Merryn Coutts, 39, was interested in riding a bicycle to work - for the combination of pleasure, fitness and clean, green transport efficiency it seemed to promise - but felt she wasn't fit enough. ''Not Lycra ready,'' is how she puts it.
''There are a couple of freeway overpasses I need to go over to get to work and I'd look at the cyclists coming up there and think … I don't think I'd make that. And I didn't want the embarrassment of having to walk my bike over the big hill,'' she says.
It was a bind - feeling she was not fit enough to do something that would help her get fit.
Then came the opportunity to enrol in an electric bike (e-bike) trial being run by Melbourne retailer Dolomiti. Coutts figured some battery-powered assistance might help bridge the gap between her fitness and her ambitions, and she has been riding a pedal-electric (pedelec) bike about 10 kilometres to and from work as part of the trial for the past two months.
''It helps you up the hills so I don't have to do the big sweat and pant, which is fabulous,'' she says. ''It's also really good when you take off at the traffic lights … You know you've got the power to get out of [the way of the cars behind you] quickly and not hold them up, so it takes away some of the nerves that you might have riding on the road.
''And I don't arrive at work as a big red sweaty mess.''
The range of e-bikes available in Australia is improving thanks to recent changes to the regulations governing their importation and use on the road (see box), Peter Bourke, the general manager of Bicycle Industries Australia, says. E-bikes, like regular bicycles, can vary hugely in terms of styling, number of gears and build quality, he says.
The model Coutts is riding has eight gears and a throttle. ''I certainly have found that the more I am riding, the less I use [the throttle],'' she says. ''I'm definitely getting a bit fitter. And I feel good about myself. I feel good that I'm getting out there.''
Chris Tzarimas, the director of the lifestyle clinic at the faculty of medicine at the University of NSW, says an increasing number of Australian employers are putting programs and facilities in place to encourage employees to ride to work but they often wind up ''catering to the converted''.
Tzarimas is also one of the authors of Physical Activity in the Workplace: A Guide*, which was launched yesterday by Exercise Is Medicine (Australia). Its evidence-based, activity-promoting suggestions are aimed at Australian employers and include a section on e-bikes.
''We are advocating electric bikes for a number of reasons,'' Tzarimas says. ''Some people, for example, need to travel quite long distances [to work] but might not have the fitness to [cover the distance].
''We want to maximise the options so that we can engage as much of the workforce as possible. The problem with a lot of these [workplace fitness] programs is that they haven't engaged the people who need them most.''
Professor Geoff Rose, from the institute of transport studies at Monash University, is helping Dolomiti process its e-bike trial data and is very interested in the potential of e-bikes in Australia, having seen them changing lives for the better in Europe and the US.
The e-bike is ''a space that's evolving'' in Australia, he says, but one that has potential to encourage not only those who are simply less fit than they want to be, but also older people, people with knee injuries, obese people and people with disabilities to become more active.
He also says that, aside from the potential individual fitness benefits of using an e-bike rather than a car, there are also benefits for the community at large. ''We haven't got the emissions from the car and we haven't got the congestion effects of the car,'' he says.
The e-bike is not, however, ''the silver bullet'', he says, largely because the biggest barrier to bicycle use in Australian cities is not lack of Lycra-readiness but lack of infrastructure.
''If people don't have safe places to ride, having a bike that will help them along the way a little bit isn't going to be the solution,'' he says.
Coutts will have to return her trial e-bike to Dolomiti at the end of the month but says she and her partner are considering buying one to replace their second car. ''For those trips that are a bit too long to walk but where you know you shouldn't be in the car, either, because it's bad for the environment, it's bad for everyone's health.''
With regard to her trips to work, however, she says she is probably going to progress backwards, as such, to an unpowered ''regular treadly''.
Physical Activity in the Workplace: A Guide is available as a free download from exerciseismedicine.org.au.
E-bikes get a charge from legal changes
CLOSE to 20 per cent of bikes sold in parts of Europe are e-bikes and the larger market means a greater range of designs, says Peter Bourke, the general manager of Bicycle Industries Australia. Until recently, restrictive regulations surrounding e-bikes in Australia have meant many of the European models couldn't be imported into the country, let alone taken out on the road.
The restrictions are now being eased. Australia's e-bike standard is being brought into line with that of Europe (EN15194), which allows for a little bit more power assistance when it's needed (such as going up hills), says Bourke, but the rider must be pedalling for the power-assist to kick in and it must drop out once the bike reaches 25km/h. Above that speed, you have to do all the work yourself.
Victoria has already put the changes into place. NSW, Queensland and South Australia should follow by the end of the year, Bourke says.
''These changes mean that a far greater range of extremely good quality bikes will be available here,'' he says.