I’m not an outdoorsy person, but I’ve periodically played one in the pages of The Gazette. In the name of journalism, and because, well, Colorado.
For my (very) occasional column Girl Gone Wild, I’ve joined skilled guides who have taken me rock climbing, fly- and ice-fishing, camping, caving and dog-sledding. I even hit the road with asses and athletes for a 7-mile foot-race-with-burro in Victor.
That was all before my hip started “acting up,” as they say. A surprise for a woman in her 40s, with no injuries or genetic harbingers and an exercise routine that’s gentle on the joints, to say the least. (If stuff’s wearing out, it’s from boredom.)
Regardless, my goin’ wild days were on hold pending the intervention of medical science.
All of this I laid out for Greg Cobble, of E-bike Tours & Rentals of Manitou Springs, when we talked on the phone.
“I had hip surgery, too, and knee surgery, shoulder surgery,” said Cobble, explaining that a majority of his customers are over 60 and find their way to the pedal-assist market because of physical issues that make riding a traditional bike …
“Even less fun than it was before?” I suggested, helpfully.
Cobble doesn’t share my functioning cyclophobia, but he gets it. A former devotee of “regular” bikes, he also doesn’t soft-pedal the impact of his e-piphany.
“The e-bike just makes everything easier. Honestly, the biggest difference is now you look forward to getting on your bike,” he said.
To truly understand the appeal, though, Cobble said one first must saddle up.
He offered to take me out for a demo ride through Garden of the Gods, and I accepted.
What better way to launch Girl Gone Mild, my new (very) occasional column for The Gazette?
“You’re going to love this,” Cobble promised. “You’ll never look at a bike the same.”
Before we get to the action, though, let’s pause a minute and talk bikes.
When I left West Virginia for college, I took my bike. I’m not sure why, other than I liked the idea of being the kind of person who rides around campus on a bike, with a basket, with cool stuff in the basket like flowers and paint brushes.
I rode it at UNC Chapel Hill exactly once. It spent the rest of my freshman year chained to the rack in front of the dorm, a rusting shame-machine of wasted potential. (You try riding a one-speed up a hill, in August, in North Carolina. Then we’ll talk.)
Nowadays bikes make me anxious for different reasons, even when they don’t have a personal spoke to pick. Especially now that I live in Colorado Springs, a city rife with cyclists and drivers who, when they’re not being oblivious, can often be less than generous about sharing the road. And especially now that one of my built-in personal pedalers is on the fritz.
Cobble misreads the cause of my trepidation, and the blanched look on my face, as we prepare to head out from his shop the following week on a pair of Denver-built FattE-Bikes.
“You’ll be fine. You’ve ridden a regular bike before and it’s just like that. All you really have to do is be able to balance,” he assures me.
I tell him it’s not me I’m worried about.
But that’s not entirely true.
For years after they first began widely appearing on the market in the early 1990s, it wasn’t only drivers of cars and motorcycles throwing shade at riders of electric bikes. Traditional bike-riders were “disgruntled” about the idea of sharing lanes, and a meta-cyclesphere, with their hybrid counterparts.
Cobble says attitudes have since come around.
“There are some purists that may grumble when you pass them on the road, but I think that people are more receptive and accepting of them now,” he said.
As opposing forces mount in the fight to save the environment, activists and appreciators of al fresco life are more reluctant to snub a potential ally. When gas prices soar, e-bikes also provide an affordable option for short-term commuters.
“One man who bought one of our bikes was commuting every day to work in his car, and said switching to an e-bike saved him $40 a week in gas. And that was before gas prices really skyrocketed,” Cobble said.
An e-bike battery is not, as I originally thought, powered by the pedaling of its rider. There’s a motor and a detachable, plug-in battery. A full charge, achieved after about six to eight hours, will get you about 40 miles, at top speeds of between 20 and 28 miles per hour, depending on the size of the battery, the motor and the rigors of the route. Entry level prices start at about $1300, but for e-biking in undulating Colorado, Cobble recommends a model with more oomph.
“For the places you’re going to want to ride on an e-bike here, you’re going to need more power to handle the inclines,” he said.
The last thing an e-bike rider wants is to run out of juice on the way home, at the bottom of a big hill.
A broken escalator becomes stairs; an e-bike with a dead battery becomes just a bike.
“Except it’s heavier than a traditional bike, so it’s even a little harder to navigate,” Cobble said. “You can get some serious exercise.”
Depending, of course, on where you are when your e-bike battery quits.
“I went up Pikes Peak, but it died at the top. So I could just coast all the way down,” he said.
Cobble’s business partner Caleb Lopez helps me strap on a loaner bike helmet, then gives me a rundown of the e-bike controls: power, pedal assist, throttle and a more traditional gear shift, which I’m told I shouldn’t have to mess with too much for our tour today.
“When you first start, our brains aren’t wired to be thinking and understanding two things at one time,” Cobble says.
We walk our bikes out of the store and a half block down the sidewalk, wait for a break in traffic and position ourselves in the middle turn lane, at a spot where Manitou Avenue pitches gently down heading east. Good place for a rolling start, for a beginner who’s not yet throttle savvy.
We mount our rides, and we’re off. Freewheeling downhill, we’re just like two people on bikes. My peds need no assistance, it’s all about the hand brakes, as we roll down the main drag and I follow Cobble. He signals an impending turn with his arm and we hang a swooping left onto the back-streets leading to the entrance of Garden of the Gods.
We hit a straightaway and Cobble counsels me to play with the pedal assist.
“If you want a workout, just put it on 1 and ride, and you’ll get all the workout you want,” he says.
The wind tears his words to shreds, but I piece them back together.
“I don’t want a workout,” I yell back, and keep the e-bike at 2. Decorative pedaling is enough for me.
A bit further on, we’re at the entrance of the park. Here Cobble stops and waits for me to catch up, so he can share some advice.
The route’s steep, so I will need to use the throttle to get going, then dial up the pedal assist number, he says. Cobble takes off and I do too, goosing the throttle, thumbing up the boost, and pedaling for good measure and optics.
By then, I’ve already found my groove. And, I’m pretty sure, my epiphany. I live nearby and have probably driven this route a hundred times by car. It’s never looked — or smelled or been — this real.
This is what traditional cyclists must feel… . unless, of course, the rub lies in the challenge.
Halfway up to Balanced Rock, I pass a woman on a traditional cycle, chugging her way up. I feel like polite passing-by-e-bike should include an apology.
“I’m not gloating,” I yell, as I dial the pedal-assist up to 4. Drive-by awkwardness is all I can handle right now.
I look over my shoulder and see the woman smile (or maybe it’s a grimace). Before I’m out of range, buzzing away up the hill, unsweating, I can hear her gasp out a few parting words.
“Nice bike,” she says. “Wanna trade?”