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E-Bikes & The End Of An Era  (July 2018)

Identity Crisis
Bummer! Bill was gently nudging me to literally hang up my beloved, 15 year old, custom-made, loaded touring bike and accept an e bike and to do it now, for our 6 week touring season that would begin in 10 days. I had hoped to press-on, to prevail over the debilitating effects of starting high blood pressure (HBP) medication 2 months prior. But if I couldn’t pedal more than 100-200’ without resting on a 15% grade at 5,000’ elevation on a stripped bike, how would I make it over a 7,000’ pass with a 50 lb load of even 10% grades? 

My belief in myself to rally, to dig deep, to press-on is what allows me to do just that over and over again. Giving-in on this performance failure would erode my confidence, it would chip-away at my capacity to make it through other challenges on my will and discipline. And by considering switching to an e bike, I felt like I was at that horrible juncture when a person resists using a wheel chair or an oxygen tank because of the sense of closing the door behind yourself, of knowing that you’ll never go back to the more vigorous person you once were.

Making the change to an e bike would be a loss to grieve. It would be the loss of another identity: that of a capable, proven, international, loaded, cyclotourist. That powerful image of myself would be displaced by being an e biker. There is no sense of accomplishment in being an e biker—all it takes is money.

I could frame the decision by saying “E biking just a different sport", but there would be no forgetting that the switch wasn’t triggered by the excitement of having a new sport but the lost capacity to continue with the former one.

Safety Prevails
Our top priority of being safe in whatever we do tipped the balance despite my dramas. I thought back to an early day on our 2017 cyclotour when I was completely overwhelmed by the wicked combination of persistent steep grades, high heat, and high humidity. Pushing a loaded bike is actually harder than riding one but I resorted to pushing  because I wasn’t confident I could pedal powerfully enough to keep from dumping over from the loss of momentum. Once near the pass where it was significantly cooler, I rode with confidence a up the mountain. 
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Punta Puez Hut: Bill could stop mid-hike for a cappuccino these days because I was so slow.

On the hiking trails, depending on the specific combination of grades and altitude, my current performance deficit on the HBP medication ranged between 10% and 30%. And on this hike during which Bill was nudging me to accept an e bike, I’d again lagged well behind him on the steep ascent. Once on the level terrain at 8000’, I was huffing and puffing to keep up in contrast to the normal breathing pattern I would have enjoyed 2 months ago at that elevation. Overlaying these new realities on the memory of that difficult experience last year on my bike  made it clear that it would take me hours longer to get up a hard pass in my current condition, which made the decision to accept an e bike a no-brainer. Bill reminded me that our hardest pass of the tour would be on Day 2.

The other strong image that arose while weighing the pro’s and con’s of becoming an e biker was at the other end of the performance spectrum. On the very last biking day of our 2017 touring season, we both conquered a familiar, difficult pass without a single rest stop, which was by far and away, a first. We typically take a 60-90 second pause every few minutes to make our way to passes but on that day we rode uphill continuously for 2 hours without taking our feet off the pedals—something we never do even on flat terrain. 

It was  an astounding, exhilarating experience for both of us, one that we later attributed to positive changes in our intercellular mitochondria after 3 years on our ketogenic diet. Sadly, switching to an e bike for touring would eliminate the opportunity to ever again experience an unexpected new performance break through like that. Loaded touring puts us out on a discovery edge like nothing else we do. Of course, in the big picture, that victory was a small thing, but the never-again opportunity still registered as a loss as I visualized becoming an e biker. 

Bill was sensitive to my profound sense of loss, my predicament in switching to an e bike, but in suggesting we buy an e bike to get me over the passes, his mind quickly turned my lemons into his lemonade. 

As our trip planner, ‘range’ is always on Bill's mind, whether thinking in terms of how many hours we can drive our truck in a day or how much capacity we have for distance and elevation gain on foot or on a bike. Our new, more comfortable truck that we bought a couple of years ago increased our tolerance for driving and our keto diet and harder training increased our hiking range. Because we went from cyclotouring 9 months a year to a mere 6 weeks back in 2011, our range on the bike had been steadily shrinking. Bill was frustrated by our ever-diminishing biking range when planning our summer itineraries.

