What I learned on the longest, craziest electric bike ride of my life:
I had pedaled the first 20 miles up Big Oak Flat Road in Yosemite National Park, cursing its misleading name — far from flat, the route gains 7,000 ft in altitude — when my electric bicycle’s battery finally died. That’s when I had one of the strangest good news-bad news moments of my life.
Good news: I had saddlebags containing three pre-charged batteries! Bad news: heave and squeeze as I might, the new five-pound battery and its clunky hard plastic cover simply would not fit into the slim slot my Gazelle electric bike required. (Too late, I remembered that the Gazelle rep had trouble demoing this maneuver when he delivered the bike, and cursed myself for not practicing.)
Good news: there’s probably a manual online that will tell me the trick to doing it! Bad news: I lost cellphone reception miles back. You don’t know what you want from the internet until it’s gone.
Good news: I would shortly reach Highway 120, which would take me directly to my meeting with an electric bike guru! Bad news: not for another 65 miles — the topography of which was unknown to me.
Good news: at least I still have a Camelbak full of snacks, and water, which I really need in this heat! Bad news: Glug, glug, gl— hssssshhh … Oh.
Et tu, Camelbak? I felt an uncontrollable, stressed-out kind of laugh bubbling up. What the hell was I doing here? I’d gone for maybe eight or nine rides in the past year. I wasn’t the kind of cyclist who could pedal a hundred pounds of bike under my own steam. The batteries were my superhero power. Now I was stuck in Clark Kent mode, and Doomsday was approaching.
I had to laugh again when I remembered the reason it had come to this: because a sales guy in Irvine, California didn’t want to fly to a trade show.
Get on your e-bike and ride!
Every September, America’s $6 billion bicycling industry gathers in Nevada for its largest event, Interbike. And every year, Interbike attendees arrive by plane and car and van and truck — any form of transport, in fact, other than the clean and supremely efficient one they’ve gathered to praise.
“Nobody rides a bike to the bike show,” says Brian Sarmiento, a sales manager and electric bike aficionado based in Irvine, California. “No one even talks about it.” Given that the cycling fans that show up think nothing of “centuries,” or hundred-mile rides, Sarmiento “thought that was odd.”
So in 2017, Sarmiento became the first out-of-town attendee to cycle to the big cycle show. He took one of the e-bike systems he sells for Bosch, stuffed his saddlebags with pre-charged batteries, and spent four days riding the 330 miles from Irvine to Las Vegas, most of it via the old Route 66. The trip was beautiful and easy, he boasted to Interbike attendees: “If everyone knew how cool this was, they’d do it all the time.”
For its 2018 show this week, Interbike moved to Reno — nearly 600 miles from Sarmiento’s home. But doubling the distance didn’t stop him from riding again. This time he invited a handful of professional cyclist friends, and a couple of journalists, to document the five-day journey last week. I was intrigued, and agreed to join what he later called the Fellowship of the E-bike.
The only problem was I couldn’t spare the whole week — this was during Apple’s all-important iPhone launch. So we made a plan to meet at Mono Lake on the east edge of Yosemite National Park, halfway through Sarmiento’s ride. Leaving from the San Francisco Bay Area, I would take the train and bus to the western side of Yosemite Valley. Sarmiento arranged for me to test a ten-speed Gazelle Cityzen, (retail price: $2,999) and mailed four charged batteries.
All I had to do was find my way through America’s oldest and most beautiful national park with an assist from the latest in biking technology, then join the Fellowship on the other side. What could possibly go wrong?
What went wrong
I’m what you might call an aspirational cyclist. I enjoy the activity; I’m also intimidated by it. Living atop the Bay Area’s biggest hill means I can’t simply head out to the flatlands for a joyride — at least, not without anticipating a heart-thumping half-hour of intense sweat and breath loss on the way back.
So the concept of e-bikes has always appealed, especially the power assist on the uphill. I’ve awaited their arrival into the mainstream with the eagerness of an electric car fan looking forward to the day the roads are filled with Teslas and Leafs and Bolts.
The wait for this future is maddening — especially in 2018, when Trump’s tariffs on components from China have left the e-bike industry reeling.
E-biking can leave you feeling like Lance Armstrong — cheating included.
This is why I jumped at Sarmiento’s offer. Here was a chance to experience the future of cycling, one that could appeal to beginners and pros alike. If the batteries were portable and efficient enough, perhaps this could be the ultimate health-improving, environmentally-friendly 21st century vacation.
