That was five years ago. After resting for a week, I went into denial about it and pretty soon was back to training hard for cyclocross season, ignoring some other arrhythmia bouts. My last race in October 2013 was the biggest annual cyclocross around here: the Boulder Cup. I led most of the race before finally being passed and finishing third in a strong field with top riders who had come from around the country to race on the same course that the United States National Cyclocross Championships would use at the end of the season.
But while warming down, I went into extended arrhythmia.
I quit all bike and ski racing and hard training after that.
Since that day, I tried everything I could think of to heal it,
including undergoing three heart surgeries that failed to fix it.
I also discovered that many of my co-competitors in masters bike racing and ski racing also had arrhythmias, some of whom would not have survived had they not been defibrillated promptly. Ultimately, I co-wrote “The Haywire Heart,” a book presenting the research showing the direct relationship between decades of hard training and racing and an increased incidence of cardiac arrhythmias.
The price of giving up
The thing was, cycling (and cross-country ski training and racing) were not only how I defined myself, how I challenged myself and how I stayed fit, but these activities also were my most, and sometimes only, social outlet.
For decades, my work life has been quite isolated. I own a custom bike-frame building company (Zinn Cycles, Inc.), which I founded in 1982, and have been writing articles for VeloNews for 30 years. I also write books; “Zinn and the Art of Mountain Bike Maintenance” and “Zinn and the Art of Road Bike Maintenance” have been translated into many languages, and have been the world’s best-selling bike maintenance books for 20 years or so. Yet these are largely solo ventures, so training with friends, going to races (both local and international) with them, and guiding bike tours in Italy enhanced my life and reduced the isolation of my work.
Cycling and skiing also brought me a feeling of success and accomplishment. I won a lot of the cyclocross races in and around Boulder’s competitive hotbed, and consistently finished high in my age group in mass-start Worldloppet International Ski Federation cross-country ski races all over the world. My annual Zinn Fondo ride, which a large group of friends and I did every year for 25 years on my birthday in late June, was famous for how long and hard it was. We rode from dawn to dark on one of the longest days of the year – generally about 200 miles with approximately 20,000 feet of climbing and often including a lot of dirt sections. My last one was when I turned 55, a month before my first arrhythmia.
Because I generally could not ride or ski with others without going into cardiac arrhythmia anymore, these sports, which had comprised almost my entire social life, had become solitary pursuits during which I carefully monitored my energy expenditure to avoid my heart going haywire. This left a void in my life – one I decided to fix for myself.
The eBike solution
Once I could not ride up any of the beautiful climbs we have here in Boulder without my heart rate shooting up uncontrollably, I realized I needed to create my own solution: I built myself a custom titanium road frame incorporating a Bosch motor and battery.
Just as I cannot fit on stock normal bikes due to my height and other requirements, I would never buy myself a stock eBike, because I wouldn’t be comfortable on it. I’m 6 feet 5 inches tall, and most of the customers I build custom frames for are taller than I am. They come to me for the same reasons I started building bikes: They cannot find a stock bike that fits; they like our proportional-length (extra-long) cranks; and the tall bikes they have found tend to shimmy horrifyingly at high speeds, with their hands coming off the handlebars.
I finished building my Bosch-powered custom titanium eBike in early May 2018 and have ridden it almost at the exclusion of all of my other bikes (I have a lot of really nice, perfectly fitted custom bikes that I built for myself for all different types of riding; I’m wondering what their future holds now). It allows me to ride uphill while keeping the intensity low and minimizing arrhythmia incidents. It’s also nice to be able to go out riding and feel more comfortable in the heat; riding at a higher speed and a lower aerobic intensity is the perfect way to stay cooler!
Better yet, if I do go into arrhythmia, I can put the bike into Turbo and get home with minimum effort, keeping my heart beats per minute in the 70s while the Bosch motor puts out 275 percent as much power as my legs. Without the motor, I would have to ride super slowly and stop every time my heart rate spiked, or I would have to call somebody to come and take me home. Knowing that I can always get home even if I have a heart problem is worth an enormous amount to me.
I also love that I can again ride the cyclocross courses I enjoyed racing on for so many years, as the bike has disc brakes and lots of mud clearance for cyclocross tires. Cyclocross – riding around in the mud and horrible conditions with a bunch of good friends – always felt like being a kid again for me. Now, I feel like a kid again on my eBike!
But on that June 2018 day, I didn’t miss pushing my body hard to get up over 12,000 feet. I thoroughly enjoyed riding up with minimal effort, not even breaking a sweat (since I have to keep my heart rate under 110 bpm). I totally enjoyed the whole experience, riding with a couple of friends going at a good pace. I even took the time to talk to others and offer assistance where needed (I had enough extra battery power to push a buddy with serious leg cramps up the last section to the top), and I only needed a couple of sips from my bottle. To get to the Trail Ridge Visitor’s Center and not be tired, hungry and out of water – well, that’s the first time that’s ever happened to me getting there by bike.
As one who used to think of myself as being too big and tough to ride an eBike, it is quite a transformation for me to be riding one. I’m grinning ear to ear most of the time, and I’m certainly feeling no shame when I’m on it. I have the freedom to enjoy riding in the mountains and over significant distances again, especially with other people. My eBike has given me back much of what I was missing since the onset of my heart problems.