We have a new tool in our mapping kit, and it's quickly becoming our favorite. BH Easy Motion Bicycles asked us to test one of their Mountain e-bikes this season. We didn't know anything about e-bikes, but we use several types of bicycles in our field work, so this was a perfect opportunity to learn about this new ride in the world of cycling.
There are a few flavors of electric bicycles in the market today. The Rebel Lynx is a Class 1 electric assist (e-assist) bicycle which means there is no free ride - you have to pedal it, and it provides an assist based on how hard you pedal and what setting you choose. The assist comes from an electric motor that is part of the pedal system. A Yamaha e-motor is geared to the bottom bracket spindle, so as you pedal it can 'assist' your energy output with some of its own. The result is a very smooth, seamless enhancement of your pedal stroke. The bike never jumps forward; there is no sensation that it can 'get away from you', it just calmly delivers a helping hand (or leg, in this case) as you pedal away. It makes no noise - this is a silent assist, and it cannot spin the wheel or otherwise impact the environment in a negative way. When you reach 20 mph the motor stops assisting, and you can pedal the bike freely if you want to maintain a higher speed. You can pedal the bike freely from a dead stop as well, the bicycle works just like a regular bicycle when the electric motor is turned off.
The computer offers 5 levels of assist, from Eco thru Extra, and calculates a prospective range at all times. It even greets you with a big WELCOME message when you turn it on. When we start off in Eco mode at mile 1 and 100% charge it suggests a range of 107 miles, at Extra Power that drops to 45 miles. The type of rides we use bicycles for are usually less than 20 miles so this is all quite favorable. We use the middle setting, called Standard, for most of our riding. On one ride of 26 miles we tried to drain the battery by using higher settings but we ran out of energy long before the battery did. On that ride we did a 3 mile climb, followed by a 2 mile climb, and finished with a 5 mile climb that we probably would not have chosen without the benefit of our new friend. Which is exactly why this type of bicycle will be a revelation for many cyclists - it allows you to choose routes that are a little harder that day, even among serious cyclists with very high fitness levels. It is still a personal challenge, I was working hard and pedaling up the last climb, but I was also really enjoying it. A little e-assist goes a long way!
Our type of fieldwork is certainly fun, but it can also get tiresome. When we take someone along for a day they realize that 12 hours in the Lizard Tundra exploring back roads and finding trailheads involves a lot of stop and go, and backing up, and pulling over, and starting up again than they were expecting.
The typical 'recon stop' means we drive for a stretch until we start to get close to a trailhead, campsite, overlook, intersection or other point of interest on our working map or in our notes. We slow down and start scanning the forest for a clue - this could be an obvious parking lot or a very faded blue blaze on a tree trunk 10 feet from the road. We spot it, pull over, turn off the truck, take off our seatbelt, get out of the truck, grab our GPS, camera or tablet (often all three), and document the area to record position and note condition. Is it a dirt road, does it have a gate, is there a parking area, a campsite, a restroom; or is it an overgrown, abandoned trail that appears no-one has used for a decade? Then we climb back in the truck, put the tablet back in the RAM mount, stow our gear, put on our seatbelt, start the motor, and drive on. We may drive 5 miles, or 1 mile, or only 50 yards before we do it again. If we overshoot it we stop and reverse to find what we saw, or thought we saw. 12 hours and 100+ miles later you can see how this gets less inviting, and certainly loses the aura of romantic adventuring in the outback. It's a job, and we have a set number of days, and we want to cover a particular section of map on this trip. Get to work, people!
Pedaled 3 miles to figure out what the signs would say to find... nothing.
The first thing I noticed using the BH Emotion e-bike was the sheer efficiency. I could stop faster and much easier - narrow forest roads can be problematic for a full size Toyota Tundra to 'park' - and there was no time spent clambering in and out of the vehicle with gear. I stop at the intersection, spin my Nittany Mountain Works hip pack around, unzip it to find my camera, GPS and tablet, record the data, make notes, zip it up and ride off to the next stop. BAM! Hyper efficiency, and super fun at the same time. Sometimes I never left the bicycle. I could ride the road at 18 mph rather easily and zip into a campsite, take a lap around the picnic table and fire ring, check it for conditions, and keep going. The GPS track will identify the campsite loop. If there was something to note I could stop at the picnic table and have a seat, check things out, take a few pictures and move on. Doing this in the truck, well, we would still be at the pulling-over-to-the-side-of-the-road and fumbling-with-my-seatbelt part.
