eBikes and related disorders

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In the beginning, there was the bicycle (or velocipede, to be precise – think modern day kid’s balance bike and make it adult size). Then someone bolted an engine on a bicycle and thence came motorcycles. Then some deranged psychopath decided to add a few wheels and the world became blighted by cars. But the bicycle persists and the motorcycle persists and praise be to that. And the car remains as an instrument for maiming, polluting, killing and the empowerment of hate against all those who more sensibly stopped at two wheels rather than four. 

And now, some marketers looking for cash decided to rewind to 1860 and reinvent the motorised bicycle all over again. Only this time using battery powered engines rather than fuel. Which may or may not seem like progress when your good-for-90 minutes battery runs out wile its fuel-driven engine ancestor could be topped up to run all day, and night, and day and …

eBikes. Everyone is confused. Especially me. Given an origin from the dimension of supply (marketing-driven) rather than demand, the usual routine of understanding market needs to define design and purpose is upside down. Who are they for? How do they fit in? What needs to they address? None of this has really been sorted because eBike market evolution is working in reverse: now it’s first deliver the product and then engineer the demand.  Apparently, we’ll eventually figure it out. That’s the exact same plan that’s worked for the fashion industry from day one.  eBikes are the conception of fashion and have evolved accordingly. A bit like how disk brakes happened for road cycling. Only much more in your face.

I’ve heard this approach to product development as ‘throwing it at the wall to see what sticks’. Or, possibly more cynically, throwing these things at a spinning fan to spread it all around (if you know what I mean). Only economists insist on demand driven supply these days. What would they know!

Well, here’s how I see this particular splatter pattern. 

Drawing from that astounding predilection of newbie cyclists everywhere to go for basic mountain bike designs for urban paved road use, most eBikes are usually dressed to look like mountain bikes rather than road bikes (I am ignoring fleet rental eBikes that are an entirely different story).  That’s probably because most non-cyclist folk contemplating a furtive entry into cycling seem to think mountain bikes are, somehow, safer and more comfortable than road bikes. Maybe they reckon road bikes are too elite or geared for lycra clad pros. Who knows. Newbies rarely seek reasoned advice. Which all explains the insanity of all those ultra heavy mountain bike plodders plonking around on precisely the wrong kind of bike. So, I am guessing that the marketing fraternity decided to pitch their early generation eBikes with knobby tyres and suspension, aiming at those very same misguided faux mountain biking newbies. That these eBikes would have zero capacity to ride off road via their toxic heaviness and a rather poignant lack of charging points out there on the trails… would never become a problem as few would ever venture past the tar. 

But now we have eBike road bikes showing up in the stores. Better late than never but never would be better…  eBike road bikes are a new dimension of dementia. Or more specifically, range anxiety on overdrive. The notion of a road bike is a bike you can ride on long and glorious forays into far away places, across continents, up stunning mountain passes and at speeds that must challenge those with empathy to the politically corrected nanny state.  What exactly is the point of an eBike road bike that can only go for 90 minutes?! Most roadies haven’t even warmed up by then… Three hours should be the minimum charge before we could even conceive of a use for these things for anything but the daily commute or walking the dog and kids down some local cycling path. And if walking the dog is the intent, why do you need a $20k Pinarello eBike (which, to be objective, would probably be heavier and less gainly than any of that same brand’s low end road bikes at one tenth that price). 

Irrespective of eBike design, I still can’t understand why anyone would want one in the first place. If you want to travel faster than a road cyclist, go grab a learner legal motorcycle or even a new eMotorbike or electric moped. What’s the appeal of these latest European icon brand eBikes? Who would want such a thing? Maybe, perhaps, the idea is a bit like a walking frame analogue for disabled roadies trying to relive their Colnago glory days? That I could understand. But why would anyone with an aspiration to fitness or fitness driven road cycling pleasure ever want to be deprived of the empowerment we roadies feel when we self-power ourselves up a hill or go for the thrill of a sprint? The road bike is the mechanical connection between our muscles and the road. Why would anyone want to disconnect the perfections of that connection via the insult of a battery powered engine?  

Let’s start at the core. What is it about serious, dedicated, cycling that makes so many of us want to identify as ‘cyclists’? I am not talking about bicycle riders who ride the occasional bike path or ride because their driver’s licence has been taken away. I am talking about cycling that is life defining for the cyclist involved. I am talking about cycling like blood, like air. Something you can’t possibly live without. I am one of that kind of cyclist. If you are too, you might, perhaps, agree with what I am about to suggest. We cycle because it’s hard. Our cycling reward comes from extending ourselves. A good ride can sustain a dose of smug insufferable superiority to keep us animated for days thereafter. A good riding schedule is the answer to the quackery of modern commercial medicine, of faith healers in stethoscopes and health perverted by symbiosis with your health care card.

