A bike has meant joy and freedom to me ever since I got past the training wheels and awkward falls on a gravel driveway (ouch!) on my first bike, Archaeopteryx Eagle Solo. Yes, I was a nerdy, melodramatic kid with a dinosaur phase ?
I never turned into a “serious” biker with narrow tires and clip-in pedals (too scary for me!). But when our family lived in Germany, we biked to go shopping, through the parks, and to visit friends, as people do there. I shipped my heavy German city bike back to the U.S., and especially when I decided to take on a no-car challenge in September 2018 I rode it to appointments, the grocery store, and friends’ houses.
It was fun! But it was slow. Ten miles an hour was fast for me. And the hills were a huge deterrent. A round-trip ride to a place five miles away could take hours, as I got tired and had to walk up long or steep slopes. And where I live, there are hills between me and just about any destination.
Enter the e-bike.
I rented two different e-bike models (plus a folding e-bike, cool!) during my no-car challenge, and I was immediately hooked. As Europeans have discovered in droves, electric bikes have advantages over both regular bikes and cars and they’re fun and still provide exercise. I’ve found that even the disadvantages are manageable. Here’s what I’ve learned riding an electric bike since December 2018:
What’s it like to ride a pedal-assist e-bike?
It’s just like riding a regular bike, except you suddenly have really strong legs ?
Some e-bikes have throttles, like a motorcycle, so you can turn the throttle and move forward without pedaling. I rented one of these, but I decided against this kind. The throttle was nice to have when starting from a standstill up a steep hill. But I found it a little bit dangerous, because I could rev it by mistake and have trouble controlling the suddenly accelerating bike.
So the bike I purchased is a pedal-assist model. Nothing happens unless I pedal. And the gears (9 speeds) and brakes are exactly like those on a regular bike.
I control the power level, from no power (level zero) to level 4. The electric motor “assists” the pedaling, so I feel like my legs become more powerful at each successive level. I usually ride on level 1 or 2, but if I see a big hill ahead of me, I’ll bump it up to 3 or 4 and suddenly have turbo-quads.
This means I can plan trips to hilly places without any worries, even while carrying groceries. And on level 2 I can routinely go about 15 miles an hour instead of 10.. faster, farther, easier.
E-bikes make the joy and freedom of biking accessible for more people, to more destinations.
Why not just walk?
Walking, of course, is the most fundamental form of human exercise. I especially love walking through the woods or to a destination a mile away (I wish I had more of those!). But my family doctor’s office, for instance, is about 7 miles away. It would take over 2 hours to walk there. I can bike there in 30 minutes (not much difference compared to 20 minutes by car), almost all of it on a trail.
Charging the battery
My bike can go about 50 miles on a full charge. I usually plug it in with an outdoor extension cord in the yard. I haven’t yet ridden more than 50 miles in one day, but when I do, I’ll just take the charger module with me, pop out the battery and charge it in a nearby Starbucks like a laptop. It takes a couple of hours to charge fully, but I could definitely top it up and keep going. “Sore butt syndrome” after two hours or so is my limiting factor, not my battery!
What about road safety? If I’m biking for transportation and not just for fun, how can I get anywhere safely on the congested roads of Northern Virginia?
On my no-car challenge, I discovered two extremely helpful facts. One is the extensive network of multi-purpose trails for walkers and bikers in this area, many of them “rails to trails” initiatives that follow old railway lines. That means they connect the most important business districts. After riding less than a mile to reach a trail, I can get to Arlington, Georgetown, Bethesda, Crystal City, Vienna, Leesburg, Mount Vernon and many more places on car-free, paved trails.
It’s also a game-changer that the Google Maps bike option works really well. It automatically gives me safer alternative routes, including trails and neighborhood streets. Sometimes it sends me down a dead-end residential street but then I notice a pedestrian cut-through to another street that I can access on my bike. How did they know that was there??
So I put on my AirPods and happily navigate where I want to go. In 600 feet, turn left on Washington and Old Dominion Trail. It’s not ideal to wear earbuds, but I can still hear the traffic sounds, and I think it’s safer than trying to look at a phone while riding or find a place to pull over every few minutes to check directions. Speaking of safety, I also love the little rear-view mirror I mounted on my helmet (thanks to Jessica H. for the inspiration!).
OK, but what about weather?
I’m equipped to handle just about anything except lightning and ice, thanks to a modest lineup of protective equipment (mostly from REI):
- A raincoat with a hood that can go over my helmet
- A thermal beanie and headband under my helmet
- Ski-type undershirts and leggings
- Biking gloves with a thermal lining
- Rain pants that zip over my regular pants
- Rain booties with elastic to go over my shoes
- Skydiving goggles that fit over my glasses and repel rain
- Waterproof pouches for my phone and wallet
- Front, back and wheel lights, plus an extra spotlight that illuminates the road or trail in front of me.
For the past two years, I’ve put my winter-worthiness to the test by joining Freezing Saddles, a DC-area biking challenge where participants ride at least one mile every day during the winter to collect points for their team. Sometimes it was just a few times around the block in the slush for me, and I did miss some days, but the experience has shown me that I can ride and have fun in just about any weather.
I don’t commute to an office, but when I go to an appointment, I crank up the power-assist on the way there to avoid being overly sweaty. Fortunately, even in hot and humid DC-area weather, biking creates its own nice breeze. One big fail happened when I set out for an afternoon networking group meeting with no rain gear. I was completely drenched by a sudden downpour and had to borrow a towel and even some clothes from the kind host…
What can I carry on my bike?
