May 28, 2008

Grill... check. Electric bicycle? Maybe

In my mind, practically all the reasons you’d want to own a house instead of rent an apartment lie in the back yard: a grill, a small garden, and space for a dog to run around during the day. With it being Memorial Day weekend, I couldn’t wait any longer to knock item #1 off my list. I’m from Atlanta, birthplace of the Big Green Egg–and my dad has had one for probably 10 years now. They’re expensive, but they pretty much blow all the other grills I’ve seen out of the water. I was lucky to find a BGE store locally (the aptly named Eggs by the Bay). The BGE corporate website listed a few distributors that were closer to my new house in Redwood City, but for me it was worth it to drive a little further to give a sale to a small business. The extra driving was rewarded, incidentally. The owner had the large Egg I wanted, but but not the large-sized table for it. He was nice enough to loan me a nest (basically metal legs for the grill) until he could get the table in–plus a few days to allow me to paint and lacquer the new table. I sincerely doubt that any large specialty retailer would’ve been willing to do the same. The Eggs by the Bay store is actually having a sale later in the summer for gently used demo eggs (basically used for their one-day barbecue festival), but forgoing any grilling for an entire month+ just to save $100 or so wasn’t quite worth it for me. Besides, my economic stimulus check was burning a hole in my pocket (though that only covered about half of it…).

Though I keep telling myself not to make frivolous purchases, this is a product I’m so familiar with that it’s a necessary luxury. While I don’t like gas grills at all, I probably could’ve made do for the first summer with just a little Weber for $100 or so. Those tiny little grills are best suited for hamburgers and hotdogs, though, and having a real cooker out back sort of opens up the arsenal of what I can grill. At least that’s what I’ll be telling myself all summer long. I did a Boston Butt on it the night we got it home, then hotdogs + burgers + corn for a crowd of around twenty on Memorial Day.

With around $1300 worth of grill/table sitting on my back patio now, though, talking myself into my next big purchase is going to be an even tougher sell. When I first moved to California and started my new job, my apartment was 4 miles from my office. I hadn’t ridden a bike since I was around eight years old, so four miles seemed pretty intimidating at the time. In the end, though, I talked myself out of an electric (it was ONLY 4 miles…), grabbed a cheapo off of craigs list, and dove right in. It was such a success that I upgraded bikes in a few weeks and continued biking in to work a few times a week… until I busted my ankle back in January. The ankle was just getting healed enough to ride in again (okay, it was probably good enough about a month before that) for me to bike in to work one last time before moving. I’ve done some weekend biking since we moved, but the commute (now 9 miles, with a few fairly steep grades) is just a little too intimidating. Even at four miles, I’d come in drenched in sweat. If only there were a way to take that 9 mile one-way commute and shrink it down…

The first thing I did was check out CalTrain. The Redwood City station is around 3 miles from the house, and the San Antonio station is around three miles from the office. Six miles each way isn’t so bad–especially with an 18 minute break in between. Solid plan, then… but wait. Though the two stations are only two stops apart, they cross zones… which means it’s a $4 ticket each way. So instead of an 18-mile round trip by car (just under one gallon of gas at around $4) which takes around 15 minutes each way, the commute is now a multi-leg affair which costs twice as much, takes around three times as long, and makes me a slave to the Caltrain schedules. I’m a big fan of public transportation, but clearly this wasn’t the solution in my particular case.

And that’s where all my prior research into electric bikes really came in handy. Having already invested $600 or so into a bike and getting very comfy with it, I wasn’t super-keen on buying a second bike just for commuting. My girlfriend and I go on weekend bike rides when possible, so I wanted to be able to use the bike as a normal bike without having 50 lbs of electronics all over it. After re-reading all the stuff I read when I first decided NOT to buy an electric, I think I’ve settled on the bionX kit, which a local eBike evangelist sells through his shop just a little ways down the bay. It’s pricey (~$1500 for the PL350), but it’s incredibly light (~15 lbs.) and has regenerative breaking. When looking at the stats on these things, I have to pretty much throw all the distance metrics out the window. I’m pretty sure they do their “performance” testing with guys who are 5′8 and 150 lbs riding a performance bike with slick tires on flat terraion, while I’m closer to 6′3 and 235 lbs riding a not-aerodynamic cruising bike with fat tires on hilly terrain. They claim 28 miles on the greatest assistance level, but I’d be thrilled with half that (I could always recharge at work if I had to). The bionX kit also has a regenerative training feature, which means you can actually crank the friction up and recharge the battery while getting a better workout. This seems ideal for commuting–I can crank up the pedal-assist as high as it will go for the commute TO work, which will hopefully keep me mostly stink-free (if not, I’m going to bug the gym down the street for a shower-only membership). After work, I can not only pedal unassisted the whole way home… I can actually crank up the difficulty to make it as much of a workout as I want. The best thing about it, basically, is how many options you have. I used to average around 10 mph based on my own output, so if this thing can effectively double that I should be able to get to work in about the same amount of time I was doing before. I guess it’s pretty obvious that I’ve already sold myself on getting one. My inner financier will probably be successful in holding my inner gadget-nerd off for another month or so, though, just so I can really decide if I’m buying it because I really want to bike to work or if the purchase of the Big Green Egg has kicked off some sort of crazy high-dollar spending spree.