Ebike Nation

Joel Epstein
Oct 15, 2018 · 15 min read

By: Joel Epstein

Even #ebikes have to be pedaled.

End of the road for Joel and Spicy Curry, South Adelanto, Mojave Desert.

That is the caption on the photo I tweeted at sunset on day one of a four day 518 mile power ride to Northstar at Lake Tahoe from the Bosch eBike Systems offices in Irvine, California.

“We’re planning to ride ebikes from Bosch HQ in Irvine to Interbike, the annual bike industry trade show in Reno,” Bosch’s Brian Sarmiento had explained over the phone. The trip sounded like a great idea and I had already signed on before I met Brian for dinner on a muggy late-August night in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen.

“Last year I rode my ebike solo from Irvine to Las Vegas, where Interbike was previously held. It was awesome!” What better bragging rights for the bike industry veteran and for Bosch which makes the systems that power many of the world’s leading ebikes?

Interbike Exhibitor: “When did you fly in?”

Brian: “Fly? Nope, I biked here on an ebike.”

“Everyone else will be flying or driving to the show,” continued Brian. “Everyone talks about biking reducing our carbon footprint but they’ve driven 500 miles to get there! With ebikes — it’s much more doable. Yeah it’s far, but we’ll be there having averaged over 130 miles a day!”

RESPECT. If we could do it, it would be enough to earn countless rounds at the bar. Brian is nothing if not determined. He had the vision to see the power of the accomplishment, or PR stunt — call it what you will.

I signed on to the trip and so did Bob Rollins, a photographer and experienced distance biker friend. From the start though, Bob had safety concerns. There was little margin of error… and on Day One our last 40 miles was on a desolate stretch of 395 through the Mojave Desert.

The ride presented a new adventure for me. I met the other riders, Patrick Fetzer of Laguna Beach Cyclery and Andreas Krajewski of FOCUS Bikes in Santa Cruz at Bosch headquarters in Irvine. Patrick, Andreas and Brian are serious bikers who ultimately earned First Prize, all the Chamois Butt’r anti-chafe cream they will ever need, as well as the right to brag about the trip at their Interbike buddies’ expense at the bars in Northstar and Reno.

Day One: Left to right: Joel Epstein, Patrick Fetzer, Brian Sarmento and Andreas Krajewski.

The first hours were fun and uneventful, much easier than “regular” biking. Maybe it was the adrenaline or the realization that, “Holy shit, I’m doing this!” We cruised along protected bike paths in Irvine and Anaheim, down hot sprawling boulevards and grimey commercial stretches including Riverside Avenue in Riverside, and through leafy towns like Rialto. I was particularly keen on the protected bike paths in Irvine, a city I had only known as home to the Irvine Spectrum Center, the OC’s contribution to cultural and culinary excess with a 21-screen movie theater boasting more neon that several blocks of Times Square.

By now it was a quarter to five and we had gone nearly 100 miles with big grins and fist bumps. But challenges loomed. With a little over two hours of daylight left we knew we had to average over 20 MPH to make it out of the desert before dark. A missed turn had added several miles to my day. Though I still had three bars on my battery, the engine of the Yuba Spicy Curry, my now not-so-trusty cargo ebike seemed as tired as I was even in “Turbo,” the most

Spicy Curry.

helpful of the ebike’s pedal-assist riding settings. Doubts began to creep into my thoughts. Did I have the chops to ride consecutive days of 130 plus miles through the Mojave and the Eastern Sierra? Bob nagged me and Brian about the details from the day he expressed interest to when we met up with him on Day One of the ride. As much as I hate to say it, like Edward G. Robinson with his “little man” in the noir classic Double Indemnity, Bob was right. With the shadows growing on the landscape beyond the desert’s Joshua trees I decided it was time to be smart rather than stubborn, and I pulled over.

The stark desert is beautiful at sunset this time of year with the temperature dropping almost as fast as the sun to the west.

After 125 miles and ten hours in the saddle, about all I had the energy to do was park my ride next to CHP call box 395–242 in South Adelanto and pick up the receiver. Only later would Brian explain that after all that time riding through hot terrain in Turbo mode the motor may overheat. Important information, don’tcha think?

Charge it!

