An Electric Balance

Faced with an empty nest and a fitness imbalance, this couple decided to get help for their rides together.

“Go F(bleeeeeeep)k Yourself!” Sam said, and then followed those words with another considerable tirade of expletives. If you knew my wife, you would understand how cautious I was even bringing this subject up and then the amount of backpedaling I had to do. I did manage to talk her down, but not really. For the next couple weeks she
would bring up it again as a “I can’t f(bleeeeeeeep)ing believe you suggested that!”

Before I get into the actual point of this story a little history is important. It may even sound familiar to some of you. My wife and I both raced and enjoyed that for many years. Then life, kids, and job took the front seat. Throw in a little injury and riding fell into the “Ustacould” category. I even joked that when we turned 40 we would buy motorcycles and get fat. We ticked that box. It is a long gradual slide but after another round of “I think I need bigger pants?” I decided enough was enough and started to dig myself out of a very deep hole. It took a couple years but I could finally roll along on the bike again. Sam still loved to ride but when we rode together the delta in fitness between the two of us meant I was always going too fast. “Slow down.” “You’re dropping me!” “I can’t go that fast.” “You should just go ride by yourself.” I even started wearing a heart rate monitor so I could study what my heart rate was when she was in trouble. The situation was frustrating and every ride was an emotional roller coaster for both of us.

Share the Road
The question I asked was a simple one. “What if we get you an electric bike?” Go back to the introduction if you forgot what her reaction was. Also picture that wonky cruiser with the bolt on battery and the fat tires. I know, because later I found out that is what she was thinking.

I have been following the evolution of Ebikes for a while and they were getting pretty close to what I had imagined. I also know we are just at the at the infancy of what is possible. I have the same feeling now that I had when Schwinn failed to deliver anything that even remotely looked like a proper mountain bike in those early days. They are missing the boat, I thought, and by the the time they made a few decent efforts it was too late. It turned out the mountain bike was a mighty, colossal, sea-parting super tanker of a boat. Electric bikes will have the same influence
on what bicycle companies are still around in the next 10 years.

Fast forward five months from me being told off. I was even fitter. My wife was holding her own but 30 miles at 14mph on mostly gravel was her happy place. Forget any kind of elevation change. I had just been laid off from my job as a creative director from a major footwear company and we were planning our next step. We had upended our lives and decided to roll around in our RV until the world is back on a similar axis to the one it had been on. We had nothing but time, new roads and the occasional freelance project. During that time I was looking at these beautiful new roads down the West Coast and trying to plan rides that worked for both of us. It was hard to balance and I pushed her limits too far. While we were boondocking with some friends down in Oakland, California, I overshot the mark with Sam and had to push her up a small mountain in the West Hills to get back to where we were staying. She was so mad and tired there were tears. It was a time for action.

Enter Creo
As this saga unfolded I kept researching electric bikes and Specialized had a bike that, on paper and in reviews, seemed like it was exactly what we needed. It took some online sleuthing and calling around but I found a bike. A 54cm Specialized Creo SL was only 26 miles away. As planned, we said goodbye to our friends and headed south. Along the way I mentioned we were stopping at a bike shop for her to look at an electric bike. It was up to her
but if she liked it we would buy it. This time there was no argument or expletives just an “Okay … I will check it out.”

For those of you who don’t know what a Creo is, this is it in a nutshell. It looks like a beautiful carbon cross bike with disc brakes and deep-section carbon rims. Unless you look at it twice you might not know it is electric. When you study it harder you will see that it has an oversize downtube and strange bottom bracket, but that is it. We arrived at the shop and I was happy to see the Creo and after a few questions was pretty certain I knew more about the bike than the sales person. He wasn’t into Ebikes at all. I tried not to be an ass in my questioning but was probably pretty unsuccessful. In the end the conversation wasn’t really about my technical knowledge or a sales pitch, as there wasn’t one. It was about Sam and what she thought. After a brief “power tutorial” she tore off down the street and I made small talk with the very nice sales guy outside while we waited for her return. We waited long enough I began to feel that sense of dread when you are at a race and you are not sure if you saw your friend flash by with the group and you wonder if they crashed. Just as I was thinking the worst she appeared from another direction with eyes sparkling and ear to ear grin on her face.

