Followup article to “A Lifetime Of Bike Riding — Part 1, 1950–2011.”
After getting hooked on road biking, in 2013, I upgraded to a Motobecane carbon fiber Shimano DI2 electric shift road bike for $2500 that I purchased mail order from Bikes Direct. The bike has 9 gears in back and two in front for a total 18 combinations. It was wonderful. I could leave the Specialized in Utah but couldn’t resist riding the Motobecane in both Wisconsin and Utah. The DI2 shifter doesn’t make it an electric bike. Essentially, you are pushing a button and a motor does the shifting. It is particularly noticeable on the front derailleur, where instead of holding the lever down for a few seconds to make the chain jump to the much bigger chain wheel, you just push a button and the motor does the rest.
Problem: Many people spend thousands of dollars for extremely light carbon fiber bikes and wheels with deep fairings to gain only a percent or two in efficiency. You still have a bike with very narrow hard tires that ride well only on very smooth pavement, and if you happen to veer off the pavement onto gravel, dirt, or grass, you are likely to have an unhappy ending. Also, if you hit a curb or drop off a curb, you could also be in big trouble. Road bikes are very prone to flats. Driving off pavement is asking for a thorn and a flat. Forget riding for even a short run on gravel, it is miserable.
Going to an e-bike, you can have wide mountain bike tires, full suspension, and disk brakes and gain not two or three percent but a 500% assist to your muscles (from the motor). You can drop off a curb or hit one and hardly notice it. You can veer off the pavement onto the shoulder and most likely just ride back up to the pavement. Gravel roads are no longer a problem. You can ride off-road single-track trails. This was a revelation to me and I now spend at least 20% of my riding off-road.
Now is the story about how over the last seven years I learned about the different types of electric bikes and what type of riding each is suited for. I started riding e-bikes and bought my first electric car at about the same time in 2014. I put solar panels on my house in 2016. I ride my e-bike almost every day and estimate that I have ridden almost 20,000 e-bike miles over the last seven years.
How I first learned about e-bikes
In 2013, I walked into a bike store in American Fork Utah where the owner had picked up two Cannondale e-bikes. They were European demos from a bike show. They weren’t for sale, and Cannondale wasn’t even supporting them in the US. However, I got some test rides and I was hooked. I was soon to learn the advantages of an electric bike: They virtually eliminate the problems with the things you hate most about biking: Going up steep hills (in some areas, steep hills make regular bikes impossible for most people), biking into a strong headwind, and making that trip that is longer than your comfortable range. It also makes pulling your kids or grandkids in a bike trailer a breeze rather than a miserable chore. Some people are human dynamos and can do these things without a problem, but they are show stoppers for the rest of us.
Over the years, I have taught a number of my children and grandchildren how to ride a bike. I had a big success with my grandson in 2015 when I took him to a big empty parking lot, gave him a little push, and he rode off like he had been doing it for years.
In those early days when another biker would finally realize that I was riding an electric bike, they would say: Why are you riding an e-bike, don’t you ride a bike for exercise? I could never convince them, but I would say, “if you want more exercise, you just reduce the assist level.” In fact, if you reduce it to zero, you get more exercise than you want because you are pedaling a big heavy bike. I generally ride at least 20 miles and 90 minutes every day about 4 miles off-road and I get a good workout. However, after riding my carbon fiber road bike again recently, I was reminded that it is true that with full assist, you don’t get the same aerobic workout climbing steep hills as you do with a solely human-powered bike.
My first e-bike: In 2014, I purchased an Easymotion Emotion 27 speed Class 3 28 MPH rear-hub powered e-bike. It is almost an electric road bike with quite narrow hybrid-width tires. (See the photos of me riding the white Emotion bike and others of me pulling a trailer with my grandchildren in 2014, 2015.) It has no suspension, caliper brakes, the battery in the down-tube. It is my only e-bike with a throttle, which my grandchildren love. With an extra battery that I carried on carrier attached to my seat post, I could now do the Alpine Loop.
In Lindon, UT, we live at the foot of 11,752 ft Mt Timpanogos. On our back property line in Lindon, the marvelous 18 mile long Murdock bike trail now runs from Provo Canyon to the Point-of-the-Mountain in Lehi. When we moved to Lindon in 2005, it was the Murdock irrigation canal. Five years ago, the federal government buried the canal in a 10.5 ft pipe and put the gorgeous Murdock bike trail over the top. If you take the trail 3 miles, then 6 miles up the Provo Canyon Parkway, continue 3 miles on highway 189, and turn onto the 2.2 mile ultra-steep grade to the Sundance Ski Resort, it is a struggle even with an e-bike. Carry on up a little less steep grade to the Timpanogos trail trailhead. Then in the early spring you lift your bike over the road closure gate and proceed another 4 miles up a steep grade to the summit at 8077 ft. Since there is no other traffic, I once encountered a juvenile moose resting on the road in front of me (see 2017 photo below). On the way down the north side in early spring, you have to push your bike across several snow drifts that haven’t melted yet. Then you are headed down American Fork Canyon at speeds over 40 mph, and back to the Murdock Trail you go to complete the loop back to our house in 33 miles. I once did the loop solely human powered on my road bike and nearly died on the ultra-steep section up to Sundance.