The increased range afforded by e bikes was a dream come true for Bill—something he’d never imaged possible again. Mountain passes that were too high, scenic areas with scarce lodging, and visions of other missed opportunities washed through his brain—they would all be possible now. He immersed himself in all things e bike to make this dream come true.

Whoosh! It Was Done
We had arrived in Selva on Saturday, went for our first bike ride on Sunday during which I failed the steep grade test on our neighborhood ride. On Monday, I rode downhill on my touring bike to Ortisei for a planned major overhaul of it with us both wondering how this season was going to work out. It was on Wednesday afternoon while we hiked that Bill gently pitched “think about getting an e bike”, which I did. Probably in less than an hour I said “Yes, I’ll do it” after replaying that video of my ‘barely making it’ in the heat last summer.
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I pondered the “Think about an e-bike” question on a lovely trail.

We got in from the hard Wednesday hike and after doing a little more online research, Bill talked at length on the phone with a sales person in a sporting goods store in nearby Bolzano. Our 90 minute bus ride delivered us there minutes after their opening the next morning. We sought out “Didi”, the English-speaking bike guy on the phone, and after about an hour, I told him to ‘wrap it up’. It was moderately priced, obscure brand with Bill's must-have Bosch motor system.

Saying “I’ll buy it" had required taking a deep breath and holding back tears while we walked down the stairs to “Minus 2” level in the Sportlier store. Sadness overtook me at the top of stair case and I had a sense of walking into doom as we slowly descended but I knew there was no turning back. It was the right decision and the sooner it was done, the sooner I’d be released from some of the painful emotions.

Consumer Cultural Experience
Layered on my sad emotional journey was the discovery that the promise on the phone of benefiting from their ‘years of experience’ with fitting bikes was learning that there was no fit to be done at all. Didi accurately sized me up visually and selected the smallest frame from the 4 sizes available and that was all there was to it. If Bill wanted one, he’d be assigned the same size even though our custom bikes are so different that we can barely sit still on the other’s bike. The only other ‘fit’ adjustment to be made upon delivery in a few days was to slide the seat forward or back and up or down. We were assured that the engineers were "very smart" and everything would be fine. “Gulp!"

When we bought “off the rack” bikes 30 years ago, they at least swapped out handlebars to get the right width and would replace the stem, which attached the bars to the frame, to change their height and distance from your torso. In contrast, our current custom bikes were finely tuned to us: the length of the 3 tubes and the 3 angles in the frame triangle were all configured for specifically our bodies, as well as the handle bars and the stems. A worry for me in going back to an off-the-rack bike was the health of my knees and back—both of which were important needs in deciding to buy a custom frame.
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Astride my new bike—they didn't bother putting the pedals on for ’the fit’.

After settling down about the leap of faith required on the fit, we were stunned that there were no demo bikes to try out. The convention was to buy the bike and never come back. I straddled it with my feet on the floor—they didn’t bother putting the pedals on to at least get that feel for the bike proportions. Nope, if we wanted to test ride the bike, we needed to have been at one of their 2 bike fest days held in the countryside in April or May.

When our custom bikes were built, there were so many choices. Our frames could be carbon, aluminum, titanium or steel—we selected steel for durability and comfort. Brazons for attaching racks, water bottle cages, and other add-ons were specified, both position and number of them. There were choices to be made on brakes, brake levers, shifters, number of gears, and more. And then for every choice to be made, Bill selected the quality and durability of the component. Yup, those were custom bikes: built for our bodies and built to last for years of overseas, loaded, touring in far away places. 

Buying a e bike was simple: a mountain bike was the most available style and in the middle price and function range, they were all made of aluminum, which is stiff and hard to repair. Bill always put ultra-low gears on our bikes to help us up the hills with our heavy loads, but changing the gearing wasn’t really an option on these bikes because of the motor, according to Didi. They came with 9 speeds, not the 27 to which we were accustomed. 

