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CYCLING PERFORMANCE TIPS

  Latest update: 12/15/2023

E-bikes



This article (Over the Alps on a Bike With a Boost) caught my eye as it headlines a way those who aren't quite as strong (significant other, physical limitations, slowing down but still yearning to get out on that bike) can now enjoy the camaraderie of cycling with a partner or group. This article highlights the positive health and social impact of getting more people out on a bike as well as addressing a common concern of regular riders - losing their hard won "fitness" by riding an e-bike.

A couple things to keep in mind if you are considering an ebikes:

A LESS EXPENSIVE E-ALTERNATIVE?

I read this article several times andthe title is deceptive. The bike may have a capacitor to store energy, but unless you charge it up before you leave the house from an outlet, any extra riding energy comes from your leg muscles and that stored energy does not make it to the back wheel at that time.

To my mind, an e-bike provides an infusion of new (additional) watts from the battery. While a capacitor may help even out the energy output to the wheel during the ride - needing a bit more leg power while on the flats to maintain a certain speed and getting those extra watts back on the hills, there is no free lunch. At the end of the ride your legs will have put out the same amount of total energy with or without a capacitor.

WILL YOU LOSE CARDIOVASCULAR FITNESS ON AN E-BIKE?

If you are using a pedal assist ebike (not a throttle controlled bike which is essentially an electric motorcycle) talking about cardiovascular fitness, the answer is an unqualified no. With the power off (or battery out) an e-bike is just a heavy cross bike. You work the same muscle groups and sit on the bike in a similar position. Are you going to be able to push that extra mass of slightly less aerodynamic metal as fast as your lightweight road bike? No. Will your maximal power delivered to the pedals remain at the same level? Yes.

Pedal ASSIST e-bikes and are not electric scooters. So if your ride with the same level of exertion, riding an e-bike should be no more detrimental to your fitness (assuming you continue on a regimented training program) than riding with the boost of a tail wind or from riding in a peloton. But if you start to enjoy the ride, and back off on your level of input, then, of course, de-conditioning is the inevitable result.

Let's say you are using a 25% pedal assist. That means the motor will add 25% of the effort you put in. If you use perceived exertion (or a heart rate monitor) and not road speed to measure your input, the output at the wheel will be 125% of the wattage you could develop with the motor off.

This means you can train just as effectively on an ebike as on an unpowered road bike. But this means achieving the same level of perceived exertion (or heart rate) on both. And you will need to continue with your intervals. If you do, you will end up at exactly the same level of fitness as if you had done the same PE or HRM monitored training as on your lightweight road bike.

This study of regular MTN bikers shows them maintaining a training level heart rate (I'm assuming they rode their circuit using perceived exertion) on ebikes. To quote: "...well trained MTBikers reached an average heart rate during eMTB use that was 94% of their average heart rate over a conventional mountain bike route. This was high enough to exceeded established thresholds to improve cardiovascular fitness."

HOW MUCH POWER IS NEEDED TO COMPENSATE FOR A HEAVIER E-BIKE?

I recently bought a Specialized Creo e-bike. At 78 I figured it was just a matter of time until I needed a little boost on my multi-day trips (50 - 70 miles a day for a week).

The Creo allows me to customize 3 levels of assist - each level adding an additional 10 to 100% of the power I put to the pedals . So if I set level 1 at 10% and my legs put 150 watts to the pedal, the bike delivers 165 watts to the rear wheel. If I set level 2 at 30% and I put in 150 watts to the pedal, the bike delivers 195 watts to the rear wheel.

So what power adjustment should I make so the heavier Creo (35 pounds) is equivalent (from my legs perspective) to my Titanium Davidson (20 pounds)? It would make sense that the slope of the road is a major factor as it basically means I am lifting (over a number of miles) a heavier bike.

I'm going to use this calculator to sort it out.

Scenario 1 - flat road 0% grade

Scenario 2 - 2% grade

Scenario 3 - 4% grade

Scenario 4 - 7% grade

What did I learn?

  1. For my ebike (or any 35 pound bike), it really doesn't take that much more leg power (watts) to maintain a speed equivalent to a regular bike on a level surface. 3 to 12 watts depending on the grade.
  2. Total Calories expended for a 40 mile ride on a steady 7% grade (a pretty tough climb) is only 330 more!

But I know that when I ride my ebike (electricity off) it just feels heavier. I think this is due to the fact that all normal road riding is not a steady pace on a level grade. So a heavier bike takes more energy to accelerate as we go up a hill, start up from a stop, or just catch up with a buddy. There is constant acceleration/deceleration that is part of every ride which adds up the longer the ride. This is the same effect I noticed when I first got light rims on my Davidson and definitely felt less fatigue on my standard 40 mile course which I presumed was from the fact it was easier to accelerate lighter rims - more of a benefit than a similar amount of static weight on the frame.

