Should I Buy an Electric Bike? A Case Study

By Jimmy Turner, MD
The Physician Philosopher

Getting to Financial Independence is pretty straight forward.  Read a good personal finance book or two.  Read some blogs and listen to some podcasts to maintain your knowledge.  Then, all you have to do is spend less than you make, and save the difference.  Hopefully, it is as least 20-30% of your gross income.  When it comes to spending, the biggest three costs often include housing, food, and transportation. Should I buy an electric bike?  No.  I don’t live close enough to the hospital to commute via an electric fortified bike, but many of my residents and readers do!   If you’ve ever wondered what it’s like to use a fortified electric bike for your commute, POF is here for you.  This post, which is featured here as a WCI Saturday Selection was first written on Physician on FIRE. Take it away, POF!

Should I Buy an Electric Bike?

My first bicycle was a Schwinn with a banana seat, training wheels, and it may or may not have had tassels dangling from the handlebars. It definitely had playing cards clothes-pinned to the frame in such a way that made a sweet rat-a-tat-tat sound as I tooled around the driveway. I learned how to ride and I learned how to crash on that thing. I vividly remember taking off down the gravel road sans training wheels, and promptly laying it down at the first curve, scraping the skin right off my thumb. The thought of picking those tiny rocks out of my damaged digit still gives me the willies. My first totally cool bike was a royal blue Kuwahara freestyle ride. It had mag wheels. It had a gyro. It had front and rear pegs. The first thing I did was remove the kickstand and reflectors because none of the cool kids would be caught dead with a kickstand and reflectors, and I hadn’t yet figured out that I wasn’t a cool kid. The next thing I did was ride it all over town. In the summers, my brother and I would ride the two miles into town — the first 1.5 miles were all downhill — and ride from place to place throughout the day. Baseball, friends’ houses, candy store, wherever. In the afternoon, we’d meet up at my Dad’s office to get a ride home. The prospect of riding a fixed gear bike 1.5 miles uphill ensured we were never late for that afternoon car ferry home.

Bicycles are for Kids

When I turned 16, I had no need for a bike. I had a car! It was a 1977 Buick Electra 225. Fortunately, I still had that clothespin as it served yet another purpose, for in the bitter cold, I’d have to open the hood and prop the carburetor’s air intake open if I wanted to have any chance of the vehicle starting. But I had a car! Bikes were for kids. Two years later, I was a college kid. A college kid on one of the nation’s largest university campuses. Without a car. Bicycles were once again en vogue for me. While I did eventually inherit my parents’ Dodge Caravan, bikes got me back and forth across the Mississippi River dividing the  University’s East and West Bank campuses, and I made many round trips on the dedicated bike path to the St. Paul campus. I spent eight good years at the University of Minnesota, and I’ll admit to parking my bikes for months while waiting out the harsh winters, but I went through a few good Trek and Specialized mountain bikes and hybrids in those years. I had one stolen, too. Stupid cable lock.

Doctors Don’t Ride Bicycles to Work

I moved to a warmer climate for residency. It was the kind of climate where you could easily bike year round. But I didn’t do that. I was a doctor now! Bikes were for college kids. At first, I relied on a hand-me-down caravan to help me with the three-mile round trip commute. I later upgraded to a Mustang Convertible. I had a bike and rode it occasionally, but only commuted with it when my four-wheeled ride was in the shop. For shame. I know. That trend continued for nearly the first ten years of my anesthesia career. Although, I generally lived within reasonable bicycling distance from the hospital, I always had some excuse to just drive. It was either too cold, too hot, too dangerous, or I was just too lazy and unimaginative to ride a bike.

