I want legs of steel and worry my e-bike is holding me back

Trying out non-electric bikes at Clever Cycles. (Shannon Johnson/BikePortland)

“I really want to improve my physical health and cycling stamina. Is the e-assist holding me back?”

I have recently been thinking about returning to an “acoustic” front-box cargo bike. Yes, I might give up my much-loved electric-assist bike.

First, let me praise e-bikes to the sky! I have loved my Bunch e-trike. Having the e-assist has been a game-changer. It is so much fun. My husband says riding with the e-assist feels like riding downhill both ways, even when pedaling uphill with four kids in the front. That’s saying something! The battery power helps eliminate so many excuses and hesitations. With an e-assist I easily doubled, and perhaps quadrupled, the amount of biking I was doing. The e-cargo bike functioned more easily as a car-replacement, as we were happily able to replace most of our nearby car trips with the bike, and it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. I don’t have to toil and sweat, or worry about running out of steam. The joy of coasting down a hill is the joy of every e-bike trip. I highly recommend an e-bike to everyone, especially bike newbies. An e-bike can really blast through biking barriers and hesitations and turn non-bikers into enthusiasts. And for those with fewer children, or kids young enough to all fit in the e-bike, the battery power can really help you get to your destinations a lot faster. The newer fancy e-bike models really zoom.

But I have been feeling stuck in a biking rut.

That is, I want to move past feeling like a beginner cyclist to feeling like a full-fledged biker. I want to do longer, harder rides. I want to be able to join rides that currently intimidate me. I have dreams of bike-packing and bike-camping. But I don’t have the muscles or fitness for those kinds of rides. In fact, after three years of riding, the last two years primarily on an e-trike, I don’t feel like I have gotten stronger at all. And I don’t have time to sneak away from the kids to do hours of solo training rides on my own bike.

My initial reason for getting a cargo bike was to give me a healthy and enjoyable activity to do with my children, one that could include all of us. Cargo biking allowed me to ride alongside my oldest kid, an energetic boy who wanted to ride his bike, but was previously held back to the stroller pace of his younger siblings. With the cargo bike, my son was challenged, I was challenged, and the little ones were happy to be riding along. I also hoped the cargo bike would provide the means to exercise with my children, instead of seeking opportunities to work out away from the family (which is really hard to manage consistently!) 

When I had the chance to buy my current e-trike, it was a great opportunity to try out the e-assist, and I loved it. I grew as a biker, partly because the e-assist gave me a huge confidence boost, making longer and more frequent riding so much easier. 

Now however, I have two independent riders, ages 10 and 9. My 9-year-old daughter doesn’t love physical challenges and she is a slower, more tentative rider. She is prone to bursting into tears if my bike pace is too fast for her comfort level. Next, her six-year-old brother is starting to ride his own bike, which dramatically slows our pace. In which case, the speediness of my e-bike is no longer useful. I can’t use the speed power, because I need to ride at the pace of my slowest independent kid riders.  Furthermore, the e-assist removes me from the experience my children are having. I don’t feel the hills, or the distances, but they feel them. Giving up the e-assist would give us all a shared experience of the challenges of the ride, as well as put us at a more similar shared pace. We would be riding and sweating together, facing the challenges together.

As to the fitness: I find that although I ride more with the e-assist, I am not gaining strength or fitness and I haven’t even lost the weight I gained with my last pregnancy (baby is now age 2). I really want to improve my physical health and cycling stamina. Is the e-assist holding me back?

Why not just turn off the e-assist?

Yes, I could ride with “zero assist,” but if you have ever tried an e-bike, you’ll understand that it’s really not fun to ride it without the assist turned on. You can choose “zero assist,” but then you have to ride with the heavier weight of the battery; the e-bike is heavier, so it feels like an added punishment to ride without using the e-assist. And in my case, it’s even worse with a trike. The trike model is fine with the battery power, but without it, it feels especially cumbersome–not exactly agile and aerodynamic. For unassisted rides, I want the feel and maneuverability of a 2-wheeled bicycle. And let’s be real: when the going gets tough, any e-bike provides a strong temptation to push the power button for help. You might have the self-discipline to keep the assist turned off, and to power through a long ride and a grueling hill…but I don’t think I am that tough. If I can push the button for help on the hill, I’m going to push the button for help on the hill. 

Would I trade my e-bike for a regular cargo bike?

Here’s the deal: it would be really difficult for me to afford a new cargo bike right now. And since I have a perfectly functional and enjoyable e-trike, it seems rather opulent to purchase an additional front-box cargo bike, not to mention the squeeze on garage space. Also, I recognize that I use a cargo bike like a minivan, which means I keep some supplies permanently in whatever bike I am riding–diaper bag, first aid kit, sweater, sunscreen, etc. I’m not going to hop back and forth. I’m just going to ride my cargo bike, whichever it is. So for a variety of practical reasons, I should settle on one big family cargo bike. If I sell my e-trike, I should have enough money to cover the bulk of a new acoustic cargo bike. But will I regret it? Will it be the dumbest bike sale and purchase I have made so far? Will I bemoan the loss of my e-assist and then poutfully drive my minivan instead of huffing and puffing on an unassisted cargo bike? Can I even do the local rides without the e-assist? Or am I too out-of-shape?

But if I really want those legs of steel, there’s really only one way to get them. It involves actually pedaling with my own muscles!

And, I remind myself, that is what I am asking of my older children. They don’t have a battery option. They ride on their own two legs. Shouldn’t I have the guts to join them? 

What do you think? I’m ready to hear your thoughts. Has anyone switched from an e-bike back to an unassisted model? Why? Were you glad? Or did you regret it?

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)

Shannon is a 36-year-old mom of  five who lives in downtown Hillsboro. Her column appears weekly. Contact her via shannon4bikeportland@gmail.com

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Jonathan Maus (Publisher/Editor)
Admin

Thanks for writing this Shannon. It’s so wild you did because I just got my old, non-e-bike running well again and started riding it for this exact reason. I need the exercise! Since I stopped doing the fast lycra-type riding I’ve ridden my e-bikes exclusively and it gives me almost no cardio or strength training at all.

