By Stan Purdum
QUESTION: I’ve been thinking about getting an ebike, but my cycling friends and even some nonriders say that using an ebike is “cheating.” Is that actually the case?
RBR’S STAN PURDUM REPLIES: Well, yes. But only if you are secretly using a motor in a bike race or other competitive bicycle event. And that’s not even possible unless you happen to own a mini motor that can be concealed in your bike seat tube and a battery disguised as a water bottle or hidden in an under-the-seat bag. Those setups do exist, but to my knowledge, they were only made by the Austrian e-motor maker Vivax Drive, and they are now out of business. But, of course, the technology is out there.
And I guess it would be cheating if you secretly used a motor on a club ride to outdistance other riders and then crow about your supposed cycling strength. But really, who does that? Most club riders use those rides as an opportunity to pedal with others, not ride away from them. There may be a little competition, but it’s usually pretty friendly.
So assuming you have neither a hidden motor nor a hidden agenda, riding an ebike is not cheating.
A good retort to those who suggest it is cheating is to ask whom they think is being cheated.
I asked that of one of my critics, and she said, “You’re cheating yourself; you won’t get enough exercise.”
Oh really? Imagine you usually ride regularly but for some reason, you go a few months without riding. At the end of that time, you’re gaining weight and turning into a slug. You know you need to get back to riding, but the thought of pedaling your regular bike is not appealing at that point. So you pull out your ebike and let it assist you on a few rides.
And “assist” is the right word. A good way to explain what happens on an ebike is to imagine you have another rider on a seat behind you — like on a tandem bike. On a tandem, the two sets of cranks operate together so that when either the captain (front seat rider) or the stoker (back seat rider) pedals, both sets of cranks spin, propelling the bike forward. The captain can pedal the bike alone, but when the stoker also pedals, the captain feels a boost of power and the bike goes faster.
An ebike is like having a strong stoker seated behind you, and since your crank and the motor are connected, you receive the “stoker’s” boost only when you are pedaling. If you stop pedaling, so does the stoker/motor. Thus, the only way you are assisted by the motor is if you pedal, and that means you are putting out effort and getting exercise. (And by the way, the motor and battery together weigh less than does a live stoker behind you and doesn’t criticize your bike-handling technique.)
You also get to choose what level of assistance you want. Depending on the setup you have, you may have anywhere from 3 to 9 assist levels. Mine has 9, but I seldom use anything higher than level 5 and much of the time, I’m running in 3 or less. Many ebikes also have gears, just like many regular bikes. Often, as the road becomes steeper, I simply shift to a lower gear and pedal a little harder rather than move to a higher assist level. That way, I “assist” the motor and increase my exercise level.
In any case, after a few assisted rides, you’ll likely notice your fitness returning, and you may even find you are covering more of your route with the assist level set at zero (no assist at all). What’s more, you are getting exercise you wouldn’t be getting otherwise. So how is this cheating yourself?
The other thing is, most ebike riders I know are using the electric steed not to beat out anyone else but to enable them to keep cycling as they get older and regain the joy of pedaling.
Also, because ebike makes cycling a little easier, more people are likely to ride, and that cheats nobody.
Some ebikes have a throttle that propels the bike without you pedaling, so using that a lot will reduce how much exercise you get, and in that sense, you might be cheating yourself. On my ebike, I removed the throttle purposely so that I don’t have that crutch, but depending on how you use your ebike, the throttle might be useful. If you exhaust yourself on a ride, for example, it would help you get home. In any case, just because a throttle is provided is no reason you have to use it.
Riding an ebike is not cheating. Enjoy the ride.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.