Who wouldn’t prefer an open-air bike tour of the vast American landscape to a stuffy old car trip? Especially when an electric motor is doing most of the work — just enough for a pleasant workout, not enough to leave you wheezing.
The e-bike system I was using has five power settings — from the battery-saving “Eco” all the way up to “Turbo” for those uphills. You still have to pedal, of course, but you choose how much of an assist the bike provides with each rotation. Maximum speed: 28 mph.
At its best, I later realized, e-biking can leave you feeling like Lance Armstrong — cheating included.
When my bike and I disembarked the bus at the Yosemite visitor’s center, however, I discovered that Google Maps had been cheating too. The 41-mile bike route it suggested to the Mono Lake meeting point involved taking a trail out of Yosemite Valley — a trail that, according to an officious park ranger, did not allow bikes.
I’d have to double back and travel via Highway 120, she said. That meant a 75-mile journey, nearly double what I’d anticipated.
But hey, no problem! The day was young and warm, the meeting was four hours away, and I had four fully-charged batteries. Each one had a theoretical range of up to 40 miles. I’d make the meeting with energy to spare. Besides, it’s called Big Oak Flat Road. Sounds easy!
Some 7,000 ft of elevation later, I discovered that “Big Oak Flat” is merely the name of a hiking trail to which the road leads. “This road sucks, man,” said a sympathetic CalTrans worker as I pedaled hard on the Turbo setting — yet still barely registered nine miles an hour. The two-lane blacktop rose vertiginously over the valley in relentless switchbacks, and cyclists must share it with RVs and SUVs whose cranky drivers were eager to head home.
Oh yes, and the road presented several long rock-walled tunnels with no illumination inside. My Gazelle’s dinky automatic light was no comfort in the vast inky blackness. I tried to breathe and just keep pedaling, ignoring the sudden panicked sensation of floating in space, and also trusting that those headlights in the distance were not coming straight at me.
That horror was barely behind me when the first battery died and my Camelbak ran out. Not knowing what else to do, I kept pedaling my hundred-pound, suddenly non-electric bike. After two more punishing, dehydrating uphill miles, I stopped again and tried jamming the battery into its slot without the clunky plastic cover on. My screen returned, the range mileage now reading a satisfying “30.” Success!
But I wasn’t out of the Yosemite woods yet. Shorn of its cover, the battery was exposed to the air, which was increasingly becoming thin and chilly. As anyone who has pulled out their smartphone on a winter’s day knows, lithium-ion batteries deplete way faster in the cold. My range dropped to 20, then 10, then 5, much faster than the miles I was actually making.
Talk about range anxiety. Some three hours and another 3,000 ft of elevation later, I’d burned through three and a half of my four batteries. A freezing headwind had picked up, slowing me even on the downhills. More and more uphills kept rising around every curve, oblivious to my outraged protest.
My legs began to cramp. There was no water stop in sight — and perhaps more importantly, still no cellphone service. Occasionally I’d receive a worried text from Sarmiento, but the brief single-bar signal was too weak to let me reply.
Reaching Tulomne Meadows as the sun plummeted towards the horizon, I found the first faucet in 50 miles. Water never tasted sweeter. Then another long uphill depleted my final half-battery, even though I had been pedaling almost entirely in Eco mode by then.
My bike was officially out of juice, as was I. Half-seriously, I considered bunking down in the meadow for the night. Bears and freezing temperatures be damned. Then, to my eternal gratitude, a kind-hearted Swiss couple in an RV offered me and my bike a ride to their campsite, which happened to be at the top of the 120’s final hill.
From there I coasted at 30 miles an hour down a road that dropped 6,000 ft of altitude to Mono Lake at 30 miles an hour. Which was terrifying, as the headwinds had now become wobble-inducing crosswinds. I noted a distinct lack of guardrails, and the sides of the road fell away into I-dared-not-look.
At the lake, I finally had cellphone service again. I phoned a relieved Sarmiento, who had just called 911. He’d been tracking my progress on his iPhone via Find My Friends, which was showing me stuck in the same place for hours. The dispatcher had insisted there was no way anyone could ride this stretch of the 120 (also apparently known and dreaded as the Tioga Pass) in one day, much less a casual cyclist.
