When I first quit my 9-to-7 job, I was able to walk everywhere I needed to go, or take Muni. I lived in the middle of the city, nothing was too far and Muni transports were plentiful. But then I moved to Bernal Heights, a seeming “suburb” within the city. Places were far and Muni was scarce. As a result, I’ve been thinking about getting a bike. But what type of bike should I get for this city of hills and Muni track traps?

A few days ago, on our way back from brunch, my boyfriend and I passed by a new bike shop in town, The New Wheel. This was its very first day. We peeked in. The bikes looked cool, but they were far more expensive than the other bikes I had looked at. The starting price was around $2,700 for a simple cruiser. Yowsers! What was so special about these bikes?

That’s when I (over)heard it: “They are electric bikes.” 

In 2011, Brett Thurber, owner of The New Wheel, read an article in The New York Times  on electric bikes. The electric bike struck Thurber as an elegant form of transportation for a metropolitan community like San Francisco.

These electric bicycles are not scooters. You still have to peddle like you do on a regular bicycle; however, unlike a plain bike, the electric bike has an electric motor that kicks in to help power the bike. The “second generation”  of electric bikes, as Thurber likes to refer to them, have smaller batteries than electric bikes from a generation ago.  A computer  helps to integrate the power from manual peddling and the power from the battery. The electric motor is hooked up to the rear wheel. The torque from the rear tire is what the computer uses to determine how much help to give the rider. You can choose how much “assist”  you have while riding-anywhere from 1 to 4 (4 being the most). When you’re going downhill, you can set the computer to use the energy from braking to help charge the battery. (The battery will recharge even if you don’t change the computer setting, but not as much.) The result is a bicycle that can go up hills or carry heavier loads with less human effort than a non-electric bike.

That’s a lot of technology on a bike. Of course, I was tantalized by the prospect of riding a bike up and over some of our big hills without really breaking a sweat. Lucky for me, this new bike shop also rents electric bicycles!   The sunny and warm day beckoned us to the beach.

It being their first day open, my boyfriend and I became rental-process guinea pigs. It took a little while to find us bikes-I consider myself average height, but they needed to find a smaller bike for me to ride. Then they had to find the seat to go with it. Then they needed to figure out how to take the trailer hitch off the back so a day pack could be put on. Then, locks for the lights and front tires needed to be installed. And then we needed to be given instructions on how everything worked. And then”¦.we were off! Two blocks later my seat slipped and we had to return for some tightening.   Through all of this, The New Wheel shopkeeps were nice, helpful, accommodating and generous.

I found my bike-with  27 gears, hydraulic brakes and a computer for the motor-comfortable. I didn’t notice too much aid on the flats, but going uphill I really appreciated the little motor assisting me (especially after kicking the assist all the way up to 4). That being said, my electric bike weighed about 50 pounds-15 pounds or so is directly attributable to the engine and the wiring components-so the engine at least helps with carrying around its extra weight. I still had to downshift when going uphill, especially when we rode up and over Bernal Hill on Folsom. This should tell you something because a) I haven’t ridden a bike in ages; and b) I’ve never ridden a bike as my primary means of transportation. The fact that I could make it over the hill at all speaks to the power of the electric bike.

My boyfriend (who does ride a bike as a primary means of transportation) reported a similar experience. He really noticed the aid of the motor while going uphill. Because the computer-provided assistance is based on how hard you work (the torque on the rear tire), it tends to even-out the playing field. He could work not so hard but not get as much assistance, or work harder and get more assistance. Either way, we were both able to go up and over big hills together-despite the disparity in our bike riding backgrounds. That was pretty groovy.

On the downside, these expensive bikes laden with valuable equipment were kind of bulky. When we finally parked our bikes at the beach, we spent some time trying to get them to fit in the allotted bike racks-I had to remove my seat so that we could lock them properly. Not such a big deal, really, and I’m pretty sure my boyfriend had no qualms with it.

Overall, I loved renting and riding the electric bikes. It made for a perfect Saturday. I’d definitely do that again on a sunny San Francisco day, and I know that the next time I do The New Wheel folk will have streamlined the process. I’m still not sure about about buying an electric bike though. The bottom line for me is the weight. It’s just too heavy for me to carry up and down any stairs, and my life is filled with nothing but stairs right now. If I had a place to stash the bike on the ground level, I would definitely be tempted. (Lord knows I’ve probably paid the DPT $3,000 in parking fines!)

Want to experience for yourself? Stop by on Sunday, April 1 for Grand Opening Festivities, including an all-day bike ride along the Scenic 49-Mile Route and free bike tune-ups-regular or electric.

The New Wheel [Map]
420 Cortland Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94110

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