For years, electric bikes were big, clunky, ugly, and terminally dorky. Worse, they didn’t go far, they didn’t go fast, and they were ridiculously expensive. Sniffy bike purists dismissed people riding such contraptions as “cheaters,” and they had a point. In this context, little wonder that so many electric bike riders had been coerced into doing so by virtue of a DUI conviction. In the last couple of years, however, all that’s drastically changed. Electric bikes are still expensive, but they’ve come into their own in terms of design, style, and ergonomic function. They’re beautiful and badass. Many models hit speeds of 28 miles an hour with pedal assist — though most still top out at 20 — and are reliable for distances of 50 miles. Riding an e-bike is not exactly the same as having the wind at your back and the sun in your face, but it qualifies as a close (if mechanically induced) second.
Let’s say you want to get out of your rut and soak up Santa Barbara’s ridiculously beautiful backcountry. As a matter of objective fact, there is simply no better way to do so than on two wheels. But maybe it’s been a long week, and you don’t feel like waging the nonstop uphill battle required to get yourself ensconced on one of Santa Barbara’s spectacular ridge roads. E-bikes don’t defy gravity, but they definitely fight back. Last week, I hopped onto a Darth Vader–looking, high-end Trek e-bike from Bicycle Bob’s — which rents them for $100 a day — and went looking for a few hills to murder. I can’t say they fell in my path like wheat before the scythe, but I found myself cackling with disbelief as I zoomed up the dauntingly steep Flora Vista Drive at a blistering (at least for me) 17 miles an hour. No zigging or zagging required, and I never got out of the saddle.
In about two hours of riding, I managed to put on 37 miles. For much of that distance, I encountered a stiff headwind that would have otherwise made the ride a jaw-grinding chore. Instead, it was a breeze. My bike engine came equipped with five shades of torque, “turbo” being the max. The more juice you use, the less overall distance you get. The handy-dandy display screen lets you know how many miles you have left, with the mileage varying depending on what grade of assist you use. But here’s the thing: I pedaled harder and faster and coasted less than I do on my traditional road bike. And as a commuter cyclist, I ride to and from work every day. With pedal assist motors, the engine doesn’t kick in unless you do, too, and there’s an intoxicating synergy between the motor and the rider: The more you pedal, the faster you go; the faster you go, the more you pedal.
Every bike rider in Santa Barbara has endured the indignity of being passed — with galling ease — by someone on an electric bike pedaling with conspicuous nonchalance. Now was my opportunity to enjoy the shoe being on the other foot. I zipped up behind a young athletic couple decked out in matching his-and-hers cycling jerseys, Lycra shorts, and ultra-lightweight, high-performance road bikes. I clanged the bike’s bell and swooped passed. “On your left,” I cheerfully shouted, too late to be of much use. Unfortunately, I was not allowed much time to gloat. About a block later, my bike ran out of juice. Out of the corner of my eye, I could sense the two cyclists approaching fast. They could not pass. My pride — no, my vanity — would not allow it. Then I remembered, first and foremost, my electric bike was a bike; it was designed to carry a charge, but it was engineered to be pedaled. I bore down hard. I grit my teeth. After considerable huffage and puffage, I was going 16 miles an hour. By the time I pulled into Bicycle Bob’s, the two encroaching cyclists were long gone.
Not all electric bikes, however, are pedal assist. For those looking for the cycling equivalent of the Lazy Boy, there are a range of throttle-powered models. Many bikes come with a mix of both throttle and pedal assist. Bicycle Bob’s, located in Goleta, offers a range of Trek electrics, ranging from high-end cruisers to bomb-ass mountain bikes. Downtown, the new Pedego shop (100 E. Haley St.) offers a wide range of models — from cargo tanks to zippy speedsters — that can be rented by the hour as well as by the day. Sadly, eBikes Electric Bikes (436 State St.) — which offers the most mouth-watering array of electrified rides I’ve seen in one spot — does not rent.