Why are e-bikes dividing the cycling community?

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In any sport or activity, there are two clearly defined types of people that take part: the novice that is there for the enjoyment and to try their hand at the activity, and then the hardcore participant that is all about pushing themselves to the absolute maximum.

This divide is possibly no more prevalent than it is in the world of cycling, with some devoting their weekends to taking part in a sportive or progressively more challenging rides, whilst others simply view their bike as their route to work, or for a leisurely pedal around town.

The rise in popularity of the e-bike (or electric bike) has taken this a step further, with them being greeted with negativity from some areas of the cycling community – viewing them as ‘cheating’ or in conflict with what pure cycling is.

To analyse this split in opinion, Evans Cycles has enlisted the help of Sports Psychologist Dr Josephine Perry, who weighs in on the roles of self-identity and goals, looking at the impact they could have on anyone considering an e-bike.

The divide in self-identity, motivation and goals
At the core, how you feel about cycling comes down to whether it sits within your self-identity. This is simply whether you perceive yourself to be a cyclist. If you describe yourself as a cyclist then you will strongly identify with that role and will look for others to acknowledge that too. Many of those with a strong self-identity as a cyclist have grown up with a very specific idea of what a cyclist looks like, does and what type of bike they ride.
Those self-identifying as cyclists may well feel that only regular bikes, pedalled under their own steam count as real bikes. An e-bike may threaten their perceptions. For them, cycling is about the journey and it is a sport. For those who do not have a self-identity as a cyclist then mentally, the bike they use is of no importance, it is just a tool to help them get to their destination. The bike still benefits them as it can help them get fitter, get to work quicker or lets them travel cheaply but it itself has no meaning, it is simply serving a purpose. Those people just want to get places so they can fulfil their role in whatever self-identity they do have. It is not a sport. It is transport.
Where it becomes interesting is how those who have a strong cycling self-identity approach e-bikes to help them when injured as using one may allow them to continue to ride and keep some of their cycling self-identity. The ‘sport’ element will be gone, but some of their passion could still live on.”
“Our motivation is our internal energy which determines how we behave. It directs the ways we think and feel and how we engage with others”.
Most ‘pure’ cyclists have intrinsic motivation. Their need to ride is self-determined and driven by the enjoyment they get from their bike. These riders are unlikely to be open towards e-bikes because it is the process of riding their bike and the need to succeed in their own development they are drawn towards. Their aim is to get towards a state of flow. That feeling when you are completely immersed in your ride. You forget about everything else in your life, you lose any self-consciousness and you feel like your bike is purely an extension of your body. Reaching this state of flow, and the feeling of satisfaction it gives you, even if it only happens occasionally, will be the reason many continue riding.
Each of us comes to cycling with our own identity, motivations, goals, personality traits and
perceptions of what a bike should be. Those can give us a very strong view on exactly what we do and don’t class as a bike and what does or doesn’t count as ‘real’ cycling. The differentiator seems to​ be that it is whether your motivation, goal and self-identify as a cyclist impacts on whether your bike is a device to guide you through a sporting journey or a piece of transport to get you to your destination in as quick and easy way as possible”.

E-bikes: The current divide on social media

During this analysis on ‘why e-bikes are dividing the cycling community’, Evans Cycles also looked to social media to answer this question. They analysed the past 3 months of conversation around the topic on Twitter (amounting to some 12,000 tweets) and pulled out the most used terms across these tweets. With the most popular terms on one hand including ‘smart, great, fun and effortless’ and on the other, ‘fat, weak, elderly and cheating’ – this analysis stands up as a clear snapshot of this divide in opinion.
Dr Josephine Perry also took to Facebook to analyse some specific comments from the community:
“The idea of ‘pure cyclists’ having a specific self-identity and perception of what a ‘real bike’ is, was in strong evidence in a Facebook discussion about e-bikes. Comments included; “a bike is to get you fit and keep you fit, so electric motors – you can keep them! Everyone I’ve seen on them weighs a friggin’ tonne.” Another was along the same lines, again feeling affronted by the lack of exercise it allows: “It defeats the object of owning a bike if it’s gonna do a lot of the work for ya!” There were also comments about how they were acceptable for those with health or disability issues but “the thought of them replacing or coexisting with standard pedal cycles turns my stomach.” The views come across
as very ‘them and us’ highlighting that, to purists, cycling is a sport and a journey and that in artificially speeding up that journey, the e-bikers are imposters who do not belong.
Those feeling positive about e-bikes saw a wider picture. They openly identified with the idea that a bike is for transportation and that the added power it gives opens up accessibility to cycling to a far wider audience. “The beauty of the bicycle is it can be whatever you want it to be,” one said, adding “the e-bike just widens its appeal. More bums on bikes is what is needed, whatever sort you choose. Enjoy the view from your bike!” This accessibility element was amplified by the person who said: “not everyone has the knees, lungs or strength to cycle and anything that helps people get out and about
and start the exercise process is a good thing.” The positive words associated with e-bikes on twitter either focused on the look of the bike (smart, sleek, lightweight) or around enjoyment (fun, love, awesome) suggesting quite a passion for the e-bikes by those who had found and used them.
One view given online felt like it could, over time unite the opposing sides. This is the idea that, for those who self-identify as cyclists and value the social engagement that riding offers, the e-bike allows them to stay a part of that world when injury or age puts up barrier.
This comment sums that up nicely. “As the average ability and averagely fit cyclist gets older it can become prohibitively challenging to join the rides they always enjoyed in those “middle years”. Electric assist bikes can keep them in the saddle and pedalling with their mates long after they would have otherwise had to give up.

Fighting the divide

Taking this divide and the reasons behind it into account, it’s no surprise that some people may be worried about how they are perceived when riding an e-bike.
According to Dr. Perry, the simple way to tackle this is to focus on yourself, and set goals or motivations that work for you. Because while your next-door neighbour might be setting a new personal best on their road bike, your goals might be completely different – which is something to celebrate, and not shy away from.
Setting our own goals, based on our own motivations matters because research from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation has found that 45% of girls currently drop out of sport because it is too competitive, with a focus on winning at the expense of participation. Letting people set the right goals for themselves can boost participation.
Sport doesn’t just need to be competitive. It often doesn’t require traditional equipment. You don’t need to look like, or even feel like an athlete to do it. It can be any activity that sparks your imagination and in setting these goals and opening up our options, the sport we choose just becomes the content but the story around it is our own”.

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