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e-bikes

MATT BUBBERS

This is what it must have felt like to be Lance Armstrong, fully juiced.

With every beat of the pedals, the bicycle surges forward with such force that it's best to hold onto the handlebars. The on-board computer shows we're bounding up a hill at 25 kilometres an hour, but from my heartbeat, you'd think I was taking a light afternoon nap.

The vehicle in question is the Cruise e-bike: a commuter bicycle with a lithium-ion battery pack where a water bottle should be and a "mid-drive" electric motor mounted between the pedals. When you pedal, it provides boost: anywhere from zero to 250 per cent of the power of your legs, according to BMW.

Crucially, there's no throttle – no way to get boost without pedalling – which makes it technically a "pedelec," different from those large electric scooters we also call e-bikes.

BMW is among a growing number of auto makers offering pedelecs. But why are auto makers dabbling in such a niche market? Even in Germany, a large e-bike market for Europe, sales topped out at 410,000 units in 2013 according to Bike Europe magazine.

For Daniel Deparis, the head of strategy and business development at Smart, e-bikes are a complementary product.

"Our business remains the car, that's for sure, but it's good to offer more," he said over the phone from Germany.

In 2012, Smart became the first auto maker to sell an integrated e-bike in Canada.

As for offering more, Deparis gives the example of Smart "add-on" services: access to Smart-only parking spaces; a free car-sharing membership; discounts on car rentals. E-bikes fall into this add-on category, too.

"People want to have a different sort of mobility option," he said. "The e-bike or add on services, these are all things which are complimentary to the business."

In other words: an e-bike for the daily commute, a Smart car for foul weather and longer journeys. I can confirm it's as unpleasant to ride an e-bike in the rain as it is any other bike.

Riding the BMW for a week, range anxiety never set in. The aptly named Cruise is rated for up to 100 kilometres on a single charge. In practice, I was getting about half that. But 50 km should be enough for most bike commuters. People who cycle to work travel an average of 10 km each way, according to a 2006 survey by the City of Calgary.

Worst comes to worst and you run out of electricity, you can keep pedalling. But since most e-bikes weigh roughly double a comparable non-electric bike, hills quickly become torture. The battery is easy to keep charged though: unlock the lithium-ion brick from the frame and plug it into a household socket. A full charge takes two hours.

The pedelec instantly became my vehicle of choice. It is effortless, costs nearly nothing to run and parking spots are abundant.

It's early days for pedelecs in North America. The first-generation BMW Cruise and Smart e-bikes are both excellent, but they're just teasers compared with the incredible concept e-superbikes from Audi, Opel and others.

Riding a pedelec e-bike is to feel super-human – effortless speed, tinged slightly with the feeling that this is too good to be true, like you're cheating. You begin to see why Armstrong did it. The feeling is addictive.

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