. I should say that the pros definitely outweigh the cons for me, but I can also see why people end up upgrading to more powerful bikes after a few years. If you can afford it, you might like to move straight to the higher end ones and it might last you a bit longer. Hopefully this post is helpful for providing some information about the more practical considerations beyond shiny marketing materials, and if you have any questions feel free to get in touch on Twitter (@andrewtychen).