If I hadn't taken a test drive I'm sure I never would have purchased a Sanyo eneloop electric-assist bicycle. It's not that I'm not lazy - I am, and many people near to me know that I am a rather wimpy urban biker, as I complain if I have to go too far or haul too much stuff. No, the reason I wouldn't buy an e-bike is more to do with the negative image I have of any motorized cycles since I began bicycle commuting in 2006.
And then one cold January day I rode the eneloop up the big hill near my house in Portland and on to the even bigger hill of Mt. Tabor. And I was completely sold.Goes a little farther, a little faster
eneloop made me feel like I was suddenly just a little bit stronger, and almost as important, a little bit more on equal footing with the other vehicles on the road.
I don't think this electric assist bike is going to be for everyone - far from it. eneloop has a fairly girly feel in its design, and seems to be catering to women riders, with its mamachari design. Not only does it have a low step-through and a wide, cruiser-style saddle, it also isn't all that powerful, and not very fast.
The electric-assist motor on the three-speed Eneloop has three modes - auto, standard, and power-up. In auto mode, the bike is supposed to help by sensing when you need a power boost - especially during take-off when first accelerating and on inclines - and give you that extra assist. Standard mode is like riding a heavy, sturdy cruiser, while the power-up mode gives you two times the power of your regular pedaling.
The bike also has limited regenerative charging, so while going down steep hills the power lights blink to let you know you are re-charging the battery. My eneloop is the first generation - Sanyo is promising some new eneloop models that improve the regenerative charging capability with a feature called "Eco Charge Mode," in order to extend the bike's range.
What the Eneloop doesn't do is make you a sudden cycling speed demon. That's because the bike's top speed is 15 miles per hour. This is important to realize before purchase. If you want the Eneloop because you think you will actually ride more and ride further with electric assist, you are the right candidate. If you are hoping to get a moped that looks like a bike - or an electric bike that doesn't look like a bike - you may be disappointed.
In fact, the Eneloop may make you feel more powerful, but it at some point might irritate you as if you are cruising down a hill and adding some extra pedaling, that pedaling won't be "assisted" to increase your speed past the 15 mph limit (and it won't re-charge your battery past 15 mph, either).
Some more sporty cyclists have figuratively frowned on the pedal-assist movement as it tends to connote lazy cyclists getting a motor to do the work while they pretend they are cycling.
My Year of "E"
That's why I decide to document my first year of e-biking, to see if a) I lose or gain any weight b) ride more or less than I habitually have done (imperfectly measured by a rise or fall in my Zipcar bills, and c) find a noticeable increase in my electric bill from frequent charging of the bike (estimated to be just a few cents per charge, which takes 3.5 hours).
My starting weight was 115. My first week of biking I rode 33.4 miles. Zipcar miles = 0. Happiness factor = high.
It was great that my bike mechanic, who helped tighten up the steering after I self-assembled the bike, said that mine is the first pedal-assist he's seen in his shop. Otherwise, the bike really seems to blend in, and people don't know it's got an assisting motor unless they are looking up close.
E-bikes are on the rise, especially in China and other parts of Asia, where people are using them as a car replacement. While that's a fantastic niche, it's not too helpful for moms or car-bound people like my sister, who lives nearly twenty miles from her job. My idea of eneloop's true value is for new or hesitant cyclists that have been intimidated by busy streets, mean weather, or a tinge of wimpiness. I have had all those feelings in my life as a commuter cyclist, and the eneloops definitely helps give my riding a welcome boost. Let's see if it lasts.
Author's note: Thanks, Todd, for pointing out a mistake, now corrected, regarding top speed. The bike can go faster than 15 mph, however the assist doesn't help you after you've attained that speed, and the brake recharging automatically stops after 15 mph.
Read more about e-bikes at TreeHugger:
Should E-Bikes Be Banned?
Electric Bikes a Better Work-Out Than Pedal Power
Scwinn's New Line of Electric Bikes