If you write superhero stories, ride an e-bike

Posted on | October 10, 2019

The other day I got a glimpse of what it feels like to be Tony Stark.

If you want to learn what it feels like to be a superhero, go buy yourself an electric bicycle. Or just rent one. Not one of the cheap ones cluttering up the streets of our major cities, but a decent, actual electric bicycle from a rental shop. It’ll probably run you about $100, but the experience of riding one will absolutely educate you.

I bought one. It’s a Radcycle Commuter 2019 with a battery pack made by Tesla and a massive rare-earths motor in the rear wheel hub. It weights about 39 pounds without the battery, 63 with. It has three modes: off, pedal assist, and throttle override. Off, it’s just a particularly heavy bicycle. In throttle override mode, you twist the throttle and it zooms off like a small motorcycle, and in pedal assist, it amplifies the effort you put into riding.

Bicycling is the most efficient form of transportation known to humankind. For every kilocalorie of energy expended, you go farther, faster on a bicycle than you do walking, driving, or any other mode of transport. Learning to ride a bicycle involves learning how to manage the energy you put into pedaling into forward motion. An e-bike upsets that muscle memory; suddenly, you go farther, faster than ever before.

I’ve been riding this bike to and from work for three weeks now, and it’s been glorious. I leave it in Level 1 or 2 most of the time, “economy modes,” where I still have to put in a lot of pedaling to get anywhere, but I leave the throttle override active so that if I hit a hill I can go up with all 750 watts helping, which means that I can get up that hill without stressing out my bum knee. Which is great on straightaways.

However, you and I still have purely human reflexes.

Monday morning I was riding to work. My commute takes me around the south side of the local airport, and as I was driving through an intersection that interfaces the town south of me with the freeway system that feeds into Seattle, a panel truck roared through the corner and, basically, just didn’t see me.

I twisted the throttle hard and pushed down on the pedals to get out of his way! The bike leaped forward, reaching for 20 miles per hour (the motor’s legally governed maximum) in the time it took me to cross the intersection, and then back up onto the bike path. But I was still throttling in my panic, and my reflexes were not used to my hitting that intersection while accelerating to 20mph. I managed to avoid the far curb and did not, thankfully, go hurtling over it into the brambles and fences surrounding the airport.

It was a scary moment. The bike was just at the edge of my control.

I realized this is what it’s like to be Tony Stark: just like his fictional suit, the bicycle amplifies my human capabilities without also compensating for my human reflexes. Analogized to a full-body amplification of strength and speed, it’s a frightening proposition: we have to re-learn how to control ourselves or we are a danger to ourselves and everyone around us.

So if you’re gonna write superheroes, ride an e-bike to see what it’s like. Appreciate what it feels like to have your natural abilities amplified. And understand what it means when your senses and your reflexes… aren’t.

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