E-Bikes: Awesome or Awful?

Joseph Rose over at the Oregonian just published a blog post called, “Pedaling Purity: PDXebiker’s e-boost makes him an outcast” and I’m so very glad he did. Though the comments section has degenerated into the usual spit and vitriol, I think this is a fascinating conversation (and I trust readership here to maintain a slightly higher level of civility – hint, hint).

There’s also an extensive discussion of the topic on Bike Portland – here.

I’ve been mulling over the e-bike issue for over a year now.

Are they bikes? Does it matter if they pass me going up a hill using their assist? Do I care? Do I like them? Does it matter?

E-bike PR reps have been hounding me for a while to write about them. Here was my initial internal reaction to that: I write about cycling culture and the essence of the sport. E-bikes have nothing to do with either so why I am I receiving this email?

I went to an e-bike event at a First Friday a few months ago. When I walked in I saw absolutely no one from the cycling community.

The e-bikes were lined up next to Nutcase helmets, which seemed odd. The showroom was immaculate and bright – filled with very beautiful people many of whom were wearing stilettos.

This is just an observation. I’m not sure what it all means (which is why I’m asking you all for your opinion) but I found it disturbing, disconcerting and uneasy.

My gut feeling was that I’m just not sure they will every be accepted by cycling purists. And don’t get me wrong. Stating the e-bikes aren’t “accepted” by cycling culture is not the same as saying I don’t accept them, think they serve a great purpose, or might become the wave of the green transportation future.

If I rode e-bikes my response to a rejection by so-called “cycling culture” would be, “Who cares?”

Seriously. Who cares if snotty or even un-snotty but righteous cyclists won’t let you in their club?

And I’m not quite sure I understand why e-bike manufacturers are trying so hard to break in with the “cycling world”. I think there is a terrific use-case for e-bikes, I think there is a huge market.  I do not think it makes sense to spend millions of marketing dollars trying to win over a bunch of purists.

That’s not the e-bike target market. And it shouldn’t be.

Maybe they’re worried about dispelling stigma. I say screw the stigma. Don’t sell e-bikes to people who don’t want to be sold them. Let us complain (if we’re complaining) about sharing our cycling infrastructure with partially motorized vehicles. Let us whine about getting passed while we’re climbing. Go sell these bikes to your demographic – they are ready to buy them. I want desperately to buy one for my Mom, to be honest with you, but will have to wait until they don’t cost so much.

I say if it takes a car off the road, I’m all for it. If it gets my Mom confident enough to be able to ride around her small town without having to worry about pushing a bike up the last hill to her cabin, I’m all for it.

Are they bikes?

I don’t care. I don’t care at all.

I hope we can find a way to play nice (from a planning, transpo and culture point of view) with these strange, new ‘tweeners.

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  1. I love your line” “I don’t care. I don’t care at all.” For me – I would much rather see someone, anyone, riding an ebike rather than driving a car.

  2. This is becoming almost like the Harley other makes split in motorcycles.
    Can’t play along unless you ride the right machine.
    I’m with Cassi, one less car and one more person a bit more aware of what it’s like to be out in traffic on a bike of any kind is a good thing

  3. You hit the nail on the head. I too, desperately want to buy a bike for my dad who is now 60 yrs old & needs a little assistance on the hills back home. Planning on getting him one this Fall.

    Don’t get me started about the cycling “purists” who want to shun people on a bike that is “different” than what they pedal… In the end, an e-bike is 1 more bike on the road/path/trail. It doesn’t matter to me if it is a e-bike, cargo bike, trike, recumbant, mtb bike, cross bike, tandem bike… IT’S JUST 1 MORE BIKE TO ME.

  4. I’m planning to build my first e-bike for a customer this summer. It’s something I’ve really been looking forward to because I feel that the currently available e-bikes leave much to be desired in the aesthetics department. E-bikes are a great alternative to single-occupant motor vehicles and are much more approachable for many people. When my design hits the streets the bottle will be uncorked! (kidding, but it’s going to be a fun one.)

  5. Tony: I AM STOKED to hear that you are building one. Seriously – that’s some of the coolest news I’ve heard in a while. I’d love to talk to you more about it when you get started!

  6. eli bishop

    awesome. definitely awesome. i’m not your mom or aaron’s dad, but an ebike definitely gave me enough confidence “without having to worry about pushing a bike up the last hill to her [house on a fast and furious narrow street].” now i feel like i can go -anywhere-! in fact, it feels a little weird to be driving now if it’s anywhere in a 12-mile radius.

