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Buzzing around Boston on Pietzo's $1300 electric bike

Posted by Scott Kirsner  August 2, 2010 02:33 PM

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pietzo.jpgEver ridden a battery-powered bike before?

Me neither.

So last month, I took a Bedford company up on their offer to lend me one for a week. The company, Pietzo, is essentially a marketing and distribution business that imports electric bikes from China and sells them here in the States.

They're in the midst of trying to raise some angel funding to dial up their marketing activity, and to support a new retail store that they hope to open in Burlington. The problem with selling e-bikes in traditional bike stores, company marketing VP Nora Gildea explained to me, is that most only carry one or two models, and the salespeople are much more experienced selling traditional bikes.

I tested the $1300 Zephyr folding commuter bicycle. (The price includes a lock, helmet, and free first tune-up.) It has a lithium ion battery mounted under the seat, and a motor built into the hub of the rear wheel. It can operate either in “pedal assist” mode, which makes you feel like a Tour de France rider in peak shape by reducing the work it takes to move the bike forward, or in “full electric” mode, with the bike doing all the work.

I took the Zephyr on three missions around the city.

But first, I got a short training session in a Cambridge parking lot from Gildea. It takes a little adjustment to get used to the idea of a bike with a throttle on one handlebar, a “kill switch” (which turns off the throttle so the bike doesn’t zip forward as you’re mounting it), and a set of keys to turn the motor on. To fold the bike, you need to release two bolts — one on the handlebars, and one in the middle of the frame. (The process was kludgy at first, and didn’t get any easier throughout the week.) I worried about leaving the bike locked on the street: would someone swipe the battery, or try to hot-wire it? Gildea said she didn’t think it’d be a problem. I decided to use the same U-lock I normally use with my non-electric mountain bike.

Mission #1: I loathe the pokey traffic (and pricey parking garages) in the Longwood Medical Area, so to get to an appointment there, I park my car near Fenway, pour a couple quarters into the meter, and pull the Zephyr out of the rear cargo area of my car. It takes me a few minutes to unfold it — even the pedals need to be folded down — but once I set out down Boylston Street, it's nice to use the throttle to quickly get up to speed with the traffic. When I go up on a sidewalk, though, the nudge of the pedal assist has me moving a bit faster than I want to be. I lock the bike at a meter, using the handle-shaped hole in the frame, and remember to remove the keys from the ignition and take them with me. On the way back to the car, the Zephyr’s speed helps me beat an imminent rain storm (and a potential parking ticket, since my meter had expired). But hefting the bike back into my car, I realize that while you might not burn as many calories pedaling it, you get a great workout lifting it — the Zephyr weighs 54 pounds.

Mission #2: Riding along the Charles River to an afternoon meeting at the Whole Foods Market on River Street, I appreciate the Zephyr’s extra speed, since I'm running a little late. But the bike has a teeth-rattling feel when it hits potholes or goes over tree roots that wrinkle the pavement, despite the shock absorbers on the front wheel. After my meeting, unlocking it from the bike rack, I talk to another bicyclist who has just finished doing some grocery shopping. She has looked at electric bikes online, but was a bit deterred by the price. On my way down Mass. Ave, from Central Square to Porter, I feel like I'm moving almost twice as fast as the traffic.

Mission #3: My goal is to see what it’s like to take the bike on the T. With an afternoon appointment in Newton Highlands, I first ride to Porter Square. Along the way, a young mom pushing a stroller asks about the Zephyr: “Is it heavy?” The only answer is yes. But I say it’s nice if you’re in a hurry, or riding up hills. “Or if you’re tired,” she adds. I take the bike down to the T in the elevator, and board the train without folding it up. At Park Street, I make the fatal mistake of trying to lug the bike up a stairway to the Green line. Yowza: back successfully wrenched. Upstairs, I fold up the bike as my fellow passengers watch. The first train is too crowded, but I hop the second. The bike, when folded, is the epitome of awkward. There’s just no good way to carry it. Inside the trolley, I find a spot to stand, and notice that there’s another non-folding bike on board. Before we leave the station, the driver comes back to boot my fellow rider (only folding bikes are allowed on the Green line.) As we head west, the car empties out and I have enough room to unfold the bike. When I disembark, I use the throttle alone to (slowly) ascend the steep ramp that leads from the station platform to the street. I ride about four blocks to a meeting. My wife has brought the car, and so instead of venturing back on the T, I put the Zephyr into the cargo area, gritting my teeth.

Conclusions: I’m not ready to trade in my old Bianchi mountain bike for a Zephyr. When I ride my bike around town, I enjoy doing 100 percent of the work and getting all of the health benefits. My bike also weighs roughly half what the Zephyr does, and without the pedal assist on, the Zephyr felt about as zippy as a dump truck.

But I enjoyed twisting the throttle to summon a fast, smooth acceleration from a full stop. And I imagine that the Zephyr might appeal more to people who have hilly commutes; who don’t want to get all sweaty on a hot day; or who want to keep a bike in the back of their car to ride into congested urban areas.

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Scott Kirsner was part of the team that launched Boston.com in 1995, and has been writing a column for the Globe since 2000. His work has also appeared in Wired, Fast Company, The New York Times, BusinessWeek, Newsweek, and Variety. Scott is also the author of the books "Fans, Friends & Followers" and "Inventing the Movies," was the editor of "The Convergence Guide: Life Sciences in New England," and was a contributor to "The Good City: Writers Explore 21st Century Boston." Scott also helps organize several local events on entrepreneurship, including the Nantucket Conference and Future Forward. Here's some background on how Scott decides what to cover, and how to pitch him a story idea.

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