Are pedal-assist e-bikes good or evil? Spoiler alert: E-bikes are awesome.
When I was a kid during the late ‘50s in middle-class suburban Skokie, Illinois, a friend’s cousin (Pinky Schnaitmann was his name, and I’m serious) had a gasoline-powered cycle with pedal-assist. It was called a moped. At 14 years of age, he didn’t have a driver’s license, yet he would blast down side streets until he encountered a policeman, in which case he would quickly kill the ignition and simply pedal furiously until the magistrate was out of earshot. Unlike a scooter or small motorcycle, the moped could be ridden purely as a (very heavy) bicycle, with the motor shut off.

Gasoline or electric hybrid cycles are nothing new, dating back more than 100 years, but we are presently in a Renaissance of battery-assisted bicycles. Priced roughly between $1,000 and $10,000, there are many incarnations of the e-bike, including city bikes, cruisers, mountain bikes, cargo bikes, and, regrettably, only a handful of electric-assist road bikes (Take my money!) With near-universal acceptance, more and more people are buying e-bikes, and they are now a fact of life.

I know quite a few people who ride conventional bicycles who also ride e-bikes to run errands, instead of driving a car. This model may best be illustrated by Craig and Dianne Shanklin, who happen to own nice cars, and who also have a garage full of human-powered bicycles of all styles. Yet they go grocery shopping with their e-bikes, and also use their battery-powered bikes for other local trips. They are civic-minded and they prefer not contributing to pollution and traffic. And there’s an aesthetic to using an e-bike. You feel as if you’re doing “the right thing;” which, of course, you are.

The advent of the modern e-bike has also opened up a potential market of older and/or sedentary folks who either can’t or don’t want to labor on a standard bicycle. I see “seasoned citizen” couples on streets and bike paths, out enjoying a beautiful day on their pedal-assisted steeds. In most cases, it would be highly unlikely that they’d be outside and riding if they had to rely upon 100% human power. This is a good thing, because they’re still getting exercise, albeit not as much as some crazed old maniac on a 14 lb. road bike. <cough> The popularity of these relatively upscale devices has also been a boon to bicycle shops; probably almost as significant as the mountain bike craze thirty years ago. Not only are non-athletes interested in e-bikes, athletic cyclists (like the Shanklins) also may have an interest in them. E-bikes have certainly been good for business at our local bike shops, especially with all the hilly terrain we have here in Southern Utah. I’m in favor of anything that will benefit our local bike shops, especially my favorite one, “Frobisher’s Two-Wheel Emporium & Electrolysis Salon.” (Their motto is, “If it’s in stock…we have it!”)

In many families, there’s one person who is the hammer-dog, and their mate might be a more casual rider. This is a great scenario for an e-bike so the more casual husband can keep up with his speedy wife. An e-bike can be a helpful equalizer of abilities so that a wife can now ride with her husband without getting rudely dropped; or vice versa. Of course, it is almost unheard of that there would be an argument between a husband and wife out riding because one of them is going too fast…

This all brings me back to the question posed in my headline. There are a few schools of thought about if using an e-bike is or is not “cheating.” Here are the rare instances where I consider using an e-bike to be cheating… If you surreptitiously use electric-assist in a road or mountain bike race, you are a weasel. You should be banished from competition for a year at the first offense, and banned permanently for the second offense. For the third offense, you should be forced to move to Duluth to live in a trailer, without satellite TV or cable. Using an electric motor during a race is, basically, “bike doping.” Shame on you, and a pox upon your ancestors. Unfortunately, in the win-at-all-cost world of professional bike racing, there have been instances of both road and mountain bikes that have incorporated small motors for maybe another 250 watts; not a lot, but enough to give a rider a considerable edge. It was only a matter of time before some despicable team would figure out how to incorporate a small lithium-ion battery into a downtube or seat tube, along with a small electric motor. If done well, the electric assist is virtually undetectable. (For the record, I want one of these, if only to keep up with Corry Adams.)

Now, as of this moment, I have never been passed on the road by someone on an e-bike. But when it happens, (I am not getting any faster), it won’t bother me at all. I’ll just figure it’s a Walter Mitty type, euphorically soaring like an eagle…maybe a sofa-spud who is living the dream for a few moments on a hill, charging forward like Eddy Merckx. And that’s okay with me. People having fun is good. I will not be the one to rudely micturate in their corn flakes. Heck, use your new e-bike indoors on your trainer, if you are so inclined. America!!

There is a problem that I have, though, with riders on e-bikes posting their rides on Strava. At this time, I am not aware if Strava has incorporated a category for people riding e-bikes, but it would seem logical. Strava does allow for identifying the bicycle used on a particular ride, and that might be a good place to enter “e-bike.” Or make your ride private. Just don’t beat me on a Strava segment on your e-bike, or you’re dead to me!

My conclusion is that for recreational riders, 98% of the time, riding an e-bike is not cheating at all. As long as the vehicle is “pedal assist,” I have no problem with them on bike paths, either, providing the often-inexperienced e-bike riders learn to ride a straight line, they stay to the right, and they know how to respond to “ON YOUR LEFT.” (No, it doesn’t mean “move left; it means “I AM ON YOUR LEFT!”) If a two-wheeler has no pedals, though, it’s a motor bike, and it doesn’t belong on bike paths. That’s where the line must be drawn.

I hope you can embrace e-bikes, even you angry H8ers, and that you even consider getting one. Specialized has many models at various price points, and Red Rock Bicycle Co. has them on display. E-bikes can add another dimension to your bicycle world. I anticipate having two new e-bikes in the Scarpelli family in the near future!

Written by Paul Scarpelli.