To E or not to E

By Christine Schopen updated 2022-06-22

To E Or Not To E? Bob Hermann

WCC has survived the arrival and integration of e-bikes. It turns out that electronically boosted legs allow many riders to continue engaging in the sport they love with their "peeps" (thanks, Candy). WCC has adopted guidelines for how to ride e-bikes, which appear elsewhere in this tab and are much like those of every major cycle club. They seem to work.  

The biggest surprise, indeed, may be how few riders, even those at or near Medicare age, have not taken the plunge. E-bike sales globally, and in our region, have been soaring for several years. One initial disadvantage, the weight differential between an e-bike and a conventional bike, has been steadily decreasing. The major bike vacation companies (Trek, Backroads, Butterfield & Robinson, VBT) all provide e-bikes upon request of their customers.

Every major manufacturer today produces a range of e-road and e-gravel bikes with differing frame configurations and materials, a range of sizes, drive trains (most use a single chainring) and options, such as e-shifting. E-bike owners tend not to be so concerned about bike weight, because most conclude that the extra couple of pounds that come with an aluminum versus a much costlier carbon frame, say,  are no longer worth it -- because they have (as I do) up to an extra 280 watts of power to push that heavier frame up that long hill.   

The most common misconception about e-road bikes, which I'm asked about all the time, is that it works like a throttle-assisted device, such as a motorcycle or scooter, where the operator just rotates a knob to produce power and then sits back to enjoy the ride. No, an e-road or e-mountain bike is "pedal assisted." Your riding controls how much power you get in two ways.

First, every-road bikes is capable of producing a maximum wattage, e.g., 280 watts. You  designate the power level you decide you'll usually want to ride in. The 3 power levels, which many e-road bikes have, reflect the maximum wattage you can use at that level. Say that with 3 power levels, you want to use no more than 35% of your maximum wattage (= 98 watts) in power level 1, which is the factory default. Those extra 98 watts (max) in level 1 will probably provide you a lot more power than you have without assistance.

Keep in mind: You still have all your gears working for you as they normally do, so you won't likely be calling for all 98 of those extra watts unless you're climbing John Street. If you are climbing John or Tinker, however, you probably want to switch to the second power level. The factory presets your maximum power setting in level 2, say, at 75%, and level 3 at full wattage (280). But you can tweak these wattage levels on the manufacturer's app on your phone, or by a dial on the handlebars or top tube. Pro tip: don't do this while riding!

More assistance means less range, and vice versa. A typical ride of 50 miles at 60 feet per mile, with maximum wattage set in level 1 at 35%,  uses about half of my available battery. Before I tackle the Seacoast Century in September, which is far less hilly, I may change the presets to be sure I have enough juice for 100  miles. The clever firmware and software inside the downtube or seat tube allows you to attune your settings based on the topography of the planned ride area. This is a great feature. Remember, too, that if you want to be on the safe side, there are likely to be flat stretches where you can turn off the motor entirely to save battery.

This brings up recharging. You plug the charging connection, which is usually placed in the crank/bottom bracket area, into a special charger that weighs maybe 2 pounds and plugs into any outlet. It takes about 2 hours to recharge my battery after the 50-mile ride I just described.  Supplemental batteries shaped like a water battle are sold as extras by the manufacturers.

So how does all this magic power know to come to your aid? Early e-bikes relied on cadence sensors, but this system proved clunky and unlike a natural ride rhythm.  In modern pedal-assisted technology, a torque sensor is built into the system. It measures your output, based on speed and terrain, and controls the motor's power to match.  To put it otherwise, torque sensors measure how hard you are pedaling. The harder you push, the more power you get. When this system is done right by the manufacturer, it handles with a very bike-like, natural feel on turns and climbs. E-bikes have also gotten much quieter. Only the gentle hum of the motor on a climb gives you away as you pass (hint: this may occasion jokes or curses to be directed at you).

Which brand of e-road bike you should buy is a very different decision from which conventional road bike you should buy. The cycling industry has always had many small, niche brands which have found a market because they can get their carbon frames made by the manufacturers everyone uses in Taiwan and can use the same two full lines of components (Shimano or SRAM) as other companies. The assets required to team up with software and firmware makers to build a fine e-road bike are, however, beyond what many small brands can make, for reasons we can discuss on that century ride. Some venerable American brands (Cannondale, Cervelo, Santa Cruz, and Schwinn) have been recently acquired by Pons Holdings, a Dutch firm that specializes in e-brands and now rivals Giant as the world's largest bike company.  

You need to check carefully which bike companies are now producing technologically sophisticated, high-quality pedal-assist e-road bikes that handle like conventional road bikes. For example, it matters that the added weight of an e-bike is placed low at the bottom center of the bike, so it is under better control than it is with bikes where the added weight is higher up and maybe is even just plopped onto the down tube. You need to ask such questions as whether the electronics of the system can be regularly updated, usually by your shop plugging your bike into the manufacturer's website, just as would be done on a car you took in for factory-authorized service.

I started riding an e-bike two years ago after a back surgery left me with enough titanium in my spine to build a small bike. (One of the rods was called a "kick stand" by my surgeon.) The extra power enabled me to ride long or steep climbs in the saddle, without standing and torquing my frame (though I still do that when the urge strikes). To pay for this bike, I sold my conventional road bike because the resale market was favorable. I should have kept it, however, because I'd still be using it for certain rides, as I've done on occasion by borrowing a traditional road bike when my e-bike is in the shop.

This experience also convinced me of an important point about road bike riding: Stop worrying! You will not win any senior-citizen accolades for exhausting yourself riding with those fifty-somethings. Taking the helping e-hand will not turn you into a bucket of mush, as long as you learn to use the controls so that you are regularly as challenged as much as you think you need and want to be. If you do that, you'll find that you still fit in well with the people you always liked to ride with. To my mind, that's the real value of an e-bike.

Consequently, it's not a bad idea for e-bike riders to try to stick to the middle or back of the pack to be sure they aren't inadvertently busting the pace off the front. The Club policy states: "A rider with an e-bike should ride at generally the same ride level classification they would ride without an e-bike. It is potentially unsafe to use an e-bike to ride above your ability and comparable skill level with a standard bike, and doing so may make other riders with you uncomfortable." If you're a ride leader, an e-bike offers added confidence in your being able to check out the back of the pack but move back up to the front just as you used to do when you were…oh, let's not go there!

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