Learning to Ride an Electric Bike

Set realistic expectations.

One way you can reduce your transportation carbon footprint is to learn to ride an electric bike safely and then to make riding it part of your normal routine.

This story began with the previous post entitled Riding an Electric Bike is Good for You and the Planet. If you read that post, you will know why I decided to test ride an electric bike and what happened when I took a demo bike home. For readers picking up the story here, it will be useful for you to know that I bought an electric bike after crashing in my driveway during the home demo week.

I have owned my electric bike for a little over two months. In the hope of persuading you to try an electric bike yourself, I am sharing my real-life experiences during that time (some good and some not). If you are already an electric bike aficionado, please share your story in the comment section below.

Our Old Bikes Get a Second Life

When we purchased our electric bikes, I asked the store owner Wally if he knew of an organization that would accept our old bikes as a donation. He suggested the Cambria Bike Kitchen in the town where we live. I had seen the Cambria Bike Kitchen building but I did not know what was meant by a bike kitchen.

Via Facebook messages, I was connected with a volunteer named Larry. I texted him to make arrangements for my spouse and me to drop off the bikes and a bike rack that does not work with our new bikes.

Larry Kotowicz and Chad Rowe with Donation Bikes at Cambria Bike Kitchen - November 2019
Cambria Bike Kitchen volunteers (left to right) Larry Kotowicz and Chad Rowe with the bikes we donated.

While we were there I asked Larry to tell me about the Cambria Bike Kitchen. It is a nonprofit organization that offers space, tools, and expertise to people who want to repair their own bikes. For a small donation, they will repair your bike for you. Donated bikes get checked out and cleaned up before they are given to kids or adults in need and sometimes bikes are sold.

The Cambria Bike Kitchen provides adult-supervised trail rides for kids of various ages and abilities. This helps kids learn biking skills while enjoying being outside in our beautiful forest.

No, It Was Not Just Like Riding a Bike

Chances are you have heard someone say or said yourself “It is just like riding a bike.” meaning it is second nature or you will easily remember how to do it.

I beg to differ with the above statement at least as it relates to me and my electric bike.

Why would I have thought that after not having ridden a bike in many years, I would hop on an electric bike and instantly be a proficient rider? Most likely it was a combination of enthusiasm and wishful thinking. In hindsight, I realize that my expectations of myself were not realistic.

Compounding the problem was that while I was away for several weeks in October my spouse adapted to electric bike riding and was soon zipping around town running errands. I wanted to be able to do that, too.

My spouse gave me a refresher on bicycle regulations and hand signals and helped me learn how to operate the controls on my electric bike. I did do some practice riding around the bank parking lot at the end of our street and on some of the flatter streets in town. But the thing is we loaded the bikes onto our kayak trailer, now equipped with a removable bike rack, drove them to a spot to practice, and then rode the bikes. This was not exactly riding in the “real world.”

Yet, I declared myself ready for a trip to Soto’s True Earth Market about ¾ of a mile from our house.

A Harrowing Ride to the Grocery Market

The ride got off to a good start. I made it down our steep driveway and street without a mishap.

My spouse had warned me that the bike lane on Main Street would end about halfway between our house and Soto’s. Once you reach that point, you encounter cars parallel parked almost continuously along the curb.

As I neared the end of the bike lane, I signaled, checked for cars, and moved left into the middle of the road. You need to be careful not to ride too close to parked cars or you could get whacked when someone who is not looking opens their car door.

I was thankful to be riding an electric bike. Using the top pedal-assist level and a high gear I was riding about 18-20 miles an hour on this section of the road that is marked with a speed limit of 25 miles per hour.

Legally you can ride a bike in the middle of the road if you are going the same speed as the cars, there is no bike lane, or the bike lane is not safe. Apparently, some of the people driving cars behind us were unaware of the California Vehicle Code or were just impatient. One car illegally tailgated us and another one conducted an illegal and unsafe pass on the left. This stretch of road is less than ½ mile long so it was not as if we were backing up traffic. Geez, people.

Soto's True Earth Market Storefront
Entrance to Soto’s True Earth Market in Cambria, CA – photo Soto’s.

We parked our bikes on the sidewalk near the entrance to Soto’s making sure that pedestrians would not be impeded. After winding a lock around the pole of a street sign and through the bike frames we removed the keys locking the wheels. My spouse grabbed the saddlebags that we used to load up with our groceries.

On the way home, we did everything in reverse.

By the time we got to our street, I was already tired because for some reason I had felt compelled to ride as fast as I could so that I would not tick off the motorists behind me. I wobbled around the corner and then rode up the street and the driveway at a virtual snail’s pace using the top pedal-assist mode and lowest gear. I made it to the top of the driveway exhausted and out of breath.

