Monday, March 26, 2012

Matt Falcon: Confessions of an e-bike rider in Fresno, Calif.

We ran across electric-bike enthusiast Matt Falcon via Pete Moe, who is one of the organizers for Fresno Earth Day 2012, which is from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., Saturday, April 14 at 2672 E. Alluvial Ave. in Fresno. I'd just completed a post on e-bikes. The concept of independent power (other than a 2-cycle engine) on a two-wheeler fascinated me ever since living in rural Fairbanks, Alaska and having to peddle 10 miles of hills just to get to the outskirts of town.

I asked Falcon to answer some questions. He's a trailblazer in a trend that Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research says is "being driven by macroeconomic trends such as the growth of urbanization and the increasing need for low-cost transportation in developing markets."

 Matt Falcon: I'd be SO happy to be part of this! In all my years of being an online activist (don't say it ... don't say it ... "Slacktivist" ... OK, FINE, I said it!), I haven't ever really even been as much as quoted by someone else ... which is kinda sad! Really wish more people could see my experiences. I think a lot of people could benefit from a change in perspective every once in a while ... :)

San Joaquin Valley Clean Energy Organization: What’s your profession and full name and any other biographical information about yourself you can think of?
Falcon: My name is Matt Smith, although I often prefer to go by Matt Falcon due to my almost embarrassingly generic full name. I'm an IT guy for Lance-Kashian & Co. (in Fresno, Calif.), which I refer to as "the company that owns River Park" (though I'm not speaking on their behalf; this is all personal experience). I'm a "geek." I can fix pretty much anything involving electronics or computers (don't throw anything out -- it can almost always be fixed!)

Most of my belongings, including the laptop I'm writing this on now, were junk-pile discards due to some malfunction or blown-out part -- usually failed capacitors from the 2003-2007 years. I take these things in, figure out what's wrong with them, fix them up (for the laptop, I literally baked the video card in an oven for 5 minutes while monitoring it with an IR temperature probe), and put them back to use. I recover data from peoples' computers that think they "lost it all," and I breathe new life into computers that were messed up from peoples' friends who think they know how to "fix" a computer by carrying around a Windows installation CD! I also do a little bit of web work and built the websites and, among a few others -- though I don't do that as a business due to the work involved in writing it by hand.

I've also got a particular "soft spot" for F-16 fighter planes and a sort-of secondary interest in aviation, although bare-essentials finances keeps me from actually pursuing my interest in aviation. F-16s may seem kind of strange for an "eco-geek" like me to admire so much, but, hey, we all have our quirks, right?

Personally, I love them not for their blowing-stuff-up abilities but for their elegant, beautiful design and flying capabilities -- the most stunning ones I've seen are unarmed with nothing hanging from the wings! Also, as the name might imply, I really admire birds of prey - particularly the peregrine falcon - as my sort of personal "symbol." Truly a magnificent and beautiful bird, although I have yet to actually see one in person. Hopefully that'll change some day!

SJVCEO: How did you get interested in electric bikes?
Falcon: I literally just Googled it one night, thinking, jokingly, "yeah right. If they exist, I could never afford one." I've always been an advocate of battery-powered electric vehicles and swore up and down I'd make my first car an electric car since I was about 10 years old (when the EV1 was just coming around). They're geek, they're chic and by all scientific metrics, they are the definitive solution to our energy and oil problems. But my first car ended up being (and still is) an '87 Fiero, that gets roughly 16 miles per gallon with short trips around Fresno, but about 25 mpg on the highway. My trip to work is so short, the engine would barely get warmed up -- and while the engine is cold, the engine sucks up twice the amount of fuel while idling and driving.

There had to be a better way -- for a while, I rode an '07 Kawasaki Ninja 250 on my daily commute and got around 60 mpg, but that ended in disaster when an ex-roommate's druggie friend came and set fire to our motorcycles over a feud I wasn't even involved in. No insurance since I wasn't exactly expecting arson to be the cause of my bike's demise. So I got $100 from the scrapyard for it, and lost $4,000 of a sub-10,000 mile bike. Police refused to take a report and wanted me to fill out a "vandalism report." Crushing. But with that, I couldn't invest in a new motorcycle, and I certainly couldn't afford an electric conversion for my car.