I have also wondered how the lack of physical effort required while e-biking would impact adoption… Because I have long known that one reason folks get addicted to cycling is the endorphins brought on in large part because of the exertion. Take that away, and you are missing a huge part of what makes cycling so amazing.

I think ultimately the answer is a hybrid approach. Use the e-bike when you need it, but also make time for non-motorized option. Of course that assumes you can have multiple bikes and multiple opportunities to ride them!

A Grant
A Grant
1 month ago

I think you may be on to something.

My wife has an ebike and I’ve had a chance to ride it a couple of times. And I totally get the appeal. The feeling of having the wind at my back. The instant boost I get after peeling away from a red light/stop sign. It’s amazing.

Meanwhile I commute 5 days a week on my “acoustic” bike. The trip really should only takes 20 minutes, but I typically add another 30 to 40 minutes ride time each way in an effort to maximize my exertion (whilst also giving me time to listen to a podcast or two)

That said, if my commute was ALWAYS two hours round trip, I would most likely have an ebike in my stable.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 month ago

Actually, Shannon is asking a specific question that none of us are really answering except through anecdotes – she wants to know if it is better to ebike or regular-bike to get “legs of steel”, well-toned leg muscles that don’t regularly cramp up. As her kids age and bike by themselves, the need for “carrying diapers” will decline (and sounds like it has already ended.)

Presumably there are scientific studies out there, about buying and getting addicted to the ebike, and after stopping to use it, and the impact, both positive and negative, on one’s health, breathing, cardio-vascular functions, blood sugars, and so on. My use of an ebike impacted my health, but so did a lot of other things probably even more so, and so my example is hardly scientific.

Lonnie
Lonnie
1 month ago

I have to agree with you use your e bike for trips around town that you would normally do when traveling in you car by yourself.you don’t have to buy an expensive cargo bike to ride with. The kids buy a regular trike or bike .you can add racks and saddle bags or use a backpack.

David Raboin
David Raboin
1 month ago

Jonathan, I see you use the term “non-e-bike” instead of “acoustic-bike”. Thank you. The word acoustic references the quality of sound not a lack of electricity. Whenever I hear the term “acoustic-bike” something inside me clenches up.

Maybe we could try to use the term “classic-bike”?

Pockets the Coyote
Pockets the Coyote
27 days ago
Reply to  David Raboin

I can understand your dislike of the seemingly imprecise choice of language that’s becoming more and more common place, but I disagree with the assertion that bicycles are not acoustic. One can tune the spoke tension the same way a guitar is tuned, there are several hubs with cult followings with the sole focus of their sound, even working out all of the little quirks to maximize the ride quality is described as making the bike sing. To my ear classic bike calls to a timeline, maybe 21 speed steel frames with raked forks, or maybe the klunkers and cruisers from the days of repack races. Language is messy.

Lisa Caballero (Assistant Editor)
Editor

I find “acoustic” bike super irritating too. It’s not about imprecise language, rather it rubs me the wrong way because it sounds to me like the speaker is trying to be hip, or cool.

Surly Ogre
Joe Bicycles
1 month ago

Shannon,
Come to bike happy hour or join BikeLoud PDX slack. We can help you figure out how to do all the things by bicycle. 🙂

Taylor Griggs
1 month ago

It won’t let me respond to this from my other account for some reason, but I really want to comment, so here I am. I appreciate you writing this, Shannon. I think e-bikes are really crucial for people who don’t drive or want to drive less, especially if they have to travel long distances. I went on a 25ish mile ride to the other side of town and back the other day for a story I was working on and without my e-bike, I think I would’ve skipped the whole endeavor. Those of us who don’t want to drive should also be able to have the ease and ability to get around the city without training for a triathlon.

THAT BEING SAID, I feel you. A couple years ago, when I was biking constantly on my non-assist wheels, I was in the best shape of my life and recall feeling a lot more energetic than I do now. As the summer approaches, I’m going to make an effort to get out of my e-bike rut and ride my other bike. I’ve also started going to the gym and swimming, which has been very nice for me (and also showed how out of shape I really am).

But that advice doesn’t really address your specific conundrum. My inclination is that it sounds sooo hard to ride a non-electric bike with kids in the front, and I’d do anything I could to make that easier, and you also deserve to be comfortable—you already work so hard! I also bet you probably are getting stronger than you think. Anyway, that wasn’t really helpful, but I am glad you wrote about this.

Taylor Griggs
1 month ago
Reply to  Taylor Griggs

Ok, I guess it did let me comment regularly. Ignore that.

Charley
Charley
1 month ago
Reply to  Taylor Griggs

Totally! I’ve done some trips on my e-bike that I wouldn’t ever have done in my car- like visiting a friend in North Portland after work, then riding home to Milwaukie after dark. That’s just too far on an acoustic bike, unless I was all kitted out on my road bike, which wasn’t really the point, yaknow?

John V
John V
1 month ago
Reply to  Taylor Griggs

I too wonder about your (second to last) comment – I wonder if she’s actually more fit than she feels.

In my experience, even when I’m as fit as I ever am, it doesn’t seem to make a difference on if it feels like I’m working hard or not. Maybe if I’m more fit, I subconsciously just ride harder. In fact I know I do, I fall into some level of effort that is apparently pretty consistent. Thing is, for me, that’s the same on an e-bike. I just end up going much faster but – at least according to a heart monitor – I’m working just as hard.

9watts
9watts
1 month ago
Reply to  Taylor Griggs

Taylor wrote: “Those of us who don’t want to drive should also be able to have the ease and ability to get around the city without training for a triathlon.”

I don’t think this is a useful dichotomy. Certainly one hears such talk plenty, but it does not reflect my experience. I have never wished for or ridden an ebike; I just bike wherever I need to go, with or without loads. I am not in the habit of showering upon arrival. Sweat (or the prospect of sweat) doesn’t spook me. Isn’t this (the subject of the article) an example of what we sometimes cheekily call a First World Problem?

I don’t have five kids, but I haul lumber, tools, kids, appliances, and a hundred other things around town, sometimes every day. All astride a bean-powered-bike. I am not training for a triathlon, have never thought of myself as doing anything of the sort. I’m just doing what I need to get where I’m going.