Wow, I have walked on the sidewalk and driven in a car up and down Main Street hundreds of times, but I had no idea how dangerous it is for people riding a bike until one of those people was me.

A Crisis of Confidence

I figured if we persevered, followed the law, and were polite to everyone we encountered, eventually people in the community would get used to seeing us riding around town and would be okay with it.

That was before the second crash.

This one occurred at the bottom of the street. My spouse had made the signal light but I had to stop on a very steep curve. Instead of stopping I crashed into the curb and fell off. While I was sitting there making sure all my limbs were intact two people driving down the street stopped and asked if I needed assistance. This show of caring heartened me. Fortunately, I only had a bruised ankle and some scratches. I knew it was important for me to get back on the bike and finish the trip. And I did.

Unfortunately, the second crash shattered my confidence.

A few days later, we decided to ride to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve to take a walk. Poised at the top of the driveway, I could not move. I was too afraid to ride my bike down it.

A Way Forward

Sometimes the best course of action is to suck it up and power through your fear but sometimes it is best to step back and rethink what you are doing.

The electric bikes had been my idea. They represented one part of our quest to be able to get from point A to B without burning fossil fuels. And we had laid down a significant chunk of cash to buy and equip the bikes.

I pondered what to do.

The solution became apparent but not during an “ah-ha” moment. It was more like a “duh” moment. If I am committed to getting off fossil fuels, and I am, then I need to learn to ride the electric bike. However, it is okay for me to care for myself and to learn at my own pace.

So it is back to the basics for me.

I am learning how to ride a bike again and practicing operating my electric bike on my own terms. For now, I walk my bike down the driveway and the street and then ride it to wherever we are going, which does not include the market, yet. On the way back, I ride up the street and the driveway but I give myself permission to stop and walk my bike the rest of the way if I need to (this is not easy).

Linda Poppenheimer on Rock Bench at Fiscalini Ranch Preserve in Cambria, CA - November 2019
Happily, I have achieved one goal which was to ride my bike to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve on the edge of the Pacific Ocean and then ride back home.

How long will it take for me to become a proficient and confident electric bike rider? It could take months, a year, or even longer.

Imagine Yourself on an Electric Bike

After reading the above story, I will understand if you are thinking that I do not make a very good electric bike advocate. But I think I do and this is why.

We all need to live more lightly on Earth and for many of us, that means we need to change the way we live. Some changes are easy and others are not. The important thing is to be committed to doing both.

For me things, like composting and cutting plastic bag waste, were easy. Learning to ride an electric bike has been hard but I am doing it.

Linda Poppenheimer at Mechanics Bank ATM in Cambria, CA - November 2019
Here I am depositing a check into the ATM at the Mechanics Bank in Cambria, CA. We stopped here on the way back from a ride to the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve.

I imagine a world where bicyclists of all ages and abilities enjoy riding on safe bike pathways that go everywhere. In the meantime, if you are driving your car and see me pedaling along the street, thank you for sharing the road with me.

Featured Image at Top: Wooden cubes with letters rotating from saying DONT to DOIT – Photo credit iStock/Eoneren.

Related Posts

Riding an Electric Bike is Good for You and the Planet

Freedom on two (or three) wheels.

E-bikes make it possible for people of all ages, abilities, and incomes to get around town via a carbon-free means of transportation. And it is good exercise.

As a kid, I rode a bike to and from school and around our neighborhood. Back then, I never thought of bike riding as being an environmentally friendly transportation method or that it was a form of exercise. For me riding a bike was about freedom and fun.

There was never a time when I did not own a bike but as the years passed I rode less and less. I held onto my last bike for years because I had every intention of getting back into the habit of riding it…someday.

Driving a Car to Take a Walk

I thought my bike riding aspirations might become a reality when my spouse and I moved from Southern California to Cambria a small town on the California Central Coast.

Situated on the edge of the Pacific Ocean two miles from our house sits the Fiscalini Ranch Preserve a beautiful swath of land crisscrossed with hiking paths. It seemed like it would be a wonderful place to take a daily walk (it is). I naively thought we would ride our bikes there, take a walk, and ride back home. The daily walks materialized but the biking riding did not.

I blame our driveway.

Our house is perched at the end of a long steep driveway (with a turn halfway up) that we share with our next-door neighbor. It leads onto a steep street. Driving my car up the driveway the first time was a daunting experience that has only gotten moderately less so in the twelve years that we have lived here. Riding a human only powered bike up these asphalt inclines was and still is not within my ability.

I remember one of my sons said to me some years ago something along the lines of “Isn’t it hypocritical for you to drive a car someplace so you can go for a walk?”

No, I do not think it is hypocritical. Environmentalists are people, too. We do not always make environmentally friendly choices and we also know how to justify our actions (just like everyone else).

