Is riding an e-bike cheating, or can you still increase your fitness even with a bit of e-ssistance? Megan Wood saddles up to find out.
Everyone would agree that cycling is good exercise. It works your legs, butt, hips and knees, as well as strengthening your core, all with minimal impact to joints. The only problem with cycling is those pesky hills. The answer? The e-bike. Electric bikes feature a Pedal Assist System (PAS for short), which means that when you pedal, a small battery-powered motor kicks in, giving you a boost. E-bikes are designed to help you cycle further and faster, no matter your fitness level. The question is, do they help too much? Time to find out.
In the 1890s the bicycle revolutionised individual travel. We humans are rather clever though, so we didn't stop there. The first patent for an electric bike was filed in 1895 in the US by Ogden Bolton jnr. That's right, 1895, more than 120 years ago. Early e-bike designs were missing one crucial feature, the motor wasn't connected to the pedals, making it a lot more like a moped than a modern e-bike.
One of the first marketed pedal assist e-bikes was created by a Swede named Michael Kutter in 1992. Technology has improved since then and recently e-bike popularity has skyrocketed, driven by a combination of environmental factors, social factors and, most of all, the substantial drop in the cost of lithium-ion batteries, making them much more affordable.
Research comparing the effort required to pedal a regular bicycle versus an e-bike found that the difference is similar to comparing running to brisk walking. The analysis, published in America's International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found the unassisted cyclist burned 430 to 560 calories an hour and the e-biker roughly half that.
Another study by three public health professors at Brigham Young University revealed that the fitness gap may be a lot smaller than that. The study pitted e-mountain bikes versus regular mountain bikes on a 9.6km test loop and found that, according to heart-rate data, both sets of riders exerted themselves at almost the same rate. The average heart rate for e-bike riders was only 10 beats per minute lower (145bpm for the e-bikes v 155bpm for the conventional bikes). Interestingly, when questioned, the e-bike riders didn't feel like they had exerted themselves much at all.
I am not a very confident cyclist. My first experience on an e-bike was with close friends on Waiheke Island, where we (foolishly) undertook a very challenging 32km round trip along winding gravel roads. After this birth by fire the idea of commuting to work on my own e-bike didn't seem so crazy. Studious research, countless questions and several trials later, I found "the one", a blue, mid-drive, step-through that I immediately named Mystique. I picked her up on a sunny Saturday and set out on the 20-minute trip home through some of the busiest areas of Auckland. Having a motor to boost me along made me feel more confident and in control. The extra speed allowed me to weave in and out of traffic quickly if I needed to and before I knew it, I was home. I felt amazing. It was like I had superpowers! My commute to work saw me cycling down some of Auckland's busiest streets with a cheesy grin on my face, cutting my trip from 55 minutes to just 30. That's not to say I didn't have a few unco-ordinated tumbles and a collection of bruises to prove it, but not even that could dampen my new-found love.
It has been four weeks since I got Mystique and I am feeling fitter, stronger and happier. Commuting makes me push myself faster as I have somewhere to be at a certain time, which gets my heart rate up into that fat burning zone. After a big ride, my muscles have that good kind of soreness to them. I love my bike. I really love my bike. Not only has she (yes, she is a she) revolutionised my commute but she is even inspiring me to head to the gym more (on my bike of course). Having an e-bike isn't just fun, it has changed the way I think about travel, exercise and me.