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The Bike of the Future: Cumbersome but Swift

By Emily Elert

A few years ago my friend and I rode our bicycles a couple thousand miles across the country, and there was this weird thing that happened with the wind. On the headwind days (and there were a lot of those, traveling east to west), it was impossible to forget about the wind — it’s blasting into your face and screaming in your ears, and you can see every speck in the asphalt because, hard as you pedal, you’re barely moving.

But the tailwind days were different. Everything would go so beautifully and quietly and quickly that we would forget the wind existed, and instead we would begin to believe we had reached a new plane of physical fitness/existence in which riding an 80-pound bicycle across the country is easy.

Then the wind would shift again.

I forgot all about the tailwind/headwind thing until recently, when I spent a week test riding an electric bicycle around New York. Riding an electric bicycle — or, at least, riding the Optibike — is like having your own personal, perpetual tailwind.

Before the test ride, the whole concept of an electric-powered bicycle struck me as stupid. In the city, I ride a road bike with one gear, and everything from my bike-geek, quasi-physics-based philosophy about the joys of simple machines to the vain, ultra self-conscious basis of my outward identity directed me to love my single-speed 1974 Schwinn LeTour, and hate the electric bicycle.

Still, I wasn’t going to pass up the opportunity to ride one, so when Jim Turner — the inventor of the Optibike — came through New York on a promotional tour, we met up on the bike path underneath the West Side highway (it was raining) for a test ride.

Seeing the bike in person did nothing to shake my skepticism, and it turned out to be somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty pounds — even heavier than I expected.

But all of those bad feelings vanished the moment I hit the thruster. It wasn’t like I was cheating, or as if I was getting a boost from some outside force. It was just suddenly very easy to achieve high speed with little effort. For perhaps the first time in my life, I thought: This is the future!

Maybe that’s silly, but it did occur to me that there are a million transportation possibilities out there, and a lot of them are better than what people are doing now — not necessarily just for the environment, but for sheer enjoyment as well. I love biking to work every day, and I feel like I’m always talking to people who say they don’t do it because they’d get too sweaty or the trek is just a few miles too far. The electric bike solves those problems. It allows people to experience the motion and the (theoretically) fresh air and the physical freedom that make biking so great.

Finally, a couple of pros and cons about the Optibike in particular, from an urban commuter’s point of view:

Pros:

  • The best thing about this bike is its motor, which runs in tandem with your pedaling. It’s a system the inventor patented called the Motorized Bottom Bracket, and I don’t understand how it works — I just know that, when you pedal, you don’t feel like your energy is being wasted on a system that’s already running on a motor. The motor sort of lets your legs do as much work as they want. I haven’t ridden any other electric bikes, but I’m pretty sure most systems aren’t integrated like this.
     
  • The battery lasts a long time. I think it’s up to 50 miles or so. And it’s easy to plug in.
     
  • The components are really outstanding. The internal gearing system is super smooth, the front and back suspension are amazing, the disc brakes are a little touchy but really top-notch.
     
  • There are two modes — “eco” and fast. Presumably, you can go further on eco mode. I recommend the other one, however, in which the bike accelerates admirably.

Cons:

  • Weight. In all fairness to the inventor, the bike is designed for big riders who need to go far and like to go fast (in a word, Americans). I think the Optibike would be perfect for a big guy in a non-urban setting. For a 5’3” lady in an urban setting, it’s unwieldy and unpleasant to negotiate through doorways, let alone up and down stairs.
     
  • Price. Like I said, it’s a really nice bike. But it’s twice as much as I paid for my first car.
     
  • Looks. I can’t say that it’s objectively ugly. But it’s not for me. And I looked up the women’s version online, and it’s pink.

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