This fall team AJ is reimagining all the ways we cover climate change and the outdoor person’s toolkit for responding. We’re seeking solutions and seeking to write about what those solutions might look like in practice. Using an e-bike to turn car commutes to the trailhead or to the office is one such potential solution. Ever cognizant of the polarization the term e-bike provokes, we thought back to this essay, written by a cyclist who moved from the “what if?” to “this is fun as hell” dividing line with one ride. – Ed.
The pavement blurred beneath my front tire as I closed in on the cyclist ahead of me, whose matching spandex and forward lean suggested another Strava record was about to go down. Breathing easily and with my legs rotating in egg-beating consistency, I dropped a gear, pressed my flip-flop adorned feet harder onto my pedals and passed him on my bike with a subtle smirk on my face and barely a hint of sweat on my brow.
Was this what it feels like to be a Cat 1 cyclist, leaving other riders in the dust? Or was this cheating?
What is an electric bike anyway? Is it a scooter? An embarrassing excuse for a moped? A motorcycle without the sexy? Or a bike with with a motor slapped onto it?
What little research I initially had done landed the e-bike squarely in the traditional bike category thanks to pedaling being required to gain forward momentum. This allowed it to share bike lanes, lockers and many other privileges allotted your everyday bicycle. But unlike your normal two-wheeled companion, executing a one-armed curl with an electric bike would require some serious strength—the average weight tipped the scale at 50 lbs, mostly due to the added motor that powered the electric assist—the magic sauce that elevates the experience of riding a bike from the mundane to the transcendent. After hearing a few first-hand accounts, it was an experience I simply had to try for myself.
Curiosity in hand, I stopped in at a local electric bike shop and, without being asked for a credit card or ID, was given a bank account-breaking set of wheels to try out. No extensive lesson was needed. No instruction manual read. The experience, I found out, was quite literally like riding a bike, except for one critical difference. As I settled my feet on the pedals and began to push down, the bike accelerated at a pace that conflicted with the effort exerted; what little I was putting in was going a noticeably longer way. Like a five-year-old getting a push from his parent while simultaneously learning to trust the delicate balance between momentum and gravity, I was effortlessly riding up the street, awash in a sea of giggles. Daaaaamn, this was awesome.
So long as I pedaled the bike, the electric assist ensured I would get a boost. Hills? Gone. Headwind? Buh-bye. This baby took the daunting discomforts that invariably came with riding a bike around the streets of Seattle and threw them in the recycle bin. It was an experience that would be so easy to embrace, if not for one little speed bump: this gravity-defying two-wheeled wonder was most definitely not a real bicycle.
I sat down to grab lunch with my friend Marcos, who considered an “afternoon ride” to include miles that ticked over into the three digits, who rode a marathon distance both to and from work every day, and also happened to compete in the occasional ‘gravel-grinder’ and cross race. Should I admit to Marcos that I was considering buying an electric bike for my daily commute? The thought of falling under the scathing judgement of my fellow endorphin-seeking friend had me on edge. Not having to sweat for every mile gained was a sign of weakness, a hint that I may not be up for crushing it with the athletic alpha dogs at my job.
But thankfully, I was already known to be a pretty slow cyclist, earning the nickname ‘No-quads’ during a brief failed attempt to join a bike-to-work month team. While I was known to be a pretty strong climber, a fast runner and a solid athlete, cycling was not a sport my chicken legs were ever going to help me excel in. Drafting could have helped me keep a pretty solid pace on the trails home, but required the drafter to at least be able to keep a short distance from the cyclist ahead. Consistently being dropped into the distance, I learned that keeping up with my friends on the trail was, much to my chagrin, not my jam.
I delicately broached the subject. “Sooooo, I’ve been doing a little bit of research, and you know those electric bikes? I’m throwing around the idea of buying one.”
I watched Marcos’ expression shift from one of curiousity to concern, the shape of his brows transforming from a smooth arch to the sharp angles of a square root. “Dude. Seriously? I would never be seen dead on one of those. I mean, the guys would never let me live it down if I started riding one.”
