The devil or?

The following is just my thinking out loud about a controversial topic, that being the coming to market of Electric Assist pedal bikes, both city type and MTB type. In Europe, they are a huge share of cycling, being used for city errands, commuters, etc. Here, they are just a tiny, tiny movement, but one that is growing fast. I am still working out how I feel about this and I reserve the right to correct myself. For now though, here goes. GG

It seems like anything new to the cycling market gets its share of dread and hatred, deserved or not. Disc brakes, suspension even…were either welcomed or feared. The most vocal critics of something new are often the ones who have not experienced first hand the thing at which they are tossing stones.

With E Bikes and I, it had been a bit of a ‘skeptic at a distance’ deal. I have been, at one point or another, amused, curious, uninterested, interested, sounding raspberries, and…well most emotions other than outright poo-flinging or man-bike love. And somehow I never managed to actually ride one of the things at a demo. Whatever. Did not care too much, I mean I am an American! We don’t need facts to have an opinion…we can make up our minds about something with no personal experience whatsoever. I think it is in the Bill Of Rights somewhere….pretty sure. Look it up.

Anyway, then a friend of mine, to whom I had sold an FS 29er, converted his bike to a pedal assist E-Bike system. I was chagrined but it provided me with no end of fodder to use for jokes at his expense. His reason for doing that conversion can be expressed in a simple formula: YxA!=E where less time in his life (Y) times a desire to do longer, harder rides (A! for adventure) equals E Bike. Math is hard, so don’t judge me, OK? I must admit, it didn’t look too bad but he did have to check out an e-scooter helmet guide to upgrade his helmet because after all, he’s going to be going a bit faster and needed something with more protection.

And it opened up all kinds of rides for him that he could not have done in the time he had or the conditioning (and body integrity…old knees, etc) that he had to work with. It came at the expense of a very heavy, more complicated bike that was limited by the battery operated tether that comes with every E Bike. You can only go so far until ZZZzzzzzz….pppfffttt!!!. No more free electrons. Yeah, then you have a 40+ pound bike that pedals like a…well, a 40+ pound bike.


But he loves it to death. He is outdoors, still pedaling, still on an MTB, while loving his 29″ wheels and FS and disc brakes and dropper post and all the goodies that technology has brought to the current marketplace, but he has something we ‘normal’ bike riders do not have. He has a hybrid system, where he is one part and the pedal assist E motor is the other part of the equation. I don’t have that on my bike. He has a Prius. I do not.

So I rode one. Finally I rode one. It was a full suspension bike of some kind…actually I do not even recall the brand of bike (I remember now…Felt), but the E part of it, and the key part of this story, was the rather remarkable Bosch unit built into the bike. After a bit of a introduction to what button does what and why, and a tutorial on the Intuvia LCD screen readout, we media folks were off on a gaggle of E Bikes for a bit of a sampler ride…some highway, some bike path, some rocky Jeep road. Now to understand the way this works is really beyond the scope of this article which is more editorial in nature, but this Bosch system only works when you pedal. Stop pedaling and it stops assisting. You can adjust the amount of assist the motor provides, ranging from “ECO” to “TURBO”. In the staging area, and in ECO mode (the lowest setting), the pedaling feels normal at first, then the motor kicks in ever so gently and it feels like someone just came up behind you and lightly pushed on the back of your saddle. Weird.

Out on the highway and the bike path, it makes the flats a cruise and hills are pretty much reduced to a moderate effort. But interestingly enough, I expected it to nearly take away the cycling experience as it relates to budgeting my energy, finding the right gear for the moment, managing cadence, etc. After all, isn’t it just “Mongo wanna’ go faster? Mongo push button. Mongo go zoom”. But the Bosch system still rewards good cycling technique. It works best when you have the right gear, the right cadence, and the right speed and load on the system, so as I pedaled, I still felt ‘involved’ in making my experience better. As a cyclist, that appealed to me. I was not disconnected as a part of the human/machine equation.


But what it also does is make you feel really, really fast; fast in a “good god I am fit today” sort of way. I was pedaling up a paved hill on a grade that would have been maybe…maybe… 8 to 10mph on a good day, working hard, on my ROAD BIKE and I was on a HEAVY full suspension 29er with knobby tires doing 18mph and doing it with a moderate effort and heart rate. How ’bout that? Off road it is still pretty cool. I actually was slightly drifting the rear wheel while going uphill on a loose corner on a wide road in TURBO mode and with a LOT of my own pedaling energy added in.

Downhill and in the techy sections it was like a heavy MTB FS bike. No magic there. It reminded me of riding my 29″er when I have it all packed up for Bikepacking trips.

So it got me thinking and considering how I feel about this E-Bike thing (and I am only referencing the PEDAL ASSIST type here, not a ‘scooter’ approach where you have an E-Throttle). It has been the subject of a few frank discussions and breakfast meetings. Where does this belong and where does it not? Who is this for? Is it a bike or a motorcycle? What type of coverage will I need to buy in-order to insurance it? Is it the devil, just waiting to roll back all the hard-fought land access victories that have been so long in the process? Or is it the bright new tomorrow for a lot of non-cyclists and cyclists alike?

