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Monday, September 25, 2023

All Hail the Electric Bicycle

Ebikes are having a moment. Today's electric bikes are powerful, elegant, maneuverable, and, as battery technology improves, they're able to ride for miles and miles. For some people, they're even replacing cars. And as cycling has exploded in popularity during the pandemic, cities have reconfigured streets to better accommodate bikers. That, along with the rise of the ebike, could change how our roads are built and how we navigate through them.

This week on Gadget Lab, fellow bike enthusiasts and WIRED product reviewers Adrienne So and Parker Hall come on the show to talk about ebikes and how we ride them.

Show Notes

Read our guide to the best electric bikes here.


Adrienne recommends the Happylight Luxe sun lamp from Verilux. Parker recommends the three volumes in the Lost Songs series by Gillian Welch. Mike recommends the game Prune, which you can play on Android or iOS.

Adrienne So can be found on Twitter @adriennemso. Parker Hall is @pwhall. Michael Calore is @snackfight. Bling the main hotline at @GadgetLab. The show is produced by Boone Ashworth (@booneashworth). Our theme music is by Solar Keys.

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[Gadget Lab intro theme music]

Michael Calore: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Gadget Lab. I am Michael Calore, a senior editor at WIRED. Lauren Goode is off again this week. Normally I'd be super lonely, crying into my artisanal kombucha, but luckily I am joined by two writers from WIRED's reviews team, senior writer Adrienne So and staff writer Parker Hall. Say hello, you two.

Parker Hall: Hey.

Adrienne So: Hi, Mike.

MC: Hi, guys. So this week we are talking about ebikes. You know, electric bicycles. They've come a long way in the last few years. Today's ebikes are more powerful, more elegant. The designs have improved, they're lighter and easier to maneuver. Also battery technology continues to get better and better, so ebikes can go for miles and miles before conking out. If you live in a city or even near one, they also have the potential to completely change the way that humans move around, zipping between home and work and school on two wheels instead of four. At least that's the idea, once the world opens up again. So later in the show, we're going to offer some tips on how to navigate the ebike world if you're curious about buying one, but first let's talk about the growing trend towards powered cycling as I like to call it. Now, Adrienne and Parker, both of you have written and reviewed many, many electronic bicycles for WIRED. So I want to start with you, Adrienne. How did you get into ebikes?

AS: So I first started getting interested in ebikes because I take my kids … they're three and five now and I take them to school, or I did when schools were open. I took them in a bike trailer and hauling two kids and two bags on a Thule bike trailer on my analog bike or whatever, it was just so painfully slow and I have to cross this one road and my husband was genuinely afraid that some 18 wheeler would just come barreling towards us and I'd be totally unable to move, or the axle would fall out on my ten-year-old Surly or something. So about a couple of years before I started reviewing ebikes, he just started hinting really strongly, like, "Maybe you need a motor because you're too weak and too slow." So if you're going to keep doing this you definitely need some help. So that's how I kind of got into it. What about you, Parker?

PH: I actually got into it out of sheer laziness. I used to work in downtown Portland and I had about a three mile commute and the train took about half an hour, but biking took 20 minutes and there's a big hill on the way home and I got too lazy to analog bike at anymore. So I discovered ebikes existed and I got one and I never looked back. So I actually came at reviewing them sort of having already bought one for myself.

MC: I think that's one of the things, Parker, what you were talking about and also, Adrienne, your story. That's one of the things that have proven to be a real boon for ebikes is that people who otherwise would not have considered it, get into it just because cycling for them … the things they have to do during the day are just a little bit too much for a non-electric bike, an acoustic bike or an analog bike, whatever we're calling them.

PH: An acoustic bike. I like that.

MC: We can just call them bicycles, right? Human powered bicycles. If your commute is four miles or five miles, maybe that's a little bit too far for you to ride a bike because you're not maybe super in shape or you don't feel like you're in shape or there's a big hill right in the middle of it. An ebike is the thing that sort of gets you over that hump, I feel like.

