I swear, every couple of weeks I come across another article about electric bikes and ‘cheating’. This one was on the Electrek website. Are electric bikes cheating? If you google ‘ebike cheating‘ you’ll get a cascade of results, and every single one debunks the idea that riding an ebike is cheating.
I’ve never quite understood the question. How can riding a bike–any sort of bike–be considered cheating? Cheating at what? Cheating against whom? That question led me to understand my personal approach to cycling is something of an aberration. The fact that the question persists–the fact that the question even exists and that it gets asked so often–is, in my opinion, evidence of a deep problem in the cycling culture of the United States.
I believe the problem evolved from the way cycling has been marketed. In the US, it’s almost always promoted as a ‘fun’ form of exercise. Exercise is basically a form of self-competition. Exercise isn’t supposed to be easy. Push yourself, work hard, work a little harder, sweat a bit more, feel the burn, ignore the pain, keep going, do better than you did the last time, meet or exceed your personal best. Exercise is a constant measuring of yourself now against yourself before. Are you getting better? Are you maintaining? Or are you fading?
There’s nothing wrong with exercise, of course. It IS actually good for you. But there’s a lot more to cycling than a good workout, and that’s generally ignored when cycling is being marketed or advertised. In the US cycling is rarely presented as an alternate form of transportation–as a way to commute to work or a way to run short errands. It’s never marketed as a source of joy or delight or pleasure.
I’ve been cycling most of my life–never for physical fitness, sometimes as a mode of transportation, but always because it makes me happy, because it brings me joy and delight. I didn’t realize that approach to cycling was an aberration until recently. Part of that realization came about because of the ebike-cheating question. But it was driven home this year after joining a few organized bike rides.
I’m basically a solitary cyclist. The idea of riding in a large group of people never appealed to me. I like to ride at my own pace, take my own path, stop when I want, go faster or slower as my mood takes me. You lose that independence in a group. But this year my charming sister (and her equally charming husband) have invited me along on a few organized bike rides–and because she’s my sister and because she’s charming, I’ve gone along.
I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the rides, in part because they always start at some bike pub and end at some bike pub, often with a couple of stops at bike pubs along the way. Bikes and beer have a long, happy history together. But because almost all of my professional training has taught me to pay attention to social behavior, I noticed this very obvious fact: aside from me on my ebike, almost everybody rode a road bike. There’d be an occasional mountain bike, a couple of fat tire bikes, maybe a recumbent bike, and one or two other ebikes–but the the vast majority of cyclists were on road bikes.
A road bike is built to be ridden almost exclusively on hard surfaces. They’re designed to be fast. Essentially, they’re designed for racing, even if racing isn’t the cyclist’s intent. Because of that, road bikes are the least versatile type of bike, the most finicky, the least forgiving, the most expensive, the least comfortable. But they’re fast. They have thin, high pressure tires to minimize surface friction on the road, and that makes them faster. They lack any sort of suspension because the flex of suspension reduces the efficiency of the pedaling, and that makes them faster. The riding position is aerodynamic (which makes them faster), but it’s also unnatural and puts a lot of stress on joints and nerves.
Because road bikes are fast, and because their design makes them more vulnerable to road conditions, and because of the unnatural riding position, cyclists on road bikes need to focus their attention on the road in front of them. A lapse in attention can result in a crash. The result is folks on road bikes aren’t devoting much attention to the general environment they’re riding through.
At the halfway point of a recent organized ride, while having a beer, I discovered that my sister and her husband simply didn’t see most of the cool stuff we rode by. A group of turkeys along the bike path, the dappled horses watching us ride by, a ring-necked pheasant that flew across the bike path about ten feet high directly in front of them, the turtle on a log in a pond, the fat groundhog. They didn’t see any of that, and it made me sort of sad.
Why, I asked myself, were all these people riding road bikes? Because in the US, a road bike is the mark of a ‘serious’ cyclist. Because if you want a good workout–if you’re primary goal for cycling is exercise–you want a machine designed for competition, even if you’re only competing with yourself.
An electric bike can make cycling easier. This is where the ‘cheating’ notion comes in. Electric bikes can be fast–but with less physical effort. They can be fast with seatpost and tire suspension, which makes them more comfortable to ride. They can be fast with the rider in a more natural and comfortable riding position, with less neck and joint strain. They can be fast while allowing the rider to look around and enjoy the scenery.
And that’s ‘cheating’. Cyclists on electric bikes are cheating because they can go fast without having to suffer as much as regular bike riders. They’re cheating because they haven’t ‘earned’ the speed. They’re cheating ONLY IF you accept the notion that the primary purpose of a bike is sport or exercise or physical fitness. They’re cheating ONLY IF you buy into the way cycling is marketed.
Earlier I mentioned googling ‘ebike cheating’ and getting a flood of articles debunking the notion of cheating. Each of those articles base their ‘not cheating’ conclusion on the fact that ebike riders are still getting a good workout. They’ll tell you how ebikes still require physical effort–though the rider has more control over how much effort is expended. They’ll tell you ebike riders tend to ride more often than riders on regular bikes, and they tend to ride further–all of which increases the ebike rider’s fitness.
Do you see the problem there? All of those articles accept the marketing premise–that the primary reason for cycling is fitness and exercise–as a given. None of them consider that there are other reasons for cycling. None of them consider that riding an ebike makes cycling more pleasurable, more joyous.
The problem is NOT road bikes. Road bikes are incredibly efficient machines. I’ve owned road bikes (though mine were all geared for touring rather than racing) and I’ve ridden them hundreds of miles. The problem (and I admit, this may only be a problem from my personal perspective) is that the marketing emphasis on physical fitness in cycling has turned it into a narrow form of self-competition that detaches riders from a richer experience. There’s nothing wrong with riding for exercise, but neither is there anything wrong with riding because it’s just fucking fun. I have never had as much simple joy and delight in riding a bike as I have this past year. Never.
For a lot of the riders in these organized cycling events, a beer at the end (or the halfway point) is seen as a reward–a sort of liquid recompense for the labor of cycling. I’m of the opinion that a beer is–or should be–just another pleasant facet of an already pleasant experience. It’s as integral to the experience as seeing a turtle on a log. You don’t have to have a beer or see a turtle on a log to enjoy a bike ride, but both enhance the ride in the same way.
I once read an article about the Dutch approach to cycling. It described cycling as a slightly faster way of walking. That fits perfectly with the way I ride. It’s just a pleasant way of getting around, quickly and easily, arriving at your destination (if you have one) without too much fuss, without being weary or sweaty (unless you want to be), and allowing you to enjoy and appreciate the world around you as you go.