8 surprising things I learned after testing an electric bike for a year
The Gazelle CityZen Speed T10: She may not look like much, but she's got it where it counts, kid. Image: gazelle By Chris Taylor2020-01-30 23:31:52 UTC For a little over 12 months, I've been testing the same model of the same $4,000 electric...
For a little over 12 months, I've been testing the same model of the same $4,000 electric bike, the Gazelle CityZen Speed T10. This may seem an excessive amount of time; normally, bike reviewers might spend a few hours or a day or a week in the saddle. But nothing about this review is normal.
For one thing, it is completely non-technical. I'm not one of those gear-heads who knows or cares about drivetrains or derailleurs or torque. I'm the customer who goes glassy-eyed when the bike shop clerk starts talking about the advantages of each model. Like many a casual cyclist weighing whether to drop a considerable chunk of cash on an electric bike, I cared only about these basic questions:
Will the experience be so pleasurable that it compels my lazy ass to cycle more? Will I have range anxiety? Will an e-bike replace a good chunk of car trips? And of course, the quintessential query of the 21st century: Will I lose weight?
You can try extrapolating from the experience of a few days or weeks, but these questions can only be truly answered over a long period of time. The answers, respectively: yes; no; not really; and no but that's the wrong question.
How this happened
I used the CityZen on my 300-mile e-bike adventure in late 2018. After that experience, with all its (literal) ups and downs, fellow rider Brian Sarmentio of Bosch — who is a gearhead, and a huge e-bike booster — felt I was insufficiently jazzed about the prospect of getting one of my own. "Try it for a year," he insisted, confidently predicting all the ways it would change my life over that kind of time period. Including shedding those hard-to-shift gut pounds; two tires to help eradicate a spare tire.
I was skeptical, in part because of the main problem that's kept me from getting serious about cycling: I live at the top of the 900-foot-hills that rise above the flatlands of Berkeley, California. No matter which way you go, you have to go downhill, on very curvy roads, at speed, which for me means wearing the brake pads on my regular road bike down to nothing. (My cycling friends tell me I just have to get comfortable with careening around blind bends on a thin piece of aluminum at 30 or 40 mph; I tell my cycling friends they're nuts.) But I agreed to try it anyway.
1. It was pretty damn heavy.
The first setback arrived when I had to take a fresh CityZen home to the East Bay from a bike shop in San Francisco. This meant taking it on BART, which bans bikes on escalators and is famous for its randomly out-of-service elevators. Which meant hauling the bike down a substantial set of stairs. Which in turn meant finding out very quickly just how heavy and ungainly it is.
The CityZen weighs 55 pounds, which is the same as three average road bikes. And if there's a good way to grab it to distribute that weight, I couldn't find it. Bumping every other BART step, starting to sweat, I cursed the concept I'd locked myself into. There was no way I could commute with this thing. Weren't e-bikes supposed to be less effort? Why couldn't they make them lighter? Instead of dropping four large, why not spend less than half that on a 15-pound carbon fiber beauty, the kind I could tote happily over my shoulder, and would be substantially less mass to pedal uphill?
The energy equation of spending electricity just to help a heavier thing fight gravity seemed in that moment to make as much sense as an old-school Hummer (not the newly-announced electric Hummer, though the jury is still out on whether even that makes sense.) I mean, I appreciated the heck out of the CityZen's Turbo mode (the highest of its five levels of electric pedal assistance) on the normally murderous uphill home. But whenever the power is off (and you can technically still bike in that mode), it becomes clear what a huge chunk of alloy you're dealing with. Besides, I was starting to remember that the saddle was clearly not designed for my more ample behind.
2. It's not a year-round kind of transport
Mere days after I got the bike, the next setback arrived. The skies opened, and the ensuing downpour continued on and off for months. San Francisco's rainy season (aka winter) is usually sporadic and lasts a few months; in 2019, it was torrential and lasted well into May, when the Bay managed the incredible feat of being colder and wetter than Seattle. I had no doubts of the quality of the CityZen's tires or breaks, but I also had no desire to careen downhill on a supremely heavy bike in the wet. So, for the most part, in the garage it stayed.
