Story and photos by Jean Turner
Not for me. I was like the many drivers down below, whizzing past this beautiful stretch of rolling hills on the Southern California coast, unable to cherish the ribbons of trail drizzled across the landscape, twirling down into the canyon below that opened up miles later to Laguna Beach. At this particular moment, the chasm carved into the earth funneled a breath of cool sea air to my sweaty cheeks, which framed an idiotic grin.
“Which way do you want to go?” asked my friend Brooklyn.
I savored the question itself before contemplating an answer. Butterflies welled up inside me upon the realization that every trailhead was a wide-open door. This sport I once thought was closed off to me was suddenly laid out at my feet, waiting for me to tread across its threshold.
Normally, I would have multiple questions for Brooklyn before I dared follow her down a trail: “How steep is this? How long is the climb back out? What are the odds I could die? Do we have rescue extraction options?” But today, I tempted fate. “Wherever you want,” I replied.
Taking The Courage Pill
My courage to tempt fate was aided by the lilac-colored Giant Liv Embolden E+ 2 beneath me, particularly the Yamaha motor assisting each pedal stroke. I knew from experience that even on my best day, I barely had enough power to go “wherever Brooklyn wants,” this was certainly not my best day.
Less than two years since the morning, I woke up unable to walk. I would find out months later that my hip labrum tore a day earlier, the resulting inflammation throughout the night wreaking havoc on just about everything between my lower back and knees. It would be months before I even received a diagnosis — aside from “microtrauma inside the right hip” — let alone treatment for a hardly treatable condition.
Managing the chronic pain and limited movement caused by bone spurs inside my hip was the best I could do, and it seemed that cycling of any sort was simply off the menu at this point. Yet here I was aboard this hybrid contraption showing me the way back to pedaling bliss.
Brooklyn hopped up on her pedals without a word, and I wondered if I would regret giving her carte blanche on my first ride back in two years.
The ground sped beneath me as I pedaled. The more effort I put into each stroke, the more energy the Embolden E+ pumped out until we glided along at a satisfying cruising speed. The Giant Liv was far from doing the work for me. The intuitive torque delivery from the SyncDrive Sport motor added power to my cadence. “This must be what it feels like to be in shape,” I shouted to Brooklyn. She chuckled, but she would know. For her, e-bikes are just as fun and challenging as non-assist mountain bikes, but she explained that you can go three times as far and get the same level of workout. It was a matter of expending as much energy as I chose to or as much as my old-lady hip would tolerate.
We descended from the main fire road onto a singletrack trail, deftly whipping from side to side as we swooped our way over humps, around bushes, over rocks, eventually dipping under trees and along creek beds as we made our way lower into the canyon. Coming from a dirt biking background, the descents are the easy part, but the thought of coming back out of this canyon no longer terrified me on the way down. “We got this,” I thought.
Owing to my background riding and racing motorcycles, the added weight of the e-bike equated to much more familiar handling, as more load gives you a bit more stability and a stronger foothold on the ground. Bombing downhills on traditional mountain bikes always felt a little like flying down a mountain on a popsicle stick to me. This was a much easier segue between internal combustion — and pedal-powered cycles, a feature I didn’t anticipate when I first swung a leg over this “cheater bike.”
The New E-Bike Future
In my fitter days, our rides were usually limited to about 10 miles and 1,000 feet of climbing. A few hours of these trails were all I could muster in a day, but this was a stark contrast. As we neared our typical turnaround point, I was only starting to get into my groove. “This is awesome!” I exclaimed. Looking around at the miles of trail beyond, the doors were all still open.
Up the other side of the canyon, we were now treading on new ground, or at least I was. Even further, we dipped down into the next valley. We pedaled down Laguna Canyon, and wafts of sea air became increasingly detectable. Suddenly, there was a waft of something else, something malty and toasty —Laguna Beach Beer Company. It was near lunchtime, so we parked our e-bikes at the outdoor café and helped ourselves to some snacks and a craft brew. This was new ground for me — stopping for a mid-ride meal was unheard of. No sooner would I stop in the middle of a pilates workout for a quick bite, but this was different. We enjoyed an outdoor adventure, not the typical high-intensity workout that ruined me for the rest of the day. This was doable.
We had gone nearly 15 miles at that point and still had to get back, which meant some steep climbs, and we’d need to maximize our range. The second half would be a challenge, but it was doable.
The twisting singletrack trail that led us through thick brush, switchbacks, and over rock faces as we climbed back up from the canyon floor is never something I would have attempted on a regular mountain bike, even at my best. The trail’s soft footing, steep incline, and technical nature would have left nothing to enjoy, but with the Yamaha motor set at maximum power and pedaling my heart out, this tricky trail began to flow. The brush pushed against the brake levers, and I used my outer fingers to keep the brakes from dragging. I continued to shove the 29-inch wheels through tight corners. We pressed on and kept flowing. Through my panting and gasping, the idiotic grin was wider than ever.
To Send Or Not To Send?
“I can’t believe we got up that,” I exclaimed to Brooklyn. “I can’t believe how fun that was!” Several more miles of ridges, fire roads, and things gradually became familiar. We were only a few miles out. Brooklyn stopped at the trailhead of another singletrack dipping into another canyon.
“One more?” she asked with a shrug. The Giant Liv still showed a quarter battery. “Send it!”
Once again, we swooped down the trail, undulating and arcing toward the trees below. The last dose of trail magic was the finishing touch on an amazing day. Rather than being wiped clean of energy by 10 am, I relaxed and smiled in the early afternoon as we strolled up the final climb and along the ridges back to the truck.
My post-ride Zen came from the workout, the dose of fresh outdoor adventure, and the realization that this world was now within my reach. Not only could I surf these trails again, but the power of pedal assist replaced the intensity with endurance. The ability to dial in the level of assist also gives me the power to pedal my hip back into shape or, at this point, whatever level I can muster. That high-intensity challenge is still there at the push of a button whenever I’m ready for it. Until then, let’s just go for a ride. More adventure and less suffering add up to more miles in the dirt, and isn’t that always the goal?
The purists might still call them cheater bikes, and I might have been one of them once upon a time, but that thinking only kept my purist butt parked on the couch. I’m glad I came to consider a more useful perspective because any way you can get yourself out here is worth it.