The bicycle is just as good company as most husbands and, when it gets old and shabby, a woman can dispose of it and get a new one without shocking the entire community. — Ann Strong, Minneapolis Tribune, 1895
Last weekend, I bought an electric bicycle.
I did not mean to buy a new bicycle. I meant to go and look at bikes, electric bikes, specifically. I have wanted to get an e-bike for more than a year now, since coming to grips with the fact that my neighborhood is just damned hard to ride in.
I live on top of Gatewood Hill, a climb of 250 feet in three not long enough blocks. To quote a former temporary resident at the our house — a hard core bike chick, the fixie riding kind, “That hill you live on? It’s no joke.” Bike-y types, upon making the trek on two wheels to my hood have been known to call saying, “No way I’m making the slog to your house. Meet me at the cafe at the bottom of the hill, okay?” Any ride out of the immediate confines of the neighborhood includes a series of tough climbs; it is a 500 foot drop (or gain, depending on direction) between my house and Puget Sound — and downtown. There was a time when I would not have balked at this, but let me spell it out for you: Those days are gone.
I have missed commuting by bicycle. I’m not so hard core that I’ll tell you that everyone should do it — it takes some nerve to ride in our city’s weirdly aggressive traffic and a certain tenacity to keep riding when winter comes. I will say that it gave me great pleasure to ride 100 miles a week, sometimes more, and to leave my car parked for day after consecutive day — when I had a car. I’ve lived for great long stretches without a car and I did everything by bicycle, year round. Lots of people thought I was crazy, but I enjoyed it and, bonus, I was ridiculously fit.
Underneath my currently spongy exterior, you’ll find some serious cyclist cred. Dusty, stuffed in a shoebox and shelved in a storage locker in Tukwila, Washington cred, but the genuine article. The kind of cred you might bring to the Antiques Roadshow. The expert, a bow tie wearing fop who specializes in bicycle regalia would say “What you’ve got here is a bit of late 20th century bicycle mojo… it’s legit, all original. If you spent some money restoring this, you could expect at auction to get some decent commuter miles, as many as 35 each way.” No lie. At my best, I rode the 35 mile route to Redmond to work and then, in the rare case I was feeling chipper, the same distance home again.
After several seasons of false commuting starts in West Seattle, including one season of doing the bike on the bus thing, I decided that the electric bike was the cure to what ailed me. I toyed with the idea of a scooter, but a scooter is not human powered and honestly, the idea scared me a little, scooters are dangerous. The e-bike, however, oh, I know my way around a bike. Plus, an electric bike would give me a push, a little nudge when I was dragging; it would make Gatewood Hill attainable, not a gut emptying grind.
E-bikes come in a few flavors. There are models that act like scooter with a motor that can be used instead of human power. And there are the pedal assist models that don’t go anywhere — besides downhill — if you’re not spinning the cranks. When you’ve hit the right level of resistance on the pedals, the little electric motor kicks in, giving you more speed and more climbing power, Take note: It doesn’t replace your work, it augments your efforts. That’s what I wanted.
After a lot of hemming and hawing and reading and procrastinating and budgeting and rationalizing and beating myself up — “Why can’t you just get back on your old commuter, you lazy so and so?” — I decided I should go look. Armed with knowledge about what things ought to cost and what type of e-bike suited my needs, I drove to a Seattle bike store that featured a decent array of options on their website. I brought my reasonable, measured spouse for perspective, to keep me from losing it over some ridiculous new ride. And then, I lost it over some ridiculous new ride — marked down to almost half price — and I bought a e-bike.
It’s green, almost a British Racing Green. It is not particularly showy, it’s rather plain; it looks like just another hybrid mountain bike with 26 inch wheels and suspension forks and slightly fat tires. I plan to junk it up, post haste, with my commuter kit – a rack and my red panniers, a sweet little handlebar bell, a blinky light for safety and visibility, maybe some duct tape just for the hell of it, fenders, all the stuff that makes a bike work in this city as a commuter rig. But for my first two rides, one a short hop from a supermarket parking lot in West Seattle, and the other a round trip commute of 17 miles, I rode it in its generic, depersonalized state.
They were good rides. The first spin up Gatewood Hill was… well, I won’t say it was easy, but I was surprised to find myself at the top so soon. The second ascent, at the end of my homeward commute, was much harder. I was tired and I was carrying a heavy backpack. But the rest of my time in the saddle was great. It took 45 minutes to get from my front door to my client’s offices — about the same time as the bus. The ride home took a bit longer, there were two big grades to climb, plus, I had to stop and admire the view at the Harbor Island Marina.
Tougher purist types — including my former self — might call my new ride a cheater. They can go right ahead, but my quads (and a lot of other unused muscles) beg to differ. Ultimately, what matters — and the reason I bought this bike — is that I’m back in the saddle and seeing the city from behind my handlebars. I’m happy to be out of my car, off the bus, back on the street. I love seeing the variety of species on the trails, the Lycra clad racers, the bad-ass tattooed girls, the old guys in street clothes, fat women with super strong legs, skinny messengers in striped caps, smoking while they ride… and I love being part of it again, a weird old biker with rusted cred and a shiny new electric bicycle.