E-Bikes Land on Mars… Hill

Remember learning about that guy a century ago who thought there were canals on Mars, built by an intelligent alien civilization? That was Percival Lowell.

And remember all those crybabies who took it so hard when Pluto was demoted down from being a real planet to being a mere “dwarf planet?” Those crybabies were the population of Flagstaff, Arizona (the city with the most astronomers per capita in the world). Flagstaff is where Pluto, “the ninth planet,” was discovered at the Lowell Observatory.

And here in Flagstaff, it is Bike to Work Week.

And because it’s Bike to Work Week, The Lowell Observatory was giving a two-for-one pass to anyone who would bike up Mars Hill to the observatory. It’s only about three-quarters of a mile from the base of the hill — but it’s a tough three-quarters of a mile. And Lowell has more than its share of hard-core cyclists at work up there.

More than a year ago, when Bike Shop Hub sold it’s first e-bike, the customer said that her husband worked at the observatory, and she worried that some of his co-workers were going to give her grief over the e-bike. She just wanted to be able to bike up the hill and still have enough remaining energy to play in the staff volleyball games they have up there on the hill in the summer.

Lowell Observatory Staff
Whats the matter baby? Too tired? Guess what. You're playing setter. | Photo: Lowell.edu

I hasten to say that I don’t know whether her concerns were justified. As far as I know, they may all have begged her to let them ride her new bike, and crowned her the Queen of Mars Hill.

But a year ago when I heard her concerns about the judgement from Lowell’s cycling elitists, I began to plot a smart-ass attack on any astronomer up there who might disparage our valued customer. My customer service plan involved laying a trap for Pluto’s pedal-powered purists, and capturing it all in a gotcha video.

Vindictive little smart ass that I am — that I was… was.

The problem with being a smart ass in recovery is that your brain still spends a lot of time thinking of and stocking up on smartassery for various situations. Even worse: you find yourself staging situations where you can use the zingers you’ve built up.

It’s like a being recovering alcoholic who has a magical but involuntary conjuring ability: Every time he even thinks about having a drink, it appears in his liquor cabinet. And then he has to resist reaching for these drinks when the perfect occasion arises.

But for the smart ass, when you fall off the wagon and let fly one of those zingers you’ve been saving, it’s never as satisfying as it was in your imagination.

My name is Ted, and I’m a smart ass. This story is about one of those letdowns.

Route 66 to the Lowell Observatory
Josh on the Ohm XU-700, with the Lowell Telescope in sight

So another thing about those hard-core cyclists up on Mars Hill, is that every year they win the Bike to Work Week Worksite Challenge. Not only do more Lowell employees log more bike commutes than any other employer in town, they do it going up that damn hill. Which would be impressive, except they’re all, We know we’re going to win again this year, so we’re giving back the bike we won last year. We won’t be needing it anymore. Auction it off for bike advocacy. That’s how awesome we are.

I know. I know. It’s for a good cause. And I should be grateful for the example they set. But something about it all was pulling me to the dark side — tempting me to pull that smart-ass bomb from my mental stockpile. And that something was my conviction that I knew what those people on the hill were like. I imagined them as the roadie archetype right out of Bike Snob — “freeloading cheats” who ride expensive, ultralight, aerodynamic bikes, in an effort to minimize effort. But they look down upon someone who would minimize effort with an electric motor.

Going up Mars Hill
Target in sight. Prepare the smart ass bomb

But still, I listened to my better angels. I planned to ride up Mars Hill on my lunch break, using my Dahon bike (not motorized). I’d get my two-for-one pass, and then go back to work.

I invited my boss, Josh Lipton, who agreed to go, but said, “I’m taking an e-bike.”

Nearing the Lowell Observatory
Home of your face!

Temptation, thy name is Lipton. I grabbed the GoPro camera, and hopped on an Urbana Current e-bike. Josh rode an Ohm XU-700. On the way up the hill, Josh was an easily-recruited conspirator. We would flaunt our e-bikes, and bait those Lowell prigs to show their pedalier-than-thou priggishness.

We parked our e-bikes by the front door of the visitors center for visibility, instead of at the bike rack. We were received by Sone, who told led us to the gift shop were we could get our passes.

In the gift shop, Todd had us sign a sheet saying that we’d met the requirements. Before we let Todd hand us our passes, Josh set the bait.

“We were wondering if it mattered that we rode electric bikes up here.”

