Debating the pros and cons of an electric bicycle? Debate no longer. Contributing editor Jane Larkworthy makes the definitive case for turbo charging your ride.
It’s not a super steep hill. But from base to peak, the incline of Southfield-Mill River Road extends nearly half a mile. And judging from the agonized expressions I’ve seen on many a sweaty cyclist as we’ve driven past, I know to avoid this stretch. Fortunately, there is an alternate, gentler route to get back to our house, and when you’re pushing 60 (years, not MPH) and even the lowest gear is not nearly low enough, you are grateful for the option.
For the past decade or so, my husband and I have become fairly avid cyclists. No one would call us bad-ass super jocks, but we try to hop on our road bikes and get in a 15-to-20-miler once or twice a week. When you live in the Berkshire mountains, the operative word is mountains. There’s just no avoiding them. But as much as I love flying down a hill, when it’s time to pedal back up said hill, I am a lazy shit. Add to that my rather impressive whining skills, and you can only imagine the sheer joy that comes from riding with me.
My husband had been actively following electric cars, so my mini tantrums likely fueled (pardon the pun) his interest in their two-wheel relative. Of course, we’d heard about ebikes and summarily placed them in Senior Land, right up there with pickleball and bingo. Sure, our eligibility for AARP memberships goes back a few years, but the notion of acquiescing to assisted pedals was as distant to us as assisted living.
The resistance quickly dissipated when two of our most active and athletic friends invited us out for an ebike ride one late summer evening. After adjusting our seats and taking in the 30-second primer in how to shift the power levels of the Turbo Como bike made by Specialized, we followed our hosts out to a quiet country road, our control panels set to a modest level one. As we approached our first hill, I checked that I was at my lowest gear, then clicked the power up to level 2. A gentle surge of both speed and support took over my sturdy ride, and the climb morphed from exertion to a mild pulling sensation, kind of like the beginning of a waterskiing ride as the slack lets out. Cool.
Once I’d crested the hill, my host yelled, “Kick it up to 3!” and my bike’s energy murmur crescendoed to a slightly louder hum as it treated me to its strongest power. I couldn’t stop laughing. What a kick! We needed these. Within a week, we were the proud owners of our own Turbo Como.
Ebikes weren’t always as slick and sleek as the Turbo Como. For years, they had lots of unattractive drawbacks. They were bulky, heavy, with short-term batteries and price tags that required layaway plans. Today, there are dozens of ebike brands, and, with more launching all the time, keeping up is like that I Love Lucy chocolate factory episode. Fortunately, the bigger the offering, the wider the price range, which means you can go all bells-and-whistles with the most advanced design and systems, or you can keep it fairly simple with an ebike that addresses your needs, be they a relatively flat daily commute or regular neighborhood hill climbing.
With this endless selection come more advanced motor systems — different motor placement locations, wattages, torque sensors, cadence sensors, mechanical disc brakes vs. hydraulic disc brakes. But for this lay person to explain (much less comprehend) it all, I’m turning to another food analogy: I know I should understand the chemistry of my sourdough starter, but can’t I just bake my bread? Best to e-nerd out with your local ebike sales person, who can better guide you toward your soul cycle mate.
But what you really need to do is ride. Ride as many as you can before choosing the one. My husband and I test drove several at Covered Bridge Electric Bikes in West Cornwall, Connecticut, and our score cards varied greatly. He liked the Dutch brand Gazelle for its sophisticated colors and chic font, not to mention its home country’s serious biking cred, while I developed a serious crush on the Magnum Metro, especially when I discovered its throttle, a little switch you can turn on that will get the ebike moving without the need to pedal. Having been weaned on Specialized ebikes, a throttle-less brand, when we learned that most ebikes offer this feature, I felt duped. Then intrigued.
“People either like the throttle or don’t; there’s no in between,” says Bob Ensign, founder of Covered Bridge Electric Bikes. “Some brands know their customers don’t want one.”
Like Specialized. Hey, respect, but as president of the local chapter of Whining Cyclists of America, I see absolutely nothing wrong with having a throttle on hand. My friend and co-rider Michael disagrees. Actually, he disagrees with the entire ebike concept altogether.
“Aren’t you getting half the workout?”
Ensign must hear this argument 20 times a day, and he readily references a study where 30 seasoned mountain bikers did the same ride, half on ebikes, the others on bikes without power assist. Midway through the ride, they switched. At the end of the ride, their heart rates were measured, and no discernible difference between the pedal assist and non-pedal assist portions was noticed. I can't locate the study, but I’m inclined to trust Ensign.
“You might not develop your thighs as much as someone on a conventional bike would, but all the good stuff that’s firing off in your body is undeniable,” reasons Ensign. “It’s almost like a fountain of youth for an older rider. But when a younger rider realizes they can go further up the hill on a mountain ebike, they might do longer rides.”
Or more rides. Or a wider repertoire of them. My husband has been eyeing electric mountain bikes, in particular the rather pricey Specialized Turbo Levo Comp, so here’s hoping he wins the lottery soon. Our daughter, who lives up in the hills of San Francisco’s East Bay with her husband and one-year-old daughter, has a RadWagon4 whose caboose will accommodate groceries — and even the aforementioned daughter when she gets a bit older.
As for me, after an extensive ride-off between the Magnum Navigator and Gazelle’s Ultimate C8 HMB, Magnum’s throttle option lost out to the preferred comfort of the Gazelle, which I take out on leisurely rides, as my husband rides the Specialized Turbo Como. For more serious excursions, when the racing jerseys and padded lycra bibs come out, I hop on my Specialized Turbo Creo, a road ebike, which has drastically decreased the whining. That said, I’ve been mindful about conserving its energy and asserting my own more.
Having initially enjoyed passing my husband up those first inclines, it’s not about that. I still want to feel the sweat, I still want to feel my heart race as I rise off my seat and use my partially-toned thighs to get me to the top of that annoying hill. So I keep the power off a lot, and when I do power up, I try to stay at level 1, maybe clicking up to 2 when I get lazy. But I save level 3 for what I now call “emergency hills.” Most importantly, I am less reluctant when my husband suggests a ride now. And when we’re out there, I’m all too happy to extend the ride.
And that’s the point.
“We have a lot of people who haven’t been on a bike in 30 years,” says Ensign. “Then they hop on an ebike — and they’re getting exercise, they’re outside, experiencing all the smells and noises you miss when you’re in a car. And they’ll go out again tomorrow. These bikes get used. They get used a lot.”