Les and Maury: The Downside of e-Bikes as Equalizers

E-bikes have been touted for their equalizing effect in a couple of ways. First, a weaker rider can keep up with stronger riders on an e-bike. Secondly, an e-bike helps the rider do his/her commute and errands faster than on a non-powered bike–in some contexts, equaling toward the speed of errands and commuting by car.

But imagine two guys about the same age who start using e-bikes at the same time. The first guy had been a bike commuter, and is in pretty good shape. We’ll call him, Les Pedaler. The second guy was out of shape and pretty sedentary before he started commuting on an e-bike. Let’s call him Maury Movington.

All other lifestyle factors being equal, wouldn’t you expect over time that their respective physical conditions would converge until they were about the same? This is great for Maury, but not so great for Les.

Les and Maury

In this scenario, I’m Les. I’ve been testing (and defending) e-bikes for awhile as part of Commute by Bike’s J.O.Y.B.A.G.â„¢ project. It’s a tough job, but someone’s…

Actually, that part of my job is not tough. It’s really pretty soft. My commute is pretty short–less than three miles unless I go out of my way to lengthen it.

I can already feel the pounds moving in like happy parasites. I’m going to have to start running again.


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18 thoughts on “Les and Maury: The Downside of e-Bikes as Equalizers”

  1. I have disproved that daily bike commuting is a viable method to lose weight. I would be a Maury in this scenario, and while my overall fitness has improved in the approx. 12 months I have been a full time bike commuter I have only gained weight. I blame the presence of way too much good beer in this town,(FLG), and Little Caesar’s.

    But I’m an outlier. I only prove that any pounds you may pedal off, you can really easily eat them back on.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Note to anyone discouraged by Keith’s comment about gaining weight after bike commuting:

      I met Keith yesterday: That guy is built like a brick… Visigoth. Any pounds he’s put on since he started cycling are a result of pumping iron, or from invading the Roman Empire.

  2. MarioC says:

    Makes sense, a fit person would become lazy on an e-bike. This is why I’ll never ride one. They are great inventions for beginners but I find them to be a hinderance to seasoned riders/commuters.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Become lazy? I’m not sure about that. I’m already kind of lazy. That’s why what works for me is to build in exercise into utilitarian things–like getting to work. My problem is that getting to work now takes less effort than before. It’ll take motivation and discipline to start running again–unless I can make exercise a secondary benefit of running (as opposed to walking) my two dogs.

  3. mimbresman says:

    A friend in San Francisco e-mailed me a couple of weeks ago asking advice about electric bikes. He’s a non-cyclist and thought that an e-bike would be a big help to motivate him to ride and to get up the hills of SF. Not knowing much about e-bikes, I pointed him to these J.O.Y.B.A.G. articles. He was grateful to get this kind of information and hopefully it will help him make a purchasing decision and get him on a bicycle.

  4. Anton Angelo says:

    Huh: I’ve lost 35kg since I started riding my Wisper. (that’s about 70 of your US pounds). Now, the bike wasn’t directly related: it was just part of a campaign of living and eating better. Getting some exercise in a town that has the steepest suburban street in the world, I wasn’t up for riding a steam powered bike to begin with!

    Think that Maury might swop to a pedal only powered machine at the end of the curve? He just may well. Les might appreciate the ‘leccy bike once he turns 70, and keeping up the training regime has become, umm, stale…

    I’ve never been so fit (and apart from a broken wrist and a collarbone from my own sheer incompetence) and well, and riding the bike has been key! Maybe you should farm out your electric bike reviews to someone more in the target market? (a fat b*gger, like me 🙂

  5. Cullen says:

    Yes, I wholeheartedly agree. I don’t see too many avid cyclists gravitating to ebikes.

    However, if they create new cyclists, I’m cool with that.

    I wonder how many newbies will, eventually, go non-electric?