“I think it still qualifies because it’s green,” Todd answered. “It’s the whole point of Bike to Work Week. Looking for a better alternative than just driving.”

Huh? That answer was no fun at all, and I told them so. I was hoping for an argument. They laughed at that. My overripe zinger was all ready to go, and I wasn’t going to get to use it.

Todd told us he’s interested in an e-bike, and has been meaning to visit our shop. And there I was with my GoPro camera, not-so-surreptitiously tucked under my arm filming the whole thing like a wanna-be Michael Moore or James O’Keefe. (Pick one: Whoever you think is a bigger jerk.)

Todd giving two-for-one passes
Todd Gives us our two-for-one passes

Then Sone asked, “What would you have said if we had said e-bikes don’t qualify?”

(Yes! Deploy the zinger!)

“If e-bikes aren’t bikes, then Pluto isn’t a planet!,” I said, probably too enthusiastically.

They laughed again, and Sone said, “And you would have been right. Pluto is a dwarf planet.”

Well played, Lowell staff. Well played. You tell me that, by my own logic, e-bikes aren’t bikes, but y
ou give me my two-for-one pass anyway.

Just as Percival Lowell was wrong about the advanced canal-building aliens on Mars, I was wrong about the attitudes I expected to find on Mars Hill.

Science and Civility: 1
Smartassery: 0

Update (6/8/2012): This morning I decided climb Mars Hill under my own power — so I could feel better about myself. I may be a defender of e-bikes, but I still have some macho pride in me.

The Clark Telescope Dome on Mars Hill
My Dahon and The Clark Telescope Dome on Mars Hill

Riding up on e-bikes took about four minutes, beginning from the bottom of the hill. Riding up on my Dahon took roughly twice as long.

Mars Hill Graph
Scientific proof that pedaling unassisted is harder

I saw some staff members arriving to work by bike. They gave me a friendly wave.

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8 thoughts on “E-Bikes Land on Mars… Hill”

  1. Smartassery: the curse of a clever mind…

  2. Jon McDuffie says:

    Here’s another bit of relativity for you, Mr. Johnson: I live and bike in Detroit and have for all of my 65. My folks are or were nearly all autoworkers – black ones to boot, thus the most deeply affected by its current circumstances. I consider Michael Moore anything but a jerk, principally because I have been here to watch it all unfold and collapse, viewed from the inside. I consider Moore’s view on Detroit visionary. Perhaps it looks different from where you are Sir, but that’s only one view as well.

    I feel that Mr. Moore – along with Philip Levine and Thomas Sugrue, for other examples – among writers about my town and its people with deeply-examined views worth consideration.

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Jon: I figured that people who consider Michael Moore a hero would consider James O’Keefe a jerk, and vice versa. I felt like a jerk, so I made it a multiple choice comparison.

  3. Bill DeGroff says:

    Ted, I’d like to hear how the e-bikes performed — enough power to get all the way up the hill? I’ve considered buying an electric bike but have been concerned that the batteries would die half-way up the hill. Then I would be left having to pedal up the hill with another 15 to 30 lb of “dead” weight. I assume you were pedaling along with the motors — how would you describe the performance?

    1. Ted Johnson says:

      Bill: The bikes that Josh and I used were both powered by the BionX system — which adds proportionally to your pedal power; there is no throttle, per se. The range of the 350HT Kit is supposed to be 56 miles, based on some fairly ideal conditions. (I’ve never ridden one until the battery was completely dead.)

      I would only worry about that hill if it were the last 3/4 mile of a long commute where you were using a lot of pedal assist before you got to the base of the hill. The nice thing about e-bikes is that you can budget for when you use the power, and save it for the places you know you don’t want to be going unassisted.

      I find that when I’m on flat, the law of conservation of linear momentum means that I don’t need to use any electric power to sustain my speed. I imagine that a frugal daily user of an e-bike could get really good at regulating their power use to stretch out their range — even beyond the product’s stated range. Whereas a profligate user of the electric power could end up with a dead battery a fraction of the stated range.

  4. JaimeRoberto says:

    Let me share some of my father’s wisdom. “Everyone likes a little ass. Nobody likes a little smartass.”

  5. Brian Taylor says:

    As someone who regularly rides “the hill”, I usually start thinking about an e-bike just before the hairpin!

    A very nice read, glad you satisfied your pride 😉

  6. Brian Taylor says:

    …. Also Lowell does not win every year. Lets hear it for USGS building 6!!

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