Cincinnati's sweeping, undulating hills are great for Instagram, but a pain for budding cyclists.
Maybe the thought of those hills has kept you from riding as much as you'd like as you commute to work or hop from one neighborhood to another. Or maybe overall distance is a barrier. Or perhaps you feel like you can't keep up with traffic because you're not in Tour de France shape right this minute.
The 100 new E-Bikes Cincinnati Red Bike rolled out today could help folks with those dilemmas and get more cyclists riding the city 's seven (plus) hills.
I test rode one of the bikes on a morning commute from Northside to Camp Washington with community organizer James Heller Jackson.
The E-Bikes are very similar to the bikes Red Bike has been offering since the nonprofit launched in 2014 — a hefty but stable step-through frame with thick tires, disc brakes and three gears you can change via a twist of the handlebar grip shift. But press the power button above the left grip and you engage the electronic pedal-assist feature.
It's not like riding a moped with a throttle. The system augments your own pedaling via a small Bosch electric motor, providing a little extra oomph when you need it — like a hand on your back gently pushing you forward just before your legs start flagging. In "turbo" mode, the assist goes up to 17 miles per hour. Speed demons are on their own above that.
The bikes will be distributed among the 57 Red Bike stations across Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. Riders can find an E-Bike by looking for a station with a lightning bolt symbol on the Red Bike app.
"This is a game-changer," Heller-Jackson said of the E-Bike just before we took off from Northside. "You could easily take one of these up the hill into Clifton."
That's the long ascent up Ludlow Avenue, starting at about Cincinnati State Community College and ending in Clifton's Business District. If you ride a bike between the two popular neighborhoods, you know what he's talking about and probably have memories of sweaty clothing, shaky legs and the occasional honking car as you make the gradual, but seemingly interminable, climb up the four-lane road.
Hills like that are barriers to biking for folks who aren't seasoned riders — or for anyone who needs to arrive somewhere not soaked in sweat and panting.
Heller-Jackson and I started out cruising along in the cool morning air on Hamilton Avenue during the early rush to work. Here, too, the electric assist helps — we easily stayed in the traffic flow thanks to the extra juice from the pedal assist.
The real test came as we climbed the arc of the Ludlow Viaduct that spans I-75 and connects Northside to Clifton. This short but strenuous hill is normally enough to get my legs burning a little, but with the electronic assist, it was a much more leisurely endeavor.
After that, we turned onto Central Parkway, a city artery where drivers are known to be fast and furious. While we didn't keep up with the flow of traffic there, it was easy to stay at a reasonable speed during the short jaunt to the Monmouth Avenue overpass taking us into Camp Washington.
Heller-Jackson isn't a stranger to E-Bikes — he's owned one for about a year now and swears by it. As a community organizer, he does a lot of advocacy work for mobility options that don't involve cars and says he's encouraged that more people will get to access to the pedal-assisted bikes.
Buying his own E-Bike took some saving up — it cost about $4,000, Heller-Jackson says. Not everyone can afford to make that kind of investment, but Red Bike puts the E-Bikes in reach for more people, he says.
The bike share charges $8 for a day pass, $15 for a monthly pass or $80 for an annual membership. And some folks who can't swing that can qualify for Red Bike Go, a program that cuts the monthly membership fees down to $5 for those receiving some forms of public assistance. There is no additional charge for the E-Bikes.
After a quick stop for coffee in Camp Washington, I hit the road back to Northside via a relaxing glide down Spring Grove Avenue, leaving Heller-Jackson to show the E-Bike off to a small crowd of curious folks. Who knows? Maybe some of them will take up cycling after getting a little assist.