Very easy rider: an electric bike adventure

Rick Barnes
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Our author muscles up to pal Harley Dave astride a Daymak electric bike. — Photos by Rick Barnes/Special to The Telegram

It’s spooky, being on a two-wheeled transport that makes only a humming sound and requires no physical effort to keep up with late afternoon downtown St. John’s traffic. It gives the operator freedom to gawk around, and that’s what many of the adventurers who seek out Jasmine Kean’s Newfoundland Electric Bikes (www.nlebike.com) want to do — rent an electric bike and spend an afternoon taking in the sights around our old harbour town.

Kean, musician and folklorist-cum-entrepreneur, and her partner, Martin Hanzalek, have been selling and renting electric bikes from their storefront at the east corner of Prescott and Water since May. Kean let me take one of her scooters for a spin — despite the dreary weather, there weren’t many models left on the floor.

“Some of our busiest days have been days like this,” says Kean. Many of her rental customers want to take a ride around Quidi Vidi, Signal Hill, or Cape Spear — without sweating the hills. “Especially, like, husband and wife teams, or boyfriend and girlfriend teams, they seem to come as tourists, rent a couple, go around and look around … I’d say most of our customers are between 40 and 50 for sure. That seems to be the generation that we are renting to right now.”

The Grand Banks RDF machine is working overtime to protect us from the dammed UV rays, so I head west to the shelter of the Waterford Valley. My little Daymak scooter, known locally as the “Avalon Special”, closely resembles the Torino model available on the mainland — but a vehicle called Avalon Special seems much more appropriate for humming through the chilly mist. The Avalon is a 500-watt hybrid outfitted with bicycle pedals and it easily hauls along my 72 kg bulk at 30 km/h.

Daymak is a hot Canadian company founded in 2001 by award-winning entrepreneur Yeg Baiocchi. According to the company website, Baiocchi, while searching for a gift for her daughter, realized there was a market for electric scooters in Canada and her company now produces a line of electric two-wheel vehicles, as well as “mobility scooters” and golf carts that utilize the super efficient Daymak Drive system.

The suspension on my bike is loose for my taste, making the ride bouncy in places, but the tires are wide enough to roll over the usual edge of street obstacles, like recessed storm drains and the wrinkled asphalt that hugs the curbs of Waterford Bridge Road. The brakes are effective, but you might want to keep in mind the right hand lever is for the front wheel — like a motorcycle. Your feet are freed up to use the bicycle-type pedals, so the rear wheel brake is operated by the left handlebar lever. This makes sense, but when pedalling bicycle style, I tend to think and feel bicycle, making the handlebar brakes reverse to the standard bicycle configuration. You need to use both, and it wasn’t a problem on the dry or damp pavement I encountered, but at one point I managed to lock up the front wheel in a bit of loose gravel, and it skidded, so that kicked up my heart rate a bit.

I keep to the right of the west bound lanes and the downtown traffic is patient with me. I behave as a cyclist more than a motorcyclist, even taking to the empty sidewalk on a couple of occasions to dodge parked cars, avoiding swerving too far into traffic and slowing the flow. The rear-view mirrors on my model are swept upward, and it is sometimes tricky to get a fix on traffic overtaking me. The mirrors are, however, outfitted with speakers and a sound system so you can take your favourite tunes with you when you go for a spin. 

The Avalon doesn’t have a speedometer. There are a set of four LEDs, all lit, indicating full battery charge. The bench seat is comfortable, the twist grip throttle feels familiar, I have head and tail lights, horn and directional signals that have an accompanying audible beep — I guess so you won’t forget to turn them off. The bike is turned on with a key, and there is a sophisticated locking and (very loud) alarm system.

The underbone style reminds me of the venerable Honda 50 — the best-selling vehicle in history. The 50 cc Honda was celebrated in 1964 by Mike Wilson and the screeching Beach Boys with, “Little Honda.” Who could forget that catchy tune, “ … it’s not a big motorcycle, just a groovy little motorbike,” etc. It went right to No. 1 in Sweden. But that was a time when gas was cheap and we had fresh air to burn; the vehicles of the future may be more like Kean’s little “hummer.”

In a few minutes, I reach Dodge City on Topsail Road and whiz by a line of traffic waiting to turn left onto Dunn’s Lane. I make the left turn before the light change, roll over the bridge and head west on Park Avenue toward the house of my biker buddy, Dave.

