Craig Hill: Think e-bikes are for cheaters and the unfit? Think again

Ravi Kempaiah, 32, is attempting to pedal 5,000 miles this summer to set a new e-bike world record.
Ravi Kempaiah, 32, is attempting to pedal 5,000 miles this summer to set a new e-bike world record. Courtesy

Sometime this week, Ravi Kempaiah will pedal from Idaho into Washington on an ambitious journey.

The 32-year-old University of Chicago nanotechnology doctoral student hast three goals. First, he is looking for a memorable summer adventure. Second, he wants to be the first person to take a 5,000-mile trip on an electric bicycle. Third, he wants to help boost the popularity of e-bikes and squash the myths.

“People think e-bikes are for lazy ones who can’t pedal or who need exercise or those who need to lose weight,” Kempaiah said by phone during a stop in North Dakota. “I want to change that notion so people look at it from a different angle.”

Kempaiah, who grew up in India and came to the United States for school, started July 18 in Madison, Wisconsin. He is taking a meandering 5,000-mile ride to San Diego. He hopes to finish no later than Aug. 21 so he can return to Chicago in time for school.

Completing the trip would earn him a spot in the Guinness Book of World Records, surpassing the current e-bike record of 4,443 miles.

But Kempaiah says bringing awareness to this mode of transportation is more important than the record.

“People think it is cheating,” Kempaiah said. “But once you try it you see it is a completely different thing. It is the same workout, but you go farther and faster.”

You still have to pedal on most e-bikes. It’s not a motorcycle.

Kempaiah estimates he can go about 160 miles while expending the same energy he’d use to go 110 miles on his road bike.

“So if you bike 10 miles for your commute, you can go about 15 miles with the same amount of a workout,” he said.

Bikes start at about $1,000 says Steve Gehrke of Tumwater’s Fun Bikes Northwest. Rentals are available in the South Sound at Gehrke’s company (starting at $30 for two hours) and University Place’s Wattz Up E-bikes (starting at $20-30 for the first hour, depending the bike).

Kempaiah says most of the feedback he’s received so far has been positive. It’s come mostly from bike commuters, e-bike enthusiasts and electric car owners.

“All you hear about right now is electric cars, but you don’t hear much about electric bikes,” Kempaiah said.

Trevor Hansen, a technician at Wattz Up E-Bikes, rides an electric mountain bike. He says the bike makes hills easier to handle and makes the sport accessible to people who might not be able to ride traditional bikes.

Hansen says the University Place shop is a 1-year-old offshoot of the Down Right Cozy Fireplace Shop. Fireplace sales are slow in the summer, so the shop switches to e-bikes.

The shop is one of the few locations in the South Sound where you can rent or buy e-bikes, but Kempaiah believes that will soon change.

“These (e-bikes) are the future and in about five years you will see them everywhere,” Kempaiah said.

The notion that it is cheating must first be squashed, Kempaiah said.

Cycling experts have warned “mechanical doping” is already problem in the sport. Earlier this year, a racer was caught using a motorized bike at the cyclocross world championships.

“One bad apple brings a bad name to the whole community of e-bikers,” Kempaiah said. “It is cheating if you use it in a race, but it is not cheating if you are commuting.

“What is cheating is sitting in a big SUV and going to the office.”

Kempaiah discovered e-bikes in 2013 and “ever since, I’ve been amazed what these bikes can do for me and people who commute. The technology is amazing.”

His bike requires a charge every 100 miles. He’s carrying extra batteries for his 5,000-mile trip and he charges them when he sleeps.

His Stromer e-bike has several features uncommon on road bikes. The GPS-enabled bike has a built-in display and can be tracked if it is stolen. The owner can even disable the motor if it is stolen.

The bike can receive directions via a smartphone, and the battery allows for lights that are brighter than traditional bike accessories, Kempaiah said.

Throw in the fact that he goes from an 18-mph cyclist to a 23-mph cyclist, and Kempaiah was hooked. “I was blown away,” he said. Last year he did a 310-mile ride with 25,000 feet of climbing in less than 24 hours, something beyond the capabilities of most cyclists on a standard bike.

“You feel absolutely bionic,” Kempaiah said.

He believes these bikes will be revolutionary for people who might think commuting to work by bike is too far or too challenging.

“E-bikes are a hidden gem,” Kempaiah said. “Most people don’t know about them, but those who do absolutely love them. I hope people will give it a try. Just rent one for the day.”

If he had used a traditional bike for his summer adventure, he likely would have needed to take a more direct route to San Diego. He wouldn’t have had time for side trips to places like Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

He likely would have skipped Washington entirely. Instead he plans to visit Olympic National Park and the South Sound.

“Everybody needs some adventure,” Kempaiah said. “This is something I will never forget.”

Try an e-bike

Fun Bikes Northwest: Steve Gehrke of Tumwater runs this mobile service that will bring a variety of e-bikes to you to rent ($30-65). He also sells e-bikes. funbikesnw.com

Wattz Up E-Bikes: This University Place shop sells and rents ($30-125) a variety of e-bikes. wattzup.net

Bike Tech: Located in Tacoma and Washington, the shop sells e-bikes and makes them available for test rides. biketechonline.com

Local bike shops: Some shops sell e-bikes, but most don’t keep an extensive selection in stock.