The hills are alive… to the whirr of eBikes

Bofeili eBike on Te Ahu Mairangi/Tinakouri Hill
Bike cruising on Te Ahumairangi

“You’re cheating!” gasped the lycra clad roadie behind me, as he tried to keep up.

He was right, of course. Over the last couple of years my treatment for multiple myeloma has involved what one of my doctors referred to as “industrial strength” doses of steroids, that would get me banned from any competitive cycling event. But this wasn’t what the MAMIL on my tail was referring to. He’d realised is that the reason I was gliding up Aro Street at 20 km/hr with little apparent effort was that my innocent looking hybrid bike had a fatter bottom bracket, housing an electric motor, and that what looked like an oversized water bottle was a battery pack. I’d finally given in to the fatigue factor of long term steroid use, and bought an eBike.

I’d been interested in eBikes for some time – they’d been a major topic at the Velo-City Conference I’d attended in Adelaide. I’d even said that “some day” I’d get one. But as I increasingly found myself collapsing in a gasping heap after every attempt to bike all the way home, I went rapidly from “some day”, to putting in an order.

So what have I learned about eBikes, and are they the answer to Wellington’s hills?

An eBike (also called a Pedelec in Europe) is a bicycle with an electric motor to assist your pedalling.  In NZ, if the power of the motor is not more than 300 watts (a fit adult can generate around 150 watts), you don’t need a license to ride one –  its legal status is effectively the same as that of a standard bicycle. Generally they work by detecting how much effort you’re putting into pedalling, and above a certain level, the motor kicks in to assist you. You can set different power levels according to how much assistance you want. There’s also often a hand control (“throttle”) to provide extra power if needed.

There are a wide range of models. Several Wellington bike shops stock eBikes, and Trade Me has many postings from independent importers.  Evlab in Upper Hutt (with a shop at the Cycle Centre) do conversion kits so you can turn your favourite treadly into an eBike.

The motor can either be in the hub of one of the bicycle wheels (hub drive), or in the bottom bracket (crank drive, or mid-drive). I decided to go with a crank drive, since:

  • The motor’s power is delivered through the bike’s gears, meaning that the motor can run at its optimal speed – it’s not running slowly and inefficiently as you climb hills.
  • The weight of the motor is central, so the handling of the bike is less affected than for hub drives.

Crank drives do have disadvantages. They can be expensive – crank drive bikes with “gold standard” Bosch motors are $6000 and up. Because the power is transmitted through the drive chain, wear on chain and sprockets can be higher, and you need to be careful about changing gear – if you think unjamming a chain after a bad gear change on a standard bike is bad, think about the mess a 250 watt motor can make. But given that Wellington is a hilly place, the efficiency of a crank drive seemed a good choice.

In the end I settled on a Bofeili 26″ sport , which despite its Italian name, comes from China, via Sanders Trading in Tauranga. The componentry are not top of the line, but at $2200 it’s proved to be good value.

How has the Bofeili performed?

The first concern was hills – was it really up to Wellington’s topographic challenges? On my first test ride I headed up the bottom section of Mortimer Terrace, a classic Wellington steep winding street. The Bofeili handled it with ease. Subsequent adventures included a visit to the Brooklyn Windmill – cruised up at a steady 15km/hr – and as a final test, the 1:5 gradient of the road up Te Ahumairangi (the hill formerly known as Tinakouri) – the Bofeili powered up it in bottom gear with maximum throttle, but appreciated the assistance of my pedalling. So the eBike certainly ticks the hill box.

eBike at Brooklyn Windmill
eBike at Brooklyn Wind Turbine

The next concern is range – how far would the bike go on a battery charge? EBike suppliers are very vague about the range of their products, pointing out that the distance depends on what power settings you use, how hilly the route is, wind, etc. The Bofeili suppliers say that customers report getting 20 to 80km from a single charge – a wide range!

My first attempt to test the range was a bit discouraging. We tackled the 30km Makara Johnsonville circuit. All seemed good when we stopped for the customary coffee at the Saddleback Cafe in Ohariu valley, but shortly into the climb of the Old Coach Road the motor cut out. I assumed that the 25km of distance and 450m of climbing had used up the battery, and rode the rest of the way – fortunately pedalling an unpowered eBike isn’t that much of a hassle – effectively the same as pedalling a loaded touring bike. However after further investigation, aided by helpful phone and email conversations with the suppliers, I found that one of the spring loaded battery contacts had failed to unspring, probably because of hitting a bump, and once this was fixed, the battery delivered power reliably, and a subsequent ride around the Makara Johnsonville Circuit got me home with a healthy battery indicator. It also handled the 40km around the bays circuit without a problem – of course this is mainly flat.

It seemed that a longer ride was necessary to really get an idea of the range. I took the train up to Featherston, and rode back to Wellington over the Rimutaka incline – getting home after 84km with the battery indicator reading 3/4. So moderate touring distances on an eBike are certainly possible.

Bofeili meets beef, Cross Creek
Bofeili meets beef, Cross Creek

I’d done these rides using the lower, more economical, power settings. One day I rode around 30km with some fitter friends, using the higher power settings to keep up with them. Then I rode over to Seatoun to catch the end of my daughter’s soccer game – again using high settings for speed because I was afraid of missing the final whistle. After the game my partner decided to ride home on the eBike – she hadn’t had a chance to try it. After coming around the south coast, the battery gave up on Ohiro Road – a total of 64km, mostly on higher power settings. So the power settings make a significant difference to the range.

Another issue is weight – eBikes are typically 20-25kg, compared with around 15kg for a standard bike. So an eBike might not be a good choice if you’ve got to get your bike up steps at home. I generally remove the 2.5kg battery before lifting the Bofeili on to its storage hook in the garage.

How does the eBike affect riding around Wellington? Not having to worry about hills means that my route choice has changed – from the north end of the Terrace to get to Te Aro, it now makes more sense to head up the hill along the Terrace, rather than down onto the flat of Featherston Street. Wind is less of an issue – simply up the power setting or use the throttle when you hit a headwind. If you’re riding with a group, you can earn brownie points when your companions realise they can draft behind you.

But the eBike affects route choice in other ways. With a high power setting, I can travel at a similar speed to cars, so to get from town to Aro Street, I now mix it with the Brooklyn bound car commuters in the vehicle lane at the south end of Victoria Street, rather than taking the back lanes around the community centre.

You may have noticed an increasing number of eBikes around town. Our Mayor rides one . Retailers report good sales to the older demographic who have physical problems riding standard bikes, but also to people who want to get into cycling, but don’t feel up to tackling Wellington’s hills and traffic on standard bikes. So the distinctive whirr of an eBike motor may be coming to a Wellington hill near you…

eBikes – the end of life in the slow lane? [photo: Kevin Allan]
eBikes – the end of life in the slow lane? [photo: Kevin Allan]