Thoughts on Electric Bikes, Part I


When I was at the Specialized Global Press launch recently, I attended a presentation on the Specialized electric bike called the Turbo. I also had a chance to ride one. The experience of riding the bike came into direct conflict with what have traditionally been my views on electric bikes. Case in point: there’s a guy I encounter from time to time on the bike path near my home. He’s in office casual dress, wears a ginormous motorcycle helmet and when he seems me, needs to race me. Even if I’m only going 14 mph. I can’t help but think he’s being a bit of a putz. Of course you’re faster than me, dude; you’re on an electric bike. And no, I’m not going to race you, even if I’m pedaling hard. The thing is, none of that thinking is helpful.

Allow me to digress: I feel like I know the struggle of the werewolf not to shift form in the presence of a full moon. The most interesting literature of werewolves holds that they are, among all the bad creatures of the horror world, the ones least at peace with their evilness. Victims of werewolves, they are slaves to the power of the moon and lack the ability to choose their victims the way vampires do. No one, not even a loved one, is safe in their presence. A great example is the John Landis film, “An American Werewolf in London.”

Somewhere along the line, I was bitten by the creature that imparts snobbery to its victims. This is the dark side of refined taste, the ability to appreciate excellence. Somewhere along the line, the appreciation for greatness becomes a hunger for it. It’s that space where, after seeing The Who live, your buddy’s garage band will not only no longer do, it downright hurts your ears.

I can be as much the elitist roadie snob as anyone you’ve met. I know I came by that as a result of being a student of the sport. I watched how the pros pedaled, how they sized their clothing, when they shifted, how the braked and all the rest. From tube socks to jerseys so large the pockets hung down over the saddle, I catalogued all the sins not to commit. As a result, I’ve got a keen eye for all the violations. This isn’t just a matter of style; I can give you several objective and even helpful reasons why you shouldn’t wear a windbreaker that is two sizes too big for you. The trouble is, it’s not enough not to say anything to the offending rider. I’m aware that each time I judge another cyclist as having fallen short of the rules, I’m being a prick. I don’t like that guy. Every day when I roll out, I have to remind myself that anyone on a bicycle is one of my people, even if they don’t identify with me. They can think me a MAMIL all they want; they don’t have to be friendly to me. I just need to be friendly to them.

I’ve had to work at that acceptance, and it really has been work for me, but I had a little recently when I was out for a mountain bike ride in Annadel State Forest with Greg Fisher of Bike Monkey. We encountered a woman new to mountain biking, at least as far as doing it off-road. She was gingerly picking her way through some rocks and apologized for holding us up, then in her own defense she said, “At least I’m not at home on the couch, right?”

We can forgive her for wanting a little reinforcement, can’t we?

In response I said, “You’re out here; you’re on a bike; you’re one of us.” At that, she smiled. I did, too. I had a couple of reasons to smile, the first being there was a time when I really couldn’t have welcomed her the way I did. She was in cotton, had tennis shoes on, needed to drop 50 pounds … I could go on. But where a cyclist might see a non-rider faking it, all the rest of the world sees another person on a bike. And this is an occasion when the rest of the world is right. We may see incandescent cycling clothing as what separates the devoted from the dilettantes, but it’s really just another reason for non-cyclists—real non-bike-riding people—to dislike us.

I bring this us vs. them mentality up because  hostility to cycling is rising with the addition of bike sharing programs and more people choosing to commute by bicycle. The conservative punditry has made this crazy leap that the desire to make cycling easier for people—thanks to bike sharing programs, bike lanes, sharrows and minimum safe distance passing laws—is, in fact, a subversive grass-roots effort to take away cars. By making the world safer for bikes, we’re going to take away cars. I can’t begin to tell you how much I despise this variety of fear mongering.

It’s hard to parse a fear, chiefly because fears are largely rooted in irrational thought. Hard, but not impossible. My suspicion is that these folks, as characterized by The Wall Street Journal‘s Dorothy Rabinowitz and John Kobylt of the John and Ken Show, see us as early adopters. We are the non-smokers who are going to complain to government about all the cancer that cigarettes are causing and we are going to force our nonsmoking-ness on those poor, freedom-loving smokers and deprive them of the simple pleasure just having a few puffs of a butt. Think of all the deaths cars have caused. Surely cyclists—those evil, non-job-holding, non-tax-paying, light-running rebels to decent, civilized society—will use traffic deaths as Exhibit A as we make our case for why we should stop burning fossil fuels, save the planet, wreck the economy, destroy our way of life and then demand everyone grow a handlebar mustache, Rabinowitz included.

