By Larry Strattner
My motorcycling career began with a Ducati Diana and went on to Bultaco, Jawa, Penton, Suzuki, Ossa, Honda and finally, a Harley. All of my motorcycles, except for the Harley were selected for their ability to go fast in the woods over long distances. I was first and foremost an Enduro rider, long-distance competitions requiring precision riding, excellent timekeeping and the ability to arrive at the finish on an exact moment after being soundly thrashed for 100 miles.
Enduro riding spawned other mental defects such as racing on ice in winter and closed-loop, mass start, whoever’s in front after an hour wins, free-for-alls known as hare scrambles. It was in one of these hare scrambles where I received the inspiration to try another sport.
I had survived the mass start and was riding a machine prepared for the International Six Days Trials, an event that draws riders of worldwide renown. My machine was more than capable of squashing all the competition at a hare scrambles and I was focused on doing just that.
In the first high-speed circuit of the course the field burst out of the woods into what appeared to be an old sandpit. People who had previously ridden in this pit had created what we called whoop-dee- dos, or humps in the sand formed by hard and soft spots being either built-up or pressed down by passing traffic. These were almost like corduroy in a dirt road only the humps and depressions were much higher, deeper and more widely spaced. I took a quick measure of spacing and proceeded to jump from hump one to hump three, improving my position in the field by at least four or five places.
On our second lap I decided to jump from hump one to hump four and take another major bite out of the competition. As I recall I was about two thirds of the way through my airborne passing maneuver when I realized I wasn't going to make it. My front wheel speared into hump four, and I did a lovely handstand before being catapulted to a landing, flat on my back down the track, narrowly missed by my cart-wheeling bike.
I had been racing for a number of years, had my share of crashes and mishaps, but this one was a turning point. I lay in the sand as the field roared by and I thought, you know, this is nuts. I could get killed doing this kind of stuff. Even if I win I get some stupid bowling trophy with a motorcycle screwed on top instead of a bowling ball.
When this thought, or any variant thereof, occurs to you during a racing event, your competitive career is over. You have looked in the face of your mortality and no matter how good you are, that little edge, which equals winning, is gone.
I gradually eased out of competition and then a series of job-related changes ensured my departure would be final. I rode the Harley Davidson for a while because I liked the sound of the engine. But as a friend of mine likes to say, “it was a long run for a short slide,” and I sold it.
Several moves up the career ladder, all of which involved relocation, my wife said to me, “there are some guys at work who ride mountain bikes a couple times a week and I mentioned you had been a motorcycle competitor. They said you're welcome to ride with them.”
Sounded good to me. So I went right out and bought myself mountain bicycle. The one thing I never figured into my mountain bike foray, mostly because I hadn't done enough bicycling to know, was, you have to pedal. Pedaling was a shock to my system. It took me considerable time to get used to it. Bicycling is all about significant physical stamina, speed, momentum and trail smarts well above motorcycling, if only because the option to power through an obstacle or to overcome it with the throttle are not options.
Then, as happens sooner rather than later, wherever a bunch of young hooligans are gathered together in the name of some sport, I began getting dragged to races. These were, as you might suspect, of the mountain bike variety, smashing and crashing through the woods, like an Enduro without an engine. I bought a number of bicycles, seeking the optimal pairing between machine and my semi-fit, aging physique.
I will not recite the list of mountain bicycles I owned. A dealer I bought several bicycles from said to me, "you don't need a new bicycle. You need to work on your motor." But I persisted in buying bicycles thinking machinery would provide an edge. Perhaps the bicycle I remember best was my Schwinn Rocket 88. The suspension was designed for Schwinn by Mert Lawill of motorcycle-racing fame. No one in my mountain bicycle racing group rode a Schwinn, and they persisted in calling it a Schwine. But with that Schwine I got to the podium a number of times and placed second in my class of cross-country racers in the state of Michigan. For this I got a bowling trophy. The difference between this bowling trophy and other bowling trophies I won in the past was it appeared the base of this trophy was made of real stone.