PH: Yeah. It's also … at least it was amazing for me because you don't have to bring a change of clothes. So if you're analog biking to work and it's over three or four miles, you're definitely going to have to pack a change of clothes, at least if you sweat as much as I do. But on an ebike, it's great. You can just wear your normal outfit, bundle up a little bit more and you're good to go.

AS: That's something that I think about a lot with ebikes is that a lot of the people who are interested in ebikes are kind of already bikers to begin with. I think all of us came … we were already the kinds of people who would use our analog human powered bikes around. So I've been kind of thinking about that as we're reviewing bikes, is how do you get people who might've been taking transportation or a car onto a bike in the first place. So that's kind of something I've been keeping in mind as I'm reviewing bikes too.

MC: These things also used to be really clunky. So maybe someone tried one a few years ago and didn't like it just because it was sort of like a tank, but the design has gotten a lot cleaner over the last couple of years.

PH: Yeah. I also think that they ride more and more like real bikes. I think some of the first ebikes that I ever saw were sort of rear hub motor. There's a motor on the rear wheel and the actual drive train of the bike isn't really directly connected to the actual motor that's powering the wheel. As Bosch and these companies have started making mid drive bikes where the motor's in the middle of the bike and sort of works with your pedaling, it feels a lot more natural. So if you haven't ridden an ebike in awhile, sort of the new generation, the new style of ebikes definitely feel a lot more like the bikes you're used to riding, in my opinion.

AS: Definitely, and they've gotten so much lighter. Electric bicycles have dropped 20 pounds since I first started reviewing them in 2017 or 2018. Now when I get a 65 pound commuter bike, I'm like, "What is this? Is this 2018? It's just way too heavy." They've gotten so much better so quickly. It's amazing.

MC: To me, the big design innovation is getting the battery into the frame. There was something that really turned me off of ebike design just a couple of years ago, like the big brick battery sitting on the down tube of the bike, which is the tube that sort of diagonally goes between the handlebars and where the pedals are. It just looks like somebody took a mountain bike frame and just clumped a big brick onto it. Now there are bike designs where the battery is completely integrated inside the frame. So maybe the frame is a little bit thicker, but it hides the battery. That gives it not only a cleaner look, but it helps with the weight management of the bike as you're riding it. Your knees don't knock against it and it's a little bit easier to balance because the weight is sort of distributed more naturally.

AS: It helps with theft too. When I used to bike to a bar, back when we had bars, I'd have to use the key and take the battery off the bike to try help people not leave my bike alone. Now if it's just hidden in the down tube, but so much less conspicuous. It's awesome.

PH: Yeah. I agree. I think I wasn't ever so much worried about someone stealing a giant battery that really doesn't go to anything but more that your bike is so easily identifiable as an ebike when there's just a big battery strapped to it and immediately people think like, "Oh, that's an expensive thing to steal." So I do definitely really like this trend towards making ebikes look just like every other bike on the road. It's really awesome.

AS: That's something to think about too. I know that a lot of people are like, "Why would I spend …" There's such huge variation with ebike prices and components right now, especially if you're looking at a bike that has a battery that's in the tube. It's worth spending a little bit more money to get a battery that's going to keep its charge longer during recharging cycles. That way you don't have to replace the battery in the mid drive tube or in the down tube. So that's something that I think about too.

MC: Speaking of costs, the prices have been coming down considerably over the last couple of years as well. Where are we now with ebike prices?

PH: I would say that you can get a very good quality ebike now for about $2,000. I think below that is where you get to sort of direct to consumer companies and companies where you're going to have to put together the bike and it's shipped directly to you. While we've tested a couple of those bikes that we actually like more recently, a lot of those just don't have the same sort of quality components that you might want in a bike that's going to be going pretty fast on the road and dealing with a lot of torque and other forces.

MC: Yeah, like over 20 miles per hour, usually.

PH: Yeah. Yeah. And that's something … I mean, Adrienne kind of touched on it already, but I just really think … I agree with her that going with a bike that has name brand components, things like Shimano or a Bosch or big name brand bike part makers is usually a better sign for the bike overall because you might spend a little extra money, but that stuff has really been tested by hardcore, usually mountain bikers all over the place so it's more durable.