A bike, maybe? No way. I'm a geek, not a jock -- I can't even jog more than 2 minutes without collapsing for breath! Riding a bike is an exercise in futility -- it'd get shelved and I'd go right back to the car. I remembered the idea of mopeds, and I got to wondering "is there such a thing as an electric bike?" When I Googled it, Google's shopping results popped up a shocking almost-typo-esque price tag - $350! "Say whaaa?" And the rest ... well, you can imagine. I first ordered my bike from Best Buy, but after placing the order, they went on "back order" with a 30-day window. "Waah ... I want it NOW!" It was really that exciting for me! Amazon had it for $450 (free expedited shipping with Prime - yes, even for an 80-pound bike!), and I made a deal with my roommate/friend to buy my gaming laptop for ordering the bike (and a few hundred more, later). Done.

SJVCEO: What’s the make of your e-bike and why did you choose it?

Falcon: It's the Currie Technologies eZip Trailz bike. I chose it strictly for its price tag and the whole "electric" thing, which I started eagerly talking to everyone I knew about from the moment I ordered it. I've never really had any decent experience on a bike and didn't own one for more than 10 years before buying this, so I had no idea what to shop for! Absolutely no regrets, though. After assembly and set-up, the thing has been a dream ever since.

SJVCEO: What’s it like battling traffic in some of Fresno’s toughest streets, for instance the high traffic of Blackstone Avenue?

Falcon: I think the best way to describe it is "semi-organized chaos." The streets are well designed for cars, but bikes are often less than an after-thought in street planning and striping. (More often than not, it's a striping problem!) Blackstone is a mess, hopping up onto the sidewalk and back down into the street as lanes widen and narrow, pushing me into the potential path of cars going 40 mph (while I'm doing 17).

Then, sidewalks have control boxes and fire hydrants strategically placed in clumps to make it a fighter-pilot-like test of steel nerves and driving skills to avoid getting part of the bike caught on while passing through at 10-15 mph. (I've failed once, almost broke the pedal getting caught on one of those dang boxes in the sidewalk). Bike lanes are few and far between, but are still a godsend. I can stop worrying about being in the way of someone turning or passing, since it's clearly defined for them.

Problem with many Fresno bike lanes is that they're such an afterthought. Many streets are wide enough for them (Blackstone, for example) but don't have them marked. Others come and go on wild whims over "county islands" like Sierra/Fresno and Herndon/Fresno, where huge dirt/weed lots break up the easy-going ride into nervous chaos.

I actually mucked up the bike mechanics pretty bad trying to get from the corner of Fresno/Herndon to Blackstone/Herndon through the dirt "sidewalk path" (where a sidewalk should be) at the 41 onramp, and getting stuck in some mud. The street is too narrow to ride on, and the path is too unstable to ride through, though it's supported on both ends of the dirt path by sidewalks. It's like someone intentionally said, "Ha-ha! We hate bikes."

Another common problem with bike lanes is that they end into right-turn lanes at intersections, putting "Me Versus the Cars" while cars have a poor driving habit of slowing down in the last 10 feet to stop, they approach the ending bike lane at 30MPH and I'm still slowing down at 14. Then, I'm nervously either stopped in the rightmost straight-through lane, or (as I'm often doing now) taking the sidewalk to stop at the crosswalk, then crossing back into the bike lane or edge of the road when the light turns green. That's been my safest and least obstructive option so far.

All in all, once I get a route planned, it's easy cake. Only unfamiliar streets tend to have these problems, and the only problems that come from them are from drivers that don't realize I'm doing 16-17 mph and try to zip past me to get into that right-turn lane instead of just slowing down to pass safely behind me. It's not too bad, and with the electric motor, it's easy to stop on a dime and zip back up to speed to avoid problems without any major inconvenience.

SJVCEO: How frequently do you ride?

Falcon: Every. Single. Day. It's completely replaced my car, which the roommate is now borrowing while he gets his car fixed. I ride to work every day (as was the original plan). And with a home-made lithium-polymer (LiPo) battery upgrade instead of the stock SLA (lead) battery, I'm excited to take it around and show off its power. I ride to work, I ride to friend's houses, I ride just to get out and find some place to go. At work I even find excuses to go visit the River Park management office and say, "Hi," and zip around River Park without pedaling, turning heads. It's always fun to hop up a curb at low speed without pedaling. The motor is powerful enough to get both tires up the curb with just a little jerk of the front wheel!