We really are the bane of society, aren’t we?

My point is that there is a real us vs. them split, and for my part, I’ve realized that it would be helpful for me to do what I can to welcome everyone I see on a bike as a cyclist. In calling inexperienced riders cyclists, we help them begin to self-select as one of us. I think that’s important because as cycling and cycling infrastructure becomes a bigger political football, we will be well-served to do all we can to convince every Huffy owner they are one of us, that their riding matters, not just to them, but to us as well.

Thanks to electric bikes and bike share programs, cycling is increasing in numbers. This is a good thing, full stop. Clueless new riders are going to weave in bike lanes, blow lights and generally frighten everyone nearby, whether they are other cyclists or drivers. In my mind, I’m telling myself this is just part of the learning curve and that in the long term this will be good for cycling in general. And I’m being careful not to use the term “sport.”

I no longer see people on electric bikes as the other, as having more in common with drivers and motorcycle riders than with bicycles. In my mind, we need them. The us of cyclists can never be too big; that tent can grow to accept everyone on two wheels and as a friend once said to me years ago when I asked him how many people I should invite to my party, “It can never be too big. The bigger the party, the better the time.”


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  1. Steve P

    So how does it ride?

    While I see electric bikes as a little backward, I acknowledge and accept the benefits. These days I’m a fair-weather bike commuter, but wouldn’t I be thrilled to have an e-assist on the worst hot humid days when I would otherwise pass up pedaling to work. An e-bike might bridge the gap for me on those extreme weather days and make me more willing to use a bike as transport more regularly. Did I just say that?

    That said, e-assist will never take part in my Sunday ride.

  2. GT

    Don’t care. Electric two wheeled conveyances are transport, they are not bicycles. Users are commuters and shoppers, not cyclists.

    Work of the devil.

    But I wouldn’t mind having a go. How fast do they go ?

  3. John H

    For me, I don’t have much interest in e-bikes, might as well rent a Vespa 😉

    That said, my GF’s father(a born and bred Flemish hardman) in his mid(late?) 60’s can still do the bike vacations he loves with his wife now that she has an e-bike. He get’s to climb the Ardennes, charge the French countryside, and his wife is able to follow(if not a bit slower). They both have a great time.

    I think it is quite the innovation for people like them with disparate cycling levels to allow them to still enjoy cycling together.

  4. Dustin

    As a MTBer, it’ll be interesting to see the effects of eBikes on trail riding, design, and most importantly – access. We don’t need people blasting XC trails at 35mph on an eBike scaring the crap out of hikers and equestrians.

    Should they be allowed on MTB trails? I don’t think so. An eBike is motorized, and MTB trails are for non-motorized use only. Enforcing it may be an issue, and non-MTBers could point at eBikes as a reason to keep us all off the trails. At some point I imagine IMBA will have to take some sort of stance on the issue.

    For commuter bikes, I think they’re great. I don’t have any interest in buying one, but I certainly see the appeal. I don’t want to see them on the local greeneway though, not if they can go stupid fast. Too many other users like walkers, runners, kids, dog walkers, etc – mixing all of that with someone with poor riding skills doing 30mph is a bad idea for all parties involved. Pathletes are bad enough, we don’t need electroracers too.

  5. Derek

    The mechanics should get ready. Because they are already here if not coming soon depending on where you live. Get something and have fun now before The Man steps in and really starts regulating them. Two 400 watt motors make for an awful lot of fun if you are going to have to stay under 100mph anyway. The batteries are getting better everyday too. That is the weak link now. I don’t even store Lithium batteries near each other anymore.

  6. Jeff B

    I rode one of these in Boston because my old shop had a couple demos in. Easily one of the most fun and unique experiences. It’s hard to reconcile it though – was I riding a bike or a scooter or a moped? I had to pedal to go, but when I pedaled, I went fast. I could ride ten miles to work on this and not have to change clothes, PLUS I could drink a cup of coffee along the way.

    It’s not a replacement to a bike, but it sure could be a replacement for a second car in an urban or semi-urban locale. Once Specialized figures out how to make the battery last like a Tesla, I’ll be the first in line to sell a car for it.

  7. Full Monte

    You wrote the No Drop Zone.

    A book that seeks to unravel some of the mystery of this confusing sport. To introduce, to educate, to expand, to welcome, to explain the why’s and how’s of cycling.

    Not a book for indoctrinated MAMILs, pros, aficionados. But for newbies and casual riders looking to learn more.

    A democratic book. Universalist book.

    For the heavy girl out on one of her first trail rides. Or the guy in tube socks on a hybrid. And the guy who always turns the bike path into an imaginary crit race. They may not have read the book yet, but you wrote it for them.

    For me, too. I know far from everything about this sport. But I love it no less because of that fact.

    If you worked so hard to give something like the No Drop Zone to the community of cycling – all of it/us, hairy-legged lane-weavers included – is it still hard to accept them? To understand where they’re at as riders? To forgive them, for they know not (yet) what they do?

  8. Big Mikey

    “You’re out here; you’re on a bike; you’re one of us.”

    This, and then some.

    She rides, her brother/husband/father/sister/friends know that, and next time they see a rider on the road, they might feel more connected to him/her because of the association.
    Which makes us all safer.

  9. Hero Snow

    Electric bikes are here to stay, the concept is not going to go away. They’re just going to get nicer, slimmer, lighter, and less dumpy looking than they are today. Soon it will be difficult to tell the difference between an electric bike and non-electric. Soon the days of x-raying bikes at the grand tours will be back. I think that’s all a given.
    What I’m dreading is the inevitable conflict of electric bikers and human powered bikers that ride the same paths. Soon, the inevitable is going to happen; some frigging dufus is going to maim himself/others with his suped-up 35mph e-bike and Minneapolis/Portland/other are going to have to start making something illegal. The law is going to have to step in and say either 1) electric bikes aren’t allowed on bike paths or 2) electric bikes can’t exceed sidewalk speed limits (10mph). Either option would be a blow for electric bikes. Right now it’s a legal gray area.

    1. Author

      GT: The Turbo will match you watt for watt up to about 28 mph. And because you must pedal, it still feels just like a bike, just with this miraculous transformation. It’s like suddenly being attractive. (Not that I would know about being attractive, that’s just my imagination talking.)

      Jeff B: Exactly. I’m not going to dump my car or my bike, but it would be a terrific car substitute. Saccharine, just without all the cancer.

      Full Monte: Wow, thanks for that. Yeah, it’s a weird world where the guy who wrote a how-to on being a roadie admits he can be a snob. The only appropriately thoughtful response is to quote Uncle Walt (Whitman): “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then. I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes.” Sometimes my wife thinks I’m delightful. Sometimes not. In my better moments I’m human. The rest of the time I’m just a pinhead, which isn’t quite human.

      Big Mikey: Excellent point.

      Hero Snow: There will be a learning curve for sure. Let’s hope we can negotiate it without additional legislation/regulation. Regardless, there will be some accidents, but as with all things, increased use will help people develop their skills.

  10. Luis Oliveira

    This is all nice and dandy, but when a jerk zips by at the bike lane (or worse, the sidewalk) at 30 mph, sans helmet, in a bike that weights almost as much as a Vespa but breaks as a beach cruiser, let me tell you, he’s not on my side.

  11. grolby

    I think fears of e-bike riding rogues blasting bike paths and trails at 35 mph is more of the same irrational fear-mongering. That’s not to say it can’t happen, but it might be about as common, one day, as the jerks who blast down paths at 30 mph on their road or TT/tri bikes. If we are serious about expanding use and access to bikes to more people, whether because we just want people to get exercise or because we see bikes as one of the linchpins of urban and suburban transportation in a more environmentally-sound future, e-bikes are an essential part of the solution. They are not optional! I’m not much interested in one myself, right now, but e-bikes have the same genius at their core as the standard bicycle, the amplification of human effort into literally super-human capacity for distance and speed. And I think, when I’m 80 or 90 years old, or if I someday receive an injury or illness that handicaps me, the existence of e-bikes gives me a chance to keep pedaling when I otherwise might need to stop.

  12. Scott

    Great to read an article that takes me 10 minutes to get through on the count that I pause in between paragraphs to reflect my own life and ways – Red Kite Prayer wins again…

    To the briefly touched on Turbo – simply a case of don’t knock it till you’ve tried it – you too may end up with said sleepless full moons of conflict. It’s no Sunday bunch ride, but damn if it ain’t a FUN way to get around…

  13. Les Borean

    This is probably be true for a lot of other bike paths:
    On the LA County Beach Bicycle Path, motorized vehicles are prohibited. I’ve seen one person on a Vespa-type vehicle get stopped by the police.

