Throttling Back

A couple of summers back, I cobbled together transportation of a different, hybrid sort. I procured a half-century-old cruiser bicycle, a swank, if particularly heavy, choice. I needed something that could make it through the Meadows section of Northampton that runs alongside the Oxbow—at that point, the excellent bike trails in Northampton and Easthampton were nowhere near connecting, and the routes between the towns called for riding a nearly shoulder-less section of Route 5, a wide-shouldered but loud and busy section of Route 10, or the bone-rattling dirt roads through the meadows.

My old cruiser could take the rough backroads, but I needed real speed, too, if I was to make bike commuting a consistent habit, and a cruiser, or even a mountain bike, couldn’t offer the kind of blazing speed I was used to with my road bike. This led to a fascination with the relatively new phenomenon of electric bikes.

Sure, it’s a bit of a copout to ride a bike with a motor. Might as well buy a moped, it seems. But the kind of electric bike I put together offered a major speed boost without losing one of the main reasons—other than avoiding fossil fuels—to bother with bike commuting: exercise. The front wheel of my cruiser now sports a discreet electric hub motor (a Wilderness Energy BL-36), powered by a battery pack on the rear rack. That means the pedals still power the back wheel.

Put the two together and not only do you get a two-wheel-drive bike, you get an electric motor that merely augments human power instead of creating a fully motorized contraption. Suddenly that creaky old cruiser can blaze along at 15-plus miles per hour, and breaking a sweat is optional. Sure, it’s a lot of fun to just twist the throttle and fly along like a courier who should have a sidecar, but I’ve found it’s rarely how I choose to travel. More often, I keep up a steady pedal, keeping the motor humming at an easy pace, until a tough hill outpaces my ability to muscle such a heavy bike against gravity. It’s a good way to travel that splits the difference between motored and acoustic transportation, but it is also a particularly specialized machine.

For me, that specialization has meant questioning whether the initial investment—about $450—was worthwhile. Fortunately or unfortunately, the nearly complete connection of the Northampton and Easthampton bike trails may render the electric bike a bit of, well, a third wheel in my bicycle arsenal. But especially if the commute you have in mind is a long one, the extra speed of an electric hub motor can make the crucial difference on those mornings when biking seems to require more time and effort than you want to undertake. More than once, that extra speed has pushed me out the door to don my helmet and do the right thing for the environment and my own health.

Author: James Heflin

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