It is difficult to equate the Avalon’s power rating of 500 watts into more familiar terms. In this part of the world, we are used to rating our vehicles in terms of engine displacement and horsepower. My buddy Dave’s 102-cubic-inch Harley-Davidson, for example, may deliver 65 hp (on a good day) and the aforementioned iconic Honda 50 of the 1960s put out less than 4 hp.

The Avalon Special is driven by an electric motor powered by an old-fashioned rechargeable 48-volt lead-acid battery. There is no fuel consumed — no displacement to rate. The 500-watt power rating might work out to .5 hp — similar to a Maytag washer. But yet, it easily hums along with me on board.

When I release the twist throttle and start pedaling bicycle style, the effect — although not immediate — is impressive. After eight-10 pedal cranks, I feel a surge of power from the rear wheel drive motor and the bike lunges forward. Cranking the pedals takes little effort, so it seems like I am getting extra power for nothing. The pedals are mounted low on the frame and when a pedal reaches its lowest point of travel it’s very close to the pavement and sometimes bumps the ground on a turn.

Dave’s first reaction to the sight of my electric iron in his Harley-worn driveway is laughter — of the derisive kind, I believe. But, as always, his curiosity about machines gets the better of him and he accompanies me on his Harley for a little turn around the Pearl. But Dave is not laughing when I silently pull away from the stop sign at the end of his street — well, maybe he is. I can’t see him in my mirror. Dave tells me I’m doing about 32 km/h when he rumbles up alongside me on Ruth Avenue. 

It soon becomes clear, however, the Avalon Special is getting all the attention. The pointing and head-turning is all about my ride. No one asks Dave where he got his shiny copper-coloured Harley, but one young woman does stick her head out her car window to ask me where she can rent an Avalon.

RNC Sgt. Paul Murphy, head of traffic services for the Northeast Avalon, says the electric bikes have generated a lot of queries to his department, too. No complaints or scrapes, mind you, just people curious about the appearance of motorized bikes without licence plates.

“You don’t have to register them but they should still behave like a vehicle,” says Murphy. “They should stay in a traffic lane same as a motor vehicle would and use their indicators to change direction, stop for all lights … obey crosswalks, stop to let pedestrians cross. They won’t break any speed limits, so we don’t have to worry about that.”

Dave is not about to trade in his Milwaukee for an Avalon, but he suggests, because the bikes are light and fuel-free, it would be neat to have a couple tucked away in an RV for exploring. After I’m done upstaging Harley Dave, we head off in different directions — Dave with his twitching v-twin power plant dancing around as if trying to escape the confines of its frame, and me, humming up Commonwealth Avenue to head east on Topsail, effortlessly and emission-free.

I covered about 24 km and climbed a couple of good hills on my circuit out to the Pearl and back, and it was a terrific ride. The only anxious moments on the trip were a few seconds on Military Road near the top of Garrison, when a Metrobus overtaking me confined me to a narrower than comfortable corridor between its hind wheels and the curb.

When I park the bike at Kean’s shop, I am astounded to discover the battery display still indicates full charge! The battery is not depleted, and I don’t feel as if I physically contributed to the trip at all, so where is the energy coming from? Is there a dynamo humming in the mysterious Daymak Drive? 

But before you make an Avalon hum, Murphy, 28-year veteran of the RNC and a cyclist himself, advises electric bicycle riders to ensure their helmets fit properly and recommends they take some time to familiarize themselves with the bikes before they hit the road. And he has advice for operators of more conventional vehicles, too:

“People on two wheel vehicles have a right to be on the roadways, too. The Highway Traffic Act says they do. And we have to learn how to live on the streets together. … A lot of people these days, they’re always in a hurry … that’s no good. You have to drive carefully and drive with patience. Watch out for everyone else.”

Organizations: Honda 50, Beach Boys, Harley-Davidson Maytag

Geographic location: Prescott, Signal Hill, Waterford Valley Canada Waterford Bridge Road Sweden Dodge City Topsail Road Park Avenue Ruth Avenue Northeast Avalon Milwaukee Commonwealth Avenue Military Road

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Recent comments

  • Linda Luds
    March 09, 2012 - 06:46

    I got an Ebike last chose as from Martin Hanzalek and took it out for the orat time during this warm spell. I have the XPD and I Very happy. The Ebike does everything and more and now I don't have to worry about taking the bus anymore.

