FEATURES | By G Lev Baumel

Pedal Power

The E-Bike Revolution & Ojai

G Lev Baumel with electric bikeIf I got a dollar for every time someone said I was cheating when I ride my electronic bicycle, commonly known as an e-bike, I could buy the Tour de France. Once upon a time, I too believed e-bikes meant cheating. My opinion shifted when I started looking for how I might fit exercise into my busy days. I didn’t want to arrive at work all sweaty, but I still needed to move my body.

Someone recommended I try an e-bike. I rented one for a day and that was all it took. These days, I ride my e-bike as often as I can. I have commuted to jobs across town and all the way to Ventura. Date nights on my e-bike are my favorite. More recently, my e-bike has allowed me to cover longer distances in the short spurts I have to get outside during this period of social distancing. Put simply: my e-bike has changed my life.

I am aware that talking about bicycles during a global pandemic may seem strange. However, while we spend our days sequestered inside our homes, and weeks and months away from loved ones and life as we knew it, questions about the future are constantly present: when we are, once again, free to roam the earth, how would we, as a society, like to re-emerge? I also wonder about the normal life we speak of missing — how well was that “normal” really working? What would we like to go back to, and what do we hope may be forever changed as a result of these unprecedented times?

One small silver lining of the horrendous COVID-19 virus is a substantial drop in world pollution. For one, carbon and nitrogen dioxide levels are down by as much as 40 percent, which lessens the risk of asthma, heart attacks and lung disease — all factors in being able to fight off the Coronavirus. And with traffic reduced by nearly 40 percent, CO2 levels are lower than they have been in decades. As a result, coyotes have been spotted on the Golden Gate Bridge, deer are grazing in Washington DC, and there has been a steep drop in roadside killings of wildlife. In Kenya, a photograph of Mount Kenya, suddenly visible from Nairobi, was accused of being fake. It is real — and apparently hard to believe. 

What, you ask, does this have to do with e-bikes?

E-bikes are touted as both an eco-friendly transportation alternative to cars, and a more efficient way to incorporate exercise into everyday life. For starters, e-bikes don’t run on gasoline; their motors are battery powered, and they charge when plugged into an electric socket, which makes them more environmentally friendly. This, along with low upkeep and insurance, also means that e-bikes cost a small fraction of what cars do per year.

In addition, e-bikes combine the physical benefits, fresh air, and velocity of regular bikes, with a motor that helps eliminate the slog and sweatiness that can accompany regular pedal pushing. An e-bike means less recovery time between rides, which translates to a more seamless integration of day-to-day exercise with the need to get around. Personally, I went from riding my regular bike maybe once or twice a year, to being on my ebike at least three or four times a week.

In terms of cheating, the technology most used in e-bikes is called Pedelec, or pedal assist. The way it works is that the rider can choose whether, and to what extent they would like to receive a boost from the motor. But, as is the case with regular bikes, if the rider doesn’t pedal, the bike does not move.

When people comment on cost, I have to admit that, while my e-bike was certainly not cheap, between my time spent riding, the amount I’ve saved on gas, and the aerobic workout I’ve enjoyed with little to no pain, it has more than paid for itself. 

However, I am just one person. I wondered: am I alone in this? I decided to reach out and get others’ perspectives. The Ojai Valley is a perfect place for e-bikes, says Mob Shop co-owner, Kelly Pasco. For most of their clients, the e-bike is a game changer. Pasco cites a 2019 Dutch study that compared exercise on regular bikes versus e-bikes. The conclusion was that although physical exertion may be lower on e-bikes, most riders still get around the same amount of benefits because, on average, e-bike riders tend to take longer journeys, both in terms of time spent as well as distance traveled.

Most people, says Pasco, are more curious than judgmental and, as a result, The Mob Shop has seen a sharp increase in e-bike sales in recent years. The shift, Pasco says, comes when people actually come in and try them. “Their mind starts to spin with all the things they could do that they aren’t doing now,” he says. “People think it’s like a scooter or something. But once they ride one, once they get on one and see how well designed and how engaged they are with the e-bike, it immediately changes the perception. You’re engaged with the e-bike just like you are on a regular bike.”

Co-owner Tim Rhone, concurs: “At first,” he says, “for a lot of people, ego can get in the way, the perception that it does all the work for you and that it’s cheating. For the most part, you put those people on an e-bike and send them out and they come back with a huge grin on their face.” The cheating element, Rhone specifies, “is that e-bikes don’t require any effort at all. They realize that it does take effort, just less effort. You can boost the power a little and it’s fun. E-bikes bridge the gap between zero fitness and a level of fitness that allows people to enjoy themselves.”

Porch Gallery co-owner Lisa Casoni enjoys getting on her bike and venturing into new parts of Ojai. “The thing I like most,” she says, “is you’re still pedaling, you’re still working out, you can have it set so you’re actively pumping your heart, but you can also dial it back when you need a breather.” During our conversation, she uses the word happy repeatedly: the nostalgia of riding her bike as a child makes her happy, as does riding around town and discovering new parts of Ojai, corners she never would have known had she stayed in her car; she is happy when she sees others — both tourists and locals — riding bikes. “We have the mountains, this gorgeous environment,” she says, “if you’re in a car, you’re not smelling the beautiful things coming out of people’s houses when they’re cooking or barbecuing. You notice a lot more, not just on a visual level, but on so many other levels.”

