• The electric-bike workout

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  • You like to bike, but you hate the grind up steep hills. You want a good, outdoor workout but not a punishing one. You also want to do errands without having to drag around 2 tons of steel that we call a car. And, of course, you want easy parking. You also want to shrink your carbon footprint and be good to Mother Earth.
    There's an answer to all these wants: an electric-assisted bicycle or “e-bike” — one that still has 18 gears and is “still a bike and lets you have a workout,” says Ashland Electric Bikes owner Jerry Solomon.
    “It's so much more fun than driving; it takes all the pain out of it,” says Stephen Gagne, who bought a pair of e-bikes for himself and his wife, Cyndy.
    “I feel like it liberated me to this whole other world,” she says. “It's the nicest thing he's ever given me since we got married 26 years ago.”
    Like a lot of Ashland residents, the Gagnes live up a hill. They like pedaling around town, but that last mile is brutal, which used to keep them from using bikes for exercise at all.
    On an e-bike, the motor can carry the rider (without pedaling) about 20 to 30 miles at a maximum legal limit of 20 mph. But the rider also can pedal it, so the more energy put into it, the more exercise the rider gets, the more “juice” is left in the battery and the farther the bike can go.
    An e-bike functions like a regular one, but it has an extra 30 pounds of battery and motor, so without some help from electric power, it will be harder to ride than a standard bike.
    “Going on the flat and pedaling seems like you're going downhill,” says Stephen, “and going uphill and pedaling seems like going on the flat.”
    Operating an e-bike is simple. Hop on and pedal a few times, then turn the right-handle power feed, and it accelerates like a car, so it goes safely with the flow of traffic, notes Stephen. A governor keeps it to the legal limit of 20 mph.
    The couple use their e-bikes for grocery shopping and other errands, stuffing two bags of groceries in rear saddlebags. Stephen, a musician at the Balkan Music & Dance fests Sunday mornings at Grilla Bites, just sticks his two saxophones and clarinet in the back.
    “I love how I don't have to think about parking problems anymore,” says Cyndy. “You can never get parking at three places — the co-op, library and growers market. But with this, you just whip up there and get off; it's so nice.”
    “You can work as hard or as little as you want,” adds Stephen.
    The big downside of an e-bike is its up-front cost. Cyndy's Hebb, at $2,500, was “worth every cent and can do everything I was doing in the car.”
    Stephen, a natural tinkerer, converted his 21-speed bike, putting the battery behind the upright tube (it should be near the center of gravity), but he says it took a lot of work and experimentation, and he'd advise against conversion.
    “It's a lot easier to let them manufacture it,” he says.
    Just laying down the bucks for a $3,100 Metro at Ashland Electric Bikes, Linda Chambers says: “It's cleaner, quieter and cheaper than a car, and I can pedal up the big hills until I'm tired. The money part is steep, but it's the most fun I've ever had on a bike.”
    Thinking about buying one, Gordon Wolfe, who lives up steep Timberlake Drive in Ashland, says the grade definitely prohibits him from riding it with a regular bike.
    It takes two to five hours to charge an empty e-bike battery on household current or much less time immediately after a short ride. Riding an e-bike requires neither a license plate nor a motorcycle endorsement.
    It might be a little harder when cutting through the 40-degree air of winter, but the Gagnes say a good sweater and a Windbreaker should do the trick.
    Solomon, who sells and builds e-bikes with an eye to handling Oregon's steep terrain, says they start at $2,000 and go up to $10,000. The motors, located on the front hub, average 500 watts and 36 to 48 volts.
    “Electric bikes are still (behind) the curve in America, where the government supports gas prices, but they've caught on in the rest of the world,” says Solomon.
    “People are looking for an alternative to jumping in the car for short trips,” he notes, adding that 80 percent of trips are under nine miles and are “the heart of the problem” around fossil fuels, oil prices and global warming.
    “E-bikes are fun. Anytime you can go fast and not break your neck, well, people come back from test drives feeling like they're a superhero.”
    John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Email him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.
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