Giving Bicycle Commuting a Shot

I love living close to the hospital, or at least I did when I had a hospital job. I might make ten or twelve round trip commutes on a busy call weekend. Living three minutes away rather than twenty minutes away saves me a few hours of commuting in a few days. Another benefit of living so close is having the ability to walk home after you’ve come in for an epidural in the wee hours and locked your keys in the car. That happened. Twice. I didn’t have to call anyone or hail an Uber. I just walked the twelve minutes home. It’s been nearly three years since I discovered Mr. Money Mustache’s bright ideas and in-your-face writing. One article that had me dodging facepunches was the one about the true cost of car commuting. Why wasn’t I biking to work? I used to bike to town. And to class. Why not bike to work? fortified bike And so I did. For the last two years, I’ve biked to the hospital more than I’ve driven, biking the vast majority of the time from early spring to late fall. I even biked to our surgery center occasionally, a 6-mile round trip, but usually came up with one excuse or another to drive there. I had errands to run afterwards. It’s dark at 0530. It’s too hot in the afternoon. I want to get home as soon as possible. I might pull a hammy.

Running Out of Excuses

A couple months ago, the good people at Fortified Bicycle of Boston, Mass sent me a sturdy, sharp-looking, nearly theft-proof 8-speed Invincible commuter bike. It shares features with both the mountain bike I used to ride to the hospital and the road bike I took to the surgery center. This bike, though, is made for commuting and does a better job than either the bike designed for mountainous terrain or the one designed for a smooth, pothole and curb-free track. The Fortified 8-speed quickly became my go-to option for commuting over the latter part of the summer and early fall. Fortified Invincible As my car collected dust, secretly longing for winter and regular rendesvous with me, I began to miss certain aspects of the time we had spent together. Admittedly, she did get me to work more quickly.  I never had to work up a sweat for her to take me to where I wanted to be. She was climate controlled. I loved my new bike, but I was missing my little Chevy.

Living Better Electrically

In the 1950’s, GE began a series of ads featuring Ronald Reagan and family, showing how their picture perfect family was living better electrically. “With the steady heat and the exact timing of my new automatic skillet, even a soufflé is safe and easy to make.” I’ll bet your soufflé was delightful, Nancy. Flash forward sixty years, and many of us are living better electrically. Our lives practically run on battery power and electric vehicles are becoming almost commonplace. My lawnmower, weed whacker, leaf blower, and light duty chainsaw all run on 40V batteries.
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What about bicycles? Yes, those have recently been electrified as well. My friend Mr. 1500’s electric bicycle conversion had intrigued me for some time. The way he described riding it seemed almost too good to be true, so I reached out to him to see if he was still happy with his purchase. He answered with an unequivocal Yes. “I was just telling someone yesterday that it’s the best $1,600 I ever spent. Loads of fun for commuting around town,” he told me. $1,600 isn’t pocket change, but for him, that included the purchase price of the bike and buying the parts at regular price. I had a complimentary bike from Fortified, and when Luna Cycle, from whom Mr. 1500 had ordered his kit, put together a $750 2nd anniversary package knocking over $200 off the price, I bought myself an early birthday present.

Electrified Fortified Bicycle Build

When the heavy package arrived, I re-read Mr. 1500’s guest post on MMM detailing his build. He made it look like a walk in the park. To paraphrase, he basically stated that any child could slap this thing together in a couple minutes. OK, to be fair, he probably said capable adult could manage it and a couple minutes was really a couple hours, but it sounded like a piece of cake. bafang mid drive kit I laid out all the supplies. There were a lot of supplies. I started with the simple stuff. I attached the pieces for the odometer. I removed the pedals. I realized I didn’t have the tools to remove the crankset and bottom bracket, so  I promptly went to our neighborhood bike shop and paid someone to remove them for me. From there on out, things went fairly smoothly. I did have to employ a chisel to shave off a little plastic from a cable guide on the underside of the bike to make room for the mid-drive motor, but that was the only real modification I had to make to allow the bike to accommodate the electric kit. Mounting the battery was a bit of a challenge. The holes in the battery bracket lined up with the mounting holes for a water bottle holder. However, using them would mount the battery upside down in a way where it could easily slide out. Mounting the battery right side up would allow gravity to help keep the battery on the bracket. I solved this dilemma by drilling a couple precisely placed holes in the metal portion of the bracket.
luna batter bracket mount

precise? yes. accurate? no.

Make that poorly placed holes. Remember — measure twice, cut / drill once. On the tape measure, black lines matter.
luna batter bracket mount drill

that’s better!

