A GREAT E-REAWAKENING

In the face of age and injury, an e-bike offers a lifeline to get back out on the trails I thought were closed forever

Story and photos by Jean Turner

Only a month ago this world didn’t exist. Not for me. I was just like the many cars down below, whizzing past this beautiful stretch of rolling hills on the Southern California coast, unable to cherish the ribbons of trail drizzled across the landscape, twirling down into the canyon below that opened up miles later to Laguna Beach. At this particular moment, the chasm carved into the earth served to funnel a breath of cool sea air to my sweaty cheeks, which were currently framing an idiotic grin. 

“Which way do you want to go?” asked my friend Brooklyn. 

“More adventure and less suffering add up to more miles in the dirt, and isn’t that always the goal?”

I savored the question itself before contemplating an answer. Butterflies welled up inside me upon the realization that every trailhead was a wide-open door. This sport that I once thought was closed off to me was suddenly laid out at my feet, waiting for me to lay tread across its threshold. 

Normally, I would have multiple questions for Brooklyn before I dared follow her down a trail: “How steep is this? How long is the climb back out? What are the odds I could die? Do we have rescue extraction options?” But today, I tempted fate. “Wherever you want,” I replied. 

THE COURAGE PILL

My courage to tempt fate was aided by the lilac-colored Giant Liv Embolden E+ 2 beneath me, and particularly the Yamaha motor that was assisting each pedal stroke. I knew from experience that even on my best day, I barely have enough power to go “wherever Brooklyn wants,” and this was certainly not my best day. It hadn’t been nearly two years since the morning I woke up hardly able to walk. I would find out months later that my hip labrum tore a day earlier, the resulting inflammation throughout the night wreaking havoc on just about everything between my lower back and my knees. It would be months before I even received a diagnosis (aside from “microtrauma inside the right hip”) let alone treatment for a hardly treatable condition. 

Managing the chronic pain and limited movement caused by bone spurs inside my hip was the best I could do, and it seemed that cycling of any sort was simply off the menu at this point. Yet here I was aboard this hybrid contraption that was showing me the way back to pedaling bliss. 

Brooklyn hopped up on her pedals without a word, and I wondered if I would regret giving her carte blanche on my first ride back in two years. 

“The purists might still call them cheater bikes, and I might have been one of them once upon a time, but that thinking only kept my purist butt parked on the couch.”

The ground sped beneath me as I pedaled. The more effort I put into each stroke, the more the energy the Embolden E+ pumped out until we were gliding along at a satisfying cruising speed. The Giant Liv was far from doing the work for me. The intuitive torque delivery from the SyncDrive Sport motor simply added power to my own cadence. “This must be what it feels like to be in shape,” I shouted to Brooklyn. She chuckled, but she would know. For her, e-bikes are just as fun and challenging as non-assist mountain bikes, but you can go three times as far and get the same level of workout, she explained. For me, it was a matter of expending as much energy as I chose to, or as much as my old-lady hip would tolerate. 

We descended from the main fire road onto a singletrack trail, deftly whipping from side to side as we swooped our way over humps, around bushes, over rocks, eventually dipping under trees and along creek beds as we made our way lower into the canyon. Coming from a dirt biking background, the descents are the easy part, but the thought of coming back out of this canyon no longer terrified me on the way down. “We got this,” I thought.

Owing to my background riding and racing motorcycles, the added weight of the e-bike equated to much more familiar handling, as more load gives you a bit more stability and a stronger foothold on the ground. Bombing downhills on traditional mountain bikes always felt a little like flying down a mountain on a popsicle stick to me. This was a much easier segue between internal-combustion- and pedal-powered cycles, a feature I didn’t anticipate when I first swung a leg over this “cheater bike.” 

THE NEW FUTURE

Back in my fitter days, our rides were usually limited to about 10 miles and 1000 feet of climbing. A few hours of these trails were all I could muster in a day, but this was a stark contrast. As we neared our typical turnaround point, I was only starting to get into my groove. “This is awesome!” I exclaimed. Looking around at the miles of trail beyond, the doors were all still open. 

Up the other side of the canyon, we were now treading on new ground, or at least I was. Even further, we dipped down into the next valley. We pedaled our way down Laguna Canyon, and wafts of sea air became increasingly detectable. Suddenly, there was a waft of something else, something malty and toasty—Laguna Beach Beer Company. It was near lunch time, so we parked our e-bikes at the outdoor café and helped ourselves to some snacks and a craft brew. This was definitely new ground for me—stopping for a mid-ride meal was simply unheard of. No sooner would I stop in the middle of a pilates workout for a quick bite, but this was different. We were enjoying an outdoor adventure, not the typical high-intensity workout that left me ruined for the rest of the day. This was doable. 

We had gone nearly 15 miles at that point and still had to get back, which also meant some steep climbs. The second half would be a challenge, but it was doable. 

The twisting singletrack trail that led us through thick brush, switchbacks and over rock faces as we climbed our way back up from the canyon floor is never something I would have attempted on a regular mountain bike, even at my best. The soft footing, steep incline and technical nature of the trail would have left nothing to enjoy, but with the Yamaha motor set at maximum power and pedaling my heart out, this tricky trail began to flow. The brush pushed against the brake levers, and I had to use my outer fingers to keep the brakes from dragging. I continued to shove the 29-inch wheels through tight corners. We pressed on and kept flowing. Through my panting and gasping, the idiotic grin was wider than ever. 

TO SEND OR NOT TO SEND?

“I can’t believe we got up that,” I exclaimed to Brooklyn. “I can’t believe how fun that was!” Several more miles of ridges, fire roads and gradually things began to look familiar. We were only a few miles out. Brooklyn stopped at the trailhead of another singletrack that dipped down into another canyon. 

“One more?” she asked with a shrug. The Giant Liv still showed a quarter battery. 

“Send it!”

Once again, we swooped our way down the trail, undulating and arcing down towards the trees below. The last dose of trail magic was the finishing touch on an amazing day. Rather than being wiped clean of energy by 10 a.m., I was relaxed and smiling in the early afternoon as we strolled our way up the final climb and along the ridges back to the truck. 

My post-ride Zen came not only from the workout and the dose of fresh outdoor adventure, but from the realization that this world was now back within my reach. Not only was I able to surf these trails once again, but the power of pedal assist now replaced the intensity with endurance. The ability to dial in the level of assist also gives me the power to pedal my hip back into shape or, at this point, whatever level I can muster. That high-intensity challenge is still there at the push of a button whenever I’m ready for it. Until then, let’s just go for a ride. More adventure and less suffering add up to more miles in the dirt, and isn’t that always the goal? 

The purists might still call them cheater bikes, and I might have been one of them once upon a time, but that thinking only kept my purist butt parked on the couch. I’m glad I came to consider a more useful perspective, because any way you can get yourself out here is worth it.