A couple times on my bike rides over the last month other riders beat me quite soundly going up hills. This is not impossible, I’m not the fastest rider out there. But I’m also not the slowest and various clues lead me to think that there might have been something else at play. I believe that, in both cases, the individuals in question were riding bikes with electronic assists. While I had to shelve a bit of my ego, I was wondering if these people would have been riding a regular bike, particularly through Edmonton’s river valley with its many hills. They may have, but I do assume that part of the allure of an e-bike is that you can cover longer distances or more hills without the same level of exertion. That makes sense, I know that showing up to work sweaty or working your butt off for a casual Sunday ride is not everyone’s idea of a good time. But are e-bikes providing any health benefits without that exertion?
This is what Höchsmann et al (2018) wanted to discover in their research project. They compared the cardiorespiratory fitness of overweight adults, mostly men, who biked to work for a minimum of three days a week for four weeks on either a regular bike or an e-bike. After the four weeks, both groups showed improvement in measures of VO2 max (how much oxygen your body can hold, which impacts how much work you can do) and blood pressure during exercise.
The authors quickly point out that this is a small, pilot study but that the results are worth further study. The e-bike group, on average, covered more elevation than the regular bike group. They also biked faster on average. So the e-bike group may have reached similar exertion levels as the other group. Therefore, the available terrain may be a key factor in the physical benefits of e-bikes.
I’m intrigued to see how this research progresses. I have never been one to shy away from a challenging ride on my way into work, even biking to my PhD thesis defense, and I have ways of dealing with the evidence of that exertion. However, I also acknowledge that many people have questioned my sanity because of my habits. If e-bikes can get people out of their cars and using active transport modes then they have potential to affect action on climate change, not to mention improve the current obesity epidemic. So, I guess I’m left hoping that I get my behind kicked as I climb more hills in the future if that means that more people are riding, e-bike or regular version.