How e-bikes Affect Fitness

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E-Bikes are here to stay

Not everyone is happy about that

I used to be one of those people who had concerns and reservations about e-bikes. Why? Well, there was this nagging, almost irrational fear that these motor-assisted bicycles somehow undermine the value of my fitness and the hard work I’ve put in as a trainer, coach, and athlete.

For those who haven’t experienced the joy of riding an electric motor-assisted bicycle yet, let me explain what they are. E-bikes are essentially regular bicycles equipped with a battery-powered “pedal assist” system. When you hop on and start pedaling, a small motor kicks in and provides an extra boost, allowing you to effortlessly conquer hills even with a heavy backpack and effortlessly conquer challenging terrains without exhausting yourself. Most e-bikes even come with a power switch, allowing you to toggle between different levels of assistance, from a gentle “eco” mode to a powerful “turbo” mode. These types of e-bikes are technically referred to as “pedalecs,” and they offer a riding experience that’s almost identical to a regular bike, with the added benefit of feeling somewhat bionic due to the motor assist. You can achieve a much faster pace with considerably less effort and exertion.

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Now, this is the part where some people may start raising their eyebrows and expressing concern. Some cyclists believe that the instantaneous power provided by e-bikes takes away the sense of accomplishment that comes from building up your own strength and endurance through months or even years of dedicated training. According to Hunter Allen, the CEO of Peaks Coaching Group and an expert in this field, developing an additional 15 to 30 watts of power, which is roughly the amount needed to power a simple oven light, requires weeks, if not months, of intense training for those who are already quite fit. And even then, maintaining that peak level of power is challenging. The value of cycling fitness is something that is hard-earned but easily lost.

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As cyclists, we derive great satisfaction, even a sense of vindication, from achieving our goals, whether it’s claiming a podium position, earning a prestigious KOM crown, or even winning a friendly race to the nearest ice cream parlor. These accomplishments hold extra meaning because they require immense dedication and perseverance.

So, you can understand why it might bother me if someone effortlessly overtakes me on a 9-percent climb with a mere press of a button. It feels somewhat like saving up for an extravagant dream vacation, only to see the value of your currency plummet as soon as you reach the destination, surrounded by people who can afford to splurge without a second thought. But let’s be clear, I know deep down that regardless of how others achieve their riding prowess, my own fitness journey holds intrinsic value that is entirely independent of anyone else. Yet, it’s hard not to wonder if one day those of us who continue to embrace traditional acoustic bikes will be compared to modern fixie or single-speed riders, constantly needing to justify (even to ourselves) that we were only bested because our counterparts had access to the latest technological advancements.

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Will that degrade the sublimity of that 100-percent empty, endorphin-flooded place—a place I’ve tried hard to find on e-bikes—that you get to when your only throttle is internal?

I sincerely hope not. But I don’t know. In fact, nobody does. It’s something we’re all trying to figure out as we ride e-bikes and ride among them.

What I do know is that these battery-assisted bicycles are getting more butts on bikes, and that’s a good thing.

Electric bike sales jumped by an incredible 95 percent between July 2016 and July 2017 alone, according to the market research firm NPD Group. It’s a nearly $65 million industry, and there’s no sign of a slowdown.

3 Great E-Bikes for Different Types of Rides

$3,200 Benno e-JoySo joyful! Looks like a vintage Italian scooter and is just as fun to zip around town on.

Benno e-Joy

$10,000 Pivot Shuttle

Pivot Shuttle

Credit: Courtesy of PivotSkip the lift to ride up and romp down big mountains all day with this elite-level e-mountain bike.

$4,650 Road E Pro

Road E Pro

Credit: Courtesy of GiantWe rode our favorite local roads—and safely sat in group rides—with this smooth-sailing machine.

And indeed, despite the critics who insist that e-biking is “cheating,” e-bikes do count as exercise and may even benefit individuals who are already physically fit. Skeptical? Consider this:

Riding an e-bike still raises your heart rate.

Research comparing the amount of energy expended while pedaling a regular bicycle versus an e-bike has shown that the difference is comparable to that between running and brisk walking. Riding a traditional bike is generally considered vigorous exercise, burning around 430 to 560 calories per hour for a person weighing 150 pounds, assuming a speed of at least 10 to 14 mph. Unsurprisingly, riding a pedal-assist e-bike requires approximately half the amount of energy, resulting in a calorie expenditure of about 280 calories per hour for that same 150-pound rider—an amount equivalent to that burned during brisk walking. Depending on the intensity of the ride, the presence of any additional weight, and/or the power setting used (low or economy settings requiring more physical exertion than high or turbo), it is possible to burn up to 390 calories per hour.

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In this direct comparison of my five-mile roundtrip commute to and from the Bicycling office, I discovered that my level of effort was significantly lower when riding an e-bike set in its two highest settings. However, the calorie burn was equivalent to that of walking, unquestionably higher than driving, and undoubtedly still considered exercise. Moreover, if I desired a more intense workout, adjusting the pedal assist to a lower setting would have accomplished just that.

Zack Birmingham

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E-bike riders tend to ride more frequently.

Obtaining an e-bike has been shown to significantly increase the frequency of bike rides, according to a recent survey conducted among almost 1,800 e-bike owners in North America. Prior to owning an e-bike, 55 percent of the respondents reported riding on a daily or weekly basis. However, after acquiring an e-bike, this figure soared to 91 percent, with the majority now riding on a daily or weekly basis. More astonishingly, 94 percent of individuals who were previously non-cyclists now ride daily or weekly since getting an e-bike—nearly every single one of them!