Awhile back a PR company representing Specialized invited me to the following event, which I’m only writing about now because it was under embargo until yesterday:
I don’t have to tell you that, when it comes to the bike industry at large, I’m pretty out of it:
And while I do happen to own a Specialized, it has little in common with any of their latest offerings:
Moreover, my experience with ebikes is pretty limited, consisting almost entirely of messing around with them at bike shows, and that one time I tried a Jump bike for the five minutes they were available in the Bronx. In fact, I haven’t even ridden an electric Citi Bike yet! So I figured I should take an opportunity to sample the state of the art in pedal-assist technology, since apparently they’re the future of the bike industry or something.
The event was in Brooklyn, because of course it was, and it took place in a space with perplexingly rustic signage in accordance with New York City gentrification zoning regulations:
Specialized say their ebikes are you, only faster, and I say my Platypus is me, only more pretentious:
Incidentally, “It’s you, only faster” is what Lance Armstrong used to remind himself when he hooked himself up to a fresh bloodbag.
After signing like 19 waivers, I made straight for the free booze, where I requested a glass of white wine from the attending physician:
In case you’re wondering, the answer is yes, I was absolutely wearing a merino jersey with “Tax The Rich” scrawled across it.
As I sipped, I perused the bikes and learned a little bit about them from the Specialized team:
As for you poor saps who don’t get to have stuff explained to you in person by bike industry big shots while you quaff free alcoholic beverages, you’ll just have to make do with this sign:
As everybody knows, and as the Specialized crew reminded me, and as I reminded them everybody knows already because they’re always bragging about it, Specialized has its own wind tunnel. I mean they even put Jeff Goldblum in it!
That’s how he would up with all that fly DNA:
The reason they reminded me about their fancy wind tunnel was that, in addition to all that fancy Fred gear, they also use it to develop “regular” stuff. Here’s their new Mode helmet:
And here’s a sign about it:
Read it while drinking wine, and you’ll know how incredible it is to be me.
Not only that, but they’ve also got panniers that act as fairings:
Here’s why aerodynamics are important for ebikes:
The Tailwind aerodynamic panniers blend form with function, reducing drag and battery consumption by up to 6% when tested against competitors. Their low-bulk, clean-lined design delivers increased stability with a sleek aesthetic, creating a modern storage solution that lets you go further, faster, without compromising on what you carry.
I pay no attention to aerodynamics when riding around town on my Platypus, since all I’m squandering is calories I’ll replace with alcohol as soon as I get home. However, on an ebike it makes total sense you’d want to choose equipment that helps you get the most out of your battery, though we’ll just have to see if ebikes transform urban fashion the same way fixies did back in the aughts. If so, expect the return of the casual bodysuit:
Works with or without pants.
Specialized have various styles of “Turbo” ebikes. For example, in addition to the Vado type pictured above, there’s also the Tero, which is obviously a mountain bike but also has more practical features such as rack mounts and so forth so you can set it up for urban riding:
The bike I rode was a Como, which is more comfort-oriented than the Vado (and obviously the Tero), and that was just fine with me:
It comes with various derailleur and internal hub drivetrain options, including an AUTOMATiQ transmission:
Which is exactly what it sounds like:
I tried the auto version, albeit briefly. It’s pretty damn cool. I realize I’m not supposed to say an automatic bicycle transmission is cool, but relax, we’re talking about transport bikes here. Nobody’s trying to make you put it on your road bike, okay? I’ve been in plenty of grocery-getting, child-hauling, phone-checking situations in which I’d be more than happy to let the bike shift for me. And yes, I do check my phone while I ride, what are you gonna do about it?
Before we headed out, they presented me with a helmet. “Oh, what the hell? When in Rome…,” I figured, and put it on. “You know, you can take the sticker off,” they suggested, but since 95% of consumers probably won’t I figured I wouldn’t either:
With that, we hit the mean streets of brownstone Brooklyn:
The Turbo bikes have various drive modes depending on how much assist you want and when you want it to kick in. Maybe you want to get the most out of your battery charge so you opt for the ECO setting…or maybe you want to put it in TURBO and blow the fucking doors off everyone:
Actually, that’s a mischaracterization. Even in its most “aggressive” mode, the power comes on smooth, akin to a timely tailwind or one of those days when you’re on the road bike and everything just seems to come easy for some reason. (Though that’s also usually due to a tailwind.) The assist doesn’t necessarily make you want to go fast Just Because, but it does make it easy to ride at the speed of traffic (at least on a narrow urban side street), so on a busy street you’re inclined to ride more “vehicularly” for that reason. It certainly doesn’t make you aggressive or reckless, but it does make you more assured and less deferential. Please note when I say “you” I mean regular people; hardened riders such as myself fear no one regardless of what we’re riding, right? Right.
Here are the specs on the assist:
Speaking of drivers, see those dots on the left of the display?
That’s the “Garmin Rear-Facing Radar,” and the dots indicate whether there’s a vehicle behind you. So this is the onboard computer telling me, “Iceman, there’s an SUV on your tail!”
Too bad it can’t also warn me that a raccoon has died on my face.
