But the other day, I pedaled up the hill to campus without barely breaking a sweat. I glided up it, enjoying the view and smiling. There was no pain. And I was going about 14 miles an hour while doing so. How is this possible? I was riding an Elby e-bike!
Those of you who follow e-bike industry news might be gasping, wondering, "But how did you get your hands on one? They aren't available until September 1st!" Yes, you are correct, diligent followers of awesome things like e-bikes. Lucky for me, I'm friends with this really cool guy named Greg who makes surfboard racks (among other cool bikey things like dog walkers!) through his business Moved by Bikes. Greg was approached by Elby to test out how to attach his surfboard racks on their new e-bikes. In exchange for his help figuring that out, he got his hands on an Elby before they're even released! He knows I'm a blogger who bikes everyday, so he asked if I wanted to take it for a spin. Well of course I said yes, and there you have it.
My first impressions included the following: it's sleek, well-designed (it has a smartly placed battery pack that sits along the frame), has a built in front light that you control on your right handlebar (above), four settings for electric assist, four settings for regenerative braking, and a design similar to bike share bikes in that it is one-size fits most able bodied people. The chain and various cables are all protected and hidden away. More statistics and basics about the bike are outlined on the Elby website here. The version Greg has is a one-speed, but they do also make 9-speed versions.
One feature in particular that I loved right away is that it has a great rack on the back for panniers. I took my heavy pannier off my road bike, filled with my laptop, jacket, u-lock, water bottle, coffee mug, and various papers. It fit perfectly on the Elby rack, and I didn't even notice it was there throughout the ride. As a bike commuter, having a good rack for panniers is key.
To test out the bike in various settings, I sped down the street toward West Cliff Drive, a scenic drive along the bay with both slow car traffic and a multi-use path with people, dogs, bikes, scooters, etc. I noticed very quickly that not having gears was challenging for me. I'm so used to pedaling fast, adjusting gears to fit the speed I'm traveling, and keeping my legs in motion unless I'm going down a hill. Being on flat land and maxing out at 20 mph with the assist with no way to change gears and keep pedaling was a lesson in patience for me. I kept having to remind myself that I was already going 20 mph, and I should just chill.
In addition to riding in the street with cars and sometimes going fast enough that they didn't even want to go around me, I also tried biking on the multi-use path to see if I felt safe using the assist with people, dogs, and small children all over the place. The brakes are really effective and turning was easy as I wove around people. The electric assist is slow enough when you first begin to pedal that I never felt like I was going to accidentally run someone over on the multi-use path. There were a few times when turning onto streets at corners that I pedaled too fast and went shooting into the intersection or turned faster than I meant, but I attribute those moments to me not being familiar with the bike's reaction to certain amounts of pedaling. For the most part, I felt completely comfortable in all kinds of traffic on the Elby.
After testing out flat ground, I decided to bike up Western Drive, a very steep and horrible road that UCSC students who live on the west side or have class at Long Marine Lab often ride up to campus. It's torturous at the base, and then it's somewhat flat, and then it tortures you again. It's great--if you like a workout and want to feel really good about your ability to accomplish anything while you sit in class on top of the hill, pouring sheets of sweat into your lecture hall chair.
But the other day I learned that Western Drive is even better when you don't feel the pain but rather glide easily up the hill at 16-17 miles an hour. Unlike being in a car, on an e-bike you can still feel the terrain and remember those points in the ride where you'd normally stop, try to inhale to your agonized lungs, and then painfully keep pedaling. But on an e-bike, you just get to smile wistfully while daydreaming about prior trips on plebian, non-electric bikes and feel grateful that you can only just barely feel some burning in your thighs. But just barely.
From Western I turned right onto High and took the main entrance road up to campus and then turned left onto Hagar Drive. Again, it was fascinating to experience the repetition of a motion along a path that's so familiar to me with but with ample air in my lungs and no pain. It felt too easy, but mostly it was really fun.
The one place on the ride where I felt incompetent and would need to practice if I used the Elby daily was crossing the bike/ped bridge over highway 1 at the end of High Street. You're supposed to walk your bike up the curvy path that leads up to the bridge, but I ride across this bridge four days a week, and because I know how to bike slowly without coming close to ever bumping into someone, I usually break the rules. I go very slowly, looking ahead for anyone coming around the curve. Sometimes I hop off the bike if someone else is coming and they're too close to me.
