If you were on the Mt. Hamilton ride, Turkey Burn 2, or a recent Social ride, you may have noticed that Roger was riding an electric bike. It’s a ‘pedelec’—he must pedal in order to get any electric assist. If he doesn’t pedal, then the bike doesn’t move. The bike isn’t light: it’s about 50 lbs. And it isn’t a fancy racing bike: it has upright bars and looks like a commuter bike. He can set the amount of assist, from none to ‘turbo’, but he usually has it set on the lowest setting, ‘eco’. He was able to ride to two miles short of the summit of Mt. Hamilton before his battery finally conked out. For the record that was about 20 miles and well over 4,000 ft. of elevation gain. When it died, he just swapped out the battery for a second fully charged one that he was carrying on the back, and that was more than enough to get him to the top and back down to the start. On the way up he wasn’t trying to spare the battery, as he spent a fair amount of time in the next higher setting, ‘sport’, which of course drained the battery at a higher rate. Under flatter circumstances Roger has been able to get over 50 miles on one battery, making completing a century on an e-bike within the realm of possibility.
Getting the e-bike has transformed Roger’s riding. A couple of years ago he started having health setbacks that reduced his power and endurance. Coupled with just getting on in years meant he was not just going slower but struggling on rides we used to do without any issues. Rides that he had done previously that were enjoyable were becoming exhausting struggles to be survived rather than relished. No amount of training was likely to bring him back to his former level. After much hemming and hawing he went down and demoed a Haibike pedelec and was sold on the idea despite having no other experience than a ten-minute demo ride. He’s now had it about four months and he’s able to do all of our former rides more easily and is back to enjoying riding.
Like most recreational cyclists I viewed the appearance of electric bikes as an aberration. Wasn’t the point of cycling to put move by your own effort? If you were using an e-bike, it must have been so you would not have to exercise. Since e-bikes are primarily aimed at commuters and so-called casual cyclists, that actually makes a lot of sense. If you’re want to get to work more quickly than walking would do and you don’t like to ride Muni, then an e-bike is a viable option: you don’t have to work up a sweat if you don’t want to and you have extra power when you’re hauling your groceries home with you. Oh, and it makes going up San Francisco’s hills tolerable.
But for recreational cycling what would be the point? In Roger’s case using an e-bike hasn’t prevented him from exercising at all. To the contrary it has re-enabled him to cycle. He gets the same workout but the experience is different: he’s able to go faster yet keep his effort below the top of his range where he used to spend an unhealthy amount of time. The result is that he finishes his rides pleasantly tired and not wiped out as he has been. Going up hills is still hard but he’s going up them at a faster clip, which also makes the entire experience more enjoyable and less frustrating. The result is that he’s riding more than ever and actually getting more exercise than before.
If we cycle long enough in years, we are going to get slower: that is a certainty. It’s an inevitable byproduct of aging. There is only so much that training can do, and in any case who wants to train incessantly? E-bikes are another way to keep going albeit not entirely dependent on our own effort. Here’s a thought: instead of viewing e-bikes as cheating, we should see the benefit that they afford all of us who are getting on in years: to age gracefully on the bike and to allow us to do something we dearly love.