AS: Yeah, and I had one thing that I wanted to say about DTC is that if you … especially with cheaper components, that bikes are for real. They're not toys. I was assembling a DTC bike that will go unnamed in this segment and it actually … it arched on me when I tried to plug the battery into the computer. A electrical current jumped from one cable to the other. That's a lot of power. If it had gone through my body, instead of through the air, it might have stopped my heart. So that's another thing to keep in mind if you're going for cheaper components, is that they don't always have the support and quality control that you might want for staying alive.

MC: Big yikes. I'm glad you're still here with us, Adrienne.

AS: Assemble your bike outside so you stay grounded.

PH: Or honestly, have a professional assemble it.

AS: Yeah, that too.

PH: I think that's the best method. I never can get my brakes to not rub unless I take it to an actual bike shop.

MC: Well, let's take a break right now and then when we come back, we're going to talk about some tips for people who might be considering buying an ebike.


MC: OK. Welcome back. Getting into ebikes might seem daunting, but it doesn't have to be. For starters, we have a great guide to all the best ebikes on WIRED.com, which you should definitely go read. Also, we're going to offer up some advice on this show. So whether you're brand new to bikes in general, or just ebikes, or you're a seasoned vet in the world of acoustic cycling, we'll do our best to help you get moving. Parker, I want to start with you. What's something that you wish people had told you before you rode your first ebike.

PH: The main thing that I think of is that I wish someone had told me to get a little bit bigger, sort of more robust of a bike than I otherwise maybe would have bought. I think the beauty of ebikes is that they have a lot more power and so you can get something with a little fatter wheels. You can get something with shocks, you can get something that can hold a week's worth of groceries and you don't really have to worry so much about being sleek because the power will be there.

AS: Yeah. That's something that Parker and I have talked about before, is frame size. We reviewed one bike, the Propella, which can fit both me, who's 5'2, and Parker, who's 6'2. With acoustic cycles, they have to be fitted to you really well because you're using your own body power to move and that can put strain on your legs or your shoulders, but with an ebike, the battery is doing the biking for you. So you can play a little fast and loose with the frame sizes more so than you would with an acoustic bike.

MC: Yeah, and the battery is doing most of the work for you. You're still putting in some work so it's important to get something that matches you a little bit, but you don't have to get as picky about size.

AS: Yeah, definitely. I'm testing an acoustic gravel bike right now, and you have to just get so much more finicky with the stem height and the seat height and all these things. I was at the trail head and I completely forgot that you're supposed to carry a bike tool to tinker with all these things when you go out because I'm so used to being on an ebike now. With my knees pulled up to my chin or my arms over the handlebars … It doesn't even matter. It does matter. It matters a lot less on an ebike than if you're going for a 20 mile gravel ride.

PH: That's true. Another thing I would say is along with frame size, one thing that I really would consider that sort of supplements frame thoughts, with regular bikes, you think a lot about frame size and wanting it to be perfect for your power delivery. On an ebike, you really want to get a bike that's powerful enough for what you're going to be using it for. So a standard 250 watt motor is probably fine if you live somewhere that's pretty flat and you're trying to go sort of normal, flat places that are easy to get to with maybe a hill or two in between. But if you live in San Francisco or if you live somewhere where you're going to really be tackling big hills, you definitely want to consider getting a more powerful bike. You'll never regret having too much power, but you will regret having not enough.

MC: Right. That's just carrying you, but the trend that we're seeing, especially cities, is people investing in ebikes as a full-on car replacement. I guess this is more for you, Adrienne, because you carry your kids around when you test these things. But what are some of the things that are important to look for when you're buying an ebike to move your whole family around?