  6. burnhamish says:

    When I started my last job’s commute a few years ago, only 1 day a week, but 39 miles round-trip, I managed to lose 15 pounds between August and October. I gained them back over the winter, lost 20 pounds between April and October the next year, gained 10 back over the winter, and so on.

    I have gained 15 pounds back this past winter, because I stopped riding and exercising, and have been lax about starting up again. I increased my food intake during the height of riding last season, but did not decrease when I stopped.

    It’s all about what you take in vs. what you burn off. I can see the benefit of e-bikes from an environmental impact standpoint, but less from a fitness standpoint.

  7. BluesCat says:

    When I first got back to bike commuting, back in 2008, I was around 18 pounds overweight. I dropped 10 pounds really quickly; absolutely attributable to my higher level of activity on the bike. The next 7 pounds took over a year. And that last pound seemed to take FOREVER (and when I DID lose it, I was only able to keep that mythical “ideal weight” for a little over a month; interesting thing is I did not feel as good at that “ideal weight” as I felt when I was two or three pounds overweight).

    My job requirements this year have only allowed me to commute a very few days until this last week, and when I finally jumped on the scale I saw that I am, once again, right around 8 pounds overweight. Interesting, no?

    If I had one, I would only use an e-bike as a backup; for when I needed to pull 100 lbs in my bike trailer; or I was feeling kinda pukey and not up to pedaling really hard.

  8. peteathome says:

    I’m a “Les” in that I’m a long-term bike commuter, recreational rider and bike tourer. I got an ebike 3 years ago due to developing neurological problems.

    While the ebike reduces the effort of a given trip, I am now using the ebike to make long utilitarian trips that, in the past, on a non-ebike, I would use a car for.

    Use to be, I’d use a bike for any errand less than 5-7 miles each way. Longer than that, especially if I had a lot of stuff to carry, I’d use the car to reduce the “sweat effect” and/or time. For instance, if I needed to see my doctor, 8 miles away, I’d drive so I wouldn’t be a sweaty mess when my doctor exaimined me. Same for meetings. If I had to leave work to go to another meeting site more than 5 miles away, I’d drive. Otherwise I’d have to take a shower when I got to the new site and I have no time for thatdueing the day.

    Now I routinely use the ebike for errands 12 miles in each direction. I’ve essentailly gone “car free” with it. So I’m probably maintaining fitness on my utilitarian commutes due to the increase in mileage on the bike.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      peteathome/Les: Your story is similar to what many people say happens when you start using an e-bike.

        Less effort when cycling
       + More time on the bike
        = The same or more amount of exercise as before.

      In the “Les and Maury” example, I postulated “All other lifestyle factors being equal.” But what I’m hearing from many e-bikers, is that the lifestyle factors don’t remain equal.

  9. tOM Trottier says:

    There’s 2 ways to keep exercising on a eBike:

    1. Turn it off. The extra weight will give you more of a workout, and your battery will last longer. Good for short trips.

    2. Go faster! Change your gears or learn to spin so you can zip along at 30-40kph instead of 25. Makes long trips shorter. Take the lane!

    Well, 3. You can take longer trips or hillier trips which demand more pedalling.

    I find exercise pretty boring. But challenging yourself, tracking your times, seeing improvements, can keep you interested and alive.


  10. peteathome says:

    And the reason for the lifestyle change is, I think, not so much that you can go faster on an ebike and hence do longer trips, but the “sweat factor”.

    For instance, on a regular bike I cruise at 15-16 mph, my Bionx, 20 mph. Not a huge difference. Actually trip speed ( lights, etc.) on a typical 10 mile trip is 12-13 unassisted, 17 mph assisted. So travel time is 48 minutes, unassisted, and 35 assisted. A nice savings, but not enough to make a real difference.

    But the sweat factor makes a huge difference. On the same trip, during warm weather, I’m going to be a sweaty mess unassisted. If I’m lucky enough to have a shower waiting for me at the end I could have:1) changed before I left ( 5 minutes); 2)shower and cool down a little and then change into work clothes at the other end (15 minutes). Then my total trip time is 68 minutes, or double the assisted trip time.

