The reality of e-bikes in America is that many of them are cheaply made, and will perform accordingly. These Bat Bikes are ruggedly made, with top shelf components, such as a Nuvinci drive train, Shimano disc brakes, Weinmann Rigida double wall rims, Schwalbe Marathon Plus tires, a 37V lithium ion battery, a Cateye Velo 8 computer, and a front wheel drive motor capable of generating 500 watts.
The owner of the manufacturing plant that builds these bikes has himself traveled across Australia and China on Bat Bikes and insists on building high quality, high performance bikes.
Having never ridden an e-bike any great distance, and with only two test rides down A1A from Jax Beach to St. Augustine under my belt, it was not without some trepidation that I left Jacksonville with my riding buddy Jim on his traditional Surly Long Haul Trucker. My trusty Fuji, on which I had ridden thousands of miles on multiple continents, would be back home in the garage.
So Jim and I set out on a cool Monday morning, headed for Lake City, 60 miles away. It very quickly became apparent to me that riding with a traditional cyclist was going to be a challenge. The Bat Bike has five power settings that will propel the bike forward at roughly 10, 12, 14, 17, and 20 mph, give or take a few mph – 20 mph is the maximum allowed by law in the United States before a bike is considered a motor vehicle that would require a license plate.
So Jim’s comfortable pace was often in between two of the power settings on the Bat Bike such that I would have to fall back and catch up. But once I took the lead, we found that Jim was more easily able to match the pace of the Bat Bike – particularly with me giving him a wind break.
At this point, I should dispel a myth about electric bikes, as I know there are many bicycle purists out there who scoff at e-bikes, or consider them “cheating”. While true, they are a good bit easier to ride, they are certainly still physically engaging. I took two batteries with me, each weighing 20 pounds. The bike itself weighs close to 40 pounds. And I had tools, clothing, chargers, and other gear with me that weighed about 30 pounds. So with my 200 pounds on top of all that, I was pushing more than 300 pounds down the road. And I spent the same amount of time in the saddle and the same amount of time with my hands on the handlebars. And probably made the same number of pedal revolutions as did Jim, and later Alan, who we linked up with in Port St. Joe.
Further to this point, the amount of energy you put into pedaling can increase the range of the battery. On the Bat Bike website it lists the range of the Expedir as 30 miles per charge “depending on rider input”. On this first day out of Jacksonville, we rode along the Jax-Baldwin rail trail, and then on out to US Route 90 for the remainder of the day. Despite a fairly constant headwind, and a gully washer rainstorm we ran into just past the Olustee Civil War Battlefield (site of a Confederate victory), I actually made the entire distance to Lake City on a single battery charge – nearly double what was advertised!
So this success got my mind spinning on the potential for e-bike touring – could long distances be covered in a single day? For the most part, that first day on the road with Jim was on the middle power level. If I opened it up all the way, could I cover 150 miles per day? 200 miles? I did look into the idea of using a solar charger while riding and found a number of very feasible thin film, high efficiency panels that could give a dual battery system such range over the course of a day.
The other advantage of e-bike touring is the idea that using e-bikes could open up touring to a much broader audience of riders. Older riders, or those less physically gifted, could enjoy their rides knowing they had some help under the saddle to get them from point to point.
The reality of riding an e-bike is that you can put as much, or as little effort into it as you want to. I very easily could have made the entire trip to New Orleans with minimal effort – although I likely would have been sweating whether or not two batteries would get me to the finish line each day. I chose to ride pretty hard, get some exercise, and to try to push the range of a single charge to it limits.
At the end of that first day, I found out that my startup, eStartAcademy.com, would be pitching in the semifinals of a prestigious business plan competition at the University of Florida. So I had to leave Jim for a few days to attend to business, then catch up with him again in Apalachicola.
From there, we traced a course along the beautiful Gulf of Mexico, linking up with Alan, a rider I had met a few months previously at Adventure Cycling’s Leadership Training Course in Florida.
After regrouping at Alan’s place in Panama City Beach, where we were treated to a rare and much appreciated home-cooked meal, we set out in earnest the next morning for the Big Easy, some 300 miles away.
