Seeing the World at 20 Miles Per Hour: The Pros and Cons of Electric Bikes

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Seeing the World at 20 Miles Per Hour: The Pros and Cons of Electric Bikes

What does the world look like at a top speed of 20 miles per hour?

As you can imagine, it’s a little more vivid.

Cars whiz along at 70 or 80, barely giving you time to stop and look at a farmer plowing his field. You can’t smell the zucchini plants (or the manure). It’s a blur of motion, a transportation method for people who can’t wait to arrive at Caribou and check our phones.

On an electric bike, the goal is quite different. You are not working as hard to propel the bike, you don’t care about Caribou. Your focus is on the terrain, the skyline, or the electric cyclist at your side. You stay engaged with your surroundings, sipping on the geography rather than gulping it down.

I tested an Elby Bike recently on the same trail I wrote about last year near Lanesboro, Minnesota. My goal was to “bike” even further, but I’m putting quotes around that word for a reason. The Elby is a luxury model, a cross between a moped and a bike that costs $3,700. It can hit 20 mph easily with a quick push on the electric-assisted pedals and a little human-powered gusto. You can use a throttle and skip the pedals entirely, gliding along like you’re on a motorcycle, although you’ll burn through the battery quickly.

I wanted to see if I could bike 60 miles in one afternoon, mostly at high-speed. I ended up realizing there are a few pros and cons to consider before you hit the bike trail.

Where the journey started

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I stayed with my wife and her aunt and uncle at the Cedar Valley Resort in Whalen, just a few miles outside of Lanesboro. Whalen is known for two things. One is their famous pie shop, the other is the fact that only 63 people live there according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Cedar Valley has rolling hills, multiple cabins, a nine-hole disc golf course, and plenty of amenities like bike and kayak rentals. It’s situated so close to the Root River Trail you can see the trail from your cabin window.

My GPS took me on a circuitous route to the resort, one that used gravel roads and took me near a few slumbering cows. The owner laughed and told me a story of another visitor who relied too heavily on GPS. (Turns out you can drive on major roads from Rochester and Minneapolis.)

The first day, we lounged at the resort and biked west to Lanesboro—about four miles. The Elby barely registered any depletion of the battery, showing a large icon in bright green as a way to suggest that there were many more miles in the electric tank.

You can adjust the pedal assist using an up and down arrow. Two clicks up felt about right, enough of a soft push forward but still making sure I’m the one pedaling. I tried lowering the setting so that the bike was much harder to pedal and actually adds power to the battery. At that setting, you get more of a workout than a normal bike.

60 miles in one day

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The next morning, we headed east in the opposite direction toward a town called Peterson. My biking companions had a goal to reach Rushford and eat lunch, then bike back. I was a little more ambitious. After lunch, I decided to pedal all the way to Houston, Minnesota. Round-trip that day would hit close to 60 miles, a rather long jaunt on a normal bike.

By Peterson, the electric power was only down one or two blips. The seat on the Elby is made for people who don’t like to feel any discomfort. The entire bike weighs 57 pounds and uses an aluminum alloy frame, but you barely notice that because you’re more clued into the scenery. The bike also glides along whisper-quiet compared to some mild clanging on a normal bike.

After lunch in Rushford, I announced my intentions to keep biking. Biking solo, I pushed the bike up to 20 mph and kept it there for 13 miles straight, no stopping. An abandoned barn, a deer running alongside me in the grass, the farmer I mentioned earlier—they all entered my field of view in slow motion. The sun, gleaming bright in a pure blue sky, made everything look like it had been traced with a yellow highlighter. I couldn’t help but smile all the way to Houston.

I’d never quite felt so much peace on the bike trail. Then, the power gave out.

I knew this would happen. Electric biking has several majors pros, which I’ve covered already—they are quiet, easy to use, and can evide provide a workout if you so choose. The con is that you have to plan your day. If I had brought the charger and stayed in Houston for a few hours, I could have made it all the way back to Whalen easily enough. The bike lasted a good 45 miles, and it would have been much longer (up to 90 miles) if the assistance was barely enabled.

Of course, a 57 pound bike is not easy to pedal another 30 miles back to the resort. At the same time, it was still a pleasant ride, one I won’t forget anytime soon. In the end, I was happy to have the power for most of the ride, and felt the heavy electric bike wasn’t all that different from a mountain bike. It was smooth, comfortable—and the deer barely noticed.

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