The Dark Side of E-Bikes

When Simon Cowell broke his back last week on what was first reported to be an “e-bike,” the news tore through not just the entertainment world but the booming e-bike industry. 

Turns out, Cowell wasn’t on an e-bike but an e-motorcycle. That’s an important distinction, because the “bike” Cowell was riding can hit top speeds of 60 miles per hour, which makes it patently more dangerous than e-bikes, most of which would be lucky to go half that fast. So, don’t let Cowell’s literal fall from grace keep you from picking up a sweet new battery powered cruiser, consuming public: E-bikes are perfectly safe, they want you to know.

But as someone who’s spent the last year or so joyfully riding e-bikes both on mountain trails and city streets, I’d suggest it’s not quite that simple. E-bikes are an incredible feat of technology that is changing the way people do everything from experience the outdoors, commute to work, or zip to the grocery store. All of which are changing everything from the way land managers apply wilderness rules to how transportation officials build cities (more bicycle bridges and lanes, less highways.) But they can also instill a false sense of security in the rider. That can be dangerous. 

If you haven’t ridden an e-bike yet, you probably will soon. They now come in all shapes in sizes, from cargo bikes that ferry tykes to mountain bikes that conquer punishing singletrack ascents. Legendary mushroom hunter Paul Stamets rides an e-mountain bike to push deeper into the forest, to find rare specimens. California Fire officials use them to carry LIDAR equipment into forest fire-prone areas inaccessible by car. People are buying e-bikes instead of cars—sales of e-bikes will eclipse that of electric vehicles by the year 2023, according to industry forecasts, when e-bike sales are expected to top 40 million units, generating about $20 billion in revenue. Most of those bikes will be sold in China, but the U.S. numbers are surging, to more than 400,000 units in the last year alone, a 73-percent increase. GM, Volkswagen, even Maserati, are all making e-bikes. 

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My own use of e-bikes has changed everything about how I get around an increasingly trafficky Portland. I used to commute via motorcycle because it let me slip into turning lanes, zip around inattentive drivers, find parking on any street, and ignore my car, at least on days when it isn’t dumping rain. My e-bikes have entirely replaced the motorcycle, because I realized it was often just as quick a mode of transport as the fuel-combustion variety, the parking is free, the pollution is nearly nil, and everyone from the yoga studio to the sauna offers incentives to those who bike or walk. With this Thule rack, I can haul them from place to place even in my small four-banger of a car. 

But I’ve had to learn some hard lessons about e-bikes, too. I blame the trouble I’ve gotten into entirely on my own recklessness. But a huge part of my own recklessness was to place too much faith in a machine I couldn’t repair in the wild. 

After a few months of riding a Specialized Turbo Levo, a beast of a mountain bike that powers even the most atrophied of quadriceps up punishing ascents, I took the bike on a road trip this winter to Palm Springs from my native Portland. Along the way I scouted the best singletrack trails I could find, usually by asking for “beta” (as I’ve learned outdoor nerds call intel these days) from local bike shops, navigating to a trailhead and pushing off into the unknown without a careful analysis of maps, or even dropping a pin. 

Stupid, I know. 

But I wrongly assumed if I got into a jam I could always retrace my steps. If I got tired my e-bike would pedal-assist me wherever I wanted to go. Day after day, this gambit worked just fine. I stuck to out-and-backs and had no trouble figuring out how to get back to the trailhead. 

Then, after a few days’ drive to Palm Springs, I set out into the desert. And that’s where hubris, and an over-reliance on the prowess of the Turbo Levo left me helplessly scouring for a signal to call 911. 

The trail system snakes through the Santa Rose-San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. It lies just a few miles from downtown Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley desert, which can get brutally hot, year-round. On this day in January, the high was about 85 degrees, which is serious but nowhere near the searing temps that come in summer months. I started up Dunn Road, a tough ascent the Levo easily devoured, scouting for a series of singletrack trail offshoots that would carry me out into the desert. 

I chose the highest point (and the furthest away from the car) trail I could reach, the Hahn Trail, and pushed off into an arid landscape of cacti and wildflowers, with about a liter of water in my Camelbak, no food, and no way to fix a flat tire. The trail was fun but technical, climbing to a sweeping view of the valley below before dropping back down into the heart of the desert. I faintly remembered being warned to stay out of the sandy “wash,” a truck-sized arroyo that ran parallel to Dunn Road, but somehow that’s exactly where I wound up. Too impatient to stop and consult a map, I steered the bike down the wash, sure I’d find another hard-packed trail that would get me back on singletrack again. Instead, that wash carried me further and further into a slippery sandscape. I saw the tracks of other mountain bikes the whole way, though, and figured (stupidly, I know!) that they had to lead somewhere useful. 

They led to a 20-foot cliff, with inescapable canyon walls on all sides. 

Assuming there was be nowhere to go but down, I hefted the 44-pound bike on my shoulders and scrambled down the first 10-foot drop of the cliff, to a platform about halfway down. If I did the next drop, there’d be no turning back, no way to hoist the bike back up to the wash. I had no cellphone signal and I’d foolishly failed to download an offline map. So I finally gave up, pushed the bike back up into the arroyo and resigned myself to backtracking. 

That’s when I discovered one of the tires had gone flat. 

It was easily 80 degrees by then, mid-morning, and walking all the way back to the trail I’d taken felt impossible. So as I pushed the bike uphill I looked for any escape from the wash. I found what looked like a trail after about 150 yards, and took it, with only an instinct that it was back in the direction of the car. I hadn’t admitted it yet, but I was completely lost. 

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