    And this may be true for other states:
    In CA it is illegal for motorized vehicles to operate on a sidewalk.

    So there are laws already in place, ready for the e-bike revolution.

    Is an e-bike rider being a cyclist? Just plain “No”. Not to me. But they’re still cool.

    In the future I see a continuum of 2-wheeled (and 3-wheeled) vehicle types between motorcycles and motor scooters and e-bikes and bikes. Just pick your level of mechanization and go with it.

  14. John H

    E-bikes are very common in Belgium. Almost entirely ridden by people over 50, and quite honestly despite all fears voiced here, their only real annoyance is those first few moments when I can’t figure out “why the f*ck am I not overtaking those old people faster?????”


    1. Author

      M laferrier: This is your mulligan. The comments here on RKP are a place for discussion, not trolling. My post was not an add for Specialized, and if you don’t understand what advertorial is, I can point you to some fashion magazines.

  15. Full Monte

    I don’t mean to steer this away from the Specialized e-bike (which I think is a cool bit of kit and for what it is and who it’s for, pretty neat), but in the introduction and discussion of this bike there is what I think an essential discussion at the heart of cycling.

    In my life, I’ve been a serious skier. Not that I was all that great, but I was experienced, having started at five years old. Did age group competitions and won a bit, had fun. Taught many, many people to ski. Later during my early adulthood in FL, I got into scuba diving, took many PADI courses and was in the water every weekend for years. Helped many new divers and even fished one out of the drink when she found herself in a big heap o’ trouble.

    In both scuba and skiing, I’ve been around the hard-core, the casuals, and the newbies. And there was never the us vs them feeling that exists in cycling. Where the indoctrinated, experts look down upon, even shun, the beginner or less experienced. Where one’s beginner (or hand-me-down) gear is a badge of shame, or the mistake or misunderstanding of a beginner results in eye rolls or sneers from the experienced.

    I’m not saying you do, Padraig. Far from it. This site, and your work as journalist does indeed make you an expert, but I think you’re putting your knowledge out there for everyone. And when you feel the snob well up inside you, you’re aware of it and understand that it isn’t a good thing.

    So many of us have this contradiction – we vow to introduce someone new to cycling every year, a resolution, then when we encounter a newbie, we immediately judge their abilities, experience, kit, bike, even length of their socks. Decide whether we’ll ride with them or not. Even if we will wave or acknowledge their existence.

    Why is that? Why is snobbery so prevalent in cycling?

    Is it The Rules, the Velominati? If so, they suck. And I vow to break all the rules, including number five.

    Are we all so insecure we need to have some secret code and handshake?

    Can’t we just let someone/anyone ride the way they want without labels?

    Can we correct bad/wrong/dangerous behavior without being d-bags about it?

    Can we accept a world where an e-bike is just the ticket for someone — that it has a place?

    It reminds me of a conversation I had with a Jewish friend. She was pregnant with her first child; her husband was Christian. She wrestled with how to raise her child — which faith to follow. She admitted she loved the teachings of Jesus. That the message was kind, fair, loving, accepting, promising, forgiving. But yet she resisted.

    “I love Jesus,” she admitted. “But the one thing that keeps me from being Christian is…Christians.”

    Amen. As a Christian, I get it. It strikes me that one thing that keeps people from becoming cyclists is…cyclists. Pretty sad. Having been on both the giving and receiving end of snobbery, shameful. People, we can do better, be better.

  16. Luis Oliveira

    Man, you people go way too far. It’s not about snobbery, it’s about safety. A 30 mph vehicle does not belong on a bike path. Simple. Should said vehicle be treated like a bicycle or a motorcycle? Well, in my humble opinion, it’s closer than a motorcycle than it’s to a bike. Anyone can jump on an ebike and speed it up. No previous experience, handling ability or fitness is required. In the case of the bicycle, this is not so.

    Mind you, I’m not saying that ebikes are intrinsically bad, inferior nor ebikers are fat lazy slobs. There is a place for them, I suppose. But this place must be arbitrated by the authorities.