Typical notes on a working map - the original data is sorta-kinda-maybe accurate but at the end of the day we have a brand new map that we can trust!
Doing recon on campsite locations by bicycle has always been efficient, but the e-bike redefines the experience - especially when we have to think about our loop direction. Or not. Our position may entail starting at the top of a mountain, which implies no matter what direction we choose, we will finish our ride by climbing back up that mountain. The BH Easy Motion allows us to be less concerned with those situations. On our recent week mapping the northern section of Monongahela National Forest, we had many sections of open dirt roads that dead-end a few miles in with a ton of gated road spurs to check out. Driving the Tundra up dead end roads is always a bit anticlimactic - we know we have to turn around at the end, and these roads are usually a bit dull. They are rougher so we have to drive slow, and the process is time consumptive.
The BH Emotion bicycle allowed us to park the truck at the main road and ride the bike up a 3-mile climb to reach multiple gated intersections with other roads and trails, determine how they were gated, posted and signed, and at the end turn around ride back. It didn't matter if we had to climb out of a deep hollow, the e-assist made that part enjoyable. It was immediately apparent this work could be done more efficiently on the BH Emotion Rebel.
15 miles with 22 data stops? No problem!
It also allows us to ride a bicycle along the 4wd roads that we would usually take the truck on, and avoid the scratches, dents and cut tires that we often experience in the Tundra. For the rougher or narrow roads we often return with our KLR650 dual sport motorcycle, which is a fine tool for such work, but less efficient to use on sections only a few miles long. A traditional mountain bike works well, but the going is slow and the energy output is high for not much reward, other than the eventual answering of our questions. The BH Easy Motion is unloaded and on the trail much faster than the KLR, the pedaling assist makes the rougher sections more enjoyable, and we get to the summit, record our data points, and return much more efficiently than either the motorcycle or truck. And we do so silently with no road or trail damage. This bicycle is also built to travel with 5.5 inches of Fox suspension on both ends and a split-pivot swingarm, it can handle anything we may encounter on our adventures.
It took 30 stressful minutes to drive up less than 2 miles of narrow, rocky 4wd road to document the gates and side trails and determine if there was a fire tower standing at the summit (there wasn't). There also wasn't room to turn around when we finally reached the gate which required a difficult backing up to do a 7-point turn between a boulder and a cliff. Look at that road and imagine doing a U-turn in a full-size Tundra CrewMax: we get in those situations all the time! The e-bike would have been a better choice.
Different pubic lands have different rules about e-assist bikes, so check to see where they are allowed. This is a brand new way of thinking, and moving, through the landscape so currently they face a political conundrum regarding the current language of banning 'motorized vehicles' from trails. Thirty years ago, when people first started using bicycles on trails, the land managers had to differentiate between bicycles and motorcycles, Jeeps and ATVs. Bicycles were considered 'mechanized travel', but not motorized. Since bicycles didn't make noise and didn't damage trails the way 'motorized' vehicles could, the term became part of the legislation. Today, 40 years later, we have a new breed of bicycle that remains silent and cannot damage trails and they offer the rider a beneficial pedaling assist, in the form of an electric motor, which is nothing like the 'motor' that was being legislated against in the 1980s. The coming years will see the nuances of this new way of riding get sorted out in the political language as more folks want to experience the joy of pedaling an e-assist bicycle on their public lands.
For Purple Lizard, we're very excited to have found a bicycle that lets us spend more time outdoors, less time driving, sitting behind the wheel and burning fossil fuels, and speeds up our timeline on getting maps completed. For us, the BH Emotion e-bike is a complete win-win on all sides.
The BH Easy Motion Yamaha computer even leaves you with a warm and friendly feeling when you part ways for the day.
For more information on BH Easy Motion Bicycles check out the following links: