In Praise of the Mighty E-Bike

One of the more familiar refrains on our forum is that “triathlon is in decline,” or that “participation is dwindling.” It’s something that we’ve tried to dispel the notion of with facts — participation has been rebounding, even in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you currently are looking for spare parts for your bike, I feel your pain. There’s backlogs everywhere.

But let’s assume for a moment that this notion is accurate — that triathlon is on the decline and that we need to tap into new markets. The two major places where we’ve usually turned to for new athletes are either those in the pool, or those already running. We look to convert people who are already involved in one sport and bring them into ours. The old saw, after all, goes something along the lines of “why be mediocre at one sport when I can suck at three?”

But this, of course, assumes that an individual is already reliably in motion. We’re only taking people who’ve already jumped into the top of the funnel. We’re not actually filling the pipeline by getting more people either on their feet, in the pool, or on two wheels.

It’s that latter point that is frequently cited as the most difficult one to overcome. Getting people comfortable riding bikes is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of establishing triathlon in their brain. Triathlon has many pool swims out there that can ease the mind of a novice. Triathlon does not have bikes with training wheels, and 95% of the time our races are held on open roads. You need to be a frequent road user first in order to be comfortable with the idea of racing on those same roads.

And the easiest way to get people to check out those roads is on an e-bike.

Now, I can already hear the chortling from the forum. But, let’s look at the statistics: research from Portland State University found it more successful at getting new riders on board, encouraged existing riders to ride more, and users found them safer to use than a traditional road bike. Anything that encourages either users to enter into riding, or those already riding to ride more, is a win for triathlon down the road.

There are, of course, environmental benefits to getting more users on board e-bikes. E-bike use can greatly reduce car emissions as they replace shorter car trips. On average, an e-bike user will use their bike to replace a car trip for rides under 10 miles. For me, that’s a trip to either our grocery store or the farm supply, or bringing my daughter to school, that I don’t need my F-150 (currently averaging 20.2 MPG) for. I’ll pedal for the most part, and then turn on e-assist for the largest of climbs near the house.

There are training benefits to e-bike ownership as well. As previously mentioned, if you own an e-bike, you are likely to ride more often than if you didn’t own one. But it also allows you to more comfortably push boundaries than without it. Say, a more challenging route with climbs, or a distance you haven’t done before. If you hit a wall, you turn your e-assist on, and get some help when you need it (and turn it off when you don’t).

It’s also useful as a recovery tool. I live in an area where I can’t ride a mile that is flat or even be called rolling. My flattest 20 mile loop includes almost 2,000 feet of climbing in it. Before I procured my e-bike from The Pro’s Closet, my recovery rides would always be exclusive to Zwift. But now I could actually get outside and get more sun exposure instead of sweating in my basement, which makes my medical team happy (a long story).

There are drawbacks to an e-bike. First, there’s the weight. There’s no hiding that an e-bike is going to be heavier than a traditional road bike. My answer to that is gearing choice so as to be able to maintain a decent enough low gear for climbing. There is also a bit of resistance from the hub itself when it isn’t being used to provide assist. It takes a little re-calibration on speeds, but it isn’t much different than your re-calibration from going from, say, a tri bike to a road or gravel bike.

And then there’s price. There’s a wide range of pricing, a lot of which has to do with assist range. I opted to go with a Cannondale SuperSix EVO Neo, mostly because you can’t really tell it was an e-bike without really looking for it. Our friends at The Pro’s Closet have a variety of e-bikes currently available. If you’ve got a bike collecting dust, it might be worthwhile to trade it in as credit and take a look at an e-bike.

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