Does Electric Bicycle Touring Have a Future?
On a cloudy late April day, I recently set out on a tour from Jacksonville, FL to New Orleans on my new electric bike from Bat Bike (www.Bat-Bike.com). In the interest of full disclosure, Bat Bike is one of my consulting clients, and I received one of their cargo bikes, the Expedir, as partial compensation for my work. As a veteran of a number of long distance tours, including a modified Trans-am from Yorktown, VA to Los Angeles, I was curious as to how an electric bike would fare on the open road.
The Bat Bike Expedir Loaded and Ready to Go
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.
Alan Brown, Todd Smith, Jim Hilly Crossing Mobile Bay
This early morning effort likely saved us hours of afternoon agony, as we heard the ferry workers on the Dauphin Island side talking about heavy weather that was due in less than an hour. We quickly made tracks to get across the large bridge and causeway back to the mainland, with ominous flashes of lightning and rumbling thunder looming in the distance. The rain started in and the wind was pretty furious and only died down a little once we made it to tree cover. But we still had some 15 miles to go to get to our destination that day in Bayou La Batre, a town made famous by the movie Forest Gump. I ducked my head, ratcheted up the speed of the Bat Bike and hustled to the town’s only hotel, set to launch a rescue by pickup for the other guys if the weather really got bad. The town of Bayou La Batre was pretty flooded when we rode through, and I even did some underwater pedaling to get through the worst sections with standing water. Thankfully all three of us made it through to the safety of the hotel, and we set out for lunch, to do laundry, and I found the local library where I could finish some work I needed to complete by the next day. Alan managed to procure a bottle of good “LA” (Lower Alabama) Conecuh Ridge whiskey, and that evening, we set out for a much-anticipated seafood meal in the “Seafood Capital of Alabama” but were a bit disappointed that it was overly breaded and fried to the point you could hardly taste the seafood. The next to last day of the trip had us on Jimmy Buffett’s “Pascagoula Run”, a nice ride along some country roads before we reconnected with US Route 90. Once we crossed into Mississippi, we had either good access roads or big shoulders to ride on for most of the day. We rode through Ocean Springs and back over to the “Redneck Riviera” into the busy town of Biloxi, where we had a choice of a busy road with no shoulder or the seawall on which to ride. We spent most of our time on the seawall and made it to our “resort” hotel and casino, which turned out to be very short on resort, and essentially an overpriced hotel with a smoke-filled casino inhabited by a lot of old people feeding their retirement funds into slot machines. Our last day on the road would take us into New Orleans, just in time to catch the start of the second weekend of Jazz Fest, one of the best music festivals in the world. Out of Gulfport, we were struck by the large number of vacant lots for sale, many with nothing but the front steps left after Hurricane Katrina wiped out much of the area. We rode through Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis, and Waveland that were all but decimated by the storm. Bay St. Louis has done a fantastic job of rebuilding, with a huge new seawall, and a lot of charm and quaint southern appeal. Out of Bay St. Louis, it was a long slog along US 90 to the Louisiana border. We stopped off at Cajun Encounters, a tour company which was a little short of food, but the owners gave us some mini muffaletta sandwiches and a bowl of homemade red beans & rice. Both were delicious and geared us up for the food at Jazz Fest the next day. From there, Route 90 is known as Chef Menteur Highway, and it winds through Bayous, by waterfront homes (most of which were built post-Katrina) past levees & locks and a network of waterways, and through the Bayou Savage National Wildlife Refuge. Once past the refuge and an industrial area, the highway led us into East New Orleans, with its more aggressive city drivers, and over the death defying Industrial Canal bridge, where Jim managed to shred his tire, just five miles from the finish line. Thankfully, he had a spare and we picked our way through the beautiful Gentilly neighborhood, down Orleans Ave and into the French Quarter, where we passed horses and buggies, crossed Bourbon Street, rode into Jackson Square, and then on up to the Mississippi Riverwalk. Being back in New Orleans always feels like coming home to me. I lived there for a brief period out of graduate school, and