I was terrified to try it. The last time I had been on a public bicycle was in Seville, Spain, where I got hit by a motorcyclist who failed to look on a turn.
This time, I was climbing on an electronic bike with a motor of its own that could take me up to 20 m.p.h. hurtling through the streets of San Francisco. All I had to do was twist my right hand on the throttle.
One reason people (like me) don’t bike to work is safety. The other reason? Sweat. Some people don’t want to arrive drenched after they have travelled across the city with a backpack stuck to their shirts.
E-bikes are starting to catch on in Europe, and now a company called GenZe, based in Fremont, California, wants to popularise them here too. It makes sense in a city that has hills, money, and workers, all in abundance.
GenZe’s e-bike models use the same Samsung batteries as the Tesla Model S to help supplement your pedalling. The battery is actually removable, so you can take it out of the bike and charge it at work with a cord about the size of your laptop charger.
The bike itself operates in two modes: pedal-assist or throttle only.
I started in the pedal-assist mode because that’s how most people ride a bike. On the e-bike, I immediately noticed the difference as I started through an intersection. As you start pedalling, the motor engages and you are gliding forward faster.
Think of it as using a moving footpath in an airport compared to just walking alongside it — the moving footpath gets you there faster without having to increase your effort.
Then there are the speeds, depending on how much “assistance” you want with your pedalling. The higher the number, one through five, is the level of thrust it will give.
I chickened out and set it to 1 in the beginning because I wanted it to feel more like a bike. It is heavy at 45 pounds, and if you are pedalling, you can feel a bit of the difference, especially trying to get it going. I was being passed by most San Francisco bike commuters, although that could have been my inexperience on the streets.
I eventually increased it to three on a few long straightaways so I could travel at higher speeds. The higher the number, the more the motor will kick in.
Eventually, I scaled the pedal-assist down to zero and let the bike do all of it.
When you turn it into motor-only mode, you turn your right hand and it accelerates. It takes a bit of coordination to switch into right hand accelerating, left hand breaking, but I found that when I wasn’t pedalling, I kind of just sat and looked around, much like when you are in the driver’s seat of a car. The physical intensity (and mental distraction) of actually riding a bike was gone.
This is perhaps one of its better uses: A no-workout, no-sweat mode of commuting that’s not putting you in the thick of traffic or down into the subway. Of course, you can always turn on the pedal assist mode if you want to feel like you’re at least “biking” to work, not just riding atop one.
On San Francisco’s hills, that extra bit of thrust would be helpful.
However, even if you don’t ride up the hills, you could get a pretty big workout hauling a 45-pound bike upstairs into your apartment every night. With its $US1,499 price tag, this isn’t one you want to leave in the street or in the stairwell.