It might sound strange since electric bikes are known for their ability to ride faster and farther with less exertion, but I often ride my e-bike with the power turned off.
I wasn’t always this way. Especially not in the beginning. I first got into electric bicycles back around 2009. That was before it was easy to buy one, so I built one instead.
How I got into electric bikes
I wasn’t a cyclist and I wasn’t drawn to electric bikes because they were bikes. Instead, they were just a better way to get around the city. No car ownership hassles. No bus schedules. Just going.
My first e-bike didn’t even have pedal assist. It was built on a rigid Trek mountain bike with a twist throttle that unleashed 2,000 watts of power to get me flying at over 30 mph (48 km/h). Rim brakes, zero suspension, and the foolish bravery of a 20-year-old male. Oh, college.
This was a decade and a half ago, before most e-bike laws were a thing, and I had unwittingly built what was basically a DIY light electric motorcycle. That was my introduction to electric bikes. So it should come as no surprise that I wasn’t what most people would consider a cyclist.
My early years of e-biking were entirely utilitarian. E-bikes were always just a fast, efficient way to slice through the heart of a city in a fraction of time it would take a car (and with several times the amount of fun!).
But over time, the idea of pedal assist began to grow on me. I wasn’t really in search of the fitness aspect; I ran 3-5 miles a day. But I eventually discovered just how much fun pedaling could be. There was something to the idea that you weren’t on a machine, you were part of it.
Over time I became better and better at it. My cycling fitness improved (though I was by no means an athletic cyclist). I would use lower and lower levels of pedal assist power until eventually I realized that maybe I don’t even need the pedal assist. At least, not sometimes. And so I started just turning the pedal assist power off.
Pedal assist level zero became a new concept to me.
Turning off the pedal assist power
I know you might be thinking, “well then just ride a non-electric bike, ya dingbat.” And I hear you, but I don’t want that either. Because it’s not that I always ride with the bike off. In fact, I almost always have my e-bikes “on,” just with the pedal assist set to zero.
Essentially, I’ve turned off the bike’s pedal assist power. That means I’m the only thing supplying any power when I pedal. But whenever I need it, such as when trying to quickly get across a major road full of death machines with heated seats, a twist of the throttle unleashes the power of two to three highly conditioned cyclists cranking on my pedals for me. It’s a comforting safety net, and also a nice way to take the edge off if I do happen to come across a hill that is just a bit too painful for my single-speed e-bike that day.
So essentially, the “e” part of my e-bike is always there. It’s just not getting used on those rides unless I suddenly need it in a pinch.
I don’t always eschew my throttle for the duration of rides. In fact, during times when I’m still focused primarily on transportation, I’ll use higher pedal assist power levels or even purely throttle to get where I’m going quickly. I still think of my e-bikes fundamentally as forms of transportation, not fitness. That’s the way my brain is wired and it will probably never change. E-bikes are car replacers.
But the ability to take the same machine that I use to visit friends, buy groceries, or zip on over to the beach, and instead use it for fitness without any modification, is one of the coolest aspects of e-bikes.
So yes, not all of my rides are purely pizza-powered. But the ones where time isn’t of the essence often are. When I don’t need to go fast, I can enjoy going slow and doing the work myself. Just this morning my wife sent me out to buy a bottle of wine to bring to some friends hosting dinner tonight. Where’s the rush? I’m getting something I don’t understand and will undoubtedly pay too much for. Why hurry?
Instead, I dropped it into pedal assist level zero and had a lovely morning ride through a quiet city (Friday is the weekend here), all at my own pace and with my own two legs doing the work. It was so nice that I’m still coming down off of that high, which I used to immediately bang out this article.
All of this is to say that if you have an e-bike that you use purely for urban transport, then I totally understand you. That’s exactly how I started.
But over time, I learned just how much more there was to the world of e-biking than just getting around. From the mental health benefits to the physical health benefits, a slow, easy pedal ride once in a while may just be a nice way to connect with your e-bike in a manner you haven’t considered before.
Think about it.
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