This was why I was enchanted, a while back, to notice that some bike tour outfits, like Butterfield & Robinson, were offering electric motorized bikes or e-bikes. I couldn’t rent any e-bikes in New York City because while the city now has a bike-share program that encourages helmetless tourists to drive into buses and federal law allows e-bikes as long as they don’t go over 20 miles an hour, riding an e-bike here can get you a $500 fine. You can buy the bikes here, you just can’t ride them. The impetus was said to be speeding food delivery guys, though from what I see on the street nobody told them.
, based in Irvine, Calif., whose 56-year-old chief executive, Don DiCostanzo, arranges a loan. His boomer work-out philosophy: “We want to get some exercise and we don’t want to work too hard at it.”
His Brooklyn-based dealer, Damon Victor, at Greenpath Electric Bikes
, who sells throughout the northeast United States, delivers two bikes: the Step-Thru Interceptor and the City Commuter, both of which retail for $2,895. They are gorgeous, with leather seats and handlebars. They are also enormous, the Clydesdales of biking, both weighing in at just under 60 pounds. The bike I normally ride, a Terry Symmetry, is 22 pounds.
You can ride these bikes with no motorized assistance, with occasional assistance with the turn of a hand throttle adjacent to the right handlebar, or with the push of a button near the left handlebar, which gives you constant pedal assistance in four levels up to 20 miles an hour. My average speed is 8. Damon gives me a sidewalk lesson punctuated by my hollering when I switch into a power mode and the bike rockets off. I am not used to a bike doing so much when I do nothing. In a way, it’s like a vibrator.
Damon, meanwhile, is looking at me the way a sergeant regards the recruit most likely to shoot herself in the foot. Ride it like a regular bike until I get off the city streets, he tells me.
To get the serious biker perspective, I will be riding with my colleague, Bruce Weber. He is 59 and biked across the United States
two years ago, but he also had open-heart surgery eight weeks ago so I figure we will be evenly matched. I am convinced of this when he arrives at my apartment, grabs the throttle instead of the handlebar, and the bike takes off.
“Whoa!” Bruce says. “I almost drove into your closet.”
Naturally, you are wondering how, as law-abiding New Yorkers, Bruce and I made our way to hilly roads and where, as I understood New Jersey law is hazy on e-bikes, these roads might be, and while you are wondering, let me tell you some of the ripping adventures my friend Herb and I had when we biked: Often, in the morning, we were overtaken by whippet-thin serious bikers in spandex, who we called The Big Kids. We regarded them with awe and they regarded us as less than dirt, dirt being something you could bike over and thus had value. On long bike tours Herb and I often hopped a ride in the support vehicle, which serious riders shunned. This enabled me to identify the condition “Van Shame,” now recognized by the American Psychiatric Association as a serious disorder. The worst moment Herb and I had was when we were biking downhill on a New York city street and we were passed by a 7-year-old on a scooter. A 7-YEAR-OLD. By now he would be 22 or 24 if he hasn’t run into a helmetless tourist on a shared bike, an event I pray for daily.
But, look: Bruce and I are now on a steep, busy highway in a nameless state. (Hint: Is that Bruce Springsteen?)
Verdant and relaxing it ain’t. I wobble dangerously close to trucks as I slow to change assistance levels. I also have a few scary moments at stoplights when I reach for what I think is the right handlebar, grab the throttle and the bike takes off.
But this motorized thing is neat. Though the bike is heavy I can pedal up steep hills without assistance further than I expected, then when I can’t do it anymore I just hit the juice and get an assist. Sometimes I go so fast it is hard to keep up with the pedals.
“Shift, shift!” Bruce yells.
Speed, of course, is a subjective thing. A serious biker averages speeds in the high teens. Uphill with motorized assist I’m rarely going more than 9 or 10 miles and my fastest speed on the flats is about 15 miles an hour. But speed isn’t what interests me — I just want help for my 65-year-old knees on those hills.
Bruce and I turn into a state park along the Hudson River. It has hills so steep that a person who hasn’t been to the gym lately could have a cardio event just looking. The Big Kids love it. It is a perfect, crisp blue sky October day. I bike up a gently rolling hill with a 45-degree angle, leaving Bruce, who is comparing the powers of e-bikes and those of his cardio surgeon, behind. At the top, a Big Kid who has seen my effortless climb passes me.
“That’s cheating,” he hollers.
Why? I think. Is it a race? The sky is just as blue — maybe bluer, as I haven’t been distracted by exhaustion and sweat pouring into my eyes. The Hudson is no less magnificent. True, riding an e-bike bike I haven’t felt the satisfying power in my legs I had biking in France, shooting by Herb in a vineyard yelling, “Pistons of steel!” but it’s a different pleasure. I am out on a gorgeous day biking roads I couldn’t have biked otherwise. It’s not dangerously fast. On a flat bike path in a major eastern city (think the one that never sleeps
) I am passed by Big Kids racing by. And riding home at the end of a 25-mile trip a little motorized assist is pleasant, as if some benign force in the universe is running behind me giving me a push.
And what does the serious biker think?
“The motor is the raison d'être,” Bruce says. “The bike is built to support the electric assistance and there’s no reason to have it unless you want to make use of it, otherwise you are better off with a regular bike. It rolls fine, it shifts smoothly, but it is incredibly heavy so to go uphill, you feel like you are dragging a great weight.”
Is it a bike or is it not?
“It’s its own animal,” Bruce says. “When you are riding it as a bike you wish you had a better bike, when you are using the assist you don’t feel like you are riding a bike. Which is not to say it isn’t fun, it just isn’t the fun you would have on a bicycle.” He takes a Big Kid shot. “More like a merry-go-round.”
I get his point. But I got a lot of exercise, and our three-and-a-half-hour trip was a lot of fun. And I have a memory I will always treasure: As we headed home there was a kid, maybe 13, hogging the bike path on his scooter. I put my electrical assist at level 1 and left that punk in the dirt.