Serious cycling is freedom. Freedom from the kind of inanity or delusions that encourage people to subscribe to gymnasium memberships; where those subscribers feed on the meme that health can be purchased and the very act of turning up in leotards to a body odour reeking room to be shouted at by twenty something instructors with way, way too much self-love, is, somehow, an investment in a fit future and membership of the ‘beautiful people’ set for ever more. Ahmen.

Serious cycling fitness is the gold standard: low body fat (7 per cent, let’s quantify a few claims here…), lean, low resting heart rate, flexible, fast up hills. That’s fitness. And it has nothing whatsoever to do with the colour of your gymnasium leotards, or how you appear in your mind’s eye as opposed to how you still appear to everyone else…

Runners can play this game too. Real runners (not necessarily footpath plodders). 7 per cent fat runners. Lean, fit. And lean and fit because of LOTS of work. And nothing to do with how much you might have spent along the way or to which health club is the trendiest in town. 

The main point in here is that genuine fitness is earned. Not purchased. Genuine (as opposed to imagined) fitness is a product outside the market place of money and FaceBook memes.

And here is another point. The entry barriers to Genuine Fitness are not expressed in money, social alignments, or wishful thinking. Anyone can join up and become genuinely fit. 120 kg wheezing fatties can transform into 70kg athletes in under a year. Oldies, younguns, and even insufferable twenty-somethings can all make the grade. You don’t even have to leave your house if you have a treadmill and an indoor bike at hand. All you need is to put the sustained effort in and ignore the garbage of excuses (ohhh, I don’t have the time!, I am too fat to even start, or worst of all, my doctor advises against it). You can’t delude yourself about your progress when you consult your bathroom scales. 

Yes, real fitness involves intense effort. Heart pumping, sweat drenched throat burning effort. A meek twaddle on a treadmill is not effort. A five minute spin on a K Mart indoor bike is not effort. The effort has to, at least eventually, approach to dimension of gut busting. No pain no gain. There is no short cut and money is not going to bring it on quicker or easier. If you have more excuses than willpower, you are not going to make the grade. Tragic but unavoidable fact. You can wail and moan about those excuses all you like, and you might even believe them; most people are extraordinarily committed to the delusions of their excuses. I particularly enjoy the one about lack of time when said time constrained persons are inclined to spend a few hours in the pub wallowing in beer or traffic jammed in Macdonalds drive through queues –  or otherwise engaged in what could otherwise be prime exercise time.

It’s a harsh reality out there in the land of genuine fitness. Not everyone has what it takes, no matter how much they might spend in money or delusion. Remember, you can measure fitness with a pair of fat callipers and a set of bathroom scales. Turnouts at coffee shops straddling the latest Pinarello don’t measure anything. (If you are bulging in your Rapha lycra, you are bulging in your Rapha lycra; sorry, you can’t force the rest of us to see you the way you might prefer to see yourself…). 

Having said all that, it is always going to remain a fact that one of the most active markets on the planet is the merchandising of fitness; or at least, the merchandising of a sense of fitness. The fitness industry is mega. And very much along the lines of a black hole. It’s amazing how powerful are the attractors devised to suck people in. My favourites are the Apple Watch, gymnasium memberships and the ‘sports food industry’. 

The current ‘health watch’ craze is endlessly amusing. Apple, for instance, is overtly selling a relationship between ‘health’ and wearing it’s ‘health monitoring’ watch. The link most people are making these days is that the very act of wearing such a ‘device’ is an investment in health. Somehow, the one thing is positively correlated with the other. We spend hours perusing and parading our readouts. Comparing resting heart rates, measuring our sleep, and being beeped to stand up now and again. Standing up has become an act of competitive posturing for the boardroom and barista bars.  We wear fitbits to feel fit. The reality is actually perverted. What you might be measuring is, actually, how unfit you are; a good look in the mirror is all you really need and you can save $759!. If you are a six foot male kitted out in size 38 jeans, you are not fit. You are fat. I don’t care if you think all that bulk is muscle. You don’t need an Apple Watch or a Fitbit to quantify what should actually be obvious. And if you are actually fit, why do you need a watch to tell you so? Perhaps the main argument used in this merchandising charade is that all this monitoring puts us on a path towards fitness; it’s a friendly helping hand, an electronic fitness instructor. Garbage. It’s all about the dodgy presumption that spending money on fitness is correlated to fitness outcomes. Nope. Exercise and diet are the only pathways that matter. All you need are bathroom scales and a mirror. And a pleasant surprise when you downgrade from size 38 to 32 when shopping for your next pair of jeans. 