In May 2013, while I was writing a post about National Bike Month, I became interested in trying bike riding again. But I did not do it. Occasionally, since then, I have looked longingly at my bike hanging upside down from a rafter in our garage.

But the driveway and street have persisted in their steepness. It seemed more and more likely that my bike riding days had come to an end.

Then I discovered electric bikes.

National Drive Electric Week

I think I had been aware that electric bikes existed but I had not really thought about one in conjunction with myself until I joined the SLO Climate Coalition.

Last summer the Coalition’s decarbonized transportation team was preparing to host two events in San Luis Obispo for National Drive Electric Week that would showcase electric cars and electric bikes. To support the team, I wrote a post entitled Electric Vehicles are Good for People and the Environment with information about U.S. transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions, electric cars and bikes, and National Drive Electric Week.

Researching this topic had me pondering the possibility of riding a bike again.

My spouse and I are striving to live more lightly on Earth and to reduce our transportation carbon footprint. So far this has mostly been accomplished by working out of our home, combining errands, and walking as many places as possible.

We have not replaced our gasoline-powered cars with electric versions because we are hoping that other transportation methods will make car ownership obsolete and besides it does not fit within our current budget.

I got to thinking “Maybe we could ride electric bikes for all the stuff we need to do where we live and to places where we like to walk.” My vision expanded to “And we could take bikes on the bus to San Luis Obispo and then ride them to run errands, go to meetings and appointments, and for fun and other activities.”

Determined to test ride an electric bike, I marked my calendar for the Ride & Drive event scheduled for Saturday, September 14.

Mayor Heidi Harmon with SLO Climate Coalition Leaders at 2019 Drive Electric Week in San Luis Obispo, CA
San Luis Obispo Mayor Heidi Harmon paused from her test ride of an electric cargo bike from BoltAbout to pose with SLO Climate Coalition leaders (left to right) Justin Bradshaw, Eric Veium, and Barry Rands at National Drive Electric Week in San Luis Obispo, CA on September 14, 2019.

That day BoltAbout and Wally’s Bicycle Works both had booths and a variety of electric bikes for people to try out.

First, I tried an electric bike from BoltAbout that was similar to the model they lease with an option to buy. After not having been on a bike for many years, I was pleased that I did not fall off. When the pedal-assist motor kicked in, I zoomed by the people in the parking lot checking out the electric cars.

At Wally’s booth, I spotted a bike that looked easier for me to get on and off so I asked if I could try that one. It was a Votani electric bike. The seat was comfy and I could see and work the controls. What I really liked was being able to sit up straight while riding it. After a couple of circuits around the parking lot, I was thinking “This is the bike I want.” We thanked Wally and took one of his business cards.

This is me on my Votani electric bike test ride at National Drive Electric Week in San Luis Obispo, CA on September 14, 2019.

Testing an E-Bike at Home

Now, I was seriously considering buying an electric bike but I did not want to buy a bike until I had tried riding it up and down our driveway and the street.

The next week we showed up at Wally’s Bicycle Works store in San Luis Obispo. Wally remembered us. I asked him if I could rent the Votani bike for a week. He let me do it free of charge.

At home, I dusted off my bike helmet and then proved to myself that I could ride the bike down and up our driveway and the street. Going down was terrifying and going up was difficult. I figured it would get easier as I rode more and got in better bike riding shape.

One day during the test week, coming up the driveway, I crashed into the curb and fell off. An instant before I hit the ground, I knew I was falling but there was not a thing I could do about it. My spouse came running down the driveway. Laying there I could feel myself going into shock. I was badly hurt.

I will spare you the gruesome details but I had some serious cuts on my left knee and elbow and the next day enormous bruised patches appeared all over the left side of my body. It took weeks for me to heal and I will have some nasty looking scars on my knee forever.

I am definitely not someone who enjoys tacking chances with my body so it would have not been out of character for me to take the bike back to Wally’s and call it day.

Strangely, I was more determined than ever to buy an electric bike and to learn how to ride it. I had been afraid of falling off and getting hurt. But now that I had fallen off and gotten hurt, it was as if I had overcome some kind of mental hurdle. I did not need to worry about it anymore because it had already happened.

A few days later we took the demo bike back to Wally’s and he ordered a new one for me. My spouse walked out of the store that day pushing a Raleigh electric bike equipped with saddlebags.

Wally of Wally's Bicycle Works with My New Votani E-Bike
This is Wally the owner of Wally’s Bicycle Works posing with my new Votani electric bike equipped with saddlebags.

A week later I picked up my new electric bike and that is when the adventure really began. If you are interested, you can read about it in the next post.

Start your own electric bike adventure by visiting a local bike shop or bike-share kiosk and taking one for a spin.

Featured Image at Top: An electric bike control panel is shown mounted on the handlebars – photo credit iStock/123ducu.

Related Posts