have been to Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest going on a combined 20 times. It never takes me long to find my own accent softening into the relaxed N’awlins dialect. The City, the attitude, the food, the music, the culture – it’s all phenomenal. For Jim, riding into town was his first ever visit to the Big Easy, and it did not take long for him to vow to return. It doesn’t for most people. With another timeshare booked within blocks of the French Quarter, we were set for our Jazz Fest stay. The next day Jim and I dropped off our bikes for shipping at a bike shop a mere three blocks from the property I owned when I lived in New Orleans, and walked over to Jazz Fest, where we had a great time sampling the many different types of food and music offered there. The Bat Bike, for its part, performed flawlessly. Not a single flat or mechanical issue during the entire trip. For me, the next step may be to get a solar panel for the bike and go out on a solo adventure to really test the bike’s limits for range, speed, etc. The economics of electric bikes are incredible. It takes roughly ten cents worth of electricity to charge a battery. According to one website I saw, that equates to an efficiency of about 1600 miles per gallon. So, for roughly the cost of two gallons of gasoline, you could provide the energy needed to cross the country on an e-bike. Will these bikes have a future in the bicycle touring ecosystem? While they certainly have many other uses such as in industry, as police vehicles, for local/city deliveries, etc, I say based on this experience, that answer to the e-bike touring question is a definite “yes”. While I appreciate the feelings of bicycle purists, who believe that pedaling under their own power is the only way to go, there are also other factors to consider – chiefly ability and time. Not everyone is capable of pulling off a cross country trip the old fashioned way. Further, in our crazy world with insistent pressures of time and instant information, taking several months off to complete an epic tour might not be feasible. With e-bikes, many such limitations may disappear in the rearview mirror. Todd Smith Jacksonville Beach, FL May 6th, 2015 P.S. To see the GoPro recap video of this tour, please visit https://youtu.be/bUw_lxYOHbI Epilogue: Solo Electric Ride Down the East Coast of Florida This ride to New Orleans got me to thinking about the possibilities of cycle touring, and as much as I enjoyed riding with my “conventional” bike friends, I did most of the Big Easy ride on the middle of five power levels. I knew by riding alone at a higher power setting, that I could likely cover a lot more territory in a single day. As a quick aside, the reason for this trip was to pick up a very cheap rental car down near the Ft. Lauderdale airport. Every year, thousands of rental cars find their way to Florida during snowbird season and Spring Break, and a great little-known travel secret is that rental car companies often offer very inexpensive one-way rentals out of Florida in April and/or May, with no drop charge when dropped off in most locations outside of the state. For cycle tourists, this may be of particular interest, as it would allow you to either cycle to Florida and return home in a cheap one-way rental, or to drive out of Florida and cycle back. We’re paying $10/day for a full-sized car and dropping it in Buffalo with no drop fee. Since the pickup locations were limited to Orlando and points south, I decided riding down to Ft. Lauderdale on my electric Bat Bike Expedir, would give me an excellent opportunity to really push the envelope with the range and speed on a solo mission. I borrowed an extra battery and charger from my good friends at Bat Bike, and with three of each on board, I set out my first day from my home in Jacksonville Beach at 5:30 am to cover a very ambitious 174 miles to Melbourne Beach. As I made my way down through Ponte Vedra and back out to A1A, I opened the Bat Bike up to its full speed of 20 mph, but found that the charge gauge was dissipating rapidly. In fact, I had barely crossed over the Bridge of Lions (at the base of which the Atlantic Coast, Southern Tier, and Florida Connector routes all meet) in St. Augustine, when the first battery exhausted its energy. Uh oh. Only 31 miles down, and 143 to go. I scaled the power setting down to level four, which amounted to a speed of 18 mph versus 20mph, for the next segment to Flagler Beach, about the same distance away. By the time I made it there around 9am, the battery level was down below 20%, so I plugged in the two batteries I had used in the men’s room of a restaurant while enjoying a leisurely “second breakfast”.
