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How joining the e-bike revolution made my 2020 a lot more bearable

Instead of feeling trapped at home, I’ve been enjoying the great outdoors more than ever—even when pedaling up the scariest hills in town.

How joining the e-bike revolution made my 2020 a lot more bearable
[Photos: ilyarexi/iStock; Tim Peterson/Unsplash; Devin Avery/Unsplash; Michal Pechardo/Unsplash]
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Last March, when the COVID-19 pandemic first disrupted everything, it took me a while to notice that my new lifestyle was one of extreme lethargy. With local businesses shuttered, activities canceled, and a second bedroom serving as my office, the amount of exercise I got on a typical day dwindled to a few hundred steps. Shuffling off to the kitchen for a snack started to feel like a workout.

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After a month, I decided to confront the issue in a way that comes naturally to me: by purchasing a gadget. In this case, that gadget was an e-bike, something I’d been vaguely intrigued by for several years.

As much as I enjoyed riding my conventional road bike, the hills in between my home and the places I’d like to go had become a powerful disincentive to make it a major part of my fitness regimen. (The approach to our house is so steep that even kids tend to dismount and walk their bikes up it. ) An e-bike—which bolsters your own pedal power with an electric motor—seemed like it might give me fewer excuses not to ride.

In April, I bought a CityZen T9, an e-bike from Gazelle, a 128-year-old Dutch firm that’s a household name in its home market. Over the rest of 2020, rather than devolve further into couch potatohood, I’ve done more than 1,800 miles of e-biking. It’s been good for my state of mind, my weight, and my appreciation for the San Francisco Bay Area’s natural beauty. (I  found further motivation to get out and about in my Garmin Vivoactive 4 smartwatch and the Strava fitness app, both of which help me track my journeys.)

San Francisco looks spectacular from an e-bike such as my Gazelle. [Photo: Harry McCracken]
As many people have noticed, bicycling is an ideal form of exercise for pandemic times: You’re outside and at a remove from other people by definition, assuming you don’t want to smash into them. I haven’t even minded riding with a mask on. But I expect to do just as much e-biking once the new normalcy is in sight, which is why I finally canceled my all-too-dormant gym membership.

The worst thing about e-bikes is paying for one. My CityZen T9 was $2,500–not counting upgrades I made to the tires, brakes, seat, and grips—which is more than the total cost of every other bike I’ve ever owned dating back to my boyhood Schwinn. Plenty of models cost far more than that. Prices are coming down, though: Rad Power, reportedly the U.S.’s largest maker of e-bikes, sells models that cost between $1,100 and $1,700. You can go even cheaper and end up with something basic but serviceable. (Electrek is a useful destination for reviews of not-so-pricey options.)

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Still, when I measure the cost of my e-bike against the pleasure and utility I’m getting from it, I’m glad I splurged. I use it nearly every day—something that hasn’t been true of any new gizmo that’s entered my life since the iPad. And it’s my car that’s begun to feel like a supplemental form of transportation.

Here’s a GoPro video I made of one of my Gazelle expeditions, including me making my way past a protest on the Golden Gate Bridge:

The surprisingly controversial e-bike

My sudden, pandemic-derived interest in e-bikes was far from unique. As 2020 left many people pursuing new ways to exercise—and some folks looking for alternatives to public transportation—there’s been a boom in sales of bikes of all sorts. E-bikes, once a tiny niche in the U.S., have surged so fast that the industry is struggling to keep up.

The e-bike message boards and Facebook groups I visit are full of folks who love their new rides. I’ve run across only a few who regret the purchase. However, people who have never been aboard an e-bike sometimes have strange, prickly reactions to the whole idea of putting a motor on a bike.

When I tell people about my Gazelle, some seem to misunderstand it as being more motorcycle than bicycle, or solely a conveyance for senior citizens. Earlier this year, I heard a TV news personality (hint: Her name is Rachel) express on-air incredulity that one of her colleagues (a guy named Chris) had gotten a Rad e-bike. There are even ugly rumors of e-bicyclists being subjected to insults (“cheater!”) as they pass riders of conventional bikes.

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I suspect that much of this confusion could be cleared up if the naysayers spent some time on an e-bike. My Gazelle’s Bosch motor system has four levels of assistance—Eco, Tour, Sport, and Turbo—and I do much of my pedaling in Eco mode, which provides only a modest boost. But it’s enough that I can go farther than I’d venture on an unelectrified bike, and without dreading any monster hills along the way. Is that cheating? If it is, so is coasting.

I took this photo of the Marin Headlands during an e-bike trip across the Golden Gate Bridge, which is not something you can do from a car—even if you aren’t driving. [Photo: Harry McCracken]
One thing I didn’t know before I began researching my purchase is that every e-bike falls into one of three classifications; they specify how fast the bike can go and how much effort is required. For instance, my CityZen 9 is a Class 1 model, which means that the motor kicks in only up to 20 miles an hour and only if I pedal. Class 2 e-bikes also provide assistance up to 20 miles, but have a throttle, which lets you opt to spend part of your trip on pure motor power, as with a moped. And Class 3 e-bikes lack a throttle but assist pedaling up to 28 mph, making them attractive if you’re a speed freak or simply want to shave some time off a daily commute.

