"It's medicine," read the text message.
"Say yes," came another.
Both tires on my bike were flat from the long winter that still didn't quite feel over. It was week three of social distancing thanks to COVID-19, and I found myself pedaling out of the SFR parking lot on an e-bike from our neighbor shop, Mellow Velo.
Normally this bike gets rented to tourists here on spring break, but I've been able to borrow it for more than a month after state health orders mid-March ended sales and rentals at the shop.
Shop owner David Bell had made the offer earlier via those texts, and his two-minute tutorial included a prophecy: "You will have none of the chaos of driving, none of the bad habits that we do while driving, because you are just replacing that time that usually creates pockets of anxiety in everybody's day with something where there is no opportunity to foster any of that."
The contemporary e-bike is nothing like the smoking moped or the lurching hulk of earlier iterations. The one I borrowed has four power-assist settings plus a boost throttle for short bursts. The motor doesn't just go when the power switch flips on; rather, it responds to the force applied to the pedals.
The first things I noticed were the smells, dough baking as I rode behind Back Road Pizza; corn frying and pork roasting at La Choza; fresh cut sheets of plywood and frames in Las Soleras; then more recently, all manner of blooming flowers. The silent motor takes the pain out of riding. I get exercise, but that last killer 500 feet of hill to my friends' driveway off the River Trail doesn't take heavy breathing.
In fact, it was not hard to keep the bike hovering above 30 mph, surpassing the speed limit on roads such as Camino Carlos Rey. Then there was the long, exploratory, got-all-the-time-in-the-world ride I took on a sunny and windy Sunday afternoon where I covered 12 miles without really thinking about it. The world feels both bigger and smaller on this bike. And using the bike to deliver weekly SFR print editions to the post office for subscribers barely felt like work.
Still, there are some puzzling and frustrating aspects to cycling that the electric motor does not fix. I'm still wondering about the dude who flipped me off as I slowed for a stop sign and he turned right. And since this machine is equipped with a speedometer, I know that I'm already breaking the 25 mph posted speed limit when vehicles rip around to pass.
The roads, however, don't seem quite as daunting when you know you've got extra help from the motor. Plus, the vehicular traffic has been lighter than normal thanks to the stay-at-home orders.
Mostly, my trips, even long ones, don't use more than a quarter of the battery power. Most of the time I make several trips before I recharge. And just once, I let it run all the way down so I could see how hard it was to create some stored energy using the regeneration function.
Turns out I'm late to the party.
Dr. Stewart Anderson has been commuting from his home in the South Capitol to his job at a Southside emergency room since January 2019 on an e-bike. He has also launched a mobile medical practice and is biking to house calls.
"You're still riding a bike but it's 50% easier, and you can still show up within a reasonable amount of time and not be sweaty," he says. "It just gets you out of your car and brings joy to the whole process of riding…and it's good for the planet, your body and your mind."
Bell says the most frequent argument he hears is that e-bikes are "cheating" or they aren't "old school" enough for some.
"It's so hard to receive that information because I really just don't think American cyclists are older school than French people or Italian people or Spanish people or Japanese people that actually have incorporated bicycles into their culture in a very meaningful way," he says. "Fifty-five to 60% of bicycles sold in those countries are now e-bikes. It's not an accident. And they are not less old school and they are not less traditional. They just understand that this is a really incredible piece of infrastructure."
Mellow Vello is not the only game in town for e-bikes, of course. But for Sleeping Bear Electric Bikes, e-bikes are the only game.
Phil Lepak opened the store at La Tienda in Eldorado in 2018, his second store in a chain he started in Michigan six years earlier. Sales volume here has been similar so far to what it was like when he started there—steady at first, followed by rapid growth—and New Mexico looks to increase its interest in e-bikes.
Although his shop also has been limited to repairs rather than sales since the COVID-19 public health orders, Lepak has a list of appointments for what he hopes is a reopening later this month.
"When e-bikes first came out they were considered to be for older people, but people of all ages are buying them because they realize it's a good way to get exercise and to use as basic transportation," he says.
With a price range between $1,500 and $3,900, they're not cheap. But cheaper than a car? You bet. And the medicine works.
Traditionally, Santa Fe celebrates Bike Week in the month of May. The group rides, workshops, games and more got canceled along with so much other fun stuff. But organizers are focusing on the whole month now. Solo and small groups of riders can still get inspired and stay connected with ideas at santafebikeweek.com. The May Masquerade, for example, asks bikers to wear costumes and masks and to pose for pictures in front of a red wall at the Violet Crown for use in a "virtual parade."
Race you there?