Uncommon commute

An electric bike makes for a sweat-free, carbon-free commute

John Sagebiel takes his electric Optibike for a spin outside his office at UNR.

John Sagebiel takes his electric Optibike for a spin outside his office at UNR.

Photo By Kat Kerlin

For more information about Optibikes, call (303) 443-0932, or visit www.optibike.com.

John Sagebiel slings one leg over his bike’s frame and prepares for his 16.5 mile commute from his home off Mount Rose Highway to his office at the University of Nevada, Reno. He’ll reach speeds of roughly 27 miles per hour and get there in about 40 minutes. He’s not a complete eco-nut—well, maybe slightly—or the latest contender for the Tour de France. He just has a really cool bike.

Sagebiel’s Optibike 600 is an electric bike. He can pedal it just like a regular bike or kick the motor into gear like a motor scooter, or he can do a combination of the two.

“It’s the sensation of riding your bike at 15 miles per hour, but you look down at your speedometer, and you’re going 25,” he says at his office, where he works as UNR’s environmental affairs manager.

It’s also a completely clean, carbon-free contraption—at least how Sagebiel uses it. While electric forms of transportation are regarded as more environmentally friendly than filling up at the gas station, most people still get the electricity for them from a carbon source. Sagebiel, however, powers his home—and bike—with solar power.

He’s had the bike since the spring 2007 and has since biked over 2,000 miles on it, using it primarily to commute to and from work. Considering the bike cost about $7,000, Sagebiel has only “saved” about $340 in gas, but, he says, you get what you pay for. He’d had electric bikes before, such as the Tidalforce, and mentions other electric bikes available, including some by Giant and Schwinn. Some companies sell kits to retrofit regular bikes into motorized ones. But he needed something with enough oomph to handle the climb up Mount Rose Highway on his return trip home. The Optibike’s motor alone costs nearly as much as an electric motor scooter, such as the Zapino, which runs around $3,500. But he doesn’t think a scooter or another electric bike could get him home. “This boils down to what is actually capable of making my commute,” he says.

A few facts and figures: Sagebiel’s Optibike weighs about 75 pounds. It climbs uphill at about 12 mph. Whereas “hub” electric bikes hold the battery and motor in their “hubcaps,” making the bikes harder to stop or make sharp turns, the Optibike’s major artillery is in its midsection, just above the pedals. Its wheels are also lightweight with a high suspension, so they quickly return to ground when riders hit a bump. And most of its maintenance and parts can be found at the local bike shop. Or, if something goes wrong with the motor, for instance, it would be shipped back to the Optibike company, which makes every bike by hand in Boulder, Colo.

For a science-and-numbers guy, Sagebiel admits the benefits of his bike aren’t wholly quantifiable in terms of mileage and gas prices. “It is kind of a lifestyle thing more than anything,” he says. “From a strict economic standpoint, it’s tough to justify. … I’m getting exercise, I’m enjoying it. There are a lot of other things that go into the calculation of it.”