I Tried Riding an E-Bike, and It Was Nothing Like I Expected

Author posing with ebike in front of a painted brick wall advertising the bike shop

Treehugger / Ilana E. Strauss

I was lost. That alone wouldn't have been cause for alarm, but I was trying to maneuver a strange machine down the street at the time. As a car whizzed only inches away from my unshielded body, I started to think that leaving my phone at the bike shop was a bad idea.

It all started when New York City declared electric bikes legal a few weeks ago. These increasingly popular inventions are bikes with motors, kind of a cross between regular bikes and motorcycles. They use less energy than cars, making them relatively sustainable. So it was easy for Trek Bikes to lure me out to try one of their newest e-bike models. They directed me to the most Brooklyn kind of store imaginable: a bike shop/coffeeshop called the Sun & Air Bike Store.

Picking the Right E-Bike

A bike store employee pulled out a black bike that looked like it had gotten an MBA and was now working for Microsoft. As I examined the slick, heavy frame, noticing the “turbo” motor setting on an embedded display panel, I wondered if I’d perhaps bitten off more than I could chew. I hadn’t ridden a bike more than once or twice since moving to the city, mostly because the idea was terrifying. A few years ago, my roommate came home from his bike delivery job with a chin that wouldn’t stop bleeding due to a serious cut and a lack of health insurance. He’d been riding down the street, and a car door opened suddenly, smacking him in the face. And he was a pro rider on a regular bike; I was about to be an amateur on a weird invention.

“I’m a bit nervous about riding in New York,” I told the bike store worker.
“Do you have a bike?” she asked.
“In Illinois,” I responded.
She laughed. I might as well have told her I was still on training wheels.
“Take the bike lane down the block until you hit the water. Then you can ride back up the next block,” she told me. “Hm, is your bag in the way? I can hold onto that.”

Testing It Out

electric bike with display
moreimages / Shutterstock

We brought the bike outside. She looked at me for a moment as though unsure whether I knew how to put a kickstand up. It must have been a tough moment for her. After all, if she asked me, then she might embarrass me. And if she didn't ask, I could end up badly injured.

She didn't ask.

After giving her my worldly possessions, including my phone and wallet, I started riding. As I felt the wind brush past my face, I was hit by a wave of nostalgia. I missed this, I realized. I loved riding bikes, I’d just forgotten. I wondered when the motor would kick in; it was supposed to be automated. But I couldn’t hear a motor or feel my bike moving when I wasn’t pedaling.

A few other cyclists passed me, smiling in a suspiciously not New Yorkery way. I was part of a different society now, I realized. I was a bike person. When we reached the water, I saw them take off down a different bike lane. Caught up in warm feelings of camaraderie, I followed them instead of going back to the store. I could always turn back, right?

I ended up following various bikers down paths for half an hour. I’d never noticed that there were so many bike lanes in the city; they were everywhere. I rode more than I had in years, but somehow, I didn't get tired, even when I rode uphill. The motor was working, I realized, it was just working subtly. I'd expected the e-bike to feel a bit like a motorcycle, but it actually just felt like I'd become the Hulk and started riding a regular bike. I could pedal forever. Eventually, the buildings around me started getting bigger, and I realized I was in a different neighborhood. I knew I should go back. But as I surveyed the streets, I reached the unfortunate conclusion that I was completely lost.

“You didn’t bring your phone?” my roommate asked me when I told him about this later. He stopped washing dishes, overcome with my stupidity. “I would never do that.”

But I considered myself a wilderness-savvy kind of gal. I’m no phone-addicted Millennial, I told myself. I don’t need GPS. I can do this the old-fashioned way. The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Since I was somewhere in Brooklyn, and the store was on the East River, I just needed to follow the sun until I hit water. I rode off for another 20 minutes and found myself ... back where I’d come up with that brilliant idea. The celestial bodies were not impressed with my wilderness skills.

As I rode on feeling an increasing sense of dread, the bike lanes disappeared, and I realized I'd have to join the cars. I had no choice. Well, technically I could have turned around, but then other bikers would see and know I wasn’t a real cyclist, and that was simply unacceptable. So I merged into traffic.

An E-Bike in Car Traffic

Bike lane with parked cars on one side and traffic on the other

Treehugger / Ilana E. Strauss

My heart beat wildly as I joined the road, every car a potential lion on this Serengeti. I pedaled slowly and anxiously. A car passed me, lumbering awkwardly right next to me in an effort to get wherever it was going half a second faster. And then I remembered turbo mode.

I’d ridden on a street once before, years ago, and I’d found the experience terrifying. I couldn't go nearly fast enough, and I ended up panting as they swerved around me. But as I turned on turbo mode and zoomed by a car, I realized that this time, it was different. I could keep up with the cars. Propelled by newfound confidence and a fancy motor, I decided to ask someone for directions.

Hey, do you know which way it is to the water?” I asked a construction worker.
“What avenue?”
“Just ... the water.”
He stared at me the same way the bike store worker had when I told her my bike was in Illinois. But he gave me the directions.

An Eye-Opening Experience

Eventually, miraculously, I pulled up to the bike shop.

“Wow, you were out for so long,” said the bike store employee when I lugged the bike back inside. "I was a little worried."

“Yeah, I got excited,” I told her, trying to come off like a pro bike enthusiast rather than a newbie who can’t tell east from west.

When I got home, I checked out a map to figure out where I’d been. I’d ridden way, way farther than I thought. I hadn’t just gone to a different neighborhood, I’d gone to a different part of the borough. You could really get around on that thing.

The experience made me realize that riding bikes in the city is more doable than I’d thought. There are actually a good deal of bikes lanes, and regular lanes aren’t as scary as I’d feared. Maybe that’s why an e-bike rep at the bike shop had told me that he’s seeing people on e-bikes everywhere now. They’re hugely popular in Europe, and they’re experiencing a boom in the U.S.

I’ve often imagined a world in which cities are full of bike lanes rather than roads. Now I'm thinking that e-bikes could make this dream a lot more feasible, especially for people who aren't absurdly fit cyclers. You don’t need strong legs to get around on one of those things. You just need the know-how to ride a bike. And, preferably, a phone.