The handlebars could be sawed off to make them shorter but any other changes, like a stem replacement for a better fit, would disable the integrated headlight. Putting fenders on to decrease the the considerable spray of road grease, mud, and water on to our clothes and faces wasn’t really an option either, though they indulged us with some flimsy product about 20% of the length needed to do the job. The integrated tail light was mounted to be pretty much blocked by the back wheel. Gone as well were our hand and shoulder saving, multiple position drop handlebars and aero bars and instead were the ever-wider, straight, mountain bike handle bars.

Bill had spent hours educating himself about e bikes and all but one of his must-have features weren’t options if we were going to buy a bike that day. He was in shock. We did however get his #1 must-have, which were bikes with Bosch motors.

Bill’s Journey
It was after we parted for our separate journeys back to Selva on a day after we’d paid a deposit on 2 e bikes in Bolzano and before we picked them up, that the emotional tidal wave hit Bill. We’d taken the 30 minute bus ride down to Ortisei together so I could ride my freshly overhauled touring bike back to Selva. Bill accompanied me to 'talk bike’ to the mechanic who had used parts Bill carried from home for almost 2 months. 

I was apprehensively riding alone in intermittent drizzle for the all-uphill journey to Selva, hoping that I’d be able to navigate around the diminished exercise capacity triggered by my HBP medication. I hoped not to have to push the bike too much; I hoped to have a peaceful, sentimental, last ride in Europe on my trusty stead. I was relieved to be able to ride, even slowly, to deeply experience the sense of my body on this special bike surrounded by the mountains I loved.

I saw Bill go by on the crowded bus that was taking him back up the mountain to Selva. It was there that the excitement of formerly out of reach venues and the total immersion in 'all things e bike' that had been needed to make a quick buy decision abruptly exited the center stage in his mind. It was then that the symbolism of this ’switch flipping’ event of having been cyclotouring athletes to becoming e bikers hit him. 

This was the first time that the aging process had abruptly snatched away something we treasured. Overseas cyclotouring had been a part of our identities, a part of our lifestyle, for 17 years and ‘click’,  it was gone. We are all vulnerable all of the time to abrupt, life changing events and on the scale of things, this one was small, but it was huge in the moment. It was a loss we each had to grieve in our own time.

The drizzle had turned to steady rain when we encountered each other, 2 blocks from our Selva apartment. I’d been able to pedal the entire way and Bill was walking down to the market for our dinner groceries. We stood there in the rain talking, me astride my bike, about our different emotional journeys that afternoon and the grief-filled conversation continued into dinner time.
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My last ride in Europe on my custom bike. I was pleased to be able to pedal the entire way, even in the rain.

Bringing the E Bikes Home to Selva
The unexpected rainy, gloomy day hadn't help matters, but that evening we focused on the preparation needed to catch the 8:00 am bus to Bolzano the next day. The next morning, it was back to emphasizing the upside of the bike change-out. We’d leave with our pedals, saddles, and helmets in clunky panniers, as well as with lunch. 

The forecast of a 70 degree, dry day was holding and we distracted ourselves on the bus by considering where to have our celebratory, first-ride, picnic. The 30-some mile, 4,000’ gain ride that we’d always split into 2 days with our loaded bikes surely would be a full day ride on our new e bikes. There would be extra stops to tweak saddle height and position and others to relieve tension in our bodies for a demanding first ride in a totally new configuration.

Bill had originally planned to buy an e bike for himself in 2019 to exploit the benefits of buying a better bike in Germany but he changed his mind. Seeing me astride the as of yet pedal-less new bike on the showroom floor had made him wince. “Why aren’t I getting one? Why wait? I want one too!" all banged around in his head. We were only weeks away from the end of the model year and the shop inventory was low. 

He struggled with the decision so we took a time-out to eat our picnic lunch in a scruffy park near the train and bus stations while he wrestled with the issues. He finally decided to return to the Sportlier to claim his bike that he’d asked them to hold. We’d make this journey, this transition, together. We’d have the same problems, the same benefits, which is the way we’d always toured.

Successo! (Success)
The short story: We got the bikes and we loved them and were excited about the new opportunities. It however, wasn’t quite that simple.