I continued to ride bicycles for many years. Riding made me feel better. I got away from competition but continued to ride in the woods and on the road. Then I worked some years in a place where riding was nonexistent. I also got sloppy with my schedule and only rode sporadically.
Then I retired and moved to be nearer one of our children. My house was two blocks from a Redwood forest that could be described as primeval, intimidating, tight, slippery, steep and in some spots, frightening. I bought a couple of mountain bikes to conquer this new challenge. I was genuinely excited about taking it on.
Embarrassingly, I couldn't seem to handle it. My second choice of the bike with which to attack was 3 x 10, full suspension, 29r with good, solid components. I spent some time setting it up and had some wonderful rides but found myself missing two things that always been the center of my riding life: one was the ability to go fast wherever I wanted and two, to get back on the stamina-train. Neither of these were working too well. Or maybe like most of us I just expected to be able to step back into something I enjoy very much and be at the level at which I left. What a dreamer.
In the midst of all this I saw a picture of a very sweet looking mountain bike. I was initially attracted by the wheel-set on the bike, which was a beauty. Then I noticed there was a big gallump of equipment around the crankshaft and what looked like a big-gulp hydration system on the down tube. Turned out I was seeing my first electrically-assisted mountain bike. I had seen other electric bikes previously and judged them all to have been beaten into shape by an ugly-hammer, and what was worse, unable to handle even a minor mud puddle. This rig was an entirely different story. I was in the presence of something dangerous. I began to look further.
A friend of mine who commutes to work on electric bicycle that is uglier than Medusa's mother told me the Europeans were making some big strides in electric mountain bikes because they felt Europe was a primary market for this technology. He gave me a few more leads to follow in reviewing the offerings. I followed them all. At this point, one thing became evident. Bosch Electric LLC, a German company, seemed to have developed an E-Drive System most compatible with mountain biking requirements.
Assumptions about the Bosch system were based on several realities which did not even require a test ride for me to know were accurate. First, many early e-drive systems were elegant and efficient but almost universally required locations or couplings to the power source that rendered them vulnerable to interference which is one of the big obstacles in any trail riding environment.
Finding an expert on e-bikes isn’t easy. Even finding an e-bike isn’t easy. I searched around my area within a hundred-mile radius and found people who sold e-bikes for the road, maybe could get an e-bike if I came up with some cash in advance or didn’t keep any floor stock because the maker required a minimum purchase of four; three more than most small bike shops can handle. So I called folks in a wider radius and found an outfit named Piccadilly in Ashland OR who knew what they were talking about, were committed to the e-bike market, and had the floor stock to prove it.
I had recently been a rider of the Specialized brand machinery and felt very comfortable with the quality, performance and design found in these bicycles. Unfortunately their e-bike target market was chosen as a more road-friendly all-around commuter. My need was for bicycles designed for rough country but able to be ridden on a road, rather than the reverse which seldom works in any case.
All the bikes the Piccadilly guys represented used the Bosch system with the design advantage of positioning the electric drive system and its battery, center mass, nestled at the bottom of the main triangle and containing the machine’s crankset. This gives a low-middle center of gravity really helpful when the going gets fast.
I took a ride to Ashland to see Piccadilly. I saw. They conquered. After some expert conversation and a test ride up some of Ashland’s 24% grades, I was the proud owner of a Haibike, a leading German brand. My bike was a 27.5 wheel, full suspension beauty with the Bosch system.
This particular system has been chosen by enough manufacturers of off-road bicycles to provide strong credibility. Its overriding advantage, or disadvantage depending upon your point of view, is it provides assistance only when pedaling the bicycle. A standard 1x10 chain drive gets the power to the rear wheel and the uninitiated will find it hard to tell this is not a standard mountain bike carrying a rather large hydration system where the caged water bottle used to reside.
