By Sarah Ripplinger
Rushing about in her housecoat, Lisa Brown is up early to get Theodor (Theo for short) to daycare before she heads to work. The sun shines in through the kitchen window, casting a beam of bright light on the floor – the heat from it is palpable. It reminds Brown of her aching calf muscles, sore from the long run she took the day before. Her energy levels are low, but her partner, Stefan Reinsberg, has the car, so she’ll take either the bus or the bike. There isn’t enough time to take the bus, so bike it is. Her mind balks: what about that behemoth hill she has to climb? But, then she remembers the little motor waiting to jump into action – a birthday present from Reinsberg. One twist of her handlebar throttle and even the steep UBC hill will feel like a breeze.
“For me, it’s about mobility; it’s not about exercise,” Brown said one sunny morning at her home in Vancouver’s West Point Grey area. Like many urban dwellers in search of alternatives to the car, Brown decided that she could satisfy her daily transportation needs on the saddle of a bike. However, she didn’t necessarily want her cycling regimen to cut into her running routine. The solution: Rev up her bike.
Brown has embarked on what could be the next revolution in bike transportation: the electric bike, or e-bike. A small motor sits inside her front wheel hub. Wires attach it to a pack of 36 volt Nickel Cadmium (NiCad) batteries nestled in a pouch under the top tube of her bike frame. A small computer on her handlebars, called a Cycle Analyst, lets her know how much juice is left in the battery and how fast she’s motoring – up to a maximum 50 km/h or about 32 km/h without pedalling. (ICBC regulations set a maximum speed of 32 km/h for e-bikes when they are not being pedalled on level ground). A motor controller, located at the rear of the bike, regulates the output and speed of the bike. Two lights, one mounted on the rear and one at the front, draw energy from the battery to light Brown’s way. The equipment does add about 35 extra pounds to the bike, including the front-wheel motor. “The one disadvantage, I must say, is that it’s quite heavy,” Reinsberg said. “And if you do run out of juice, you have to cycle a very heavy bike.”
E-bike batteries tend to last about two to three years before they need to be replaced. Brown says that she gets around 25-35 kilometres out of her battery before it needs to be placed in the charger, which can be plugged in to any standard outlet. That’s part of the convenience of the e-bike, Brown says. If you run out of power, “you can just bring a charger and plug it in and have a break.”
Brown grew up in the Okanagan where the family car was a mainstay of everyday commuter life. She presently works as a capital project development engineer, which has meant that she often needs to travel to destinations throughout Metro Vancouver. Using an e-bike, she said, is convenient and more affordable. Plus, commute times on her e-bike are comparable to travel times by bus or car. A trip from the Cambie Street Bridge to UBC on her e-mountain-bike, she said, can easily be completed within half an hour – this is one of the primary reasons why Brown is happy to own one. “It’s essentially the convenience and the speed you can travel at… you just go.”
Owning an e-bike has had a positive impact on their family-time too. The couple, who have been together for almost 10 years, say that they can tow Theo, two – in their Chariot trailer with shock-absorbers – down to the beach and back with relative ease and without the headache of finding scarce parking.
Reinsberg purchased the electric assist kit for about $1,400 from the Renaissance Bike Company, located on Main Street, near 30th Avenue in Vancouver. He installed it on Brown’s well-used bike in their kitchen, which was transformed into a makeshift bike shop during the cool and rainy month of March. “It’s not that tricky,” Reinsberg said. The bike operates similarly to an electric wheelchair, he said. Brown’s “freewheel” e-bike allows the front wheel to spin and be pedalled freely when the motor is not engaged. The manual that came with the motor took all the guesswork out of the job. The hardest part was getting the fork of Brown’s old bike onto the new front wheel that houses the motor. That motor transmits a fair amount of force on the axle – enough force to carry him and Brown together up a fairly steep incline. This can be harder on the bike over the long-term, Reinsberg said, but is fine for the purposes of everyday commuting.
Reinsberg laughs now when he thinks of his first reaction to the idea of Brown riding an e-bike: “Initially I was thinking that e-hubs are for sissies; I wasn’t too thrilled with the idea that she wanted that for a birthday present.” He changed his mind after seeing how much more amenable Brown was to riding her bike with the motor, and after finding out how much fun it was to have the little electric boost.
“It’s magic,” Reinsberg said. “Nobody really likes going up hills.”
Renaissance Bicycle Company: ebikes.ca
Originally published in the July/ August 2009 issue of Momentum Magazine and on momentummag.com.