E-Bikes: The Skeptic and the Fan

Are e-bikes cheating or are they the perfect solution for our hills? Two very different local cyclists take their e-bikes out for a spin, and weigh in on the experience.

June 19, 2018 | Leisure

E-bike sales hit 35 million units worldwide in 2016 according to Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports. Places like Europe, where cycling is a way of life, lead this boom. Still, domestic sellers are claiming from 100 to 500 per cent growth in the past year alone, according to a 2017 CBC report. Some say it’s the best invention, well, since the bicycle. But not everyone is as thrilled. Some say e-biking is cheating. Some say it’s watering down the sport. Here we offer two very different perspectives on a trend that is underway on Headwaters’ rural roads and trails. You decide!

The Skeptic: Nicola Ross

“That’s cheating,” my ardent cycling friends complain when I mention e-bikes. And I had their words in mind as I set off on an e-bike alongside Don Coats, owner of Caledon Hills Cycling in Inglewood.

A seasoned rider, Don manages to outpace most of his fellow cyclists, many of whom are younger by a decade or more. Decked out in a jersey that tastefully advertises his popular store, and looking ready to conquer the French Alps, Don was astride his sleek, skinny-tired Cervélo R3 road bike. My sturdy, knobby-tired, 29-inch Cube Access Hybrid was the same shade of blue as the cloudless spring morning. The size of a bottle of Mumm Champagne, its Bosch motor was supposed to allow me to ride alongside rather than miles behind my speedy companion.

While being able to cycle at or near Don-speed was attractive, I wondered whether a motor-assisted ride would be a workout. Or would I indeed feel like I was cheating?

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  • Our chosen route was familiar to both of us. We’d grind up the long hill out of Inglewood past the badlands, cruise along Olde Base Line Road between Creditview and Mississauga roads and then climb again before dropping into Belfountain. Then we’d skedaddle down the hairpin turn along the scenic Forks of the Credit Road before another short climb and a breezy glide back to Don’s shop. About 20 kilometres long and hilly, the route when completed on my road bike takes me about an hour. Afterwards, my sweaty T-shirt attests to the fact that I’d worked hard to get up those expletive-inducing hills. In all, Don and I would ascend almost 300 metres. It wasn’t the Tour de France, but it wasn’t a lark either.

    Climbing up to the badlands, Don called out from half a bike length behind me in a breathy voice: “You’re… going to… have to… do… the talking.” Looking down at my speedometer, I discovered I was speeding uphill at 30 kph. No wonder Don was out of puff. Moreover, I was only in the third of the four settings on my Cube Access. I decided to give “turbo” a go.

    Like a thoroughbred entering the homestretch, my e-bike surged ahead. It was as if I were aboard Secretariat in his prime. Don ate my dust. My comeuppance came seconds later, however. Fast as it was, my behemoth was no blue version of Big Red. It lumbered downhill and Don cruised by. At 30 kph, the motor on class 1 e-bikes cuts out as a means of preventing them from going too fast. This feature, as well as the need to pedal if you want the motor to kick in, is a way of stemming the brewing debate about whether e-bikes should be allowed on trails that exclude motorized vehicles.

    When going downhill and along the fast, flat section of Olde Base Line Road between Creditview and Mississauga, I had to pedal hard, really hard, to get my e-bike going faster than 30 kph. It took a good deal of human power to push a 22-kilogram knobby-tired bike. I saw Don conscientiously slow down so I could keep up. Now he was doing the talking.

    After turning north, we began the modest climb and I switched into the “eco” or lowest setting. With some effort, I kept pace with Don, travelling at about 30 kph when I would have been pushed to do 15 kph on my road bike.

    At this point, I was achieving what many e-bike enthusiasts rave about: I was pretty much keeping up with a faster cyclist. The e-bike meant Don and I could ride together with a bit of give and take on both sides. The e-bike was certainly an equalizer between cyclists – a bonus for couples such as Tim Peters and Liz Beatty, my co-writer on this story.

    My concern about motor-assisted cycling, however, wasn’t so much about the equalizing factor. I wanted to know if my legs and lungs would get a good workout. At the end of an e-bike ride, would I be satisfied physically and mentally? Would I not only want a cold beer, but feel as though I’d earned it?

    We covered the distance in close to 50 minutes versus the hour or more it would have taken me on my road bike. I was impressed with the power and ease of my Cube Access. When I’d turned around and ridden it up the steep hairpin turn on Forks of the Credit Road, I’d actually had to brake to slow down on the tight turn!

    Don and I regrouped in his store to exchange stories after our ride. While I enjoyed the excellent latte he made using his new espresso machine (it was too early for beer), I realized I didn’t feel as though I’d earned it. While I may curse steep hills as I climb them, I like feeling physically spent after strenuous exercise. I know – not everyone can relate.

    Thinking about it later, I decided riding an e-bike versus my road bike is akin to going out for a leisurely stroll versus a vigorous hike. I love both, but I derive different pleasures from each one. I didn’t feel I was cheating as I breezed up to the badlands any more than I do while sauntering across an open meadow on a summer’s eve.

    Then again, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to taking some pleasure in flicking on my e-bike’s turbo switch and charging away, thoroughbred-like, from a huffing Don Coats!

