Electric Bikes Remove Strain Of Riding

Commuting by bicycle may sound like a great idea, but actually doing it means the rider needs to be in good enough physical shape to cover all kinds of terrain. Not so with a new generation of electric bicycles, which allow riders to travel without breaking a sweat.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Riding a bike to work may be a great way to beat the high cost of gas. But that requires a certain physical stamina that some people just don't have, which helps to explain the growing popularity of electric bicycles.

From San Francisco, NPR's John McChesney reports on the new set of two-wheeled commuters.

JOHN McCHESNEY: If you ever left your heart in San Francisco, it may have been because you try to climb one of its awesome hills and trying it on a bike can be even worse.

Cynthia Kajua(ph) lives on Potrero Hill where many of Hollywood's most terrifying car chases are filmed. She describes her bike commute before she got an electric bike.

Ms. CYNTHIA KAJUA (Resident, Potrero Hill): At the end of my day, I'm riding home exhausted already, and then I'd have to face that hill and then I'd have to walk up those stairs all the way on the top. And I was dead. I mean, I couldn't even speak. I couldn't speak. I would be breathing so hard.

Mr. JEFF PEASE(ph): Then go, hi, honey. (Unintelligible)

McCHESNEY: That's Cynthia's husband Jeff Pease. Both of them now ride electric bikes to work nearly every day. It's nine miles roundtrip. They're selling one of their cars. And they can't say enough good things about their electric-assisted bikes.

Mr. PEASE: Actually, one of the nice things is I think it makes biking or bike-commuting possible for more marginal riders. I mean, don't be fooled by the wet suits in there. We're not triathletes, you know? But, I mean, this is about the most exercise that I usually get in a day.

McCHESNEY: Jeff and Cynthia get exercise because their bikes are electric-assisted. They can pedal but they get an adjustable boost from the small electric motors. Call their bikes hybrids, or call them bikes for the rest of us. No spandex, camel backs or spurred shoes necessary. And the bikes look like bikes, except for a battery pack on the frame.

But Jeff says you can't find them at many bike shops.

Mr. PEASE: When we would go into a bike shop and ask about electric bikes, nine out of 10 of the people, you know, with shaved legs…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. PEASE:…would sort of look at us, you know, in this kind of, you know, shocked, pity, and say, no, we don't sell anything like that.

Mr. STEVE ROSEMAN (President, The Electric Bike Network): Riding an electric bike is like having your fairy godmother tap you on your shoulder with a magic wand and make you twice as strong.

McCHESNEY: Cynthia and Jeff found Steve Roseman, who sells electric bikes in partnership with a couple of Bay Area shops. He calls his company The Electric Bike Network.

Mr. ROSEMAN: Hills that seemed inconceivable in terms of being able to get up them, on an electric bike, turned into a pleasure. Life becomes a comfortable ride instead of the - and agony to be avoided.

McCHESNEY: So, of course, this aging, out of shape reporter had to find out if that was just sales hype.

Larry Kline of Noe Valley Cyclery adjusted the seat level on a small fold-up style bicycle for me.

Mr. LARRY KLINE (Owner, Noe Valley Cyclery): Whoa. You just start pedaling and the next thing you know, you get a little extra (unintelligible). Sit down.

McCHESNEY: This is pretty extraordinary because, I can tell you, on this hill, I would never, ever attempt it on my own. But I'm still working out. As you can probably begin to hear, okay, rest break.

McCHESNEY: Now, the motor on this bike wouldn't climb this hill on its own. There are some electric bikes that don't require pedaling. But Roseman says they're just a temptation.

Mr. ROSEMAN: There can be a bit of a tendency if it's a throttle only electric bike for you to get good exercise for your (unintelligible). But (unintelligible) like.

McCHESNEY: The bikes Roseman sells run about $1,600. You can spend more or less depending on the bike and the features you want.

Ms. MINDY KENDALL(ph) (School Teacher): I'm 50 years old. So, and I'm not in, you know, stellar shape.

McCHESNEY: Mindy Kendall is a school teacher who also lives on a formidable hill in San Francisco, which she says she couldn't pull without the electric assist. She commutes on bike every day. I asked her if the city's bike purists ever give her a hard time.

Ms. KENDALL: You get those with the young bike messenger-types. And I'm coming down Harrison in the bike lane. And even though it's the (unintelligible) if the wind's hitting me, and I've got this thing in full gear and I'm booking.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. KENDALL: They'd kind of double take at me but I love it. It's got me back on my bike all the time every day, unless it's pouring rain and it makes me feel good about what I'm doing for the world.

McCHESNEY: And let's be clear. These bikes aren't just good for hill country. They're helpful to people with injuries or heart conditions who pedal in the flat lines. And they come in all shapes and sizes - tricycles, recumbent bikes and so on. How far can you go? Depends a lot on how much effort you put into the trip.

John McChesney, NPR News, San Francisco.

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