I probably should have known better, but I couldn’t help myself.
“I just started riding an electric bike. What do you think of e-bikes?” I asked a friend of mine.
“Electric bikes are for lazy people,” he responded.
I replied just as quickly, “You DO know I’ve got two titanium knees and one titanium hip, don’t you?”
I didn’t really want to mention that I was also getting up there in years, but I was prepared to if needed to generate just a wee bit of sympathy.
But that didn’t seem to faze him much. Like many others I’ve met on my electric-powered bike, the general sense seems to be that that it isn’t really biking if it isn’t human powered.
That kind of sentiment makes me feel a bit defensive about going out for a ride when I’m more likely to be greeted with a sneer than a pleasant “Have a great ride” shout out when I’m passing another rider.
Oh well. I’m thinking …. secretly a few of them are just a bit jealous that I’ve got one and they don’t.
The idea of trying out an electric bike wasn’t something that I thought about much until a friend of mine, Ron Noe, introduced me to a hybrid bike he’d built.
To that point, what I’d heard about e-bikes was that they were for commuters who wanted a sweat-free way to get to work and home.
The predominant characteristics were three-fold: They were for roads and bike paths only; they were expensive; and the range was extremely limited — admittedly not qualities that would make you want to jump off the couch, go out and buy one.
Ron is the kind of guy that thinks way outside the box. An avid mountain biker, he quickly realized the limitations of the type of bikes being sold in Santa Barbara e-bike stores.
What he really wanted to do was take his current bike, a 27” Kona with full suspension, and adapt it to an electric setup.
That would allow him all of the benefits of his mountain bike with the potential for extending the range of the places he could ride — whether the long commute from his Carpinteria home to Santa Barbara for work or much longer trips in the backcountry on the miles and miles of dirt roads out there like the Camuesa and Buckhorn jeepways.
About a year ago, I got a call from Ron, saying he’d perfected the Kona, had built another bike and wanted to see what I thought of them.
I couldn’t wait. I met him down at his shop on the Westside one afternoon, ready to ride but a bit apprehensive about what the experience might be like.
It became apparent quickly that learning how to use the Kona was not only super easy, but the feeling of the added power was pretty amazing.
The bikes Ron is building are known as “pedal assist” type e-bikes, with a controller that doles out the electric power as you pedal the bike.
There is a range of nine power levels, with a “1” being minimal assist to a “9” being enough power to climb any hill in Santa Barbara with almost no effort at all.
Begin pedaling the bike and the power kicks in. Stop pedaling and you can feel the motor shut off. Pretty simple.
Riding the Breeze
With Ron in the lead, we headed out from Salinas Street, made our way across town and down to Cabrillo Boulevard, then east to Hot Springs.
I’d set the bike at a power level of “5,” and even in my lowest gear the effort needed to stay at 15-18 mph was minimal.
We continued up Hot Springs to Mountain Drive, then east again through San Ysidro Ranch and past Park Lane.
I’d shifted to a much lower gear and adjusted the power level up to a “6”. The riding was still easy but now I was starting to get a workout.
Then we reached the lower trailhead for Romero Canyon and access to the Romero Jeepway.
After maneuvering around the locked gate, I was soon riding off pavement.
The dirt road was filled with bumpy rocks and loose soil, but I was still was able to maintain the pace at level “6” even with the steeper grade.
Within a few minutes, I got that feeling back of what riding like this was like. It had been years since my knees were up to this kind of riding, but today they still felt great and I loved the challenge.
Best of all was how the pedal-assist style of riding suited me, with the ability to adjust the power to the level that my knees could handle.
That day, my knees wanted a “6,” but as my they got more limber over time and my muscles more toned, I found I could do the same ride at Level “3.” Very cool.
What an incredible way to work yourself back into shape and rebuild flexibility at a pain threshold I could live with.
Totally Into the Moment
We reached the summit about an hour before sunset: me filled with the wonder of what the electric-powered Kona had made possible for me; Ron laughing in delight at how much fun I was having.
From Romero Saddle, we cruised west across Camino Cielo to Gibraltar Road, then down through Sycamore Canyon to the shop.
What an incredible experience. As I turned off the controller, I glanced down on the settings.
I’d used quite a bit more power than Ron had, but there was still enough juice left for the next adventure without a recharge.
No more worries about range anxiety. I was hooked.
Next: Building Your Own E-Bike. Not cheap but it won’t break the bank either if you’re able to convert your existing mountain bike.
— Noozhawk Outdoors Writer Ray Ford has been hiking, backpacking and bicycling in the Santa Barbara area since the 1970s. He is a longtime local outdoors columnist, author and photographer. His previous work can be seen at his website, Santa Barbara Outdoors. E-mail him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @riveray. The opinions expressed are his own.