If you're a 30-year-old athlete with rippling muscles and less fat than your typical flounder, a hybrid electric bicycle is not for you. By all means, be proud you can take the steepest hills with nary a huff nor a puff.
You should be a purist. Feel free to stick your nose in the air when you pass some weenie pedaling by while getting an assist from an electric motor.
But if you're a few years over that age (or in my case decades), a few lamb chops over the ideal weight and nobody's mistaken you for Lance Armstrong or a female counterpart lately, it may not be such an abomination.
Maybe you've passed a group of bicyclists looking all sleek and Spandex-y and thought you'd like to do that if all the roads were flat or downhill. If so, you really owe it to yourself to try one of these electric hybrid bikes.
I did and it was way cool.
My test run on a hybrid electric bicycle resulted from a decision to drop in at the organizational meeting of the Baltimore Bicycle Alliance, an offshoot of the group One Less Car.
Among those attending was Ray Carrier, who operates a business in Fells Point called Green Rider that specializes in gasoline-free scooters and electric motor-assisted bicycles. He invited me to stop by his shop on Broadway and try out a hybrid-electric bike. (For more information on Carrier's business, go to http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/features/green/2010/04/electric_bikes_have_arrived_in.html.)
For some time I'd been curious about these vehicles, which have been growing in popularity in Europe but only slowly catching on in the United States.
At one time, there was a bicycle in my life. It was fun to ride. It was good exercise. But as an only occasional rider, the hills near my then-home in western Howard County were murder. Riding is no fun when you have to dismount halfway up a hill and walk the bike to the crest. Riding on trails was OK, but that involved strapping it to the car and hauling it to a local park. The bicycle fell into disuse, and eventually it wasn't worth the space it took up in a small condo.
But the idea of riding something you could pedal most of the time, but with a motor for extra power when needed, was appealing. So there I was at Carrier's shop.
The first thing to know about these vehicles is that they aren't cheap – at least the higher-end brands Green Rider carries. They range in price from a fold-up, 12-inch Pedego model for $1,095 to a full-size eZee Bike hybrid for $2,495. Cheaper models are available in some chain stores, but Carrier considers them unreliable. (He also sells electric scooters but that's another story.)
Those prices are steep but no more than a high-end stationary bicycle that won't get you to Grandma's house.
Anyway, Carrier let me take a test ride on a 16-inch Pedego fold-up bike, a Taiwan-made model that would set you back $1,495 before tax. It collapses into a compact unit that could easily find a snug corner in an office or apartment while it recharges. Carrier said it has a maximum speed of 15-18 mph and, if you use motor power alone, will carry you 15-18 miles before the lithium-ion battery needs a recharge. (The more riders pedal, the farther it can go.)
It only took a few minutes in the parking lot of the Broadway market to get the hang of it, and then it was off to the streets – where the same rules apply to hybrids as to conventional bicycles.
Not only was it this writer's first time aboard an electric bike, but the first time aboard any type of bicycle in Baltimore. If you've never tried it, let's just say you gain a new appreciation of the perils bicyclists face in city traffic.
The journey took me up Broadway where it starts to ascend from the harbor and then on a wide loop around Patterson Park. On the flat and downhill stretches, it was just like pedaling a bicycle that was carrying a little extra weight. But on uphill slopes, all it took was a slight turn of the handle to supplement pedal power. A further turn and the motor did all the work.
Another advantage was that when you stop your bicycle for a red light, you don't have the slow struggle to accelerate. Instead, a little electric power lets you get off the line quickly when the light turns – helping the bicyclist keep up with the flow of traffic and reducing the annoyance of nearby motorists.
It wasn't just the absence of exhaustion that made the electric bike more comfortable to ride than a conventional bike. It was also easier, for a novice at least, to adjust to the flow of traffic. And instead of wobbling up the hills, it was easier to keep a straight course and concentrate on traffic.
The Patterson Park-Canton circuit proved to be a moderately good workout -- enough to break a sweat but not enough to reduce me to the panting, perspiration-soaked noodle I would have been with pedal power alone. But my guess is that if you were to ride a hybrid often enough, you'd gradually build up the strength to depend on electric power less.