Fountain of Youth
It Wasn't the Altitude: Last June a group of us rented an Airbnb in Breckenridge, Colorado to acclimate for a few days before we rode the 2019 Ride the Rockies. This was my fifth consecutive year doing RtR and I felt relatively fit and motivated. The elevation at the house was about 9400 ft. The plan was to do a short ride to get used to the altitude. This was the route: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/35650718.
It was a sunny day and a great group of riders, and the scenery was stunningly beautiful. I was often riding in the front of the group with that playful enthusiasm that recalls the simple joy of being a child.
Then, at around mile 26, we started up the first real climb of the ride. Soon I was off the back and struggling, my heart rate was spiking, and I had to stop several times before I reached the summit of the climb. The grade wasn’t even that steep, but I could hardly breathe and had no energy.
I blamed it on the altitude since just the week before I had been climbing steeper and longer climbs in Vermont and New Hampshire in preparation for RTR.
But it was something more than the altitude. I was able to climb Monarch Pass on the second day of RtR but after that I needed to sag up all the serious climbs. I didn’t know what was happening to me.
Then Came the Flu: Then many of us started to get sick with a cold/flu bronchitis type disease. This caught up with me on the flight home. Four days later I was in the ICU with a bad case of pneumonia.
The medical advice was simple but disturbing. I needed to moderate my biking and other types of effort like backcountry skiing, winter hiking etc. I had a combination of cardiac issues like Afib and restrictive lung disease that resulted from lung surgery that I had a few years back to deal with another even worse case of pneumonia.
But what does moderation mean when you are climbing a long hill? I really couldn’t go much slower, asI tried explaining to various doctors. So, I just kept riding. I thought all I had to do was get in better shape as usual. Then in late September I went on a weekday group ride and nearly passed out on a small climb. I was able to stop safely and return to my car, but it rattled me.
Time for a Change: Just about the same time all this was happening last summer, Specialized announced a new lightweight Road E-Bike called the Creo. I asked Belmont Wheelworks to let me know when it came in so I could test-ride it.
I wasn’t convinced I “needed” an e-bike. Over the years, I had developed a healthy disdain for people who rode those clunky monsters. Yes, they could go faster than me, but it wasn’t exactly fair and not the same thing as strictly human-powered cycling. My friends who weren’t really cyclists bought and rode them and it annoyed me when they bragged about passing people like me on climbs.
I tried some man-splaining about proper road biking etiquette, and reminded them that e-bikes were just completely different. Of course, at this point I had never ridden an e-bike, but I didn’t let my ignorance get in the way of my strong opinions.
Then in early October I did a 47-mile group ride and pushed myself a bit. Afterwards, I was really exhausted. During the ride I got a message from Wheelworks that the Creo was now available to test ride.
So, on my way home, I stopped at the bike shop with my friend Bob and we test rode the new Specialized Creo SL Evo. This was my first ride on an e-bike. My initial impression was that it seemed just like riding any of my regular bikes but a bit easier. I can be impulsive or maybe because I was tired from the day's ride or just ready for a change, I yanked out the credit card and bought the bike on the spot.
The next day, I was truly exhausted and was having difficulty climbing stairs. The following day I ended up in the hospital once again. The next three days were full of more tests. I think I just needed a rest, because I felt fine after the first day.
My First Ride on an EBike: I went home and put that new e-bike in my car and drove to our house in Vermont. Then, on the following day, I went for my very first long e-bike ride.
Here is the ride https://ridewithgps.com/trips/40998411.
I couldn’t believe how much fun it was to ride the new Creo. I was riding solo, so I flew up the hills just like I was 20 years younger. My average speed was like what I used to be able to do on this route. What’s more, I wasn’t totally exhausted at the end of the ride. In short, I loved it. My Fountain of Youth!
The bike rides like a high-end road bike and you can put out as much energy as you want. You just go faster. The only time you really “feel” the assistance is on the steeper hills and when you use the motor at the higher settings. The motor only works when you are pedaling, so there is no sense of being propelled forward. The harder you pedal, the faster you go. Also, your cadence affects speed and difficulty. So, shifting is just as critical as it is on a normal road bike. I think I expected that an e-bike meant the bike would do the “work” for me. That is not the reality.
