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.
David L says
Stan, awesome article on ebikes. I think you said it best that most ebike riders you 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. Seems most people that have a problem with ebikes have not gotten to that point in life where they can’t ride for whatever reason at the level they used to. I know in my case riding my regular road or mtn. bike had become to difficult to keep up with the different groups I’d ride. I’d push myself to far to exhaustion, my heart rate was staying to high to long and was starting to cause me some health problems.. The love I had for riding was dissipating. I knew if I were going to keep cycling at these levels I had to do something. Long story short I have since bought both e road and mtn. bikes. I can say I still push myself as hard as I can but when it gets to hard I use as little assist as needed to maintain my workout level and keep up with the groups I’ve always ridden with. I really love riding my ebikes and I don’t feel I am cheating anyone. I say it depends on what each person wants out of their cycling but if for whatever reason you can’t cycle at the level you want then you may only be cheating yourself out of the joys you can have with a ebike.
Well stated! Though I haven’t invested in an e-bike yet, I know I will need to at some point due to multiple disabilities, most notably my traumatic left above knee amputation from 33 years ago. In turn it’s made my only knee weaker over the years for compensating. I probably should consider purchasing one now, but am still largely able to ride the routes I want since I live in pancake flat farm country and am not in any competition. If it gets you outside and giving you exercise by assisting in areas that can be difficult for whatever reason no one should be critical.
My comment would be it IS cheating to use your e-bike to ride on a faster-paced ride than you normally would when riding in a group. As e-bikes gained popularity, we struggled in our club with how to deal with them. The problem really came to light when a rider who usually rides with the B group joined the A ride on his e-bike. The first time he got to the front of the line, he pushed the pace from 21-22 to 26. Not really appropriate, especially since this was within 5 miles of the start. So we decided to allow e-bikes on our rides provided it is not done to ride at a pace that you normally can’t ride. It’s more than just speed that goes into a certain-paced ride, so we want to keep things safe by keeping people in a pace that their skills can support.
David L says
I don’t know the intent of person of whom you are speaking of but I doubt he was trying to cheat. It is easy to get going faster than you really realize especially when there are rollers, hills or crosswinds involved. The e-biker has to be conscious of this by paying attention to how much wattage they are using and keep it at what the rest of the group is capable of.
Stan Purdum says
Some ebike riders have yet to learn ebike etiquette. But it’s not difficult using the lower assist levels to stay with even the B riders if riding with other is the goal.
My husband who used to ride 8,000 + miles a year, was diagnosed with chronic kidney disease. Due to a long hospitalization, and lots of drugs, his fitness went south. He no longer could ride the way he used to and would return from a 10 mile ride exhausted and discouraged. A friend let him try his ebike and after one 25 mile ride, he immediately ordered a bike. He is now back to riding 150+ miles a week. We had to stop riding together and now he can keep up with me! He does some small group rides and hangs out at the back.
So glad he is able to enjoy time in the saddle again. Sounds like this has been a great solution for him. Kudos!
larry english says
yeah it isn’t cheating as long as no one cares 🙂
but there are shades of grey
my wife got a cheapish ebike and i have tried it, it;s definitely fun to go faster
Jerry Halperin says
I have had an Ebike since August and find I get as much exercise using the eco setting as I do on my Scott road bike. Also when on a group ride I now am always elected to be the puller in to the wind!
Dave DiRoma says
I don’t own an e-bike but I do participate in club rides (B level) with folks that do. I have yet to see any of the e-bikers use their machine to “push the pace”. It’s hilly here in upstate NY and having that little bit of assist has allowed riders who due to age or other circumstances would limit themselves to flat or slower paced rides to stay with the groups they have been riding with for many years.
The article and preceding comments are describing what I would call legitimate uses of ebikes.
Unfortunately, what I mostly see here in SoCal are people who: 1) never learned the skills of riding a regular bike at any speed above 10mph and are now going 20 or more on a multi-use trail, 2) are not pedaling, but refer to their electric motorcycle as an ebike so they can ride wherever, 3) tend to be too young to be licensed to drive (meaning their parents bought them the bike to avoid having to play chauffer) and generally unaware of the laws, like don’t ride the wrong way on the street or on the sidewalk. Or, they are old and wobbly, and still don’t know the laws.
There have been several news articles documenting a big rise in emergency room visits due to ebikes. No doubt the readers of this article and this newsletter are among the legitimate users who will not wind up in the emergency room but the statistics are there.
There is a huge difference between pedal
assist and ebikes, and I think clubs/municipalities are going to have to differentiate when they put up signage.
