The Dark Side of E-Bikes: ‘I’m Afraid They’ll Take Me Where I Don’t Belong’

When Simon Cowell broke his back last week on what was first reported to be an “e-bike,” the news tore through not just the entertainment world but the booming e-bike industry. 

Turns out, Cowell wasn’t on an e-bike but an e-motorcycle. That’s an important distinction, because the “bike” Cowell was riding can hit top speeds of 60 miles per hour, which makes it patently more dangerous than e-bikes, most of which would be lucky to go half that fast. So, don’t let Cowell’s literal fall from grace keep you from picking up a sweet new battery powered cruiser, consuming public: E-bikes are perfectly safe, they want you to know.

But as someone who’s spent the last year or so joyfully riding e-bikes both on mountain trails and city streets, I’d suggest it’s not quite that simple. E-bikes are an incredible feat of technology that is changing the way people do everything from experience the outdoors, commute to work, or zip to the grocery store. All of which are changing everything from the way land managers apply wilderness rules to how transportation officials build cities (more bicycle bridges and lanes, less highways.) But they can also instill a false sense of security in the rider. That can be dangerous. 

If you haven’t ridden an e-bike yet, you probably will soon. They now come in all shapes in sizes, from cargo bikes that ferry tykes to mountain bikes that conquer punishing singletrack ascents. Legendary mushroom hunter Paul Stamets rides an e-mountain bike to push deeper into the forest, to find rare specimens. California Fire officials use them to carry LIDAR equipment into forest fire-prone areas inaccessible by car. People are buying e-bikes instead of cars—sales of e-bikes will eclipse that of electric vehicles by the year 2023, according to industry forecasts, when e-bike sales are expected to top 40 million units, generating about $20 billion in revenue. Most of those bikes will be sold in China, but the U.S. numbers are surging, to more than 400,000 units in the last year alone, a 73-percent increase. GM, Volkswagen, even Maserati, are all making e-bikes. 

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My own use of e-bikes has changed everything about how I get around an increasingly trafficky Portland. I used to commute via motorcycle because it let me slip into turning lanes, zip around inattentive drivers, find parking on any street, and ignore my car, at least on days when it isn’t dumping rain. My e-bikes have entirely replaced the motorcycle, because I realized it was often just as quick a mode of transport as the fuel-combustion variety, the parking is free, the pollution is nearly nil, and everyone from the yoga studio to the sauna offers incentives to those who bike or walk. With this Thule rack, I can haul them from place to place even in my small four-banger of a car. 

But I’ve had to learn some hard lessons about e-bikes, too. I blame the trouble I’ve gotten into entirely on my own recklessness. But a huge part of my own recklessness was to place too much faith in a machine I couldn’t repair in the wild. 

After a few months of riding a Specialized Turbo Levo, a beast of a mountain bike that powers even the most atrophied of quadriceps up punishing ascents, I took the bike on a road trip this winter to Palm Springs from my native Portland. Along the way I scouted the best singletrack trails I could find, usually by asking for “beta” (as I’ve learned outdoor nerds call intel these days) from local bike shops, navigating to a trailhead and pushing off into the unknown without a careful analysis of maps, or even dropping a pin. 

Stupid, I know. 

But I wrongly assumed if I got into a jam I could always retrace my steps. If I got tired my e-bike would pedal-assist me wherever I wanted to go. Day after day, this gambit worked just fine. I stuck to out-and-backs and had no trouble figuring out how to get back to the trailhead. 

Then, after a few days’ drive to Palm Springs, I set out into the desert. And that’s where hubris, and an over-reliance on the prowess of the Turbo Levo left me helplessly scouring for a signal to call 911. 

The trail system snakes through the Santa Rose-San Jacinto Mountains National Monument. It lies just a few miles from downtown Palm Springs in the Coachella Valley desert, which can get brutally hot, year-round. On this day in January, the high was about 85 degrees, which is serious but nowhere near the searing temps that come in summer months. I started up Dunn Road, a tough ascent the Levo easily devoured, scouting for a series of singletrack trail offshoots that would carry me out into the desert. 