The way it works on the two types of e-bikes that I have ridden is that you put out watts in the form of power to the pedals. The motor is set to provide a predetermined number of extra watts depending on what level of assist you choose. There are 3 levels. On my bike, the lowest level of power is 84 watts, Level 2 offers 140 watts and level 3 is 240 watts. I rarely use level 3 and only occasionally use level 2 (useful if you want to chat with the faster riders in the group). Mostly I leave it at Level 1. This amount of assistance, in addition to my remaining abilities, seems adequate for most of the rides I do, solo or in a group. All these settings are adjustable with an app.
My e-bike is a Specialized Creo Sl Evo which means it’s set up for gravel riding. I bought an extra set of wheels on which I mounted some 28 mm road tires that I can switch out with the 38 mm gravel tires the bike came with. Hence the bike is both a road machine and a gravel grinder. One bike does everything but single-track mountain bike trails.
Recently I was in Maui and I rented an Orbea Gain e-bike. This bike was a few pounds lighter than the 28 lbs. Creo but was a Class 1 e-bike which means the power assist ceases once you reach 20 mph. My Specialized is a Class 3 e-bike which offers motor amplification up to 28 mph. At first, I thought that difference wouldn’t matter but on the flat Hawaiian coastal roads it was easy to ride at 20 mph but not so easy once the motor cut out. As soon as I slowed to 19.9 mph it turned back on. Then off then on then off. Annoying was the word that came to mind. Also, I wouldn’t be able to keep up with my faster friends on that bike since they ride at 20+ regularly. One of the best things about my new e-bike is that I’ve been able to spend some quality time chatting on group rides with my faster friends.
Of course, you can always go slower. Another myth that I had to unlearn was that e-bikes just naturally go up the hills faster and you don’t really have a choice. Not true, you can go as slowly as you want. The motor doesn’t propel you up the hill. It only amplifies your efforts. It’s entirely up to you how fast you go.
How it Feels; All recreational road cyclists are a bit obsessed with speed. The faster you go, the better you are as a cyclist and a person. It’s sort of a moral sorting out. Kind of like income inequality. Poor people must have made the wrong choices just like the slow people on bikes. Fast riders could show magnanimity or empathy or just ride away. Many bike riders don’t like riding with anyone who is too slow compared with them. At the same time no one likes getting “dropped”. At different times in my cycling life I’ve been off the front and off the back and there is always someone faster. Now with an e-bike I can basically ride with almost anyone. (I do know a pro rider who I can’t wait to see if I keep up with him, we’ll see). I think this is one of the main reasons so many cyclists don’t like the idea of e-bikes. It confuses the moral calculus of speed. Since faster means superior, how can one account for someone who is basically a bionic human? Human, but powered by a machine.
Which brings me to the touchy subject of group rides. Can e-bikes be integrated into rides that are primarily human powered? The answer is a qualified Yes. If the e-bike rider understands and respects the group dynamic, then there is no real problem. I have my short list of rules. Don’t pass everyone on the hills! Choose some riding companions and ride at their pace. No matter how slow it is.
Second, try not to be first. Third, just be kind and considerate and friendly to everyone. Who really cares what bike you are riding if you are a friend? Strangers might judge you, but your friends know who you are, and the quality and depth of friendships count for more than any technology.
I ride for the basic bliss that cycling offers and for the camaraderie of fellow enthusiasts. It’s been difficult to accept the limitations my age and health have made on my lifestyle choices, but I’m truly grateful to have found this piece of technology which I hope will keep me on the road for years to come. I highly recommend to anyone who is aging or has any limitations due to health or whatever to get out, get on an e-bike. It will put a big, silly smile on your face that won’t fade with time.
Photo by Jack Donohue. Left to right; Frank Hubbard, Bernie and his electric bike, Gene Ho and Curt Dudley-Marling
Bernie Flynn is a past President of CRW.