Cycling Stories

The Morality of E-Bikes

April 12, 2020


The Morality of E-Bikes

My legs pumped, carrying me up the last of three hills on my daily commute. The country club was hidden behind leafy bushes to my right, and the standstill traffic was impatiently waiting to my left. 

Halfway up, I hear a voice cut through my increasingly ragged breathing. “On your left!” he calls out. No problem. He’s probably one of the Lycra crew I see cranking out hill repeats around this time. 

I hug the curb to let the athlete—whom I aspire to be—pass. No such person appears. Instead, I see wispy white hair blowing nonchalantly behind an insultingly relaxed figure. The old man’s posture is upright and unbothered, his feet barely going through the motions of carrying him up the ascent. And he flew by me. 

He wasn’t an athlete to aspire to. He had a motor. He was cheating. Oh, how I hated e-bikes.

I jealously guarded my soapbox for years. “E-bikes aren’t real bikes! They’re nothing more than second-rate motorcycles that make you feel less guilty. Bike lanes are for people who earn their place with their legs, not their battery pack.”

I fought the good fight because I love bikes. I love the freedom. I love the perfect balance between walking—while taking in each and every tree—and hopping in a car—so you can actually go somewhere. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t also love the frugality of it. No gas, no mysterious engine noise that sets you back $700, and no outrageous insurance premiums.

Biking was simply a better option. 

I was lucky to live in Atlanta at the time. Although the city was struggling as much as most major metropolitan areas in the U.S., it was slowly being dragged toward converting itself into a more bike-friendly city. And like many two-wheel aficionados, I wanted to spread the good word! I rehabbed the rusty old bikes tucked away in friends’ garages, I taught new converts the miracle of changing your own innertube, and I helped plan routes for first-time bike commuters. 

More than anything, I wanted to share this love with the people I loved most. My best friend, my sister, my fiancé. All wonderful people. All, for one reason or another, just not on board with biking.

One hated the idea of showing up everywhere, sweaty. I couldn’t argue too much with that—Atlanta summers are rough.

One physically can’t pedal up Atlanta hills due to a preexisting medical condition. I really couldn’t argue with that.

One just didn’t want to. Well, to each their own.

But, this was about e-bikes, right? Right. After months of cajoling, I had given up on any adorable bike dates with me and my beloved gliding through the city streets. If I wanted a Summer picnic, I’d have to walk to it, apparently. 

One day, in complete jest, I threw out something along the lines of, “What if we rented you an e-bike? Then, I could do all the work, and you could come along for the ride!”

What do you know, that was the invitation my fiancé was waiting for. I was already laughing in a slightly dismissive way, but she jumped at the idea. “Wait, could we? I could pack us a picnic for Piedmont Park.”

I didn’t even have to prompt it, and my lovely fiancé started planning the date that had, until then, been a hopeless fantasy in my head. Piedmont Park is an Atlanta gem, but between it and our condo was about 600ft of elevation gain. Nothing to worry about for obsessive cyclists like myself, but it would suck all the fun out of a ride for many other people—my fiancé included. But with a quick trip to the local bike rental, she was outfitted with an e-bike and was excited to hit the trail.

I watched her situate her bag on the rear rack, straddle the plush seat, and look up the hill with enthusiasm—no hint of dread or resentment for making her do this. The e-bike, the object of my ire for so long, was bringing my fiancé and me closer together.

Did I go out and buy myself an e-bike, an enthusiastic convert to the new wave? No. Do I still grunt in frustration when people three times my age whiz by me while a battery pack does all the work? Yes. But that’s a pride thing, and I’m working on it. And I still take pride in the daily grinding of the gears, come wind or rain or snow (once I upgraded to appropriately knobby tires). 

The three decent climbs on my way to work, let me attack the day head-on and then clear my head at the end of a long day at the lab bench. I love that no matter what may happen, I am guaranteed a pair of twenty-two-minute meditations along the scenic streets of Atlanta.

Being honest about my intentions also required me to swallow my pride to realize what it means to be an authentic and unhypocritical bike advocate. Yes, traditional bikes deliver fabulous exercise and are ideal (in my humble opinion). But, they are simply not accessible to vast swaths of the community who might like the idea of biking, but either prefer to or are forced to, minimize the physical effort.

More bikes—with pedal or battery power—means more people outside, and fewer people in cars. 

Note to self: get off my soapbox. Just get more people in the saddle.

Nathan Ahlgrim lives in the mountains of California, where he helps kids learn to love the forest, appreciate the night sky, and realize how unlikely it is for any of them to be eaten by a bear. As a cyclist, he's worked his way from quarter-mile trips to the corner store to multi-thousand-foot climbs in the Appalachian mountains.
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