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by James Huang
August 16, 2018
Photography by James Huang
It’s been a while since I’ve penned a genuine rant, but dammit, I’m fired up right now. It’s because of e-bikes.
Not because I think the people who ride them are “cheating”, or because “it isn’t real bike riding”, or because e-bikes are a scourge on society. Quite the opposite. I’m sick and tired of all the baseless hate I’m seeing out there. I’m totally over it. And you should be, too.
This sentiment has been brewing in my mind for some time now, but the final straw was a video that an industry acquaintance recently posted on his Facebook page showing someone riding an e-bike along the streets of a major US city. I’ll refrain from revealing his name – let’s just call him “Sleepless in Seattle” – but suffice to say that the rider in question is doing absolutely nothing out of the ordinary. He’s moving at a very reasonable speed, he’s where he’s supposed to be on the road and traveling in a predictable manner, he’s wearing a helmet, and he doesn’t appear to be endangering anyone. He’s also wearing a backpack, and there’s a bouquet of flowers peering out of the top of one of his panniers.
This is hardly the image of a rogue cyclist tearing through a crowd of hapless pedestrians, but yet this (now former — Sleepless has since defriended and blocked me on Facebook) acquaintance proceeded to berate this person on social media for basically doing nothing aside from riding an e-bike. According to the caption attached to the video, riders on e-bikes are disparagingly, and seemingly universally, referred to as “them”, while the people on standard bikes are “us cyclists.” Furthermore, the pedals are discounted as some sort of “disguise” to hide the fact that this is really just a “scooter,” despite the fact that the rider in question is clearly, you know, pedaling.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, of course, but in my view, this attitude perfectly represents everything that is wrong with the infighting the cycling community is experiencing with regard to e-bikes. And it’s beyond stupid.
One of the most common arguments against e-bikes is the sentiment that their electrically assisted powertrains make them more akin to motor vehicles than bicycles. Sure, that might apply to the unregulated e-bikes out there equipped with throttles and massive amounts of power, but the far more common pedal-assist e-bikes (also known as pedelecs) require you to, you know, pedal. From there, a center- or hub-mounted motor amplifies the rider’s power to provide boost, but by and large, what you have here is still just a bike.
A growing legion of non-bike companies are getting into the e-bike game, not so much because they’re into bikes per se, but because they see e-bikes as the future of personal mobility.
The vast majority of e-bikes you see out there fall into the Class 1 category of the industry’s three-tier classification system, meaning they’re limited to motor-assisted speeds of just 25km/h (15mph) in Europe, or 32km/h (20mph) in the United States; other countries vary. Steady-state motor outputs of 250 watts are the norm, with peak power spikes limited to 750W.
That’s a fair bit of power, yes, but the speed limits are quite reasonable, and well below what even moderately fit riders can sustain on most terrain. In short, these things just aren’t going that fast.
Far more important to my eyes are that these e-bikes are being ridden at all, along with how they’re being ridden.
The National Institute for Transportation and Communities in Portland, Oregon, recently conducted an exhaustive survey of e-bike owners in North America. One of the takeaways was that the vast majority — 93.4%, in fact — of e-bike riders were already riding non-motorized bikes as adults before making the switch. And perhaps not surprisingly, those people ended up riding their e-bikes more often than their non-motorized bikes, and frequently cited a desire to use their cars less often as a primary reason why they bought an e-bike in the first place. E-bikes didn’t create that desire, mind you; that was already there. But according to the survey, those helpful motors eliminated the perceived obstacles that kept them from ditching their cars earlier, such as hilly terrain, excessive distance, medical conditions, and the lack of utility that usually comes with bikes that are geared more for sport.
Cargo bikes are arguably the best application for e-bike technology, since their heavy loads and cumbersome sizes stand to benefit the most from the added power of an electric motor. Would these bikes be as popular as they are were it not for e-bike technology? Almost certainly not. And it’s practically a guarantee that every one of these on the road is replacing an equivalent trip in a car.
But what was more telling to me — and arguably more critical to cycling being able to grow as an activity — is what happened to the remaining 6.6% of survey respondents who said they previously did not ride a standard bike regularly. After purchasing an e-bike, 93.5% of them reported riding them either daily or weekly.
In short, most of the people riding e-bikes were already riding bikes, just like the rest of us. But even better, the other people riding e-bikes previously didn’t ride bikes much at all, but now they do. And that’s certainly a good thing.
None of us have to be convinced why cycling is an enjoyable activity. But those reasons aren’t entirely obvious from the outside, and that only changes once someone actually throws a leg over a bike and starts pedaling. Exposing more people to the joy of riding bikes is something that can only be celebrated.
