My first 5,000 km on an electric bike

The Cube’s odometer ticked over 5,000km on the morning of Canberra’s first lockdown in more than 400 days. Thursday 12 August, 2021. I yelled out with excitement, and stopped for a selfie in front of a wattle tree exploding with fresh yellow blossoms. That afternoon, I headed back with my clothes and lunchbox and office-issued laptop shoved into pannier bags, and readied for working from home for the first time since July 2020.

That moment my Cube clocked up 5,000km

I want to try documenting how happy those 5,000km on my Cube Town Hybrid – my main form of transportation in all seasons and weather – have made my days and nights. Days or nights commuting to and from work. Days and nights cruising to the cinema or a restaurant. Days and nights getting groceries, or something from the Bunnings hardware store.

It’s not true to say that every ride has been enjoyable. There have been some mornings when it’s below zero and foggy that I’ve not wanted to go outside. Nights coming back and a storm hits, hail lashes my face, and my glasses are useless. But each time I’ve finished the trip, I’m glad I did it, and left my car at home. 

Yes, I own a big car, a Mitsubishi Outlander Plugin Hybrid electric station wagon, and some days I drive it to work. But driving in the city is not fun, especially commuting. I hate giving money in exchange for a parking space – even in Canberra where parking is far cheaper than Sydney or other big cities. I prefer converting that currency into a cup of coffee, or dark chocolate, or cake. It costs me nothing to park at work, or anywhere else, and less than a cup of coffee to recharge it. I usually turn on the charger before I go to sleep, and forget about it, just like with my mobile phone.

I bought the electric bike in April 2019 as a reward to myself for changing jobs, swapping The Australian National University campus in central Canberra for the commercial district in Deakin (behind Australia’s Parliament House). That job in Deakin was 15km one way on the bike and took about 40 minutes. [It takes 20 minutes to drive if I get a good run].

I’d ridden my Giant mountain bike several times to the new office, but as I live on a hill, the journey each day started and ended with a long hill climb. I’d get to work and need a shower, and get home and need both a shower and a 10-minute rest before recovering the energy to prepare our household’s meals.

Because an e-bike eats hills, I don’t need to rest when I reach my destination. I shower at work, change into the clothes I carry each Monday on my cargo bike, and get on with my day. 

Electric motor noise matters. I’d spent a few weekends testing a dozen bikes from stores in north and south Canberra. Prices ranged from $1,600 for a Shogun to more than $4,000 for a Trek. Some of the bikes sounded like sewing machines. I don’t want to hear the motor. Biking is meant to be pleasurable. The whirring irritated me, especially one particular Merida. The Cube has a Bosch mid-drive motor, and while I can hear it in first or second gear, it’s otherwise very quiet.

Benefits of my e-bike

I’m upright. Not hunched over the ways a mountain bike or racing bike forces you to be. My back is straight. My clothes and other items are in my pannier bags, and air flows around my body.

No need to swing my leg over like on said mountain bike. The Cube has a step-through frame. Some bike shops call them a “European frame.” Whatever. The design is practical for whatever I’m wearing, including a suit. 

I can see flowers and trees and hear birds every day. I can get swooped by magpies in spring, and chased by overly protective Pacific black ducks near the ponds at the Aranda snow gums section of the Canberra nature park. I can see kangaroos lazing on the grass, or grazing in the evening, and share those magical moments on Twitter. I am reminded each trip of what I’m connected to, and what needs to be protected and defended. 

My head is clearer on my bike than when I am traffic. I can think about things I need to do at work, but more often I find myself singing along to whatever’s entered my head. Or I listen to bird song, or just enjoy being outside and having my own time and space before other demands return.

Just because it’s an electric bike, it doesn’t mean there’s no exercise involved. Most e-bikes are pedal-assisted, so if you don’t pedal, there’s no boost. I still puff and pant up hills, especially in winter, as you can here in this video of what was part of my daily 15km/40-minute commute.

Clothing, accessories and equipment

I ride every day, even when it’s raining and below zero. The Finns and Danes ride in actual snow. Canberra rarely experiences snow, so I can’t use that as an excuse.

I usually wear track pants and a few layers in winter, and shorts and T-shirt in summer. I get changed at work. Luckily, my last three workplaces have had showers. If yours doesn’t and you aren’t self-employed, is the boss in an position to provide it? 

In autumn/winter, I wear a high-visibility polyester jacket with reflect strips on the chest and arms because my city’s idea of cycling infrastructure is paint. The most dangerous part of my commute is the 4km between my unit and the C5 bicycle path, so I also use a GoPro mounted on my helmet in case my family needs to prove to police that it was the driver’s fault.

I have two weather-proof pannier backs bought second hand on Gum Tree. In wet weather, I use this Rover rain cape from Cleverhood, a company about which I learned from the consistently excellent podcast, The War on Cars, which I support on Patreon. I recently got these cycling overpants from Decathlon and they’re excellent as they cover my shoes. Before that, I was wearing polyester hiking pants, also from Decathlon.

Getting my Cleverhood With Rainbows look the day a double rainbow appeared over Black Mountain, Canberra, and caused several cyclists and at least half a dozen motorists to stop on Bindubi St and soak up the moment.

I’ve learned the hard way the importance of having spare underwear and a second pair of dry socks at work.

Gloves. Fingerless ones for the warmer months, and thick polyester ones for the colder months. Sometimes earmuffs.

Removable flashing lights front and back, USB rechargeable. One stuck with clear tape into the the back of my night time helmet. A $40 day time helmet with a flat surface for the mount for the GoPro. 

Two bike locks. Patch repair kit. Spare tubes. A small pump. Allen keys. 

All of the above usually live in my pannier bags. On shorter trips I can of course not carry both pannier bags, but sometimes I’ve been caught out, and it’s a drag.

Downsides

The battery design of the Cube is annoying. The battery attaches to the back of the frame supporting the seat. The battery latch never catches on the first try, and unless you pull it to check, the battery can fall off. It happened once during a lunch time trip into the city. 

The bike is heavy. It weighs at least 25kg. I’ve felt every gram when the battery has run out while I’m climbing Redfern St in Cook. Twice. I’ve since learned that I get far more range keeping the motor in eco mode, the lowest setting, and using tour for hills. I rarely use the sport mode or turbo, the highest setting. 

Conclusion

Can you replace your car commute with a bike? Probably. Most commutes in Australia are under 30km a day. See if a bike suits you, and reduce or negate your expenses like annual registration, insurance and vehicle servicing. 

Canberra’s lockdown will end soon. My commuting will resume. I’m eager for the morning sun on my face, and the sound of currawongs, magpies, and cockatoos in my ears.

Belconnen, 30 August 2021.

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