I also learned that the e-bike Fellowship had experienced its own problems. The headwinds had been so brutal on the first day out of Irvine, the only other writer on the trip had dropped out. (I won’t mention the name of the reporter’s outlet, but it rhymes with Puffington Host.) Luckily, the reporter had hired a car instead, with which Sarmiento was able to pick me and my dead bike up and take me to our hotel for the night.
I waited in the Epic Cafe in the lakeside town of Lee Vining, and had the best goddamn beer and the finest goddamn swordfish steak in the whole history of the goddamn universe.
On the second day…
The Fellowship’s ride the next day was its longest yet, longer than my Yosemite death march — some 120 miles from Bridgeport, California to Lake Tahoe, California via Nevada Highways 395 and 50.
But because it was relatively level — and warm enough to sustain battery life — the day was the polar opposite of my Yosemite ride. Sarmiento and I coasted up and down gentle chaparral hills. We kept pace with hawks as we wound past soaring cliffs and roaring riverbeds.
And somewhere, I could have sworn, someone was playing the theme from The Magnificent Seven.
I was also grateful that Sarmiento was taking it slowly. The other two remaining members of the Fellowship (a German Bosch employee and a Southern California e-bike shop owner) were both pro racers. They started half an hour later, but caught up to us at the California-Nevada border. We didn’t see them again until Tahoe.
To make his task more difficult, Sarmiento was effectively riding two bikes. For every battery I burned through, he was burning through two. His electric Tern GSD (which stands for Get Shit Done) was towing an electric mountain bike he planned to ride in the second annual Boogaloo, a pre-Interbike race at Tahoe that Bosch had sponsored.
That made the total weight of his ride more than 400 pounds. Which pressed down on the GSD’s 20-inch back wheel so much that any obstacle Sarmiento ran over was a potential puncture hazard. Which in turn meant he got three flats.
The second time it happened, Sarmiento’s inner tube was punctured. It looked like we were stuck once more under a baking sun, with no cellphone reception to call our impromptu support car.
Then Sarmiento had a MacGyver-like brainwave — he slashed the back tire of his mountain bike, plucked out the tube, origami’d it down to a 20-inch diameter, and popped it into the broken wheel.
Our final obstacle of the day was Highway 50 from Carson City to Lake Tahoe. It was the longest climb of the entire 600-mile journey, and much like Tioga Pass it teased you repeatedly with the promise that somewhere close, perhaps just around the next bend, was the summit and the final, blissful downhill.
By the time we rolled into King’s Beach, Tahoe, my thighs were practically screaming. My butt — because not even e-bike seats seem to be designed for people with butts — had gone completely numb. Riding an e-bike may be like an easy spin class, but even doing an easy spin class for six or seven hours will wear you down. (Several days later, I discovered I’d shed a full 3 percent of body fat.)
But for nearly all of the day, I noticed, there was one other physical effect: I couldn’t stop smiling.
There they were, these people rushing past in their glass-and-metal boxes, so keen to get from A to B. They could be me on any other day. Their scowls spoke of the mental prison of driving, the way windows divorce you from nature and the speed is never enough: with all this technology, why can’t we just be at B immediately?
On an e-bike, you notice everything. If the gradient isn’t too steep, you’re doing a solid 20 mph — not always that much slower than the cars — but you have time to look around you. Hours melt away with the hypnotic rhythm of the pedals. I’m a huge Spotify fiend and a fan of music on long rides, but with all the wild and varied sights, sounds and smells of the American west surrounding me, I didn’t once think of pulling out my headphones.
The next day Sarmiento competed in the Boogaloo on a borrowed mountain bike. Even with a fresh inner tube, the one he’d towed 600 miles had failed to work. Still, he had a blast, and regretted nothing. “I chose to make an adventure of it,” he said.
The day after that, he rolled down the final hill from Tahoe to Reno for Interbike to collect some well-deserved kudos. He plans to do it again this year, with an even larger Fellowship.
We may not have nearly enough biking infrastructure on the roads of America for family e-bike vacations just yet. Dedicated bike lanes across the country would be a start; gas stations with dedicated chargers and swappable batteries would be better.
And long-distance e-bike mapping may still leave something to be desired: Google should check its route recommendations against reality. Long term, it or some other smart mapping company should consider creating an algorithm that will tell you how long your bike battery will last, given the altitude and temperature on your route.
But for all the insanity of the Yosemite portion of my journey, I couldn’t wait to get back on the road and to plaster across my face another unshakeable smile.
Rather than take another road trip in an oil-powered box, I choose to make an adventure of it.