“This thing is sick!” She said. I went for a spin around the block that day and can confirm that the Creo is, in fact, “sick.”

We are now five months into electric bike ownership and are smitten. On her first ride she noted the bike feels very stable while riding and with the oversized gravel tire you feel a solid connection to the ground. She noted that, “When a big truck goes by you are not blown around.” The bigger tires inspire confidence and there is no need to avoid all road debris. The motor also really helps those transitional bumps when you need to gas it to get over things. Following her I really noticed how quickly we powered over the crest of a hill without backing off. The biggest bonus of our very first ride was that there wasn’t a single “Slow Down” or “Slow the F Down!” My warmup pace was fine and our average ride pace climbed to a very respectable 17+.

The Creo has three assist modes. “Economy” is the first. This gives your pace a respectable boost but on my Santa Cruz Stigmata I am still a little faster than Sam on the hills. In “Sport Mode” the coin is flipped and in that setting Sam is faster than I am. She can ride at a pace where I am happy to sit on and if she wants she can power away from me uphill. It is worth every penny in a headwind, as she blissfully crushes along at 19 mph into a gale. Obviously, that takes more power from the battery, so you need to be careful. You learn the limits of the battery pretty quickly and the lessons are hard enough they become memory fast. The last mode is “Turbo” and that is like trying to follow around a pro in full flight. We save that for the last couple miles home when we are just ready to be back or we are chasing the setting sun. Turbo is a blast and more times than not I get left along the way. The first time we tried turbo we were on the Oregon coast near Pacific City. It started to drizzle just as we fixed a flat and were both pretty cold. There were 7 miles to go and 4 bars left on the battery. I said, “Let’s get home. Turbo time!” Sam hit the button and we were off to the races. Every time I looked down we were doing 27 miles an hour. It was crazy fun even though I was holding on for grim death every time the road nudged upward. On the final pitch back to our RV campsite Sam left me in her rain spattered wake as I blew a gasket and ground my way over the last pitch. As I coasted into the parking lot I could finally see through the black dots that had attacked my vision. Ahead, she was soft pedaling with a big grin on her face and breathing hard. “I have to admit, I know this is an electric bike but it is still fun to kick your ass!”

It may be the longtime sprinters in us but we have repeated our Turbo finishes on many occasions. This has changed our riding dynamic so much so that my wife has more than once referred to her bike as our “marital aide” or “my diamond tennis bracelet.” Riding is fun again and although the Creo was expensive it was only slightly more than my bike. I have always believed that if your significant other is going to ride with you their bike should be just as nice as yours. Full Stop.

The other day Sam and I did a beautiful loop in Paso Robles, Calif., that is short, but intense. You leave from downtown Paso and immediately head up Kiler Canyon road. This turns to dirt after a couple miles and you wind your way up into wine country and views that make you think you are in Italy. Near the top you cruise up and down the ridge before turning right and plummeting back down Peachy Canyon. Peachy Canyon is an amazing twisting ribbon of road that throws in one last lung busting pitch at you before your hurl back into town.

When I say “Hurl” I mean you have to hit the brakes hard not to blow through the stop sign at the densely packed edge of town. The loop is relatively short at just under 16 miles. We finished our lap and Sam was done for the day but she sensed I wanted to do another lap. She said I should try her bike and to my resistance added “This is probably the only chance you are going to get to ride my bike so you should take it.” I have been very curious so I raised the seat a few millimeters and threw a leg over. My experience makes me think Specialized has unlocked the secret here. My first impression is that you still have to pedal the damn thing.