The electrical assist comes in four levels selected by the rider on the fly. Pedaling along in a mid-or higher gear the rider can barely feel the gentle push of the motor in its minimal setting. Here is where all of the discourse at the beginning of this recounting has some potent applications.
When riding in the woods you frequently encounter what Enduro riders call ‘tight’ trail. I had a number of such spots in places I frequently ride. Picture this one; a narrow, slippery single-track with a mud bog on the left and dense saplings on the right. A medium-size sapling presents itself directly in front of you. There is a way around on the right but there are several prominent, slick, wet roots and then another hard left to stay on the track. The necessity of combining speed, touch and positioning when faced with this spot meant I never made it through without stopping and horsing my bike around.
When the above stymie presented itself on my first ride on the e-bike I was in the lowest assistance mode and squeaked the bike between all the saplings and other obstacles let the front tire roll over the worst roots stopped with my feet still on the pedals then took a pedal-stroke, allowing me the leverage to pop my front wheel around to the left, back on the single-track, doing what motorcycle trials riders call ‘clearing’ the obstacle without putting a foot on the ground. The expert woods-bicycle rider might be able to manage this but at my skill-level the combination of momentum, wheel placement and explosive power needed to place the bike in the right spot was nearly impossible. Just a little push from the e-bike motor at a critical moment was all it took to turn an irritating obstacle into a satisfying trail maneuver. Oh, and I had, on previous attempts to navigate this spot, fallen into the mud bog. So part of the cost of my e-bike I wrote off to detergent and water savings attained by not having to launder my gear after every ride.
Progression through all levels of assistance provided an increasingly strong push which was, in the beginning, very noticeable on climbs. It should be noted, realistically the system will not make you able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. I found myself out of breath on several occasions trying to maintain a correct gear, pedaling cadence and assistance level on hills I had previously walked, being unable in spite of my ‘highly experienced’ skill level to pedal.
A bit of tinkering with gears and assistance levels yielded startling results however. I cannot stress too highly my thankfulness for the system requirement to pedal in order to obtain help. It is definitely equivalent to the best elliptical and treadmill combination you could ever put together.
The biggest problem I have had with my e-bike so far is fighting the urge to go fast. The clever Bosch system has shaved about thirty years of doubt and second-guessing off my perceived trail riding skills. I listed all my background and experience at the beginning for a reason. Here’s what I’ve discovered with the e-bike:
Speed is a drug (I always knew this) and you slide into the addiction aided by the smooth approaches the e-bike makes possible. The small assists the bike provides make it possible to get into drops and rough terrain a lot faster than you are accustomed. The assist also lets you get out of situations and recover. Plus the speed tends to anesthetizes your sense of danger and replaces it with euphoria. You have to overcome the urge for unreasonable speed.
You have to re-hone your skills for picking ‘lines’ through obstacles, with an eye to pace andmomentum. These ‘quick picks’ require creativity.
Balance skills become more critical, as do remembering truisms such as, “do not look where you don’t want to go.”
With an e-bike things begins happening a bit more quickly again. Concentration re-emerges as a must. You cannot fail to watch the trail both in close and farther out. The need for judgement and quick decision-making become critical again. You get a healthy dose of mental activity every time you ride.
Your mind is forced into a problem solving mode and riding becomes not only fun again but strong mental, as well as physical exercise.
In my assessment the mountain e-bike is a marvelous machine. It offered me a trip back to the “old days” and encouraged the re-emergence of skills degraded by a deteriorating ability to reach the state of “flow” we usually only enjoy when younger.
Not everyone who is considering an e-bike can go to Ashland OR, but if you did the guys at Piccadilly would hand you an eye-opener. I’m sure you can see the bike I got, along with other worthies, in a number of geographies. If you are a conservative rider, a skilled rider, an ex-motorcycle rider or a slightly senior rider I urge you to give the e-bikes a look. They have changed my world for me.