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I’ve always loved bicycles.
Indeed, the difference between riding my bicycle and driving my car to work, is the same as having autonomy and being an automaton. And now a super cool hybrid is in vogue: the electric bicycle (also known as the E-bike). Riding an E-bike is like making doggy style love to an old-timey robot from the nineteenth century.

Thanks to E-bikes, riding a two-wheeled vehicle is now an even faster and more mechanically pleasing experience than ever before. It also causes the same endorphin rushes, drenching sweats, and aching muscles of old-fashioned exercise, and has the same amount of oil, gears, pedals, and chains of everyday bike rides, but now there’s an added component. An E-bike feels like a steampunk form of locomotion, a melding of man with machine.


E-Bikes

Dr. Christopher Cherry, a professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, is one of the men responsible for melding us into machines. He is, in other words, trying to popularize E-bikes in the United States.


Recently, Dr. Cherry oversaw a “bike share” project, during which riders could check out E-bikes and ride them around town for up to four hours. If you’ve ever been to East Tennessee, you know the extra momentum afforded by an E-bike would be appreciated on those never-ending Appalachian hills.


E-Bikes

While the main advantage of the E-bike is to get a rider over the hill when he or she needs that extra push, Cherry was quick to clarify an important point. The technology supplements the bike ride; it does not supplant the rider. “You do all the pushing, in some cases,” he said. Plus, he added, “The bikes don’t require any input from the rider.” This means that when the bicycle’s battery fizzles out, a rider can keep going. “It’s a hybrid,” said Cherry. But it’s not the kind of hybrid you usually see on the road. He classified it as “a human-electric hybrid.”


E-bikes, Past and Present


Cherry did his dissertation on the rise of E-bikes in China. “In the mid-90s,” he said, “the technology started to develop in a way that was marketable. They started selling them in Japan and China, and then they really exploded in China in the 2000s. Now there are about 150 million of them on the streets in China, where they sell about 30 million a year. And in the US, they sell about 200,000 a year. The scale’s quite a bit different.”


But dealers and bike enthusiasts are also trying to spread E-bike popularity in the US. In a country where almost nobody rides two wheels to work, however, E-bike shops don’t hang around for very long. Nashville used to have a few stores that sold E-bikes, and Memphis had one too. But Steve Smith, a dealer in Gallatin, TN, reported that a Memphis man recently came all the way to Middle Tennessee to buy a bike, due to the lack of selection in his city.


Human- and Solar-Powered E-bikes


The green movement has a major problem that it needs to solve. Even though hybrid and electric cars seem like the better option over gasoline-powered cars, they often contribute even more coal pollution to the environment than their gas counterparts.


“Electric vehicles have the potential to be worse than gasoline cars,” said Cherry. “Gasoline is great in terms of energy density and that sort of thing, and the cars we have are relatively clean.
... The problem with electric cars is these are heavy machines that you try to move fast, and they require a lot of energy to do that. You’ve got to figure out how to get that energy there, and most of the time that’s with fossil fuels.”  Coal is one such fossil fuel, and it’s one of the dirtiest ways of converting energy into something we can use for transportation purposes.

Still, according to Cherry, when it comes to something small and light like an e-bike, solar power is the way to go. He said he had a solar power station where the e-bike batteries charged. Once a battery was all charged up and ready to go, a rider could hum up and down those Appalachian hills with the assistance of the battery pack for a few hours.


E-Bikes

A solar-powered e-bike does not pose the same environmental dangers as an electric car. “In fact,” said Cherry, “in my mind, it’s cooler than some of these electric cars because it’s completely off grid. It’s not just pumping a few clean kilowatts into the grid. It’s actually a zero emission electric vehicle for once.”


Buying an E-bike


Depending on where you live, you might have a hard time finding a dealer, and maybe that’s because bicycles aren’t the most convenient way of getting around in American towns. And sticking a motor on to one might make it go faster, but it also increases the cost, makes theft more likely, and poses additional dangers to other commuters, pedestrians, and even riders themselves.


Nashville, the new “It” city, is trying to keep its name ultrachic, and so it has to keep up with the times. But the Nashville area appears to have only one e-bike dealership. If you look online, you’ll find a couple whispers of others, but when you go in search of them, they don’t exist anymore. One dealership (Music City E-Bikes) was in a warehouse in an industrial park where metal works and old factories dominate the landscape. The dealership isn’t there anymore.


Another E-bike dealership has a website (goebikes.com) that Google Chrome apparently won’t let you access. “The site ahead contains malware,” the warning reads. Chrome splashed this orange warning across my browser with the same startling force as the Blue Screen of Death.



I began to get the distinct impression that the entire E-bike movement was a front for various nefarious purposes other than staying fit while utilizing cool forms of sustainable transportation.


Pedego NashvilleSo, it should come as no surprise that finding the Pedego E-bike dealership in the afore- mentioned town of Gallatin, 30 miles north of Nashville, was difficult at first. It has an Internet presence, but not a storefront sign. It’s actually nestled in the back room of an e-vape shop called the Gaslight. (I found out later that E-bikes run on the same kind of lithium battery that powers the vaporizer pen, which is the pipe-like gadget one uses to inhale nicotine vapors. The difference is only in number; a vape pen has one battery, while an E-bike has forty-eight.)

This store’s window featured several signs. One reads, “Music City Vape Sauce.” Another says, “Velvet Cloud Vapor.” And still another says, “Pedego Electric Bikes.” This was definitely the place!

Pedego E-bike

I walked into the vape shop and looked around, but I was confused. The dimly lit room had an open floor plan filled with a blue cloud of light, odorless vapor that curled toward the ceiling like almost-invisible smoke. It looked like the kind of old room where dust flies around and the sun slants in sideways through the windows, capturing the dust motes in a slow ballet. The store had a hookah-style bar where customers came to chat, while sucking on futuristic-looking pipes.

“You want to vape?” said one of the guys at the bar, blowing a plume of blue vapor over his head.

“No,” I said. “Just came for the bikes. Are there not any bikes here?”

The guy showed me the bikes in the back room. He said the bike salesman wasn’t in that day.

“What’s his name?” I asked.

“He’s the Bike Guy,” said the guy with a laugh. “He’s the man.”

Find out what happens next in PART 2 of Other Variations on the E-bike Theme coming to the next issue of Dish in MARCH 2015.



www.Dishmag.com / Issue 167 - September 5750
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