End of the line: The ride-along

Missy Votel - 09/05/2016

by Missy Votel


(*Note: the following relates only to e-mountain bikes for recreational purposes, not the use of e-bikes for green commuting and general around-townedness, which is a completely different animal.)

Don’t hate me, but I have ridden an e-bike. And yes, dear haters, I even took it off piste. Call me a cheater, a law-breaker, a sell-out if you will, but it was all in the name of research.

See, I – like everyone else – was curious about this new-fangled contraption that has the bike world in a tizzy. This vehicle that, with the touch of a button, can squash years of blood, sweat and tears at the handlebars. Something that, with nary an audible purr, can invalidate a summer of pedal mashing and teeth gnashing in the hopes of maybe, just this once, cleaning the top of Telegraph.

It was not lightly that I entered into this, mind you. When it comes to the revered, all-consuming bicycling lifestyle (to call it a “sport” or “pastime” would be an epic injustice) I am a bit of a purist. For me, mountain biking is a labor of love, with the belief that years spent toiling on hardtails and singlespeeds (otherwise known as “the poor girl’s mountain bike”) will somehow earn me a special spot in that big sweaty wheel hub in the sky. I guess you could say I am a masochist of the worst kind: prideful and stubborn.

As I threw my leg over the top tube of the sleek, black steed with the 3-inch tires, full sus, three-speed LED display and conspicuously bulbous bottom bracket, I worried: would it ruin me?

And worse, would anyone see me?

Because in Durango, the mecca of ultra-human endeavors, being seen tooling around the trails powered by anything other than your own brute gnarliness could be social suicide. Like going to the grocery store with White Strips on or being seen walking out of the tanning booth. You know, something that will make us look better, but is best left private.

In order to conduct my research – which was done on county roads, I swear –  I opted for mid-afternoon, when the summer sun was searing high and sane bikers were inside, taking a siesta or washing their chamois. (This strategy worked, as I saw only two souls the whole time: a tourist in Bermuda shorts and a golf shirt, who still isn’t sure what he saw up there; and a friend, who was sworn to secrecy.)

 Remember folks: this is all in the name of science. As such, here are some of my purely unbiased observations.

1. Repeat after me: pedal assist. Although technically e-bikes have a motor, they are not the same as, say, a throttle-driven crotch rocket that can do 0-60 in less time than it takes bicyclists to switch gears (which brings up another, unrelated observation: why do e-bikes even have gears?) Rather, you have to be pedaling for the motor to work. As you reach a certain torque in your pedaling, the motor (which is barely detectable) kicks on to give you a little boost. Sort of like the hand of God; creepy at first, but you get used to it.

2. It will not make you superman. As mentioned, pedal assist bikes work only if You. Are. Pedaling. If you happen to stop midway up a switchback (remember e-bikes weigh about 50 pounds), there could be disastrous consequences, including but not limited to stalling, falling, death sliding, trail rash, contusions and making a general spectacle of oneself. Also, bear in mind, the batteries will not run forever, something to consider before an all-day high country epic. Trust me: hike-a-bike with one of these babies is no bueno.

3. It does entail some fitness and general bike-handling skills, believe it or not. OK, so I was almost ashamed at how easily I cleaned my nemesis climbs, but at least I was breathing hard when I got to the top. Sort of. And yes, it is easy to see how some, er, inexperienced riders, could land in some trouble – or pokey cactus plants (see above.)

4. Uphill speed – while most concerns are about riders barreling downhill on these mach 10, this fear is really unfounded. Most descents don’t involve a whole lot of pedaling, and what little there is, is unlikely to engage the motor. (Then there’s the weight factor, which in my experience was sort of like riding a Cadillac – comfy and stable but not going to set any landspeed records.) Where there may be a potential conflict is two-ways, where the zippiness of uphillers could catch downhillers unawares.

5. Strava – While the temptation may be to get one of these babies and lay waste to everyone’s King of the Mountain stats, please don’t. People live for this – plus it’s really douchey, like doping for the group ride.

Conclusion: I road an e-bike and lived to tell. And so did everyone else I encountered. Is it a little like bringing a Ferrari to a drag race? Perhaps. But if you have the financial wherewithal, why not?

 I do see where these can fill a need for families with kids; mere mortals with superhuman significant others  or riding buddies; people who have outlived their knees; sea-level dwellers; the infirm; the unfirm; and yes, maybe even some folks who are perfectly healthy but just happen to be, shall we say, motivationally challenged.

No one likes change – especially to that which we hold near and dear, and work three jobs, endure ridiculously high costs of living and drive crappy cars to attain. But then again, if we didn’t embrace progress, we’d still all be riding Y-bikes, talking on brick phones and skiing in leather boots.

No doubt, e-bikes are a game changer, but as long as everybody plays by the rules (read: don’t be an a-hole), we should all get along fine.

As for me, while not necessarily in the prime of my life, I can still get after it pedal-unassisted, thank you very much. So no, I will probably not be running out any time soon to buy an e-mountain bike (although this whole full-suspension thing is very intriguing) – but talk to me in 20 years.

(*Shameless promotion: Thanks to MBS and Ed Zink for providing a rig for this study. If you need an e-bike, Ed and the crew would love to help you pick the ri