A love letter to the electric bike

Jolisa Gracewood with her trusty “longtail” electric cargo bike.

From the January 2022 issue of WOMAN magazine.

Jolisa Gracewood pens a love letter to the electric bike, and the freedom and pleasure it affords us.

Ten years ago, I came home to New Zealand after cycling around the world. Not, I should clarify, in the way of those long-distance legends who circumnavigate the globe. Rather, everywhere I lived – and many places I visited – bikes were simply a handy way to get around.

Having biked to school in South Auckland, back when everyone did, and as a student in Christchurch (ditto), I was confident copying the locals wherever I went. I pedalled the back streets of Tokyo on a borrowed bike alongside little kids and nimble oldsters. I explored American college towns on rusty old 10-speeds.

I rode a CitiBike across the Brooklyn Bridge, just because. Another summer, I rented a bike in Copenhagen to keep up with the glamorous Danes, one of whom, in fake fur and heels, became an indelible bike-style icon. When babies arrived, I acquired a sturdy set of wheels fit for Connecticut snowstorms and the daycare run.

So I always assumed I’d jump straight back in the saddle on our return to New Zealand. Not so fast. The kids and I biked to school, the library, the shops. But in this city of cars, anything further afield felt daunting, especially if hills were involved. Aspiration, meet Auckland.

Then, one day I cycled to a job interview. On purpose. It was summertime, there were hills, and I arrived late, a literal hot mess. And I got the gig – working in advocacy, helping “normalise” everyday cycling for ordinary Aucklanders.

Perhaps showing up all earnest and sweaty- Betty helped me land the role. But I clung to the conviction that there had to be a way to recapture the effortless breeziness of biking that I’d enjoyed everywhere else.

Enter… the electric bicycle.

The American suffragist Susan B. Anthony famously said the bicycle did “more to emancipate women than anything else in the world”, and her New Zealand sisters likewise mobilised on wheels. I’d love to give these admirable ancestresses a go on an e-bike. Bloomers a-billowing, they’d adore this ultimate freedom machine.

In fact, if e-bikes didn’t exist, I reckon women would have had to invent them. Of course, powered bicycles have been around for ages – even our own Richard Pearse number-8-wired one, back in the day. But they’ve truly hit their stride in the past decade, becoming lighter, smarter and better- looking.

I’d had an initial taste when my gadget-fiend brother acquired an early specimen. He was evangelical; I was doubtful. When the power assist kicked in I panicked and the bike bucked like a bad pony. Not for me, I thought.

Then, thanks to the advocacy gig, I got the chance to test-ride a range of e-bikes. It was like being given the key to a stable of flying unicorns in different shapes, sizes and colours, and I couldn’t get enough.

Some had a front-wheel-hub motor, which pulls you up hills like an enthusiastic donkey. Others had the motor in the rear wheel, which felt like having an Olympic champ cranking away on the back seat of a tandem. The sweet spot, and my favourite: a mid-drive motor that powers through the pedals, making the most of your gears.

In every case, the magic was the same: hills lay down and headwinds vanished. I ate up the miles and kept going. Auckland became Amsterdam, if you squinted and ignored the traffic. Taking the hilly but quiet route became a viable option. As my friend Carol describes the e-bike advantage: where once a bike ride across the city required psyching yourself up, “Now I think: ‘Oh, I’ll just go there.’”

Above all, it was about ease: pedalling along while never running out of puff. It brought back the thrill of learning to ride, discovering you could propel yourself forward with a determined crank, tiny feet in seven-league boots. But this time round the encouraging parental hand at my back was invisible and battery-powered.

In other words, everything great about riding a bike, only more so. I fell in love with a bright green one with bamboo mudguards. I was sold.

I’m far from alone: New Zealand imports of new e-bikes and their zippy cousins, the electric scooters, are on track to outstrip imports of new cars. And for every electric car on our roads, there are already at least five electric two-wheelers. The EV revolution is quietly happening under our noses.

And it’s having an equalising effect. Maurice Wells, who’s been in the e-bike business for a decade, says women have always been a significant – and growing – part of his customer base. His shop, Electric Bike Team (off Auckland’s Karangahape Road next to the pink path, which makes for dreamy test-rides), is selling more and more e-bikes by the pair, especially to older couples keen to ride together.

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