You might have heard by now that 1969 was the summer of Apollo 11, and Woodstock, and Chappaquiddick. But in my neighbourhood, out in the Philadelphia suburbs, it was the summer of Vrroom.
Made by Mattel, Vrroom — usually written with an exclamation point; Vrroom! — was a bicycle designed, as one commercial explained, “to look and sound just like a motorcycle.” A flick of a switch, and all at once your bike roared like a shovelhead.
All that noise didn’t make your bike go any faster, of course, but that was hardly the point.
I had forgotten all about Vrroom until recently. I was doing my usual bike circuit around the north half of Long Pond, in Belgrade. As I turned left, I found myself accidentally merging into the Trek Across Maine, a three-day event in which cyclists ride from Brunswick to Augusta to Waterville and back again.
It felt good to suddenly join the pack, and to find myself surrounded by all those other cyclists. But it was awkward, too, and not only because I wasn’t wearing a race number. More embarrassing was the fact that I was passing everyone, sailing up the hill on Castle Island Road in front of the Travis Mills Foundation for wounded veterans while everyone else was grinding away in low gear.
That’s because my bike was no ordinary road bike, but one of the new e-bikes now taking over the cycling world.
You still have to pedal, but the battery silently doubles the amount of power provided by your muscles to the wheels.
Although they’ve been around since the 1990s, until recently e-bikes were sold mostly in China and in Europe. But now sales are through the roof; in 2017 over a quarter-million of them were sold in this country, a 25 per cent jump from the year before.
The principle is fairly simple: You plug the bike in at night, and it charges a battery that provides an extra level of support as you ride. You still have to pedal, but the battery silently doubles the amount of power provided by your muscles to the wheels.
For older riders like me — I’m in my 60s — the assist makes all the difference in the world. I’ve been riding all my life, and while I’ve never been a competitive cyclist, biking has always been my favourite form of exercise. In part it’s because I like the solitude of riding, especially on the remote trails where I take my mountain bike. I’ve encountered moose and deer and bald eagles during my rides in the Kennebec Highlands Reserved Land, eaten my lunch by a rushing stream, explored blueberry barrens high atop Vienna Mountain in Kennebec County.
Cycling, like everything else, has gotten harder as I’ve grown older. For much of the year, I live on a dirt road at the bottom of a mile-long hill, and some days I just don’t have the energy to make the ascent. Last summer, I was on my bike a total of five times.
Since I got the e-bike, though, I’ve been riding 15 and 20 miles a day, four or five days a week. It’s been life altering, not just making me fitter, but also raising my spirits, getting me out of the house and back into the mountains.
I felt more than a little guilty as I soared past the other riders in the Trek Across Maine. A couple of them called out to me as I passed. “What in the world is that?” asked one. “That is so awesome,” said another.
Ryan Rzepecki, the chief executive of Jump Bikes, a leading manufacturer of e-bikes, says that this is the beginning of a multi-year shift away from regular pedal to electric bikes for his company. “When people first jump on an e-bike, their face lights up,” said Rzepecki. “It’s exciting and joyful in a way that you don’t get from a regular bike.”
Nowhere was this clearer to me than when I left the Trek Across Maine peloton and paused at the top of something called Blueberry Hill. For a moment I thought I was alone. But then I saw another rider had pulled over, and he had the same kind of bike as mine, a Specialised Turbo Como. We exchanged goofy grins, and I told him that the bike had changed my life.
At that moment, from down a mountain trail, came a dozen wounded veterans also on e-bikes. Some men had prosthetic arms and legs. They were from the Travis Mills Foundation, as my companion explained, and some of them hadn’t been on a bike in years.
Now they’d ridden all the way to the top of Blueberry Hill.
“You’re not the only one whose life got changed,” the man said.
I rang the bell on my bike — ding! — and headed into the mountains, feeling hopeful, feeling as if I still have lots of adventures ahead.
I rang the bell again. Vrroom, I thought.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan, a contributing opinion writer, is a professor of English at Barnard College and the author of the novel Long Black Veil.