We continued on towards Prospect Park, diligently stopping for red lights, where I got to admire typically Brooklyn-esqe shoaling formations:
All that’s missing is a newly-minted Gravel Goober with flared bars and a handlebar bag, and a bakfiets full of children all wearing Nutcase helmets.
Arriving at the park, I immediately felt a kinship with my motorized brethren:
Though I was also easily able to attach myself to a Fred on the “hill” without undue exertion:
Again, it’s not that the Como makes you want to chase Freds around the park. It’s a comfortable, upright bicycle. What it does do is let you cruise around the park at a brisk 15mph while simultaneously holding a conversation:
Though obviously it’s a shame the full potential of my powerful, sculpted legs was going to waste:
In the e-bike era, “Wake up, legs!” is the new “Shut up, legs!”
As for the “feel” of the bike, it was comfortable, and it was stable. I found myself wondering if a bicycle that you can get up to over 20mph with minimal effort might create a dangerous situation for someone unaccustomed to traveling at such a speed, so I made sure to hit some rough pavement patches, potholes, and speed bumps at full speed, and in every case the bike felt perfectly composed. Of course whether its e-scooters, or electrified Citi Bikes, or what have you, there are always “concerned” people who predict mass carnage when the untrained masses gain access to them, and of course these concerns are largely unfounded. We’re not talking Hayabusa here–it’s just a bike you can ride for a long time without getting tired.
Upon our return to the storefront, I learned about the bike’s integrated security system:
They also showed me how to remove the battery, which you can take with you for charging if you need to store the bike somewhere such as a bike room:
Here it is:
To be perfectly honest, I can’t remember how much it costs to replace the battery, other than that it’s expensive. But it should last you quite a few years, and there are people out there spending a thousand buck for a smartphone anyway, so there you go.
Finally, I loaded up my basket with my freebies (yes, they gave me the helmet) and I headed home:
As I rode, I thought about the new Specialized e-bikes, and ebikes in general. Personally, for urban transport, I’m more than content with my analog Platypus and would not trade it for one of these. However, as I’ve addressed recently in other posts about electronic shifting and all the rest of it, I’m also a bike enthusiast (and by “enthusiast” I mean “weenie”) who prefers tactile stuff over tech, and who derives satisfaction from moving levers, bolting stuff together, rummaging around in my parts bin when something needs fixing and replacing, and even experiencing the perspiration and exertion that comes with operating a bike under your own power. I also have a relatively easy life, and don’t have to go to an office, or even shuttle the kids anymore, since they both get schoolbuses now.
Objectively, however, when riding around on these ebikes I felt the same way I did when I saw my first iPhone: this is the future. I don’t mean this in a “Mike Sinyard is a genius!” kind of way, and no doubt there are other e-bikes out there that would have evoked a similar response. No, what I mean is, a bike that pretty much anybody can ride comfortably and easily even over steep hills and long distances–while carrying stuff, and even kids–is clearly something that will be desirable to a lot of people. Simply put, bikes like this make doing bike stuff really easy–easier than it’s ever been in the history of the bicycle. The bike asks absolutely nothing of you. (Apart from charging it..and paying it for the first place, obvioiusly.) For those of us who thrive on the nuances of the bicycle that’s not a particularly attractive proposition, but for people who just want to get on and go I’d argue it’s a prerequisite. It’s comfy, it’s futuristic, it works with your phone, it’s got lights and all that stuff, and it’s easy to configure for practical use:
Of course, bikes like this aren’t cheap–it looks like they start at around $4,000, and of course the deluxe one with the automatic transmission is a lot more than that. (By way of comparison, the ebike headphone guy is riding in the park appears to go for around $2,000.) You’re also not going to store it on the street overnight, or carry it up four flights of stairs on a regular basis, so you’ll need to have somewhere to keep it.
At the same time, it’s worth noting how we’ve always got to apologize for bikes being “expensive.” We accept it to a degree from “sporting” bikes since those are optional lifestyle accessories, but we decry expensive utility bikes as prohibitive for regular people, even though a fully-optioned e-bike will still cost less than a new Chevy Spark–a car I weirdly want right now, though that’s a whole other topic. I can’t speak to the Specialized’s long-term durability, or the potential for obsolescence, but if you’ve got a need for it and a place to keep it I suspect you’d probably use the shit out of this bike, even if you do have a Chevy Spark. I love being the motor when I’m riding my bike, but I also schlepped my kids back and forth to preschool for years, and in that context I’d have been more than happy to surrender to an assist while still not having to worry about parking, and traffic, and parking, and all the other crap that comes along with owning a Chevy Spark. And if there’s one thing that’s true about Specialized, it’s that they know how to put together a clean package. The bike looks and feels great, and is clearly the result of thoughtful design.
We’re living through interesting times when it comes to transport, and my ride home reminded me of that:
As batteries and tech become increasingly pervasive, people are getting around in all kinds of ways:
Some stick with the tried-and-true approach:
While others are more…forward-looking:
As for me, I’m more of a traditionalist:
But I was grateful to be able to experience the other end of the velocipedal spectrum firsthand…and I even came away rather impressed.