I was relieved that the old call box worked but the Golden State’s Highway Patrol dispatcher was useless, telling me the best they could do was call a tow truck that I would have to pay for. With no option, I waited a bit but neither a uniform or a tow truck arrived. Hey, maybe there was a new Dunkin’ opening that night in Barstow? I still had miles to go to make my destination in Boron when, instead of the CHP, a tow truck, or a twenty mule team, my savior came in the form of a powerful former Marine from Idaho City named Bryce Jackson. Bryce is the sort of good samaritan and citizen this country and the Senate Judiciary Committee need more of.

Thank you Bryce Jackson! Sunset on 395 in the Mojave Desert.

Disappointed I couldn’t complete the day’s ride, those feelings quickly dissolved into gratitude for Bryce, who not only helped me out but also rescued Bob and Brian after dark at the intersection of 395 and 58 (Twenty Mule Team Road), our turn off for the motel.

In organizing the ride, Brian acknowledged that he wanted to push what these bikes can do. His haul for the ride was even heavier than the others, with his mountain bike bolted and zip tied to the back of his Yuba cargo ebike.

Brian Sarmiento of Bosch on his rig in Boron.

But as we learned, the combined weight of the mountain bike, his other gear, including a humidifier for the dry desert air, and the 50 pounds of extra batteries were too much for his rear wheel. As we would gain altitude in the Mojave and High Sierra, flat tires would become the bane of Brian’s existence and require creative fixes from the experienced bike mechanic. Nor were Patrick and Andreas, hauling bike trailers overloaded above their 70 pound max, immune from the limits of the equipment. They too had issues as soon as we hit that first serious climb in the Mojave.

The Morning After, SAG

On trips like this, a SAG (support and gear) team is standard practice. The SAG team carrying spare tires, tools, and food and water, drives a support vehicle a couple of miles behind the riders, available to swoop in when problems arise. And on our trip problems did arise — on Day One, for Brian and for me and later for the other two Iron Men who ultimately completed the ride along with Brian.

SAG to the rescue. The weight of Brian’s gear and mountain bike took a toll on his rear tire.

The morning after our ill-fated first day, Bob and I concurred that indeed the trip needed SAG. After discussing our decision with the others, we went to “Plan B.” a rented car we would pick up in Barstow.

Bob Rollins, head bowed for our fallen ebikes.

Disappointed to be throwing in the towel on our adventure, I found that my pain was quickly eased by Starbucks in Barstow, the air conditioned rental car and thoughts of selfless people like Bryce. The ex-marine, who had been an artilleryman in the Philippines, had enlisted after graduating high school in 2011. Since leaving the service he had managed a supermarket and studied taxidermy before settling into work moving fifth wheel trailers and campers around the West. From a logging family, Bryce’s parents had hooked up during a spell when his father was estranged from his then wife. Bryce’s 78 year old grandfather still logs 12 hours a day on their land close to the Sawtooth Mountains. It is mostly lodgepole pine and ponderosa and fir trees in that area and I guess in Idaho the environmentalists haven’t shut them down just yet.

Though we tried to buy Bryce dinner to thank him for his help, he was set on hightailing it out of there as soon as possible as he “would never live in California where everything I like to do is frowned upon.” As grateful as we were, this left Bob and me wondering silently, and later not silently, if he meant clear-cutting forests, killing endangered species, unfettered access to bumpstocks or … what?

SAG immediately became a critical part of the trip. Ultimately, even the Iron Men we had started out riding with took advantage of the car and SAG crew. Brian was grateful to have us carry several of his used batteries halfway through his 140 mile trek from Boron to Independence while Patrick ended up ditching his trailer for the day when he got a hard-to-repair flat in Lone Pine. And even Andreas let us haul four of his batteries from Lone Pine to Independence and buy him a Coke as his energy flagged those last 14 miles. SAG helped out by hauling extra batteries for the Iron Men and tens of pounds of the magic electrolyte and protein supplements that were fueling Patrick, the crazed racer.

Patrick’s little helper(s).

So with our friends and children and readers, Bob and I will have to settle for boasting about biking along Interstate 15 through the Cajon Pass and most of the way to the motel on Boron’s Twenty Mule Team Road.

The Cajon Pass. All 4,190 feet of it.

A Shrinking Pie

You wouldn’t know it watching the bike traffic along the Marvin Braude bike trail in Santa Monica, on The Hudson River Bike Path in New York, or along Boston’s Emerald Necklace, but biking in America is on the decline. Bosch’s Brian Sarmiento blames video game and too many bike options while others blame helicopter parents and the fact that Vision Zero hasn’t achieved the safe streets goals it was created to foster. “You can buy last year’s model road bike and for most riders it’s good enough,” explains Brian. “There’s too much product out there.”

