When I was a kid growing up in Rapid City, South Dakota, there was another kid who lived next door who, like me, had a bike. But while mine was powered by my legs, his was powered by a 2-cycle gasoline engine.
He bought it from the mail order catalog company Montgomery Ward. In those days, it was called a moped. It sold for around $300. In today’s dollars, it would cost about ten times that.
Today’s moped, or bike-you-can-pedal-but-also-has-a-motor, is the electric bike, or e-bike. We tend to think of the e-bike as a 21st-century innovation, but it dates back over a hundred years. One of the first was invented by a Boston boy, Hosea Libbey, who patented his in 1897.
Yet it was a 21st-century phenomenon that inspired our current perceptions of an e-bike: the citybike, which people could rent to run errands or just take for a cruise. I was struck by its utility in Taipei, Taiwan, where racks and racks of YouBikes flourish like flower gardens all over the city and along its riverwalks.
The convergence of these two events was the second reason I decided to write Bridge Across the Ocean, a novel about bicycling. The first reason was the hit-and-run murder of a friend of a friend, run down by a dump truck in Wellesley, Massachusetts. Even though I’ve been an avid cyclist for over 30 years, this event brought home the ever-present dangers of cycling.
You could say my equally long career in high-tech innovation and business journalism were also motivation for writing my novel. You would not be wrong. Yet building the story around other plotlines besides a hit-and-run certainly took the edge off of the revenge novel I’d been contemplating—although that happens in Bridge nevertheless.
So back to the e-bike story. A Pedego e-bike store recently opened here in Lexington, and last weekend my wife and I rented a pair of them to see what it’s like to ride one. The Pedego is a pedal-assist bike, which means it’s kind of like a turbo you can kick in when you want or need it. That might be a steep hill, escaping from a tense traffic situation or, having taken a long ride which tired you, allowing the bike to do the hard work on the return ride.
We agreed that an e-bike is fun to ride. It delivers an exhilarating new experience to cycling. Our hour-long ride didn’t even move the Pedego bikes’ battery gauges. But I wouldn’t trade my road bike in for an e-bike; there is a weight-functionality tradeoff. For me, the e-bike remains solidly favored for commuting, errands, shopping and such, but for exercise and spirited riding, it’s not my first choice.
That issue is key to understanding what the bike guys in my novel set out to invent: a self-powered device for a citybike that doesn’t require a battery, regardless of its weight or the length of its charge. Their invention is the Spinner, a lightweight replacement for the conventional derailleur, which generates its own power from the rider pedaling.
Of course no such thing exists now, but who’s to say it couldn’t be invented? We’re still on the leading edge of alternative energy solutions. Surely the best is yet to come. And as the writer Arthur C. Clarke wrote in 1962, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”