It started well enough: our bus from Selva to Bolzano was on time, despite a young woman puking in the aisle and the liquid portion traveling many rows forward on the steep downhill road to the valley. She notified the driver and he calmly washed it out at the next major stop. Bill commented: "Now we know what the broom is for that is in the luggage compact of the area buses.”

We were in the Sportlier bike department minutes after they opened at 9:30 am and by 10:30, I anticipated we’d be out the door soon. It was 11:30 when the service department had finished installing our pedals and seats, we’d paid the bill, and were edging towards the door. Bill had gone to use the single public toilet on the 4th floor when our salesman, Didi, found me by the exit. He was making small talk after he’d heard we’d planed to ride the 32 miles back to Selva. While fiddling with the displayed information on the mini control panel, he noticed that my battery hadn’t been charged, a procedure that takes over 4 hours with their fast shop charger, 7.5 hours with ours.

We’d only worked with the service department that day but thank goodness Didi had interjected himself. We stayed calm while he scrambled to get us on the road.  His very Italian solution to the current problem was for us to go have a cappuccino while my battery charged and they worked things out.

We wanted to take the bus back to Selva and return the next day for both bikes but that was Sunday and they would be closed. Didi wanted us to put the bikes on the bus, but it only made 2 more runs to Selva for the day and it was 50-50 whether the drivers would refuse or accept us with our bikes. They tried a charged battery from another bike, but there was a curious ‘configuration' issue. We struck a compromise: we’d hang around town for a couple of hours and leave with a partially charged battery.

While dropping off Bill’s new e bike in the shop so we could maneuver more easily in town, we were told that they had a solution. Somehow, swapping out my battery and its protective cover with another bike would solve the problem. We cringed seeing my battery cover banged, inch by inch, back into place with something akin to a sludge hammer. It was definitely being manhandled by stressed out Didi and a mechanic. I imagined having to frequently answer the question months or years down the road “How did this happen to your battery?”

We were on the road about 12:30 and arrived at our Selva apartment about 6:30 pm having done what Didi thought was nuts, which was making such a long, steep journey on our first-ever ride on an e bike. Like so many, he really couldn’t hear how experienced we were and he considered it too close to call as to whether there was enough battery power to complement our power for the overly ambitious ride.

In reality, we had little choice but to make it. But we’d thought it through carefully; we thought we could make; and we were confident that we’d somehow make it work. As it was, we used the battery assist the absolute minimum for the ride and my display indicated that the remaining power dropped from 60% to 40% when we hit the lower end of Selva. Didi would have been impressed.

The First Ride
Our first time on these bikes was a stunning success. The controls were easier to operate than I expected, which mainly means coordinating shifting through the 9 gears with your right thumb and managing the 5 levels of power with the left thumb. I was relieved—I put myself in the ‘klutz’ category with such things. The enormous balloon tires with reasonably smooth treads and the front suspension made for an acceptably soft ride.

The wide mountain bike handlebars made me long for the relief of my aerobars and having basically one hand position was a strain for both of us. The 4 or more hand positions on our touring bikes with drop handlebars meant that our hinnies had 4 different positions to relieve pressure under our sit bones. One hand position meant that we were always sitting in the exact same position on this nervous, maiden voyage. We resorted to stopping to change the saddle position to get relief but we both had unexpectedly battered skin on our bottoms by the end of the ride.
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Almost to Selva: cooling off, resting our bums, & snacking on nitrate-free prosciutto. 

The very wide, straight, mountain bike handle bars were a bit alarming to me. No more steering with my hips and shoulders while my elbows were tucked in. No, on this baby, my arms were out like I was maneuvering a wheelbarrow and my oversteering was terrifying. These bikes lacked the ‘liveliness’ that our frame builder had built into our custom touring bikes--these were trucks. Luckily, Bill routed us onto a lower traffic road for this journey—one that had always been too steep on our loaded bikes—which made it safer for me and my erratic steering.

As hoped, the e bike masterfully compensated for my sudden loss of CV performance from high blood pressure medication. Whenever I got too short of breath, I could turn on or increase the boost from the battery. When I recovered, I could shut it off or diminish the assist. Not having to essentially do endless sets of interval training to apply sudden bursts of power to get up a little abrupt ‘pop up’ in the terrain was sparing of my energy and of my knees.

