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“It is not a donkey and it is not horse. Maybe it’s a mule.”

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Everything has its beauty, but not everyone sees it.” – Confucius

It is not a donkey and it is not horse. Maybe it’s a mule.” – Gizaw Shibru, Bamboo Road e-bike tester

It was 25 years ago when I attended a bicycle show in Taiwan and came across an e-bike. Being an electrical engineer, I was eager to try it. Mind you, that e-bike was simply a car battery with a motor but it did run on stored electricity. I cycled around the hall and when I got off it, I said to myself this is the future.

A quarter of a century later, if you are a cyclist you have most likely noticed that your neighbourhood bicycle store is probably showcasing one or another kind of e-bike. It is the latest craze; the one that the industry hopes will bring in some dollars. On the other hand, if you are a long distance cyclist, you probably shudder at the thought of using an e-bike on a tour.

My curiosity in e-bikes goes beyond my professional background. The interest is also from my perspective as the owner of TDA Global Cycling. TDA is known around the world as the company that creates extraordinary long distance tours. The New York Times has called us ‘Specialist in long-distance trips’. So I have been asking myself, “Is there a room for e-bikes on TDA tours, and if so, how? Is an e-bike an option on existing tours, or should e-bikes have tours of their own?”

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Perhaps the way to start is to figure out what the motivation is to use e-bikes on long distance trips. After all, it is obvious why e-bikes can play an important role in commuting and transporting cargo as I have explained in an article focused on Africa. But why use bikes to cross continents or even on shorter tours like the Bamboo Road, the Pub Ride, Orient Express or other tours now in the planning stages?

There is another reason that is not so obvious, but that I have witnessed myself. Long distance cycling and touring is conceptually intimidating to many people. We all know that. E-bikes are much less so. And as I have witnessed, an individual came on the Bamboo Road with an e-bike, and after a month he announced that his next trip with TDA would be on a regular bike. He realized that he can do it without an ‘e’ assist.

The purists, including some in our office, will say categorically – no! NO E-BIKES!!! But as Bob Dylan sings, “The times they are a changing”. “Resistance is Futile” declared no less an authority than Joe Murray, former mountain biking National US Champion in an article in the 200th issue of Dirt Rag magazine. So with all this in mind, I decided to look for an e-bike to use as a test from Shanghai to Hanoi, a distance of 2,710km. I contacted a manufacturer, Ezeebike, who last year was ranked by the Australian bike magazine RideOn, as the best e-bike in the touring category.

To my great pleasure, the owner of Ezeebike, WaiWon Ching (lead photo), responded within half an hour, and we started a conversation. This resulted with myself, Gizaw – a cycling novice from Ethiopia – and WaiWon being at the start line of the Bamboo Road this past September 23rd. For the next 5 weeks, I and several others experimented, tested, played and generally just used the e-bikes. Gizaw and I cycled each day – including our longest ride of 180 km – with the battery we charged each night in a hotel.

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There are of course differences cycling with an e-bike as compared to a traditional touring, hybrid or road bike. The one main thing is that an e-bike is heavier than any bike you have used or lifted, and that can be an issue if you want to put the bike on the roof of a van for example. Being heavier than any regular bike also means it handles a bit differently. E-bikes can also be an issue if, for example, you forgot to charge the battery and it runs out in the middle of the day. That can mean pushing a heavy bike up the hill.

Otherwise, the bike is easy to use,  and great for hills as you do not get tired at all, and it takes little time to get to the top. The e-bike is fun in the same way a motorcycle is fun, meaning you can give yourself a push anytime you need or want. But the main benefit, in my opinion, is that the e-bike allows anyone who wants to have an adventure, to be out there, and to enjoy cycling life and its benefits, be it improved health (yes, latest research shows that even e-biking is beneficial for health), camaraderie, or the joy that comes with seeing new places and having unexpected encounters with strangers all over the world.

The experiment was a success, so where do we go from here? Stay tuned and you will find out.

P.S. If you would be interested in a long distance e-bike tour, or have opinions about the rise of e-bikes, let us know in the comment section below.


17 Comments for "“It is not a donkey and it is not horse. Maybe it’s a mule.”"

In Africa, I recall the elites found cold cokes en route, fast ordinary people got somewhat warmer cokes, and slow people were lucky to find anything. Recalling how obsessed we all became about cokes, there will be a big problem if some slow guy like me shows up with an ebike and gets to the cold cokes before the elites. Of course the hotel rooms with electricity are few and far between in Africa, so will TDA bring a charging station along? Or maybe we need solar powered ebikes for the camping trips.

More seriously, a practical issue may be the logistics of transporting the bike to/from the excursion. Apart from the greater weight, most airlines will not take lithium batteries of the size needed for bikes – indeed, we’re close to having any size (even cell phone size) banned from checked luggage.