To me, the key factor about an e-bike is not how fast you can go, but how far.

Local governments are still in the process of getting their heads around e-bikes, and impose different regulations depending on the class involved. I opted for a Class 1 bike in part because I’m allowed to ride it on paths where Class 3 bikes are forbidden. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense given that it’s possible to violate the 15 mph speed limit on such paths even on a non-electric bike. But as cities get more serious about encouraging mass bicycling, perhaps they’ll be more welcoming to e-bikes of every sort.

To me, the key factor about an e-bike is not how fast you can go, but how far. Published range estimates mean very little, since so many factors impact how quickly the battery drains. Those include your weight and cargo, the level of assistance you choose, and whether your route is flat or hilly. Even poorly maintained roads and gusts of wind will cut into your range. That said, I have found that I can ride my Gazelle for about 50 miles—enough to get me from my home south of San Francisco to the Golden Gate Bridge and well into Marin County, one of the nicest places in the world to go for a bike ride. And then all the way back home.

Bottom line: The rides that really don’t give you any exercise are the ones you never take. I’ve done far more bicycling in 2020 than in any previous year of my life, including some when I regularly cycled to work.

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Tech on two wheels

After a few months of riding the Gazelle, I borrowed an e-bike from another Dutch company: a VanMoof S3. Unlike Gazelle—whose bikes are available through local bike shops—VanMoof sells its models via its website and a few company stores in big cities.

The S3 and another new VanMoof, the X3, made a splash in e-bike circles last spring when they debuted with price tags of just $1,998 apiece, compared to $3,398 for their predecessors. The impressive bang-for-buck led to long waitlists and some quality-control issues as the company tried to satisfy demand. (The first X3 the company loaned me was damaged in shipping, a problem that VanMoof told The Verge’s Thomas Ricker it acknowledges is happening to some buyers and has been working to address.)

The Gazelle feels like a conventional bike that’s been enhanced with a motor. The VanMoof, by contrast, has been far more thoroughly reimagined for the digital age. It shifts through its four gears for itself—like a car with an automatic transmission—and offers a Turbo Boost button that lets you rocket along even if you’re barely nudging the pedals. The built-in lock engages when you tap a button with your foot; before unlocking, it verifies that you’re the owner by connecting to VanMoof’s smartphone app via Bluetooth. The bike also has GPS, allowing it to beam its location back to you (or VanMoof) in the event that it’s stolen. Even its bell offers ringtone-like options, such as a party noisemaker effect that drove my neighbors’ dogs nuts.

And did I mention that this sleek, minimalist machine is one of the best-looking bikes I’ve seen, electric or otherwise?

VanMoof’s S3 packs a lot of technology into a slick package. [Photo: courtesy of VanMoof]
Everything about the VanMoof is simple, approachable, and well integrated, making for a particularly nice experience if all you want to do is get from point A to point B with a minimum of fuss. If it were a camera, it would be a point-and-shoot, not an SLR; I can imagine people who don’t think of themselves as serious cyclists loving it.

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But as I rode this bike, I sometimes missed the finer degree of control offered by my Gazelle. For instance, the S3 zipped up most hills but felt overtaxed on the steepest ones I encountered, perhaps because it has only four gears. (My Gazelle has nine.) On long trips, I like adjusting the Gazelle’s gears and assistance level on the fly to wring as much life as possible out of the battery. With the VanMoof, you don’t shift for yourself and can only change the level of assistance when you’re stopped—or by pressing the battery-sapping Turbo Boost button—which made its effective maximum range less than that of the Gazelle, at least for me. (On the plus side, it was much easier to pedal with the power off.)

When it came time to return the S3 to VanMoof, I was sorry to see it go. But if the company had been willing to accept my Gazelle instead, I wouldn’t have taken the offer.

Visiting a new tourist attraction in Golden Gate Park. [Photo: Fredric Paul]

The road ahead

As much as I’m enjoying my Gazelle e-bike, one question remains tough to answer: How much of a keeper will it be? In just the few months that I’ve been riding it, Gazelle has discontinued the model I bought and unveiled several new ones with various improvements. Over the next few years, it seems likely that VanMoof-like technical invention will become standard fare in the industry.

My old, unpowered Gary Fisher bike—which I still have, though it’s in storage at the moment—served me well for 15 years. With tune-ups, it will probably be eminently ridable a decade from now. But by then, it’s possible that riding a Gazelle CityZen T9 will be a bit like carrying an iPhone 3G in 2020. And I would need to have replaced the battery at least a couple of times, at an intimdating $850 a pop. Buying a new e-bike might look better than endlessly investing in an antique one.

However things pan out, I do hope that I’m e-biking in 2030 and beyond. I can’t quite decide whether it’s a healthy activity that’s fun, or fun that’s healthy. Either way, it’s guilt-free technology in an era that could use more of it.

About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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