Why we love our e-bikes

In the summer of 2020 we decided to get new bikes. We’d been thinking about e-bikes for a while, and after some research decided that we’d go ahead and get them.

One thing to know about us is that we don’t own a car. On purpose. I’ve been free of car ownership since 2005 (most of that time I was living in Boston), and James since 2017 (he was living in Vermont). So these bikes were to be our primary transportation.

Tucson is very flat and has lots of bike trails and good weather. It’s also a very car-oriented city with most people driving everywhere. Some people we’ve met can’t fathom that we would choose to live without a car. But we love it. Saves lots of money and gives us more exercise. We do use a Lyft or Uber from time-to-time if we need to go somewhere not convenient to bike to. The public transportation here is OK, but not super-convenient. And if we go on vacation (or staycation), we rent a car for local road trips.

When it comes to exercise, you might think that having an e-bike is the lazy way out! But no. The battery gives you extra power, but most of the time you are still pedaling. And you can chose the level of “pedal-assist” (our bikes have 5 levels). There have been studies that show that people with e-bikes get plenty of exercise.

As it turned out, electric bicycle riders ended up slightly edging out pedal bike cyclists in terms of total exercise each week. The study’s authors largely attribute this to the increased amount of time that e-bike riders spend on their bikes, compared to cyclists and the longer-distance trips taken by e-bike riders.”

– from Believe it or not, study shows e-bike riders get more exercise than cyclists.

Deciding which e-bikes to buy

We did plenty of research online in order to decide which bikes to buy. We also test-rode some e-bikes back when we were living in Vermont. After learning more about e-bikes and their batteries, we decided that having a removable battery was a top priority. That’s because the extreme heat of Tucson summers would not be good for prolonging the battery life. Since we planned to keep our bikes in our garage, we wanted to be able to remove the batteries and bring them into the air-conditioned house at night.

Another consideration was whether to get a bike with a throttle. I didn’t see that as very important, but James really wanted a throttle. It turns out that now I’m glad we have throttles! I eventually learned that the best use for one is for starting up after a red light. When you want to cross a large, busy street quickly, a throttle gets you that instant oomph that makes crossing quick! So our bikes have pedal-assist and a throttle.

We also noticed that prices were all over the map. The lowest prices for quality bikes seemed to be around $1,500 each. And they can go up to over $8,000. You can get some cheap e-bikes for between $400 and $1,000, but most reviewers don’t recommend them. We ended up spending $1,500 each for a model called the RadCity Step-Thru. (now priced at $1,600). These are from a Seattle company called Rad Power Bikes.

One of the best sites we found for reviews was Electric Bike Review. They also have a useful YouTube channel. Here’s a review of the bikes we bought.

Shipping them to our local bike shop

RadPower Bikes ships e-bikes with instructions for putting them together. Since we are not handy with bike assembly (we are both handy with computers, but not with bikes), we asked our local bike shop if they could receive and assemble them. They said yes!

Since it was in the middle of the 2020 COVID year, there was a backlog because so many people were buying bikes everywhere. We ordered them in July and they came in mid-August. The bike shop charged a reasonable fee ($180) to assemble the two bikes. They also said they could do future tune-ups and repairs. Fair Wheel Bikes is within walking distance of our house, so that was convenient for us.

A bike mechanic getting our bikes ready to ride for the first time.

Accessories

Here’s some info about the accessories we bought. We ordered the following from Rad Power Bikes:

We also ordered some new Nutcase helmets from REI. (We love the polka dots!)

Later we ordered these items from other vendors:

This rear basket with bungee-cord netting holds a lot!
My water bottle fits perfectly in this holder that straps on to the handle and frame with Velcro.

Learning our new e-bikes

So there were a few things to learn when we first got these. First, how to remove the battery. They each came with a key for locking the battery to the bike, turning it on/off, and removing the battery. It took a few times to learn those three positions for the key. It was recommended to charge the battery after every use of the bike, so we always remove them and bring them into the house for charging every night. It gets very very hot during Tucson summers and leaving them out in the garage would shorten the life of the batteries.

Next up is the display. When you turn the bike on (via a switch on the left handlebar, the display lights up.

The display shows battery life, pedal assist level, USB charging, odometer, speedometer, and wattmeter.

In the photo above you’ll see a number 1 in the lower left corner. That’s the level of pedal assist. It goes from 1 to 5. By pushing a button on the left handlebar you can increase it to give you more power while pedaling. My favorite level is 3. I find that around our very flat neighborhood with quiet residential streets, 3 gives a comfortable level of assistance (so I rarely use anything higher). If I was in an area with steep hills, I’m sure I’d use level 4 or 5 sometimes. There is something extra nice about feeling that extra power while you are pedaling. It makes you want to go farther and spend more time biking around.

It’s also nice to see what your speed is while biking. 20 mph is the maximum, and if you get up to that, you’ll feel some drag if you try to go faster. You really can’t go faster than that. Probably a good thing. The only time I get up to 20 mph is on a particular long straight street that slopes slightly downhill and goes on for several blocks without stop signs or traffic lights.

Another nice feature is the built-in headlights and rear light. The rear light comes on automatically when you turn on the bike (it’s a brake light), and you can activate the flashing mode by pushing a button on the light itself. We always use the flashing mode, even during the day.