This seems the fundamental problem with telling casual cyclists that e-bikes can replace cars for all local trip needs: Yes, but only in clement weather. When the thermometer drops, and the wind is gusting, and the rain is coming down in sheets, you can bet your spandex-padded booty that a dry driver's seat is going to look a lot more tempting than an e-bike's wet saddle.
3. But oh, the places you'll go
According to my Apple Workouts app, I spent a cold wet April tentatively returning to the bike with three to five-mile outings, less than half an hour every few days, usually down around the UC Berkeley campus. Generally I preferred to do indoor and outdoor runs. Then my bike mileage explodes one day in early May, with a 76-mile ride.
What happened? Well, first of all, I'd replaced that damn saddle with a more ample one. But more importantly, sick of the Bay Area weather, I'd decamped to warmer, sunnier Lake Tahoe. One morning I set out for breakfast a few miles from my rental, but the cafe turned out to be closed for repairs.
The next place I tried was shut too, so I just kept biking up and down the Tahoe hills on a clear day, past waterfalls and gorgeous vistas — until I was surprised to find myself in South Lake Tahoe, Nevada, 38 miles and one state away, directly across the vast body of water from where I'd started.
That was where my first battery ran out. Luckily, Brian had mailed me a second battery, which I happened to be carrying just in case. Without it I would have had to plug the bike into a regular outlet at a cafe until it charged up, which wouldn't have been the worst outcome in the world. The CityZen's battery charges up fully in a couple hours or less.
Instead, I stopped for a quick sandwich by the beautiful crystal waters, then got back on and biked another 38 miles. Total bike time: 4 hours 30 minutes. Active calories burned: 3,500.
I was further surprised to discover that I wasn't exhausted, or nearly as sore as I would have expected. The endorphins had kicked in for sure. But there was another sensation, something I could only describe as "my heart is beating happy." This was it, the cardio effect we strive for, and I'd gotten it without killing myself spin-class style. Instead I just kept pedaling, hypnotically and continuously.
The bike's electric assist makes every pedal go further, but that doesn't mean you're getting less of a workout — just a speed boost, and a confidence boost that you can go further than you think. As study after study shows, e-bikes help casual users get more exercise overall, once they get going, than regular bikes do. (Granted, these studies use small sample sizes of about 20 to 30 cyclists, but it aligned with my own experience.)
I'd certainly gotten going, and the Tahoe ride kickstarted a long and glorious e-bike summer. "Accidentally going further than I expected" became a theme. Home a few days after Tahoe, I thought I'd go for a ride to the Berkeley Marina, and within an hour found myself crossing the Bay Bridge (well, the longer of its two spans, which is the only one currently open to bikes) to Treasure Island. This is not something I would have dared attempt on a regular bike.
Riding around a reservoir the following day, I got my first puncture when I ran over a wood nail (Seriously, people? Wood nails?) and had to call my wife for a pickup. But the friendly neighborhood bike shop fixed it over lunch, and my confidence could not be punctured.
I took the bike to the Lightning in a Bottle music festival, and on the way back did a quick 36 miles on the Monterey Bay Coastal Recreational Trail. Easily one of the most beautiful bike paths in California, the trail takes you from Cannery Row in downtown Monterey up to rolling hills where the air is thick with the earthy smell of beets. You feel like you're in a Van Gogh painting.
4. In some cities, it can replace a car
The highlight of the e-bike summer was a road trip to see friends in Salt Lake City, Denver, and Santa Fe — and to test the e-bikeability of all three locations at the same time. All were great, but the clear winner was Denver. Even though the city's bike lanes leave a lot to be desired — as Denver has belatedly recognized, passing a plan this month to add 125 miles of them by 2023 — it is relatively flat and compact.
I found I could e-bike literally everywhere friends suggested going, from bars to bookshops to brewpubs, no matter the neighborhood. I did not use my car once until it was time to pack up and go. Score one for the notion that e-bikes can replace your car, at least inside the bounds of Denver in the summertime.
