Over the holidays I moved from North Vancouver to the UniverCity neighbourhood on Burnaby Mountain. I lived here previously about five years ago, and back then, I just sucked up the large climb up the mountain when I'd bike back from work. Fast forward five years and i'm back, and ebikes are becoming increasingly popular. It would seem crazy not to take advantage of them. So how much easier is it? How much quicker is it? read on...
One interesting thing that became apparent on my return to this neighbourhood. Despite regularly biking to work from there in the past, I previously rarely thought about the danger posed by using the bike lanes. I just got on with it, despite there being a 60 kmh posted speed, and vehicles typically doing 70-80 kmh. Five years later and five years of studying safe bike infrastructure, visiting places around the world to use it, and planning and designing it, the thought of riding my bike on the main road didn't appeal much. I now ride through Burnaby Mountain Park avoiding the traffic. While the upper part of the SFU road network features a multi-use path, the lower parts do not. The TAC Geometric Design Guide for Canadian Roads (extract of bike facility selection guide below) would most definitely guide you towards a separate facility on this road.
UniverCity lies at close to 360m in elevation, work is in the Brentwood area and lies at around 20m in elevation, with various undulating parts of the route to and from work. Going to work, total climbing is about 50m and descending is about 390m. On the way back, its the reverse. 50m of descending and 390m of climbing. Its a big hill, with little in the way of respite once you start. The view is pretty nice near the end though... especially at dusk...
The two bicycles in question are a Norco Indie purpose built commuter bike, and a Trek Powerfly hardtail mountain bike. One is made for commuting, one far from it. The Norco likely weighs in at around 25 lbs with high pressure reasonably slick tires, the Trek at about 50 lbs with big knobby tires.
But the Trek does come fitted with A Bosch Performance CX motor providing 250 Watts of power and 75 Nm of torque, and a battery providing 500 Watt Hours of capacity, what ever all that means? I figured the Trek would be a good buy, one because it was relatively cheap, being last years model on sale, and two, I might be able to hit some of the mountain bike trails on the mountain before or after work.
My plan was to ride the regular bike for my first commute from the new place to provide a point of comparison, but I couldn't not try the new bike. The first day I took it out and pushed pretty hard, becoming somewhat addicted to the power. However, you soon realize that the power cuts out at about 28 kmh, and from there, there is almost a little drag in the system when you are pedalling above that speed. The second day, still using the ebike, I adopted a different approach, keep it under 28 kmh and cruise as much as possible, trying not to break a sweat. I might call this approach to riding slow cycling, but with the motor assist, 28 kmh is still pretty quick.
The following week I reluctantly figured I must ride the regular bike and face the hill. The intent was also to try and take it pretty easy, but with hills on route, and the gearing on my regular bike, some effort is required. So let's look at the commute to work, mostly downhill with a few little climbs. The GPS actually measured both rides exactly the same. The ebike was almost 4 minutes quicker, its obvious a lot of time is made up on those climbs, but also being able to hold 28 kmh with ease on the flat saves some time, so time is down about 12%. Effort measured by heart rate in beats per minute was down almost 9%. so effort reduces by 9%, travel time reduces by 12%, seems like a good deal to me. No huge difference, which was to be expected where the route is mostly downhill.
Now for the more interesting one, the commute home, the uphill direction with 390m of climbing. While safety may be the number one factor in discouraging cycling, effort required to ride in hilly terrain may be the second (in places that are hilly obviously). Do ebikes have the ability to remove this obstacle? The answer is undoubtedly yes! It near flattens the hills!
The ebike was just under 23 minutes quicker on a trip that took just under an hour for the regular bike. While I wasn't holding 28 kmh up the hill, 20 kmh was pretty easy to maintain with barely any effort, time is down 40%. Effort, again measured by heart rate in beats per minute was down almost 18%. so again effort reduces by 18%, travel time reduces by 40%, an even better deal uphill.
Effort might also be measured by the number of calories burned and this is even more telling. The downhill commute used almost 28% less calories, while the uphill commute used almost 60% less calories. This is more akin to the feeling riding the two bikes. While every pedal stroke up the hill on the regular bike required a considerable effort, the ebike was essentially effortless. You almost find yourself laughing to yourself as you climb the hill, its like you have super powers. Now if your intent commuting to work is weight loss, the ebike obviously isn't quite as useful for that, but on the other hand, i'm not sure I would do this commute every day on the regular bike, but on the ebike there is no nagging thoughts about the commute home if I take the bike in the morning.
Are there any downsides to an ebike? The fewer calories burned, depending on your perspective, might be. The cost of the bike means I'm less inclined to leave it locked up while I go into a store, despite having good insurance for my bikes, I don't want to take the risk, so the ability to use it for all trips may be reduced and therefore there is some loss in practicality. If you ride with someone else on a regular bike they might not appreciate the fun you're having on the climbs. And finally hardtail ebikes do not make particularly good mountain bikes, it's a bit of a bone jarring ride. It does however let me get home with little effort and ready to ride my proper mountain bike. You also have to remember to charge it every night or so depending on your commute.
With respect to range, it very much depends on what and how you are riding. When I start it up, the previous ride has been all uphill so it assumes I will continue like that. The range starts low, and as I accumulate kilometres with little effort downhill, it recalibrates, so it tells me I have more range by the time I get to work. Then on the way back the range starts dropping quicker as I climb. The Bosch Range Estimator suggests on flat terrain, the range varies between 70km in Eco mode (50% Support) and 140km in Turbo mode (300% Support). In Hilly terrain, that reduces to 33km and 70 km respectively. My 22km round trip commute seems to leave the battery about half full at the end of the day, too risky to not charge each day.
One thing that is interesting with an ebike is the gearing, on minor climbs you can tend to rely on the motor assist as some kind of gearing, staying in the hardest gears. This works ok until you reach a proper climb and realize the motor doesn't have enough power to do all the work and you likely wish you had changed up to an easier gear before the climb. Because you're putting so much pressure on the pedals in that situation, it's hard to then switch to an easier gear. It's a minor adjustment.
To sum up, ebikes are a game changer, I'm completely sold! I've barely thought about taking the car to work, and debating whether I even need it. If I pass you on a climb... sorry... but you should buy one too ;)
Update: When I wrote this post, my focus was on the difference in experience between the two bikes. When I posted it to LinkedIn, an old colleague asked about designing for ebikes. Its not something I'd previously given a lot of thought to. But with experience riding one now, and increasing numbers out there, two key things stand out all related to speed differentials.
Where we have bike paths and sidewalks immediately adjacent to each other, often to fit both modes into constrained cross sections, there is the potential for greater conflict due to the higher speeds ebikes can achieve if no buffer is provided between the the bike path and the sidewalk. With no alternative i'd still favour this design over placing bikes back on-street with motor vehicles, but something to be aware of in the future, buffers are good, particularly with vertical separation of some kind.
The second is the speed differential between ebikes and regular bikes. My experience of the past few weeks, especially uphill, is that I pass those on regular bikes like they're standing still. This isn't a problem on quite roadways where I was passing, but it could be on separate protected bike paths if designed to minimum standards. Therefore space to pass, more so on flat or uphill sections will become increasingly important. This is valuable regardless of ebikes as people have different abilities and different levels of comfort with higher speeds, but ebikes exacerbate the difference. Space to pass is always good.