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One of the 150 city bike stations in Helsinki. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Tomorrow, Wednesday, October 31, will be the last day of the city bike season.

City bike is one of the best innovations produced by the city of Helsinki but while waiting for the stations to become more widespread in Espoo, I have been cycling to work with my own bike over the summer.

It’s cheaper than the bus and I can also take the direct route across Espoo’s Central Park—a pleasant journey of about six kilometers in just under 20 minutes. The fastest bus journey is 30 minutes with one change plus the walk to the stop, so I can leave home later and yet arrive before the bus and in plenty of time. Instead of sitting down I am getting exercise although a couple of short steep hills need a little more physical exertion.  

As I cross over the busy Ring II road, I must have a smug look on my face while I look down on the traffic snarled up and stopped each morning and afternoon in the rush hours. Cycling in Espoo is particularly easy and safe with the many cycle tracks and paths that keep bikes from mixing too much with the bigger road users. 

For pleasure on one of those very hot summer days, I cycled from Espoo into central Helsinki. Having a bike in town makes popping from one place to the other very quick and easy.

Hence the popularity of the yellow city bikes which appear to be everywhere whenever I have been into the center. Along the Baana cycle route running through the old railway cutting, I noticed that there was an electronic display board that counted the number of passing cyclists.

Helsinki is well connected with bikeways across the city. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Thousands of cyclists pass the tunnel each week, a total of 474,577 for the last 12 months when I checked.  That’s only one route into central Helsinki but it gives a good appreciation of how popular cycling must be in the capital region.

One thing that has been more noticeable this summer, is the number of electronic bikes on the road and I am not yet used to being silently overtaken by folks not even breaking into a sweat. At the beginning of 2018 the Finnish government was contemplating tax breaks for those who buy an e-bike for commuting to work.  The proposal got nowhere but e-bikes still appeared, even though the most basic models cost around 1000 euros. I visited a couple of our local bike shops to see what e-bikes have to offer.

Which commuter bicycle?  Anssi Pöllänen, a salesman at one of the larger biking stores, first recommended finding an electric bike that feels comfortable for you as you would for a normal bike. Sitting positions vary and so does the action and assistance offered by the electric motor.  Most commuter e-bikes have a battery capacity of 500-watt hours and Pöllänen’s customers had reported regularly travelling 70 to 80 kilometers for each battery charge. Some manufacturers suggest that in economy mode over 120 kilometers is possible but that’s probably only in ideal conditions traveling on the level.

Bosch have been making bike motors for several years and have four different options, depending on what you can afford and how much torque is needed.  For example, the Bosch CX motor is their most powerful and tends to be used only for mountain bikes where the better torque would be good for steeper inclines. 

Other motor manufacturers include Shimano, Yamaha and Bafang, and apparently, they all feel slightly different when in use. Motors can be in the wheel hub or as part of the pedal crank case.  Hub motors seem to be less popular. Mounting the motor on the pedal crank keeps the center of gravity low and applies the power and torque in the best place to assist the human input.

I began to research more and at another store found some e-bikes ranging from 1800 to 3400 euros.  The 29-inch, 10 gear Insera bike had a Bafang motor and a slightly lower capacity battery at 400-watt hours compared to the top of the range Austrian made KTM Macina Gran 8 and a Bosch Performance line motor with a 50-watt hour battery. Mid-range bikes from Scott, Helkama and Tunturi were priced between 2400 – 2800 euros all with lightweight aluminum frames and weighing around 24 kilos, the motor and battery contributing a significant mass.

Blueshock electric bicycle. Picture: Kārlis Dambrāns

I tried out a Scott bike which provided a comfortable riding position for me and I was pleasantly surprised by the ease of pedaling even without any electrical assistance.  In only ‘eco’ mode, the amount of assistance given by the Bosch motor was pleasing. I appreciated the thought of stress-less up-hill cycling and arriving at work cool and fresh. It’s easy to see why e-bikes are becoming popular.

Both shops recommended an annual service although all the models I looked at had disc brakes and so few wearing parts.  Spokes may need tightening, brakes may need adjusting to the optimum because you may be travelling everywhere faster. Also, there may be software updates that will keep the motor and battery working as efficiently as possible. Most of the e-bikes I saw had Derailleur gears which are easy to maintain but are exposed to the elements. Having a motor means that folks tend to forget to use the gears and allow the electrical assistance to do the work. However, this leads to just one or two of the gears being used all the time and they can wear to the point of being completely stripped.  Maybe eight gears in a hub would be enough.

I decided to try a Helkama model with an automatic Shimano Di2 eight gear hub system. Without any motor assistance the bike was easy to pedal along on the level, eco-mode gave pleasing easy cycling even up-hill and normal mode used very little leg effort. High mode made the steep hills really easy and the gearbox clicked away changing gear to suit the steepness of the incline or my speed, just like an automatic car. 

As I get older my knees no longer function so well and I can see that my next bicycle will be electrically powered. Electric bikes allow effortless easy cycling for regular commuters and older folks who have less strength and stamina but all the extra components do bump up the price. 

If you are going to use your bike regularly it would make sense to pay a little more for quality to ensure that it lasts more than a couple of summers.  However, I might think twice about leaving a 3000-euro bike unattended.