best purchase ever

Imagine a collection of ancient pottery shards and some twisted lumps of barbed wire jammed inside a bit of stiff, old fire hose. That’s my knees, after years of injury and abuse. They creak, they pop, they snap, they grind, they rasp. They hurt. At some point I’ll have to return them to the shelf and get some new ones.

But mostly, I’m used to them. I know how to deal with them. I can get them to do most of what I want to do. There’s only one aspect of my life that’s been buggered up by my wonky knees. Cycling. Riding a bike. I used to ride a lot; it was my favorite mode of transportation. I used my bike for fun and to run errands. But it hurt my knees. Seriously hurt them. So a couple of years ago, I put the bike away for the winter; hung it from some hooks in the garage ceiling. Never took it down.

Over the river

This summer I bought an electric bike, thinking I might be able to ride it with minimal knee pain. When I say I bought an ebike, I don’t mean I went to my local bike shop, examined a wide selection of bikes, and made an intelligent, informed purchase. I mean I bought a bike online. Which even now strikes me as a phenomenally loopy thing to do. Who buys a bike they’ve never actually seen except in a photograph? Who buys a bike you can’t test-ride, a bike that costs US$1500 (more than any two bikes I’d ever bought), a bike that has to be shipped from Seattle and would require some assembly on arrival? Who does that?

Me and, it turns out, lots of other folks. And I got to say, it’s the best purchase I ever made.

Through the woods

I bought a Rad Rover Step-thru. It’s an improbable bike. Massive. The damned thing weighs about 70 pounds. More than twice what my trusty old Trek mountain bike weighs. It’s a fat tire bike, and when they say ‘fat tire’ they’re serious. Four inches wide. It’s got disc brakes. It’s got a goddamn brake light in back. What sort of bike has a brake light? When I finished putting it together (with the overly enthusiastic help of my brother), I have to admit being a tad intimidated by the scale of the beast. It’s big.

But once I got on it and started riding, that massive beast of a bike became weirdly tame. It rides easily. It’s not what you’d call ‘nimble’ compared to my mountain bike. Because of its size, the turning radius is slightly larger than I’m used to. But it’s rock solid and steady. And surprisingly fun to ride.

They put chairs along the bike paths here.

Best of all? No knee pain. I’d been hoping for minimal knee pain–an amount of knee pain I could tolerate. The notion of pain-free cycling hadn’t even occurred to me. But I’ve had the bike for about three months and I’ve put just over 500 miles on it–and dude, no knee pain at all. That’s because of the pedal assist function. Everything I’d read about ebikes (before committing to the insane act of buying one) talked about this weird techno-magical whatsit called pedal assist. I never quite understood it what it was or how it worked; they just said it made pedaling easier. Pedal assist was the reason I gambled on the bike.

It works. It really does make pedaling easier. Or it can if you want it to. It turns out pedal assist is exactly what it says it is. It provides a measured boost to the energy with which you pedal, which makes pedaling more efficient and effective. You can ride this bike without any pedal assist, but it wouldn’t be easy; we’re talking about a 70+ pound bike with four inch tires, so you’d have to be desperate or masochistic to do so. At PAS 1 — the lowest level of pedal assist — it makes riding a 70 pound bike feel pretty much like riding a normal bike (except even then it’s easier on the knees). I spend most of my riding time in PAS 1 or 2. I’ve used PAS 3 for a few steep or long hills; I’ve had no reason to use PAS level 5 yet.

Shortly before the first tornado siren.

I did use PAS 4 once, but it was an emergency. I’d stopped to visit with a county worker who was doing some obscure chore in what will eventually be a new suburban neighborhood. As we were chatting, the tornado siren went off. He checked his phone and told me it looked like it wasn’t a drill. I’m fairly casual about bad weather, and since I was only 3-4 miles from home and didn’t see any of the usual signs of a tornado, I wasn’t too concerned. I headed homeward, but I didn’t rush. Until a second tornado siren went off. Two tornado sirens is serious. So I began to hurry a bit. The sky got really dark. A third tornado siren sounded. I’d never heard a third siren before. I put the bike in PAS 4 and was easily doing over 20mph through neighborhoods.

I made it home about three minutes before the storm hit. It wasn’t a tornado. It was a derecho — a fast-moving straight-line storm with hurricane-force winds. And I made it home without knee pain. Totally winded, but no knee pain. I’m a big fan of pedal assist.

In the river valley.

Something I hadn’t expected: the bike gets attention. People are curious about it. At stop lights, people will roll down their car windows and ask me questions. People on sidewalks and bike paths often shout out questions as I’m riding by them. Sometimes I’ll stop and chat with them. “How does it work? How fast will it go? Does it have a throttle? Can you ride it without pedaling? What’s the battery range? Can you get a good workout with an ebike? Isn’t it cheating if the bike does all the work?”

Here are the answers. I’ve had it up to about 25 mph on flat ground; it can go faster, but I’ve never had the need to do it. Yes, it has a throttle, which is handy at stop lights and stop signs; even with pedal assist, it can be a struggle to get a 70 pound bike in motion from a dead stop. The throttle makes it easy to get started, and that’s all I’ve ever used it for. But yes, you can ride it without pedaling, using just the throttle like a moped. The advertised battery range is 25-45 miles, but I’ve ridden 53 miles through hilly terrain on a single charge and the battery wasn’t quite dead. And finally, you sure as hell can get a good workout on an ebike. The pedal assist allows you to make riding as easy or as strenuous as you want. By the way, if you bike for exercise, folks tend to ride farther and longer on an ebike, which increases the amount of exercise you get.

Me, I don’t ride for exercise. I ride for the joy in it.

Out in the country.

