Extra Extra November December 2009

MoneyPedal Power

Leonie Joubert went for an early morning pedal with activist and author Rob Zipplies to find out why he’s about to trek around the country on an electric bicycle.

Kloof Nek – the great leveller.
It’s that precipitous stretch of tar that pulls out of Cape Town’s city centre and slices between the twin cheeks of Table Mountain and Lion’s Head. For cyclists, it’s a terrific hill climb. Unless you’re me, in which case it’s just humiliating.

Today, though, was a little different. Yes, my heart felt like it was about to explode against the walls of my chest cavity. That’s normal. My thighs were screaming about being oxygen deprived. But the sleek, lycra-wrapped panther on his road bike was still way behind me and not catching up, in spite of my metal steed weighing in at over three times his (and my body mass index being on the softer side of ideal).

See, I was cheating. My chunky touring bike was juiced up with battery power.

I was out on a test ride with Rob Zipplies, editor/co-author of Bending the Curve, just three weeks ahead of his departure on a month-long tour around South African on an eZee Torq electric bicycle. He tells me he’s doing this to raise awareness around climate change, ahead of the United Nations’ climate negotiations taking place in Copenhagen this December.

“The latest science says that we have already overshot safe levels of carbon in the atmosphere and we need to get back down pronto,” he says, over a restorative breakfast at a curb-side café in Hout Bay (“fried eggs, hold the beef sausage and toast”).

“We can’t rely just on government and business to drive the response to climate change. We as individuals have to push them to do what is required by science. We can’t negotiate with the climate – either we get back to safe greenhouse gas concentrations, or we lose control of our climate.”

The espresso kicks in, and I start to think he’s a little nuts to take on the 3 000km trip, even with a bit of battery-powered assistance. Still, he’s lean and focussed – and he’s got a backup vehicle driven by Project 90 by 2030, an organisation which shares his vision to educate the public about greenhouse gas emission and climate change.

With breakfast sitting precariously high in the belly, we get on our bikes again and begin the 90-minute pedal back home. What strikes me about these bikes, as we cruise up Suikerbossie, is this: you have to work as hard to get anywhere on the bike, but you do it much faster when you open up the throttle and let the battery assist you. Hills be damned, this is the answer to city commuting!

Even so, it was cruel to whizz past other fit-looking chaps as they laboured their way to the crest of the hill.

Then we hit the back of Kloof Nek again. This time, I slacked off and let the hill drain the life out of the battery, so I had to resort to standing in the pedals to get the 8-speed carthorse up the last few hundred metres of climb. When Zipplies leaves Cape Town on 6 November 2009, he’ll have at least four batteries in rotation to see him along his way. I’m trying to talk myself into joining him for the few days of the tour… but I think he’ll have to buy me one or two more breakfasts before I’m bold enough.


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