Why I won’t buy a Cowboy bike (but maybe you should)

A few weeks ago I had a chance to try out a Cowboy bike. That’s one of those cool-looking electric bicycles doing the rounds on all the gadget sites. And here’s why I won’t be buying one, but you should perhaps consider doing so.

Cowboy e-bike, screenshot from manufacturer's website
Cowboy e-bike, screenshot from manufacturer’s website

I’ve been thinking about getting a new bike for some time, and an e-bike would certainly be an option. But I’ve been put off most models because either they look terrible or the battery is firmly built into the frame. Those were basically the two options. There’s no way I’m going to spend two or more grand on an ugly bike. And because I can’t haul my e-bike up to the apartment every time it needs to be charged, it needs to have a removable battery. The Cowboy bike seemed like the answer.

Fortunately, the good folks at Cowboy (a Belgian start-up that somehow managed to secure the Cowboy.com domain) let you book test rides in many European cities. So one day a chap called Marco who’s studying blockchain technology turned up at the appointed hour with a bike for me to try out.

Let’s start with the looks: the Cowboy is sleek, stylish and simple. So simple, in fact, that it requires some add-ons to be legal on German roads and a few more (not yet available directly from Cowboy) to stop you getting splattered with dirt when it rains. No mudguard, no rack. As much as I love the look of this bike, it’s not commuter-ready on delivery (which apparently takes 7-10 days).

After a little walk-through from Marco he gave me his phone (yup!) and sent me on my way. Because you need a phone not just to turn on the motor but also to switch on the light and generally do anything to the bike, which immediately had me worried about battery life. Marco reassured me that you can ride the bike without the motor, though it’s a single speed and that might be a bit tough on the ascent.

Off I went, up the road, and immediately found another, much bigger flaw: the bike has no suspension, front or back, and the handlebars are very narrow. This makes riding on cobbled streets a pain. Unfortunately, cobbled streets aren’t uncommon in Berlin. By the time I got back, 25 minutes later, I could feel the jarring in my hands. Marco said Cowboy is planning to offer a ‘comfort’ model next year that will feature suspension.

The motor, meanwhile, is fantastic. The bike really seemed to know just how much extra push to give me when I set off at the lights. It takes a little getting used to when normally you’re the kind that pedals hard at the get go: the Cowboy’s belt drive squeaked a bit to start with so at the next lights I just gave it a gentle peddle and the electric motor did the rest. I was soon speeding uphill at 25 kph, with almost no effort whatsoever.

And that’s where the next problem starts: as soon as you go beyond 25 kph, the motor seems to switch off. You’re back on your own again. Which is fine, except you don’t have gears either. So what started out being easy suddenly switched to quite a slog. The solution, I guess, is to just max out at 25 kph. That’s fine for some, but I do find there are times when I’d like to go a little faster. It is possible to tell the motor to take you to 30 kph, but strictly speaking this ‘off-road’ mode is illegal on public streets in the EU. Oh well…

A 25-minute ride isn’t enough time to discover all the ins and outs of a bike, but one more thing I noticed is that my riding position on the Cowboy was a lot more hunched up than I’d like it to be. Maybe this is because the bike wasn’t adjusted to my height, though Marco was about as tall as I am. Certainly I’d want to make sure that any €2,000 bike I buy is comfortable, in addition to being beautiful.

If you live in a place without cobbled streets, if you’re prepared to change your riding style to fit that of an e-bike, if you’re happy to tether your bike to a phone, then I’d say the Cowboy could be for you. This really is a bike that ticks a lot of boxes for me. Unfortunately there are just too many downsides at this point for me to hit ‘buy.’

But I’m looking forward to test riding the ‘comfort’ edition next year, should that materialize.

How to cut your carbon footprint and curb climate change

Since I began writing more about climate change about two years ago, I’ve received several emails from people asking me what they personally can do about global warming.

The simple answer, I tell them, is to cut their emissions of carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas. The hard bit is figuring out how to do so.

Last month, I published a piece about a man who got scientists to help him figure out exactly how much additional CO2 his lifestyle has added to the atmosphere. Then he asked the scientists to help him reduce his emissions, drastically.

While Dirk Gratzel’s low-carb lifestyle is probably too extreme for most (he only showers for 45 seconds and hunts wild boar so his dog can eat meat), many of the insights drawn from his personal experiment can be applied to the public at large. 

As one of the scientists involved in the study put it to me: “We can achieve a lot if … everybody gives up what isn’t too important to them.”

So if you absolutely have to have long showers, but don’t mind cutting down meat, do that. If a protein-hungry former bodybuilder like Arnold Schwarzenegger can do it, so can you. Because meat, particularly beef, requires vastly more resources to produce than vegetables, and cows belch a lot of methane (another greenhouse gas) during their lifetime.

Sadly, for the same reasons dairy is a pretty big cause of greenhouse gas emissions. Cutting down cheese and milk will reduce your environmental footprint.

Maybe you, like many people in the developed world, enjoy airline travel or rely on it to see friends and family abroad. You feel forgoing flying just isn’ an option, but still want to cut your carbon quota? Then consider offsetting your flights. Many airlines now let you do this while booking, or you can use a third-party service such as Atmosfair. The extra money you spend (usually less than 10 percent of the regular ticket price) goes toward projects aimed at reducing carbon emissions elsewhere by the same amount your flight produces.

Car travel is another obvious source of carbon emissions, unless you drive an electric vehicle and your utility company uses only renewable sources of energy. Even if you don’t sell the car immediately, using public transport or cycling for at least some of your journeys will lower your emissions, save you money and probably improve your health.