AS: Yeah. What Parker said is true. I would definitely invest in a bigger battery, a more powerful motor. Let's see. Yeah, there are some hills around our neighborhood that … Our top family ebike, the Urban Family Arrow, it has a feature that I really like, which is the continuously variable and enviolo shifters, which means … yeah, it means that normally when you're riding a bike, you have to be moving to change the gears. But with the enviolo shifters, you can shift while you're standing still and be on a lower gear when you're going uphill, which is something that you kind of really need when you've got about 300 pounds of bike and person and kid …

Yeah, you really don't want to be like your heavier, normal, typical uphill biker experiences with handlebars wobbling and your five-year-old screaming for her life. That is something that I am pretty careful about. You want a bigger battery, good uphill shifters, and you'll probably need a couple of different accessories. I've had to change out accessories as my kids have grown too. First they were in the Thule maxi seats and then they were on the seat pads with the monkey bars.

MC: The monkey bars are rad.

AS: They're so cool. I wish I could ride them. I wish I could ride there too. My husband's just going to have to peddle me around.

PH: I think another thing with ebikes is … it's actually, in my opinion, kind of all about the accessories and the built-in accessories. I really like bikes that have built in racks. I really like bikes that have built in lights. It's amazing when you never have to recharge lights again, because you have a giant battery powering your bike.

AS: That's the best part about having a bike with a battery in it. It's just like when I get an ebike without built-in lights, I'm like, "Why? Why?"

PH: Yeah, yeah. It's such an easy thing to add. Come on. And fenders, that's another thing to think about. If you're already a cyclist, you know this, but if you're not coming from the cycling world, you definitely want to prepare for the worst weather. So I recommend fenders. I recommend a rack for holding things. You never know when you want to throw a bag of groceries in the back and go home. Your bike might not look as cool, but that's kind of the best part of ebikes is that there's tons of cool accessories that can make all parts of your cycling journey so much easier.

AS: Yeah, definitely. If you have kids on an ebike, I also recommend a front basket. They have these really cool floating front baskets now that are attached to a different part of the frame. So they don't throw … they're not right on the handlebars. They don't throw your weight off when you're steering. Yeah. That's one of my favorite new accessories to have come out in the last year or so.

Yeah. Normally like a basket, when you turn the handlebars, the basket moves with the handlebars. But these, the basket stays put and it stays facing forward, which is like the first 10 minutes that you're on one of those. It's really disorienting.

AS: Yeah, it is. Like, "Are my eyes crossed or something?" But no, it's just magic.

MC: So when people are shopping for ebikes, they often encounter statements about range, right? Like how far can the bike go on a charge? So what's a good way for people to sort of calculate how much range they should be looking for in an ebike if they're considering getting one?

AS: Oh my God, Parker, have you done any of these … there are so many online tools for range calculation and they are all … it's just completely bonkers, depending on where you live and how much you're carrying and what terrain you're going through. I have an online range calculator built into one of the rad wagons that I have now and on one single ride in a grocery trip, it estimates my range as like, "Five miles, 40 miles, five miles, 40 miles."

PH: Yeah. I mean, so I would say it really depends on whether. If it's cold, it's going to be a lot less efficient. It also really depends on power. If you're going to be having it all on … if you're riding in turbo mode and going 28 miles an hour all the time, expect to get, in my experience, at or below the manufacturer's low range. I mean, so manufacturers typically give you a range in my experience. They'll say like, "This ebike goes between 25 and 45 miles," and in my experience, you're never going to get the 45. If you ride it really hard, you might not even get the 25. So I would just say err on the side of caution in terms of range. Get a bigger battery, if you're worried about range.

AS: A lot of bikes have … there's a option for a battery extender. I would say if your commute is longer than 10 miles, it might be worth keeping an extra battery, an extra charger at work because you never know what's going to happen on a bike. It's an adventure.

PH: Yeah, true.

MC: So all three of us have been testing ebikes for the whole time we've been at WIRED and we're always evangelizing them. We're always talking about how much fun they are and how great they are for people who are looking for that experience. But what I've found is that the biggest hurdle that I hear from people, the biggest sticking point that I hear from people, is that they just don't feel safe riding a bike around the city. That's not really something that we can change and it really kind of depends on where you live, but it is true that in this country, in the United States, we have an infrastructure problem where we value cars on the road more so than we value bikes and pedestrians on the road. Is this something that ebikes are going to help? Is it easier to overlook infrastructure problems if you can go as fast as cars or is it just something that is going to affect all cyclists no matter what kind of ride they're on?