That e-bikes present tradeoffs, not just in terms of their environmental burden but apparently also in terms of health, or what we might feel to be the amount of exercise we wish for, probably shouldn’t surprise. It is hard, will always be hard, to improve upon the fabulous bicycle.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 month ago

I rode a mid-drive e-assist pedal bike for 6 months and had to quit when my aluminum frame broke at the seat tube (this is basically unrepairable.) I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes before getting the ebike and my condition got steadily worse when I was using the ebike – the ebike got so addictive that I was even using it for local errand rides. I’d say (without much empirical evidence) that I was getting about 75% of the same exercise on an ebike as compared to a non-ebike.

Over the last 6 months of not having an ebike available for me to ride, just the old various mechanical wonders, my diabetes finger-pricking numbers have gradually improved and my daily mileage has increased even during the (normally mild Southern) winter here. Over the last two months I’ve lost over 25 lbs, about a pound or two per week, but that is mostly due to keeping my busy exercise regime steady and cutting over 800 calories/day by drinking less cow’s milk (I was a half-gallon/day hardcore addict but now I do only a cup or two per day.) I still weigh 320 lbs and have a long way to go before I’m no longer “morbidly obese” as my doctor puts it.

If you do want to lose weight and keep it off, do it gradually and by a change of lifestyle. I was “lucky” when I got my diabetes diagnosis in that I was still recovering from losing my sense of taste from Covid, so it made quitting eating certain foods easier, in my case pastries, sweets, junk food, and pasta which I haven’t touched in two years (I’m not even tempted any longer, even when they are in front of me and free.) If you lose weight quickly, you’ll likely gain it back just as quickly, and the loss/gain/loss cycle is really bad for your heart among other organs, it will shorten your life. Talk with a dietician and watch your intake of sugars and carbs, particularly of fruit and fruit juice (my downfall).

Good luck.

Fred
Fred
1 month ago

If you have five kids, then you already have legs of steel. 🙂

Erin Bailie (Columnist)

I enjoyed reading this, and I appreciate that you noted that riding an e-bike without pedal assist just isn’t the same.

It’s situations like this that make me wish for a more robust lease/rental/borrow system for family bikes – cargo bikes, electric bikes, trailers, etc. I purchased a Tern Quick Haul a year ago and I don’t ride it how I imagined I would. I hope you get a chance to update your fleet in a way that suits your needs.

rick
rick
1 month ago

How were you planning to use that cargo bike? I know planting trees is fun with cargo bike.

Erin Bailie (Columnist)
Reply to  rick

At the time, I was living in a hilly neighborhood and was getting fatigued riding home loads of groceries. But since moving to a flatter neighborhood in January, I haven’t touched the Tern. It’s easy enough to get to the store and back.

I love the trees idea – maybe I’ll challenge myself to find new ways to use the Tern instead of letting it sit in the basement.

rick
rick
1 month ago

Many trees fell down in January so it is really important this fall to plant approved trees in the space between curbs and sidewalks. People seem to drive more slowly on streets with lots of trees.

Matt Villers
Matt Villers
1 month ago

This is part of why I chose a bike that was a lightweight intro to e-bikes for my first one. I got a Trek FX+2 and it only weighs about 40lbs, so with the assist turned off it just feels like a regular bike. I can carry it up/down stairs if needed, and don’t have to worry about what happens if my battery runs out mid-ride. The lowest assist setting is more of a gentle push, so I still get a good amount of exercise.

The only downside is because it’s lightweight, it also has a lightweight battery and using the higher assist settings drains it very quickly.

But otherwise I really enjoy it. There are times when it’s great to get exercise, but there are also times I appreciate being able to crank the assist (ex: steep hill, taking the lane, just want to go somewhere without getting sweaty, etc)

EEE
EEE
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Villers

Agree. Weight is the most critical parameter, and if you can get used to only a small boost you can really amplify the practicality of an ebike. This means aiming for the smallest motor and being content with a smaller battery and a lower top speed. A significant piece is the choice between mid-drive and hub because the former lacks the rotational inertia sting of the latter, but this disincentive is considerably lessened by selecting the smallest hub motor possible.

That said, I’ve found ebikes more along the dichotomy of ‘you can surf or you can fight’, so I motorcycle with my ebikes (so much so that the freewheels fail from the absence of pedaling) and pedal with my regular bikes. I mostly pedal these days, but perhaps a lightweight ebike would change that.

I think Shannon’s dilemma is really tough. I might aim to get rid of the e-cargo bike asap and switch to a regular non-cargo bike and a backpack+panniers. The youngest will be big enough in a blink.

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Villers

The FX2+ has a “bottle” range extender as do most lighter-weight e-bikes.

My 26 lb city e-bike rides just like my 20 and 23 lb city bikes with the assist turned off. (I rarely used assist on my e-bike.)

The lack of less-obscenely-heavy e-bike options for city commuting is bizarre and suggests that many e-bikes are not used for every-day utilitarian transportation.

Tad
Tad
1 month ago
Reply to  Matt Villers

I own a giant Lafree, and my heart is bad, so I love the freedom I have being able to bike no matter how crappy I feel that day. I dial up the assist on the crappy days and dial it down when I feel better. I’ve always lost weight when I could ride my ebike.

Always.

rh
rh
1 month ago

I kept my ebike for errands (grocery shopping, farmers mkt, getting home quick from a cold plunge, etc..) and use my acoustic bike for group rides and exercise. I missed getting exercise when only having an ebike. I always had a fear my ebike would break down far from home due to an electrical issue. On my acoustic bike, I do longer rides because with a tube, pump, multi tool, and chain breaker, I feel confident about fixing anything.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  rh

chain breaker

Just curious — I’ve been riding long and hard for many years, and I have never wanted a chain breaker when I was out and about. Is a chain breaker something that people actually need and find useful in the field?

Charley
Charley
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

I actually broke a road bike chain years ago. Just stood up on the pedal and the thing popped! I was dumbfounded.

I carry a breaker on mountain bike trips just in case and I think that’s more common given the risks and consequences.