So how much power should I add to my ebike to get the same training effect as my lighter road bike? It would seem that 10% (the minimum on a Creo) is more than enough to compensate - if I keep a steady pace. On a rolling course maybe 15 to 20.

I'm assuming the biggest advantage of the ebike to me will be the power in reserve (in the battery) that I can tap into on at the end of 50 and 60 mile rides. So for short training days, I can just keep the power off and end up working a bit more. And for my week long trips or 50 - 100 mile weekend rides, the bike will do what I bought it for, give me some extra oomph at the end of long riding days.

SPECIAL CASES

I understand the resistance to e-bikes. I enjoy being able to keep up with my weekend group, knowing that I am doing it all on my own (without electric assist). And I will miss that sense of accomplishment on an e-bike. But as I get older, I face the inevitable slowing that comes with aging. If I want to keep the enjoyment of a group ride, I have to stay with a peer group that ages right along with me...or get an e-bike. We all get older, and as we do, are abilities to churn out watts of power decrease - no matter how hard we try to fight it. If you are barely hanging on with your weekend riding group, an ebike may be the answer. You may get a few comments, but then just point out that no one escapes father time, and their time will come.

If I want to continue to measure myself against my peers on a weekend ride or against my own PRs on a solo training ride, then I'll take my old road bike. But if this is about training to the maximum possible (for my age), that training can be done just as effectively on an e-bike.

Another special case is multi-day rides. Riding day after day does take its toll unless you have put in the long miles in training. But if it is early in the season or circumstances prevent a dedicated training schedule, an e-bike will let you enjoy every day of the trip rather than experience the common day 2 or 3 fatigue.

Finally, there is the special case of someone with heart disease who has been told to limit their maximum heart rate. Electric assist cuts off the peaks of maximum exertion (if you monitor your heart rate and use more assist when it starts to head up). This graph from this blog demonstrates that benefit, and note that total exertion over the ride was still 80% of that on an unassisted ride. (Blue line - no assist Red line electric electric assist.)

The big plus of the e-bike revolution is that these bikes are engaging more riders and increasing the level of health of many of them. Friends whose "significant others" never wanted to ride, now relate that with an e-bike, their "other" is now pushing them to find a time to ride together.

And an e-bike is just plain fun. You find yourself looking around as you spin at at an easy rate rather than focusing on how many more intervals you need to finish that day. As one who scoffed at e-bikes for many years, fighting the trend for longer than I might have, an e-bike adds a pleasant boost to many of my rides.

RISKS OF E-BIKES

Battery fires can be a definite hazard, especially if you buy cheap equipment or try to modify the battery/motor yourself.

E-BIKE MAINTENANCE

Two aspects of an ebike need special attention, and care. If not, long term maintenance cost will be higher. Consumer Reports has a nice summary.

Increased strain in the drivetrain (chain, rear cluster) that are a result of the motor applying more torque than a non motorized rider. A few tips will minimize that impact.

  1. downshift to an easier gear ahead of a traffic light so you can resume pedaling without having to "mash" or stand on the pedals to make the bike move.
  2. don't stand on the pedals with maximum force when shifting. It’s always best to lighten your pedaling as you shift gears.
  3. keep a moderate cadence of 70 to 90 rpm to put less torque on the system with each pedal stroke.

Lubing the chain needs a special technique - try backpedaling and you will see the chain does not move (which helps you to spread the lube along the full length). But you really don't need a special tool as suggested by this video and article. I checked and indeed you cannot "backpedal" the chain on an ebike to lube it. But rather than buying another tool for $40 a simple hex wrench does the trick. These 3 pictures explain it all. My hex wrenches didn't fit the chainring bolt, but a hole in the bolt let me to use a smaller hex and achieve the desired result. Just make sure you don't insert it so far that it scores the motor casing behind the chainring. Pictures:
Then there is the battery which is a pretty costly item to replace. And just as with other parts of the bike, it will wear out over time (just as your iphone battery needs replacing after long use). (This article from Bicycling is a nice summary of battery care.)
  1. Don't let the battery get below 10 percent charge too frequently.
  2. Recharge the battery after each ride, but unplug the bike once it's fully charge.
  3. Storing at 100 percent charge is actually bad for longevity. Guidelines recommend storage at between 40 and 80 percent charge.
  4. Riding in the cold is not a problem, but the battery should not be stored in a cold garage in the off season. And when you ride in the off season, using a battery that has been charged indoors (and is warm) will perform better.

And when it is time for a new battery, recycle the old one.

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All questions and suggestions are appreciated and will be answered.


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