You, but better
We know that an ebike responds to your power. Power in, power out. Just rolling along I felt fairly normal. With the grand exception that I was going faster. On the first lap with my Stigmata I really killed myself a couple times. On my second go-round I figured I would put my heartrate in zone 4 and just hold it there. I put the bike in sport mode for the all-dirt pitch and started up the 1600 foot climb. In areas where I was struggling for traction or momentum on the previous lap I just rolled through. In the two bits on this climb where you are clicking for a gear that doesn’t exist I hit turbo on the top tube and ridiculously flew over those sections as the bike lurched forward. That grin was starting to curl at the edges of my mouth. I crested the climb out of breath as I worked hard over the last couple pitches but it was so much fun I laughed out loud.

The glitch they haven’t quite figured out is the descending bit. There were a couple short uphill sections where I normally get out of the saddle and power over. This time I just rolled on the power while seated and flew over the top. The bike likes seated pedaling much more than it likes you out of the saddle. You don’t feel the same efficiency. Finally there was that mid-decent climb. I hit the climb and just ticked over the gear and watched the road flatten out before my eyes. As I turned the last corner there was someone properly and fully decked out about to crest the climb ahead of me. As I roared up on a beautiful Colnago I slowed and tried to time my pass just as we went over the top. No matter what I said I am sure I would sound like a jerk but as I went by I quickly exclaimed. “Trying out my wife’s Ebike for my second lap. This thing is amazing, Have a nice day!” Then I was gone. By the time I finished, I, too, had that grin I had a seen on my wife’s face.

I now had the lap times to compare what just happened. The numbers certainly told one part of the tale. On the climb I was almost 10 minutes faster. That put me right near the edge of the pros on that Strava thing. I was faster going down on my normal bike. Partly because I know my bike well and didn’t want to wreck my wife’s bike but partly because you can feel the extra weight. Although it handles really well you don’t want to throw it into a
corner. You might be committed to some line you aren’t sure you can change. I think with practice that would get better but it doesn’t have that warp drive a full-zoot race machine does.

The times on the Peachy Canyon descent were almost identical. The little time I lost not flying down the hill was more than made up for by my speed up the midway climb. A minute-and-a-half faster than my best. My overall impression can be summed up best by the Specialized Marketing team. “It is you, only faster.” It is very true. You are putting in the work and the bike is responding. You can go ridiculously fast if you want, but in the back of your mind you have to keep battery conservation in mind. We have learned the hard way that the bike will do about
40 miles of hills in mostly “sport” with a little “turbo” and “economy” thrown in. We tried a 50-mile ride near Solvang with 5800 feet of climbing. The battery went red just as we hit the crest 25 miles in. We learned a bunch of lessons that day but the big one was spend the extra $400 on the water bottle battery. If you are going to spend that kind of money on a bike don’t get cheap now. We finished that ride in the dark and cold after we stopped at a Specialized shop that materialized like magic when we really needed it. We bought the battery.

One other observation. There is one legal regulatory bit they need to design a workaround for somehow. The engine turns off at 28mph. This is so the bike isn’t classified as a motorcycle and you can already imagine the idiot on the bike path going way too fast. That aside, There is a tricky moment while riding together when you get into the low 30s while descending. It is relatively easy for me to go that speed and if Sam is not locked in to my draft there is too much extra work to do with the engine off. The bike rolls and pedals like a standard bike at this speed but the weight tips the scales backwards. It has caused problems when there is a strong tailwind on a slight downhill where I can ride over 30mph. Hovering around that speed She goes from being on top of the gear to a hitting a big block of weight and resistance. A geolocation speed boost would be nice. It was even worse the couple times I have switched to my deep dish Zipp wheels.

