The E-Bike Diaries

Batteries and trade barriers

/ Base camp

Here among many spare parts in the top left corner, 2 of the 8 Li-Ion batteries, that we have failed to import to Argentina.
The FLYER TS eBike, that was repeatedly tested with a gross weight of 60 KG not including the person’s weight, on the Swiss alpine pass of the Klausen where one overcomes 1240 meters of altitude in 21km.

At the time of writing on Dec 1st, 2015 a logistical problem grinds like the proverbial sand in the transmission. The shipment of 8 Lithium-Ion batteries, to the Argentinean capital Buenos Aires, the starting point of Ernesto Guevara’s and Alberto Granado’s 1952 journey and ours, seems impossible. I’ve come to think of these batteries as immensely valuable, like big shiny gold bars. In the Inca civilisation of Peru, gold was considered the sweat of the sun god Inti. The Li-Ion batteries to me represent the stored sweat that I won’t have to shed to get to the heart of the former Inca Empire. With one-charge and good road conditions, one can reach about 40 to 50 Km on our FLYER eBikes that fully loaded weigh about 60 Kg, not counting the person’s weight. Without the charged battery we’ll be “bums without wheels” as Ernesto Guevara wrote in his diary when his 500 cc Norton motorbike broke down in Chile. We’ve tried a “worst-case” scenario on our testing ground in the Swiss Alps. By climbing the Klausen pass, where one has to overcome 1240 meters of altitude in 21km. With the ebikes fully loaded, we switched off the battery power and tried to pedal uphill. The predictable result is one that changes the pleasant lightweight experience into a gruesome Sisyphean task where you soon reach the point of rolling backwards. To reach the pass summit with my MTB it takes me 3 hours with the eBike fully loaded it takes 2 hours with the eBike without battery power it would take a day of pushing. The batteries are considered dangerous goods, and have to be handled with so much care that they cannot travel on a passenger plane. Special United Nation guidelines dictate how they have to be packed. The FAA has plans to go as far as regulating the percentage of the charge on a given battery to reduces chances of them catching fire. But this dangerous goods label is not really the reason for the failure, to temporarily or totally import them into Argentina. I have been trying to arrange a shipment to Buenos Aires for a month now, with the help of many, including my own government’s embassy. I knew it was going to be difficult when a German Journalist friend that has been living in Buenos Aires for years told me that she couldn’t get her mother’s Christmas present out of the customs office. Apparently she saw the packet behind bars but couldn’t place her hands on it. I heard many arguments trying to explain the import difficulties. Some said that it was very tricky because of the dangerous goods label, others that customs were too afraid that we’d be selling the goods on the road. The standard answer had a noble argument at the base. Argentina, hit by a strong economic crises at the end of the 1990ties, in order to revive its economy, decided to protect domestic industries and make imports very difficult. You could import yes but you had to export in exchange as well. 8 batteries for 8 bottles of good wine I thought would be a fair deal. The coming of Christmas was also cited as a factor for the slow process. By the end a shipping agent gave me the most plausible argument, perhaps not the real reason either but at least an argument I could live with. According to the shipping agent, the stalling was caused by the recent government change; it had brought an end to 8 years of rule by Christina Fernandez de Kirchner and triggered panic in the bureaucracy. Employees of all sectors put themselves in a sleeping turtle mode. Nobody wanted to stick his or her neck out to avoid a chop in the big jobs reshuffle that was to begin. Dec 5th, after a few last phone calls to Buenos Aires I gave up and decided to try and ship the batteries trough Santiago de Chile. The process suddenly became smooth and lubricated. A few phone calls with a shipping agent and the address of a friend seemed to be sufficient. The confirmation that the batteries will arrive in Santiago on December the 14th and that the clearance process will start immediately reinstalled a measure of tranquillity in my nervous system. The big pleasant day dreaming process of remote viewing how this journey could unfold began again. Santiago meant a big change of route. It would have been ideal for the start of “the eBike diaries” to be in Buenos Aires as it had been for Guevara and Granado in 1952. But It was clear from an embryonic stage that to attempt to remake exactly Ernesto Guevara’s journey would not be viable, what was more realistic was to maintain the same goal to cross the South American continent.