Very easy rider: an electric bike adventure

Published on August 17, 2011
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.”