Indeed, we may not only be heading into a world without car ownership, but a world where many of us spend the summer beating the heat by taking as many bike trips as possible. After all, the world is getting warmer, and blasting along at 20 mph or higher — something the CityZen can comfortably handle — is not only good for the environment. It's the best AC there is.
5. Sheer terror is part of the fun
That fall, bikes literally replaced cars — at least on one lane of the Richmond-San Rafael bridge, the least known of the Bay's three great bridges, which joins the East Bay to Marin county. The lane was hived off with crash barriers and given over to cyclists going in both directions. Even before it opened, grumbling from car-driving locals had caused the authorities to backtrack and "study" whether to return the bike lanes to cars during rush hour.
As a newly empowered cyclist, I joined the packs heading out to use the bridge as much as possible, hoping to stick it to anyone "studying" the situation. It was an extraordinary experience in both good and bad ways. The good: You can often beat the bridge traffic to Marin, as this video from a local bike shop demonstrates. The bad: The path to get to the bridge, through the industrial and oil infrastructure of Richmond, isn't exactly clear or welcoming.
The potentially bad: If you stop on the bridge for a second to take a photo, you discover the whole structure is (designed to be) shaky as hell. Which may not be all that awful, if you're able to see it as a theme park ride.
Riding back from Marin with a silly grin on my face, on the right side of the lane next to the crash barrier, I had ample opportunity to look into the cars. So many single occupancy steel boxes, so many SUVs whose drivers wore a scowl on their faces. Would they have enjoyed a bike ride better, I wondered? Would their heart, like mine, be beating happy?
6. Yes, it changed my behavior
Winter came again, bringing cold temperatures and rain in its wake once more. Back into the garage the bike went, but more regretfully this time. From May to November, I'd grown used to its presence. It hadn't replaced my car for all local trips in this period, but I'd enjoyed getting into a routine of filling my saddlebags with books (I get sent a lot of books) and distributing them to Berkeley's many Little Free Libraries. On the way back, I'd use the empty saddlebags to get whatever groceries we required.
I never got over the terror of hurtling downhill on a heavy bike, and the CityZen's brake pads had to be replaced once during the year. Parts and labor came to roughly $100. Still, that wasn't the worst price to pay. And it's a wonderfully odd sensation to enjoy the uphills more than the down. I set a goal for myself to try to break the 25 mph speed limit pedaling uphill in Turbo mode, but the best I managed was 22 mph.
I didn't commute with it, because I never thought locking up a $4,000 bike at a BART station — even the safest, most residential BART station — was a good idea. Heck, I was nervous enough locking it up outside a coffee shop. The CityZen has the extra security of a key that locks the back wheel, but that's not something a thief would necessarily know.
7. No, it didn't change my weight
Did I lose weight? No more than a few pounds, but as I noted earlier, that's the wrong question. My shape changed. I felt healthier. My average pulse dropped over the year, as did my blood pressure. It's impossible to isolate biking as a cause from other activities, an improved diet, and blood pressure medication. But as my heart kept telling me after every long ride, the e-bike did good.
Now that San Francisco's Market street has gone car-free, I look forward to participating in that too — by hauling the CityZen back to the city on BART one last time before handing it back.
8. I'm not buying
So, what next? Am I convinced that I need to buy an e-bike now? Not immediately. In the short term, I'm looking forward to getting back on my road bike to see if the CityZen has boosted my uphill skills. At the very least, carrying a 17-pound bike on BART should feel like nothing by comparison.
Unfortunately, it seems like heavy e-bikes will be with us for some time. Gazelle has released three new models since the CityZen T10 Speed, and two of them are heavier than 55 pounds. It has announced no plans for lighter bikes, even though the battery and motor together only weigh 14 pounds, so there seems room to shave some heft off the frame. Sadly, 55 pounds seems to be the norm across the board when it comes to mass-market electric bikes.
Perhaps this doesn't matter to many potential buyers. If public transit isn't a thing near you, if you never have to carry it up or down stairs, then something like the CityZen could be just your speed. Either way, my heart is happy that e-bikes exist and that more users are getting into them. I just won't be joining that revolution yet.