Riding the Tide In Nebraska
By Bill Moore
Legend has it that when French explorers happened upon a broad meadow, through which meandered a lazy stream, they called the creek "Papillon" after the millions of Monarch butterflies that inhabited the area.
Two centuries later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has straightened the Papio, as it's now known, and added flood control dikes on both sides of its narrow banks. Atop those dikes are a pair of new biking and hiking trails, one which swings north, northwest up into the heart of what is now Omaha, Nebraska. It actually passes within about a mile of my office. The second trail heads more westerly along the "Little Papio," which flows slowly through Papillion, a small community of 20,000 that we call home.
It is along this latter bike path that I took my first extended test ride of the Wavecrest Tidalforce 750 electric-assist bicycle. The Washington, D.C.-based manufacturer had sent me the bike several weeks earlier, keeping a promise they'd made to me at EVS 20 in Long Beach, California last fall. Unfortunately, it arrived just as my wife and I were tackling a remodeling project, brought about, in part, by some unexpected termite damage.
Obviously, the remodel got priority, but I did have a chance to take the bike on a couple of short errands, once to the post office and a second trip to get gasoline for my lawn mover. I felt lousy about buying the gas, but good about not having also taken the car.
Finally, with most of the remodel project behind me and Wavecrest wondering when I was going to evaluate their bike, I decided last weekend to saddle up and ride the bike trail, the "Little Papio" extension of which is still relatively new, sections of it having just recently been paved. With my cellphone and a bottle of water, urged on me by my wife -- after all, I am closer to 60 than 50, she reminds me -- and my Canon G2 digital camera, as well as a full charge in the Tidalforce's nickel metal hydride (NiMH) battery pack, I set off down the hill towards the center of town. There I would pick up the trail and head east towards the town of Bellevue some 7 miles distance.
I wasn't sure how far I'd actually be able to ride because after laying a new laminate wood floor the week before, my aging knees were swollen and painful. It was hard to knell down and even harder to get back up, so riding an electric-assist bike was not only going to make the trip a bit more enjoyable, it was going to be downright, essential.
I coasted down the hill, past the grade school my children had attended when they were growing up, down through the older part of town with its huge trees and modest, seventy year-old bungalows and craftsman-style homes; past the buff limestone county courthouse, which are now city offices. I stopped momentarily at the one-room Portal school house built in 1890 to take pictures of the bike. The white, clapboard building had been in continual service until just a decade or so ago. Rather than tear it down, it was moved to its present location across the street from the courthouse and next to the new library. A century old farm house shares the historic preservation site with the school, reminders of life in Nebraska one hundred years ago.
Back on the bike, I "potor" -- my fanciful contraction for peddle and motor -- towards the creek, passing the renovated day care center that was once a feed and fertilizer store, pass the barbershop, then the flower shop, and finally across the creek on the 84th Street bridge.
A pair of solid, narrowly-spaced steel posts prevent cars and trucks from driving on the path, and a sign warns about unauthorized use of motorized vehicles on the path. It is that term "motorized" that bothers me a little as I slip between the posts. I am not certain how the city, county or state view electric-assist bicycles. A narrow interpretation, like the posts at the entrance of the trail, would prohibit my riding a bike like the M750 on the path. A broader definition would distinguish an electric-assist bike from other, small motorized contrivances like handicap scooters and powered-skateboards. It's a distinction that more and more communities are someday going to have to wrestle with. It would be all too easy to just rule no motors, period.
But on this particular day, I am glad the distinction hasn't yet been made, at least in my community, or if it has, I am unaware of it; and having that electric-assist available will be a great help to my aging knees.
I coasted under the bridge, passing a man with his two young daughters getting ready to fish, for what I haven't a clue. The creek is turgid and full of silt. Maybe errant Missouri River catfish?