I chose the highest point (and the furthest away from the car) trail I could reach, the Hahn Trail, and pushed off into an arid landscape of cacti and wildflowers, with about a liter of water in my Camelbak, no food, and no way to fix a flat tire. The trail was fun but technical, climbing to a sweeping view of the valley below before dropping back down into the heart of the desert. I faintly remembered being warned to stay out of the sandy “wash,” a truck-sized arroyo that ran parallel to Dunn Road, but somehow that’s exactly where I wound up. Too impatient to stop and consult a map, I steered the bike down the wash, sure I’d find another hard-packed trail that would get me back on singletrack again. Instead, that wash carried me further and further into a slippery sandscape. I saw the tracks of other mountain bikes the whole way, though, and figured (stupidly, I know!) that they had to lead somewhere useful. 

They led to a 20-foot cliff, with inescapable canyon walls on all sides. 

Assuming there was be nowhere to go but down, I hefted the 44-pound bike on my shoulders and scrambled down the first 10-foot drop of the cliff, to a platform about halfway down. If I did the next drop, there’d be no turning back, no way to hoist the bike back up to the wash. I had no cellphone signal and I’d foolishly failed to download an offline map. So I finally gave up, pushed the bike back up into the arroyo and resigned myself to backtracking. 

That’s when I discovered one of the tires had gone flat. 

It was easily 80 degrees by then, mid-morning, and walking all the way back to the trail I’d taken felt impossible. So as I pushed the bike uphill I looked for any escape from the wash. I found what looked like a trail after about 150 yards, and took it, with only an instinct that it was back in the direction of the car. I hadn’t admitted it yet, but I was completely lost. 

My main objective was to get to higher ground. I was only a few miles from civilization, so if I could at least see what direction city streets were in, I could push that way and hope to catch a cell signal. I climbed up one narrow crevasse to the next, huffing and puffing and constantly sweating out hydration, until I got high enough to survey the landscape and see that I was in a bowl of desert, no civilization and no cell service in sight. I had no choice, I finally realized, but to ditch this $9,000 bicycle and keep moving. I dropped a pin in Google Maps, but either because I didn’t have service or because I did something wrong in my growing panic, it never saved. I took photos of the scene, hoping I could later use them to triangulate and find the bike again, and kept hiking up. 

Finally, I heard the sound of an incoming text message, meaning I had service. I pecked out a missive to my partner, telling her to call 911 and that I was mountain biking close to Dunn Road. I tried calling authorities myself, but the signal was too weak to communicate where I was and what was happening. I kept moving. 

After only another 15 or 20 minutes I saw hope: a mountain bike trail, and two riders, dressed in blaring neon spandex, winding their way towards me. I shouted and waved my arms for what felt like an hour until one of them stopped, looked in my direction and came to my rescue. They shared a little water, stared at me in disbelief when I said I’d dropped my bike, but assured me I was close to Dunn Road and only a half-hour’s walk back to a clear route to my car. I texted my partner and told her I was safe and OK, and that she could call off the search and rescue helicopter that was now circling directly above me. 

When I got back to the car, exhausted and embarrassed, a friendly reserve officer from the Palm Springs Mounted Police Search and Rescue was waiting for me. I told him I was fine and assumed that’d be the end of it. “Where’s your bike?” he asked, and I admitted I’d abandoned it in the desert and planned to hike back in the next day to try to find it (with plenty of water and food, a pump, and a spare inner tube.) He insisted on sending a couple of volunteers out on dirt bikes to try to find it themselves. I shared the closest pin I could get to save, some photos, and his people spent the next two hours trying in vain to locate the bike. I was stunned at their kindness and generosity. 

As I sat on the sidewalk, an older guy rode up on his bicycle, and we started talking about e-bikes. “My friends keep trying to get me to buy one of those,” he said. “But I’m afraid they’ll take me where I don’t belong.” 

Two days later, I hiked back in and after hours of scouring the landscape, found my rig. The moral of this particular fiasco isn’t anti e-bike, in any way. All of the stuff that happened to me in the desert was my own fault and could have happened on a hike, or an analog bicycle. A few months after my Palm Springs fiasco, two mountain bikers had to be airlifted out of the same trail network after they got lost. But I had come to rely on the bike’s battery to rescue me. That was a mistake. 

