Simon Cowell broke his back riding an e-bike … or did he?

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If there’s a guaranteed way for bicycles to make their way into mainstream media, it’s if a celebrity is involved. And if that celebrity has had a bike crash? Bonanza. That’s why there was a sense of inevitability to seeing Simon Cowell’s name splashed across the internet this week – the music mogul, you see, broke his back riding an e-bike in the courtyard of his Malibu mansion.

… Or did he?

After a pile-on of stories talking about the grisly details of Cowell’s crash – which was revealed as having “broken his back in a number of places”, requiring the insertion of a metal rod into his spine – the considered thinkpieces started to emerge.

Health.com led with the very neutral headline “Simon Cowell Broke His Back in ‘Several’ Places After an E-Bike Accident—Here’s Why They’re So Dangerous”. Not content to let them gobble up all of the anti-cycling clicks, USA Today pondered the age-old question “Simon Cowell’s crash: How safe are e-bikes?”

Famously grubby tabloid The Sun – which you may remember from the classic headline “Harrison Ford reveals his eye-popping bulge as he goes for a bike ride in cycling shorts” – went with “X-Fracture: Simon Cowell Bike Accident”, which is admittedly kind of brilliant. Variety also got rid of the ‘e’ part of the ‘e-bike’, claiming that Simon Cowell simply had a “bike accident”.

Not an e-bike

But as reporting from Forbes transport journalist Carlton Reid has since revealed, Cowell wasn’t really on a bike, or even an e-bike, at all. “Media reports have wrongly stated that British music mogul Simon Cowell broke his back in the courtyard of his Malibu home falling from an electric bike,” Reid writes. “In fact, he was riding an electric motorbike with a top speed of 60 mph [96.5 km/h].” The alleged bike, making a real mess of a pile of mulch, is pictured up top, not being ridden by Simon Cowell.

Forbes reports the bike that Cowell crashed was a CAB Recon, which features a monstrous 20 kw motor – yes, 20 thousand watts, as opposed to the standard 250 – and has been described by CAB, between swigs of Monster no doubt, as “hands down the most powerful production electric bicycle on the planet”. [Edit: Contrasting reports from Page Six claim that, rather than a CAB Recon, Cowell actually crashed a US$21,500 Swind EB-01, which also claims to be “the most… powerful electric bike on the market”. Either way, we’re dealing with the same kinda thing.]

One of these produced Susan Boyle. The other gets loose in soil.

They have pedals, but that’s about where the resemblance to a bicycle stops. In the US, neither the Swind or the CAB are classified as an e-bike. In the EU, they would be classified as electric motorbikes, requiring a license, registration and safety gear. In Australia, they would be banned from public roads.

In a tweet presumably written through the haze of morphine, even Cowell himself doesn’t refer to it as an e-bike, saying that he crashed his new “electric trail bike” as a result of operator error.

Good advice indeed.

A CAB spokesman says the “electric trail bike” in question has a range of 120 miles (193 km), the power of 27 horses, can “clear any jump from right in front of the jump” – I mean, sure, whatever – and “will throttle wheelie all the way up to 40-45 mph (72 km/h)”.

As other media grubs are reporting, that could be a clue to how the 60-year-old music mogul found himself in this predicament. “He did a turn in his courtyard, changed gear, and then the bike went into a wheelie and threw him off the back,” an unnamed Page Six source alleged.

Cowell’s crash as media construct

But while the forensic details of Cowell’s crash are kind of insignificant in the scheme of things, seeing as the guy’s back is painfully broken either way, there are interesting lessons to be learned from the media response to the crash.

Rather than highlighting that Cowell should maybe not have popped a massive wheelie on a motorbike in his courtyard, most news outlets have instead leapt into the mire by highlighting the perils of e-bikes. Even though he, uh, was not really riding one in the first place.

ABC News’ analysis of CowellGate claims that the incident “renews e-bike safety concerns”. The story includes a picture of a Dutch-style town bike, and adds quotes from a spokesman from a bike company producing cute little folding bikes with tiny motors that in no way resemble the US$8,500 monster that got the better of Cowell. The article also helpfully notes that “e-bikes have a motor and often have more power than a normal bike”.

The scourge of our streets. Screenshot: ABC News.

The UK’s Bicycle Association – a body representing the cycling industry of Cowell’s motherland – issued a statement in the wake of the crash in an attempt to head off the tabloid pile-on. “The Bicycle Association, on behalf of the U.K. cycling industry, would stress that what are usually referred to as e-bikes for sale in U.K. cycle shops have almost nothing in common in technical or safety terms with the electric motorbike which was ridden by Simon Cowell,” the statement reads. “There is very little risk of any electric bike bought in the U.K. causing an unintentional wheelie.”

Indeed, there’s very little risk of any electric bike anywhere causing unintentional wheelies – unless the purchaser purposefully seeks out an expensive, massively overpowered and non-street legal version. But why let that get in the way of a good beat-up?

The result of all this is that Simon Cowell’s whoopsie on a motorbike has been used as fodder to perpetuate a media construct of The Terrors of Cycling. In doing so, e-bikes are recast not as a conduit to exercise, but as something to be feared, and those people that ride bikes are – even if just subconsciously – marginalised a little further.

Given bikes make people healthier, and people keep getting less healthy, that has the potential for far wider-ranging health ramifications than a reality TV star having a rough day. But then again, I guess this was only ever going to go in One Direction.

Author’s note

On behalf of CyclingTips, I would like to wish Simon Cowell all the best in his recovery. Although I don’t like a single one of Cowell’s TV programs and find his public persona utterly noxious, I note that Cowell was tangentially involved in Leona Lewis’ 2007 banger Bleeding Love, which is not worth nothing. He is apparently also writing a series of books with his six-year-old son, which is an evolution I watch with cautious anticipation.

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