For the headlight, you long press the power button together with another button on the left handlebar. It’s very bright and we always use it in the early evening and after dark. It’s nice that the lights are built-in, so you don’t have to remember to bring lights with you (like we did on our old bikes). We often bring our old bike lights anyway and attach them to the luggage rack facing out on each side. We like to be seen well from all directions. We also have reflective stickers and spoke reflectors. And we each wear a reflective sash at night.

In the photo below you can see James with the bike lights on just after we picked up takeout Mexican food.

Rear light is on, side light is attached (tail-light from old bike), and front headlight is shining on the step. Very bright!

Since we have two types of locks (each with a different key) and the battery pack also has a key, we now have 3 new keys on our keychain. At first it was easy to mix them up.

3 different keys: 2 for locks, 1 for the battery.

What about potential bike-theft?

Bike theft is a huge problem everywhere. It’s bad in Tucson. I’ve heard many sad stories of bikes disappearing out of people’s yards or public bike racks. We are happy that our rental house has a garage so we can safely store our bikes.

Since we bought these bikes during COVID, we haven’t had a chance to lock them up anywhere for any length of time. We both work from home (before, during, and after the pandemic). We usually get our groceries delivered. We go out to pick up takeout food sometimes, with one of us going inside and the other staying with the bikes. So for most of our rides we aren’t stopping to lock them anywhere.

We did make sure to buy extra strong locks, though… two different kinds for each bike: ABUS Wheel Lock and ABUS Bordo Granit X-Plus. We use those to attach to sturdy bike racks if we are going to both be inside a location for a while.

This wheel lock makes it impossible to roll the bike.
Our primary lock.
This lock folds up and is mounted on the frame when not in use. I wish we had purchased the longer size though, because it never seems to fit through the tire as well as the frame on any bike rack I’ve used. The separate wheel lock makes up for that.

At some point we should find a way to lock our seats to the frame. In the past (with our old bikes) we had our seats stolen when we left our bikes locked up overnight near a store. The reason we did that was because it was suddenly pouring down rain and we had groceries and didn’t feel like biking in the flooded streets, so we called an Uber. We walked back the next day to find our seats had been stolen (including the seat posts!). What a pain.

Insurance for e-bikes

In the past our renter’s insurance covered our bikes as part of the policy — including theft or damage when away from home. But this doesn’t work for e-bikes. Most renter or home-owner policies don’t cover them, it seems. So we shopped for e-bike insurance and found a policy from Markel Insurance. We pay about $33 per month to cover theft and damage for the two e-bikes. It has a $200 deductible. It also includes liability coverage. So that gives us some piece of mind in case they are stolen.

E-bikes are so fun!

Now that all the practical stuff is out of the way, I want to talk about how fun these are! I’ve been a bike commuter since 1987 (most of that in Boston), and wow, these are so much nicer than regular bikes I’ve had in the past. I don’t get so hot, tired, sweaty, and I still get plenty of pedaling in. James often says that these are the best form of transportation he’s ever experienced.

We’ve biked along a bike trail nearby, around a duck pond and city parks, across the University of Arizona campus, to our local independent movie theater for outdoor movies (keeping our bikes next to our chairs since it was outside), and just for fun around the neighborhood. We haven’t yet made it out to the famous Loop bike trail in Tucson, just because we live a bit far from any entrance to it and we don’t have a car to put them on and drive there. I hope we will do that sometime when the weather gets nicer (in November the extreme heat will be over and it’s perfect).

The duck pond at Reid Park.
We love this bike path not far from our neighborhood. You feel like you are in the middle of nowhere, but it’s in the middle of the city.
A fun place to get away from car traffic.
A socially-distanced outdoor movie at The Loft Cinema in October 2020. Those two yellow chairs are where we sat. It was nice to keep the bikes next to us. The movie was shown on a big screen attached to the back of the building.

Summing up

So to sum up, here are the advantages and disadvantages (for us) of having e-bikes.

Advantages

  • fun to ride!
  • easy to get exercise without getting exhausted (so we bike more and go farther)
  • easy to go most places without a car

Disadvantages

  • more expensive than regular bikes we would have purchased (made up for by not having car expenses)
  • they will likely be a target of bike thieves (but true of any bike)
  • it takes a bit of setup before going out… so it’s not so easy to be spontaneous

About that last item. When we are getting ready to go out for exercise we say to ourselves, should we go for a walk or bike? Often it seems like a bit of work to get ready to bike if it’s just for some short exercise. We have to get out the batteries, install them, get the bikes out of the garage, make sure the tires have good pressure and if not, pump them up a bit, put on our helmets, make sure we have our water bottles filled up (we get thirsty in the desert), bring bags or backpacks if we’re planning to pick up food. And make sure we have our masks, just in case (during COVID). So sometimes we just go for a neighborhood walk instead of a bike ride.

Of course most of that would be true with non-electric bikes (except for the batteries). In the future, if we didn’t live in Tucson, I’d like to have e-bikes with batteries built-in to the frame… as long as we had a safe and not-extremely hot place to store them. It would be nice to just plug the bikes into outlets in the garage instead of taking those heavy batteries into the house each night.

In spite of all that, the verdict for us is that we are very happy to have e-bikes! We hope that after COVID is behind us (hopefully) and the world opens up more, we can do more biking to places around Tucson.

We actually went to one indoor movie this year (with limited seating, masks required, no crowds in the lobby). We locked our bikes on the racks for a Sunday afternoon matinee showing of Street Gang: How We Got to Sesame Street. Fun! We love The Loft Cinema and are members.

Are you thinking of getting an e-bike? Or do you have one? We’d love to hear from you in the comments.

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