Ernesto Colnago, founder of the famed Colnago bicycles, claims that Enzo Ferrari told him that “the bike is the most perfect machine that exists” (LINK). I’ve taken those words to heart, which is why I commute by bicycle when possible. It’s just not as efficient to propel a hunk of steel to cover the same distance that the same person can go on a bicycle, nor does sitting in a car in bumper-to-bumper traffic as appealing as freewheeling a bike to my next destination.
The other day, while pedaling out of the downtown grid to meet a friend for dinner, a cyclist with bags loaded to the brim casually cruised by me, with the ring of a bell to let me know they were on my left. I greeted them at the next stoplight and complimented them for their cargo. “A week and a half’s worth of groceries”, they replied with a smile on their face. Before I had a chance to respond, the light turned green, and they calmly zipped away and out of my sight.
What did they have that I didn’t? Horse thighs? A heart of steel? A competitive edge that beneath my understanding? Actually, it turned out to be a pedal-assist electric bike; a Stromer, to be exact. From that point, few things occupied my thoughts more than needing to ride a pedal-assist electric bike. Luckily for me, I got the chance to take one out for an extended test: an Orbea Katu E-10, courtesy of Orbea’s media manager. As I spent some time riding around on this unique bicycle, I marveled at how much my riding habits changed (and didn’t change) with an electric bike. Here are some thoughts:
- Hills trembled in my wake – I go to school at the University of Utah and live at the bottom of the hill. The e-assist bike cut time from my commute simply by allowing me to streamline my route; instead of taking a zig-zag route that made climbing more gradual, I went for the straightest route possible. I was just as tired at the end, but I cut a significant five minutes off of my 20-minute commute; not bad for 1000 feet of climbing over two miles with a full load of food, notebooks, and a laptop.
- Stop lights aren’t so bad – Stoplights are the bane of my existence. I work and work to get up to speed in the city, but a block later there’s another stoplight to stop the bike’s momentum. With pedal assist, I could effortlessly sail away from each stop, regardless of how much I had with me.
- Alvin, the brazen bicyclist – It was a brisk Friday night, cold enough that gloves were of the utmost necessity if I were to stay outside longer than a few minutes. I had just agreed to meet someone in Holladay, an eight-mile commute from downtown SLC. The only issue? If I went home to grab my car, I would be late. Instead, I decided to go by bike. Long story short, outside of my frozen nose, I arrived to with time to spare, unflustered and energized by my endorphin-driven bike ride.
- More bikes, more friends – My friends were much more willing to park their car in favor of the bicycle when they had access to pedal assist. No longer were they discouraged by distance or pace; rather they were enthusiastic, and even happier when they realized that they didn’t absolutely need their car for every journey.
What didn’t change?
- Overall commute times – My commuter has drop bars and places me in a fairly efficient position. Most pedal-assist bikes offer a 20 mph max assist (and 28 mph in the case of Class 1 bikes from companies like Stromer), so my average commute times weren’t drastically cut. But in the city, where there is a stop sign or stoplight at every block, or when I have 20 pounds of gear on a long, steep climb? It was a serious boon to a weary body and mind.
- My overall laziness – Detractors claim that these bikes make us even lazier, but I disagree. I didn’t work any less; my effort was just spread out over longer distances. I was sparked to ride more frequently instead of driving, prompted by the ease of traffic-free bike lanes, infinitely free parking, and the simple smile on my face. At the end of the Katu’s stay, I hadn’t driven my car in over two weeks.
Cyclists familiar with Salt Lake City know that the ride from downtown to the top of the University of Utah requires a bit of planning, especially on a commuter bike. The route requires an elevation gain of nearly 1000 feet in the course of a mile and a half, which makes this commute not for the faint of heart. For my non-cyclists friends? “I could ride up there no problem, on something like this,” one said. “Why would I pay for parking when I can take this downtown and park right in front of my work?” said another.
Perhaps that’s the value of electric bikes such as the Orbea Katu E-10. As much fun as I had on this bike, I’m not sure that pedal-assist bicycles are a must-have in my life. However, they’re absolutely a game-changer for non-cyclists. Salt Lake City, like many other cities, has spent a chunk of money to make roads safer for cyclists. Not only is this infrastructure ripe for the picking for casual cyclists, but more cyclists makes for less auto congestion, safer roads, and cleaner air.
We can all agree that getting more people out of cars and on bikes isn’t just fun, but an important cog in improving individual quality of life and city livability. The bicycle is an investment in a future where space is at a premium, and the burden of the car becomes more severe. The pedal-assist electric bike isn’t just an opportunity to make a regular bike move farther, faster. Instead, it’s a low-hassle alternative to more cumbersome transport that frees everyone from the burdens of the hulking automobile. Not bad for a little black bicycle with a strapped-on battery pack.
Side note: I LOVE THIS BIKE. The 20″ wheels make the bike super maneuverable, and two of my friends (one 5’3″ and another 6’2″) were equally comfortable on the bike. The basket is fixed to the head tube instead of the handlebars and fork, which means steering with a load was extremely predictable and easy in tight quarters; the mount is also compatible with child seat carriers. The Orbea Katu is well-designed, and even better executed. Kudos to Orbea for thinking outside of the box on a bike like this, as well as offering this in electric and non-electric versions.