It’s All Downhill from Here—in a Good Way—on Our Favorite Electric Bikes
There’s a fine line between leisurely and lazy, and the best e-bikes toe it with style. Find out why they’re the ultimate summer ride.
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To love riding bikes is not the same as being a cyclist. I watch narrow, Lycra-clad women and men pedal fiercely up steep roads and think that what they’re doing has nothing to do with enjoying the day on a great bike.
My sentimental journey with bicycles began in childhood, like most of them do, navigating town from a banana-seat model that had tiny ants painted on the chain guard. Later, a red ten-speed offered a taste of freedom, a way to get to the public pool and then my first job at a grocery store. I rode to my first college football game propped on a handsome senior’s handlebars. In my twenties, I won a pair of Schwinns in a raffle, and lugged one of them up and down four flights of stairs from a Manhattan walk-up for Saturday rides in Central Park and weekday commutes in the summer.
Here in L.A., my husband and I strapped our kids into child seats attached to those same Schwinns for rides around the Hollywood Forever Cemetery, up and down the beach path in Santa Monica, and anywhere we could venture on a road trip with the bikes on the rack. It isn’t just a domestic pursuit, either. I borrowed a tricked-out Bakfiets from a home we rented in Amsterdam, strapped my two first-graders into the large cargo box attached to the front, and hurtled through the icy streets, nearly plunging them into the Amstel River in front of the Anne Frank house when I lost control on the slick cobblestones. Years later, they trusted me enough to jump on their own rented bikes for a treacherous two-wheeled tour of Hoi An, dodging Vietnamese moped traffic with plenty of death-defying misses. I’m not a cyclist, I’m a velocipedist.
So when we bought a weekend place in Santa Barbara County at the top of the kind of insanely steep hill actual cyclists ride to challenge themselves, it challenged my plans for chill rides to the beach or the market. And it’s where this story actually begins.
If you’ve left the house in recent years and wandered into any quasi-resort town or bike-friendly city with flat enough paths, you’ve likely seen electric bikes buzzing past. With lightweight, rechargeable motors and a basic system to control the power output, they come in two modes: pedal-assisted, which means you have to actually move your legs to trigger the motor to give you a boost, or throttle, which fires the battery pack with no effort on the rider’s part (aside from balance).
I had a tall order and a small budget for my dream e-bike. It had to carry a passenger (the kids are either brave or unaware that they can say no to a ride), hold some groceries or towels, and look cool. And it had to feel like a bike, meaning some effort—not Tour de France effort—was a plus. At $1,899, the Rad Power Wagon fit the bill. It’s a seven-speed with powerful pickup, range up to 45 miles on a fully charged battery, panniers for storage, and a low, sturdy-feeling center of gravity. It’s been a no-regret decision.
And I’ve learned to live with the sheepish guilt I feel when I blast past people struggling up the hillside, baguette sticking breezily out of a farmer’s market tote. The rest of my family wants in on the action now, and we’re saving for a fleet of Rad Minis, or a pack of Bosch-motor-powered Electra Townie Go!s to have charged and ready to roll. No stretchy black padded shorts required.
Ticket to Ride
Three more solid e-options from some of the best bike makers in the business