AS: Yeah. We live in Portland and it has one of the most bike-friendly infrastructures in the world with so many bike shops and facilities, and even here, it can be really frustrating and scary. There's one bike shop where if I pick up a giant bike, you have to go up this highway with 18 wheelers coming at you. I mean, in general, I find it really … I mean, this is an experience we all have in common. I find the lack of bike infrastructure to be really frustrating. A really cool development that happened this summer was Portland blocked off a bunch of slow streets that made biking, and electric biking in particular, a lot easier.

MC: We had that happened here in San Francisco also. Actually the street that I live on is technically a slow street. It hasn't really done much to keep cars from going slow, but it has given people who want to go for a bike ride another place to do it, where they don't feel constrained by the strips of paint on the bike lane. I see a good thing happening, which is that now that cities have adopted slow streets … I know they're in New York, they're in Chicago, other big cities around the U.S. People have experienced what it's like to have that in their community and when the pandemic is over and we're living in post pandemic America, those types of infrastructure changes are probably going to get more priority because people have experienced them and people have enjoyed them and they don't want to lose that. Also, those who may have been against it have realized through demonstration that they don't really have that much of an argument against them anymore. You know what I mean?

AS: Especially because one of the best ways to socialize the summer was outside. I got so many more invitations to go on bike rides with friends this summer because it was one of the few safe distanced ways you could see everyone. So that was a really great thing to come about in a really sad way.

PH: Yeah, I think the pandemic has really caused a massive growth in cycling in general and definitely ebikes and one thing that's good about getting more cyclists out on the road is that sort of the more, the safer, and hopefully also that will lead cities to build infrastructure that will benefit all cyclists.

MC: Right. People often criticize ebikes as those are just wussies who don't want to put in the work of pedaling an actual bicycle. But I think that's just absolutely the wrong argument. I think ebikes are great because like you said, Parker, it gets more people out on the road, right? More bikes out on the road, more people, strengthen in numbers. It allows us to have the sort of cycling utopia that we all as cyclists dream of on our city streets.

AS: One of the bike shop owners that I talked to, he said that one of the biggest customer demographic he has are older guys in their 50s and 60s who have been road biking their whole life. As their hips or knees start to get a little bit creaky, they can't quite keep up with their crews anymore, but they don't want to let them go because that's their main source of social and physical activity. So you just get an ebike and then you can just keep up with your friends, and I think that's totally awesome.

PH: Yeah. Accessibility is such a cool thing that ebikes enable. I've heard stories of people recovering from cancer treatment who are riding ebikes instead of their normal bikes, all sorts of people with physical disabilities that made it so that it wasn't really effective for them to ride a normal style traditional bike. I think it is an interesting thing because you feel some judgment sometimes riding ebikes past these Lycra-clad cyclists, but what's funny is it's worth noting that if you're a regular cyclist who's been against ebikes, a lot of people have reasons they need to ride those bikes and it's not necessarily worth judging people just because they're riding by you in their work clothes and you're struggling up the hill.

AS: I'm such a bad mountain biker that when we would go out for rides, my husband would have to bike to the top of the hill, run back down, find me halfway up and carry my bike up for me so that we could get home before dinner time. But now what's harder? That or just getting a motor? I just want to hang out with my friends, goddammit.

MC: All right. Well, thanks for the discussion guys. Let's take a break and when we come back, we'll have a recommendations.


MC: All right, here comes the last segment of the show. Adrienne, you go first. What's your recommendation?

AS: My recommendation is a sunlamp. I live in Oregon and it's been raining pretty steadily for a month now. I had one before. I didn't really need as much mood lifting as I do this winter in particular, and it's just been a godsend. I just put it on for 20 minutes while responding to emails in the morning.