  17. Julia

    In Massachusetts “a pedal bicycle which has a helper motor” is in the same class as mopeds and the like. They are supposed to be registered with the RMV and operated by a licensed driver. They are prohibited from recreational paths and subject to a 25 mph speed limit and DOT helmet requirements. When and if enforcement happens its going to be interesting to see how that last bit plays out.
    The so-called “loopholes” here and in many other jurisdictions are actually issues of appropriate awareness and enforcement. It’s kind of a fluke that I was aware of this at all – I took a motorcyle safety course last year and had to take a learner’s permit test for the first time in a very long time. I have no idea how you reach the people who aren’t already on the cautious end of the spectrum or achieve meaningful enforcement as something the law calls a motor vehicle looks more and more like a fully human-powered bicycle.

  18. Paul

    I never appreciated an electric bike more than drafting one on my commute home into a freezing headwind on the Central Park East Drive last winter. Loved it!

  19. Robert

    (first post- great website here btw!)

    I find the bike snob thing interesting because I have been on both sides of the coin- when I was younger I did a lot of touring in the 80’s unsupported, sans cel phone sans credit card and we looked pretty FRED out there- neon purple, Fisher Hookoo E Koo, fenders, Norco golf ball white helmet (1987). One of the best experiences of my life and the Rockies taught me that any hill I see now on my road bike is nothing compared to 250+lbs going up 6% in granny gear for a hour or more.

    I fell out of cycling after moving to NYC but took up running- and this is where I see the difference- in running we are all FRED, there is really no cool factor. Some people go fast some go slow- sure a lot of marathoners bemoan the charity back of the pack bunch “watering down the marathon” but its nowhere near the level of bike snobbery I have seen and felt.

    LIke you said, in running, if you are out there, you are one of us, and just go to any organized race and you see ALL shapes and sizes, and the spirit is “you can do this.”

    I don’t know why cycling has that snob factor to the degree it does- perhaps it is the fact of spending serious coin on bikes that brings it out- a status thing, definitely male, and unfortunate.

    I have a great bike now, I haven’t “earned” it like some would say I should, and I will probably get an even more expensive whip next year, just because I appreciate the aesthetics, the technology, and the experience of riding a beautiful bike. It expresses love for the sport. Maybe that is the difference from running, there is no machine, its so much simpler. You have to love the run because there is nothing else.

    We should all be encouraging, and the “rules” are there for taking the piss out of friends on group rides. Which is a lot of fun too.

    1. Author

      Robert: Thanks for that. I think the issue for cyclists (and I’ve noted this elsewhere) is that there is a complex skill set required to ride in a group and by the time you’ve learned those lessons, a lot of things that look Fredly you’ve learned to stop doing. Some out of self-preservation, some out of consideration for the rest of the pack. Done wrong, a group ride can get someone killed. It’s a serious business, and so we’re entitled to feel some pride in those lessons learned. We’re also entitled to feel a touch of xenophobia for those who don’t know what they are doing. The charitable act is to try to help them learn the ropes, not ostracize them. But that’s the challenge: to reach out in a warm and friendly manner and say, “Look, you don’t know what the hell you’re doing, but you’re probably a pretty decent person, so I’m going to help you so we don’t all die.”

      The trouble is, in-person, I have no idea how to do that.

  20. Sam Findley

    Personally, I think the last sentence in Padraig’s last post is a great way to start teaching someone the etiquette of the paceline. As far as e-bikes go, i”ve got a basic problem with the speed limitations: at least in PA, the motor’s supposed to kick off @ 20 or 25 mph (I forget which). Well, I can cruise faster than that, on the flat, under my own leg power. So the e-bike is sort of useless there (of course, there are hacks that enable the motor even if going faster, and the idea of adding 400 watts to my cruising wattage is just really appealing. Like being Cancellara for a day).

    As far as whether e-bikes are “bikes” or “transport”, I kind of tend towards the idea that all bikes are transport vehicles, and none of them belong on sidewalks/trails. Bikes belong on the road!

  21. Niteye Bike Lights

    One thing that springs to mind is where you stand when using one of these electric cycles. If you have a beer in a pub and then ride one of these bikes surely it’s as dangerous as a motorcycle?

    Sure the authorities will sort that out though and would like to think that they might open up the joy of cycling for more people.

  22. Carn Soaks

    If that’s what it takes to get my G.F. out on a ride on the weekend, with the hilly Bondi Suburbs, then I’m going there. 2k’s of 8% just to get out of burb is enough to scare any semi couch bound lass from following me to on a Sunday morning.

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