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Road Gear

Zinn: An e-bike can be life-changing for a lifelong cyclist

VeloNews technical writer Lennard Zinn is still getting in plenty of long rides

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Many of you are aware that I developed a heart arrhythmia five years ago that I’ve been coming to terms with ever since. Ultimately, I co-wrote The Haywire Heart, a book laying out the research showing the direct relationship between decades of hard training and racing and an increased incidence of cardiac arrhythmias.

Thing is, cycling (and cross-country ski training and racing) is not only how I defined myself, how I challenged myself, and how I stayed fit — it also was my most, and sometimes only, social outlet. Training with friends, going to races and racing with them, and guiding bike tours in Italy enhanced my life and reduced the isolation of my work, while bringing me a feeling of success and accomplishment.

Since I generally cannot ride or ski with others without going into cardiac arrhythmia anymore, these sports, which had comprised almost my entire social life, have become solitary pursuits during which I carefully monitor my energy expenditure to avoid my heart going haywire. I have a wonderful family and a great life, but not riding and skiing in the mountains with friends left a void.

The e-bike solution!

Before becoming an all-too regular cardiac patient, I had ridden e-bikes a lot at demonstration events. I even had owned a couple of them, both with rear hub motors, over the years, one of which I used as a shuttle vehicle for whitewater kayaking, and the other which I loaned to one of my daughters for a year as her commuting vehicle. However, I never had seen myself as a rider of e-bikes until my heart arrhythmia got to the point that I could not ride up any of the gorgeous climbs we have here in Boulder without my heart rate shooting up uncontrollably.

That all changed after discussing with Bosch the possibility of building myself a custom titanium road frame incorporating a Bosch motor and battery. I had ridden this system a lot and found its mid-bike weight location, its high torque and long battery life, and its smooth, quiet operation to be nice. It took some time and persistence on both ends to complete our agreement, as Bosch had not yet authorized any small framebuilders to use its pedal-assist systems — it only had such relationships with large bike manufacturers.

During those months of waiting, I had another unsuccessful operation on my heart, and my arrhythmia seemed to only have gotten worse. The value to me of an e-bike thus rose even more.

I finished building my custom titanium e-bike in early May and have ridden it a lot since, almost to the exclusion of all of my other bikes. It was exciting to make, as it incorporates a motor mount welded into the frame that is 3D-printed in titanium; GSD Global made that happen for us.

The e-bike has been life-changing, having given me back the mountain riding and group riding I’ve been missing. I had a great month without any arrhythmias whatsoever after my first ride on it. Since the beginning of June, however, my heart has been a lot more sensitive for some reason, and I have had arrhythmia bouts.

Photo: Brad Kaminski

Without the e-bike, I would have been completely grounded at home or creeping along in my lowest gear on one of my other bikes when my heart is that sensitive. With the e-bike, I can still go riding while keeping the intensity low and minimizing arrhythmia incidents. Better yet, if I go into arrhythmia, I can put the bike in TURBO and get home over hill and dale with a minimum of effort, keeping my heart rate in the 70s while the Bosch motor puts out 275% as much power as I am. Without the motor, I would have to go super slowly and stop every time my heart rate spiked again, or I would have to call somebody to come and take me home.

That freedom, to know that I can always get home if I have a heart problem, is worth an enormous amount to me.

I even once again partake in the VeloNews Wednesday Worlds lunch ride, which includes steep, hotly-contested climbs. It was something I used to love doing and haven’t been able to do for five years. If I were to try to keep up with the VeloNews staff on those climbs on an unassisted road bike now, my heart would be constantly in arrhythmia. Instead, with this e-bike, I can ride along at an easy, sub-110bpm talking pace (on ECO on the flats and on the TOUR, or even SPORT setting on the big climbs) while the rest of the VeloNews staff hammers each other trying to be the first up the climb. And it is so smooth; it feels like a normal bike, with a huge tailwind!

Lennard Zinn on his e-bike. Photo: Brad Kaminski

My annual Zinn Fondo ride that I used to do with a large group of friends every year on my birthday in late June was famous for how long and hard it was. We rode from first light into the dark on one of the longest days of the year—generally around 200 miles with around 20,000 feet of climbing, often including a lot of dirt sections as well. My last one was when I turned 55, a month before the day I had my first arrhythmia.

I used to love long, hard, all-day rides like that. Fortunately, the 85-mile range of the Bosch system with a 500Wh battery on my e-bike makes it possible for me to once again join in on at least a portion of the epic rides undertaken by buddies of mine. I rode in mid-June with about 20 friends up Fall River Road (unpaved, cars not permitted) in Rocky Mountain National Park and then over and down Trail Ridge Road, the highest continuous paved road in the USA topping out at 12,182 feet (3,713 meters). It had been five years to the day since I was up over the top of Trail Ridge Road — I was riding my bike home to Boulder from Steamboat Springs that day, a great, 200-mile solo ride. A couple of weeks later, I did an epic (and final) Zinn Fondo, also riding from dawn to dusk and over very high passes, lots of it on dirt. Those were the last long, hard rides ever for me, as a month later I had my first heart arrhythmia, and I haven’t been able to do anything of the sort since.

I didn’t miss pushing my body hard to get up over 12,000 feet. I thoroughly enjoyed riding up with minimal effort, not even breaking a sweat (since I have to keep my heart rate from getting to 110bpm). I totally enjoyed the whole experience, riding with a couple of friends going at a good pace, and I even took the time to talk to others and offer assistance where needed (I had enough extra battery power to push a buddy with serious leg cramps up the last section to the top), and I only even needed a couple of sips from my bottle. To get to the Trail Ridge visitor’s center and not be tired, hungry, and out of water—well, that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me when I got there by bike.

I also love that I can again ride the cyclocross courses I used to love racing on for so many years. As this bike has disc brakes and lots of mud clearance for cyclocross tires, it’s perfect! Cyclocross was always like being a kid again for me — riding around in the mud and horrible conditions with a bunch of good friends. And I feel like a kid again on my e-bike! As one who used to think of myself as being too big and tough to ride an e-bike, it is quite a transformation for me to be riding one. I’m grinning ear to ear most of the time, and I’m certainly feeling no shame when I’m on it. It gives me great freedom to enjoy all kinds of riding again, including (especially) with other people. It also is awesome, now that the weather is hot, to be able to go out riding and feel more comfortable in the heat. Riding at higher speed at a lower aerobic intensity is a perfect way to stay cooler!

An American in France

What’s it like to be an American cyclist living in France? Watch to get professional road cyclist Joe Dombrowski’s view.