In 1960s provincial New Zealand, conventional middle-class lives are not always as respectable as they appear. Callum Gow’s family and…
‘E’ is for ‘Easy as’
Don’t go shopping with a cynic. It’s a buzzkill.
The first issue is power. The man in the bike shop tries to tell Paul Paynter the “rules” cap the e-bike’s speed at 25kph. Paul scoffs: “Can we tweak that? Get it up a bit faster?”
The man gives him the side eye and laughs, then let’s on kiwi tinkering got one of his bikes up to 70kph. Then it took the old boy who pimped it only 10 minutes from the farm at Eskdale into town.
“That’s not a bike!” says Paul, that’s a motor scooter.
Perhaps the attraction is looking like you’re biking when you’re not actually biking, when the motor is doing all the work, Paul suggests. The e-bike man pushes that idea aside, explaining e-bikes are pedal assist, meaning you must keep pedalling.
The idea of Paul taking one of these things home already seems less and less likely.
To get the most out of it, it’d need to go on the Skoda. Most of these beasts are so heavy they’d need a bike rack with a bottom mount rather than being simply suspended.
Then we find a tiny-tyred fold-up that’d fit in the boot. “That’s pretty awesome,” Paul agrees.
“A lot of people seem to have e-bikes now, they think they’re amazing,” Paul says. “These older guys trying to look cool.” He catches sight of himself in the shop window, pulls his stomach in under his sensible polo shirt. “Boomers can bike a bit but they run out of puff.”
The pedal-peddler tells a story of a couple who hired e-bikes to get out to Clifton and back. They took it too easy, used the throttle too much, ran out of battery in Clive. “Rang me up and asked what they should do,” he tells us. “I told them to pedal.”
An e-bike is a push bike at the end of the day.
“…With a lithium battery,” Paul reminds us. Then the shopping trip becomes a science field-trip.
“We have a couple of push bikes in the back shed we’ve had for 25 years,” says Paul. “You can still get on them and go.” These batteries have a life of 3-5 years. “Then what?”
No one really has a plan, they’re piling up. “Like batteries for Priuses,” Paul explains. “We haven’t quite worked out how to dispose of them.” E-bike batteries put pressure on resources. Going for a peaceful ride in the country suddenly becomes an environmental conundrum.
I suggest a test ride to shake Paul out of his inconvenient truth. He balks. “I’d be too anxious, I’d want my helmet.” We leave.
Coming past the container wharf we watch a couple on a conventional tandem and muse on the power-dynamics of an e-variety.
“Would it have a double throttle? Then who’s in control? Who’s pedalling?? It’d be a bone of contention.” Anxiety is sky high by the time we get to our next stop and Paul hasn’t even fastened his trouser clips.
The tandem two-some make it there at the same time we do. The hawker is offering to have them back to try an e-bike next time. They explain they’re celebrating their wedding anniversary and probably shouldn’t push it.
When she sees us she explains that she hires mainly, but sells too. “To people who hire first then fall in love and have to have it.”
Paul looks sceptical. She pulls a step-through commuter bike, coloured red, out from the rack.
“A low step through is the biggest thing for older people,” she tells Paul as she steers towards him, a matching red helmet swinging from the handle-bars. “Five levels of assistance: eco…tour…sport…turbo.”
“That’s four,” corrects Paul.
“…Pushing.” She gives him an ice-block. And suddenly the uncertainty falls away and Paul climbs on.
“It’s amazing how fast it is,” I muse as he disappears towards the Port.
Now that Negative-Nelly has a taste for it we head over to the Mecca of Mountain Biking, Havelock North.
“Fifty percent of e-bikes go to new bikers,” explains the man in the shop. “People who haven’t had a bike ever or not for a long time.”
On the other hand, he says “Pro mountain bikers all train on e-bikes too … in two years they went from hated to universally accepted.”
Paul frowns, thinking of all those batteries. Now at 40,000 e-bikes sold a year, the problem is mounting, literally.
“People who get one then want to upgrade, they want something no one else has,” explains the mountain man.
“If you get it in the same colour the missus won’t notice,” suggests Paul.
We peruse the racks of bikes. In cost they top out at $11k. The purveyor of e tells us he just sent a $16k one to Christchurch. The average is $8k. Paul considers the pros and cons of extending his shopping to his two boys. Before he knows it his theoretical bill includes two kid’s e-bikes at $4k each. He says he’s not sure his boys even know how to ride bikes.
“Most of our buyers are men in their mid-forties,” says the cycle-monger. “Lots of men come in to buy a bike ‘for their wife’ but they want it in their size.”
“Do they get the wife in for Head Office buy-in on the colour?” asks Paul.
