By Lukas Brinkerhoff — He was an older gentleman.
Recognizing that that designation is bit of a moving target and one that has become older and older with my personal age, I would say he was in his early 50s. He was fit. He looked like he had spent most of his life quite active. His grey hair was cut short and neat and gave him the air of a manager, or at least the leader of something, probably someone who took orders from superiors regularly, but who also passed those orders along to underlings. The setting was a bike shop, so I feel pretty confident in assuming he had spent most of his life riding, probably gran fondos and the occasional race with little to show for it other than the lack of a beer gut.
“Do you sell a lot of these?” He asked.
“Yea, it's about 50-50 these days.” I responded.
“I'm sure I'll have one at some point, but I'm not that old yet. Besides doesn't it feel like cheating?”
It was a conversation that gets repeated regularly in any bike shop selling eBikes. It was probably one of a dozen I personally experienced in this given week. And as such, I gave the canned response, “You get out of it what you want.”
He continued his browsing or what is also known as “gathering” and left the shop.
I watched as he got in his car and made his way out of the parking lot under the power of fossil fuels. Who's cheating whom?
In an era of unprecedented ease, which of all the varying levels of mechanical advantage is cheating and which ones are not? When the bicycle was first invented, the problem it was solving was human transport. The bicycle is easier and faster than walking or running giving cyclists an advantage over the biologically available forms. Is the bicycle cheating? What about gears? Bicycles were first fixed, single speed versions due to the technology available at the time. Where do you draw the line?
There’s a hill about halfway up the Zen trail. We affectionately (and by we, I mean me) refer to as SOB Hill. By most standards, it’s not ridable. In fact, if you were to head up Zen for the first time and get to this hill, you would most likely not even realize it was there. Instead, you would just take one of the many cheater lines that go around.
It starts with a lead in that by its own merits is a challenge. It’s uphill and right before the crux, there are a dozen or so boulders that will suck any momentum right out of your wheels once you hit them. The crux is a ridiculously steep pitch of sandstone. If you can get to the sandstone still on your bike with enough forward motion to continue, getting up the sandstone is the challenge that stops almost every person willing to give it a go.
If you make it to the sandstone and are able to continue upward, the slickrock requires a Homeric effort to overcome. The grade is steep enough that balancing on one’s bike alone is a challenge. Combine that with the need to maintain forward motion through the narrow strip of rock that is the line, and you have yourself a real obstacle. It is best overcome by maintaining as much momentum as possible through the boulder field and then a lunge forward. With a little luck that lunge gets both wheels on the rock and on the line and then it is a question of strength and balance. Too much power and you will lose traction spinning out. Not enough power and you will stop dead in your tracks. Both have the possibility of a forced dismount off the side of a giant rock.
We had passed them on the climb up to SOB Hill. My guess that it was one of their first times on Zen as they were struggling not only with the grade of the trail but also with the technical aspects of the rock. Stopping at the Jacker Stacker for a couple of laps before moving on to the aforementioned hill had given them just enough time to catch back up to us.
I jam down on the right pedal to get my momentum started and then repeat with the left leg. I get as much speed as possible going into the boulder field. Out the other side, an unintentional scream escapes from my lungs as I put everything I have into the cranks. The bike lunges forward. My front wheel is in my face and I come to a near standstill. My left leg goes down and the momentum continues forward. One last pedal stroke through the skinny section puts my front wheel at the top of the crux and I throw the rest of the bike upward to finish it out.
The other riders we had passed stand a little confused by what they have just seen and ask my riding buddy, “Is he on an eBike?”
“Nah, kind of the opposite,” he responds, “He doesn’t even have gears.”
Walking versus biking versus driving. The latter is universally accepted. No one says they feel like they are cheating when they jump in the car for a quick spin to the mailbox. And yet, it is the most passive of the three forms of transportation. Despite the herculean effort required to mass produce cars and extract the fossil fuels necessary for that quick spin, pushing down on the accelerator is incredibly easy.
This brings us full circle back to eBikes. Yes, they are easier than pedaling an analog bike, but they are still more work than driving. If you view that incredible, electric motor strapped into the bottom bracket as simply a technological advancement, then it isn’t much different than adding gears to the bicycle or when the freewheel became a thing. Let’s not even get started on suspension, dropper posts and disc brakes. It all depends on where you draw the line.
Who’s cheating on whom?
I ride singlespeed despite my advanced age as well as an eBike and a couple of cars. From where I stand, every time we allow ourselves to use a motor instead of our own power, we have given up a piece of our humanity. There is a tipping point when we begin to lose our ability to do things by opting out of doing them ourselves. Which is to say that driving a car or riding an eBike or using the elevator is only cheating you. And yet, it’s so easy and yes, sometimes even downright fun.
So, whose bed have your boots been under?