Let’s start with a memory, one of your memories. Think back on your first bicycle ride, that ride in which neither hand nor training wheels held you aloft, that first time when you pedaled just hard enough for the spin of the bike’s wheels to hold you aloft, that first time the world began to zoom by, that first time you recognized your freedom.
Exhilarating, wasn’t it?
I still recall my first time. I went out with a family friend, a woman who had babysat me for years, and I was eager to show her what I knew of riding a bicycle. I pedaled, and my pride took over. I pedaled harder and harder and when I called back for her affirmation, her voice was small—not in my ear—a full neighbor’s yard away. I bailed in short order, but I’d passed the first of many rites. I’d ridden a bike on my own.
Since then, few experiences have matched that thrill. The first time I shot up a pool face on a skateboard did it. My first trip down a mountain on a road bike filled me with the same brain-burning excitement. I’ve spent years chasing that high and while I’ve had scores of amazing experiences in between, nothing quite equaled those firsts.
That is, nothing matched them until last year when I rode an electrically assisted Specialized Turbo. I laughed out loud by the third pedal stroke. I laughed loud enough for the demo staff to hear. Someone yelled, “Yeah, we get that reaction a lot.”
We live in a fractured nation where divisions along political and religious lines have driven wedges between people who might otherwise share an outlook. And yet almost everyone who has ever ridden a bicycle recalls that thrill, shares a memory of the pure fun that rolling on two wheels imprints on us all. Given the country’s obesity epidemic, electrically assisted bikes are a chance to make exercise more fun, less daunting, than either the gym or a road bike. That’s reason enough to embrace them.
Even if you don’t care about addressing this nation’s greatest collective health threat (ebola isn’t a blip compared to what obesity costs us), there is a reason why we should all welcome electric-assist bikes. Simply put, it’s survival. Yes, for all of us who ride the roads for commuting or recreation, every additional person who rides any sort of bike is more likely to identify him or herself as a cyclist. Anyone who has ridden a bicycle on the road in the last month is going to be better in touch with the hazards, the risks, the scare that you and I face on every ride. And if those e-bike riders see themselves as cyclists, they are that much more likely to be aware of our presence, to take note of us as we spin along the shoulder.
As you know, if they see us, they are that much less likely to kill us.
I’ve spent the better part of three decades as a self-professed roadie. I am not, by any stretch of even the most drug-addled imagination, the target market for an electric bike. From where I sit, my expected response should be hostility and snobbery, right? And I admit that before trying an electrically assisted bike I did look down on them. After all, I like pedaling.
However, I’ve also been a cyclist for whom the bike was strictly a device of recreation (if not leisure). I made a decision more than a year ago that my use of the bicycle needed to change. I decided it needed to become a mode of actual transportation. I now make runs to the local market with my city bike and a backpack. I try to pick up my son from preschool as often as possible on a tandem equipped with a child-stoker kit. Aside from the gas not burned and the CO2 not emitted, the six-mile ride home has been terrific for our relationship. And yes, his fitness has increased, but that was never the purpose.
As much as I love running these and other errands (I ride to my health club, too), I have to confess that if I ride more than five or six miles, I need a shower by the time I get home. Worse, I hate showing up to anything looking like I just walked out of the gym, or worse, rode a bicycle.
So I’ve begun looking at how an electric assist unit might extend my range, shorten trips and allow me to arrive anywhere, any time without needing a towel.
Since 2008 the bike industry has bemoaned the economic slump that has hampered sales. e-bikes have the opportunity to bring a whole new population into our sport, much the way Lance Armstrong brought new riders into bike shops—ants to a picnic. The promise here is far greater. Forget the Lance Effect, we may one day be singing about the Electron Effect.
If you’re a retailer, embracing these bikes could mean a whole new population of clients. And who knows where they may end up? We all started out as Freds.
Look, I get it. Some of these riders are more clueless than a mushroom. They lack skills, race you when you’re going easy or maybe pass you close enough to brush arm hair. It’s not a great way to make friends. But the moment we start lining up against people on e-bikes we make ourselves look that much more elitist and antisocial. Like we need more of that.
For those of you who don’t work in the bike biz, who ride because you love it, I have a simple request: Spread that love. Say hi to people on electric bikes. Give one a try. Do what you do now: Tell anyone within earshot how much fun cycling is, maybe mention how much easier that love is to rekindle with the help of these bikes.
The point here is that as access to roads, trails, bike paths—survival—tightens and grows more contentious, we will need friends. And as people like to say, there’s no Catholic like a convert. The same is true of two wheels.