Monday, May 17, 2010

Electric assisted smiles

I’ve never known quite what to make of electric-assist bicycles.  I was pretty sure they weren’t for me, but I didn’t feel the need to dismiss them either.  For someone with knee issues or someone who wants to cycle his way to better health – but whose fitness level makes cycling a little too difficult to enjoy at first – these bikes seemed like a reasonable solution.

What never occurred to me is that these bikes might be insanely fun.

I stopped by Practical Cycle to test my theory that their Worksman Cycles are the perfect match for families looking for something fun to do in Old Sacramento.  The shop is nestled between a half-dozen museums and attractions, and a stone’s throw from the American River Bike Trail.  At the shop, Tim convinced me to try a Pedego electric bike instead.

I swiped this photo off the Practical Cycle web site.  Mine was ridiculously blurry.  Same bike, though.  Same trail, too.

I decided to test the bike both with and without the electric assist motor.  A lot of what I’ve read about these bikes suggest they can be ridden as regular bikes, saving the electric assist for hills, or fatigue or situations calling for a little extra oomph.

In the case of the Pedego at least, these bikes are more than adequate as regular, pedal-powered cruisers.  I left the assist off for a couple of laps around Old Sacramento and I had a great time.  The seat is super comfortable and in combination with the high-rise handlebars, feels like a living-room recliner at times.  The fat tires handled the cobblestone streets with ease, something that even the 26x1.5 tires on my Nishiki certainly can’t do.

So far, so good.  I was having a great time.  Better yet, I was right about a cruiser being a superior way to see Old Sacramento.  Next, I’d ride to the Capitol and check out a few other tourist spots along the way.  Would the bike be spritely enough to take a non-rider the mile or so to Midtown without fatigue?

Hell yes.  When I switched on the electric assist, I entered a whole new world of cycling fun.  It’s hard to list all the ways this bike made me smile, but here goes:

The burst of speed you get when twisting the throttle is exhilarating, but distinctly manageable.  It never felt like the bike was going to rocket out from under me, but it clearly felt like I had the power to muster up as much speed as I needed.

It felt far safer in traffic.  When I start from a stop at an intersection on my regular bikes, there’s always a moment or two when the need for power translates into a slight wobble.  Getting up to speed alongside cars is one of my least favorite parts about city riding.  On the Pedego, though, it was effortless.  The cars and I entered the intersection at the same rate of acceleration (at least at first) and it felt not only safe, but logical, to start taking the lane at intersections and waiting my turn in traffic.
It straddled both worlds beautifully.  Despite this ability to hang with the cars, the Pedego is unmistakably a bicycle.  The ride felt like a bike ride, not a motorcycle ride.  You know that feeling you get when you cruise down a hill and you pick up as much speed as you want without pedaling?  When you smile and enjoy the wind in your face?  That’s available on the Pedego any time you want it.  On the bike trail, the stretch that crosses the American River as it flows into the Sacramento River can take some standing, huffing and puffing.  On the Pedego, I did it sitting in comfort, grinning like a fool and watching the geese soaring overhead.

Here’s how fun it was:  I brought it back early. 

After about 40 minutes of pedaling, zipping and smiling my way through Sacramento, I started to fear that riding my regular bikes would seem less fun by comparison. I don’t know if I was right about that, and I don’t want to find out.

But I know this: most of the people who dismiss these bikes as “cheating” are riding to work everyday in a car or SUV.  I’ve heard quite a few people say they’d love to cycle to work, but it’s too hilly… or they’d need a shower at the office or their knee hurts, or 12 miles is too far to ride or this or that or the other thing. And these are perfectly valid obstacles to bicycle commuting.  But an electric assist bike can eliminate those problems for you and still get you out there in the sunshine pedaling.

And, based on my experience, I’m pretty sure you’d arrive at work with a smile on your face.

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