Freewheeling: E-bikes give Esther N McCarthy a brand new superpower

FREE WHEELING: Esther N McCarthy on her electric bike — a single charge takes her to and from work for four days in a row. Pictures: Dan Linehan

Though sceptical at first, Esther N McCarthy’s conversion to E-bikes has given her a brand new superpower

I’M at the bottom of the Old Youghal Road hill in Cork’s northside. It’s steep. I swear the air is thinner up there, and I reckon I’ve just heard a yodel.

There are three louche lads dawdling at the summit. They look to be in their early 20s and of Mediterranean descent, and I look like I’m going to make a right tit of myself because I do a little circle at the bottom to give me a chance to lower my gear.

I start pedalling. Now, this hill would have had Stephen Roche throwing the leg back over the crossbar and walking it up. But I’m pumping those pedals, eyes on the prize.

One of them nudges the other pair and they turn to watch me with little smirks.

I pedal merrily away, keeping a lively pace up the hill. Their smirks turn to soft surprise. They start to clap and holler encouragement in sexy, broken English. When I pass them I’m almost vertical, such is the gradient. I may be ‘over the hill’, but I’m also over this hill and I’m not even out of breath.

I like to think of them in some cool cafe later telling their swarthy friends of the legend of the overweight, past-her-prime, bike ninja.

But I had help. My secret weapon. A fully charged 400Wh battery. I’m electric, baby! And it’s all thanks to my husband, who in the interest of full disclosure, owns a shop called The Bike Shed. He’s seen sales of electric bikes increase by about 500% since he first started stocking them in 2017. And they’re becoming increasingly popular with commuters. His most recent sale was to a woman living in Kinsale, who cycles to work in Cork city in an hour, passing traffic in her wake.

Saddle up, folks, there’s a revolution happening. E-biking is emissions-free, eco-friendly — good for our planet and our health. Plus parking is a doddle.

I was a reluctant recruit. I’ve always cycled as a way from getting from A to B. From BMXing to the shop for Wham bars as a kid, to cruising around Dingle at Irish college and cycling to secondary school, then college, and eventually work.

But then I started slipping into the habit of hopping into the car instead. My husband kept extolling the virtues of E-bikes. He said he’d do me a good deal — I haven’t actually paid for it yet, but he knows where I live. At €2,349 for the Scott Sub Active eRide unisex seat T bike he presented me with, I’m hoping I qualify for the mate’s rate. (E-bikes are eligible under the Bike to Work scheme, which means you can save up to 51% of the cost of the bike up to €1,000.)

But it’s cheating, I said. What’s the point if I’m not getting exercise? But because I am an open-minded individual and to shut him up, I said I’d try one out for a day.

I sat on and took off, with a little squeal of surprised delight, and I’ve never looked back. It’s quite the rush, one revolution of that pedal and you’re zooming down the road. It’s like having a superpower. Albeit a rather rubbish one, as superpowers go. I can go slightly faster than someone on a normal bike without feeling like I’m going to vomit up a lung. Take that, Marvel gang.

The battery kicks in as soon as you start to pedal and cuts off once you hit 27kph — but you can use the gears to take as much or as little of the work as you like. You can turn it off too, it’s perfectly manageable under your own pedal power.

There are four settings on my Scott bike: eco, sport, tour, and turbo. If I cycle to work four days in a row, that’s about 50km, I still have about two bars of battery left out of five.

And that’s not including little lunchtime trysts to town.

When I’m out of juice, I take the compact battery pack from the frame and plug it into a neat charger via USB. It takes about 3.5 hours to fully charge.

The concept of the electric bike has come a long way since Gustave Trouvé strapped a Siemens motor with a rechargable battery onto a tricycle in 1880.

Forbes magazine reports E-bike advocate Hannes Neupert believes traditional bikes are destined for the scrap heap. The founder of ExtraEnergy, a non-profit consultancy advocating electric bikes since 1992, said: “Bicycles will remain as historical items hanging on the wall.” He may well be right.

Looking to the forerunners of all things bike-related — the Dutch — a study by the RAI Vereniging, an organisation representing the automotive and cycling sector, suggests E-bikes are the future.

In a 2019 interview with The Guardian, RAI’s Floris Liebrand said: “E-bikes will be the new normal within 10 to 15 years.”

Dutch people bought more E-bikes than traditional bikes last year, with E-bike sales accounting for €823m out of a total €1.2bn in bicycle sales.

As for me, I get to work quicker on the Scott than in the car — door to door in under 20 minutes — and I have a route mapped out that keeps me off the main roads and along the lovely River Lee for a lot of it.

The saddle is super comfy, I have a big basket for my bag and I arrive to work sweat-free, but with the benefits of a blast of fresh air and light exercise.

Helmet hair is a downside I’m willing to live with.

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