If an e-bike is what breaks down the barrier in someone’s mind to tackle a bikepacking trip or all-day adventure, is that a bad thing?
When more of those newcomers are riding for the purpose of commuting, it carries a double benefit. Those people — at least in the United States, where this survey was conducted — would normally be getting to their destinations by car. Since they’re now doing so by e-bike, that means one fewer motorized vehicle on the road, and one less potentially distracted driver behind the wheel. Reckless e-bike riders are dangerous, no question. But even more dangerous are distracted (or worse, aggressive) drivers behind the wheel of a 4,000lb SUVs — no question.
Some of those e-bike riders even end up shunning cars altogether.
A former co-worker of mine at BikeRadar, Warren Rossiter, recently told me about an e-bike that he bought for his mother. Although she rarely rode before, she’s now planning to sell her car and has been asking about trailers she can use to facilitate running various errands. This is an extreme case, of course, but a real-life success story nonetheless and almost certainly not the only one like it.
I’ve been testing Trek’s Crossrip+ e-bike on and off for the past several months, and recently loaned it to Josh Crane of The Coffee Ride. Every week, he loads up 100-120 bags of freshly roasted coffee and delivers them by bike throughout the city of Boulder, Colorado. He’s now seriously contemplating buying an e-bike of his own. Photo: Josh Crane.
Even if someone doesn’t fully commit to going car-free, there are other lessons to be learned when pounding the pavement by bicycle.
While those newer riders may be experiencing the joys of riding a bike, they’re also getting a firsthand taste of what it’s like to feel vulnerable. It’s easy for cyclists to ask drivers to be considerate when behind the wheel, but if that driver has never been buzzed by a close-passing truck while riding on the side of the road, how much can they really empathize? That all changes once you’ve felt the panic of a near-miss for yourself, and that sensation is something that might just carry with them the next time they hop into a car and see a cyclist on the road ahead of them.
And finally, there’s also the very real chance those e-bike riders might continue to be lifelong cyclists, and could potentially ride non-motorized bikes in other situations. Say that e-bike rider is commuting to work, then sees someone on a sleek gravel bike ducking into the woods with a big grin on their face. Seems fun, no?
If you make the argument that cyclists on e-bikes aren’t really that different from cyclists on non-motorized bikes, then it unfortunately also has to be said that there will be people misbehaving on assisted bikes, too. But I think it’s important to make the distinction between someone being a jerk because they’re on an e-bike, and someone being a jerk while they’re on an e-bike. The distinguishing factor here is the rider, not the bike, and any ire from the rest of the cycling community should be directed at the person, not the machine.
Granted, many people in the e-bike industry are doing the community no favors in terms of dispelling the notion that they’re little more than motorcycles in disguise. Stuff like this is absolutely not helping.
That said, I also think the industry is doing itself no favors when it comes to e-bikes. That 250W of steady-state assistance is already plenty of power, but do you really need 750W of peak power? That seems like an awful lot, and definitely crosses the threshold of what many cyclists can produce on their own. Do e-bike really need to be as powerful as they are? And why do American e-bike riders get to go faster than everyone else, anyway? Someone in marketing looking to make e-bikes as appealing as possible to the masses likely has their own answers, but I’d argue that even just cutting back on the peak power would go a long way toward settling everyone else down a little. E-bikes are fun, and going fast on e-bikes is even more fun, but there’s a certain level of responsibility that should be associated with that speed and power, too.
Speaking of which, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of education out there when it comes to e-bikes. Do e-bike buyers need to be instructed on riding etiquette? Well, I guess that depends. Again, I’d argue that that sort of education should be dependent more on the overall experience of the rider in question, not what sort of bike they’re riding. But that said, there is something to the argument that fitness is often correlated to skill level and experience. When you simply buy that fitness off-the-shelf, those other two traits aren’t included.
And what about the batteries? What happens to them when they’ve exhausted their useful lives? Why aren’t the motor units more readily serviceable? How much training is there for e-bike service and maintenance, anyway? Yep, these are all valid concerns and issues — but they’re all solvable.
As a display piece to attract attention, this beast from Alligator obviously got the job done. But it doesn’t exactly help reinforce the idea that e-bikes are just another kind of bicycle.
Finally, there’s the entirely separate issue of so-called unregulated e-bikes. Not long ago, for example, we mentioned in an edition of the Daily News Digest a DH-flavored downhill e-fat bike that could be purchased with as much as 7,000W of power and boasted an assisted top speed of 45km/h, all with no pedaling required. Is that person likely to tiptoe through the forest and be respectful of other riders, or are they more apt to wring as much performance as possible out of the thing? Regular Class 1 e-MTBs — and I’ve ridden a fair number of them at this point — are anything but the roost-prone moto-wannabes they’re made out to be. These other machines, on the other hand, are a whole different story.
