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On e-bikes and what it means to be a cyclist

Frank Strack
20 Mar 2019

The rise of the e-bike causes Frank Strack to consider the essence of what being a cyclist actually is

This article was originally published in Issue 83 of Cyclist Magazine

Dear Frank

Are e-bikes acceptable in any circumstances?

Name withheld

Dear Name withheld,

I have to say I understand why you withheld your name. If I asked a question like that, I’d make sure my identity was kept private too.

I’ve loved this sport unconditionally for 35 years, warts and all. Cheating has been a part of cycling since its earliest days.

The second edition of the Tour de France saw 12 riders – including the top four finishers overall as well as every one of the stage winners – disqualified by the French Velocipede Union (!) for taking trains rather than actually riding their bikes.

I do have some sympathy for the cheaters, given that the race covered more than 2,400km in just six stages for an average stage distance of a whopping 400km (the modern Tour de France covers not much more than that over 20 or more stages, plus rest days).

At that time, chemical doping was barely frowned upon. Sports science was in its infancy and opiates, amphetamines, nicotine and alcohol were commonly used to treat a variety of athletic afflictions.

As recently as the 1970s, team doctors would ‘prescribe’ a cigar to riders to combat the stress of a stage race. Champagne in the bidon was common practice, as was a mid-stage cigarette.

Heavily discouraged, however, were a few notable practices, including drafting, shifting gears and getting any kind of mechanical aid from anyone.

One of the most famous stories from the Tour is that of Eugène Christophe, who in 1913 was penalised 10 minutes for allowing a seven-year-old to operate the bellows while he welded a broken front fork.

That penalty came on top of the two hours’ walk (with his bike) from the site of his fork failure to the nearest forge and the hour it took to mend it.

The focus then was less on the quality of the athlete and more on the triumph of the human condition against overwhelming odds.

I believe the absurd stage lengths and self-reliance were all part of a larger scheme to demonstrate our limitless capacity to suffer.

Europe and the rest of the world were headed for war during an already difficult period and such demonstrations of gratuitous suffering served to inspire much-needed courage in the general population in overcoming their own challenges.

Through this lens, taking supplements such as amphetamines, whose effects on the body were poorly understood at the time, was not as egregious an offence as hopping on a train and taking a snooze while gaining free kilometres.

This was the original form of mechanical doping and it wasn’t tolerated due to its unquestionable contravention of the primary purpose of the spectacle that was bike racing in general, and the Tour de France in particular.

It wasn’t until the world had fought its biggest wars that we started to focus on the true nature of sport and the purity of the athlete.

Rules against shifting gears were relaxed, riders were allowed to draft and work together towards a greater team objective, and outside mechanical aid was allowed because prohibiting it detracted from the new focus of sport: the pure reflection of the athletic specimen.

Suffering remained centre stage, but shifted from enduring protracted hardship to intense physical pain.

In the modern era, rumours of cyclists using motors in their bikes go back to the Armstrong years, and given the state of the sport at this time I have no trouble believing pro riders could have used mechanical doping.

It’s the oldest form of cheating in cycling and, in my view, a step or two more serious than chemical doping.

A doped body, while unnaturally enhanced in its capacity to perform, is still fundamentally a human body. A human body riding a bicycle with a motor in it becomes a pilot.

As an athlete well past my prime but still kicking the occasional head in (usually my own), I cannot look past the betrayal of putting a motor in a bike, whether for competitive advantage or for assistance in easing the hilly commute.

On the other hand, my 75-year-old mother has an e-bike that helps her scale some of the steeper hills that surround my parents’ farm, allowing her to enjoy riding her bike further and longer than she otherwise might.

So, I suppose I give e-bikes a pass in that case.

But even my mother makes a point of never using the motor until absolutely necessary, and even then, to engage the minimal amount of assistance to get by.

So, if you simply cannot get by without the aid of an e-bike, then at least keep yourself honest and push on the pedals as much as possible.

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