Events

It’s happening now! E-bikes at gran fondos and group rides

A new wave of performance e-road bikes could change the dynamics in group rides and gran fondos.

This story appeared in the January/February print issue of VeloNews Magazine. 

The first time the e-bike rider showed up to the weekly group ride, Eric Hall was nonplussed. A competitive triathlete, Hall is a regular on the Broad Ripple Ride, which takes cyclists on a loop through the northern suburbs of Indianapolis. The sight of a big guy on a flat-bar road bike easily keeping pace with the local hardcores was new to Hall.

“He stayed in the back (of the group) and didn’t pose much of a problem, but this year he is showing up every week and pulling on the front,” Hall says. “He’s got a little bit more confidence.”

Since that first ride, Flat Bar Guy has become a problem, in Hall’s opinion, because he, quite literally, sticks out in the group. “He’s got, I’m guessing, 720mm bars on the bike, and I have difficulty riding around him in a way I don’t with other road bikes,” Hall says.

Whether Hall likes it or not, Flat Bar Guy isn’t going away; in fact, there’s a good chance that more e-bike riders like him will be joining group rides, gran fondos, and organized cycling events in the coming years. Bicycle manufacturers have produced a new wave of performance e-bikes that are designed to help riders keep pace. And while handlebar width may not be an issue with these new bikes—many are indistinguishable from top-end road racing bikes—there may be more concerns for longtime riders like Hall. Hall has a wide range of worries: novice riders mixing in packs at speed without the handling skills to match, to how the power of the motors might impact pacelines and group dynamics.

Are these gripes legitimate concerns about safety, or are they simply anti-e-bike complaints, born from ego and vanity? It can be hard to tease out one sentiment from the other during the heart-pounding moments on the local group ride, or on the gran fondo’s King of the Mountains climb. What’s undeniable, however, is that this sentiment is bound to create tension in the churning pack of a group ride or event, even if the level of competition is low.

And that poses a challenge for all concerned. How should group rides and organized events integrate e-bike riders? Should they at all? How will promoters and ride leaders separate legitimate safety and fairness concerns from simple bruised ego? And if they can’t, or won’t, what does that mean for the small but growing number of performance e-bike enthusiasts?

Anthony Zahn poses with his Pinarello Dyodo e-bike. Photo: Courtesy Anthony Zahn

E-bikes for a new market

Hall’s conundrum is relatively new. Although e-bike sales in the U.S. have doubled since 2013, most of the offerings until recently were aimed at casual and urban riders—few of them were showing up to Wednesday Worlds. While an e-bike was occasionally spotted at an organized event, it was almost always in shorter-distance fields popular with casual recreational riders.

But the past two years have seen a surge in new bikes aimed at a performance-minded roadie. The movement is being led by storied brands such as Pinarello (the Nytro), Bianchi (Aria E-road), and Orbea (Gain). These first performance e-bikes were followed shortly by Trek’s Domane+, the Focus Paralane2, and others. And if the shift in focus wasn’t already clear then, it became obvious in July when Specialized launched its Creo e-road bike at the Tour de France, powered by a slick ad campaign featuring pro riders Julian Alaphilippe, and Alison Tetrick.

E-bikes are getting lighter: Creo, Gain, and Cannondale’s new SuperSix EVO Neo weigh around 25 pounds in top-end spec. Battery life is also increasing: the Domane+ can go up to 70 miles on a single charge, while the Creo gets up to 80 from the main battery and a claimed range of 120 with the optional second battery, which fits in the seat tube bottle cage. E-bike riders have taken notice, and are signing up for events that allow the new technology. The popular Levi’s King Ridge Gran Fondo, for example, has allowed Class 1 and 3 e-bikes for two years. Carlos Perez, the event’s promoter, estimates around 175-200 e-bike riders participated in 2019.

Stylistically, the bikes are different as well, with a clear move away from the massive downtubes or clunky external-mounted batteries, and toward a more svelte, proportioned appearance that is at a glance difficult to distinguish from a pedal-only bike. With Shimano Di2 and SRAM eTap drivetrains, hydraulic disc brakes, and carbon-fiber wheels, these bikes boast five-figure price tags.

These aren’t machines for a quiet Sunday spin; they’re for committed, enthusiast road riders looking for a way to enjoy longer, faster rides more comfortably, and maybe for a bit of a boost to ward off that inevitable age-related decline in personal power output.