  • Lynn Dunn
    March 03, 2012 - 14:33

    When electric bikes first came to Newfoundland many of us in the policing community were not sure how to handle them. We were getting conflicting information from the department of tourism, the department of transportation, the department of highways, and the federal highway traffic act. When Martin Hanzalek opened the Newfoundland Electric Bike Company and started to offer electric bike rentals and tours in downtown St. John's, all of a sudden the streets were full of Hanzalek's clients cruising downtown. Initially, in an interview with Martin Hanzalek and the department of transportation, the provincial government called electric bikes mopeds and demanded that drivers register them as motor vehicles. The transportation minister was quickly slapped on the wrist when Hanzalek pointed out that electric bike laws were already in place across Canada for over 5 years stipulating that ebikes were actually considered electric assist bicycles as opposed to motorized vehicles. Later, after several public interviews between Martin Hanzalek and CBC television, the transportation minister retracted his statement and welcomed electric bikes and ebike scooters onto the scene in Newfoundland. I believe in Newfoundland we are always slow to adapt to modern trends (case in point is we are the last major city in Canada to get a bike path) but we are changing. Adopting relaxed legislation for people choosing to be green and environmentally conscious is a good thing.

  • Rick Mercer
    February 06, 2012 - 12:25

    it's great to see more adventure tourism being developed here in St. John's. We are certainly more than just a culture of whale watchers, fishermen, and snowmobilers. What I like the best about Martin Hanzalek and his business models are that they promote non-consumptive self propelled programs like dog sledding, electric bike rentals, snowkiting, backcountry skiing, river rafting, kayaking, and other activities that are good for the environment, healthy for people, and positive for Newfoundland tourism development. We should, as a province, take more time supporting entrepreneurs like Hanzalek and focus less on stock piling seal!

  • Jamie Naek
    January 24, 2012 - 18:16

    Both the tourism sector and the alternative / green transportation sector need support here in Newfoundland and Labrador, and no company mixes these better than the Newfoundland Electric Bike Company. Well known tourism operator, outdoor adventure guide, and environmental activist Martin Hanzalek launched Newfoundland Electric Bike in 2010 in an interest to develop real alternative transport solutions to commuters tired of relying of fossil fuels and petrochemicals for their transportation needs. Hanzalek, former director of My Newfoundland Adventures committed to morphing alternative green electric transport and tourism by offering electric bike and ebike scooter sightseeing rentals in Downtown St. John's and the results have been positive. With 2010 being the largest tourism year Newfoundland and Labrador has ever seen, with over 500,000 visitors to the Province (more that our provincial population) companies like NL Ebike and entrepreneurs like Martin Hanzalek are definatly doing something right.

  • Silas Jones
    January 15, 2012 - 15:47

    The biggest scam out there is the petrochemical industry making us think wr have to rely on them for basic transport. I was dubious about electric bikes until I met Hanzalek at the Newfoundland electric Ebike store and got a chance to try one for myself. As far as urban transport goes, the electric bike was the best thing I ever tried for single or even two person transport. I www also impressed that Martin Hanzalek was using the ebikes for tourist scooter rentals and encouraging visitors to explore St. John's in a green and Eco friendly way. With businesses diversifying outside of simply whale watching, hiking, and rock climbing it's no wonder 2010 was our largest tourist season ever. Newfoundland's Hanzalek and dozens like Martin is what brings the 500,000 plus visitors we saw. The new Newfoundland tourism campaign "find yourself" shares the same sentiments.

  • Jason Bill
    October 27, 2011 - 15:30

    I am tired of people thinking that electric bikes are a scam or something not worthwhile. You here of negative people and nay sayers saying that the technology is no good and that electric bikes suck because the electricity that it takes to operate the bikes produces more pollution to create than burning fossil fuels. This may be true if you source your electric power from a coal power plant next a gasoline refining plant that sources it's fuel within 200km but here in Newfoundland most of our power comes from clean hydroelectric power plants. What do you think is cleaner, burning a hydrocarbon from the tar sands or running electricity made form a waterfall? Martin Hanzalek's ebikes are one of the best things that hit the streets of St. John's since the pedal bike and it has been a long time coming.