  7. Has anyone ridden one? I was actually quite skeptical until Wake at the E-Bike store invited me to test ride. They’re actually really rad and fun. Like it made me giddy.

    I didn’t fully buy in until I was given the example of someone who wants to ride but has MS or is in chemo for cancer. They can ride a regular bike on most days, but some days the illness (or treatments) make it impossible unless they have some electric assistance. Should they be forced to drive on those days? For that person, some days they choose the road bike and others the E-Bike. It doesn’t have to be one or the other.

    You could also add in Heidi’s mom, my mom or dad, people who aren’t that fit (yet) and want to cut down on car trips. Another misconception is that you can’t get fit riding one. Any riding is more than most folks do at all and for some this is the gateway to riding a non-E bike.

    Folks also think that they go too fast. Most max out at 20mph in Oregon, which is slower than the roadies (see Heidi’s previous blog) that sometimes buzz other riders. People are just jealous because they go faster up hill and from a stop! Overall, most days going at max speed wears out the battery too fast, so most riders ride much slower and use the assist only when needed.

    There are definitely days after training really hard or during race season when I can’t imagine pedaling because my legs are dead, but want to run to the store. I usually use the car but this option would be perfect when I can’t imagine pushing one more pedal stroke.

    Which wouldn’t work because with almost all of them you have to pedal. It’s more like pedaling with a really sweet tail wind.

    I highly recommend talking with Wake at the E-bike store or heading over to try one out. I think anyone who’s a hater might change their mind with a little discourse.

    And I’m sorry, but the environmental impact of the battery will never be as bad as a combustion engine with a battery.

    Go Tony for making one! I’m super excited to see what you come up with.

  8. Heidi– The conversion kit for a regular bike starts around $300. There may be options for your mom to get a bike sooner than you’d think!

  9. pixiestyx

    I ride a bike, but I’m no “purist.” I’m middle-aged, not totally gnarly, and live 9 miles from my job. The route is hilly and in some places not very safe. If I had an ebike I would certainly ride more, drive less. I’m sure there are others like me who aren’t the “stilletoed beautiful people” who would use one to get around.

  10. Won’t get one for myself for a while, but might get one for my wife — if it lets her get downtown on an errand w/o a car, not be intimidated by The Hill, go down to coffee on the weekend with me, whoopie!


  11. Well of course I think they’re awesome! And its good to know that there are other folks out there that agree.

    I know what you mean Eli – what used to be the worst part of my day is now the best part.

    Tony – totally stoked to see your build!

  12. I am in the process of converting a 4-wheel, 2 person pedal powered vehicle into a pedal/electric hybrid that I can use for my daily commute and as a local coffee delivery vehicle. It’s pretty hilly in the area and one of my accounts is at the top of a pretty steep hill. The electic element will make deliveries much, much more efficient for me. So I guess I am saying that the electric bikes certainly have a place in our transportation system.

  13. Are motorcycles awesome? Yes they are! Are e-bikes like motorcycles to me? Yes! Therefore, e-bikes are awesome. (I know that’s funny logic, but it works in my head.)

  14. I’m a little curious about this notion that “cycling purists” ceaselessly make judgements about [random cycling phenomenon]. I’m definitely a purist and so are many of my bikey pals, and I’m pretty much relentlessly Polyanna about all bikes everywhere. Even ebikes, which I think are cool and awesome.

    So I did some math on the comments on Joe Rose’s column, and found that people howling about arrogant cyclists outnumber actual arrogant cyclists about 12 to 1. My comment, with a link to my math, is on p. 4. For comparison, in a recent thread on BikePortland, about half the commenters gave enthusiastic or tepid support for ebikes. In fact, most of the pro-ebike commenters generally echoed my sentiment. Which is: “they’re better than cars, and anything that gets people on bikes is awesome.”

  15. Chris Kasper

    I seen them as a stepping stone into cycling.

    When my car broke down a couple years ago, I started riding my old mountain bike the 8 miles to work. It got to be a bit much for my fitness level at the time. I bought the cheapest e-bike I could find (E-ZIP) and used that instead. It was great. perfect distance for getting in to work, plugging in at work and jetting back home later that day. I found myself after awhile wanting to do more of the work myself peddling but the 60lb bike didn’t really lend itself to it. Now I ride a road bike into work and feel like it really isn’t that much work.

    The e-bike for me served as an entry point into cycling.