Her goal is to encourage people to have more of those kinds of experiences. In fact, Casoni and her partner, Heather Stobo, keep extra bikes on hand for their guests. E-bikes, she says, should be viewed as a long-term investment, in the planet and one’s overall health.

Xena Grossman works at the Ojai Valley Land Conservancy at the old county work farm off Baldwin Road. She lives at the top of a very steep hill on the East End, which made riding her regular bike from one end of the Ojai Valley to the other a challenge, and purchased her e-bike with the intention of using it to commute to work. “When I got the e-bike, I decided I would ride once or twice a week. Within a couple of weeks, I was riding almost every day,” she says. Because her weekday commute is mostly on the bike path, Ms. Grossman does not have to worry about cars and can simply enjoy the exercise. “It’s a really great time to be thinking and breathing,” she says. Her e-bike also includes space on the back for her young daughter. “When you put a motor on it, it’s no longer ‘I have to ride my bike,’” she says, “it becomes let’s go to town, it’ll be fun.” Grossman admits that she and her husband have discussed the possibility of swapping out their second car for another ebike. “As a means of transportation, it’s opened up something that wasn’t accessible to me before. It’s also lowering my impact on the environment. It’s amazing.”

Rick Rutherford, an ER doctor and father of four, has been mountain-biking since he was a child. Ojai is tricky terrain, he says, the first sections of many trails can be steep and rocky — not ideal when you have limited time and energy.

E-mountain bikes are uniquely challenging, he explains: “They have to internalize all the parts so they don’t become damaged when riding up a hill, and then the other thing is to try to keep the bike as light as possible and also put a powerful battery on it that can take you long distances.” For these reasons, they can also be more expensive. After doing some research, Dr. Rutherford decided to convert one of his regular mountain bikes himself, for a fraction of the price. “The main thing for me,” he says, “is that I’m able to bike to places that I wouldn’t have previously been able to go. I’ve ridden up and down Nordhoff Ridge by various routes. I’ve been able to ride over the Murrieta divide, from Matilija Canyon to come out behind Goleta — that was an amazing, beautiful ride. When I want to go on shorter rides, I’m able to go up Rice and Willett Canyon or get to the top of Oso Ridge, which I couldn’t do on a regular mountain bike, it’s just too steep.” Because he can control how much support he gets from the motor, Dr. Rutherford remains vigilant to ensure he still gets a good workout. Whereas he used to only have time to get in a good ride once or twice a month, now it’s once or twice a week. He admits that since he discovered e-mountain bikes, he’ll never go back: “If it’s just me, and I have three or four hours, I’m always going to ride my e-bike because I want to be able to get further into the wilderness and explore some new areas.”

It would be nearly impossible to find a more vocal proponent of e-bikes than current city councilwoman and former Ojai mayor, Suza Francina. She campaigned on a platform of making the city bike-friendly and climate resilient. Over the years, she has gone through phases when she didn’t own a car, and riding her bike has remained a priority. “As you get older,” Francina, who is 71, says, “energy is a big thing. You don’t have the energy of youth at some point. I can’t afford to come home exhausted, because I’m still working, I have dogs, I have grandchildren. The e-bike definitely helps me conserve my energy.”

Currently, she does own a van, in case there’s another fire but, she specifies, “it will sit in my driveway for days.” Francina does not use her car for solo trips under three miles, and allows herself only one tank of gas per month, which she tries to stretch to six weeks. About e-bikes specifically, she is very clear: “a lot of people who use bikes for recreation, if they had an e-bike, they could use it for normal, daily life, for transportation, not just recreation. The e-bike expands into your life because it’s such a joy to be on.”

Francina plans to ride her e-bike until she’s a 100, or however long she lives. “It’s empowering for any age,” she says, “but for an older person, the possibilities are endless — I can do anything on my e-bike, I can go anywhere.” In her opinion, “Keeping the older population active and independent is one of the greatest things we can do for society as a whole.”

She is right: thanks to the pedal assist option, e-bikes offer the opportunity for older people and those with disabilities and health challenges to nevertheless get exercise. A recent New York Times article featured the story of a couple who conduct daily afternoon schnapps dates on the border of Denmark and Germany, which is currently closed due to the Corona virus. She is eight-five, he is eighty-nine and rides his e-bike to his meetings with his lady-love.

Cycling through Ojai during social isolation, I have nevertheless been able to enjoy the scents of the orange blossoms in bloom, I have listened to children playing in their yards, and observed families spending time together in their driveways — all tender glimpses into a world outside my own. Riding my e-bike is a way of remaining engaged and present, while keeping a distance of six feet; it still allows for serendipity — a quick stop, an unexpected detour — and experiences like sunsets, lemon-filled baskets with handwritten signs saying “Free. Take one,” and unexpected, wave-by encounters with friends. In a time when everything has changed, I realize that my e-bike rides are the one thing that hasn’t, and when the time comes to reopen the world, I hope that, as I cycle through a busier town, and find myself rushing to and from work again, my rides help me remember these quieter days — and what is truly important.

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