Regular readers of “Footloose” may know I’m attempting the Ride Across Wisconsin the last weekend in August. It’s a 175-mile bicycle ride from Dubuque to Kenosha to benefit the Wisconsin Bike Federation.
In its second year, RAW offers one- and two-day options. Given that I’m not getting any younger, I’m going for the one day this time. I figure if I can go the distance at least once, I can opt for the two-day in the future without losing any cred.
But if you think riding 175 miles on a single Saturday is crazy, how about the electric bike customer of Madison’s “Crazy” Lenny Mattioli who is looking to log 5,000 miles over the next month and break the Guinness World Record in the process? To make it, he’ll need to ride over 175 each day for weeks on end.
On Monday, 32-year-old Ravi Kempaiah set off from Crazy Lenny’s E-Bikes store on Odana Road with the goal of reaching San Diego sometime in mid-August. He hopes to finish his journey at the headquarters of Stromer, a Swiss company that makes high-end e-bicycles—a bike that can be run on electric power and well as by pedaling—selling for up to $9,000.
While hardcore bicycle enthusiasts might dismiss an e-bike rider, pedaling over the mountains and plains day after day is no easy feat. Kempaiah has been training up to four hours a day as he prepares for the journey giving close attention to nutrition and route planning.
A native of southern India who now lives in Indiana, Kempaiah has long been interested in bicycles and technology. A materials scientist and Ph.D. student, he wants to correct the perception that e-bikes are only for those not fit enough to pedal a “real” bike.
“There’s a common misconception that E-bikes don’t provide any health benefits: I’m inspired to change that,” Kempaiah said in a statement prior to leaving.
Stromer bikes do offer a boost but the rider still has to pedal to preserve the battery life and maintain speed. To ease pressure on his backside, Kempaiah’s bike is outfitted with a “BodyFloat” suspension seat post.
A top-of-the-line Stromer model provides a maximum of 500 watts of power to the rear hub, reaching a pedal-assisted speed of up to 28 mph. It also comes with a 983Wh battery that can provides up to 110 miles of battery range on a charge.
Electric assisted bikes remain something of a niche market in this country but have been growing by leaps and bounds in Europe and Asia. Germany has seen a tripling of e-bike sales to over 400,000 per year while e-bikes now make up over 10 percent of the 18 million Netherland bicycle fleet.
A Dutch survey shows the average distance traveled in the Netherlands by commuters on a standard bicycle is 3.9 miles, but that increases to 6.1 miles on an e-bike. The survey also showed that e-bike ownership is particularly popular among people 65 and older. Go figure.
The U.S. e-bike fleet is estimated at over 200,000 but is gaining popularity in New York and other cities are as food delivery vehicles.
Wisconsin-based Trek Bikes also offers a line of e-bikes using the “Bionx” system where riders program the controller to determine how much help the motor will give, from 25 percent to 200 percent of the rider's power. This ensures a minimum level of rider participation and helps the bikes comply with European laws mandating some human effort before the motor kicks in.
Kempaiah and Mattioli met three years and began talking about long bicycle rides including Lenny’s own cross-country excursion many years ago. Remember that Mattioli was famous for giving away free bicycles with appliances and stereos during his American TV days.
Always the publicity hound, Mattioli is providing sponsorship for Kempaiah’s ride, including food, accommodations and support services. The goal, he says, is to bring more e-bike awareness to the U.S.
“I hope that my journey stirs the country to see the positive impact e-bikes can have and changes the conversation about how they fit into our society,” he says.
Crazy Lenny’s E-bikes opened in March of 2013 and now sells 240 different models with 17 brands and has shipped to customers in all 50 states.
In terms of the Guinness World Record, the current mark is 4,443 miles on an e-bike. Kempaiah will be riding through 10 states to achieve his 5,000 miles, collecting signatures along the way from local witnesses, taking photos every two hours and logging every portion of his trip to meet all the guidelines.
Planned stops include Minneapolis; Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Bozeman, Montana; Tacoma, Washington; and Los Angeles on the way to San Diego. Kempaiah also plans to visit several national parks including Badlands, Rocky Mountain, Yellowstone and Yosemite.
Sounds like the trip of a lifetime.
Mike Ivey is a Madison-based writer whose journalism career includes 30 years at The Capital Times.