SJVCEO: If you are not already, would you consider commuting to work? If you already are, what’s it like?

Falcon: Absolutely. I ride to work every day it's not raining. (And I've even rode in the rain!) It's routine now after three or four weeks of riding almost every day (except the recent rains). The route passes by a gas station on the way, and I sometimes let off the throttle a little late, showing off that electric "zzzz" as I approach the stop sign! It takes roughly 15 minutes to get to the office from my front door, for about a 3 mile trip.

SJVCEO: Do you get stares when people figure out there’s something different about your bike?

Falcon: Ah, I had that "Don't talk to strangers" thing beaten into me when I was young and in school, which made me somewhat of a keep-to-myself person in public. I never really notice. But when I'm stopped, I think I've had one or two people ask me about it. I really rely on the battery pack on the side, the lack of pedaling, the speed, and the sound of the motor to answer peoples' silent questions about it.

SJVCEO: What do people say when they find out?
Falcon: The obvious, usually, "An electric bike?"... No, it's powered by unicorns! ... "What's the range on one of those things?" ... Infinite, as long as you can pedal -- but about 10 miles with my 260-pound, 6-foot 1-inch (frame) being hauled around on pure electric power. ... "How fast does it go?" ... Legal speed, which is under 20 miles an hour (le sigh). And of course, "How much does one of those cost?" which is surprisingly one of the less common questions. And, of course, I quote it as $450, since that $350 one at Best Buy was out of stock. People often sound interested, like they didn't know this thing actually existed.

SJVCEO: What’s the range?

Falcon: I've found it can be determined roughly by "1 amp-hour per mile." So if you've got a 10Ah battery, it's about 10 miles of electric power. It varies based on your weight, though -- 1Ah/mile is what I get. Friday (March 23) I took it out with the new lithium pack I built (10Ah, 25.9 volts), and the original SLA battery (10Ah, 24 volts) in tow as backup, all the way along the Sugar Pine trail from start to end. Around Old Town Clovis at the 10-mile mark, the lithium pack reached its end. So I wired up the SLA batteries to the charger I use (iCharger 208B+) and fed the lithium pack with 10 amps (I added heavy-duty charge wiring inside the pack - much thicker than the stock wires) and kept riding, while the battery charged when I let off the throttle or stopped.

After the trail (very abruptly!) ended along Clovis Avenue into a dirt trail, I took it down to McKinley/Clovis to catch a passing glimpse of those F-16s I admire. It got me the rest of the way home with a little dead-battery pedaling when they both went dead. When I got home, the trip meter (calibrated and tested to its wheel size) indicated 25 miles on that trip. What a day!

SJVCEO: Do you have it configured to carry cargo?

Falcon: It comes with a little metal strap-down rack in the back. And I used the elastic-cord cargo net from my old Ninja days to strap down my Solo "Smart Strap" laptop bag (retracting shoulder strap, so it doesn't hang loose on the bike). That holds my laptop and various other things for work, and I take it every day. I've also routinely used it for carrying groceries and other shopping goods, as long as I've got that strap. It's a really basic setup, but it works great!

SJVCEO: Do you use it to shop?

Falcon: Absolutely. Can't stack a whole lot on it, but I have done some grocery shopping and even carried home a new pillow hanging off the handlebar! I haven't started up the car in over a week, especially now with the roommate driving it.

SJVCEO: What about locking it up? Are you concerned about somebody taking it, and what measures do you take?

Falcon: Shoot, I'm worried sick about getting it stolen! I've watched surveillance footage of some people going up to a bike, pulling bolt cutters out of a backpack, clipping a lock off, and riding off with the bike. Because it's so easy to break a simple cable lock, I originally bought both a cable and a U-lock - the cable lock to go from the frame, through the front wheel, to the rack; the U-lock then goes through the wheel to the rack to hold it all in place.