Group rides
The last challenge we just started to work through is having Sam and her Ebike go on a group ride. Sam and I have been having tons of fun by ourselves but I have nipped out as often as I can to ride with a local group. I wish I had a tape recorder going for our discussion but in short she was NOT having it. Being a onetime racer and a stickler for etiquette her quote was something like,..”great, the old, fat chick shows up on an Ebike for a team ride?!! Who the F’
does she think she is?” The etiquette for this dilemma has not been defined yet but we eventually came up with a plan to try and targeting what we hoped was the right group. We decided that rather than show up at the start of the ride we would intersect with the them. We studied the map, did the average speed calculations and planned the day. We had multiple bail out options if it didn’t go well. Turns out we picked the right group to do this with. We
intersected with the TTT riders out of Atascadero and they headed out into wine country. After we had been riding for a while with them I went to each of the riders and asked them a bunch of questions to see what they thought. Generalizing the feedback it was this: If you are going to pop out on a ride with a group of folks the Ebike should be the thing that allows you to go the speed the group is going. An Ebike is fine as long as you aren’t dictating or pushing the pace. The riders are still there for their own fitness goals and your interference would not be looked
upon kindly. Sitting on the back or just sitting in was expected. Going to the front was seen as a no no. It might be added that when a couple riders are pulling hard at the front you probably shouldn’t have a super energetic conversation where you aren’t even remotely out of breath.

The funniest moment of the ride occurred when Sam offered anyone on the ride the chance to try her bike out. They all looked like they had been splashed in the face with cold water and universally declined. They all admitted an Ebike is most likely in their future, they just weren’t ready to “go to the dark side” yet. Once they tried it out they wouldn’t go back. After the ride the thing Sam was most proud of is that she kept the bike in “economy” mode much more than she expected. This shows me that despite being on an ebike her fitness is improving. As I write this we are sitting in our RV getting ready to ride. Sam’s bike is plugged in and charging. She is now more concerned with the traffic on a couple of roads we can’t avoid more than the time in the saddle or the terrain. She already knows she can beat me up the hill if she needs. I know that when we turn a corner and the hill inevitably continues up and gets
steeper she won’t swear at me. I take that back, she has sworn a coupe times but I had to paperboy those sections not to fall over. For the most part she just grins and gets to the business of getting over the damn thing. She is not in the same shape she once was, but it doesn’t matter. We are together while spending hours in the saddle, seeing incredible sights and watching the road go by under our wheels. An Ebike allows you to ride with a whole bunch of new friends
and family members. You can also decide wether you want to get your legs torn off by someone you love or that frenemy on the local team ride. As Sam said to me recently, “It is music to my ears when you tell me to slow down!” Being dropped occasionally is a very small price to pay for being able to ride with my best friend again.

For an extremely, very major media organization, the Cycling Independent has relatively low overhead. We try to keep our contributors in burritos and inner tubes so they can continue to pursue the two-wheeled truth on our behalf and yours. Please consider subscribing to TCI, so we can keep them, and this whole crazy thing, rolling. Thanks.

Join the conversation
  1. TominAlbany says

    You, Mr. Cass, have made a compelling argument in favor of ebikes. Like those on your group ride, I’m not ready yet, either and, I do plan to put it off as long as I can. But, it’s nice to know there’s a better option than a moped or a hog!

    1. Bill Cass says

      I am happy I could make a compelling argument. It has been fantastic for my wife and our combined fitness levels. The urge to just ride the thing around flat out is always an option. We were in downtown Paso about 3 miles from our car where I left my wallet. I grabbed her bike and rode 28 mph in both directions. I was back in 15 minutes so we could get to the coffee shop before it closed. That kind of fun is certainly around the corner.

  2. scottg says

    Now on E-bike #2, similar reason. She wanted to keep up on the hilly rides in our group.
    Now she can enjoy the ride, work as hard as she feels like and not finish the ride totally wiped
    If anyone ask about it, I say it is one of those Team Sky Tour de France bikes.

    1. Bill Cass says

      Sounds perfect. I like the Team Sky Tour de France bike answer.

Leave A Reply

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More