When I got to the base of the path up to the bridge with the Elby, I had slowed down significantly because there was a person on a bike and a pedestrian who had just entered the path ahead of me. I turned the assist off and tried pedaling, but the 55 lbs of weight was too much. I turned on assist a little and tried going up. It was fine until I began trying to slowly turn and brake and pedal and watch for pedestrians, and then I couldn't keep control of how much the bike was jumping ahead when I pedaled. I ended up getting off the bike and pushing it up the path, which was fine and was what the sign said I should do anyway. With a few more practice rides over the bridge, I think I would figure out a way to control the pedaling and assist and braking without feeling so jumpy.
Throughout the ride, I had fun surprising people (from a safe distance of course) on the path and in cars just how fast I could go with minimal energy input from me. As you pedal faster, the bike moves faster, and although sometimes there's a jolt of energy as you push harder, it felt very smooth for the most part. The real fun comes in when you hit the throttle button and don't have to pedal at all. That felt the most like cheating; although to be honest, throughout the entire test ride, I felt like a cheater. Here's the part of this review where I get philosophical about the concept of e-bikes in general: I am so familiar with what it feels like to actually pedal and propel one's self forward without electricity that as I passed other people on regular bikes, I felt guilty for not actually exerting full effort and imagined how they might be judging me for zipping along.
But then I thought about people who can't bike for medical reasons or who will just never get out on a bicycle unless it's electric assisted. I thought about how some people might live their whole lives commuting by car because they are concerned about being sweaty on their way to work. I thought of those who might fear being made fun of if they were to bike without electricity because they would feel slow. While I believe that many able bodied people in the world who haven't tried biking should do so in safe places to feel what it's like and maybe realize how awesome it is, I can see how some folks might really prefer an e-bike. They might replace their car trips with it in ways they'd never replace their car trips with regular bicycle trips. They might bike up hills with their e-bike that they would never try on a regular bike.
I realized that by feeling guilty and wondering if people were criticizing me, I was the one being critical. E-bikes are fun, get you places fast without breaking a sweat, make certain terrain and long distance trips more feasible with two wheels, and are simply another mode of transportation in addition to the many we have available to us: bikes, cars, buses, planes, scooters, etc. They aren't a be-all, end-all, but no form of transportation is (although I do believe that bicycles can solve many of our social and environmental problems). Each method of transportation has its limit, and when the regular bicycle reaches its limit for some folks (who can afford it), there are e-bikes. Certainly they aren't the most economically accessible products out there, but I do think it's awesome that well-designed, well-marketed e-bikes could get people out of their cars and into neighborhoods and city streetscapes on two wheels. Hopefully one day e-bikes like the Elby will be more affordable as more and more people turn to them as an alternative to short-distance car trips.
One more philosophical thought before I return to this review: The Elby isn't designed for folks with disabilities so its applicability is limited to the able bodied population of the world, but a quick Google search just now taught me that there are electric bicycles designed for people with a variety of disabilities. I have no idea if they are well-designed, but it's good to know they do exist somewhere. This topic warrants its own blog post (or its own blog, really), but folks with varying disabilities are often left out of bicycle advocacy conversations and programs. Bike share bicycles, for example, are designed like the Elby, for able bodied individuals who don't require accommodations. I know there are folks out there advocating to make bike share and bike advocacy more accessible to all people, and they inspire me to pay attention to ways in which we can do better to create accessible products and welcome spaces for all people.
In summary, I would highly recommend to anyone in the market for an e-bike (as well as folks considering a motorized scooter, new car, electric car, and basically anyone without mobility impairments who enjoys zipping along at 20 mph) that they test out an Elby bicycle. I had a blast zooming up familiar pain-inducing hills to awesome views without really breaking out in a sweat. As I mentioned above, for folks who are used to bicycling fast with gears, it might be worth looking into a 9 speed versus a single speed. It's great for carrying pannier bags on the back and it's the same size as regular bicycles so it should fit on bus front racks for those who bike/bus commute. To finish off this review, I'll leave you with a video that I took while riding the Elby up Western Drive in Santa Cruz (yes, I nearly crashed at the end but it was the pavement's fault and I saved myself from falling!):
Oh, and in case you're curious how the Urban Farms Community Bike Ride went that I led today, you can scroll through photos from the ride on Facebook here. It was really fun and we had an awesome turnout! So many thanks to everyone who made the ride possible, including Silicon Valley Bicycle Coalition, Garden to Table, Veggielution, Cowgirl Bike Courier, Spade & Plow Organics, and my fabulous planning and ride co-leadership team!
Thanks for reading!