I immediately knew that my knees were going to love this e bike. I could tell on this first ride that not only was the bike fit favorable to my knees but that no longer needing sudden power bursts or the hours-long efforts at grinding up to a mountain pass would spare them. It was a hard ride to Selva, we worked close to our limit, but my finicky knees were fine.

The New Opportunities
Along with Bill dreaming about planning previously out-of-reach destinations into our itinerary on these ebikes, were other little conveniences. The biggy was that the considerable groaning that occurred on our touring bikes would drop way down.

“Stop on the way or go back on foot” was an almost daily discussion when it was time to buy groceries. Our forever too full panniers made it hard to haul groceries with us on our way to the lodging for the night, but who wanted to unload and ride or walk back to get them? Sometimes the logistics were such that there was no decision to be made, like the grocery store was a block from our hotel or the days in which we knew we’d be forced to shop before lunch.

Bill would be able to cast a wider net when booking lodging because going a few miles out of our way, up a steep hill, or backtracking, wouldn’t trigger complaints. Likewise, when trip planning, assessing the difficulty of mountain passes would no longer be so critical because most would be doable with our e bikes.

There was also the fun possibility of actually doing a day trip in the middle of a hiking week. Our bike travel days were usually so strenuous that we wouldn’t dream of doing an extra ride but now we could. We could bike to a scenic high point for lunch and use enough power from the battery to avoid deeply depleting ourselves. We could see places we’d always felt we had to bypass. We could safely respond to our curiosity.

For me, a HUGE additional benefit would be eliminating almost all of the terror I experience on a loaded bike. It’s not the traffic or drivers that terrify me, it’s me not being sure that I can kick out enough sustained power in difficult situations to stay upright that gave me nightmares.
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'On tour’ with my new e bike.

I have a small file of short videos stored in my mind of many of those prolonged, terrifying episodes and the memories get more deeply etched each time we repeat the particular ride. That long, shoulder-less, steep tunnel where I didn’t dare stop but wasn’t sure I could go on. And that long, straight-stretch of urban road in Austria going towards a pass that absolutely exhausted my arms because I had to be so steady on the handlebars for so long with no place to pull out. The pass from Obergürgle, Austria into Italy that seemingly had no switchbacks to aid a restart when I needed to rest. Being squeezed against tall, stone retaining walls when a truck or bus passed so close that I began to wobble from fear and having my forward view blocked. “Click, click, click” there have been so many sustained intervals of terror while I have pressed beyond what felt like my limit to hold it all together.  “Gone”: those would all be a thing of the past, with no regrets. With an e bike I could maintain sufficient speed to ride with more confidence no matter what the conditions.

Of course, with the loss of those terrifying moments would also go those intervals of peak output conditioning. I am fully aware that I’d never push myself as hard as I do in those ‘do or die’ moments or minutes on tough ascents. I’d never dig that deep without the fear. I lack the discipline, the drive, that serious athletes possess that allow them to perform at that level over and over again on demand. I only do it out of desperation but I also value the forced performance. For some technical reasons, it’s not possible to play that same edge on our e bikes so our performance challenges would be different. 

Maintaining the Tempo
We had 7 days from the time we rode our new e bikes from Bolzano to Selva to practice on them and ‘trick them out’ with little accessories to suit us before our 6 week hike and bike tour began. Things like bells to alert foot and bike traffic and some sort of handlebar bag would have to be purchased during our tour. 

We’d have to pare our gear down even more because the add-on back racks on our e bikes couldn’t carry the weight we were accustomed to hauling. We had to make arrangements for sending our custom touring bikes back home, as well as partially dismantle them for packing. 

Time and money, this abrupt bike transition was consuming both, but that was what was needed to stick with our summer itinerary with my sudden loss of athletic ability from my new anti-hypertensive medications. We agreed: the money was better spent on e bikes than buses, taxis, lost room deposits, and cancelation fees. And so, a new sport and a new adventure had begun.