I am not sure I have all those answers and I am not sure anyone really does. I know that the folks behind this want it to succeed as it means profit for them. Surprise! A company wanting to be successful and make money. But at what cost, or, on the flip side, to what benefit? Some random thoughts and counter thoughts and maybe counter-counter thoughts.

  • “It is a motorcycle”. Well, not really. I have never seen pedals on a motorcycle and you have to pedal this thing or it just stops ‘helping’ you. However it is, and I don’t see how you can get around this, a motorized vehicle. And that means there are a lot of places that it cannot legally be used, including many paved city bike paths, etc. If it were a motorbike after a while you might wonder how much is your motorbike worth? Worth checking out if you want to know for sure how much your motorbike might be currently worth. Furthermore, if you’re looking to purchase a new motorcycle, but aren’t sure if you can afford one just yet, you might want to read this motorbike financing guide. There are various finance options available to make owning the bike of your dreams a reality, so it’s worthwhile to consider some of the different loans out there.
  • “It will cause more trail damage and user conflicts.” Regarding trail damage, I doubt that. It is not a CR250, OK? It’s a bicycle. The other part is more thorny. It is assumed that the potential for increased speeds will result in more folks being scared on trail by E Bike riders, but I am not so sure that reality bears that out. Consider this. On the typical multi-user trail, a fit and skilled rider (or even a not fit and not so skilled rider) can reach a speed that is imprudent, or to say it another way, he or she can go fast enough that it can be an issue for other trail users. You don’t need a motor for that (although now you can climb fast enough to be a bomber uphill too!). So while E Assist might allow that prudent speed to be exceeded more easily and by more riders, as long as people are riding properly and with concern for others, the fact they have a motor is a moot point. Meekness is described as strength deferred. It is not the potential for speed that is the problem here, it is how you use it (and how you use what you have now). However I am sure that the first time a E Bike is involved in a trail incident with another user, the bells will sound out the alarm, even though they stopped ringing long ago for conflicts involving non-E Bikes.
  • On paved bike paths, say with a speed limit of 15mph…well most any rider that is reasonably fit can exceed that on most any performance bike and I quite often exceed the 20mph cut-off point of the Bosch system on my road bike on our local paths, but only when I have clear line of site, etc. So that seems to me to be a non-issue as well. An E Rider being a good citizen is no more or less of a threat than a non E Rider being a good citizen…or likewise, being a bad egg. They are just doing it with less effort. Might that be too tempting, that ease of E-Speed, and therefore multiply conflicts? Possibly so, but not necessarily so.
  • There are other things I have heard called out from the minuet towers of alarm-dom…such as, it robs the rider from needing to ‘earn his/her stripes’, so to speak, making it too easy I suppose. Smacks of elitism, I think. And I think of lot of the hate sprouts from this root of bitterness…might we ‘real cyclists’ be packing sour grapes in our Camelbaks and in our jersey pockets? Perhaps so. Is it cheating or just another way to do it?

So if this gets more folks on bikes, that seems to me to be a good thing. Will all of them become ‘serious’ cyclists? Maybe some will but who cares if they do not? Is it likely that the potential amount of casual or commuter E Bike riders is much higher as compared to the amount of folks who will turn from E Bikers into serious cycling enthusiasts? Maybe, but how about being both? How about having the normal bike(s) for competitive or hard core efforts and the E Bike for errands and getting to work, etc? It is not a thing for everywhere and for everyone, but what is? Should they be allowed anywhere a normal bike is? I am not sure. But there are places a normal bike does not belong either and we are still battling that one out with often murky waters to wade through.

Is it for me? No, not yet and not for my life situation. I don’t see it as a mountain bike option for me. The E Package includes some weight, complexity, and limitations (battery life for instance) that do not fit the way I enjoy cycling. Light bikes are more fun. Period. But that may change someday. I can almost see myself hauling my E Bike to some desert trail to zip around on Fatty 27.5 tires and full travel suspension for an hour or so of quiet, sort-of motorized fun. If my health or capabilities lessen, then I would consider it. Why not? Why should the outdoors be only for the very fit and very capable? In a way, that situation is self correcting or self governing, if you will. Mountain biking is hard for all kinds of reasons and just giving you extra power at the pedals does not change that enough to blow the sport open to the masses.

But I sure can see having one as an option to a car or even as an addition to the bike stable as a whole. Errands, commuting, shopping, kid hauling…all of that makes a ton of sense for an E Bike. If I have one parked in the garage next to my Trek Emonda or Niner RIP9 or Scott Scale , the others will not burst into flames because of it. And if someone pulls up alongside me on a long dirt climb and passes me with the E-wings of Icarus doing their magic for the rider, I will be OK with that. And if I am not Ok with that, I have to ask myself why.

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