  16. Hey Heidi,

    I have wanted to chime in earlier, but my demographic has been calling…and calling…not a huge ground swelling mass, but boy its a group with a lot of questions.

    You nailed it. Context is everything. Cycling is in the middle of an ideological shift from recreation to utilitarianism. My view of a ‘purist’ is someone who sees cycling for cycling’s sake and cycling’s sake alone. Yeah, good health is a nice bonus, but please, please don’t think of cycling as a transportation alternative.

    Knowledge without actions is dead. If we believe that our over-use of energy is harming our environment then using less energy is bound to follow from this knowledge.

    I first saw eBikes, I was in China taking a business class. They resonated with me because I felt that using one would lessen the cognitive dissonance I felt every time I fired up my car.

    Last night, we showed some bikes at the Community Cycling Center potluck. It was fun to see the looks on the faces of avid cyclists as they tried them out and realized they were not what they anticipated.

    On a deeper note, one of my frustrations with our society is that we pay inordinate amounts of attention to whats wrong. Conflict, Potential threats…anything that has at least one part fear. I understand that journalists need to sell ads to eat, but -save one exception at the last Sunday Parkways- the response I have heard has been overwhelmingly positive. Is it news to focus on that one comment?

    Thank you for not taking the bait and writing the most accurate and insightful op-ed I have seen on the issue.


    Wake Gregg
    The eBike Store

  17. Note to self: blogging before coffee should be a ticketable offense. I apologize for my choppy sentences and utter void of transitions between ideas

  18. Who cares whether they are “bikes” or not. If they move us more towards the energy independence/good for the environment side of the equation, that’s great. And if they get previously sedate people to even pedal a little bit, what’s not too like? They may not be for everyone though and if you think they’re going to gain you admittance to that circle of bike messengers at your local coffee dive…well forget it. But I don’t think that’s the point. Those who are getting hung up on the ‘bikes or not bikes’ question are really missing the point.

  19. As a cyclist and someone who helps market e-bikes, I can tell you why I’m not ready to give up on reaching “pure” cyclists along with the other potential audiences. The reason is simple — these things are a blast to ride. Anyone who truly enjoys riding a bicycle would get a huge kick out of riding an electric bike if they would just set aside judgement for a moment and take one for a spin.

    I’ve got room in my life for all sorts of bikes. And there is certainly room for a high-performance e-bike.

    You still have a standing invite to come put a Kalkfoff through it’s paces. And it’s high time you did.

  20. BTW –there were plenty of people from the cycling community at that First Thursday event including one of the fastest bike racers in the state, a gent who has ridden across the U.S. and the guy who did the “performance” video that went totally viral on YouTube. And let’s not forget the handsome fellow behind pdxcyclingonline.com.

    • Hi Dean,
      Thanks for your comments.
      I think the points made here about the notion of “pure” cyclists being a false notion are important and I’m glad that people brought that up.
      I rode around on an OHM e-bike that was loaned to me for the better part of six weeks last summer, so I’ve definitely got a lot of experience with them. And – you’re right – they are a blast. A “huge kick” would be an accurate description for my first few rides on that baby. I wouldn’t call myself a “pure” cyclist by any means (again, back to that discussion – what the hell is a pure cyclist anyway!?) but I ride for fun, sport and transportation. After the first few test rides, I found myself using the e-bike only for transportation. That’s my only point.
      On the other hand, as I mentioned here, I’d love for my mother to have one – and she’d be using it for fun and sport – so I can see both use cases.
      I still plan to come down and ride one of yours – time is a bit of an issue these days.
      The event was great fun and I’m sure there were many cyclists there that I don’t know or didn’t run into – I was just making an observation about my personal experience.
      My message here is positive – I support ebikes. I think they’re a great solution for many people.

  21. The first e-bike I tried (a friend’s about two years ago) reminded me of a sleeker and MUCH quieter version of a high school friend’s AMF moped. Not sure if that’s high praise but it’s what I immediately remembered at the time. It was cool, and oh-so-fun to ride, and I sort of didn’t want to give it back.

    Today I own a terrific Surly Big Dummy that I would like to use more often, but frankly the hills make this thing a dog — especially under load. Eventually, when money permits and age dictates, I *will* add an electric-assist kit to my Surly, and I won’t care when I turn the throttle and actually make it up the hill while moving a friend’s futon across town.

    (Now if I could just find a carbon-neutral afterburner kit for it, I’d be all set…)


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