John V
John V
1 month ago
Reply to  Charley

To watts’ question, isn’t the issue that if you break a chain, you need to remove the broken link which you can’t do by hand? Then put it back together with a spare master link?

I have also never broken a chain, but on my one really long group ride I took a master link and chain breaker just in case. I think I understand what to do but haven’t ever had to.

Charley
Charley
1 month ago
Reply to  John V

Yeah, that’s exactly it. All my bikes run with a SRAM power link (do they still call it that?) if I happen to want to remove the chain for some reason. If one of the other links happens to break, I can remove the fouled link with the chain breaker. I can put it back together with a spare power link.

You can also put it back together with the breaker, using a normal link, but it’s a kindly fiddly option requiring a trick, so a spare power link is a great piece of kit to carry.

alex
alex
26 days ago
Reply to  Charley

Same – have broken quite a few chains on both mtb and road and a spare quick link and breaker got me back up and running in a few minutes. No reason not to have one, they are light and on many tools. Kind of boggles my mind that Watts has ridden “long and hard for many years” and hasn’t broken a chain.

Dan
Dan
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

it’s generally part of a good bike multitool, don’t need to bring a separate chain breaker tool

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
1 month ago
Reply to  Watts

I broke a chain on a commute and the missing link and chain breaker in my repair bag got me back on the bike in a few minutes. It may be a rare event but chain breakers are included in many multi-tools and add little extra weight.

David Hampsten
David Hampsten
1 month ago

I break a chain about once per year on my acoustic bikes, but then I’m a big heavy guy who rides 3,000 miles/year and wear out equipment a bit faster than others do. I too carry a compact chain tool and extra master links – the break is usually 5 pairs of links away from the existing master link. What I’ve been doing is gradually replacing my regular chains with new ebike chains which are stronger and last much longer, more resistant to stretching, though obviously taking off lots of links (ebike chains are typically 136 links and most bikes only need 110 or 112 links.) On the downside, a stronger chain means that something else has to get worn down faster, in my case my cassettes and middle front chainring, so I have to budget to replace them a bit more often.

When I had an ebike, a bigger issue was breaking rear spokes. I eventually started to build my wheels with 13 gauge (0.234mm) strait SS spokes which barely fit in the holes of my old XT 756 hubs, with 36-hole cargo rims, very strong, they work great now on my acoustic bikes.

steph
steph
1 month ago

I wonder what I’m doing differently but I feel like my ebike is heavy enough that I can get as much exercise as I want. Maybe it’s because I live in SW and there are tons of hills everywhere I ride. Maybe it’s because I don’t have the right cycling form or whatever. I can tell I’m getting stronger over time because I use the e-assist less and less, and every now and then I find myself partway through a ride and realizing that I never turned it on. One of the surprises with an ebike for me is how helpful it is when I am riding r-e-a-l-l-y slowly because my kids are walking beside me or going around in circles or whatever. It is so much easier to ride slowly, and do the constant stop-start thing, on an ebike than on a regular bike, at least for me. Anyway, Shannon, I have so much respect for you getting out there with your family and I hope you never feel like you’re not doing enough in any way. It makes me exhausted just thinking about all the logistics that you cheerfully manage in every outing. You are a superhero!

Charley
Charley
1 month ago

It sounds like you’d like to be able to do some longer rides, and get some exercise, as well as not be going so much faster than your kids when you ride with them.

If so, I think you would be totally justified to trade! If you find that the new acoustic cargo bike isn’t suitable for longer rides you’d like to accomplish, what about getting a regular sized acoustic bike? Used hybrids and mountain bikes are plentiful and affordable, and would take up less garage space than a cargo bike. You could put a rack on, and keep the supplies you mentioned (“diaper bag, first aid kit, sweater, sunscreen”) in a little pack, which you could easily throw from one bike to the other.

My situation:

I use my e-bike pretty exclusively for commuting, and associated errands along the way. I don’t think of it as exercise, but rather a lower carbon, lower stress, more predictable (time-wise) way for me to get to work.

Also, for me, riding a bike to work from wasn’t very healthy- I ended up with overuse injuries and muscle imbalances. Legs of steel, it turns out, are built with squats and deadlifts, not bike commuting.

I do still ride for fun and part of my overall exercise, and I have acoustic bikes for that. The e-bike is fun when the motor is on, but I agree that these bikes feeling heavy and slow with the motor off. The several times I killed the battery on the way home have been truly, truly, disappointing!

So my e-bike helps me in two ways, by allowing me to commute without using my car, but also without overusing my legs. When I want to actually exercise on a bike, the acoustic bikes are quieter (which is nice) and slower (which reduces my overall risk exposure).

If I moved closer to work, or stopped working downtown, and didn’t need to do the 14-15 mile round trip commute, I’d be fine going back to a regular bike.

Watts
Watts
1 month ago
Reply to  Charley

A normal bike with a Travoy trailer for occasional big loads has worked quite well for me. The trailer is trivial to take off, folds flat for storage, and handles quite well even with a heavy load. And yes, for those who are wondering, you can carry a 15 ft tree on it, though it helps to have a spotter to watch for low overhanging branches.

https://burley.com/products/travoy

MontyP
MontyP
1 month ago

I think your main problem here is the trike E bike. Looking up the specs online, that model weighs in at 152 pounds! Even with full assist, you’re going to feel that weight. An E Bullitt or similar weighs ~75lbs with a box and cover and seat and such. Thats half the weight of the trike! I think if you were to replace your trike with an E front loader or long tail, you would be much more able to do both “sporty“ rides and kid hauling duties.

I should note that I am on my fifth front loader box bike. I’ve ridden all of them to the top of Mount Tabor, it was just a lot harder with some, and the ride down was scarier with others! The first was a homebrewed Tom LaBonty concoction, then one of the early imported Joe Bike bakfiets, then a Eugene-built HPM Long Haul, then a Bullitt, and now an E-assist R&M Packster. They’ve all had their pros and cons, but the overall progression has been to get into a better made, lighter, and faster bike. I will say the Bullitt felt really sporty and was fun to ride around just by myself. The Packster isn’t as agile, but the e-
assist really makes up for a lot of things.