  • Amy
    October 05, 2011 - 08:12

    Who in their right mind would say ebikes need to get off the road in favor of car? Whoever said ebikes should get off the road before "someone gets killed" needs to get their head checked. The electric scooters and ebikes Hanzalek and Kean purport out of the water street St. John's shop are way safer than driving a car. They have a top speed of like 35km/h and last I checked CSA rates them safer than bicycles

  • Corey
    October 02, 2011 - 21:48

    I guess you can't print any article here anymore without detractors freaking out over every little detail; I think those bikes are a great idea for tourists, or people who just need a better way to get around in the downtown area. Yes, the people using those bikes need to be aware of the rules of the road, as well as the traffic because it can get pretty congested on Water St. at times.

  • Nick thompson
    October 02, 2011 - 20:49

    We rented the electric Honda Ruckus and had an amazing time. The bikes were powerful enough to get up any hill in St. John's and riding the ebikes was a blast! I'm planning on buying one to get back and forth from MUN every day. If we have a winter like last year we can probably get away with driving it most days. Thanks or the awesome experience!

  • Jeff
    September 23, 2011 - 12:25

    Great to see people more and more electric bikes on the road. These are safer than riding a regular bicycle (let alone driving a car) and put a smile on my face every time I get on my bike. I first tried an electric bike at Martin Hanzalek's booth at the St. John's Regatta festival and have been hooked ever since. Looking forward to seeing more of these on the road and bike paths. Great article!

  • josee leblanc
    September 20, 2011 - 10:55

    I am an avid mountain biker who was recently diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (about 9 months ago). My hips are getting bad and I really need to get a custom electric bike that will help me keep mountain biking. I started calling around all over Canada talking to different ebike dealers and all of them were either closed or unable to assist me. Finally I found Martin Hanzalek from the Newfoundland Electric Bike company and gave him a call on a Sunday. He answered the phone after one ring and spoke with me for over 20 mins trying to find a custom solution for me. I told Marty that because of my small size I needed a smaller framed bike with a 100% power on demand system that would allow me to ride off trail but also use the road. I also needed something that would accommodate my new set of circumstances. Martin said he would contact a few of the bike engineers he and his company deals with and would get back to me. Needless to say, the following Monday he shot me an email and followed up with a phone call letting me know that he has a custom frame available for me along with a special kit that would do the trick. Of all the electric bike dealers in Canada, Martin Hanzalek really came through for me and my situation and even offered me a special subsidized price because of my circumstance. It's great to see someone like Marty so committed to alternative electric transport and I would not hesitate to recommend him or his company to anyone. Thanks so much.

  • Kelly Rixon
    August 27, 2011 - 15:32

    Myself and my Husband just recently took two Avalon Specials out for the afternoon. We rode all around Quidi Vidi and the downtown area. We enjoyed ourselves immensely and would recommend it to anyone. I have arthritis in my knees so this was a great alternative for me to enjoy bicycling again. The young gentleman who served us was friendly and helpful, and it was an overall great experience. Kudos on a great article.

  • Ed
    August 17, 2011 - 19:18

    Shame on you for not doing your journalist duties of providing the public with ALL the available information about this electric bike company and it's owner. Put my previous comments up for everyone to view so more people do not get taken advantage of. What is the problem? Have you been promised a free ebike ride too? Show some professional reporting honor and give the public the necessary information to make up their own mind especially when someone's health and life could be in danger by riding one of these contraptions provided by a less than responsible individual.

  • Sandra Niccoluchi
    August 17, 2011 - 17:11

    It's great to see electric bikes finally being embraced here in Newfoundland. Ebikes are well accepted all over Canada - you can see them all over Toronto, Vancouver, and Montreal. We should invest more in bikes lanes and electric transport and less in petroleum and resource extraction.

  • rob sherwood
    August 17, 2011 - 15:48

    ALL BICYCLES SHOULD HAVE THE FRONT BRAKE ON THE RIGHT SIDE!!!!!!!! Why they haven't done it yet is beyond me. From the various and sometines tragic mototcycle accidents I have heard of, I can bet they happened because the driver thought (s)he was using the rear brake, then the sudden realization that they were braking with the front instead. Ooppss too late now you're airborn. When I switch from my electric assist bike to my converted motorbike, I can guarantee that i will know exactly which lever to use for the front brake. rob s ottawa

  • BR
    August 17, 2011 - 07:31

    If they are going to be on our roads, the riders need some education. As the officer said, ride them like a motor vehicle. The author passes a line of cars to make a left turn on Topsail Road. Try that in a car. I have also seen a rider leave a traffic lane, up on a sidewalk, cross on a crosswalk and back in to a traffic lane. As we get more of them on the road, somebody is getting killed.