My second e-bike, a 2015 Stromer ST1 — Class 3, was a 28 MPH Swiss-made rear-hub drive bike with front suspension and disk brakes. Because it is a heavy bike with rear-hub drive, like my Easymotion e-bike, it has a front derailleur with three gears and 9 on the back for a total of 27 combinations. (See photo of my brother with the black Stromer in 2015.) This is a deluxe, very well built bike made in Switzerland. However, even with 27 gears, the steep part of the Alpine Loop was still a struggle, because even at full electric motor assist, you need considerable human power on the grade. Although, with a single bigger battery, I could make the whole 33 mile loop without running out of power if I rode the level sections at low assist. Unfortunately, after five years, the Stromer bike stopped working. I purchased a new battery for $400, but that wasn’t the problem. Crazy Lenny’s e-bikes in Madison wanted another $1500 for a new motor. By then, I was not a fan of rear hub motors, so I abandoned the bike.
My third e-bike was a 2016 Class 1 20 MPH Mid-Drive I-Zip Vibe Class 1, 7 speed, with caliper brakes and no suspension (see photo of my wife Mary with the red I-Zip in 2016). This was my first mid-drive bike and an eye opener to me. With a mid-drive, both the rider and the motor get the mechanical advantage of the rear derailleur. (Note: seven gears are plenty on this bike.) In a rear-hub drive e-bike, only the rider gets the mechanical advantage of derailleur, which limits your climbing ability. Although this is an inexpensive step-through beach bike, it climbs like a mountain goat. It handles steep grades better than even my most recent $6,000 mountain e-bike. As a step-through, it is the one bike my wife Mary feels comfortable riding. While this is not a mountain bike, it has quite wide tires and it can be used for level 1 single track off-road trails.
Battery care: Those of us with electric cars know that lithium-ion batteries last longest if you restrict the charging to 20–80%. My Tesla has software that makes that easy, and the battery is big enough to make it practical. A replacement battery for a Tesla costs on the order of $20,000, so I have no lack of motivation. However, with my Nissan Leafs, there was no software to make it easy and the range was so short that you needed to charge fully to make your trips. What about e-bikes? They also have lithium-ion batteries, so the same rules apply. However, you need the total range of the battery — there is no software to help you. Since a replacement battery is not too expensive, at $500–$800, I always charge to 100% and I don’t worry about it. The batteries would last longer if you could find a solution for charging only to 80%. Also, lithium-ion batteries do not do well if you leave them all winter in bitter cold temperatures. I leave my iZip e-bike in my unheated garage in Wisconsin all winter with temperatures often well below zero. I did not have access to a heated garage for it. The iZip battery is still good after four winters. However, my spare Emotion battery is dead, and the original battery has lost capacity. My Stromer battery had also lost capacity. For cold winter storage, I would advise you to find a heated garage for your e-bike or remove the battery and keep it in warm place.
Biking the iconic Harbour Bridge in Sydney, Australia (photos 2017): Locally, the bridge is exceeded in fame only by the Sydney Opera House nearby. My daughter had a work assignment for Adobe in Sydney for 2.5 years. My wife and I were fortunate to spend about three months there on three trips in 2015, 2016, and 2017. I borrowed my daughter’s bike, rode the bike to the train, which took me and the bike to the Sydney Central Business District, where I got off and rode down the one bike path in the CBD right up onto the bridge.
Now, a story on losing my sense of balance: I used to be a pretty good athlete. In fact, I won numerous national medals, including a gold in 2000 in age group trick water skiing. I competed in the nationals in slalom as well. I have also taught alpine snow skiing as a L2 professional instructor at the Brighton Ski Resort for the last 10 years. My trick skiing actually led to my downfall. In 2017, I was practicing my trick routine doing my toe tricks with my toe locked into the boat. On a toe wake front, which I had done thousands of times successfully before, I caught an edge and my ski and right leg went towards the back and my toe and left leg continued to be pulled by the boat, because the safety release failed. It resulted in an open-book fracture of my pelvis and I was soon airlifted from the little town of Eagle River, Wisconsin, to the Aspirus Medical Center in Wausau. My fabulous surgeon actually bolted my pelvis back together. After 17 days in the hospital and rehab, 40 days on a slide board, 20 days on one leg with crutches, and another 20 days on crutches, I was walking unaided again. Why am I telling this story? Ever since, my vestibular/balance system has been quite severely compromised. I have to concentrate very hard to approximate a normal gate on a smooth surface. On uneven ground, I stumble like I have exceeded the legal limit for alcohol.