“Us e-bikers,” says the bike seller, “We’re all chubby, hairy and our wives don’t love us. On e-bikes we feel like a champion without doing the work.”
“Does it hurt when you fall off?” Asks Peevish Paul.
“We wear knee pads.”
The bike man claims e-biking’s the new golf. “In fact, all golf courses should become mountain bike parks.”
The bike-man’s biggest tip is: Do a demo. “If you’re going to do it, do it right.” He invites the Pedalling Pedant on a ride, to “join a crew”. “We can show you the trails, the etiquette, there’s a lot of technique. We won’t tell you the tricks the first three times so we can have a giggle when you fall off.”
Our resident iconoclast nods politely, but I know he’ll be busy that day, whichever day it is.
He texts me during a rain bomb a week later, “I just passed a guy biking home in this downpour, I thought ‘Nup, not for me’”. He’s a fair-weather cruiser.
For Paul, ‘e’ stands for easy and enjoyable, not everyday, and certainly not environmental. The e-bike buzz goes back in the rack.
His last missive reads: “The hard core cyclists have contempt for soft summer cyclists, but that’s my lot.”
Arnaud Malek was the first person to sell e-bikes in New Zealand and is one of the industry’s self-appointed watchdogs and critics. He’s based in Taradale and up until a month ago sold in 30 outlets, but now has a select few carefully positioned around NZ. He sold his first bike in 2011 with no competition in the market. Now there’s 52 competitors. With a population of 5 million, and with 1.5 million too young or not able, and 1.5 too old or not interested, that’s a tight market to share.
Flying Cat was started with a school friend, a designer based in France. He and Malek originally had their bikes made in China. Today the bikes are made in Slovakia after Malek and his partner work on a full-size plastic model first.
“Then it’s made in aluminium and we decide on the specs for the bike,” Malek explains. Flying Cat carefully consider each component meaning customers can get close to bespoke when looking for their perfect e-bike. Whoever you are and whatever you like to do, there’s an e-bike for you.
Bikes aren’t all bells and baskets though and the uneasy truth about the e-bike boom is no-one’s checking on safety.
“Certification of prototypes, which is compulsory in Europe and Australia, isn’t here,” explains Malek. “When they come into New Zealand they check for spiders but not for safety, there are no standards.”
The standard in other parts of the world dictates an e-bike must be 250-watts maximum, limited to 25km per hour, with humanly-powered pedals and security on the brakes, which can cut power in case of emergency. Here and in the USA there’s no standard.
For that reason, manufacturers consider New Zealand prime testing ground.
“Big brands see what reaction we have: shop owners, brand owners, the public,” says Malek, explaining consumers then see those bikes that wouldn’t meet standards overseas as ‘standard’ e-bikes and it’s challenging for sellers of actual e-bikes to manage customer expectations. They want throttles, they want speed, they want power. They don’t want to pedal if they don’t have to.”
Now the e-environment means that actual e-bikes, of high-quality and with price-tags to match, are harder to sell.
“Cheap ones are dangerous but there’s no rules around who can sell them,” explains Malek. Throttles are a big issue. Most European-designed bikes don’t have them but many New Zealand buyers expect them. Malek reacted to that need and adapted one of his designs to accommodate a throttle. “But when it arrived I took the throttle off right away”. For him, it lifted the bike away from being a true e-bike. “I wasn’t being faithful to my own spirit.”
Malek has spent the last few years lobbying policy makers – NZTA especially – for change, trying to push for a standard. The issue came to a head in 2014 when the Otago Rail Trail considered banning e-bikes and in response Malek threatened to sue them.
“They said e-bikes were too loud, too fast and too dangerous.” Malek explains that’s a direct result of the lack of standards, meaning any electric bike can be sold as an e-bike when strictly it’s not. All e-bikes are tarred with the same brush. “Something that’s got 300 watts and goes 40 km is still considered an e-bike here, that’s dangerous.”
Another consequence is potential buyers see Malek’s bikes, which all meet the European and Australian standards, and turn up their noses: they don’t seem fast or powerful enough. “Now when I go to shows people say, ‘That’s not an e-bike!’ People have formed a perception of what e-bikes are,” he says.
With so many variations on what an e-bike is, from size of motor to placement of battery, buying an e-bike can be a minefield and it helps to have an expert on board.
“There’s so much crap, so many myths, so many urban legends,” explains Malek, who encourages people to do their homework and talk to those in the know before they buy. “The e-bike is here to help you out so it needs to fit you so you can form one, you and the bike together.”
Malek’s frustrated at New Zealanders hesitance in using bikes instead of cars, with e-bikes first being introduced to replace the need for a car. “They were invented to get rid of cars now they’re just a big boy’s toy.”
