Is San Francisco ready for the electric bike?

My ride: I cruised with one of New Wheel's e-bikes from Vancouver brand Ohm.

"I'm so excited for that hill!" I shouted. And I was on a bike. 

I've never been excited for a hill on a bike before. But last week I tooled around on an electric bicycle with Karen and Brett Thurber, the husband-wife owners of Bernal Hieghts' sweet-swanky new shop New Wheel. We did about half of a 49-mile scenic drive (the one created in 1939 for the Golden Gate International Exposition that was meant to showcase the city's then-new neighborhoods), went up Twin Peaks, and I felt like a million bucks at the end of it.

I tell you this at the risk of sounding soft to pretty much every biker I know, but: "e-bikes" are fun. You can decide yourself -- New Wheel's always open for test rides, and it has a weekend of festivities planned Sat/31-Sun/1 to introduce the metal steeds to your loins. If you're open. 

Electric bikes have a PR problem in the states. I think that's because the wrong set of people are the ones aware of them. E-bikes have little allure for the urban warrior, those of us with quads of steel powering up the Wiggle, trackstanding, flinging our back wheels all around at stop lights. Or they do -- but it's reserved for that novel day when we just want to cruise and have the magnitude of our pedaling amplified two, three times. I'm telling you, it was a blast cruising up Twin Peaks without getting winded.

I won't be trading in my vintage Motobecane for one of these bad boys. There's the fitness factor -- although you can turn off the motor, I probably wouldn't if I had the option to hit those hills on Dolores Street with that amount of ease -- the environmental factor -- even though it only takes three cents worth of electricity to charge up the bike enough to ride it up to 65 miles, that's still more than the zero electricity I'm using currently -- and oh god yes, the price factor. One of New Wheel's retrofit kits, which allows you to turn a non-motorized bike into an electric one, starts at $1699. A bike that was built to be electric starts at $2549, with most models between $2999 and $3999. Brett and Karen Thurber compare these prices with what you'd spend on public transportation on that same amount of time, or -- gasp! -- what you'd spend on a car. Maybe they're right, but that's a big nut to handle even with the shop's 12-month no interest payment plans.

My personal preference aside, don't discount the electric bike. There are certain neighborhoods in San Francisco that are (not) flat-out daunting to tackle on two wheels. A lot of folks just won't do it -- and that's where the utility of these bikes come in. See, they're not environmentally friendly when compared to regular old rides. But they are vastly better than a mo-ped, a motorcycle, a car. For an elderly person, these bikes are the perfect excuse to keep riding. One wonders how much easier e-bikes would make bike commuting for city families, one of the demographics the bike movement has had the most trouble with fitting into our current system. 

Relatively speaking, the United States is way behind on the electric bike curve. In China, the things vastly outnumber cars. They are also popular in Europe, and on our ridiculously fun ride around the city Brett Thurber told me that some European brands were so eager to get into the SF market, where they see an optimal city for electric bike use, that they sent him models to sell on consignment. A splashy Outdoor Magazine feature last year (that posits Thurber as a could-be revolution-starter) quoted a green tech analyst firm that predicted the sale of e-bikes would double in the next five years. 

New Wheel's promo posters are designed on the diagonal, so that an e-bike rider cruising on an up-slant past a row of Victorians is suddenly on level ground when the images are hung as intended. Their Twitter campaign #flattensf speaks to this aspirational desire to iron the adverse inclines out of city riding. 

Is SF going to fall in on this one? We'll see -- at the moment the trend is so new that many logistics in regards to the bikes' place in the city's network of bike lanes have yet to be worked out. Currently, New Wheel is the only bike store to focus more or less exclusively on electric models, dealing primarily in Ohm, Kahlkoff, and Kettler brands, with Bionx retrofit systems available. Locally, you can also check the bikes out at Noe Valley Cyclery

E-bikes are definitely worth a look-see, if only for the novelty of quick, easeful spurts up Bernal Hill. This weekend, New Wheel's making a big push to get their bikes underneath San Francisco. On Sat/31 there will be a 11am to 6pm tour of the 49 Mile Scenic ride is planned. You can win a spot by participating in New Wheel's daily Twitter and Facebook discussions. (Normally, a 24-hour rental of one of the bikes costs $85.) There will also be chances for shorter test rides, an SF cartography exhibit at 6pm that evening by Schein and Schein Antique Maps and Prints, and an open house at 6pm Sun/1. 

The New Wheel's Weekend of Festivities

Sat/31, 11am-9pm; Sun/1, 10am-9pm

The New Wheel

420 Cortland, SF

(415) 524-7362