Extending the ride

These bikes are made for a rider like Anthony Zahn. As a teenager, Zahn had dreams of riding the Tour de France, but a diagnosis of a rare degenerative neuromuscular disease called Charcot-Marie-Tooth (CMT) Disease changed that. Still, he raced as an amateur until his worsening symptoms led him to be reclassified as a para-athlete; he won a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008 in the individual time trial, retired in 2014, and now owns A to Z Cycling, a coaching service.

Zahn still rides a pedal-only bike some days, but his daily driver is a Pinarello Dyodo. The $8,000 e-road bike is based on the Dogma race platform, and is equipped with a motor in the rear hub that offers up to 250 watts of pedal-assist boost at speeds up to 20mph. It’s essential for Zahn to do the kinds of rides he loves but physically can’t anymore.

CMT is a peripheral nerve disease that causes progressive loss of muscle tissue and sensation, often in the limbs and extremities. Zahn has difficulty walking, let alone pedaling; he likens it to pedaling with a tennis ball between his foot and pedal. “The e-bike allows me to recover from a ride in a day instead of a week,” Zahn says. “I probably couldn’t do a 70-mile ride without it and, if I could, it would take me three to six weeks to recover instead of three to six days.”

Zahn regularly rides the Dyodo at the weekly Bay Area Rooster Ride in Marin County, California, and has also participated in the Jensie Gran Fondo and Marin Century rides on the bike. His experiences have been positive, however he’s aware of the challenges posed by riding in packs. The surge of his bike’s motor, for example, could be a safety issue, or impact someone else’s ride.

Zahn says he imposes his own rules of etiquette for gran fondos. He asks the promoters not to log his timing result, and he declines to pull riders when he is in a competitive situation.

The Gran Fondo New York events prohibit anyone from riding an e-bike. Photo: Courtesy GFNY

Gran fondo etiquette

Gran fondos present the flashpoint for the integration of e-bikes, since the mass-participant events are both for competition and enjoyment.

There’s no single recognized governing body to sanction gran fondo events, and no central, agreed-on series of rules. Promoters essentially create their own, and the range runs from detailed, multi-point manifestos complete with anti-doping regimes, to homegrown approaches that basically come down to, “don’t be a dick.” Some promoters explicitly allow e-bikes; some explicitly disallow them. Others still don’t mention the tech one way or another.

Even the mass-start structure of gran fondos makes for more challenges to incorporating e-bikes than traditional racing, where a single-day event is broken up into categories.

“I think part of what makes fondos work, relative to USA Cycling, is that they’re a wild west,” says ex-pro Phil Gaimon, who allows e-bikes on his Phil’s Cookie Fondo ride. The mass-start “appeals to people,” Gaimon says. But huge fields of 1,000 or more riders departing at once already makes for nervous riding in the opening miles; e-bikes could heighten the potential for problems.

Ulrich Fluhme, co-founder of the Gran Fondo New York series, draws the philosophical line between e-bikes and push bikes around the concept of competition. While other gran fondo events focus on the experience, GFNY events are races.

“It’s straightforward; if you organize a bike race, you don’t allow motors,” Fluhme says. Fluhme wants to preserve the event’s competitive nature, even for mid-pack riders In his eyes, the presence of e-bikes would compromise that.

“People have lots of goals: top-10 in your age group or qualifying for world championships, down to ‘I want to be faster than last year, or I want to be faster than my friend,’” Fluhme says. “All that doesn’t work if you put a motor on your bike.”

Gaimon’s Cookie Fondo sits at the opposite end of this philosophical divide; participants ride and eat cookies, and must navigate a steep climb from the gun. A little boost from an electric motor could be a welcome. Levi’s King Ridge Gran Fondo sits in the middle; e-bikes are allowed, however the event is hardly a race.

E-bikes present another prosaic concern for event promoters: range and battery life. Levi’s Gran Fondo has allowed Class 1 and 3 (pedal-assist) e-bikes for two years. These riders start in the back, and FAQ rules request riders to be responsible for knowing the lifespan of their batteries. A special VIP entry includes a spare battery drop at an aid station, and that might herald an approach promoters will take in the future.

A bigger problem is regulating the bikes themselves. Already, there are e-bike kits that far surpass the 750-watt max power allowed in Class 1 and 3 systems, and their 20 and 28mph respective cutoffs.

