John Carlin’s Outdoors: E-Bikes test

John is an avid cyclist, but what would he think of having a bit of assist from an electric motor?

Imagine riding up the trails on Mill Mountain … and not even breathing hard. That would turn out to be the e-bike experience.

“Quick and easy. You have a power button,” Dan Lucas explained in the parking lot of Cardinal Bicycle’s Grandin Village location.

He’s giving me the e-bike basics, and though it seems obvious, the first thing is to switch it on.

“You’ve got three modes,” Lucas said. “Those modes will determine how much power you’re going to have at your disposal.”

On this bike, the modes are labeled in order from least boost to most, Eco, Trail, and Turbo. Each can be selected with a press of the button on the handlebar.

Turn on the power, choose your mode, and begin what can be effortless pedaling, compared to a normal bike. No wonder they are popular.

“E-bikes are still the fastest growing segment in the bicycle market globally,” said Whit Ellerman, owner of Cardinal Bicycle. “It’ll give a rider the ability to ride either longer or to ride terrain that they couldn’t ride before. You can ride maybe keep up with people that you hadn’t been able to keep up with.”

Riding with Lucas, Cardinal Bicycle’s Rider Experience Manager, and skills instructor, we would test e-mountain bikes in town, on the Roanoke River Greenway, and most importantly on the technical trails on Roanoke’s Mill Mountain, where the serious amount of climbing is always a part of the picture - and a situation where an electric assist would be appreciated.

The bikes are Turbo Levo Comp Carbon models - toward the top of the line from Specialized Bicycles.

In the bike lane near Grandin, it was immediately noticeable how much easier it was to pedal. I could immediately see the value of an e-bike for commuters who might not want to walk into the office drenched in sweat, or perhaps with enough energy to take on their day.

The same could be said on the greenway. Whereas casual cyclists will have more fun with less effort. It’s worth noting also, that this model has a sensor or a “brain” according to Lucas, which shuts off the power assist when the rider reaches 20 miles per hour. Meaning the bike virtually demands riders behave themselves on a greenway where there are other cyclists, runners, dog walkers, and others.

“After City Council opened up the greenways and trails to e-bike riding in summer of 2020. We’ve seen bike sales really take off,” Ellerman said.

While our bikes are e-mountain bikes, with rugged knobby tires, a wide range of gearing, and front and rear suspension, there are other options.

“There’s all sorts of e-bikes. All shapes and sizes. There’s hybrid e-bikes there’s road e-bikes even for super long-distance road rides,” Lucas explained.

Ellerman says his shop is seeing the most interest in e-mountain bikes. And as we approached Mill Mountain by climbing a steep alley, I began to understand why pedaling up a grade approaching 10 percent without the massive effort I’d remembered from the time I did it on my conventional mountain bike.

How much does the motor help?

“The easiest way to describe it is it’s about four times what you can do. So when you’re pedaling. you can get up to four times the amount of effort that you’re putting out, Lucas said.

Now for the fun part, riding up the Monument Trail on our way to the famous neon star atop Mill Mountain.

As we began climbing up the trail, the quiet whir of the motor was almost imperceptible as the bike’s advanced suspension handled the roots and rocks. Not heard – the sound of exercise-induced heavy breathing, because it wasn’t necessary.

At one point we came across a rider, climbing on a conventional mountain bike. His day was obviously much harder. He graciously pulled over to yield the trail and let us pass.

“You’re coming past a rider that is working hard and is earning their turns back down the mountain. And a part of me, when I usually come up on a ride like that, I feel a little bit guilty” Lucas admitted. I have to say that I did too.

Unlike a regular bike, there is a range with an e-bike before re-charging – just like an electric car, but for most people, it won’t be an issue.

“Today we’re going to do probably 15-ish miles and we could probably do that three or four times if we want,” Lucas said.

But that’s not to say you might now want to stay out there even longer. Considering you can earn your view from the top of Mill Mountain ...

... And only scarcely break a sweat.

About the Author:

John Carlin co-anchors the 5, 5:30, 6 and 11 p.m. newscasts on WSLS 10.