“People here don’t commute. They only use them in the weekend, to have fun on the trails, they’re too scared to ride on roads,” says Malek, who’s keen to see more people use e-bikes as their primary transportation. “There’s no sweating, no parking problems.”
Hilton Taylor owns Revolution Bikes in Havelock, specialising in mountain and cargo e-bikes. He was one of the first outlets to sell Malek’s Flying Cat bikes, but has a wide range of other brands too, and is proud of carrying ranges other places don’t have. He’s with Malek on the importance of getting industry knowledge before buying.
About five years ago e-bikes really took off in New Zealand and the market began to be flooded with cheap copies of bikes that wouldn’t meet standards overseas. Another switch has been bike designers’ focus. “Pre- 2015 bikes were designed then an e-bike version was designed from the original. Now it’s the other way around. A lot of companies spend more now on designing e-bikes. They’re set up for weight and balance as an e-bike then turn that into a non-e.”
He explains the impact e-bikes have had on the mountain biking scene, which is huge in Hawkes’ Bay. “E-bikes and regular mountain bikes don’t mix. But it’s not supposed to be super-fast, it’s just supposed to be easier,” he explains.
“E-bikes can do more runs therefore have more fun…We can do three-times the runs with a third of the effort,” Hilton says. “I can be up the Peak and back in 40 minutes at lunchtime.”
Taylor says e-bikes are snowballing in Hawke’s Bay. “Someone buys one, his mates have a go, they come and get one.” But he emphasises the importance of trying a number out before purchasing. He frequently offers to host people on demo rides, but hiring one is also a good way to try before you buy.
Tony Ward is a semi-retired farmer who’s slinging out his shingle in Te Awanga for kiwi-designed e-bikes Melo Yelo. The bikes are sold through a network of mechanically-minded mainly retirees rather than through shops. He defends thumb-throttles on NZ e-bikes, and laughs at the suggestion the addition reflects the Kiwi culture of innovating to make life a bit easier.
“Give it a bit of a boost and off you go!” he explains. “You could be falling behind the group…zip it up a bit, or come to a hill and give it some throttle.”
He stresses the importance of learning about the bike and how to use it rather than expecting to just jump on, using the throttle rather than the gears does drain the battery, for example.
“Like anything, you don’t get something for nothing!” Says Ward. “Save it for when you’re coming back.”
Melo Yelo makes a range of bikes that reflect the Kiwi way of life including a model specifically for golfers that can tow a cart bag, and a beach cruiser-type. Their most popular model is a step-through ‘townie’ that’s easy to get on and off.
He’s conscious of the footprint e-bikes have and is watching new tech closely: “It’s all changing very quickly, with new models all the time.”
He agrees it’ll take a culture shift rather than a technology shift to really move people out of cars and onto e-bikes; there’s still a focus in NZ on e-bikes for recreation rather than commuting. But he says once people try them they’re hooked.
“Once you get one you don’t want to go back,” says Ward. “Especially us oldies, at our age it opens up a whole world because you can get out, but you can also get back!”
If you’re commuting or cruising the i-Way, that’ll be a different bike to the one you’ll want if you’re taking on Eskdale or Te Mata. For anyone with a camper or caravan a fold-up e-bike (or two) is now a ‘must have’.
Before you buy:
1. Try one
E-bikes come in a whole lot of different configurations and every rider is different. Don’t just buy on looks, think about which bits of you need help and buy something to support those bits.
2. Get to know your gears
Understanding when to apply which gear is the trick to getting the most out of your e-bike battery. Mechanical gears still play an important part in getting up hill and down dale. The more you rely on the battery the quicker your battery will run down. Pedal assist is the key term. Use as much of your own energy as you can then save the battery for when you really need it.
3. Know your weaknesses
If the motor is in the crank then the movement of your leg is a down motion and it puts less strain on your joints and your back. If you have knee issues then having the motor in the back, and therefore using a forward motion on the pedal, will help.
4. Have a plan for breakdowns
Some dealers will come to you when something goes wrong. Membership-based roadside breakdown services, like AA, will also come out for e-bikes. If you buy a bike that meets European and Australian safety standards then push it to go faster or harder than it’s meant to, you might find your bike ends up in the shop more often than you want it to.
5. Be real about batteries
The batteries are an issue (see BayBuzz #50). They weren’t built with recycling in mind. They don’t last beyond five years. The good news is technology is improving rapidly resulting in quicker charging, batteries that hold charge better and achieve greater distances, and recyclability is becoming a higher priority. Hydrogen technology is also something to watch. It could be that in 20 years lithium is seen as the beta tape of battery tech.