These are not just bikes with motors, they are an entirely different mobility platform.
Four years ago I reviewed an e-bike and wondered if they belonged in cities.
Ok, it is a few years later, and I have spent the last few weeks riding a really wonderful e-bike, a Gazelle Medeo. And it's time to talk.
Toronto is relatively flat, my trips are relatively short, and I am relatively fit; I can see that for other people in other places it could be a very different story. Tomorrow I will be back on a regular bike that is a third the weight and a fifth the cost. My heart will beat a little faster and I will travel a little slower, but I’m not ready for that e-bike yet. Let’s talk again in a few years.
First, let's talk about the bike. Gazelle has been making bikes in the Netherlands since 1892, and their e-bikes have all the attributes of classic dutch-style bikes: solid, heavy, durable, with a comfortable upright riding position. The Medeo, which I have been riding, is their lowest priced model, starting at about US$2500. It has a 250 watt Bosch mid-motor churning out 50 Nm of torque and a 400 watt-hour battery that will push it about 59 miles in ECO mode. I have been using it mostly in Tour mode, which will go approximately 33 miles.
It is a step-through design which at first I had to force myself to use, I am so used to a top tube and throwing my leg over the rear. In fact, this is much easier, and a joy at red lights. The bike is substantial and has real inertia, taking a push to get going but then never stops. It feels solid, stable, confident. In Tour mode I play nicely with others in the bike lane, going at about the pace of the 25 year old commuters, getting passed by the speedsters.
The bike has hydraulic rim brakes; I wondered why, when so many bikes come with disk brakes now. Benny of Gazelle USA explained:
The decision to use Magura HS-22 hydraulic rim brakes goes back to us being a Dutch company. In the Netherlands, people ride their bike everywhere they go and when they reach their destination, they park the bikes in bike racks and can accidentally bend/damage disc rotors, contaminate them, etc. So, in the simplest of terms, I'd say we use the hydraulic rim brakes for braking power/control and simplicity of maintenance.
The battery is up high too, built into the carrier. I thought this might be a problem, that perhaps it would be better to keep the weight low, but it's a great carrier and I never noticed issues of centre of gravity.
Now let's talk about riding. The bike is a pedelec and has no throttle. Instead, it detects how fast and how hard you are pedalling with cadence, torque and speed sensors, and gives the appropriate boost. It is so sensitive and so simple that you really can forget that you are on an e-bike; you just happen to be really strong and fast and hills don't matter and, oh right, it's an e-bike. You don't hear it and soon you don't even feel it, but it is there, making me feel 25 again. The nine gears help you easily find a comfortable cadence for your speed, and let you eat steep hills for breakfast.
Is it 'cheating'? If my name was Femke Van den Driessche and I was in a road race, yes. But I am not dressed in Lycra doing a race. I am just a guy trying to get from A to B. I am not on this for racing, or even for exercising, although my Apple Watch heart monitor, and my working of the gears on hills, tell me that I am indeed getting light exercise, and studies confirm this. I am on this for transportation. I am on this because I believe we should not be driving cars in the city. I am on this because I hate getting stuck in traffic and I hate trying to find or pay for parking. Oh, and there is a climate crisis.
This is the difference between a bike and an e-bike, the way you can use it for transportation. A and B can be much further apart. It can be hot; a recent study found that you sweat 1/9th as much. It can be hilly. Or, like Toronto where I live, you can deal with a gradual slope down to the lake. For years I have complained that they put Toronto's downtown in the wrong place, that I would rather pedal up the slight tilt in the morning and roll back down when tired at the end of the day. Or for an evening activity downtown I would take the subway and streetcar or even skip events because I was feeling lazy or tired and didn't want to slog up the hill on the way home.
The e-bike changes that equation; that tilt of Toronto no longer matters. I no longer think about being too tired. Because of this, I am using it more often than I used my regular bike, and I am going longer distances. I suspect that, because of that, I am probably getting as much exercise as I did on my bike, although to reiterate, that's not the point. This is transportation.
Analyst Horace Dediu paraphrased Marc Andreessen on software and said “Bikes have a tremendous disruptive advantage over cars. Bikes will eat cars.” I will paraphrase Dediu and say that e-bikes will eat cars. This bike is totally disruptive; it can truly act as a car replacement for many people. (Someone is going to say, "What about winter?" But I have been riding all winter for years. I suspect this will be much more comfortable because I will dress as if I am going for a winter walk, not a ride where I often underdressed so that I wouldn't overheat.)
Cycling is an important means of transportation in the Netherlands, especially for the elderly. It keeps them healthy and contributes to social inclusion.— Dutch Cycling Embassy (@Cycling_Embassy) May 9, 2019
To improve their safety, the Dutch national government developed a new program called "CycleOn".https://t.co/eEMLjd2LUi pic.twitter.com/WS0jFv20DK
There are a couple of caveats. For e-bikes really to eat cars, they need two things that drivers of cars take for granted: a place to drive and a place to park. We need good, safe and separate bike lanes and routes so that people feel comfortable. That's why Egbert Brasjen can ride his e-bike at age 96. With the right infrastructure, you can ride this forever.
We also need safe, secure places to lock our bikes. I have been very nervous, leaving a $2500 bike on Toronto streets, where 3700 bikes were stolen last year and only one percent recovered. I paid more for the 2 Abus locks than I have paid for some bikes, and including the AXA lock that comes with the bike, I am following the lock-per-hour rule I learned from an Abus rep from Chicago: "If I go to a three-hour movie, I put three locks on the bike."
Riding in Toronto's always lovely and safe Harbord Street bike lane a few days ago, I pulled up beside a blue 1990 Mazda Miata, identical to the one I sold last fall. I started talking to the driver, a guy about my age, about how I sold mine and was now riding this e-bike; it was faster in the city, and I didn't have to put the top down to get sun and air, and I was using it much more than I ever used the car. We talked at every light for a number of blocks, about how I no longer felt safe in the car mixing in traffic with big SUVs, and actually feel safer in the bike lane on the Gazelle.
Just before he turned off Harbord, he said "I'm convinced! Where did you get it?" I sent him to Amego, Virginia Block's wonderful e-bike shop that distributes the Gazelle here. I really believe that this kind of conversation is going to become more common.
The Gazelle Medeo is not just a bike with a motor. It's a model for an entirely different mobility platform, a different way to get around cities, and perhaps more importantly, around suburbs that are too diffuse for a regular bike. It's a transportation revolution and it will eat everything.