I knew I’d have to have a fairly long charging break at lunchtime in order to make the 174 miles by the end of the day, but now I was a little stressed, having blown through most of two batteries to make only 65 miles, with 109 still to go. I knew from the New Orleans ride that I could get about 60 miles in on one battery charge at power level three, but that was at what felt like a snail’s pace of 13-14 mph, with me doing a lot of the work, as compared to the higher settings. Having ridden the entire length of the Florida east coast on a conventional bike a few years earlier, I knew that a rather long slog on US1 without much in the way of services lay ahead to skirt around Cape Canaveral. So I planned a stop in Port Orange for lunch and managed to find a bike shop willing to let me plug in all three batteries, while I loitered in a cool Dunkin’ Donuts, made some calls, and read the newspaper for about 90 minutes. At this point, I had made it 91 miles, with 84 still to go, and only about a half charge on each battery (it takes about four hours to fully charge them). In Titusville, I learned a bit about charging while on the road. For one, the McDonald’s there, with a great view of the Cape, had no available plugs, anywhere, inside or out, including the bathrooms. The cashier explained that, because of all the kids, it was a liability issue, which of course makes sense. In fact, as I rolled up to any gas station or business, I immediately started scanning for outlets, and found to my dismay that they were not as plentiful as you might expect, likely for the same reasons. I stopped at a BP in Titusville and managed to find a plug in the men’s room where I could charge one battery for about half an hour. The cashier there acted like my one battery, which consumes perhaps $0.03 per hour in energy, was going to take down her entire store’s electrical system. People’s reactions to my request to charge e-bike’s batteries ranged from interested disbelief to outright paranoia, but I happily told my story and how little energy they consumed, and did not get turned away once, although I found the prospect of searching and asking to be a little cumbersome. With still a good distance to go, I spent a fair amount of time riding at power level three along the beautiful Indian River, and I managed to nurse 29 miles out of one half-charged battery. But the afternoon was moving along, and I still had to make some miles, so I moved up to power level four and back out on to US1. I soon realized that I was going to end up about 15 miles short of my destination in Melbourne Beach, and, despite the late hour, I stopped for a salad and about 90 ounces of iced tea at a Mexican restaurant while plugged into some outdoor outlets around the side of the building. After a 45 minute charge on two batteries, I pressed on, and soon realized, as is often the case when touring, that the mileage was a little further than I had thought, by about 6 miles! So I crossed the Eau Gallie Causeway into the coming darkness, and flicked the front light on. I nursed the Bat Bike along on at power level three the final seven miles, switching to what power remained on each battery in turn, and within 100 feet of my destination for the evening, the last battery finally shut down at 9pm! But, I had done it, covered 180 miles on one day on an electric bike! The second day, somewhat wizened by the experience, I limited myself to power level four from the outset. I stopped at a café in Vero Beach and plugged in two batteries while eating a sandwich, and drinking a smoothie, some water, and a coffee, then continued on the rest of the morning, alternating between 14 and 18 mph, making it all the way to Riviera Beach for another long lunch and charge break. After lunch, I wound through Palm Beach and back out to A1A and I spent the rest of the day conserving energy and calculating in my head how fast I could go, based on distance and charge remaining. I pulled into my destination in Pompano Beach with even a little left over, after a final full speed run down A1A through Boca Raton and Hillsboro Beach. In all, I had covered 328 miles in two days, made five charging stops, and spent about 22 hours in the saddle. Clearly, I had learned a lot in these two long days on my electric bike. For every rider, there is a speed point where their natural leg strength allows them to take on most of the work in propelling the bike forward, thus greatly increasing range. Any higher than that, and the motor and battery begin to take on more of the load, and thus, range decreases quickly. For riders not willing to share the workload, who merely move their legs to keep the motor engaged, their range will be decreased even further. For me, even at level three where I was doing most of the work, the knowledge of knowing that extra speed and boost were at the ready was comforting. If I fatigued, I could bump it up to level four and cruise along for a while and let my legs recover. The bike I was riding is a cargo bike, and really wasn’t designed for touring. It has a very long, extended frame, meant to carry loads, and with three batteries weighing 20 pounds each, the frame, and 200 pounds of me, it did. Despite this, it performed magnificently – not a single flat or mechanical issue on either trip. Many electric bikes are cheaply made, and likely would not have withstood the rigors of 800 miles of touring in the Southeast. Knowing what I know now about my bike and its capabilities, I’m quite sure I could manage to make it further with fewer stops, by simply planning ahead, based on the data gained on these trips. While it remains to be seen how such a bike might fare in more mountainous territory, I do believe that electric bike touring has a future. Battery technology continues to improve, where batteries become more efficient, and weigh less. I’ve explored the potential of using solar charging on an e-bike tour, and this is not only feasible, but there are companies producing thin-film solar panels for just this purpose. With such a system, the potential for pedaling 200 miles in a day, on two batteries, without stopping to charge, is within reach already. Will organized e-bike tours be a possibility? Certainly, with the right planning, such a tour could executed, although it is certainly not without pitfalls and perils in terms of keeping people charged and on the road. That said, extending the average daily distance from around 60 miles per day to 90 is not in the least unreasonable, and not only would it allow people to see more in a shorter time, but it would open up the door to a wider class of riders. Todd Smith Jacksonville Beach, FL June 2nd, 2015