While the fitness watch thing is funny, the ‘sports food’ scene is most definitely not. That one is as insidious as telephone scammers or self-proclaimed religious cults. How, exactly, does swilling a litre bottle of sugar juice (aka Red Bull and the like) have any kind of positive correlation with health? How exactly does eating a bowl of sugar lollies dressed up as ‘ironman food’ have anything to do with becoming the image of the muscle junkie on the box? Here’s the nasty inescapable fact: if you are overweight, you do not need to eat so called sports supplements like jells and ’sport bars’. The aim is to redress the imbalance between energy in and energy out, expressed in terms of you being too fat. The only people who actually need supplements like jells are athletes who have no real fat reserves, who take these things mid-ride to avoid passing out. Is chocolate milk a health food? Are you stupid or what!

Which brings me back to eBikes…

There’s one other marker of my personal fitness that I hold dear (other than what the bathroom scales tell me) it’s my ability to drop other cyclists on hills. There, I said it. And I don’t feel bad… I don’t get a buzz from making others feel bad, I get a buzz from making me feel good. Hills, for cyclists, are where it’s at in terms of the place where push turns to shove, were rewards return to effort, where day in day out riding manifests in some kind of demonstrable, deliverable, result. And these days, you don’t have to drop someone in person, you can do it all on Strava! You can be all clandestine and still play the game. If you are concerned about excess ego gratification and the evils that might entail, you can pursue others on the hills and keep your KOM efforts private. Not that many of us do. But you can, if you are going for the Buddhist priesthood or suchlike…

You can pretend all you like. You can pretend it does not matter, that it’s the joy of company that matters most, or the rewards are in the scenery, or that just being out there on the road enjoying the moment is all. Garbage. Every cyclist loves to drop other cyclists on hills. Every cyclist hates being dropped on the hills. End of. It’s just a cyclist thing. It’s not an exercise in nastiness or about an urge to humiliate. Blitzing a hill is a certifiable cycling reward. If you don’t agree, you have probably never left the cycling path. It’s because of our predilection for taking hills that the good folk at Strava invented Strava. 

As we fade out into wobbly ageing cyclists, our hill taking might fade with time. That’s OK. We can remember, we can recall the glories of the past to spice our cycling into our nineties and beyond. We are an accumulation of our memories. If we once had that KOM, it’s still a little bit ours even after a pro takes a holiday into your local hills to take it all away. The investment in glory lingers on… 

But eBikes have arrived and the game is about to change. Inevitably, the merchants of the marketplace that seeks to convert effort into a product available for sale are now selling technology to take our hills without the guts or glory of effort. Now we have motorbikes fashioned on bicycles powering fatties up hills faster than the best of us can pedal. It’s perverted. It’s sick. It’s blasphemy in church. 

I can deal with all this by simply discarding all eBikers as motorcyclists and, therefore, as outsiders to the core game of cycling (which is dropping other cyclists on hills). I can do this. If I really try. But there is a difference between being overtaken on your favourite hill by someone on a BMW F800GS and some fat guy passing you on a bloody eBike. Especially when that fatty on the eBike is overtaking you with the pure, overt intent to rub your nose in his (always a ‘his’) prowess as an electronically assisted athlete enroute to taking your KOM away. If this were not the case, any decent eBiker would hold back, out of respect. Respect for the fact that you are intent on a climb on the merits of hard won unassisted prowess to which said eBiker can only ever aspire. Otherwise, said eBiker would be on a real bike and investing in the equation of effort equals reward rather than trying to dump on that mathematical reality through the shortcut of his eBike perversion diversion. 

I don’t mind eBikes on the flats, especially on longer rides because it’s always funny when they run out of battery and then have to ride their monstrously overweight toys back home again. Perversely, that is probably the only way an eBiker can become a real cyclist; riding one of those things without power is a really great workout!

eBikes remind us how motorcycles came into being. I love motorcycling. I love adventure motorcycling way out further than I generally travel on any of my gravel bikes. I love riding a giant American cruiser on highways that would hold little interest for cycling (being able to overtake caravans on a motorbike is a whole bunch more fun than being overtaken by those turkeys when you are on a bicycle).  Motorbikes don’t pretend to be bicycles. They never have. One is an evolution of the other. Not a replacement or an improvement. Motorcycles were developed to extend the concept of cycling, not to replace it.

eBikes are walking frames for folk who are otherwise unable to ride. That’s great. eBikers can do positive things like annoy car drivers just like we cyclists can. All good. eBikes are great for casual cyclist commutes. That’s great too. Keep them on cycling paths and off the road! They are great for the oldies or the partially disabled to enjoy mountain bike trails. That’s great. No eBiker is likely to be planning on entering a World Cup cross country event any time soon. More power to them. Battery limitations are likely to keep the eBikers out of our hair when we cyclists are going long. That’s the way the world balances things out. All good. 

But show some respect and don’t try to drop a real cyclist on a hill. That will only showcase you as a certifiable dork.