electric hybrid bike I don’t know what this guy’s hang-up is with Deuce Bigalow, but high gas prices and the following comment by Odograph on the cost of plug-in electric hybrids got me thinking again. In lieu of paying $3-6K more for a plug-in hybrid electric car:

What if you drive a prius and plant $3-10K worth of trees? What if you skip the prius, buy an echo and plant $13-20K worth of trees? What if you spend $1k and ride a really nice bike?

I especially liked his last idea. I jumped on the net to see what was new for electric bikes and bought a conversion kit from a shop somewhere in California for $300. UPS dropped it off at my house last Monday and I had it on my bike an hour or so later.The kit I purchased consists of a front wheel connected to a brushless hub motor, a throttle control, three sealed 12-volt lead acid batteries, and a charger. I chose a brushless motor because of its simplicity (no brushes to wear out and only one moving part) and for its 25% greater range. The engineering trade-off is a lower start-up torque. I went with the lead-acid batteries because I was not sure this would work and they were much cheaper than NiMH batteries.

Well, it worked. It’s like riding a tandem with Lance Armstrong in one of the seats. On my first test ride, I effortlessly pulled a bike trailer uphill for 15 blocks (along Stone Way from N 35th to North 50th in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood). I went on from there using the electric assist intermittently on uphill grades and headwinds to Greenlake and back and from there to Fred Meyer’s in Ballard along the Burke Gilman bike trail. I finally returned home with 80 pounds of groceries in the trailer. The bike performed flawlessly for the entire 8.8-mile trip, with power to spare. What can I say? It’s a hill killer. My car has not moved for days.

Technology begets technology. NiMH batteries are a new technology that made the Prius possible, and as you would guess they have gone a long way toward making electric bikes better.

Something else has come along. A new electric motor design by WaveCrest. It is basically a brushless electric hub motor that puts out a lot of torque thanks to some advanced feedback circuitry. They are presently using it on a bicycle called the Tidal Force, originally designed for the military (military intelligence, by the way, is an oxymoron). The commercial version of the Tidal Force is very pricey and has been described as an electric scooter in disguise. The rules regulating the speed of an electric bike vary from state to state.

Which brings up the next question. Why not just buy an electric scooter? Well, for me, safety is the biggest issue. With a scooter, you have to drive shoulder to shoulder with cars. Bikes, on the other hand, are allowed to use both car and pedestrian rules. They can go wherever pedestrians go — sidewalks, parking lots, trails, whatever. In other words, a bicycle has the legal option of going where cars are not. By using your noodle, you can stay out of harm’s way.

I have been riding bikes for a very long time and have never had a close call with a car. That’s because I switch back and forth between car and pedestrian rules as needed to maximize safety. The goal is to never let a car get a shot at me, whatever that takes. I never ride in front of a car unless the driver makes eye contact first and so it goes. I can recall listening, coffee cup in hand, to my toe-clipped and spandexed co-workers recounting their daily near-death experiences with cars. Bike enthusiasts who mix it up with traffic are asking for trouble. It is a fact of life and always will be, no matter how many ghost bikes you chain to stop signs. This is a case where it is better to not join them than fight them.

Back to the advantages over electric scooters. If you over-extend your battery you can just pedal home. You don’t have to license a bike in most states. Parking is a non-issue. A bike is door to door. You can haul up to 150 pounds of kids or groceries in a bike trailer. That should do it.

I have a theory as to why electric bikes are slow to catch on in the US. Image is important here. Most models I have seen rate at least an eight out of ten on the nerd scale. They look like something my grandma would have ridden. A lot of people wouldn’t be caught dead on one of these frumpy looking things. They need to make electric bikes that don’t not look like electric bikes, which would be easy to do. My bike fits that bill. Other than the hub on the front wheel, it looks like any other modern road bike. No one is the wiser, and I have to say, it’s a sharp looking rig. Add a pair of cool sunglasses, a yellow bike shirt, one of those little bike hats and … damn!

All is not well in the land of the electric bike hybrid. Support for a kit you buy on the net will be marginal. This is not a problem for me. I now have plans to add a power switch on my handle bar and to build a battery pack that utilizes my NiMH power tool batteries (four Makita nine-volts in series).

Electric bike shops are, for now, few and far between. Fortunately, there is one just a few blocks from where I live. They do not however, deal with kits because of past experiences with high failure rates and poor factory support. I was quite impressed with the price, engineering, and quality of several of their hub motor models, preferring simplicity in a design. Apparently, people have widely different expectations of electric bikes. You cannot simply twist the throttle and have it lug you around town. The range will vary according to hills, headwinds, how much you weigh, and how much you pedal. My expectations, on the other hand, have been more than met.