Conscious consumption in general is a good way to shrink your carbon footprint. Do you really need that plastic gizmo? Will a second-hand one off eBay do, saving you money and CO2?

Think long-term! If you own your own home, then improving insulation is probably one of the most effective ways of reducing your emissions, because the energy savings will build up, year after year. 

Finally, there’s the impact that just talking about your carbon footprint will have on people around you and, by extension, the wider public debate. Politicians, who are often in a position to do far more than most individuals, are sensitive to what people say they’re concerned about. A sustained public debate about what can and should be done about climate change will have a profound, long-term effect. Just as public debates about slavery, women’s rights, gay rights, air pollution and nuclear safety have done in the past.

If you want to cut your carbon footprint but can’t do a full Gratzel, don’t feel bad. Most people can’t. Remember than even a few changes in your life will have an effect, especially if you manage to convince others around you to do the same.

ap environmental science

A final song for Coco Schumann

I’m sure every journalist has some stories they regret not getting round to. I know I’ve got a few.

One involved a German-Jewish musician whose life story is so amazing it’s hard to understand why they haven’t made a Hollywood movie about him yet.

Coco Schumann dodged the Gestapo as a teenager, playing ‘forbidden’ swing in Hitler’s Germany, then survived three Nazi camps and became a noted musician after the war.

For years I’d planned to interview Schumann about his life, even managed to get hold of a home phone number. But somehow other work always got in the way and there was never any great interests from the editors I’d pitched the story to, which might have prompted me to cold call him. When I did, last week, nobody picked up the phone. I wrote to his agent to check that I still had the right number.

“Regrettably Mr. Schumann isn’t available for interviews anymore due to dementia,” his agent replied. On Monday, as I was lying at home with the flu, news arrived that Coco Schumann had died.

I suppose if I’d managed to speak him, I would have asked Schumann, who was born in Berlin in 1924, more about what life was like here back then. In German-language interviews he recounts his fascination with Nazi torch marches and his excitement at the prospect of Hitler Youth camping trips _ until someone made clear that he couldn’t join, because he was Jewish.

I would have asked to hear his stories about Berlin’s underground jazz scene in the 1930s, at a time when the Nazis were cracking down on “degenerate art.” In an autobiography published in 1997, Schumann wrote that he began to hang out in bars from the age of 12, and landed his first job as a musician playing the drums when he was 15. That would have been in 1939 _ the year World War II erupted and a year after the Night of Broken Glass made clear to everyone what consequences Nazi ideology would have for Jews.

And yet, Schumann, the son of a Jewish seamstress, somehow played on. As Europe was going up in flames, young Coco and his bandmates would jam through the night, always keeping two lookouts at the door to watch for men wearing the telltale leather coats and wide-brimmed hats of the Gestapo. As soon as the feared secret police appeared, Schumann told an interviewer years later, the lookouts would whistle “and we’d play a polka or some German nonsense.”

It helped that Schumann was tall and blond, but in 1943 he was summoned for deportation. Schumann was already standing in a line destined for Auschwitz when his father, who was considered ‘Aryan,’ managed to convince an officer to send his son to Theresienstadt, the Nazis’ “model camp,” instead.

Theresienstadt was a perverse spectacle created to mislead the world about what was happening in all the other concentration camps and further the lie that Jews were being treated humanely _ even allowed to have fun in their own little ghettos. Schumann, like many others, survived by playing along, but in his case that also meant performing precisely the kind of music the Nazis hated. His band _ the Ghetto Swingers _ included several famous musicians. A remarkable fragmentary recording of one of their performances was found in Israel after the war. You can hear it in this Austrian interview with Coco Schumann from about 20:30 onward.

When Theresienstadt was closed, Schumann and his bandmates were deported to Auschwitz, whose chimneys were billowing smoke when they arrived.

“We though these were factories until the SS-man accompanying us with a dog (…) said: ‘Just so you know where you are, you’re in the extermination camp Auschwitz. Here’s the entrance through the gate, and look, over there are the chimneys, that’s the exit.’ That’s when we realized why it smelled so bad. Human flesh, burning.”

Again, he somehow managed to get into a band, playing a guitar left behind by a Romani inmate who had been gassed. As death became an everyday occurrance, Schumann and his fellow musicians clung to their sanity through music.

Most of the Ghetto Swingers were murdered but Schumann was taken to Dachau, and then _ he’d contracted typhoid_ forced to march toward Austria where the Nazis planned to simply shoot the surviving detainees in a remote valley. The U.S. Army caught up with them first, just in time.

What must it feel like to have to have come so close to death so many times? From everything I’ve read and heard about Schumann, he wasn’t a bitter man. But he didn’t mince his words when it came to calling out those responsible for all the evil either. In one of his accounts of Auschwitz, Schumann described the guards as “trained monsters” who would happily consort with the camp elders _ hardened criminals who were put in charge of policing the other inmates.

“But a highly decorated Jewish surgeon who had saved countless lives was considered dirt,” he said.

Schumann’s only explanation was that our species evolved its brain faster than its heart. “We humans can fly to Mars, and we can fly to the Moon, but in the back of our minds we’ve still got the cave man’s cudgel.”

Twenty-one when the war ended, Schumann returned to Berlin and reunited with some of his old bandmates. He reportedly became the first person in Germany to play an electrically amplified guitar, spent several years in Australia, and had a flourishing career as a jazz and swing musician that lasted into the 21st century.

Schumann told his own story better than anyone else. He didn’t need another interview. Still, I wish I’d called him soon after I got that number.