The amazing thing is that even with a compromised balance system, I do not feel compromised on a bicycle! In fact, I can even still ride some fairly difficult single-track off-road trails on my bike. For reasons I don’t understand, balance is not a problem and the electric motor makes up for my severe loss of leg strength that comes from years of pinched nerves in my back.
My 4th e-bike is a 2018 Class 3 Bulls E-Stream EVO FS AM 45 Mid-Drive mountain bike purchased November 13, 2019 as a demo for $3000 from Salt Lake Ebikes. It has full suspension, disk brakes, an aluminum frame, 2.2” tires with a Brose 350 W mid-drive motor TF C97272 90NM 380%, and a big 648 Wh Battery. I didn’t realize what a wonderful bike I had just purchased, but over 8,000 miles of riding, I have come to love it. It feels great under you, handles the difficult sections of single track off-road trails extremely well, and has a big battery. As a class 3, you get assist up to 28 MPH downhill. The full suspension softens the ride even on the Murdock trail on the transitions across city streets as well as off-road and gravel. Both wheels on this bike are 27.5”. This bike still has a two-gear front derailleur and 9 gears on the back for a total of 18 combinations. This type bike weighs about 50 lb.
My fifth and latest e-bike: A 2021 Fantic XMF 1.7 Class 1 20 Mph Brose 250 WATT S-MAG-90 NM Mid-Drive motor, 720 Wh battery mountain bike with full suspension and disk brakes. And it is my first bike with a drop seat. I had just driven 100 miles to the Bulls dealer at Cycle City Out Doors in Escanaba, Michigan, only to learn it would be several weeks for the Brose motor on my favorite bike to be repaired. It would need to be sent back to Seattle to be rebuilt. I ride every day and couldn’t live for weeks without a great bike. To my amazement, Cycle City had a wonderful Fantic Mountain e-bike in stock, so I broke the bank and paid $6000 for the bike. The Italian Fantic company is famous for completion motorcycles but is new to e-bikes. It’s also a wonderful bike and I have now adjusted to the 20 MPH speed limitation. The drop seat has a lever you push that drops the seat several inches. This is mainly used for extreme downhill mountain biking, but it is also handy for setting the seat to a lower level for a shorter person. The bike has 2.2” tires, with the front wheel 29” in diameter, but the back wheel is the standard 27.5 inches. This makes it a little easier to ride over large rocks, roots, etc. when riding off-road. On the latest mountain e-bikes, the front derailleur has been eliminated, but the rear derailleur has 12 gears and a large range. This bike also weighs 50 lb.
Safety: Obviously, every biker is going to wear a helmet. But how do you ride safely on a highway? In Utah, all of my riding is done on bike paths, so wearing bright yellow and vigilance is sufficient. In Three Lakes, Wisconsin, it is necessary to ride a short distance on a moderately busy highway to get to the delightful blacktop backroads like the Military Highway and Highway X. On the highway, I use a blinking red tail light in addition to wearing bright yellow. Having once been hit from behind on a bike, I take extra care. There is a 2 ft shoulder on the highway which is not wide enough to use as a bike trail. I take my legal right to ride on the highway and ride just inside the white line. I always have a rearview mirror on my bike, so I can watch cars approaching from behind. I make sure they are giving me a wide birth. If a car was to drive too close, I would have time to take evasive action, even riding off the road if necessary. I am aware that riding on a highway is not entirely safe even taking all precautions, but I am willing to take the risk.
Maintenance: It’s important to use e-bike chain wax on the chain every 50 miles or so. If not, you can expect to replace an expensive chain and cassette after not too many miles. With the new very narrow chains and 12 narrow gears on the cassette, these can run into hundreds of dollars. Fortunately, with the thick knobby tires on a mountain e-bike, you don’t have to pump the tires on each ride, and flats are rare. This is especially important when riding deep in the woods.
Fat-tire e-bikes: 4” Fat-tire e-bikes are very popular and have a number of advantages. You can ride better in deep sand or snow. Also, if you reduce the tire pressure, you get a softer ride and may be able to do without a full suspension bike. However, you give up maneuverability and they are much heavier. I can barely lift my 50 lb bikes. You must use a tray-type bike rack for these big, heavy bikes. I manage by lifting one wheel at a time onto the rack.
When my Bulls bike comes back from repairs, I will have two extremely capable mountain e-bikes, so I can invite a friend to ride with me. I have installed a 2” receiver on my Tesla Model 3 where I put a Saris tray-type bike rack that holds two bikes very securely. In October, I will head west to Utah to enjoy the winter with continued bike riding. I don’t ride in the rain, but I ride in temperatures down to 32 degrees. I wear a balaclava, wool bike pants, multiple fleeces, a shell, and ski gloves with chemical heat packs on the coldest days. We spent most of the winter in St. George last season and hope to do the same again this coming season. St. George is warmer in the winter than northern Utah. In October, it has an average high of 79 degrees; in November, 63 degrees; and in December, 52 degrees.