You wouldn’t know it watching the bike traffic along the Marvin Braude bike trail in Santa Monica, on The Hudson River Bike Path in New York or along Boston’s Emerald Necklace, but biking in America is on the decline.

Each year, there are three major bike trade shows held around the world; in Taiwan, Germany and Interbike, now in Reno. These shows matter to a bike industry which has seen the market lose air thanks to a decline in interest in cycling and the arrival of new bike manufacturers cutting into the shrinking pie. What was almost a cartel controlled by a handful of bike manufacturers has become the Wild West with large and small players alike jockeying for new customers. At the same time, ebikes are the new shiny thing, giving the bike business hope that biking will appeal anew to those who had seemingly aged out of riding and younger riders sold on the convenience of an ebike on hilly terrain or cargo ebikes that can stand in for a car. To those who can afford these pricey babies (ranging from $1,500 to over $4,500), the price tag is just the cost of doing business of owning the bling bling of a beautifully engineered pedal-assist ride. On an ebike, 130 miles a day and a climb of up to 8,000 feet is possible for mere mortals like me; though perhaps not on a heavy cargo bike loaded down with extra batteries and gear.

Ebikes Have Arrived

So what are the lessons of this (mis)adventure? Am I saying that ebikes are not ready for prime time? Bosch’s considerable engineering talent impressed us all, especially as we were zipping up the Cajon Pass along I-15. But we sure didn’t meet the goal of proving that ebikes can replace planes, trains and automobiles as a way to efficiently get to faraway cities.

I like ebikes and am awed by the performance of the Bosch ebike system on a heavily laden Spicy Curry cargo bike going up a hill in Turbo mode on a protected bike path in Irvine. But at sunset on 395 in the Mojave Desert after ten hours in the saddle with a motor that has conked out, not so much. At that point the bike was dead weight and my legs weren’t up to the task.

Still, ebikes have arrived and deserve a closer look for those needing some extra umph to get them up that hill or help them ferry their groceries and kids home from the farmers market; assuming you can afford one. The bike Bosch outfitted and loaned to me cost over $4,500 all in.

I like ebikes and am awed by the performance of the Bosch ebike system on a heavily laden Spicy Curry cargo bike going up a hill in Turbo mode on a protected bike path in Irvine. But at sunset on 395 in the Mojave Desert after ten hours in the saddle with a motor that has conked out, not so much.

Whether it is a FOCUS bike fitted with a Bosch ebike system or a Superpedestrian sporting a shiny red Copenhagen wheel, biking has come a long way over the 35 years since I last biked over a few hundred miles for fun. I had once ridden a ten-speed Motobécane over the pass at Mount Blanc in the French Alps and past Mount Edith Cavell in British Columbia. I was also once 16 and 17, but all of that was forty years in the past.

Will I be buying an ebike anytime soon? Not likely, although I loved riding along Irvine and Anaheim’s parklike protected bike paths and on the old Route 66 in Turbo mode in the Mojave. Like many cyclists, I am old school and am OK grinding up long hills without the magical push of an ebike. Still, these engineers at Bosch are onto something and for those who can afford it, it is probably worth taking an ebike out for a spin, even before Bosch has figured out how to extend the life of the batteries and the cost of the bikes has come down.

I had once ridden a ten-speed Motobécane over the pass at Mount Blanc in the French Alps and past Mount Edith Cavell in British Columbia. I was also once 16 and 17, but all of that was forty years in the past.

Though I am not an early adopter of pricey tech, I am pretty good at spotting good first mile/last mile solutions and with any luck, one day soon we will be more of a bike and ebike nation.

Route 66 in the Mojave Desert.

There are signs aplenty that ebikes are gaining traction. While the group was stopped in the shade catching our breath at a gas station near the entrance to the 15 Freeway in Fontana, the station attendant restocking the shelves came by to ask about our bikes. “I’ve been looking to buy one of those. How much are they? $2,000?” We tell him that these are a bit more. He says he walks to work and an ebike would be ideal. The next day, Travis, the cab driver and Louisiana refugee from Katrina who drove us from Boron to the rental car place in Barstow tells us he has an ebike, given to him by a friend who had passed away. The bike had cost about $1,000 he thought. Travis, who usually earns good coin shuttling diabetics and the elderly from the northern reaches of Los Angeles County to doctor’s appointments in downtown Los Angeles, keeps the ride lively regaling us with tales of his seven children and killing rattlesnakes with a rake on his five acre spread outside of Palmdale.

