The inhospitable wind and hills environment in Wellington can put some people off making the switch to cycling for transport. I was one of those, and I used an electric bike to get me over the hump, so to speak.
So until the Wellington City Council gets around to installing these bicycle lifts we may be left with individual solutions.
See this brilliant video demonstration.
Why an electric bike?
Obviously there are a number of approaches to our particular challenges in Wellington. One could coat oneself in lycra, and buy a super expensive carbonfibre road bike, or a well geared mountain bike. Or there is the “drive with your bike on the back of the car to the designated cycling area” approach.
I was unfit (very unfit), and essentially car-bound in upper Roseneath. I knew I couldn’t just jump straight onto a bike. I’d never have been able to tackle the hill on my return journey. My mission was to use my car less, and improve my fitness. I wanted to cycle to work (at the hospital) and home again at various times of the day and night.
I had seen electric bikes on Trade Me, and initially laughed at the idea, but a bit of google research suggested this could be a solution. I was mocked mercilessly by my partner of the time, but went ahead anyway, and he later had to eat his words.
I found a company in Porirua who were in the electric mobility scooter market, but who also had electric bikes, and they agreed to hire me an iZip for a week’s trial period. The iZip wasn’t the bike for me, but I was completely sold on the concept.
I found Wisper Bikes and their NZ distributor ElectricBikes online. At that time they had a network of agents who had demonstration bikes to try. From the websites I thought I’d like the sporty 905 model, but after a trial ride on both the 905 and the 705 with the agent in Crofton Downs, I found I preferred the upright positioning and stability of the 705se.
Now, look, there is no getting away from it, electric bikes are heavy, mainly due to the batteries. Wisper use the newer Lithium batteries, which makes the power and weight relationship more useful for a hilly place like Wellington. My Wisper came in at around 23kgs with battery, compared with around 32kgs for the iZip I trialled. It was expensive, around $2500.
I added the basket myself and invested in a set of Basil panniers for the rear carrier.
I see that Mamachari are now acting as a local Wellington agent, and I did see a Wisper on the shop floor last time I peeked in.
How did it work out?
Well, mostly it’s just like a regular bike. The motor can be switched on and off as you wish. With the motor off, you just pedal like a regular bike. With the motor on, you can choose “pedal assist” or ‘throttle” mode. Pedal assist requires you to turn the pedals as normal and the motor boosts you along, whereas throttle doesn’t require pedal action, just a twist of the throttle, like a moped. I used mine in “motor off” and “pedal assist” only. I never really had the need for throttle mode.
The battery could be removed from the bike and taken indoors to be charged. The charge time was approximately 6 hours, and the range from a single charge advertised as 35-51kms on the flat. I didn’t test this myself, and the hills would definitely reduce this figure, but a once weekly charge was more than adequate for my around town commuting.
It was remarkable. Almost overnight, I changed from being car-bound, to a cyclist. I could cycle everywhere. Home in Roseneath to city centre, home to work, home to family’s place in Island Bay. I never had to worry about whether I’d have the energy to get home again. I knew the motor would help get me home up Carlton Gore Road and Grafton Road. I still needed to pedal, the hill was too steep for the motor alone, but I did feel the need to apologise for overtaking unassisted cyclists as I cruised past them struggling up the hill.
It was this psychological mountain that the electric bike helped me over. I knew I could get home again. Nights out, supermarket shops, takeaway pickups, all done by my electric bike. The bliss of being back on a bike regularly after close to 20years was a revelation.
Is it cheating?
I know some critics complain that electric bikes are cheating in some way. My question to these purists is: who exactly is being cheated? I suppose it depends on what you want to achieve. For me, it was about commuting without my car. Wellington is a tough city to make a one-step jump from motor car to unassisted bicycle transport.
In my case I only used the motor assist on the tougher hills, and in really strong winds. The rest of the time I was pedalling just like a regular bike. I got fitter, and in time I needed less assistance on some hills. The electric bike was my transition step from car to pure pedal cycle.
The final outcome(s)
I got fitter, really rather quickly. I lost interest in my car, and the bus. I started cycling the long way round to work just to get some extra cycling time in. Then I bought an unassisted bicycle, and soon after that I moved from Roseneath to Newtown.
Fitter and on the flat, there was less need for the electric bike. So I sold it. Then I sold my car, and I am now able to live car free. I cycle everywhere, all with my regular unassisted bikes. With a good granny gear I can tackle some of Wellingtons hills that were so daunting before. Sometimes in a strong Southerly I yearn for the pedal assist mode, but I’ve made the transition now.
So, my conclusion: The electric assist bicycle is a great vehicle for those who’d like to cycle more, but need help through the transition.