Monday 28 August 2017

There and back again - E-biking to SFU

Earlier this week I returned my borrowed e-bike for the 2nd time and so ends my experiment to determine what my future with e-bikes would be.

I tried to approach it scientifically.  I tend to be a bit obsessive with all things transportation related and want to be practical and not driven by emotion if the "right choice" for cost, time, and convenience is not what I expect.

With this installment of the Momentum Mag E-bike Library checkout I had a plan ready:
  • try testing the edges of a commute by e-bike (how far can I get in 1 hour in any direction).
  • what are some challenging commutes that would completely change (for a cyclist) if hills were not an issue
  • understand more about how the battery really works and drain it to zero.
SFU and back:
SFU is about 20km from my home, but more importantly on a mountain. By car it would be a 40 min commute in good traffic conditions and by normal bike close to 1.5 hours (also 1.5 hours by bus).  In other words, further than I ever want to commute on a daily basis.

The first 10km of my journey was my old commute (see below): flat, and one of the best routes fro non-stop travel in the lower mainland.  Once you hit Boundary though serious undulating hills begin and then there is the mountain itself.

For part 2, all I could think was that I was happy I had electric assist,.. a nice route but hilly. Unfortunately this is when I began to regret using too much assist for the first 10km. I had used 25% of my battery by the foot of the mountain. I had to use mode 3 and 4 the entire ride up.. and though it was thrilling to be able to cut through that distance so fast,.. I got there with 42% battery left. Seen the movie Gattica? I had not budgeted for the full trip home....

I plugged in to ensure I didn't get stuck but the 125km range clearly is misleading,.. that could only be possible in optimal flat conditions or seriously mindful riding.  I also took this chance to test the controversial Bionix ability to charge using negative settings on a steep downhill. Many poeple say this is a myth but I did manage to gain 3% back by descending the mountain.  Not much, but tell that to someone 1% short of home!  I got home by hypermiling it,.. but I might aswell have been riding a non-assisted bike for most of it.

My old commute(s):
I also took the time to ride 2 of my old commutes because I knew exactly how long they took on my regular bike.  As everyone probably knows,.. bikes usually win out on most shorter commutes because there is not walk to the bus stop, parking lot, or even car,.. it is all motion and bike paths tend to be designed for less stopping.
My last job was right on the Central Valley Greenway route so mostly flat and straight for about 10km (and less than half the lights of the equivalent car commute).  I was shocked that even with hitting the lights pretty well, a 35 min ride only dropped to 27min. I felt like I was flying but I think only the hills were significantly faster.
My previous commute from the Fraser River up Ontario was way faster however.  Something like an hour cut to 35 min. The hills are where this matters,.. clearly.  


Would I buy an e-bike? 
Despite the high entry price, yes, but not right now. I think it is inevitable when I'm older and can't cover the same distances I can now.  Also, I'm not that fit these days so reducing my exercise effort is probably not the best idea.
What might change that is a medium-long but hilly commute to a job.  A 4k bike could be worth the investment if you are no longer taking a car to work 5 days a week.  To make it work, you'd need:

  • a place to charge at work
  • **secure storage (these bikes are very valuable and I simply would not trust street parking)
  • the right commute - especially imagine a 2 car family being able to replace car #2 with a 5 k bike that only uses electricity (and very little of it).

I should also mention something else. I have been nursing a messed up knee. The ebike allows you to take a ton of pressure off of your joints when you are starting from a full stop.  It allowed my to get exercise for the last 2 weeks.. where I otherwise couldn't.  This cements my above comment about when I'm older.

If the price of the bikes were to drop, I could imagine buying sooner. 

Lastly, make no mistake about it... these are FUN. If battery tech changes and you could do a 2 day camping trip without charging,.. I could also see buying sooner.

Other learnings?
  • Using anything beyond mode 1 or 2 on flats is wasteful,.. once you are up to speed on this bike 1 or 2 is enough to keep you going faster than you can ride a normal commuter.  Sure you can ride faster in mode 4,.. but not 2X as fast and your battery will pay the price for marginal gains on speed.  
  • I felt weird on some bike paths riding a partially motorized vehicle.  It was more that I felt people thought I was cheating,.. but if you are riding 25km to work.. (anywhere with mixed use paths I actually slowed down to a safe "minimal assist" setting)
  • Everyone that tried the Ohm was blown away.  I think most people think e-bikes are like electric scooters and less like bikes. These really are like being a superhuman cyclist and Ohm did a great job.  For now, while you can use better roads and routes than cars can and cycling in Vancouver is still young,.. this really is a way to construct the fastest commute and everyone should be sure to check these out and just use road sense when other people are around.  Think of it more like "extended range and less effort" than "super fast".


  1. Very informative, thanks for writing about this very practical test. I've been a cyclist and commuter my entire adult life and I'm getting older now. I fully agree that it's time to make the trip a little quicker and easier on the body. If it's no longer fun, it's not going to last long. I'm in the market for an e-bike. Your cost rationale is bang on - a 4k e-bike can easily replace the 2nd car for most urban trips.

    1. Urtopia Carbon E-bike Review: The company claims 8 hours of battery life, a top speed of 20 mph, and a range of 35 miles — all while weighing just 47 pounds. The Urtopia uses a claimed 18-inch rear wheel and a 20-inch front wheel, with a claimed 500 watt maximum output and a claimed 4.0AH lithium battery.
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