E-Bikes and Marathons

This summer I rode an electric bike for the first time. Are you judging me? Because I was judging me in the same way I’ve judged every mall cop and city tour group on a Segway. It sounded gimmicky and dumb when a proper, human-propelled bike would do just fine. Not that I’m some kind of biking purist but please … does everything really need a motor?

As these things often go – doing something you swore you would never do – it started with a need. I was staying out in the French countryside alone with my two younger boys and without a car for several days. The nearest town with services was 10 kilometers away. Though I love walking, it seemed prudent to have a transportation solution in case of a baguette or other more pressing emergency. I therefore went in search of a bike rental as there were no close car rentals. The only rental option I could find was an electric bike. Why there wasn’t a single road bike or run-of-the-mill cruiser bike with a cute French basket to rent in the host country of the Tour de France remains a mystery.

But c’est la vie. At least I had a workable solution. I could cover ground quickly if one of my children needed stiches or I needed a bottle of Rose.

For those of you not familiar, electric bikes have an electric motor and rechargeable batteries but unlike a Segway or moped what makes them unique is that the rider retains the ability to pedal. It can be a free ride but they aren’t designed with that in mind –the expectation is that you will pedal. So the experience is exactly like riding a conventional bike except you have the option to turn the battery on when you want an extra boost. You can set the battery to low, medium or high. It’s best to save high power – which drains the battery fastest – for when you really need it. After a certain range, like an electric car, the battery needs to come home to be plugged in and recharged.

Funny thing is I expected the E-bike to look different but really it looks like a normal bike that makes a little whirring noise. My E-bike rental even came with a cute French basket. It wasn’t so different in appearance and yet its performance was well … totally awesome. Zero-emissions. Minimal sweat. Major help getting up hills.

I confess. It was like switching from US butter to French salted butter. One spread is all it takes to never want to go back to the old stuff. On the E-bike, you could cover more ground in shorter time, move at the speed of traffic on country roads and through intersections, take short breaks from pedaling when you wanted to take in the view, but also get a workout when and if you wanted to. It was the perfect blend of assisted and unassisted riding where you set the tempo and were in control but your range was limited by the need to recharge.

I think the spiritual life is a little like riding an E-bike. Before you try it, you might judge it as gimmicky especially if self-propulsion has worked just fine. In my case with the E-bike a seed was planted weeks before by a friend – an extremely able-bodied, fit friend – who surprisingly gave the E-bike a thumbs up. She didn’t seem like the E-bike convert type. So when the E-bike turned up as my only option, I was slightly more willing. I wouldn’t have given the E-bike a chance had it not been because of a need. In the same way, true religion only has a chance when it is entered into out of need. It can be abused as a free ride but the intention of true religion is that it be a mix of sustained effort with divine bursts of power. So while we have free will to control our own bike we also have the invitation to pedal with or without assistance.

I thought again of that E-bike when I was running the Berlin Marathon last weekend. I had done by part by putting in the miles and the training up to 20 miles but the last 6.2 miles were uncharted territory for my body. In the end it was those last 6.2 miles that were my favorite to run. Not because they were the easiest or fastest but because that’s the place where I felt my effort mingle with something outside myself. Often I find that outside myself is the divine working through other people.

The burst of power that wasn’t related to the power GU or sports drink came from remembering my Dad fight on with his Parkinson’s Disease and remembering the Syrian refugees for whom the money I raised was going to support. It came from the first 5 miles with my running partners who encouraged me to start slow so I could finish strong. It came from being surrounded and in the fellowship of other runners who were at the exact same place in their journey as I was. It came from my son with 3 kilometers left running alongside me on the course saying, “Mommy, you can do anything for 15 minutes.” And it came from hearing the lyric of a song shuffled on my playlist with 1 kilometer left: “When the waves are taking you under, Hold on just a little bit longer, He knows that this is gonna make you stronger, the pain ain’t gonna last forever, the things can only get better, believe me this is gonna make you stronger.”

And with that lyric and a last celebratory cheer from my husband and son in the final stretch, I crossed the finish line …. not entirely to my surprise … 15 minutes faster than my best hoped for goal.