I agree 110%. I live in SoCal, South Bay to be precise. I see the exact same thing you have described all too often in addition to running through stops, riding 4 kids abreast, riding on the wrong side of the road, wobbly no helmets and thinking to myself great job parents, Of course, the old geezers out there ride the same. If people take offence to to my non- pc old geezers, I’m 70 and still ride 200 miles plus or minus a few per week 60-70% on road and 30-40% on trainer. Oh yea forgot to mention the jerks that say “wanna race”
Edward Custer says
I never thought I would even entertain the thought of owning an ebike. Age finally caught up with me. At age 78 (two years ago) I could not handle the cold temps in the winter and opted out to taking long one hour walks with my dog. I did not ride for 3 months. Come early spring I got back on my road bike and I almost died. It felt the same as when I came back to cycling after I retired in the late 90’s. I noticed my LBS had an ad for a Colnago Ebike. First thought was Ernesto is making an ebike? I sent the owner of the LBS an email and he contacted me back by phone and said I should consider a Trek Domane ebike. Long story short. I bought one. Ultegra Di2, Disc brakes, carbon wheels. Best riding bike I’ve ever owned. It weighs a ton, 37 pounds with battery. You can take the battery out, dropping it down to 30 pounds. Range is limited. Depends on cold weather, amount of climbing and body weight. I probably can squeeze out around 32 miles. It has 3 different modes with is controlled on your top tube . The motor stops working after you hit 20MPH, It only really helps for climbs. Do I feel like I am cheating? No, I feel like I am 20 years younger and cycling is fun again.
These ebikes are expensive, so don’t consider one unless you want to pump out a considerable amount of pocked money.
Thanks Stan, by the comments it’s evident that this is a more controversial issue than what appears.
Re. Concerns for if it is “cheating” you addressed well with who, how and what is harmed.
Appreciate your illustrations, analogy to a stoker and info on throttle options.
What is unique is your insight embracing the impact of ebike and the differences in use for the social vs competitive rider,
I am one who will want more info not only how to cut resistance, lighter, faster, longer but any technology which can assist and encourage biking as I age.
I don’t think e-bikes are “cheating”, but certainly can get unskilled riders into trouble. As Lee pointed out., medical studies show E-bike injuries are on the rise. If we in the cycling world are honest, we must realize that too many folks are riding e-bikes at speed well beyond their bike handling skills. E-biking injuries hurt the overall image of cycling.
In group rides, I have no problem with experienced older (or post-injury/illness) riders getting e-bikes to keep riding with their buddies. OTOH- I have been on too many open club rides where some e-bikers pose a true hazard to others by riding at motorized speeds well beyond their bike handling skills (can’t hold their line, make sudden unsignaled/called moves, yo-yo their speeds, etc.). I have NO problem with an e-biker who goes to the front and tries to push the pace. Groups I ride with just stick to our normal paces & let those ‘motorcyclists’ ride off by themselves…….or let them pace us into the wind 😉
David L says
John, I agree that a lot of people get into trouble riding beyond their skill level especially on emtb’s. However, I have been in many so called open event training rides over the years and have seen plenty crashes and injuries caused by unskilled riders on regular (analog) bikes riding above their skill level weather by can’t hold their line, make sudden unsignaled/called moves, yo-yo their speeds, etc. My point is there have always been problems when people are involved . That’s just the problem with humans and weather it be regular or electric people will figure out their skill level and adjust to it as they always have before. I don’t see ebikes going away so we’ll just have to work together and do our best to enjoy cycling best we can. Ride On !!
Of course bike accidents predate e-bikes and riders have always varied in their handling skills. But ‘regular riders’ figure out (and hopefully improve) their skill levels at speeds their muscle power supports. A typical 10-12mph hybrid rider jump[ing on an e-bike and joining an 18-20mph group ride (because he/she can) is an accident waiting to happen.
David, So true about people not having skills on road bikes as well!! I’ve seen many young, strong male riders, who have ZERO bike etiquette on some big group rides. That’s when it is important for the ride leader(s) to make it clear, what is expected before the ride starts and then to pay attention to anyone new and make sure they get told about what they are doing wrong, before they cause an accident. A good leader will give a warning and if it keeps happening, they will ask the rider not to return to the ride.
Clint L says
All that being said above, it’s still not cheating unless your in some sort of competition.
Jeremy Jefferson says
I have no problem with ebikes. I kind of wish some of my close family would get them so they could go on rides with me, even if it is only 20-30 miles. I have no one close to me that rides bikes like I do, so they ride the typical 10-12MPH. Not trying to brag, but it is very hard for me to maintain a speed that low.