“Sure. I totally get that,” I conceded, immediately feeling defensive. “But I’ll never be that guy who rides to and from work in the same day without a little assistance. Have you ever ridden one?”
“Nah man,” Marcos responded, “but Steve in Merchandising has one he swears by. Sometimes he rides home with us, setting the pace while we all struggle to keep up.”
The weight in the room shifted. These guys have openly accepted an electric cyclist as one of their own?
And then, with judgement now left behind in the ashes of his last comment, Marcos cleared his throat, tilted forward in his chair and, with an embarrassed grin and a quick glance around, whispered, “they are pretty cool though.”
You’d think I was arriving in a Tesla as I pulled into the driveway of my fellow outdoor industry friends’ barbecue; the paint was black, the engine was electric but the wheels were only two. I flipped the kickstand and watched as the hordes descended like a bunch of 2007 techies getting their first glimpse of the iPhone. “How fast does it go?” (28 mph) “Is it hard to learn to ride?” (nope) “Do you get a workout?” (well – uh – kinda?) But the question on all their minds – the one that revealed all their childlike curiosity – was: “Can I try it?”
With beers left half drank on the table and the cooling grill drying out the last remaining hot dogs, all attention turned to the fully-charged carnival ride everyone wanted to take for a spin. When handed the bike, Graham, the host and thus first in line, immediately hesitated. The bike’s weight, more than twice that of a conventional ten-speed, caught the uninitiated off-guard and nearly brought both him and the bike tumbling onto the driveway.
Righting himself, Graham swung his leg over the saddle, kicked his feet off the pavement and rolled into the street, settling his feet onto the pedals. And just as I had experienced on my virgin ride, when he transferred his energy into the pedals, the awkward weight of the bike vanished, replaced by a thing that went zoom.
Over the next hour, each and every guest shared the same experience, disappearing down the street to the end of a cul de sac, only to return moments later blazing at top speed in the opposite direction, pedaling fast, ridiculously smiling and unleashing an uninhibited ‘woooooooooohoooooooooo!!!!!’
My long rides have always ended with a drenched helmet, an empty water bottle and well-earned spent legs. I pull up to my garage, hit ‘finish’ on Strava and let the endorphins wash over me – few things feel sweeter. So with some amount of trepidation, I mounted my loaner e-bike for my first round trip 52-mile two-wheeled commute, unsure what, if any, stamina sacrifices I’d be making.
Off I went, navigating bike paths with ease, pacing cars on side streets and making personal-record time. My legs rotated in a Flintstone-spinning blur, flying past grunting cyclists on the uphills and sweaty commuters on the flats. And yet, through all the mileage and Strava-busting speeds, I easily could have left the antiperspirant at home.
Arriving at the office, I whipped my phone out of my pocket and stopped the activity tracker. As my fingertip hovered a hair’s breadth above the finish-line flag, I suddenly felt the leering eyes of the Strava gods judging me from above, the temptation to post my record-setting results conflicting with my moral fortitude. Multiple KOMs were a tap away – victory emails queuing up behind my hesitation. All I had to do was make contact with my phone’s screen. It would all be so simple.
And that’s the thing – it WAS so simple. The effort. The Ragnar-style kills. The lack of perspiration. I had tasted the joys of an elite cyclist without the training and a traffic-less commute without the exhaustion. But I had given up a healthy endorphin kick and some proper sweat equity. The e-bike provided both a solution and a conundrum, an ego blow and an electric kick. It was an oxymoron wrapped in the body of a KITT car. Go turbo-boost? Or go home the old-fashioned way?
With a hint of shame and a load of smitten, I realized that going electric was a means to an end – a complementary way to tack on the miles without emptying the tank. Paired with an intermittent traditional bike commute, I could get both exercise and efficiency while beating back the excuses. And it would guarantee more time outside and less time in traffic. Riding an e-bike, I discovered, is a little like cheating and a lot like winning.
Photo: Riding across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands and up a fire road to some rarely-hiked hills, a breeze on an e-bike for a trip normally done with a car. Credit: Justin Housman