The ‘cheating’ question always throws me. I’m not even sure what it means. How can you cheat at recreational cycling? It’s not like you’re competing with anybody. Using electric pedal assist isn’t really any different than using 21 mechanical gears to make pedaling easier. If riding an ebike is cheating, then so is riding a bike with multiple gears. You’re still using the energy of your body to propel the machine.

That said, I do feel a wee bit awkward about overtaking a cyclist in spandex riding up a hill on a 20 pound road bike. Awkward, but not guilty.

Every so often I’ll go on a ride that takes me by a two-story fitness center. The parking lot, even during this pandemic, is usually full of cars. I know that some of the people who drove those cars to the fitness center are inside on stationary bikes, pedaling in a frenzy. They’re undoubtedly getting a more efficient workout than I am. They’re using their time a lot more effectively than I am. But I suspect I’m happier in the saddle than they are, and having more fun.

In the fog.

I’ve nothing against exercise, but I ride just for the pleasure in it. With this bike, I get to go places. I get to see stuff and talk to strangers. I get to turn down streets and pathways with no real sense of where they’ll take me; sometimes I get to be lost and have the tiny adventure of finding my way back. I get to be harassed by Canada geese and chased by storms.

I did a 30 mile ride a couple of days ago, the last half of it into a stiff 18-23 mph headwind. When I got home, my legs were wobbly from exhaustion. But my knees? My knees were laughing their ass off. I love this bike.

21 thoughts on “best purchase ever

    • Jody, I’m actually almost resentful at having to get off the bike to shoot photos of it. The most photographable moments are moments I can’t photograph because I’m riding. Last week I saw a few vultures and half a dozen crows gathered beside a bike trail, so I slowed down — and as I approached them, the vultures took flight right in front of me, and for a few seconds I was cycling in the middle of a group of vultures. It was so exceedingly cool.

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    • I should do situps. While I’m sure you get some exercise walking the dogs, my guess is you probably enjoy the hell out of it. It’s been a long while since I’ve had a dog, but even when walking the dog was a chore it was hard not to give into the infectious joy dogs get from a walk.

      I’m thinking maybe next winter for the knees.

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  1. As someone who played sports for many years in HS and college and used to run 5 miles a day on pavement not knowing any better, I can commiserate with the very loud and painful knees.

    Great piece and wonderful pics Greg.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I thought my life was over when I could no longer ride my bike with the need for a hip replacement. When that grew urgent for many more reasons than riding a bike, I got the surgery almost exactly a year ago. I was back on my bike as soon as possible for errands and fun. All the other lower joints are fine, the hip was apparently an anomaly, but I’ll be ready to consider a electric bike if and when the day comes again! Lovely photos.

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    • A bike is as close as we can get to a Fountain of Youth, I think. I get on the bike, and I feel like I’m 12 years old again. It’s such a simple pleasure.

      Glad the surgery went well.

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  3. So glad you arrived safely on the day of the derecho. Thanks for the glimpse of the Iowa countryside available to you and your ebike. One purchase = continuous “wins”.

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    • Had I known how bad a derecho was, I probably would have tried PAS 5. Winds over 100 mph took down a lot of big trees, blew apart some structures, turned over semi-trucks and house trailers, and killed a guy who got caught out on his bike (hit by a falling tree). It’s been 5-6 weeks, and they’re still cleaning up some of the damage.

      I’ll be a tad more careful next time I hear a tornado siren.

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  4. This was SUCH pleasure to read! I’ve got a road bike that I love but never get on. I’m thinking today might be the day. But an ebike is seriously tempting…. It sounds like so much fun!

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    • It’s a different sort of riding experience. In the past, I tended to pay more attention to the wind and the terrain, conscious that wherever I rode, I’d have to ride back. Riding into a headwind, as you know, can be exhausting and dehydrating. I’ve ridden in winds so strong that I looked forward to riding up hills because the hills blocked the wind.

      With the ebike I have to pay attention to the battery level, but headwinds and hills no longer concern me on the return trip.

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  5. As someone who had the then-groundbreaking arthroscopic knee surgery in the 1970s, I thought biking was long gone from my repertoire…now I am daydreaming about e-biking the Road to Hana!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve only heard of that road, and everything I’ve heard has been about driving it. But I just googled it, and people DO ride it. It sounds like madness. So, perfect for you.

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  6. I am glad to hear that you have some happiness in your life; something that takes your mind off the comrade and covid. I love biking too. I have been waiting for our extreme lockdown restrictions in Melb to ease so that I can get a tyre replacement for my mountain bike. My partner, @Scribbletronics has knee probs and has stopped riding altogether. I miss our joint fun rides along the local creek bike track. Your experience of the e-bike has got me thinking…

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    • I’m pleased to say I have abundant happiness in my life. I vent my frustration here on this blog so I’m able to enjoy my life the rest of the time.

      I can heartily endorse an ebike for anybody with knee issues. I’ve no idea if my experience is representative, but I’ve found that not only am I cycling with no knee pain, my knees in general feel better.

      Hope you get to go riding again soon. Take care.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Great article and it’s going to be my gift to me and my knees this fall. I can get this faster than a knee replacement and I miss the joy of riding.
    Thanks for all the information and would love to know what brands you researched. For the love of the bike!

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    • Maureen, I looked at a lot of different ebikes. Most were way more than I could afford. I’d narrowed my choices down between Rad Power Bikes and bikes made by Ride1up. I decided on the Rad bike primarily because they offered veterans a US$200 discount, but also because they’ve been in business longer. Both bike manufacturers have owner groups on Facebook, and they were helpful in answering questions.

      If you have any questions, feel free to ask — either here or by email.

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