Look mum, no sweat

2009-01-30 00:00

THERE are many good reasons to own an electric bicycle, or convert your existing bicycle into an E-Bike. One is its capacity to get you to work and back without you breaking a sweat. Another is its negligible impact on the environment. Yet another is its marginal running costs.

And then, there’s the sheer fun of the ride …

After a recent spin on an electric bike in hilly, humid Clarendon, I understood exactly why local homeopath Rouen Bruni had been “blown away” by the bicycle’s “beautiful efficiency and elegant engineering”. And why he’d so quickly agreed to become the KwaZulu-Natal agent for E-Bikes South Africa, the Port Elizabeth-based company that developed the bike for the South African market.

A keen mountain biker in his spare time, Bruni said he was increasingly frustrated by the fact that although his home is just over five kilometres from his practice in Wembley, cycling to work was never really a practical option given that the most direct route is along the notoriously steep Villiers Drive.

“With the petrol price rising as it did recently, it seemed such a waste to start up the car for so short a distance. But if I rode my [ordinary] bicycle, I’d arrive at work hot and sticky, and would need to take a shower, which would waste time,” he said.

Bruni shared his frustrations with his engineer brother from Pretoria, who happened to have a friend with an electric bicycle. The bike owner put him in touch with the distributors in Port Elizabeth. “I’d never heard of electric bikes before, but I travelled to PE to check them out and to make sure that they are as good as they sounded.”

And they are. Bruni spent two days in the Windy City, riding the bikes “up and down”. At the end of that time, he was the owner of a new E-Bike and had signed a contract to be the KwaZulu-Natal E-Bike distributor.

“Now I can get to work without needing a shower and with no guilty feelings about my impact on the environment,” said Bruni. “This is the most energy-efficient means of transport in the world. It’s better even than horses, because horses produce [the greenhouse gas] methane.”

While Bruni says he’s not a “strident environmental activist”, the idea of doing one’s bit for the environment appeals to him and strongly motivated his decision to buy an E-Bike. “I have a local friend — an environmentalist — who pays a voluntary carbon tax each time he travels in an aeroplane. Speaking to him makes you understand that the global environmental threat is real, but there is something that each of us can do to help.”

And there are also the financial savings. Although the E-Bike itself is quite pricey, the potential long-term savings are impressive, particularly in a volatile global fuel market (see box).

The bikes look and feel like normal bikes, although they’re a little heavier — roughly eight kilograms — due to the bike’s rechargeable lithium ion battery, which can hold a charge for 25 to 60 kilometres depending on the terrain covered, and the brushless motor (guaranteed for six months, but likely to see you safely “from Cape Town to Moscow, taking the scenic route”), which fits onto the back wheel hub. The model I rode can also fold in half, making it easy to fit into your briefcase … well, almost.

And although it’s motorised, you don’t need a licence to ride it because it falls short of the 250 watts continuous power output requirement for licensed vehicles.

Adding the electric motor and battery to a normal bicycle is also an option. According to Bruni, it takes just 45 minutes to convert a normal bike to an E-Bike and five minutes to change it back. The cost of a conversion is only slightly less than the new bike, but the advantage is the greater range of gears which usually exists on a conventional bike.

As soon as you start to peddle, the motor kicks in with an unobtrusive whirring sound. A discreet throttle on the handlebar allows you to use the motor as much or as little as you like — depending on how much exercise you want.

“It’s not just for lazy people. You can still get exercise from the bike, but it makes bike travel viable in a hilly place like Maritzburg and it’s great if you want to do a long trip over a number of days with the whole family,” said Bruni.

Among Bruni’s first customers in Pietermaritzburg was a couple in their late 50s — he an avid cyclist and she fed up with being left behind. Early reports are positive. “They took a 35-kilometre ride. She kept up on her bike and they love it,” said Bruni.

There are other, more functional, applications. Bruni says being quick and light, they are ideal for local delivery services. Electric bicycles have been supplied to the Port Elizabeth police force, which uses them to conduct patrols of the beach front and informal settlements. “They can get through small spaces and are strong, so if you need to drop them and give chase, they can handle it.”

The E-Bike has been specially modified for South African conditions by engineer Wayne Dawson and his partner Elroy Thompson. Dawson said what is available in China where the bikes are widely used, is “not up to South African conditions” where people are generally bigger and the terrain more challenging.

“We made some modifications to the motor section and electronics to suit local conditions. We kept the standard Chinese frame for the fold-up, but the design for the Easyrider frame is ours,” said Dawson.

Bruni hopes that the E-Bikes will help to promote the idea of bicycles as functional and economical alternatives to car travel, as they are in countries such as Holland where reports indicate that electric bike sales showed phenomenal growth in 2008, despite the global recession.

“There is a perception that riding a bicycle on South African roads is dangerous, but I’ve done test drives all over the city and beyond and I believe, if you’re careful, it’s fine. One of the benefits of the electric bike is that you can accelerate your way out of trouble.”

“There’s also enormous potential for Pietermaritzburg to become a bicycle-friendly city, if there’s political support for such a concept.”

• For more information, phone Rouen Bruni at 082 291 0159 or e-mail homeopaths@iburst.co.za The E-Bike website is www.ebikesa.co.za



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