I find myself riding to go get the kids in a lower assist mode so that I get some exercise. Then once I add their weight, I kick up the assist to even things out. Other times I ride around in Turbo mode because it’s fun to zip around on a bike! I do have my lightweight commuter/road bike that I will go on “exercise “rides with. I find that I can ride that bike fairly comfortably at 15 to 20 mph and keep up with the e-cargo bike on casual weekend family rides.

All this is to say that I don’t think there’s any one answer to what you should do, but it seems like the trike is a big heavy thing that isn’t doing you any favors towards feeling like you’re getting more “fun” exercise. You should go down to Splendid and demo an E Bullitt or similar and I bet you’ll feel like you’re in a sports car. Fortunately, the used market for mid drive E cargo bikes is improving and I frequently see them on craigslist and Facebook in the 3-4k range.

Good luck!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  MontyP

Thank you! This is really helpful. My original bike is Tom Labonty also and I was going to just return to riding it, but it feels clunky and not the right size for me. I briefly tried a yuba cargo bike at Clever Cycles and I thought it felt great. I loved it. I have been told to go to Splendid Cycles by multiple folks, so I think that’s on my list. I definitely want a smooth, “sports model” cargo bike. Whether I want it badly enough to sell my current e-trike….I don’t know! I would easier be able to swallow the high cost of buying a great new bike if I sell what I currently have. But I appreciate hearing that you started on a Tom Labonty and then moved on to something (s) sleeker. That has been my inclination, but I wasn’t sure if I was being “consumerist” and just craving to buy new things.

rick
rick
1 month ago

Nomad cycles on NE Sandy has some mid-drive cargo bikes for sale.

MontyP
MontyP
1 month ago

For us it was a twisty, but rational, evolution from the Labonty to the E-bike. I bought the Labonty cheap, fixed it up, realized it was just a flatbed and needed a box/seat/cover and I didn’t have time, so I sold it to a guy who took it to Burning Man! The Joe Bike was great, but I had to upgrade the gears and brakes, and found myself wanting discs. I got the HPM with discs, but then Nomad Cycles told me the funky frame wouldn’t work for a mid-drive e-conversion kit. At the same time the Bullitt popped up and I got that in a trade. I then realized how truly nice of a ride the Bullitt was, and that it could be e-converted, so I sold the HPM. THEN, I realized the added cost of converting the Bullitt was more than just selling it and buying a “factory” e-cargo bike. So, a deal popped up on the used R&M Packster, I had a revelatory e-assisted test ride, and I bought it right after!

Go treat yourself to an e-box bike test ride, with no consumerist guilt attached! Splendid is a great shop, they’ll help you out.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  MontyP

I love hearing this. I was just trying to review and write about, and think about, our “family bike evolution” and how our needs, skills, dreams, and family composition change –and our bikes with them.

SD
SD
1 month ago

I’ve ridden a couple e-cargo bikes with a kid when the battery runs out and some non-electric cargo bikes with a kid and my take away is that a non e-cargo bike has to be very well designed to be comfortable and fun to ride. The manual Xtracycle that I rode was the best and felt like a great workout that wouldn’t eventually lead to some type of chronic injury. The e assist can cover up a lot.

dw
dw
1 month ago

The upside regardless is that I get 100% more exercise riding my e-bike than the alternative, driving my car.

qqq
qqq
1 month ago

This (great!) piece and some of the comments hit exactly at an issue debated in comments in a recent article about e-bike subsidies, where some people argued that e-bikes are more “eco-friendly” than regular bikes when the additional calories burned by regular bikers are factored into the comparison.

I argued that even if that is true, if you’re going to factor in calories, you should also then factor in that people use biking to exercise, so if they switch to say, commuting by e-bike vs. pedaling, they may be adding other exercise to replace what they’re losing by not pedaling. That means adding back in more calorie burning (plus carbon footprints of gyms, pools or whatever) which offsets the calories not burned while e-biking.

I’m not wanting to resurrect that debate, but just saying that it sounds like that outcome of using e-bikes–adding other exercise to replace that lost by e-biking instead of pedaling–certainly sounds like a real thing that people do.

9watts
9watts
29 days ago
Reply to  qqq

And what surprises me about this is the fact that unlike throttle bikes pedelecs (which I think we are all talking about here?) are supposed to be a workout/not cheating (see linked article below), are in the common parlance just like a regular bike but with a little motor. We have had plenty of conversations about this here. And yet (perhaps only for some people?) it seems that pedelecs actually don’t demand all that much from the rider. Can anyone explain the discrepancy? Or perhaps the diversity of experience?

https://bikeportland.org/2013/04/09/guest-article-please-stop-hating-on-e-bikes-85208
and another:
https://www.cyclingelectric.com/news/are-e-bikes-cheating-no-says-studies

MelK
MelK
1 month ago

Shannon, I would caution you not to sell the e-bike just yet. I haven’t done the e-bike to acoustic route, but I did do the inverse: acoustic to e-bike. When we bought our first cargo bike in 2020– to haul a then 3-year-old and 1-year-old–I resisted the e-bike because I thought I’d just toughen up. What actually happened is that the sudden, added exercise was a shock to my system and I would say it hurt my short-term health more than helping it. And I wasn’t out of shape to begin with… I’ve played competitive-level volleyball for over 30 years and have been active all my life. But I was never an endurance athlete, so suddenly hauling kids around, 22 miles a day (with some hills) was rough on my body even though the bike itself (Xtracycle Swoop) was pretty light. As a result, I ended up relying on the car a lot more until we decided to get an e-bike.

I’ll also add that I’ve been struggling with a cough for almost 8 weeks now, and my lungs never would have been able to handle that kind of exercise (these kids aren’t getting any smaller!) while huffing in the cold winter/spring air. So the e-bike has saved me from having to use the car for all of my trips in the past 2 months!

