‘Riding an e-bike is like climbing Everest with oxygen’

Biking to work is becoming hip in Switzerland. But Olivier Staub is a bike commuter like no other: his daily journey to work is 34 kilometres (21 miles) each way, he rides in winter when it snows, and he even recites poetry in the saddle.

This content was published on July 7, 2013 minutes

The alarm clock buzzes at 4:30 am. Staub prepares and eats his breakfast – Birchermüesli with fresh fruit – fills a thermos with a drink for the ride, and shuts the house door behind him.  Clad in warm clothing – adjusted for the season and the weather – he hops on his bike and turns on the strong LED headlight. He takes off at 5:15 am “so I can enjoy the journey without stress.” The ever-alert look in his deep blue eyes identifies him as a frequent bicyclist.

Straub takes the byways from Herrenschwanden, just outside Bern, along the western foothills of the Emmenthal region to Kriegstetten in the canton of Solothurn. The 43-year-old electrical engineer considers the one-and-a-half-hour bike commute one of the most worthwhile and enjoyable parts of his day.

The streets to himself

“I love this journey, because I’m practically alone on the streets,” says Staub. Pedalling brings flow not only to the movements of his mid-sized, fit body, but also to his mind. His thoughts wander to his wife Petra and their four children, aged 7 to 13 years old. Or he mulls over an upcoming meeting later that day. “I also recite poetry, such as works from Paul Éluard, my favourite poet.” The bicycle is something like a bridge that keeps the two worlds he moves between, family and work, separated in space but at the same time harmonically bound.

Arriving at his office around 6:30 am, his head clear, Staub showers before starting his day as head of the development division at the internationally active firm Telecontrol, where he has worked for eleven years.

There is yet another reason why Staub is a bike commuter unlike others: he’s cheerful if he looks out of the window in winter and sees everything covered white, because “the ride under the bright headlamp through freshly fallen snow is simply wonderful.” In that case, however, he trades his racing bike for a mountain bike with thick tires that can hew to the white mass of snow. “If it’s slippery or icy, it’s a bit borderline,” he concedes.

At around 5:30 pm Staub leaves the office to ride home, finishing up his 70-kilometre round-trip bike commute at about 7 pm. On a beautiful evening he might even savour a few extra loops and kilometres.

A good mix

Despite being physically and emotionally robust and kitted out with winterised clothing, Staub is not a dogmatic bike commuter. Rather, he uses an intelligent mix of transportation options, tailored to specific needs and possibilities. If he has to work a particularly long day at the office and his wife, who works part-time as an architect, doesn’t need the car, then he travels on four wheels, which reduces his commuting time to 25 minutes. On other days he might combine a folding bicycle with the train.

To Staub, being idle heads in the direction of boredom. He grew up in Lausanne near the lake of Geneva, and already as a boy he was mostly outside. He got his first bicycle at the age of eight, and four years later was the proud possessor of his first racing bike. Later he began running and cross-country skiing and participated in ski touring competitions, including the classic Glacier Patrol.

He met his wife during their studies at the Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne. On the one hand, they shared an enthusiasm for the same types of sports; on the other, they were always part of the group that closed out parties. “We realized we were well-matched!” Staub says with a laugh.

Children in tow

It comes as no surprise that for family vacations bicycles come along for the ride. In 2011 they took the train to Denmark, then cycled from Copenhagen to Ostend in Belgium. More recently the family biked from Vienna to Budapest by way of Bratislava, visiting the capital cities of Austria, Slovakia and Hungary, and managing to cover a distance of almost 500 kilometres.

After a daily ride of 30 to 60 kilometres the family always takes a day off. During rides the two youngest children are often “coasting”, pushed or pulled along by their mother and father.

Sometimes, the morale of the youngsters flagged and their parents would have to use all their ingenuity to keep them motivated. “But at the end of the tour the children were always proud and happy,” says Staub.

In addition, every two years Staub meets up with his former university friends for a three-day ride over mountain passes. The best climber in the mountains wins a prize. “But points are also awarded to the person who has the worst flat tire or mechanical failure,” Staub explains. “Whoever’s on top on the first day is not necessarily so on the second day,” he observes laconically.

What he particularly likes about bike tours is that one day is never the same as another, and no one can ever be quite sure what will happen. “Because of the leisurely tempo you get a feeling for the landscape and can really enjoy it. Even so, you still cover a lot of ground.” In contrast, Staub soberly concludes, cars are practical but boring.

Is the e-bike, which many consider ideal for longer commutes, an option for Staub? The short answer is no, he prefers simple technology. Indeed, he reckons he would only need about 50 minutes each way for his work commute with an e-bike, thus gaining an extra hour every day.  “But commuting to work with an e-bike would be like ascending Everest with oxygen,” Staub declares.

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