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Living with my electric urban commuter

It’s black, but hardly bad-ass. Valerie Hauch writes about her electric bicycle.

Published September 16, 2010
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It’s black, but hardly bad-ass.


It’s certainly nothing that would seemingly register on the friendly scale with a serious business biker.


So when I recently stopped at a red light, going west on Lake Shore Blvd., I expected to see the face of a westbound biker dude, with tattooed tree-trunk arms, hunch with contempt as he rode his heavy-duty Harley and turned in front of me onto Leslie St.


He went by and I turned my roundish, blue helmet (with an unfortunate resemblance to that worn by dummkopf Sgt. Schultz of Hogan’s Heroes sitcom fame) towards him and waited, stoically . . . er, Shultz-like, for the sneer.


Instead, I got a goofy grin and a head nod from Mr. Muscles as he passed.


I managed to close my mouth before riding agape along the bike path, on my almost-noiseless ebike, musing on the merits of motorized solidarity.


For me, it isn’t about the love of a two-wheeler. My motivation to buy one at the end of Julywas mostly monetary — it’s cheap and parking is free on city streets. Yes, you could say the same for bicycles but for longer distances and on hot, humid days, it’s nice to arrive at work without needing a shower.


My modest 500-watt model, which delivers a 50-70 km range on a single full charge to the 12V battery and supports up to 250 pounds, cost $999 before tax. The helmet rang in at $99.


The ebike, which has drum brakes, comes with a one-year comprehensive warranty on the bike itself and a six-month warranty on the battery. The latter made me pause, but when I asked the sales person at Blue Avenue about battery longevity, he advised that most last two or three years, sometimes more, depending on use and care. (More on the battery in a sidebar to this story.)


The battery comes with an adaptive piece that plugs into a regular three-prong outlet when you’re ready to recharge. You can lift the battery out (a pain at about 50 lbs.) and plug it in, or just plug one end of the adaptive piece right into an outlet on the bike, which connects with the battery, and put the other end into an electrical outlet. (This is the preferred, easier method if you have a garage or a place that protects the bike and battery from rain during charging.)


I was told to bring my ebike in after two weeks’ use for a checkup; then there are regular maintenance checkups advised at the three-month, four-month and six-month points.


The cost of charging the battery, according to Blue Avenue, is less than 8 cents per day or about $28.50 per year.


I have been interested in ebikes since seeing one on the street about three years ago, and talking to the owner who raved about how much he liked it, how easy it was to drive and how it increased his mobility..


The province’s three-year pilot program for ebikes ended in October 2009 and they’ve have been allowed to continue under the same conditions: riders have roadway rights equal to non-motorized bikes. No licence or insurance is required and you are allowed to park, for free, on city streets.


All ebike riders must wear helmets and you cannot legally take the pedals off (they’re what make it an ebike) — although some owners do because they think the bikes look geeky with them. Theoretically, you’re supposed to be able to pedal the bike if there’s no power. Of that, I’m dubious and haven’t tried.


I took my ebike model for a demonstration ride before purchasing. While my 21-year-old daughter, Kira, watched apprehensively from the sidewalk — muttering about “motorcycle mamas’’ and wasn’t I too old — I sat on the bike, got my instructions and slowly drove off, with only minor meandering while my hand got a feel for the acceleration control in the handle.


After three weeks of regular riding from the Beach to One Yonge, I can make some observations:


• Bicyclists who take the same bike path are divided in their reactions. Some smile and ask what it’s like, others frown. One cyclist riding towards me, shook his head disapprovingly and I’m sure would have wagged his finger if he could have.


Although my speedometer has numbers that go up to 50, the fastest my bike has gone on a flat road (not a bike path!) is about 32 km/h. However, a test on a steep hill in the Beach had the ebike straining at the top, where the speed fell to 18 km/h.


•The tiny side mirrors are essentially useless. They are a pain to adjust because you need a crescent wrench and the visibility provided is minimal.


•The cruise control option is a blessing because it takes the pressure off holding the accelerator hand grip control for long, flat distances. A flick of the hand control brakes ends the cruise control.


•There’s quite a bit of lockable storage built into the ebike (under the seat), a front compartment and behind the seat — but the lock seems a bit flimsy. I wouldn’t leave anything valuable there.


•The built-in alarm is handy — and you can turn it on from a distance with the key set — should you wish to back off curious, unsavoury sorts hovering and dripping mustard from street hotdogs. (It works.)


Ebike facts


Check the warranties to see what’s actually covered on the bike itself and the battery. Find out if the outlet will service the bike after the warranty is up.


Batteries have to be stored at room temperature during winter so make sure, if you don’t have a heated garage, that the ebike battery is removable.


Check what weight the ebike will support — you can lie to your friends but on a hill the truth will have an effect. Blue Avenue recommends nothing less than a 350-watt motor if you’re 200 pounds or more.


And for those who like to talk ebikes, there’s an online chat group for Toronto aficionados at www.ebikeriders.com


Nothing takes the whee! out of the ebike experience, than when something goes wrong. When it comes to ebikes, or for that matter any vehicle, purchases, customer service plays a big part. My own personal bad experience does not dispute anything in the main article, but it should sound a note of caution.


Having gone on a recent two-week vacation, I came back and turned on my ebike. No power. I thought, maybe it needs a battery charge so I charged it for about five hours. (The day before I’d left I’d used the bike and had charged it that day for about five hours, too.) No luck after this charge, however. In fact, the charger wasn’t even warm which usually happens. I called Blue Avenue and was advised to bring in the battery and charger. They checked the charger, said it was fine, and tried to charge the battery at the store on Danforth. Wasn’t working well. I had to leave it over the long Labour Day weekend and then was called on the Tuesday. The battery was dead, I was told, and could not be revived.


It must have been neglect, said owner Vince Balatbat because new batteries, which cost hundreds of dollars, don’t die. Therefore it would not be covered under warranty. I protested that I had not neglected the battery and kept it charged up except for the two weeks we were away. He said two weeks of it not being used should not kill a battery. He queried whether I was really away for two weeks – maybe it was longer? No, I only had two weeks off.


Then he suggested that someone could have stolen my battery when I was away and switched it with another battery. What? For one thing, the key to open the battery compartment was inside a locked house which was watched closely by my neighbour. Secondly, the alarm was on the ebike, which could not be easily seen as it’s hidden at the back of the house. Thirdly, no signs of tampering.


Well, maybe you left the bike on, said Balatbat. No, I did not. I suggested that perhaps it was a faulty battery but he said no, not possible. Battery not covered. Cost of a new one is about half the cost of an ebike.


Valerie Hauch

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