The ride over to Destin, where I had booked into a timeshare in which I have ownership, was a relatively easy one, and we had a chance to work into the new 3-person dynamic. We had lunch from food trucks at the lovely planned community of Seaside along a coastal side road called 30-A, close to where Alan and his wife are building their new home. Since we had time, we stopped by Alan’s house in the town of Watercolor to see the progress. The next day would be our longest, an 86 mile ride over to Orange Beach, AL so once in Destin, we did laundry and rested up for the big day.
After wolfing down some fruit and cinnamon rolls the next morning, we hit the road at 7am and managed to put in 30 miles before 9:30, when we stopped for the cycling tourist favorite, “second breakfast”. This one happened to be a Waffle House in Navarre, where we probably ran up the biggest tab of the day for three people. After crossing a bridge with an impossibly narrow sidewalk into Navarre Beach (I actually had to walk the Bat Bike over a good distance of the bridge, given its width), we had a beautiful ride along a bike path and into Gulf Islands National Seashore, a pristine coastal environment with a really nice road.
Along some of the longer stretches of this longer day, I found myself in the same “tweener” speed zone, where Alan and Jim were riding along at about 15 mph and the Bat Bike wanted to go either 14 mph or 17 mph. Pedaling harder at 14 mph didn’t really help, as doing so simply fought against the motor, which was set to travel at 14 mph. It reminds me a bit of the concept of engine braking, where truck drivers will intentionally downshift to slow the truck down without using the brakes. So my only knock on e-bikes is that there is an inability to significantly add leg power to increase speed. Your leg power can certainly take workload away from the battery, but only to the speed at which the motor is set to run. The only way to use 100% of your leg power is to turn the battery off altogether, which I did on some downhill and flat stretches along the way.
After a stop in Pensacola Beach for a frosty beverage at a beachside bar, we pedaled over the bridges to Gulf Breeze and on into Pensacola, but not before Alan flatted coming off the big bridge. From there, getting through town took us on a few twists and turns along the Pensacola Bay waterfront, past the Blue Wahoos AA baseball stadium and on out to the Gulf Beach Highway, which was a surprisingly shoulder-less and harrowing stretch of road leading us out towards Perdido Key.
Once out on the barrier islands again, we picked up a nice shoulder for the ride past the famous Flora-Bama bar, which was slam packed due to the big Mullet Toss weekend, where, I kid you not, they have an entire festival dedicated to seeing how far contestants can heave a fish down the beach. To each his own. We checked into our rooms in Orange Beach, with the knowledge that our longest leg was behind us.
Jim and Alan are what I would call early stage retirees, still very active guys, but without many of the day to day issues that hang over the rest of us in the working world. So while they slumbered, I did some early AM work the next day on the hotel computer, and caught wind of some nasty weather coming our way out of Texas.
Knowing our ride this day involved a ferry crossing of Mobile Bay, and finding out that if we missed the 10:15 ferry from Ft. Morgan (built during the war of 1812) that we’d be delayed another hour and a half, and this subjected to some horrific weather, I encouraged the guys to get a move on. Jim in particular was a bit fatigued from seven straight days of riding, but we got started down the Ft. Morgan peninsula, with the Bat Bike providing pace and a windbreak.
In our race against the clock, under thickening ominous skies, the guys yelled at me a few times to slow down, but I did manage to find a solution to my “tweener” problem. In addition to the five speeds on the Bat Bike, it also has a hand grip throttle much like a motorcycle on the left handlebar. By setting the bike at the 14mph speed, and then feathering the throttle, I could maintain the 16 mph at which Alan and Jim were comfortable riding fully loaded touring bikes and we kept up a strong cadence as the storms raced us from the other direction. Holding the throttle like that was hard on my hand, and probably drained the battery a lot faster, but we made the 29 miles to Ft. Morgan in an hour and 40 minutes, with time enough to spare for a quick look at Ft. Morgan, and a cup of coffee and a Moon Pie, before boarding the ferry.