The cheap $15 U-Lock at Target was so poorly constructed, though (shame on you Master Lock for putting your name on that thing!), that the key broke off in the lock a week after buying it, with almost no pressure! I got the key part out, soldered it back together (did you know keys can be soldered? I only found out by trying it!), and got the lock off to return it. Now I lock it up at work with a Kryptonite Kryptolok Series 2 cable/U-Lock combo -- a very thick cable and a very thick U-lock with a sturdy key, from Amazon for only about $30. For short term lock-up, I just use the cable lock.

As an additional security measure, though, I also have photos of the bike and the serial number, as well as photos of the home-built battery pack (and its cells I bought online), and pay $20 a month for personal property insurance with a $100 deductible through Wells Fargo. If the bike ever gets stolen, as I understand it, it should be covered. But I really don't want to have to see if that's true. ;)

SJVCEO: Would you recommend electric bikes to others?

Falcon: Ab-so-friggin'-lutely! I scoff mercilessly as I see Hummers and huge hulking SUVs on the road that pass me just to stop at the upcoming red light. They must love their gas bills. I've saved over $60 in gas in the month I've owned this bike so far, just by not having to burn any gas at all. Charging the battery literally only costs about $0.04 per charge in electricity, and that's being generous. If more people rode electric or drove electric, there'd be a lot less use of foreign oil.

Since electricity is generated here in the good ole' USA -- you can't import electricity, but you CAN generate it yourself -- we wouldn't be tearing up forests in Canada to extract bitumen for tar sands oil over the Keystone XL pipeline. And we wouldn't be polluting thousands of towns' groundwater by fracking for natural gas to be used in processing that dirty oil either. There's a long, long line of benefits, both economic and environmental, to driving or riding on electric power that can be generated with nearly anything that moves, turns or heats. It's just tough breaking a century of old habits and perceptions.

SJVCEO: What advice would you have to a new buyer? (and anything else you can think of)

Falcon: If you're in the market for a new car, check out the Nissan Leaf, Chevy Volt, the plug-in Prius or the upcoming Tesla Model S. But if you're not in the market to drive electric, at least ride electric. You can do what I did and buy the $450 Currie eZip Trailz, or one of the other reasonably-priced offerings from Currie. Or you can keep your eye out for other options.

Most electric bikes are insanely, senselessly and prohibitively overpriced in the $1,000-3,000 range, while really offering nothing that the eZip doesn't. They may be hand-crafted and one-off manufactured, but so were cars before Henry Ford figured out how to do it cheaper. There are also conversion kits available, such as hub-motors (motor inside the wheel) and chain-drive conversions for existing bikes with a quick Google search (I'd imagine "e-bike conversion"), in the $300-$500 range.

In terms of battery technology, you get what you pay for. Lead batteries are 150-year-old technology and are cheap but have a limited lifespan. They HATE being fully discharged and hate staying that way even more! (Lead batteries are) quoted around 200 charges, but the performance decreases pretty dramatically over time.

Lithium batteries will pretty much last forever, but e-bike manufacturers put the price around $200-300 for a pack. The Currie-manufactured lithium upgrade pack/charger for the eZip is on Amazon for $400. Not sure where they got that price from. Converting my SLA (lead) pack into lithium cost me $150 in LiPo 5Ah cells from Hobby King, and about 6 hours of rather tedious and mind-altering (yay, soldering fumes!) assembly and testing. So the price isn't exactly unjustified; they're just expensive. Well worth it, though. The power boost is incredible. Lithiums don't "drop out" under load like leads do and can power the bike so rapidly, I can keep up with accelerating cars at a green light. And the pack will last pretty much forever if you treat it right (quoted around 8,000 cycles).

Get a decent lock to protect your bike, as mentioned above. Get a speedometer/computer for keeping track of your speed and miles, for your range monitoring and your own information. Last but not least, keep everything maintained. I found my tires went from 60 psi down to 25 psi over the course of riding for a month, and the speed and range went down as well! After a month, brakes were covered in road dust (and mud, from that ugly dirt-lot mishap), and squealing like nails on chalkboard. Chain was grinding with dirt and gunk. Air compressor, wet paper towel, and chain lube, and it's much happier.

If you don't like high gas prices, stop buying gas! :)

Another post of interest:
Sick of traffic? Try peddling an e-bike

1 comment:

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