    And, of course, these times are actually doubled for a round trip excursion. So the roundtrup time unassisted is 66 minutes longer. That’s starting to seriously eat into my day. Combine this with, say, my commute trip plus a smaller errand during the day – my typical day – and it makes a HUGE difference.

    And, more likely, there is NO shower at the other end so I wouldn’t even consider doing the trip on bike.

    So knowing I can do longish trips on my ebike, wearing street or work cloths without changing, is the biggest motivating change, not the greater speed or less effort.

    One can thus basically adopt a “Dutch Bicycling” lifestyle, where one goes around in ordinary clothes and stays presentable, but in our environment where trip distances are much longer, often a lot hillier, and our climate much hotter during the warm months ( not to mention colder in the winter – not sure if that impacts the ebike effect).

  11. BluesCat says:

    peteathome – Yeah, for my 8 mile trip to work my average speeds are pretty much right in line with yours, so the trip into work in the morning takes about 40 minutes give-or-take a missed traffic light or two.

    And, of course, in Phoenix it doesn’t matter if you’re riding an e-bike or a standard bike, or if it’s winter or summer, you sweat like a pig, so when you get into work it’s time to hit the showers.

    I justify it this way …

    Commuting by car:
    15 minutes – driving time
    30 minutes – workout at the gym
    15 minutes – shower and dress for the day
    Total: 60 minutes between the house and desk.

    Commuting by bike:
    40 minutes – pedaling time
    15 minutes – shower and dress for the day
    Total: 55 minutes between the house and desk.

    I’m saving 5 minutes because I don’t have to workout at the gym when I ride the bike.

    Going home in the car, the commute time is inflated to over 20 minutes, because of the effect of rush hour, plus the aggravation of traffic. Going home is mostly downhill, too, so there are times when I cut the ride time to 35 minutes. Since I’m grinning like a Cheshire Cat when I ride the bike, I figure I’m adding at least 15 minutes to my life by not being an angry motorist!

  12. Wayne Baldridge says:

    The moto from “Breaking Away” ‘Get it up and keep it up’ is a way of life. At 71 I still commute the 70 miles a week and do the weekend club rides of 40 plus miles at 20 plus MPH.

    It seems I need less food to maintain a weight level – demanding quality not quantity.

    The commuter is a Nexus 8 speed, fenders, bags, dyno hub and lights. A slug compared to the carbon fiber road bike for preasure.

    Traveling the same route each day at the same time puts me in the same car crowd. Be nice and they will look out for you. Not blocking right turn or Red and waiting at the end of a green for the next righ turn trafic opening goes a long way. The black lady in the cadilac toots each morning, the kids waiting for the bus say hi and Ron in his truck will chat at a red light.

    When it storms in the morning, I take the car. Getting wet on the way home dosen’t happen often. Fenders keeps water out of my shoes and internal gearing keeps the moving parts clean.

    Work is a rest between bike rides.

  13. Sean Tipton says:

    I am almost a year into being an e-bike commuter. I would not expect that many folks who ride heavily already would convert to e-bikes. But for someone like me, its a great utilitarian way to get some exercise. And the ability to control how much e-assist I use means I can control how hard I work.

  14. Tina says:

    Well I’m switching to an e-bike because of the “sweat factor” and hills and I want to enjoy my ride as opposed to being out of breath when I arrive at my destination home or work, especially to work. I believe I will still get a work out because on my way home, I’m not in such a rush and I don’t mind if I sweat so I will not use the electric part as much, just pedal assist up major hills.

  15. Lizzie says:

    I don’t view my bike as a fitness or recreational tool; I view it as a utilitarian tool to get me where I want to go without the fuss or muss of driving/parking or the drudgery of walking.

    I don’t want to arrive sweaty at work, or most places. Hence the ebike suits my needs. I get some exercise, but that is secondary to my purpose.

    If I want to workout, I go to the track or pool.

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