Spend enough time around bikes and you know when something doesn’t sound right. One day last year, I was grinding up a two-track in Laguna Beach, coming out of Laurel Canyon toward Bommer Ridge, when I heard someone coming up fast behind me. There are some seriously strong riders in Southern California, and I’m well-acquainted with being passed. But there was something about the sound of the rider…or maybe a lack of sound…no heavy breathing, a strange cadence. I could tell the speed was higher but something was…it wasn’t overt, just the flash of feeling in a split second that something was different.
The rider blew by me without a word and as he did I glanced down at his drivetrain. Yep. That was no mountain bike—he was riding an electronically assisted bike. To most people, it probably looked like a typical mountain bike, perhaps a downhill bike due to its oversized tubes, but to me it was a pox, a fly in the ointment of my day. Motors of any kind are prohibited in Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, and no matter how you rationalize it pedaling assistance comes from a motor. I’ve been mountain biking in Laguna Beach for 30 years, long before a lot of these lands were open to the public, when there were far fewer riding options, and flaunting the rules like that seemed like a big F.U. to all the people who worked so hard to get us access. Bikes like this were becoming more prevalent in places they weren’t allowed—once, I confronted a rider who brazenly admitted he worked for an e-bike company and was product testing. He didn’t care it was banned, either.
I also felt an ambient irritation at what I could only think of as cheating. Southern California hills are steep, and if you don’t like climbing you probably don’t ride. I was fighting to keep my front wheel on track. Sweat was pouring down my face and stung my eyes. My quads burned, and my lungs, too. It was an insult that this guy was taking the easy way up the hill, the illegal way, and his lack of a “hey, what’s up” as he went by just rubbed my nose in it.
At the top of the climb, where you get your first view of the Pacific Ocean, the dude stopped for a vaping session. I rode past, ignoring him and his puffs, but a couple minutes later, when he buzzed past me too close for it to be anything a move of aggression, I shouted, “Hey! Hey, asshole! You know e-bikes are illegal here right?” His response: “So?”
I saw red. I used words that I won’t repeat here. I might have called him names even less pleasant than a-hole. I might have told him to stop riding away like a chicken. I might have tried to find him later on Strava to report him. And I might have lumped him in with all the all e-bike jerks I’ve seen out there breaking the rules, dumping yet another d-bag and his e-bike and all e-bike usage into the same category: a complete and utter besmirching of a pursuit I consider sacred—human-powered cycling. Effing e-bikes.
That was a year ago. Now, I admit that I have a tendency, at least at first, to be a bit binary: Human-powered bikes good, e-bikes bad. My position seemed no different than most of the other long-time cyclists I knew. But a funny thing has happened over the last year: My hard animus is starting to soften. My closed mind is starting to open. My reason isn’t that they’re everywhere, though good lord, they are everywhere. No, my primary reason is climate change. We desperately need alternatives to internal-combustion engines, and e-bikes have the potential to replace at least some of our petroleum-fueled driving. The transition to electric transportation, especially if the underlying energy comes from renewables, can’t happen fast enough. Around here, the hills and distances are an impediment to running errands, even to a dedicated rider; an e-bike is a solution to that, and maybe the perfect one.
What’s shocked me is that I’ve started thinking about trying one myself. Yeah, I know, as a product tester I should be more open-minded. But the more human powered, the more adventurous it is. I always flicked the idea away like gnat. Me? Never. Why? Pffft.
But one of my greatest joys is exploring, and I’ve been wrestling with the knowledge that my driving explorations are not exactly helping the planet. Here in the Southwest there are many thousands of miles of singletrack, doubletrack, and fire roads to investigate, and I want to see them all. Sometimes I go on foot, sometimes in my truck, sometimes on my mountain bike or gravel grinder. But often I want to cover more ground than I can on my bike, or go faster, and I don’t want to be in a truck, or can’t go in my truck. I’ve strongly considered getting a cheap entry-level dirt bike like the Honda CRF250R, but that puts more money in the pockets of petroleum companies, and at 300 pounds it isn’t easy to haul around. And then there’s the smell, the noise, and the storage. I’ve had a dirt bike—it is not a small presence in your life. Electric dirt bikes are an awesome idea, but cost and range are deal-killers. The Cake looks like a wonderful machine, but at $13K with a range of 60 miles…no thanks. Halve the cost and double the range and I’m in.
An e-bike wouldn’t have even occurred to me, except, when I was actively mulling the CRF250, I texted a friend who spends more time around motorcycles than I do and he suggested I look instead at the Specialized Turbo Levo, which he used on a film shoot in the Alps. “Carried a big pack, rode all day, and never broke a sweat,” he wrote me.
I talked to a couple other friends, guys who ride as hard or harder than I do, and they said pretty much the same thing. The Turbo Levo is great. E-bikes are great.