    E-bike fan Liz Beatty and skeptic Nicola Ross recently took their motorized wheels for a ride on Forks of the Credit Road. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    E-bike fan Liz Beatty and skeptic Nicola Ross recently took their motorized wheels for a ride on Forks of the Credit Road. Photo by Pete Paterson.

    The Fan: Liz Beatty

    Canadian Cube Bikes distributor Erik Jensen lives five doors down from me in Brimstone. A few years ago I noted how his wife Barb had rekindled her love of road riding, gliding past my driveway on two wheels almost daily through the summer. When she offered me a test ride, I understood why. E-bikes, I discovered, are awesome and not because I’m some cycling neophyte. But it’s complicated.

    For someone who’d rather lick a stranger’s used dinner plate than pedal a tough 15 per cent grade on two wheels, I know way too much about cycling – way too much.

    For a story about road riding as the new golf in business circles, I’ve listened to the CEO of TD Canada Trust get downright woo-woo about the Zen physicality of a monster climb. I’ve nodded sympathetically as the head of a big Ontario bicycling retailer choked up remembering how he began losing feeling in his legs during a brutalizing cross-Canada cycling marathon. I’ve raced around in an SUV way too big for rural southern France roads, just to photograph my husband cresting the lunar-like summit of Mont Ventoux, known as The Beast of Provence in European cycling circles. And a couple of days later, end of July, I spent four hours sweltering midday on top of a metal phone booth on the Champs-Élysées in Paris, all to capture the perfect shot of the final sprint for my story on the 100th Tour de France for National Geographic Travel. On the upside, I also sautéed three pounds off my backside.

    And I’ve done more than write about cycling a ton of times. For one recent travel story I cycled from Jasper to Banff (driving the truck for the big climbs). Still, downhills with tires whirring at 40 kph as lumber trucks blow past are equally unpleasant. I’ve tootled through vineyards in Burgundy, Normandy, Provence, Alsace, Umbria, Tuscany, Mallorca and other places I can’t remember now. And in case you need more convincing that I grasp the elegant gestalt of human-powered two-wheeling technology – in a previous life I was communications director for the first and probably most revered cycling travel company, Butterfield & Robinson.

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  • Point is, I’ve done my due diligence on this sport. And here’s the paradox. Just because cycling is a fabulous way to explore rural landscapes and villages; just because it’s this elixir of perfect speed, freedom and gentle exposure to the elements; and just because at the end of a day, every bite of food or sip of wine tastes pimped out, as if run through some gourmand filter on Instagram – just because all this is true, it doesn’t mean everyone enjoys huffing and puffing like a red-faced blowfish up the Forks of the Credit switchback. “You have to earn the view!” B&R guides used to say. “Why?” I’d ask. And with e-bikes now, why indeed!

    For me, e-bikes represent the best of all current cycling worlds. The technology is now silent and seamless. And best of all, after a couple of decades of being a cycling widow, Tim and I can now hit the road together. So here’s my retort to two common criticisms from cycling purists:

    Why ride a bike if you don’t like the exercise?

    Well, it’s not about if I exercise, it’s how. E-bikes don’t do the work for me, they assist. And they assist where and how much I want. On big, steep hills, which I hate, I go full turbo mode. But when I’m back to gentle rollers, it’s down to minimal eco-power. The upshot? A 2016 study out of the University of Colorado, reported in the New York Times, showed e-bike riders ride longer and more often – increasing health benefits, particularly for those who might otherwise be daunted by tough routes. As one who lives at the bottom of a deep valley, my e-bike is a revelation. And I’m not alone. “E-bikes have renewed my love of cycling. I don’t just ride for exercise. I pick up a bag of milk or drop by the farmers’ market,” says my neighbour Barb. “In fact, I’ve lost 20 pounds since getting my e-bike.”

    ‘E-bikes are diluting the sport of cycling.’

    That’s a common claim echoed by cycling journalist Mike Kazimer in a recent op-ed about how Europe’s e-bike boom is reaching the New World. For sure, we’re not the cool kids on today’s cycling playground, but Mike, real cyclists don’t get all judgey and threatened by e-bikers who may be older or who just don’t crave the burn of an epic climb. In fact, the most transformative application of e-bike technology is perhaps when we all ride together. Last year, Barb and I set off on two sweet Cube e-bikes with our hardcore road-riding husbands to explore 80 kilometres of Sonoma’s Russian River mountain roads then onto vineyards throughout the Dry Creek Valley. We not only thoroughly enjoyed this challenging route, we enjoyed it together. E-bikes made that possible.

    Barb’s new e-biking slogan I think sums it up best: “Get up, keep up and look up. Get up off the couch and get up any hill. Keep up with any group. And finally, look up and enjoy every beautiful moment on your e-bike.” Cheating-schmeating. E-bikes are awesome.

    Nicola Ross and Liz Beatty are freelance writers who live respectively at the top and the bottom of the Forks of the Credit switchback in Caledon.

    Want to try an e-bike?

    Come to the Tour de Headwaters bicycle ride on Saturday, September 15 and test ride a current-model Cube e-bike. Or, if you have an e-bike, join the ride. Starting and ending in Inglewood, there are routes for all levels and types of cyclists (100 km, 50 km and 25 km) with lots of chances to stop at local businesses along the way. It’s a two-wheeling survey of the best of food, art and services in our community. All sponsorship funds go to purchase equipment for Headwaters Health Care Centre. To register to ride, go to: headwaters.ca/event/4th-annual-tour-de-headwaters.

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