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The New Magic Carpet 

Zipping around on an electric bike

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Barry Evans

We are long-term cyclists and ride our handy folding bikes a lot, both around Humboldt and beyond. Purists, we never thought we'd succumb to an electric bike. But last July, we surrendered and invested in one that we now share — and love.

We walk as much as possible, and do most errands either on foot or bicycle. But there are times when cycling takes too much time, or is just plain unpleasant. Weekly trips from Eureka to Arcata on a bike would entail at least 40 minutes each way on the freeway. A trip through the Arcata Bottoms is lovely, but takes even longer.

When we visited Southeast Asia last year, the number of electric bikes in (usually flat) cities and towns was amazing. The most popular model was manufactured in Vietnam, cost around $500, and had a range of about 15 miles before recharging. Seeing all these quiet, economical bikes was inspiring, and once we were back home, all the notes from an Humboldt State University Osher Lifelong Learning Institute class on electric bikes came out and the online research began. The choices were daunting.

Complete bicycle or kit? That was pretty easy. We already had an old but very comfortable hybrid bike that we rarely used. Why pay for a bike when we already owned one? That narrowed the choices down, but there was still more to decide.

Power hub on the front or back wheel? From the rider's point of view, they feel much the same, so we went with the simpler front wheel replacement.

Automatic or manual control? A controller in most kits sends more or less power to the hub, depending on the effort exerted by the rider. It's the bike version of an automatic transmission in a car, and since both of us prefer stick-shifts, we went with manual control.

On-off switch or adjustable throttle? I read online that most users with throttles keep them at full, so we elected for the simplicity of an on-off thumb button on the handlebars.

Range? In order to cycle from Eureka to Arcata and back, we needed a battery with at least a 20-mile range.

Having gone through that decision tree, online reviews and comments convinced us that a Seattle-based company, Clean Republic, had solid value-for-money kits. For $800, we bought their "Hill Topper" kit consisting of a replacement front wheel, a 20-mile range Lithium-ion battery and on-off button. Their kits start at $400, for an 8-mile range.

Installation was pretty simple, although not the three-minute (!) conversion touted on the website, mainly because we had to file our bike's front forks to accept the new wheel's slightly wider axle, as well as add a couple of thick washers for a good fit. But the next day the bike was tooling along Waterfront Drive at 18 mph (according to our GPS) without pedaling. A week later, it made a 25-mile ride combining pedal and battery power, and came home with juice to spare. After an overnight charge, the bike was ready to go again.

The added speed is just phenomenal. It's fast. On top of that, it's a good fit for those in-between distances where we might otherwise give in to laziness, and (don't tell anyone) drive. It's not as much of a workout as a regular bike, of course, but we're still using human pedal-assist power most of the time, and it's more energy-efficient and less wasteful than driving. And then there's the feeling! Press the button and you're off, whisking down the road, as if on a magic carpet. There's something delicious and childlike about the surge of power as it carries you along, like being weightless.

Apart from trips to Arcata, we mostly use the electric bike to do errands. You can clip a pannier bag on the rear rack, next to the battery, and head off to the grocery store, library, or a meeting. Cycling to the home of an elderly friend who lives on Pigeon Point Road is far less of a chore now that dusty Myrtle Avenue flies by.

Before we had one, an electric bike seemed more like a practical benefit than a joy ride. But we predict we'll be seeing more and more bikes like ours around town, as people discover just how practical, economical and fun they are.

Louisa Rogers and Barry Evans live in Old Town Eureka. Rogers is a management trainer; Evans writes Field Notes for the Journal. Their 36-year marriage has (so far) survived having to share an electric bike.


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