Coming out from under the bridge, I have to peddle up the incline to get back to the top of the dike. I briefly try the ascent on just the motor, but I find that it places such a load on the battery, that helping even the slightest by peddling, makes all the difference in the world. Besides, the M-750 comes with a 21-speed derailleur gear set that you shift using handle bar grip shifters. On this particular excursion, I had to only use about three different gears, though I did try to use the electric-assist as much as possible; I wanted to see just how much range I could get out of the bike's 36-volt NiMH battery pack.
A word about the M-750 bike, itself. It utilizes the highly-acclaimed Montague folding, aluminum bike popular with mountain bikers and the U.S. military. It is a rugged, nicely engineered piece of equipment on a 26-inch frame. It incorporates quick-release mechanisms for both the front and rear wheels. It takes only a few moments to fold the bike in half for easier transport and storage. Wavecrest also offers a "cruiser" model with the same Tidalforce drive system called the Io.
Wavecrest's 1 hp hub motor incorporates an extremely-efficient and amazingly quiet brushless, direct-drive motor developed from technology invented by a pair of Russian scientists, both of whom now work for the company. Wavecrest not only created a powerful and totally silent electric-drive with 59 foot-pounds of torque but one that incorporates regenerative braking and... listen to this... cruise control, just like your car. Set the cruise control button on the instrument display and the bike will maintain that speed, even going down hill. Tap the caliper brake or hit the button and the cruise control turns off. By the way, each bike comes with a pair of security keys to lock the electronics up. You'll still be able to peddle the bike, but not on electric power. It won't prevent theft, but it will make it less appealing.
The bike's batteries are neatly integrated into the front hub, which brings the weight of the bike up to 64 lbs (30 kg). Recharging is accomplished by plugging in the company's amazingly lightweight -- compared to the "brick" that came with my Currie electric bike -- and intelligent charger into a five-pin plug on the front fork that looks a lot like something you'd find connect to your desktop computer instead of a bicycle. Current isn't just flowing into the ring of batteries, so is intelligence.
Despite having electric-assist, I found that I wanted to peddle the bike, rather than just ride it like a motor scooter. While there were times, especially on the ride back home, that I relied on just the motor, I found it was easy and enjoyable to do some of the work myself. If Wavecrest followed Toyota's lead, and created a simple bar graph display that showed how much energy was coming from the rider, as well as the battery pack, that would be very useful addition to an already excellent design. As the rider grew more fit, he or she could use the battery-assist less and their own muscles more.
But for now, a newly laid ribbon of pavement stretches out before me. I have no idea how far it goes, but the ride is exhilarating as I pass the old city swimming pool, the outdoor go-cart track, the city soccer fields and then the fishing pond where a small flock of Canada geese now winter.
Not much beyond this point, the concrete gives way to the original gravel road bed used by maintenance crews to monitor the condition of the dike. Presumably, the city will someday pave the path all the way to 72nd street, but for now, I get to test the "off-road" capabilities of the bike, which gratefully comes equipped with front fork shock absorbers to help smooth out the ruts and bumps.
As I approach the 72nd street bridge, I notice a family riding on the north bank, apparently there's a trail on that side that I wasn't aware of, and it appears paved. I decide to ride to the bridge and cross over to the other side out of curiosity. Besides, I am having too much fun to turn back now. Near the end of the gravel road, the trail turns abruptly to the right, so I elect to take a short cut and nearly run into a barbed wire fence that I notice at only the last moment. Okay, I either haul the bike back up the bank or lift it across the wire. Now's as good a time as any to see what it takes to hoist the M-750 over an obstacle. At 64 lbs, it takes some effort, but I manage it.
Pleased with myself, I ride across the bridge and pick up what appears to be yet another newly completed section of the tail. As I ride past a recently arisen subdivision built around a virgin golf course, I decide to see how fast the bike will go by itself on the level. Leaning low over the handle bars to cut drag and reduce the effect of a slight headwind, it manages a little better than 18 mph. Sitting upright, the speed drops to between 14 and 15 mph. Combining muscles and motor lets me average a comfortable 16.5 mph.