To every company peddling those overpowered beasts: you’re not helping. In fact, you’re a big part of the problem. And to anyone out there terrorizing the rest of the community on hot-rodded e-bikes: I curse you with a lifetime of double pinch flats — and maybe even a (small) battery fire.
Listen to James discuss ebikes on this week’s CyclingTips Podcast:
All of what I’ve discussed so far is rooted in simple logic. But sadly, much of the hate I see directed at e-bikes is based more in emotion — and even worse, it’s coming from other cyclists. In short, all too many cyclists are simply offended by these things, as if the very existence of e-bikes threatens their way of life. It’s only “cheating” if someone on an e-bike is trying to pretend they’re on a regular bike in a competition; otherwise, they’re only out for a ride, just like you.
But you know what? This isn’t an either/or kind of situation, and it’s not an us vs. them battle. As I’ve already said, people on e-bikes should just be viewed as other cyclists, and the fact that they’re going the same speed as us (or maybe faster) while exerting far less effort just shouldn’t be an issue.
E-bikes are rapidly growing increasingly sleek. From a distance, you can barely tell this gravel e-bike is anything other than a regular bike.
Think of it this way: If someone rolls up to the group ride on a bike that’s far, far nicer than your own, do you instinctively turn your nose up to it? Are Pinarello reviews littered with commenters saying to “kill it with fire before it lays eggs!”? Similarly, what’s your reaction when you see someone driving a car that has way more horsepower than yours? Is it hate, envy, or indifference? Why should any of this matter?
I’ve dedicated far too many brain cells to this subject over the past weeks and months, and I keep coming back to the same conclusion: It all boils down to ego, specifically of the rider on the non-powered bike who just can’t seem to stomach the idea that someone else is having a good time without having put in the same amount of suffering they did to “earn” the speed.
Say someone on this bike passes you on a climb. Should your ego really be bruised because of that? No, it should not. Photo: Josh Crane.
Seriously, who cares? Get over it, I say. If someone passes me on an e-bike — be it on the road or trail — that doesn’t make me any slower than I already am, nor does it make me any less of a rider. But you know what I do notice when I see people on e-bikes? More often than not, they’re smiling. Is it wrong to have fun? Isn’t that the point of all of this?
I can’t stress enough the need for all of us to band together, not fight amongst ourselves. The cycling world already is sorely lacking in any sort of cohesive power, and what we have here is a grand opportunity, not a looming danger.
Consider this: many of the companies involved in the e-bike world hail primarily from the automotive world, not the bike world: Bosch, ZF, Brose, Goodyear, just to name a few. Bosch alone is a US$60B company, roughly 30 times the size of Shimano. What happens to the e-bike world if the non-motorized cycling world pushes them away? Instead of helping define the rules, we’ll watch the automotive world claim yet another victory and get to call the shots as they see fit, not how we collectively as cyclists think they should be for our own benefit and safety.
Quality Bicycle Products – by far the largest industry distributor in the United States – recently debuted its first e-bike as part of the Civia brand of urban bikes. If something like the new Parkway model is what gets someone riding more, I’m all for it. Photo: Civia Cycles.
I’ve said an awful lot at this point, so I’ll finish this column with some sage words by an old industry friend of mine, Dave Koesel. He’s now the Leader of Components at Specialized (yes, that’s really his official job title), and said this in response to yet another e-bike hating Facebook post. Allow me to paraphrase:
“We now have an entirely new crop of bicyclists that will bring their buying power, advocacy, and potential lobbying ability. Let’s embrace them. Families with young children are already the exposed at-risk trail user amongst cyclists, inline skaters, joggers, and idiots. Let’s not use a few anecdotes as data. The mountain resorts face this same battle in the 80s with snowboarders and skiers squaring off on the slopes. The ‘careless’ snowboarders were ruining the experience for skiers in the minds of those consumers who had used the mountains and snow for enjoyment. As it turns out, the new sport of snowboarding brought investment from outside the endemic brands. In economic and environmental downtime, [snowboarding] may have saved a resort or two. In no plausible scenario does growing the pedal equipped two-wheeled transport hurt cycling as a whole. I’ll take a novice on a bike at a US assisted speed regulated to 20mph all day long, but I’m less optimistic that the influence of the bicycle curmudgeon will wane so quickly. Enthusiasts are genuinely threatened by e-bikes and their riders.”
Let’s not feel threatened, but instead, ask ourselves why we feel threatened. Because maybe — just maybe — things aren’t actually all that scary, and what we’re really afraid of has more to do with us, not “them”.