It’s the first “heat event” of the season and temperatures are forecast to reach 35 degrees with the humidity. This — of all days — is the day I’ve arranged to borrow an electric bike and ride the Victoria Rail Trail from Lindsay to Fenelon Falls and back.
Maybe not what the doctor ordered for a 68-year-old who’s barely broken a sweat since early March, when the pandemic confined many of us to long stretches at home with brief, anxious expeditions to pick up groceries.
Thankfully, the bicycle, on loan from Pedego Kawartha Lakes in Bobcaygeon, is “the Cadillac of electric bikes,” as business owner Al Hussey describes it. (They start at about $2,000 — mine sells for almost $4,000.)
Al meets me at The Bike Garage on William St. N. and wheels out the bike. I get a five-minute tutorial. Seven gears (so far, so good) and it looks like an ordinary bike without the high bar, allowing for an easier mount. A fully charged battery pack is with me if needed. A toggle switch turns the battery on and instantly we’re no longer in ordinary step-thru bike territory. A small LCD console mounted on the handlebar displays battery level and “pedal assist.” (Once I’m underway it will also show speed and distance covered.)
The pedal assist, Hussey explains, ranges from 0 (no assist) to 5 (big boost); mostly, when he’s riding it’s at level 1 or 2. On the right-hand grip is the other assist, a twist throttle. No pedalling needed for that.
I circle the parking lot a few times. The first time the pedal assist kicks in is a revelation: there’s a surge, and it’s as though a strong wind is at my back or I’m on a tandem bike with a rider behind me.
10:50 a.m., Victoria Junction Kiosk: As I arrive at the entry point of the trail just off William Street, two southbound electric bikes pull up. The couple are from Peterborough and in their early 70s. They’re also on Pedego loaners and hoping an electric bike will help them with Peterborough’s hills and allow them to travel farther on trail rides.
I head down the paved section to Thunder Bridge Road and onto the beaten-earth portion for the rest of the 8 km to Ken Reid Conservation Area; then it’s through Ken Reid and the 14 km to Fenelon Falls — 22 km altogether.
The trip is my chance to get a feel for the interplay among the gears and the pedal assist, and for the use of the throttle. It’s level 3 assist with a higher gear that really impresses: that phantom tandem bike rider behind me is now a steroid-fuelled Lance Armstrong. I learn the throttle is helpful for a boost from a standing start or for small rises like the bridge over McLaren Creek.
11:45 a.m., Fenelon Falls: It took me less than an hour to get to Fenelon Falls, and I didn’t come close to breaking a sweat!
By now I’m feeling very comfortable operating the bike, and I trust the balloon tires to handle the occasional soft, sandy patch or rut. That frees me up to be more attentive to my surroundings as I pass through wetlands and the rolling farmland north of Cameron, and enjoy the views to Sturgeon Lake.
The bike, of course, makes no noise, so bird calls are the soundtrack as I travel south. As I reach the reed beds around McLaren Creek and pass into Ken Reid there’s the conk-la-ree! of male red-winged blackbirds. The collective noun for goldfinches is “troubling” and just south of the bridge a troubling of goldfinches skim across the path.
I take a short detour into Ken Reid Conservation area on the escarpment loop. The tree roots and winding path are much more of a challenge than the rail trail and I’m more aware of the 40-pound weight of the bike.
Back to Lindsay, but before returning the bike, I take it to the northern terminus of Lindsay Street. No traffic, so I can check out the top end for the pedal assist and throttle. I push it to 33 kph — plenty adventurous enough for me — then head down William Street.
Oddly, it’s only on the town roads that I have any concern for safety: Lindsay still has no bike lanes. The roads are designed for cars and though there might not be quite as many of them during COVID-19, they seem to be driving faster.
2 p.m., The Bike Garage: When I dismount, Al checks some readings with me. I’ve covered just under 50 km and have used less than two of the five bars for the battery.
Reluctantly, I turn over the bike and the keys I’ve been given.
It’s been an exhilarating and enjoyable experience and I can see lots of reasons to consider electric bikes. They’re an environmentally responsible way of getting around and allow any rider to travel greater distances with much less effort. For instance, an electric bike lets boomers (a key demographic, according to Hussey) easily keep up with children or grandchildren.
As I trudge home in the heat the idea of an electric bike is increasingly tempting. For the first time, I’m sweating.