Like a lot of things, the electric assist bicycle is a polarizing topic in the cyclo-sphere. Riders will come down on either side of wheel size, hub width, drivetrain configuration, frame materials, and saddle types. But nothing seems to bring out the vitriol like the idea of an Ebike.
I have to admit, I have been solidly, vehemently on the side of the haters. A few years ago, when I first became aware of Ebikes, I was scornful of a rider who thought an Ebike was a good thing. I was of the opinion that in mountain biking, at least, gains must be earned. Power assist was clearly ‘cheating’. Strava segments would fall to unworthy Ebike snipers. Heroic efforts by deserving riders would be meaningless.
Furthermore, the bikes sucked. None of the major bike brands had signed on, so the Ebikes out there were pretty poor designs where clearly the bike design itself was secondary to the electric motor design. Ebikes had motors, sure, but they were not an actual bicycle that a discerning rider would want to use. Actually, this was my major complaint about the bikes. The philosophical stuff can be debated, but the real-world performance of the Ebike as a bike, in my opinion, left a lot to be desired. Electric assist never entered my thinking.
Then, things changed. Around December of 2017, I went from being a somewhat strong rider to virtually unable to pedal a bike, due to a combination of a shoulder injury needing surgery and recurring back spasms likely brought on by a herniated disc in my lower back. Add a monster bout with this year’s flu bug on top of it, and the result was three and a half months off the bike. I can’t afford that much time off; I’m not young enough or fit enough. I’ll admit to some despair whether I’d ever ride again, or at least ride on a mountain again.
I happened to have some conversations in January with a couple of Ebike fans. A couple of points were made that now resonated with my then-current physical state: an Ebike can help you get back on two wheels while you are recovering from an injury. And an Ebike will probably extend your riding lifespan, maybe 10 years or more. My pain-filled body was a lot more open to these conversations. But, Ebikes suck as bikes, right? What if I designed one that was a good mountain bike first, and then added the electric assist? What if, indeed.
In the meantime, I borrowed a Specialized Turbo Levo from my friend, Mark LaPaglia, at Sun&Spokes Bike Shop. I tried riding it with the objective of figuring out what an Ebike is good for. I found myself ratcheting the assistance percentage down more and more until I was doing entire rides on Eco mode set at 10%. That’s only 25 watts of assistance, barely enough to offset the weight of the motor system. But, I could, in my weakened state, crank out a 25-mile trail ride fairly easily, and get back before the battery was flat. No way would I physically have been able to do that without that little bit of assist. And, at the end of the ride, I was about as flogged as I would have been on an 8 or 10-mile ride with no assistance. I stayed off the official non-motorized trails and used two-track and wildcat social trails for my riding.
I came to several conclusions, some not what I was expecting:
- Ebikes are more fun the less assistance provided, not more. Part of the argument is that “You might as well have a motorcycle.” When you run the minimum assistance you need, you still get the essence of cycling, still have to do the work, and end up just as worn out as on an unassisted ride. You just went farther, or climbed higher.
- You still have to do the work! It’s pedal assist, no throttle. You have to turn the pedals, and you will at some point use up all the watts of assistance. And, you have to point it and ride it like any other bike. At the end of the rides my hydration pack was empty and I was whipped.
- Ebikes do none, zero, zip, nada damage to trails. Period.
- The trails look very different from the seat of an Ebike. I realized that a whole new genre of trails were now accessible, and would be actual fun to ride on. Trails like those old mining roads, and two tracks that the ATV and UTVs use, are now fair game for this bike. Hundreds of miles of these tracks, nothing you would want to pedal an unassisted bike on, are now available.
- Not one person I met on the trail, whether hiker or MTBer, realized I was on an Ebike. The Levo integrates the system pretty well, so nothing really stands out more than a fat carbon frame MTB. And it’s silent under the crunching of gravel under the tires.
- Misuse of the trail systems by an Ebike rider is no different than misuse of the trail systems by any other rider. It’s true that you can generate excessive speeds with an Ebike and endanger other trail users. On most trails I’ve ridden, the same is true of any type of bike, depending on the rate of descent. In the end, it is a matter of the sense of responsibility of the rider.
- The Levo proved to be an excellent platform for me to get out and turn the pedals and start on the road to physical recovery. I am convinced that it helped speed recovery by allowing me to get out, ride, turn the pedals, and get my body moving again without the stress of an unassisted bike. When a ride became too painful, I clicked the assist up a notch and headed for the house. A wonderful option to have. Am I a superfan of the Turbo Levo? Um, not really. It’s a good Ebike, but still a tick off of being a great mountain bike. Just my opinion, of course.
By the time I was recovered enough to ride a pedal MTB, I parked the Levo and have not ridden it again. But, I am a changed man; I have crossed over the fence and am pro-Ebike. I really do think they have a place at the table, and like the new-fangled 29er wheels and boost hubs, Ebikes will become a fixture in the bicycle world. Should they take the place of regular bikes? No, I don’t think that. But, the big companies seem to agree with me, as more and more Ebike models are coming out from the major companies. Should the little companies pay attention? I think so.