See our Magnum Photos gallery on bicycling.
Larry Kline, the owner of Noe Valley Cyclery, was a bit dubious when I came to pick up an electric bike last month. I'd arranged to get a loaner to see whether adding an electric motor to a standard two-wheel bicycle really could, as I'd heard, make for a next-generation transportation device. There was only one problem: I don't ride. I get around my home city of San Francisco mainly by car, with occasional excursions on foot or by public transportation. Sure, I'd learned to ride a bike when I was a kid, but riding in the city presents challenges—traffic, hills, thieves—that Kline wasn't sure I could handle. I wasn't sure either. The bicycle that Kline was going to lend me normally sold for nearly $2,000. I don't own a helmet or a bike lock.
After some negotiations and warnings—Kline loaned me a lock, took down my credit card number, and explained that being a city rider was a big responsibility—he showed me how to use the bike. Some bikes are born electric; others have electricity thrust upon them in the form of an add-on motor. Mine was the latter kind—a standard two-wheeler whose frame was outfitted with a water-bottle-sized battery pack connected to a motor mounted on the back wheel. The rider controls the motor through a console on one of the handle bars. My system, manufactured by a Canadian company called BionX, was pedal-activated, meaning that the 350-watt electric motor would add power in proportion to my own effort. (Pre-built electric bikes sell for about $1,500 to $3,000; the add-on kit sells for about $1,500 to $2,000, depending on the model.) I could choose one of four levels of assistance—35 percent of my own pedal power, 75 percent, 150 percent, or 300 percent. There's also a "throttle mode," which runs the motor at full power without any pedaling from the rider. Unsurprisingly, this turned out to be my favorite mode of operation.
I'd driven to the bike shop, so I had to stuff my new ride into the trunk to get it back home. The drive was only about three miles, but with all the usual hassles of city driving—traffic, parking, idiot tourists—it took me more than 15 minutes. This was exactly what I wanted to escape. Even if you forget its enormous financial and environmental costs, driving a car is often a drag. You always feel chained down—stuck in traffic, stuck at the light, stuck behind the moron trying to make a left turn during rush hour. Then, when you get to your destination, you're stuck trying to park a hulking piece of steel. My electric bike held the promise of liberation. It's faster than walking, but without any of the baggage that comes with driving.
When I finally got home and unloaded the bike, I switched the motor up to 300 percent and took it for an inaugural ride. It was incredible. The closest comparison I can think of is to my recurrent dreams of being able to fly—or of that one time my wife and I rented Segways on the beach. "It's a kinesthetic pleasure, like having your fairy godmother tap you on the shoulder to make you twice as strong," says Steve Roseman, the founder of the Electric Bike Network, a San Francisco business that connects local bike shops with electric bicycle suppliers. "It changes the realm of possible."
What he means, I think, is that an electric bike deludes you into thinking you can go anywhere you like. In throttle mode on a flat road, my bike hit a top speed of around 18 miles per hour. It was essentially like riding downhill all the time. San Francisco's smaller hills—which dwarf many other cities' tallest hills—presented no challenge at all; the bike would slow to about three to five miles per hour depending on the grade, and if things got really steep, I'd have to add some minimal pedaling to get to the top. Monster hills were still difficult; I made it to the top of the steepest hills around my house only by doing some serious motor-aided pedaling. There are probably at least a dozen hills in the city that I wouldn't have survived on the electric bike. But remember, I'm a 120-pound weakling without much experience riding; with the help of an electric motor, people in better shape than me should be able to tackle San Francisco's steepest inclines.
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