One thousand kilometers on an electric bicycle

Renewables International

I have spent two months riding my new e-bike. Here’s what you are missing out on if you don’t have one.
The distance I have traveled probably speaks for itself. I am averaging 500 kilometers a month, which is more than I would normally ride. The bike (a Charger GX from Riese & Müller) is a joy, with perhaps two downsides. But let’s start with what’s fun about it.
My decision to buy an electric bicycle started when I realised that Berlin’s bike paths were partly unsuitable to small tires, like the ones I have on my racing bike. I thought about getting a “fat bike” (with four-inch tires), but decided that the 2.4-inch tires on this one would do just fine.

The bike is so big, it just barely fits on Berlin's aweful, tiny bike paths.
The bike is so big, it just barely fits on Berlin’s awful, tiny bike paths.

Now, I really don’t need to worry about slipping around on cobblestones, much less falling into the tram tracks. This bike is robust. But the huge tires also drain your energy, and I have a 30-kilometer commute to work. It was exhausting enough on my racing bike. So I knew I would need some electric support.
According to my fitness app, I burned through 700 calories on that commute when I took my racing bike. The electric bike brings that number down to between 500 and 600 – but I’m sure those calculations are inexact. Still, it gives you an idea of the proportions. I do indeed feel like I have had a workout after a 30-minute ride even with electric support, and I still need a shower. But I’m not really exhausted.
The bike merely provides support; you still have to peddle. There are four levels of push: eco, to work, sport, and turbo. In the eco mode, the bike essentially just compensates for its own weight. I would use this mode if the battery were running out, and I needed more range. Generally, I ride in the tour mode. I have, however, tried out the other two. They get you up a steep ramp with ease, though they reduce the range down to around 50 kilometers.

In the tour mode, my bike generally tells me I have a total range of around 100 kilometers after my daily commute of 60 kilometers there and back (meaning that I still have 40 kilometers left in the battery). In the eco mode, I would probably get something closer to 150 kilometers. But it very much depends on your cycling style. The motor only supports you fully up to 25 km/h. There is a 10 percent tolerance range, so it tapers off up to 27.5 km/h. The bike is thus fairly quick from a traffic light, but if you try to reach 30 km/h, it can be difficult. You race up to 25, and then the bike almost feels like the brakes come on when the motor support suddenly disappears – and that can happen by the time you have reached the other side of the street. You thus constantly leave people behind from a standstill only to find the faster ones (such as folks on racing bikes) easily passing you up when they cruise at speeds above 30 km/h.
Models that go 45 km/h are sold in Germany, but they are technically mopeds, not bicycles, so you need to wear a helmet, register the bike, and have a license plate on it. You then technically are not allowed to ride on bike paths at all. I opted against this model because it would have meant I could no longer ride with anyone on a bicycle. But even with the 25 km/h version, you are easily out of sync – faster from every stop, but possibly slower on the straightaway.
One pleasant surprise was the acceleration from a curve. When you go around the corner and start pedaling, the motor support gives you an acceleration you are not used to in curves. It might be a bit dangerous, but it certainly is fun!
Another big upside is this off-road bike off the road. 25 kilometers per hour is considerably faster than I am used to cycling under such conditions, but the bike doesn’t care – it easily hits that speed if I keep pedaling. So if you are up for such thrills, and electric off-road bike might be the thing for you.
Finally, the 14-speed Rohloff hub gearbox is on my model. It alone costs of thousand euros, and I have been thinking about buying a bike with one for the past decade. I really should write an entire article about it alone; it is a good example of a small company coming up with a true innovation – 14 non-overlapping gears completely encased in a bath of oil within the wheel hub. The Internet is full of reports by people who have traveled up to 10,000 kilometers or more with the thing. You can only shift when you are not pedaling, which takes some getting used to. But you can shift all the way through the 14 gears at a red light, which comes in handy.
Having said that, I basically only use speeds 8-14 (see above). Berlin is fairly flat, however. I’m taking the bike back to Freiburg for a few weeks this weekend, and I’ll see if I can use more of the gears when I have mountains.
The two downsides are the bike’s weight and gear ratios. Coming in at 25 kilograms, the thing can be hard to carry upstairs, which I found myself need to do when the elevator in my building was broken one day. The water bottle mount is also located directly in the middle of the bike inside the triangular frame underneath the seat – exactly where I am used to grabbing a bike to shoulder it. So basically, I cannot even try to pick the thing up because it will be unbalanced.
The gear ratios are annoying because the bike is designed for off-road use. When I write down the hill, I therefore have almost no contact when pedaling at speeds approaching 40 km/h, which is not very fast, especially not for such a stable bike. When I asked the bike shop if they could adjust the gear ratios, they told me they could not; it’s illegal because of the 25 km/h limit for motor support. If the gear ratios are adjusted, the motor might still provide support at faster speeds. So you really get passed up by people going down hills.
But the bike is safer, and it has cut my commute from around 80 minutes (on a racing bike) to 70 minutes. If I wanted to skip a shower altogether, I might need to try staying in the sport mode – but honestly, I’m not sure that would help as long as the motor cuts off above 25 km/h. Along an eight-kilometer stretch through a forest, I basically ride at that top speed without any interruptions, so it probably doesn’t matter how much support I want from the motor if it’s not going to support me anyway.
In short, everyone should go try an electric bike out!
In my next post, I’ll talk about the bike’s “dashboard.”
Source: Renewables International. Reproduced with permission.
Craig Morris is editor of Renewables International and coauthor of Energy Democracy, the first history of the Energiewende in any language / @PPchef

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