As urban traffic conditions worsen and as younger workers eschew the expense and the hassle of car ownership, a once-unthinkable shift in a country often described as in a “love affair with the automobile” is not just plausible; it’s actually happening. Bicycling lanes once relegated to leisure cycling—pathways along rivers—are now aimed at helping commuters get from home to work. In the past three years, the average number of miles driven per person dropped to 9,800 a year, down 2 percent from a 2004 peak. In October, the city of New York permanently banned cars on 14th Street in Manhattan. San Francisco’s Market Street is also now off-limits to cars. 

One recent survey showed that 28 percent of e-bike buyers bought their new wheels as a substitute for a car, not as an upgrade to a bike. Six months after Uber bought the e-bike sharing company Jump, in January 2018, trips on that platform increased by 15 percent, while the number of car and SUV trips dropped by 10 percent.

 “My fundamental belief is that the future of local transportation is going to look a lot more like a bike than a car,” says Ian Kenny, who left a job at Lyft last year (and Tesla before that) to manage the brand for Specialized’s e-bike fleet. “For a long time, people have viewed bikes as expensive toys. Now, they’re cheap cars.” 

This shift could have dramatic effects on powerful industries across the world and on greenhouse gas emissions. UPS has launched a fleet of “e-tricycles” in six cities and is testing the waters in Portland, to help the company meet targets of a 12 percent reduction in greenhouse gases worldwide. A recent study commissioned by People for Bikes found that an increase of 14 percent in combined bicycle and e-bike use would result in a 10 percent reduction in transportation emissions, partly because most people who hop on a bike are doing so as an alternative to a car, not some other mode of transport. Short car trips generate the highest levels of pollution; e-bikes are primarily used to replace short car trips. 

Winners and losers? Urban dwellers stand the most to gain, at least as a population segment, as their lives will improve with better bike transportation systems, better bikes and healthier lifestyles. Each week, an estimated 3 million people move into cities around the world, and by 2050, 2.5 billion more people are expected to be living in cities than today. Communities that benefit will be those that invest in “micromodal” transport: New York, for example, is building 250 new bikes lanes and 1 million square feet of pedestrian space, to “break the car culture” of the city. Winning companies are those that figure out how to bring an e-bike to market. The losers, already, are car companies, car service centers, and governments that rely on fees, fines and registrations. E-bikes even threaten electric cars, outselling them by a factor of 10 to 1 in Europe and 20 to 1 in China. 

No amount of cautionary tales, be they mine or Simon Cowell’s, is going to slow this trend. It’s just important to think about the great responsibility that comes with this great (battery) power. A couple of months after my trip to Palm Springs, I rode the Levo out onto a trail system near St. George, Utah—on a day when the mercury hit 98 degrees. About seven miles from the trailhead, the bike inexplicably lost power. I was now self-pedaling a 44-pound bike in searing desert heat. I had plenty of water and food and knew exactly where I was going, and the route back was mostly downhill. But if it weren’t, I would have had a miserable day. 

As it turned out, I’d lost power thanks to a faulty cable, which the company quickly replaced once I took it to a dealer, free of charge. The same thing happened on my commuter e-bike, a Juiced CrossCurrent X, a couple of months ago, as I was pedaling it up a steep hill near my house. Juiced has no customer service phone support, and through a frustrating email exchange I learned I’d have to pay to ship the rear wheel back to the company so they could “inspect” before replacing what was broken, and more than a month after they received it, that hasn’t happened. You can’t just wheel an e-bike into a shop and get back on the road again, when it breaks. 

None of these experiences dampen my enthusiasm for this new way to ride. On the Levo, I try to stick to trails that go up before they go back down again, just in case something goes wrong, but having this bike has given me access to deeper and deeper parts of the west and a new enthusiasm for mountain biking even as I creep into my forties. I have an attachment for a Burley dog trailer that connects to the commuter bike—if I ever get it back—so I can wheel my puppy from spot to spot no matter how far away (within reason) or how hilly the journey. These machines have in no small way revolutionized the way I think about how to travel. 

But I’ll never again take their power for granted. 

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