When you’re a kid, a bike spells freedom. Long before you can get a driver’s license, long before you can afford a car, you can hop onto this simple machine that converts human power—through a simple sequence of levers, gears, and wheels—into distance and speed. To ride a bike, all you need is a heart, legs, a sense of balance, and maybe a pocket wrench. There’s a reason why the bike is the vehicle of choice in many disaster movies, from The Stand to The Expanse. You can check the gears, inflate the tires, and maneuver deftly around car accidents or travel overland through a desolate landscape to reunite with your tribe.
The beauty of an electric bike is that it has a motor that does a lot of the work for you. But, of course, it requires plugs, grids, and infrastructure. Depending on your perspective, that means an ebike is either a fun way to get as many people out of their cars as possible, or it’s an unforgivable violation of the one core principle of bikedom. It’s like one of those line drawings that’s either a beautiful princess or an ugly old hag. Look at it one way, you see one thing. You can’t see the other until your brain makes a shift.
I’ve tested electric bikes for the WIRED Gadget Lab for years. For a long time, I thought these ideological splits—between what is a bike and what isn’t, and who rides them, and why—were only of interest to my fellow time-wasting eccentrics and hobbyists.
That was until the Covid-19 pandemic and the climate change crisis brought my time-wasting, eccentric hobby up to a level of national prominence. In a global pandemic, electric bikes made it easier for people to move around cities without risking close contact on crowded public transportation. They’re also a car substitute, a low-carbon solution to urban congestion in a world increasingly ravaged by climate change.
But even as cities move to encourage ebikes, they also have to regulate them—which means figuring out exactly what an ebike is. It is pretty easy to tell an analog bike by looking at it—two wheels, some pedals, and a frame, done. But some ebikes look like heavy, miniature cars, with big wheels and cargo racks fore and aft. Others look almost like motorcycles, except with two vestigial pedals.
In order to keep the ever thinning boundary between electric bikes, electric scooters, and electric motorcycles defined, many governing bodies impose arbitrary constraints. They differ from city to city, county to county, and state to state. Within city limits, an ebike can only assist the rider up to 20 miles per hour. In some places, it can’t have a throttle. Sometimes it counts as a motorized vehicle and is prohibited in public parklands, but sometimes it’s allowed on trails.
It’s confusing. I can’t ride them in the car lane because they can’t go over 20 mph (unless sometimes they can?). On the other hand, riding one in the bike lane is a sure way to get everyone—cars, cyclists, pedestrians, dogs—glaring at me.
Most companies want their electric bikes to be legally defined as bikes, and for their customers to enjoy the same freedoms and safety protections as other cyclists. Anyone can ride a bike; for scooters and motorcycles, you need a license.
Of course, there is a tidy way out of this legal, logistical mess that the ebike world has created for itself. You simply make electric bikes that look and feel exactly like analog bikes, and treat them as such. And no one wants to make a bikier ebike than LeMond. You only have to see a picture of him from back in the ’80s—mouth open, holding up his number in astonishment for the camera—to feel a palpable sense of wonder and joy at the sport, at being young and the world opening up before you, blood pumping through your superhero heart as you prepare to fly down a mountain.