Not sure where that leaves you, since I’m also a mother so I get that it’s not as easy as just saying “get out there on a solo ride more often!” But I would hate for you to sell your e-bike, only to regret it if your body asks/demands that you ease up on the exercise. Any endurance athlete will tell you you need to build up your strength gradually, but getting rid of your e-bike might force you to choose between pushing too hard or taking the car.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  MelK

Yes, I hear you. You express one of my big concerns. And it’s why I don’t know what I am going to do.
I think the main difference is that I mostly do rides that my older children can ride independently. I’m actually thinking about ways to work up our mileage together, since we haven’t ridden very far now that my daughter is an independent rider and I don’t want to push her too hard. That’s partly why a regular cargo bik right now could be perfect, as we all work up our mileage and strength together, Spring into summer adventures.

joan
1 month ago

I have four bikes, and my ebike is basically a battery-assisted version of my everyday, non-ebike. And my ebike greatly increases my range. I am confident I would drive more often if I didn’t have my ebike, especially for distances over a few miles, with hills, with a lot of stuff, or if I’m going to be out late. My ebike replaces car trips, and it also replaces some bike trips. I know my total mileage is higher. However, I am also starting to ride my non-ebike more, especially for shorter trips. It means it takes longer to get places and I show up a bit sweatier.

Can you ever take a regular bike with your kids, so not a cargo bike, but just a regular bike? Would your diaper bag and a few essentials fit in a pannier? I think you’d regret selling your ecargo bike for a regular cargo bike, as I bet you’d reduce your miles a lot.

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  joan

I am thinking about trying the regular bike with a free bike trailer. I don’t know if my 5 year old will fit in the trailer, but I was thinking about trying that method. But I know I dramatically prefer the front cargo box. I love the convenience of just throwing the picnic baskets and stuff in the box on kids laps, not having to arrange in a pannier or strap down. It sounds a bit silly, but the convenience of the box is a big deal for me.

rick
rick
1 month ago

Frances Cycles in California makes a great bicycle trailer. It has one wheel which makes it lighter than the two-wheel ones.

Steve Shea
Steve Shea
1 month ago

Yes I agree that you will attain higher fitness and strength on a regular bike assuming your ride it an equal ( or sufficient) number of hours.

This is from ebike guy.

I’m just not currently interested enough in higher fitness and strength so I almost always stick with the ebike unless I have a real reason to ride a regular bike. I think the ebike gives me enough activity for cardiovascular health for health/wellbeing needs and I am more interested in higher average speed and increased range for daily needs than in legs of steel. However I have recently switched to using my mid drive ebike because i feel it gives me more pedal feel and better exercise than my hub motor bike ( a juiced crosscurrent) and is easier to ” dial in” for increased effort. It also has a lower flat cruising speed –around 13mph, and 6-8 mph on hills, which I like for exercise reasons, because it means I am more likely to keep pedaling continuously at lower speeds.

Chris Lehr
Chris Lehr
1 month ago

We have a Tern HSD that has become the family truckster. With over 4000 miles in under two years without leaving the county, the thing sees no shortage of usage anytime soon. However, it’s not a workout. Ever. Unless the battery dies… then its a forced workout. Especially if the kid is on the back. However, I also do a lot of analog biking (3000-4000 miles/yr) but my partner is more of a runner than a biker, so we have a pretty tangible delta when we go analog biking together. The only recommendation I have is bike analog more. I don’t feel the ebike will ever feel like a workout.. the assist is just too easy, and with it off, its just so absolutely unfun to ride – even if its downhill!

ML
ML
29 days ago
Reply to  Chris Lehr

Huh, I have a very different experience on the Tern HSD. What modes do you mostly ride in? We’re at 3,900 miles in 2.5 years on our HSD and I absolutely feel like I get a workout if I want, comparable to an endurance ride from racing days. I ride in Low mode if I want a workout — I find that is the closest in feel to riding a standard bike sans passenger. Probably helps that my friends also all ride around in Low/Off a lot too!

J1mb0
J1mb0
1 month ago

I love how riding a bike for transportation has overlaps with fitness. I took a bit of an opposite route – I trained on regular bikes so that I could go farther with our e-bike when it came down to it. Whenever the schedule would free up I’d fill it with Zwift, OMTM routes, bikepacking, etc. Now that I have my second kid, there is very little time for any of that stuff but more time for the Urban Arrow e-bakfiets. I find that it is still very possible to get a decent workout on the Urban Arrow, but it is only by carrying over skills that I learned on my “sport” rides. Sport is in quotations because I am only ever competing with myself.

One thing that the bosch mid-drive motor gives that is very suitable for exercise is metrics. It has a power meter (that is how it decides how much assist to provide) as well as a cadence and speed meter. Power and cadence are the most crucial for me to get engaged in exercise on this bike, and I’ll often use my Urban Arrow as a way to track my fitness progress. Zwift forced me to adjust my riding style to maintain higher cadences (80 RPM at a minimum) as well as push my limits consistently. I wish there were more rental options for Zwift setups, because I learned a lot in just a month of usage that I took with me on every outdoor ride since then.

I did a lot of training on the Urban Arrow when we had our newborn baby son. Being able to pop him in the suspension car seat and go out for a hour or two ride (depending on his nap length) was an amazing experience. Since he was napping, I was incentivized to go slowly with minimal battery assist so we didn’t get too far from home. Then if he started to wake up before I ended the loop ride, I could turn on battery assist and get him home pretty fast. Never had him cry once in there, he always loved it. I would be keeping track of my metrics during the ride, but after the ride I could look at my average and max power / cadence. I found that I was able to push myself and maintain around 80% Zone 2 training with sufficient amounts of Zone 3 / Zone 4 as I learned from Zwift.

I would not trade my Urban Arrow in for a non-assisted bakfiets. I think 70 lbs bike vs 110 lbs is a significant difference, but as you start adding kids and stuff it becomes less and less of an advantage. Having an e-bakfiets allows you to adjust your effort so you remain in target training zones regardless of terrain or weather. If all my riding is in Zone 3+, then I am going to quit riding not just get stronger. Zone 3+ majority of the time is miserable and unsustainable. If I had a hub motor that didn’t provide consistent metrics, I would focus on getting one that did. But ultimately cycling fitness is always about mindfully exercising in a way that produces results, and this is especially possible with middrive motors that publish metrics.