I can easily tote about five plastic bags worth of groceries: one in each saddlebag, one in my backpack, and the lightest ones hanging from the handlebars. With bungee cords, I’ve carried a pile of boxes to the post office, and even a large pizza. My e-bike would also easily accommodate a child seat or trailer.
But Pearl is not a cargo bike, as I discovered on one grocery run when I got excited about a sale on canned beans. Overloaded with the heavy saddlebags, the fender rubbed on the tire, and then a strap broke and got tangled up in the gears. I had to walk Pearl to the bike shop (fortunately nearby) and take an Uber home with my groceries. Definitely not worth the savings on cheap beans ? When it’s time for another bike someday in the future, I’ll choose one that is built to handle more cargo.
What about licenses, permissions, insurance, and liability?
Like a regular bike, no special license is needed to ride an e-bike, and they are not registered as vehicles. In most places around the country, e-bikes are welcomed on trails even if it says “no motorized vehicles” (although it’s prudent and polite to limit speed, my bike automatically stops adding power at 20 mph). And according to my insurance company, it’s covered as household property if it’s damaged or stolen, with no special policy needed.
If I accidentally run into someone on my bike, which of course could happen on a regular bike too, my homeowner’s insurance would provide my liability coverage.
But uh oh, I just found this out while researching this blog post: according to laws in Virginia, DC and Maryland (also North Carolina and Alabama), if I’m hit by a car, and I’m even just 1% at fault (contributory negligence), I can’t get compensation in a personal injury lawsuit, even if the motorist was 99% at fault. Yikes! Biker beware (this applies to e-bikes, regular bikes and pedestrians too). Yet another reason to carefully follow the rules of the road!
What about transporting the bike on vacation or to ride on trails in other areas?
Pearl weighs about 50 pounds, and my husband’s lighter bike weighs about 40. They’re too heavy and bulky for the typical car tailgate or rooftop bike carrier. We’ve wrestled them into the back of our SUV, but that isn’t easy and not good for the bike or the car.
The solutions, besides “ride all the way there” are:
- Mount a sturdy bike carrier on a tow bar – I tried this but our car unfortunately can’t accept a tow bar because of previous rear-end damage.
- Tow a bike trailer
- Secure the bikes in the back of a pickup truck or van
- Take a train. I’ve taken Pearl numerous times to Washington DC and Maryland on the Metro trains. I’m just required to avoid crowds and use the front or back car of the train. It works great! I’m pleased to see that Amtrak’s website now expressly allows e-bikes under 50 pounds (it used to exclude all motorized bikes, but now it only bans gas-powered ones). I can easily get Pearl down under 50 pounds by removing her heavy battery and carrying it with me.
Do I have any more advice for readers considering an e-bike?
I looked at e-bikes that were custom-created by local shops, and even models sold on Amazon, but I decided to go with an established brand and build a relationship with my local bike shop for maintenance. I’m happy I did that, because I’ve had a few small issues (such as a kickstand bolt damaging the wiring) and was very glad to have my bike dealer behind me. Pearl came with a 1-year warranty, but that can vary.
Of course, I’d advise renting and/or test-riding a range of models. The ones I’ve tried ride differently and fit my body differently. I also replaced the saddle that came with my bike.
Quality e-bikes start at more than $1,000, so it’s important to know if you’ll have enough opportunities to use one. Fortunately, many places across the U.S. are creating more bike-friendly infrastructure, even the huge nearby office cluster Tysons Corner, and the Atlanta suburb where my mom lives. (20 years ago, when I would walk to the store there, people would see me walking, open their car windows and kindly ask me if anything was wrong and if I needed a ride ?)
Hmm, several thousand dollars for an e-bike? But start with the savings in gas, parking, parking tickets, and fender-benders whenever you bike instead of drive. Then add the positive benefits of exercise and spending time outdoors (potentially even savings on medical bills!). For me, it’s also an entertainment expense. And it’s even more environmentally friendly than an electric car, which causes more pollution in manufacturing and generating the needed electricity, and adds more particulate matter to the air with its brakes and tires.
I didn’t actually abandon my car completely, as I’d hoped to do. The pandemic made buses, Metro, ride-sharing and even car rental either unavailable or a lot more problematic. And my family convinced me that it’s good to have a car for backup, and for trips of 50 – 100 miles, at least for now. But the Strava app where I record my rides says I’ve biked 994 miles so far in 2021, most of it to appointments and other destinations where I otherwise would have driven.
The pandemic, as awful as it has been, also accelerated trends toward increased biking and walking, along with urban planning to accommodate this. Imagine towns and cities with plenty of sidewalks and protected bike lanes, and deliveries made with cargo e-bikes instead of vans. Imagine networks of paved trails designed for pedestrians, bikes, strollers and wheelchairs. Car-free zones where people can mingle outdoors and move around at a human pace. In the suburbs, neighborhood shopping that is easily reachable without a car (as in Reston, Virginia). Inexpensive and easy e-bike rental for people who donâ€™t own one. It’s environmentally beneficial, it’s healthy for humans, it’s fun and it’s coming!
Are you ready to join me in the e-bike revolution? Let me know in the comments or contact me at email@example.com. Hope to see you on the trail!