I got, as they say, e-curious, and I started reading reviews on bike manufacturer websites—reviews from verified owners, who seemed to do nothing but rave. In forums, I found legions of happy riders. One guy was able to bikepack/tour across California in just a few days when it normally would have taken a week or more. He claimed to be burning 5,000 calories a day and was as wiped out as on any big ride—he just covered more ground and was able to squeeze in the trip in his limited time off work. None of these riders were exclaiming the ease of riding—okay, maybe a couple—they were talking about how it opened the world after injury, disease, or age-related decline. I read many stories about older folks with knee replacements or rheumatoid arthritis or congestive heart failure who are thrilled to be back in the saddle thanks to pedal-assist bikes. My father in law is 80 and just had one hip replaced; he’s having the other done in a month. Sadly, he hasn’t been able to ride in years. But he’s started shopping for an e-bike he can ride to the beach and back. It’s the first time I’ve seen him excited about something physical in ages. Can a device that enables that be all that evil?
My reflexive rejection of the idea was starting to waver. I thought about the purpose of any given bike, of any given ride. I’m a dedicated Strava user and I’m keenly away of how far or near I am to my PRs. I like pushing myself hard. I like the suffer. But not every ride is about fitness, right? Aren’t there rides that are more about distance than athletic performance? Or moving fast because that’s all the time you have? Does every ride have to be “pure”?
Pragmatists might say, “Well, duh,” but I’m a romantic. I like the idea of suffering just as much as the suffering. The easy route wouldn’t really occur to me. And that’s one of the key issues I’ve had with pedal-assisted bikes. I can’t escape the idea that accepting a push on a bike is anything less than cheating. Perhaps this is an old-school, absurdly myopic perspective, emblematic of the more exclusionary attitudes of the bike and outdoor culture that elevate athletic performance above all else, but I’ve always taken pride in the gains that come from hard work. Why would I abandon that now?
Except that it doesn’t really have to be one or the other, does it? Can’t you ride both, for different reasons? Lots of people can, sure. Whether I can, I don’t know yet. One of my goals for writing this was exploring the idea before I actually try one. Perhaps after throwing a leg over the saddle I’ll drink the kool-aid. Or maybe I’ll reject it outright. I suspect I might like it. I suspect, for the purposes I mentioned above, I might love it. But right now, I’m still a skeptic.
Either way, it’s clear that e-bikes are the future. As I first started thinking about this, I was in contact with some colleagues at Specialized, who told me about a new line of pedal-assisted road bikes dropping today. Called the Turbo Creo SL, there are three models (plus a limited edition), including a gravel grinder, which from the drive side look nearly indistinguishable from a typical road bike. The down tube is fatter and the bottom bracket area a bit bigger, but at a glance it looks like every other road model. The motor is about half the weight of other crank-based engines, and the bike weight is just 27 pounds—obviously heavy for a road bike but far less than e-mountain bike, which can weigh 50 pounds.
Purists are no doubt already scoffing, or retching, but I suspect an equal number of people are eager to jump on one. They’re beautiful machines, and with an 80-mile range (plus an additional 40 with an external battery that goes in a bottle cage), you can see them opening the world in ways that human-power alone won’t.
The Turbo Creos also point to a future where pedal-assisted bikes are indistinguishable from human-only machines. Motors are going to get smaller and so will batteries. If we aren’t already at a place where your average state or county park ranger can’t tell the difference between the styles, we will be soon. And that opens up a big, wriggling can of worms for land management, trail use, and rider etiquette. In Washington State, for example, e-bikes are treated as motorized and not allowed on non-motorized trails. But as Mary Ann Bonnell, the visitor services manager with Jefferson County Open Space in Colorado put it, “If you can’t detect it, is it really a problem?” After studying the issue, Jefferson County decided to allow Class 1 e-bikes (pedal assist, top motor assist of 20 mph) on their dirt trails. The International Mountain Bicycling Association, after initially opposing e-bikes on trails closed to motorized use, changed its position in 2015 and now takes the same stance as Jefferson County.
Not me. A motor is a motor. I don’t think that you will ever convince me that e-bikes should be allowed on trails where motors are currently banned. Bikes don’t belong in wilderness, and trails designed for human-powered travel shouldn’t have non-human powered engines on them. But it’s clear that it will be unenforceable, if not an archaic idea—the first e-mountain bike championship races are coming to Quebec in August as part of the UCI world championships. The future is here, like it or not.
I like bikes the way they are. I like the challenge and reward of surviving a long day in the saddle. I love and respect the purity of human power. But demonizing e-bikes gets us nowhere. It makes rational conversations about appropriate use next to impossible and it creates a split in groups that should be allies. It can slow the move to clean transportation when clean transportation is one of the things we need most. And it might cut you off from a new kind of riding and a new kind of joy you never knew was possible. Grumpy as I’ve been, I think it’s worth trying one.