When I ride with my kids, I find the time to get a little exercise is when they are all in the bike. When then are outside, riding along or whatever, I haven’t figured out a way to get consistent or purposeful exercise. The improved fitness has had incredible benefits, such as being able to ride from Tigard to OMSI and back on a single battery charge with a kid and their bike in tow – something that was not possible previously.

Charley
Charley
1 month ago
Reply to  J1mb0

That’s impressive- I can’t imagine having the mental wherewithal to keep children alive and also get exercise at the same time!

Maria (Bicycle Kitty)
Maria (Bicycle Kitty)
1 month ago

Hi Shannon! Once you get your “acoustic bike” (or I like to call them “muscle bikes”!), please consider joining my monthly Southerly Ladies ride. It’s a nice chill pace and inclusive small group. We’d love to have you!

Rebecca
Rebecca
1 month ago

Not to make light of your situation, but it was something of a relief to hear about someone else considering the same dilemma! I switched to an e-bike as a means of getting through a new commute that is a little gross (alongside the freeways)/feels unsafe (isolated areas, bike paths with no exits) – I don’t want to stop and smell the roses, I just want to get through it quickly. The e-bike solves other problems too – I don’t get sweaty on the way to work so I can easily ride in my work clothes, which means I don’t need to pack a full change of clothes every day, saves the time of getting ready twice each morning, etc. It avoids driving and is faster than transit.

But a year later, I’m also realizing how important that 2x/day ride was to my general strength and fitness. That incidental exercise was an efficient, sneaky way to get a bunch of mini-workouts in while I was getting where I needed to go. I feel noticeably less strong now, especially up hills. It’s hard making new time compensate for the exercise I used to get for “free.” So I unhelpfully have no solutions for you, just a voice to say “Yep! I feel ya.”

Also wanted to say thanks for giving me the phrase “acoustic bike” to describe my non-e-assist bikes 🙂

Robert Rothery
Robert Rothery
1 month ago

I LOVE my e-bike. I agree that the zero-assist mode is no fun – it’s HARDER than riding a standard bike because the bike is so heavy. I know different models are different, my bike has 5 levels of assist, and I challenge myself to keep it on the lowest level of assist as much as possible. I use the bike to commute from Roseway to downtown, and also take it on weekend pleasure rides. I had my first long ride of the season recently (30 miles – anyway for me that’s long!) … and my legs were very tired afterward. Was it because the low level of assist allowed me to get a workout, or because I’m just an out-of-shape 65 year old? Probably both!

Sheilagh A Griffin
Sheilagh A Griffin
1 month ago

Shannon, how tall are you? I have a couple of regular road bikes to sell for not much $, maybe riding a bike with your kids sometimes would be the way to go. It may be fun to get out and ride some on your own or with a group.

And I love this article. I agree with others to not sell your current set up too soon. I have a e-cargo bike that I use a bunch, along with my bike(s) without e-assist.

Let’s go riding!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago

I have a simple hybrid(?) bike and a mountain bike. I haven’t ever been on a true road bike. I’m 5’8″ but I presume the hybrid bike should work–I’ve used it for a few solo rides out in Hillsboro. I have not tried the mountain bike yet, and I am eager to try the mountain bike too. I have been hoping mountain biking could be something my older kids would enjoy, even if they have to drag their mom along.

Steve C
Steve C
1 month ago

There’s a non e-assist bullitt cargo bike for sale currently on Craigslist.

That could be a good option

https://portland.craigslist.org/mlt/bik/d/portland-bullitt-cargo-bike/7736005880.html

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago
Reply to  Steve C

Shhh! I was looking at this one. Ha.
But I would have to buy all the kid carry stuff–bottom, box, seats, rain cover, at which point I am thinking about going to the shop for my own brand new bike.
I also don’t know how I would get the big cargo bike from Portland to Hillsboro….I know, ride it! I’m really bad with directions and I think that would be a pretty long first ride! I would have to find a friend to follow and willing to guide me and stop and rest a lot. Might take me all day. Would have to be a really patient bikey friend.
But it sounds like a pretty awesome way to begin, if I could actually manage it.

OregonRainstorm87
OregonRainstorm87
1 month ago

even if biking a lot, gym is still required for a full body work out and all the health benefits (although 5 kids is a lot of kids, I am sure that entails a lot of lifting etc). No offense but there is a reason a common stereotype is an older lycra wearing bike rider with a big belly and strong legs

Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
Will the last bike commuter turn off their lights
1 month ago

gym is still required for a full body work out and all the health benefits

citation please!

Tim W
Tim W
1 month ago

So, maybe to increase your resolve to use the assist less without completely getting rid of it, turn it into a game, how many miles can you go between charges. The less you use the motor the more miles you’ll get. It might give you more incentive than just “I know I should be using this less” and it will give you a way to see progress as you get more and more miles out of a charge. It also addresses your point about not noticing the hills. You’ll suddenly notice them more as you are thinking about them draining your battery.

Todd/Boulanger
Todd/Boulanger
1 month ago

Aloha Shannon, I wonder if “the what” you are struggling with is the type of “drive” your ebike has. I assume it is the older Bunch which – I think – does not have a cadence sensor, so its feels disconnected from a natural physical pedalling stroke? Plus it is a trishaw/ 3 wheeler / trike which removes the bike dynamics of a 2 wheeler.

I had a analogue bakfiets long bed for many years and enjoyed riding it between Portland and Vancouver (via the Interstate Bridge) once I got used to the longer wheelbase…and also with our two kids that is until they got too heavy. An ebike bakfiets would have likely added another two years onto chauffeuring them locally by bak.

Stephen Shea
Stephen Shea
1 month ago

Thinking about what I said in my previous comment, I think I would get much faster more targeted results by doing lower body strength training.. as compared to non-electric biking. That would give my legs the strength reserve. As to the endurance cardio needed for hard rides, I’m agnostic. I think I might try this

Tad
Tad
1 month ago

I’m heart patient and would have had to give up biking ENTIRELY if it wasn’t for my ebike! Why don’t you just set it to minimal assist? That is always a hella workout for me!

Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
Shannon Johnson (Family Biking Columnist)
1 month ago

Update: Wow, I had just about decided to “go for it” and sell my e-trike to buy a fancy new unassisted two-wheel cargo bike. I did some test rides last weekend and plan to go back this weekend. I have a friend who wants to buy my e-trike and I announced my plan to the kids this morning and they all rebelled. My six year old boy started sobbing and said he loves the BUNCH bike. We can’t get rid of our Bunch bike! And my oldest son openly defied me and said that I will not sell the Bunch bike, “end of discussion!” I was most surprised at his assertion because he rides his own bike. He insists that e-bikes are way cooler and I will “ruin his biking life” if I don’t have an e-bike.
My children are devastated at the idea of losing their beloved e-bike and they can’t imagine they could ever love another bike as much as this one.
I know they could fall in love with another bike, but I had no idea they had such strong personal feelings about our bike. I didn’t realize they cared so deeply.
And I recognize that the huge Bunch cargo box, and its bench seats and spaciousness will be hard to beat, from their perspective.
I thought this was my decision. But I think I am going to need to convince the children.
Well, I am glad they love biking so much!
“Library books mom! Think of the library books!” they said. Apparently they don’t have confidence in my ability to carry library books. (In fairness, we usually check out 50 at a time).
Now they are saying they will consider another bike but only if it’s electric and “looks cool.” I think my oldest son is worried I will be too slow.

Charley
Charley
1 month ago

Wow! Y’all must have had some great times with that bike for the kids to feel so strongly. 🙂

Glen Bledsoe
Glen Bledsoe
1 month ago

From my understanding your body doesn’t know if you’re on an ebike or a push bike. Your heart responds to the demand placed on it as measured by your heart rate. There are target heart rate for aerobic fitness and weight loss. Maximum heart rate is 220-35. Fat burning heart rate is about 70% of that. However, weight loss can be complicated and influenced by all sorts of environmental factors including BPA and phthalates (plastics), sucrose and over the counter and prescription drugs and of course the amount and kinds of foods you eat. A bathroom scale is not a good gauge of weight. Drink a cup of water and gain half a pound. Better to go by the fit of your clothes.

Ted Buehler
1 month ago

Shannon — it sounds like your E-Trike doesn’t have a throttle. The E-power is either “on” or “off”.

If you want to build fitness without selling/buying bikes, can you get a throttle installed?

When you want more of a workout and you’re going slow with your little kids, turn down the throttle.

When you’re tired, carrying little kids, and trying to keep up with faster kids, turn up the throttle.

Should be helpful in developing legs of steel.

Ted Buehler

Zach
Zach
1 month ago

I’m considering a cargo bike and have been back and forth about whether to get an electrified version or not. This is a timely opinion. Thanks

Chrystal
Chrystal
29 days ago

I go back and forth between my traditional bike and my e bike. I use my e bike for grocery shopping, going to work (my commute is 2hrs), and hauling things. Then I use my tradition bike for shorter commutes, group rides, and exercise. I like having both options depending on the need.

ML
ML
29 days ago

I am a mom of 2 (3.5 yrs and 11mos) and don’t think I would trade either of my ebikes. For the daycare run and weekend excursions, the primary benefit is that I can always get up to speed and have more maneuverability in traffic.

I would definitely recommend test riding a bunch of things, maybe borrowing or renting for several days if possible. If you’re looking for the feeling of working harder or think you might be happy with (a) switching to a 2-wheeled long tail ebike that can carry your 2-3 youngest kids only, and/or (b) getting your own non-electric bike. On my Tern HSD I found it surprisingly comfortable to ride around on Low most of the time, whereas with a bulkier bike I always wanted to add more assist.

It is 100% worth figuring out childcare arrangements so you have time (even if it’s just twice a month) to ride separately from the kids on their own bikes, and you can control your own speed.

I think a 2-wheeled ebike might be a good compromise of your family carrying needs + personal desire to feel zippier and pedal harder. I’m registered for a 50 mile mountain bike race this summer and plan to do a significant portion (maybe 1/3) of my training time on an ebike carrying the kids. Between my kids I got decent fitness doing one 2-hour group ride a week on my road bike plus one 2-3 hour ebike bike with the toddler (mostly on the low setting, but motor off if I was feeling extra zesty). The smaller 2-wheeled bikes feel a lot better with zero/no motor than trikes.

I also wanted to say I bet you already have legs of steel! Absolute power isn’t tied to weight or size, and I have gotten absolutely smoked in bike races by people much bigger, especially on flat terrain. If you want to lose weight specifically, I recently had good luck working with a nutritionist to do it in a sustainable, science-based way where I never felt hungry – it did involve tracking all my food in an app and aiming for specific macronutrient ratios.

There are lots of pieces to this puzzle but my favorite is that you and your family all enjoy riding together. Hope you get some good experiments in to figure out how your equipment evolves to support your goals!

Don
Don
28 days ago

I have been riding eBikes for more than ten years. When I ride I usually go hard. The assisted bike just gives me more speed. A trip to Copenhagen showed me that I don’t have to ride flat out to have fun. To gain strength I purchased a Brompton 4 speed. That bike is not very forgiving as you have to provide all the power. I appreciate being able to take my Brompton anywhere. It has made me a stronger rider.

Laila
Laila
28 days ago

You might consider getting rid of your car, so that it is not a temptation when your e trike is gone. I recommend different bikes for different purposes. A Bunch is a car replacement more than anything.

Jack Walden
Jack Walden
25 days ago

Most “e-bikes” are more accurately labeled “electric motorcycles” (that you happen to be able to pedal, too). You’re sacrificing almost all of the exercise/cardio benefits, while also accepting the added risk that can come with riding Portland’s often dicey roads. For legs of steel, ditch the temptation and crutch of the e-bike, and be willing to ride hills. If you ride hills consistently, you’ll notice you get perceptibly stronger and faster with each attempt. (Strava helps to reveal this.) It’s super gratifying. Good luck!

Seedee
Seedee
23 days ago

Ebikes put people in auto-pilot similar to cars. I’ve had some close calls with ebike riders speeding through intersections and not being mindful of their speed differential with regular bikes.