But you make really good points about opening up the cycling experience to more people. You mentioned tours in the planning stage – maybe a circuit starting and finishing same place – like maybe Amsterdam up the Baltic coast, south to Venice, Trans-Europa along the south to Lisbon, back up to Bay of Biscay, Normandy, through Belgium and back to Amsterdam – assuming that there was a source of rental ebikes for the journey… Just a thought.

    Charging station is not in the cards but a small generator is an option, however I did see a folding solar panel that apparently can charge an ebike in a few hours. This needs to be tested if this would be an option at the same time solar panels are also improving from year to tear.

    Yes, taking battery on plane is a problem so there is a need to work around that. And yes circular tours would be ideal but hopefully we can work out other options.

Hello Henry,

I very much enjoyed your blog post about eBike. They are indeed the future for many who ride. Would be very interesting to see how you incorporate them into the Tour de Afrique given some of the potential infrastructure challenges.

But if there is a will… there is a way.

I was wondering if you would allow me to share your post in the Gears Bike Shop eBike Blog? – https://empoweredbygears.blog

This is a new initiative for us, but one that we are committed to. The eBike market is growing rapidly and we are driven to be a forefront of this business in the GTA.

Cheers,

Michael Cranwell
Gears Bike Shop
416.855.4327

Hi Michael

Go ahead and post the blog to the Gears Bike Shop eBike Blog.

Henry

As I read this article, I am weeping!

    We can have a beer and weep together while reminiscing how tough we were on the firstTDA.

Thanks for looking into using ebikes on TDA tours. These past two summers my husband road the TransEurooe and the Odyssey. I joined him for a couple weeks on each tour. After always being the next to the last to make it to our destination each day (We had a deal that I would join him only if he promised to ride behind me), I decided I did not care to go on another TDA ride. When we returned home I sold my bike and bought a Cube electric bike with Bosch battery. I love it! I am now able to ride with him and in a group with others and enjoy myself, not slowing the group. If you were to rent ebikes I would consider another TDA trip.

    Hi Catrina

    I am curious, what kind of distance are you able to do on one charge and in what kind of conditions i.e. road conditions, winds, altitude gain, etc?

      The battery on the Cube uses about 60% of a full charge (3 out of 5 bars) on a 70k ride with maybe 200 m of elevation gain. Lots of variables affect range of course: headwinds, elevation, the age of the battery, how much assist on the level spots, speed on the flats. On a prior trip in Croatia (Pedal and Sea, a Nova Scotia touring company) I just carried a spare battery for the hard days, over 80 k and 1500 m of climbing. The answer for range anxiety is a spare battery, which maybe could go in the lunch van?

        Yes certainly a possibility for spare battery in a lunch truck. My understanding is that new batteries are coming on the market that will increase range by 50%. By the way how other non ebike cyclists on the trip reacted to ebike cyclists.

Hi Henry,
You might remember me from the 2011 India tour, one I’m sure you won’t forget. I had both knees replaced in 2014 and bought a Bionx wheel and battery set to add to my bike and help me get back into cycling. As I am now 81 I find I need it when the ride is long or my companions are fast, so it is really great for keeping going. I had to modify it a little to fit it for drop handle bars, but I think Bionx gives the most natural cycling experience, and can take me over 100k at a 35% assist level.
I,m glad I have the memories of my three tours with TDA and that you are still thriving.
Best wishes,
Alan Lunt

    Hi Alan,

    I remember you well. Glad to hear that you are doing well and still cycling. By the way I contacted BionX who have a factory just north of Toronto. I went there and was hoping that they would be interested in working together to develop ebike use on long tours. Unfortunately there was zero interest.

Henry , interesting read.

On my list, (it is a long one, so not all will be achieved) is a bike tour, probably north to south, along the length of Japan. I was therefore intrigued to hear of TDA plans for Japan & Korea.

I had gathered this was to be an ebike tour, so I had been put off.

Is it still intended that the Japan & Korea trip will be only on ebikes, on conventional bikes or permissive, encouraging both?

Best wishes Peter

    Hi Peter

    We have not made any final decisions on Japan/Korea tour but the way it looks it will be a regular tour on which we will allow a few ebikes.
    Cheers,
    Henry

What an informative article. E bikes don’t interest me at all but for many, to see countries by bike is so much more than by bus or car.
Henry, you are a very intuitive,brilliant man and I agree, E-bikes are the way of the future for many.

    Hi Catharine,

    Glad to hear that you agree with my thoughts. Time will tell if it will work out.

    Henry

Whilst on a training ride recently, a guy on an ebike came cruising past me on a slight uphill. It struck me then that ebike touring will open up an entire new market, and I think Catrina above sums it up nicely – regular riders will be able to entice so many more of their less energetic mates to join them on adventures!

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