For most Americans, ebikes are not a substitute for their car, though that is changing for a small segment of the population. Patrick sold his first ebike to a Laguna Beach retiree whose doctor had warned him he was going to have a heart attack if he didn’t start exercising. The pedal assist ebike gave the man the confidence to climb into the saddle and start to ride, helping him lose weight and get back in shape in the process.

The technology of course isn’t perfect. For some time yet, I won’t be the only one forced to drop out of a dream ride when my bike’s engine overheats and fails to kick in coming up a steep desert grade.

Overheard

Traveling with Brian, Patrick and Andreas, the Iron Men who soldiered on even when their bikes or trailers failed them, was a hoot and an education. At times, they were The Three Musketeers while at others, more Moe, Larry and Curly. One night in Lone Pine for example I laughed till it hurt listening to them riff on the day’s ride while we inhaled nearly everything on the menu at Merry Go Round Szechwan & American Cuisine on Main Street. Only later did Patrick let on how tired he was that night and annoyed with Dan, the folksy gray haired owner who sat down with us and chimed in on his time in the Service at “Chinese Lake” (now China Lake), named for the Chinese immigrants who used to scrape salt off the dry lake bed. A bad boy who later trained as an engineer, Dan told us about the Caltech engineer who during the Second World War had thought to put missiles that had no recoil on combat planes, as machine guns were too heavy for the aircraft. Between hobbling in on two bum knees to bring us platter after platter of food, Dan also shared a more contemporary story about the “rich lawyers” in Bishop who are moving the Inyo County Court from Independence to Bishop so they don’t have to travel so far to make courtroom appearances. This will mean the death of Independence, the county seat, and the end of the landmark county courthouse, a local jewel and one of the finest buildings in the Eastern Sierra. In the current courthouse hang portraits of county supervisors from the early day, each with a shotgun on one side and dog on the other. These men were farmers, who ran the county part time, before William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Water Department bought up most of the local water rights and diverted Owens Lake into the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Behind the courthouse are specimen Cedars of Lebanon, as fine as any found in this country.

At another point in the trip, over a pile of beers after a day of hard riding, Patrick mused about what the locals must have thought about this “fucking queer looking guy in Lycra with dreadlocks” hanging down to his waist.

Iron Man Patrick Fetzer in Independence.

Perhaps the best exchange of the ride was overheard at the Girasole Cafe in Gardnerville, Nevada:

“Of course the aliens are going to tell us the Bible is wrong, they want to recruit us.”

So what if it turns out the line was uttered by a middle age former flight attendant talking about the batshit things she’d overheard over the years from airline passengers? Oh, the things one hears on the road in Nevada as you get closer to Area 51 and the Extraterrestrial Highway.

A day didn’t go by when we didn’t hear or see something startling like that. Like when Frank the proprietor of the hotel in Independence, originally from Ventura got talking after I told him that I had lived in Koreatown in Los Angeles. “I used to pick up hookers there, on Wilshire, and in Hollywood. I still remember Pocahontas, an Indian girls who dressed up like Pocahontas. Back in the 70s they had those blue light hippie shops with the incense.” No filter.

Eyes on the Prize

In the end, the Iron Men earned the right to boast about their achievement. And though I didn’t get to share in that glory, at least I was there to witness it and some of the spectacular scenery that comes with any trip to the Eastern Sierra.

Sunrise over Bridgeport. Photo by Brian Fetzer.

Would I do it again? That is not a trick question like the old law school query, “Have you stopped beating your mother?” Not without SAG and an exhaustive tutorial on the current limits of the power-assist motor. Maybe next year we will train for the trip and re-up with Brian and Bosch? That is if they will have us.

Left to right: Patrick Fetzer, Andreas Krajewski, Joel Epstein, Bob Rollins and Brian Sarmiento at Northstar.

Yours in transit,

Joel

Joel Epstein is a New York- and Los Angeles-based communications strategist and writer focused on bike share, ebikes, public transit and other critical urban issues.

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