The potential for conflict

E-bike participation in organized events is still quite rare, yet riders have already begun to complain about their presence. One rider told VeloNews that a pair of e-bike riders rode with him in a gran fondo; he had difficulty consistently matching their pace with other riders in the group. On climbs, the extra power would cause them to bunch too closely behind other riders, and when they braked to compensate, it nearly crashed those behind.

Zahn has had a similar experience with his Dyodo. One of the bike’s features has caused repeated problems. The Dyodo’s Ebikemotion motor can be linked to the rider’s heart-rate monitor, and Zahn said the technology is still unpredictable. “It can come on unexpectedly and cause you to surge, and it’s not super smooth,” he says.

Zahn leaves the bike in manual mode and even so, “it’s definitely taken some learning; I’m still getting used to it.”

Another concern is that extra power puts riders into pack situations without the handling skills to cope with them. There are certainly inexperienced e-bike riders, but since the dawn of group rides, every pack has had to deal with the introduction of a preternaturally strong but unschooled rider. In Zahn’s opinion, fears over this are likely tied to ego.

“If you have someone who’s new, it could certainly be tricky,” he says. “But part of riding in a group is assessing who’s going to be dangerous and in what way right off the bat, and then updating your own assessment.”

But for some cyclists, the presence of a motor triggers strong anti-e-bike sentiment. When asked for their views on e-bikes, readers on social media were adamant that “motorcycles” had no place in group rides. Objections to e-bikes often range from the philosophical to esoteric, and sometimes both at the same moment. One rider told VeloNews he was upset that a couple of e-bike riders at an event he entered would speed ahead of the group to get to the feed zones first. Being mad that someone ate a few extra stroopwafels they didn’t “earn” with their fitness is, depending on your view, a principled defense of cycling’s values of hard work, discipline, and paying your dues; or the absurd conclusion of the sport’s Puritanical, suffering-as-virtue ethos that drives casual riders away and limits the sport’s growth.

Whether these criticisms stem from honest concerns about safety and fairness, or from personal vanity, there is an underlying truth about e-bikes that riders will have to confront. An extra 250 or 350 watts flattens fitness differences that might otherwise sort out riders into more natural groupings. And cyclists will have to deal with that.

Phil Gaimon’s Cookie Fondo starts all 1,000 riders at once. Photo: Courtesy Phil’s Cookie Gran Fondo

Future inclusion

Event promoters have the authority to make decisions for their rides based on what they think is best. But what should be the etiquette for local group rides, which may have multiple leaders, or none at all?

How well e-bike riders integrate with a group may come down to a rider’s familiarity with the other participants. Zahn said he brings his Dyodo to the local group ride where he is a regular participant, and receives no pushback.

“If nobody knew who I was, and I went out on the Saturday world championships, people would probably have something stupid to say,” he says. “If they recognize me, they’d probably be OK with it.”

Maybe, the future proliferation of performance e-road bike will ease this tension, as the technology attracts more riders, like Zahn, who have deep backgrounds in racing and pack riding, as well as the social awareness to be considerate of others. Maybe, like the rider on Eric Hall’s ride, these riders spend time at the back to simply get used to the social and physical dynamics of the ride, because every group ride is different.

“The polite thing to do would be to use the bike to ride with your friends and experience the ride, but not to tactically affect the ride for those who are training,” Gaimon says. But there’s no guarantee that riders will abide by, or even know, that social expectation.

Hall took a wait-and-see approach. He’s not encouraged by what he’s seen so far, but he hasn’t spoken up yet, and is waiting for the ride leaders to implement a few changes for next year to make sure the new guy can be successful and safe. The question is whether that still works when the one e-bike rider turns into two, or three.

If e-bike riders can’t integrate into existing events and pack situations—whether due to legitimate safety problems that simply can’t be overcome, or if roadie clannishness freezes them out—then we may see the rise of e-bike only events and group rides. Or, these riders may gravitate to events from the motorcycle world.

“One of the backbones of our series is the social aspect,” says Reuben Kline, founder of the Gran Fondo National Series, a competitive series that doesn’t currently allow e-bikes. “And there needs to be a social space where people can come together on bikes, and e-bikes can be included and be seen as part of the group.”

Much as gran fondos fit a large group of riders who seek a competitive outlet but aren’t interested in traditional bike races, e-bike riders will increasingly want to be part of a community as well. It’s just a question of whether that community is part of traditional cycling culture, or something else altogether.