With the bracket firmly mounted, I then mounted the battery, wired everything together, cinched a few cords down with zip ties, replaced the rust-resistant chain with a slightly longer one, and was ready to roll! Almost. The battery shipped with about 35% charge and the included charger would not begin to charge it. It would light up, click, power down, and repeat. I went through a number of troubleshooting steps recommended by Luna Cycle to no avail. I had performed them all on my own prior to contacting them, and again at the customer service rep’s behest. Ultimately, they applied the price I paid for the wonky charger towards an upgraded version. When the new one arrived, it worked like a charm. Once the battery had that initial charge, the malfunctioning charger was now able to recharge it, too. So now I’ve got two working 300W chargers, a “mini” and an “advanced.”

Commuting with the Electrified Fortified Bicycle

Frustratingly, I was only able to ride Invincible 2.0 sparingly while the charging issue was sorted out. For the last two weeks though, I’ve ridden it extensively, including every trip to work and home in that time. I’ve encountered sun, rain, complete darkness, and fortunately no snow. The coldest commute I had was a three-mile trek at 26°F, and the warmest day was in the sixties. I rode home after work as early as 1500 and as late as 0100, and left for work as early as 0245.  I got home once at 0445. I’m not sure whether to call that early or late, but the point is I rode at all hours of the day and night. At no point did I feel particularly uncomfortable. Well, that 26 degree morning was a little unpleasant. I’ve since ordered a balaclava, which makes me look like a ninja, as opposed to baklava, which makes me look like a Greek pastry. I love this bike. Any excuses I once had have been put to rest. Too cold? Bundle up, buttercup! Too hot? With pedal assist, it’s never a strenuous ride. With the throttle, it’s no work at all. Too early? It’s not quite as fast as a car, but through town, it’s not much slower, either. Too dark? The high-lumen headlight and taillight illuminate the path. fortified bike night I will have issues when the snow comes. To get to the hospital, I cross a bridge with a narrow sidewalk and cars whizzing by a few feet away. In the warmer months, passing another individual is treacherous if they see you coming, and ill-advised if not. In the winter, snow and ice buildup make it impossible.
Speaking of snow and ice, my rails-to-trails path to the surgery center is repurposed as a snowmobile path for a good four months. Even with the right tires, it would be dangerous and probably illegal to ride a bike on it. But eight months of the year, I should be good to go with this electric bike.

bike beer holder

Hills and Wind are No Match

With the out-of-the-box setup, you get five levels of pedal assist. On level one, you notice just a little extra power when you pedal. On the fifth level, this puppy takes off like a puppy chasing a squirrel. I like to set it to five. If there was an eleven, I’d crank it up to eleven. There’s also a throttle. You can upgrade to a twist throttle, but I’ve been happy with the basic thumb lever. If you’re starting off on grass on an uphill slope, as I sometimes do, a little squeeze of the throttle will get you on your way in a hurry. bafang display One thing you always notice when riding a typical bicycle is the slightest wind. Or a 0.5% incline of a hill. I’m not going to be like an old-timer and tell you my commute is uphill both ways, but I’m pretty sure the wind conspires to work against me nine times out of ten when I choose to ride a bike. Those impediments no longer matter. The wind is no match for the 750 watt Bafang motor. Hills? What hills. With pedal assist, riding uphill is a breeze. On a recent trip home, I pedaled forcefully in top gear on a slight, but noticeable incline. At 31 miles per hour. In a month or two, I will have to put the beast to bed for a little while. Let him hibernate while the snow and cold consume the land. When the birds start chirping and the layers of ice on the path have thawed, I’ll charge him up and resume commuting on the most fun and powerful bicycle I’ve ever sat upon. If you’ve got a bike of your own you’d like to electrify, check out the offerings of upgrade kids or complete e-bikes at  Luna Cycle. I chose to upgrade the charger to one that can charge to 80% or 90% to extend battery life, and I also bought the $19 tool making installation simpler, but otherwise went with the base package. Again, not an affiliate link — I just want to help you improve your daily commute and enjoy a little more fresh air. 10/2018: For a one-year update and a discount on Fortified Bike packages exclusive for my readers, please continue to read One Year of Commuting With a Modified Electrified Fortified Bike.


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