Then I decide to see how fast I can get the bike to go and peddle furiously with the thumb throttle pushed to the stop. At just over 20 mph, the electric motor drops out as it is programmed to do in compliance with federal regulations. I am sure a strong biker can get the M-750 over 20 mph, but it will be on his own energy reserves.
I cruise along enjoying my temporary oasis from sprawl. On the south side of the creek are farm fields and woods. On my side of the creek, just beyond the golf course and new homes is a local pick-your-own berry farm, which I've known about for years, but never visited. Past this is a nursery with maybe a half-dozen greenhouses. Here the trail bends over a slight rise, making use of an abandoned railroad bed. This portion of the path is so new, the severed, rotting ties still lay scattered along the verge, which needs one final disking and seeding.
Just ahead are a pair of arched pedestrian bridges. This is where the "Big" Papio joins the Little Papio and the two bike trails converge. From here the creek and trail head towards Bellevue, and from there swings south to flow into the Platte River.
Perhaps my most pleasant surprise is the discovery of how far I have actually ridden, for there off to my right is the "Twin Creeks" multiplex cinema, where my wife and I occasionally got to see movies. It takes ten minutes to reach it my car; this portion of the trail terminates within a few hundred yards of it. Hey, that wasn't so hard, I think to myself.
Okay, for a seasoned biking enthusiast, riding a few miles on a level, straight, perfectly safe stretch of pavement is hardly anything to brag about, especially when you have an electric-assist bicycle with the equivalent of a 1 hp motor do much of the work for you. But seeing that cinema complex was one of those revelatory moments in life that says even a guy in his 50's could use a machine like this for more than infrequent recreation. It might actually serve as a very real substitute for taking the automobile; not just for running close by errands, but for trips I once considered too far away. I see now that a combination of a dedicated bike trail system and a good bike, with or without electric-assist, could do wonders for the individual and his or her community.
Naturally, there are limits, both physiologically and technologically, especially in northern climes. I'd hate to try and ride a bike in the snow and cold of a Nebraska January day, and the NiMH batteries, which perform poorly below 0 C (32 F), wouldn't like it much either.
Then there's the problem of the darker side of society. I am told that in cultures where bike riding is far more prevalent, like The Netherlands, bike theft is a serious problem, where you expect to have your bike stolen at least several times a year. One of the reasons, I've not ridden the M-750 more on local errands, like to the grocery store or Home Depot is my fear that if I park it outside, I am liable to find the bike missing when I am done shopping; and did you ever try to carry a 15-foot piece of baseboard trim on a bicycle? It's hard enough in my Honda Insight.
But I can envision, with the proper planning, investments and incentives, creating communities where peddle-power and EV-power become a more accepted means of mobility. The automobile -- whatever its power source -- will always have its place in society, but as we slide over the slope of Hubbert's curve in our lifetime or that of our children, vehicle's like the Tidalforce M-750 will help make the trip a little less arduous for everyone.
The ride home is just as enjoyable, especially when I reach Papillion and begin the ride back up the hill towards my home. Having that electric motor helps make what might have been a painful climb -- my knees are starting to protest the last leg of the trip -- manageable. I complete the ride, using just over 40 percent of the battery's energy; the display shows I still have two of the four LED lights illuminated on the depth of discharge display.
My wife is relieved to see me and I am please to have accomplished as much as I have my first time out. My only regret is that I won't get to keep the bike much longer. I might get in a ride or two more and then I have to box it up and ship it back to Wavecrest. I am told the company is now selling the M-750 and Io through a growing list of retail bike shops. And if you are in Washington, D.C., you can rent Tidalforce bikes from the "BiketheSites" group, which offers guided cycling tours of attractions and historic places in and around the nation's capitol.
Going back to my Currie electric-assist bicycle will be a bit of a let-down after riding the M-750. Maybe someday I can find the means to replace the Currie with a Tidalforce bike. It will certainly be a significant step up in technological sophistication and capability. The Currie has served me well, but after riding the Tidalforce M-750, I think its time to 'ride the tide.'
Hmm... maybe Wavecrest will cut me a deal. If not... there's always EBay.
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