Last weekend, my 66-year-old dad absolutely crushed me on one of the toughest climbs in Boulder, Colorado. He’d only ridden outdoors twice this year. He lives in Vermont, about 8,000 feet lower than the peak elevation of Sunshine Canyon. But I wasn’t embarrassed to see him beat me on my home roads.
That’s because I set him up with a Specialized Vado e-bike for this ride. If you pay attention to a lot of the comments on social media, he was “cheating.” That didn’t matter to him or to me, because without this e-bike, he wouldn’t have gotten to experience this ride.
While he’s very fit and active for someone his age, riding long climbs at high elevation is tough for anyone. Maybe he didn’t necessarily need an e-bike to get out and ride with me, but I had a hunch it would make this way more fun. It would let him access terrain that would ordinarily be outside his fitness level. It would enable me to include him on a proper weekend ride. And plus, he’d have the energy to enjoy the day and not be bedridden for the rest of his visit.
First of all, let’s clarify what an e-bike is. On this ride, he was aboard a bike with an electric, battery-powered motor that maxes out at 20mph. To engage the motor you have to pedal — the harder you pedal, the more the electric assist. I like to compare it to a very strong tailwind. The motor produces a maximum of 250 watts of power. This qualifies as a Class 1 e-bike according to the laws, and its probably the most common type of e-bike. There is no throttle. No gas tank. Hardly any extra noise. Anyone who says an e-bike is just a motorcycle has either never ridden a motorcycle or never ridden an e-bike.
However, at 50 pounds, this bike takes a bit more wrangling than an “acoustic” bicycle due to its weight. That was one of the first things my dad noticed when he wheeled it out of my garage. Thankfully, it had a kickstand to help keep it from tipping over as he checked out the controls.
Whether it is sailboats, vintage cars, bikes, or skis, he has always enjoyed the technical aspects of sports and hobbies. So as I anticipated, he was pretty intrigued by the electric motor hiding in the Vado’s bottom bracket.
After a primer on the three e-assist modes — eco, sport, and turbo — we rolled out on the most ambitious ride I’ve taken him on in Colorado. We set out to ride Sunshine Canyon to Gold Hill, which climbs 3,000 feet over nine miles. Prior to this, his hardest climb had been to the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) just south of town, 685 feet over 2.4 miles. When he was riding regularly, that alone had been a challenge.
As we rolled through town, I asked him how the bike felt. Turns out he hadn’t switched on the e-assist yet. At the bottom of a steep climb up a city block, I told him to put it in Turbo. I could see a lightbulb switch on in his head, just like that motor kicked in its 250 watts. The learning curve was pretty short. And he was going to have a lot of fun.
I think he said something very dad-like when I caught up to him at the stop sign, like “Holy cow!”
Through the lower section of Sunshine, he comfortably pedaled along in eco mode, remarking that it made him feel like he was in a lot better shape than he really was.
I provoked him with a little acceleration, and he quickly caught on to the game, riding up to me and then counterattacking. As we approached one of the climb’s most aesthetically pleasing switchbacks, I suggested he attack it in Turbo mode. It didn’t take much convincing, and when I finally found him waiting along the road, he was clearly thrilled by that slingshot feeling you get when you’re flying up a climb. (Maybe he was even a little inspired by the morning’s Tour de France stage up the Col du Tourmalet.)
Farther up, on the climb’s aptly named “wall” section, he caught an innocent bystander and blew by him, never mind the Vado’s fenders, rack, flat bars, and suspension fork. I think he was getting bored with waiting for me.
Dad waiting (somewhat) patiently for me on the long climb to Gold Hill.
Toward the top of the paved section, we reached a section with some more rolling terrain that allowed me to draft off of him a bit, which was actually quite intuitive even though he’d never done that sort of thing before. Every so often I’d look down at my Wahoo computer and see power numbers in the 400s and realize this wouldn’t last very long.
At one point he even mentioned that he’d been purposefully riding in eco mode for parts of the climb to “get a better workout.”
Well, despite his best efforts to make it harder on himself, when we reached Gold Hill, at about 8,300 feet above sea level, he admitted that he didn’t feel that tired at all. Unlike past rides we’d done in Colorado, he had plenty of energy for the rest of the day.
Plus, along the way up the canyon, he’d had the chance to see a lot more. We’d driven up that way before, but as you probably know, on a bike, so much more of the world is on display to appreciate and enjoy. From the scenery to the architecture to a stray deer, he saw a lot more on a bike. And on that e-bike, he didn’t need to train all winter to experience it with me.
I did have one reservation about climbing high into the Colorado mountains with him: how to get down at the end of the ride. Not wanting my dad to take risks on a totally unfamiliar bike or to leave my mom out of the morning activity, I had her drive up to meet us for lunch and shuttle him down.
After, he admitted it was one of the most fun rides he’s done. Now, when I talk to him on the phone, he’ll be able to understand a little better when I describe a weekend ride. Even if it was on an e-bike, he rode the same climb I’ve been riding for years. He saw it firsthand and felt its changes in gradient and switchbacks.
Would he buy one? He wasn’t totally convinced. Will e-bikes conquer the world and ruin our sport? I’m not totally convinced either. But I do think they’re a great way to give somebody an experience on two wheels that would be otherwise out of reach. E-bikes are tools (albeit expensive ones) that we can use to make cycling more inclusive and attainable. That’s a worthy goal for all of us, no matter if we want to ride e-bikes or not.
Oh, and don’t worry. I wouldn’t let him post that ride on Strava.
Thanks to the Specialized Boulder Experience Center for providing a Specialized Turbo Vado to ride.