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In praise of e-bikes

Trevor Ward
19 Feb 2019

For purists they are a travesty, an insult to all that is sacred in cycling. But e-bikes shouldn’t be dismissed quite so quickly…

It’s easy to feel intimidated walking into the headquarters of Italian bike brand Pinarello. Located in an anonymous business park an hour’s drive from Venice, the weight of history presses upon you as you enter the reception area.

Pinarellos have been ridden to 26 Grand Tour victories in its 65-year history, and a handful of its more recent bikes – inevitably bearing Team Sky’s colours – are in constant rotation decorating the walls of the brand’s offices and conference rooms.

On the day I arrive, however, I am not so easily intimidated. I am merely returning the bike they were kind enough to loan me for a weekend’s cycling in the Dolomites.

Also, I’m not an elite-level rider. I’m never likely to find myself in competition against anyone riding one of the Dogma F8s or F10s that have propelled Thomas and Froome to their recent Grand Tour wins.

I am an amateur, recreational cyclist, glowing from scoring a PB on my ascent of the Passo Giau a few days earlier.

All of which means the sense of history surrounding me is inspiring rather than crushing. Giovanni Pinarello was an ‘ordinary’ rider himself, awarded the maglia nera for finishing last in the 1951 Giro (though in its official history Pinarello has turned this into a stirring triumph, declaring, ‘The Black Jersey of Cycling but the Pink Jersey of Life’).

So it’s fitting that the bike that catches my eye isn’t the latest, wind-tunnel tested, ultra-light incarnation of the F10, but rather a machine that will introduce the brand to a whole new customer base. It’s the Pinarello Nytro, the company’s first e-bike.

Electric bikes – or ‘pedal-assist’ bikes, to be more accurate – have captured imaginations but divided opinions like few other innovations in recent years.

Disc brakes, gravel bikes and single chainrings have all made certain groups of riders cough up their espressos in varying degrees of exasperation, but nothing has threatened their sense of pride or masculinity (it’s nearly always men) – not to mention their Strava KoMs – more than a bike that comes equipped with an electrical motor designed to make it easier to go up hills.

‘It’s cheating!’ has been the predictable mantra from certain riders, usually the ones sporting a 32t sprocket on their rear cassettes. For them, an electric motor impugns the purity of cycling. It reduces the spectrum of pain and is therefore sacrilege.

‘It’s all about suffering!’ they cry before replacing a £5 alloy bottle cage with a £60 carbon one because it will improve their efficiency by 0.00001%.

At the other extreme, we’ve got assorted European government bureaucrats wanting to classify e-bikes along with cars and motorbikes under the Motor Vehicle Insurance Directive. If that becomes law, every e-bike owner will need to take out third-party liability insurance.

That’s a lot of people who don’t understand everything that is wonderful about e-bikes. Much of that is down to simple ignorance, the misguided belief that you can flick the button on the handlebars to ‘cruise control’ and watch videos on your phone while being transported effortlessly over the Alps (alas, not – you still have to pedal).

So allow me to put the record straight. Firstly, no matter how fast or fit we are now, there will come a time in all our lives – for some sooner than others – when even that 32t sprocket on the back starts to feel like hard work or those featherweight carbon rims no longer turn as easily as they once did.

I’m already bracing myself for the day my new bike will have to have a sprocket on the back bigger than the chainring on the front. Not because my local hills have got any steeper, but because I’m not getting any younger.

The stage after that would, once upon a time, have probably meant older riders having to severely curtail the length of their rides and miss out some of their regular climbs. But thanks to e-bikes, that’s no longer an inevitability.

A picture recently posted on Twitter showed an 80-year-old ascending his favourite climb up a Welsh mountain on an e-bike, and the look of joy on his face was priceless.

Secondly, an e-bike can improve your cycling even if you don’t use it yourself. Think of your partner, or less fit friends, who often say they’d like to join you on that cafe ride but are worried they won’t be able to keep up.

A social ride with fellow club members is never really a social ride at all with all that testosterone in the air. But go out with your wife/husband or mates from outside of cycling and it gives a whole new dimension to the enjoyment of riding your bike.

E-bikes also made my ride in the Dolomites a safer, more enjoyable affair. It was the annual Dolomites Bike Day (the next one is on 16th June 2019, should you fancy it) and while I was riding a conventional road bike, the peloton of 4,000 riders included mechanics and medics riding e-bikes.

Back in the Pinarello factory in Italy, commercial director Luciano Fusar-Poli is taking great delight in showing me his treasure trove of hand-drawn frame measurement charts for an assortment of riders dating back to Giovanni Battaglin and the bike upon which he won the King of the Mountains jersey in the 1979 Tour.

But can Battaglin’s sweat and suffering be reconciled with Pinarello’s latest innovation?

‘Why not?’ says Luciano, who recently switched to riding the Nytro himself. He brushes aside any accusations of it being a crime against cycling.

‘I’m a fat guy, but it’s good training. You still have to pedal. On my normal bike, my maximum HR was 150. With the Nytro, I ride faster and go up to 160. What’s not to like?’

Well, since you ask, possibly one thing. ‘Now all my friends in Milan hate me because I have taken all their KoMs on Strava.’

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