On New Year’s Eve in 1895, Ogden Bolton Jr. was granted U.S. Patent #552,271 for a battery-powered bicycle. No, that’s not a typo; electric bikes first appeared more than 100 years ago. But before long, gas-propelled cars, planes, trucks, buses and, yes, motorcycles became the dominant mode of American transportation. Now — especially in Marin, with its flat terrain interspersed with steep hills — electric bicycles, or E-bikes, are charging back as a means of transportation — one that’s green, economical and also a great source of exercise.
“It’s like a motorbike,” says 57-year-old Bryn Deamer. “Only it doesn’t spew gas, and I get a workout going to work.” Deamer’s round-trip commute is six miles — from San Rafael’s Gerstle Park over Wolfe Grade to Marin General Hospital, where he is a medical records supervisor. “Some stretches get slow,” he adds, “but the downhills are a blast.” Deamer rides a Quest step-through E-bike that cost him $912, tax included.
What should you consider when choosing an E-bike? In addition to cost, which in Marin ranges from $800 to almost $9,000 (one European deluxe model reportedly sells for $35,000), you should also factor in what level of power you’ll need. E-bikes can move without pedaling (power on demand) or with pedal-assist; many combine both options.
The motor’s power, or wattage, should also be a consideration. Street-legal E-bike motors range from 220 to 750 watts, and off-road E-bikes go up to 1,600 watts. In comparison, experts say Lance Armstrong pedals the equivalent of 500 watts. Finally, there’s the distance and speed an E-bike can travel on one charge. Distances range from 18 to 45 miles; speeds go from 18 to 35 mph. E-bikes currently being sold each have a lithium battery you can easily recharge in less than four hours by plugging it into a standard wall outlet.
For many owners of E-bikes, there’s no going back. Motivated by a love of cycling and two bad knees, Novato’s Karla Jacobs — who founded Electric Wheels West (electricwheelswest.com) — believes in electric bicycles so strongly she became an E-bike dealer. “I left my car in San Francisco,” she says with a grin, parodying the Tony Bennett song. “Now when I go for a bike ride I really fly. I’m working just as hard but going faster and farther.”
For a well-rounded E-bike less than $2,000, Jacobs favors the Hebb Electro-Glide, which features a 350-watt motor and, according to her, is great on most hills. For an E-bike under $1,000, Jacobs recommends the E-Tour Glide. “But it only has a 220-watt motor, so it’s best for flat terrain,” she says. Still, according to its specs, an E-Tour Glide can go 28 miles on a single charge and reach 18 mph.
San Francisco’s Blazing Saddles (blazingsaddles.com), a bike rental concession at Fisherman’s Wharf, also sells electric bicycles. “We have 60 E-bikes, representing three different makes, in our rental pool,” reports general manager Bruno Wanderly, “and any one of them will easily make it over the Golden Gate Bridge into Sausalito or Tiburon — no problem.” According to Wanderly, a favorite of both buyers and renters is the Swiss-designed Legacy Stromer, which comes in both standard and step-through, or “girl’s bike,” models.
With its 600-watt motor, the Legacy Stromer can handle almost any grade in Marin, and it can be pedaled, pedal-assisted or fully powered by the motor. With a range extending to 30 miles and speeds up to 35 mph, a well-equipped model costs less than $3,000. “Or we’ll rent you one for $89 a day, which is almost three times what a regular bike costs [to rent],” Wanderly says with a laugh. “But guaranteed, an E-bike is three times more enjoyable.”
If there’s one top-of-the-line, uniquely designed E-bike that truly stands out in the Marin marketplace, it’s the PiCycle (picycle.com), which is manufactured off Marinship Way in the Sausalito shipyards. Why the term “pi”? “Pi, or approximately 3.14, is the mathematical ratio of a circle’s diameter to its circumference,” says Marcus Hays, founder and CEO of Pi Mobility, “and our bike’s aluminum frame is part of a perfect circle.”
Hays says that his customers range from “pedal-for-pleasure to pure speed junkies,” so PiCycles can be configured “as teddy bears or 100 percent electric beasts.” A PiCycle sells for between $5,995 and $8,995, depending on what a buyer wants. Unlike other E-bikes, a PiCycle’s electric motor can be charged by pedaling, thereby extending the range to 40 miles. Off-road speeds reach as high as 40 mph. PiCycle motors range from 750 (street-legal) to 1,600 watts (off-road only) and feature a belt drive rather than a chain.
As to what separates a PiCycle — which weighs 68 pounds — from a lightweight gas- or electric-powered motorcycle, Hays is succinct: “A PiCycle isn’t required to be registered, nor does it call for a special driver’s license.”