MC: Now, this is not like an alarm clock, like a sunrise, wake up alarm clock, right?

AS: No, this is like … I mean, this is like the 10,000 lux Verilux. I think it has to be a certain level of brightness to mimic sunlight effectively. It has to be shining into your face and you can't have it just on the back of your neck or something. So I have it on a book by my computer for maximum efficacy, and I think it's working. I sound pretty peppy now.

MC: That's awesome. Parker, what is your recommendation for our listeners?

PH: I have been playing a lot of guitar during quarantine and I've been trying to write better songs, and I discovered this trio of new albums, new old albums, I should say, by one of my favorite songwriters, Gillian Welch. Basically she recorded these songs in 2002 to finish a publishing contract so that she could, I don't know, write or record more music, but it's dozens of songs that she recorded over, I believe, just about a weekend in Nashville in 2002. They are spectacular. A lot of them were done in one or two takes and it's just so impressive how amazing she's able to record her music that quickly.

MC: These are on Spotify, Apple music, Tidal, et cetera.

PH: Yeah. They've been coming out. There's three volumes and the third one was just released, I believe, a couple of weeks ago. So you can check out all three. They're on all major streaming services.

MC: Nice. So I'm going to recommend a game. It's a smartphone game. It's called Prune, P-R-U-N-E, and it's not about the fruit. It's prune the verb. This is a game that is like a touchy swipey game, where you're trying to grow a sprout out of the ground into a tree that can blossom. In order for it to blossom, it has to hit the beam of light that is somewhere on the game board. So you kind of have to trim the tree, prune the tree, to get it to grow into a certain direction and to grow a certain length so that it'll hit the beam of light. Once it hits the beam of light, it will sprout flowers, and if you've gotten it far enough into the beam of light, it will sprout enough flowers in order for you to advance to the next level.

So it's kind of a puzzle game and it's beautifully designed. It's like a meditative … it's inspired by bonsai gardening so the design of it is very Japanese and it has sort of that Zen quality that you get from tending to your bonsai tree, except it's all sort of virtual tree pruning.

AS: Oh my God, Mike, I've been so into these gentle meditative phone games since quarantine happened. That one sounds totally awesome. The New York Times has a couple of those different, gentle games. I think the one I'm obsessed with right now is Tile. Have you played that one?

MC: Yeah, yeah.

AS: Oh my God. I'm just like, "Oh, so blue. So matching." So it's awesome. I'm going to have to check out Prune too.

MC: Prune was actually featured in that New York times meditative games roundup that you're talking about. I think it was in there and it's jumped up in the app store and in the Google Play store over the last couple of days because of it, I think.

AS: Nice. The other meditative game I just started was Kentucky Route Zero on the Switch. Have you guys played that one?

MC: No.

PH: Mm-mm (negative).

AS: I think you might like it actually. I forget who did the music for it, but it's some country music luminaries or something. It's just a storytelling game that started out on PC, so it's just this gentle truck driver, Conway, playing country music and going through this Kentucky landscape with his dog. You can name the dog. I named the dog Blue. I'm not sure if it's going to end in a good way, but for now it's soothing. I don't know. Yeah.

MC: Well, I can tell you that if you're interested in playing Prune, it's four bucks and you can get it on Android or iOS. I don't know about the Switch game, but-

AS: Well, the Switch game is like $25, but I'm definitely going to have to check Prune out.

MC: Awesome. All right. Well, that is our show for this week. Thanks to Adrienne So and Parker Hall for joining us. Thanks, guys.

PH: No problem. Thanks for having us.

AS: Thanks for having us.

MC: And thank you all for listening. I should tell you that we are off next week. It's American Thanksgiving the last week of November. So we're not going to be here, but Lauren Goode and I will be back with a new episode on Friday, December 4th. Until then if you have any feedback, you can find all of us on Twitter. Just check the show notes. This show is produced by Boone Ashworth, who is a joy to work with. Goodbye, we'll see you on December 4th.

[Gadget Lab outro theme music]

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