Back in the Saddle

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Editor’s Note: This is the first installment of a miniseries exploring how people are using e-bikes.

Ever since Walton Brush can remember, he’s been on a bike. After cutting his teeth on mountain bike trails in New Hampshire with his dad and sister, he eventually picked up road biking after moving to Portland, Oregon, for middle school in 2004. Road biking led to the bike messenger and alley cat racing scene, which quickly progressed to road racing (he even supplemented his racing career by working at Portland’s renowned River City Bicycles). By 2015, Brush was on the professional circuit, securing podium finishes and a sponsorship with iRT Pro Cycling, a year-round competitive cycling team.

In fact, Brush was so ensconced in the bike world that he didn’t even get his driver’s license until he was 25. He didn’t have to. After all, his world revolved around cycling, and his bike could get him anywhere he needed to go.

But all that changed in 2015 when the young cyclist went to Nederland, Colorado, for a high-altitude training camp. After coming down with the flu, Brush fought a high fever for nine full days. Hoping to recover, he went to California and then to Portland and spent most of the next few weeks in bed—completely exhausted. As a professional cyclist, he’d reached his physical limit before, but something about this felt different. He called doctors trying to explain the exhaustion, but no one could give him a concrete diagnosis. Months passed. He wasn’t bouncing back.

Still, Brush hoped to salvage a race season. He took to riding 15 minutes a day, just to be on a bike. It felt awful, and often sent him back to bed for the rest of the day.

After nearly half a year of doctor visits and inconclusive tests, Brush was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), a form of chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) that, for Brush, was characterized by overwhelming fatigue, weakness and muscle pain. But, perhaps worse still, he felt that his ME symptoms were exacerbated by any form of exertion, meaning that the bikes that had kept him in shape and happy for all of these years might now threaten his health.

“It was pretty difficult to put so much effort into getting myself to that point with all of that preparation, and it just faded away,” says Brush, now 28. “It gave me some real perspective.”

Brush had already stopped racing, but soon stopped attending races, noting that it was hard to feel like he was still a part of what he considers to be “a very participatory community.”

With a garage full of unused bikes and unable to ride, he eventually regained enough strength to get out of bed and slowly started piecing his days together. When his energy began to increase, he realized he needed to pour his energy into other passions. In 2017, Brush re-enrolled in school (he had put studies on hold to pursue professional cycling) and began working toward a degree in graphic design at Portland State University.

He drove a car and took public transit the 3.5 miles between his house and campus, but the challenges of relying on vehicles in a city—traffic and finding parking spots on busy city streets—served as constant reminders of the freedom he had lost when he had to give up biking.

Hungry to regain some form of that freedom, Brush discovered e-bikes this past summer. He had known about electric-assisted bikes for years, but after a friend let Brush borrow his new e-bike this summer, Brush says he had an “ah-ha” moment.

“It was pretty insane,” says Brush. “After pretty much going nowhere, riding short urban commutes really slow, I was at 20 miles per hour going anywhere I wanted to go, without putting much effort out. Having all of that back at my fingertips, it just made [biking] fun again.”

For the first time in nearly two and a half years, Brush was finally able to say he felt good on a bike. The electric motor allowed Brush to cover longer distances without getting fatigued, a revelation for a cyclist who had gone from 50-mile road races to trips around the block. Excited, he called old cycling buddies to help him track down an e-bike of his own. He found a used Class 1, pedal-assisted bike at the PSU Bike Hub, and $750 later, Brush was back on the road.

Now he rides the 250-watt bike four or five days a week, putting in close to three hours around the streets of Portland, reaching speeds up to 20 mph. As his health continues to improve, he hopes to increase that number, working toward a goal of making an e-bike his sole form of transport for commuting and getting around the city.

While Brush thinks his racing career is likely over, he says ebiking has let him reconnect with the act of riding a bike itself, an important piece of his identity he wasn’t sure he’d ever get back.

“I thought I wasn’t going to ride bikes anymore,” he says. “When I rode without the e-bike, it wasn’t a fun experience—it wasn’t fast, it was tiring, it was brutal. Now what I used to identify as and what I loved is no longer a chore. It’s empowering.”

Brush admits that his recent experiences have changed his long-held perspective on e-bikes.

“I had a total lack of empathy,” he says. “But now I realize [e-bikes are] not about just getting a workout, there are so many other reasons for riding a bike.”

He says that ebiking became a win-win for him as a person who was seeking a less-intensive riding experience that was still fun (and involved moderate exercise), but points out that the same can be true for people looking to get into biking without feeling intimidated or overworked. In the end, he says, it gets everyone outside more.

Brush doesn’t have immediate plans to upgrade his bike, but hopes to make riding a more central piece of his life again. At the very least, he says, it will reduce the amount of time he spends behind the wheel of a car.

“I really don’t see [e-bikes] as a compromise of the bicycle anymore,” he explains. “I see it more as an improvement of the car. It got me out there again, and let me go further.”  

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