For 20 years, Tony Barcenas was a “computer potato.”
“Day in, day out, he sat at his computer, got up to eat and go to work, then sat back at his computer,” says his wife, Patty, who gave him his moniker. “I couldn’t get him to do anything with me, even just go for a walk.”
The 6-foot-3-inch engineer’s weight had ballooned to 335 pounds and his walk became a waddle. His outdoors-loving spouse of 37 years took their three boys camping, went without him to hike and socialize every day, and dragged him to marriage counseling five times. Even as his wife threatened divorce, the quiet, 62-year old Irvine engineer sat. “He was immobile—and our marriage was dead,” says Patty, 59.
Until about two years ago. That’s when Patty started commuting to work 14 miles round trip on an electric-assist bike.
Patty’s doctor told her she had dangerously high cholesterol and triglyceride numbers. She wanted to get more exercise and heard about pedal assist bicycles. She thought that maybe if she rode crosstown from their north Irvine home to her management job at Concordia University, it would help. Calm and laid-back, Tony never felt any urgency to lose weight. Though his fitness level was poor, he didn’t have major health problems. But about the time Patty started insisting she needed an e-bike commute to address her health problems, Tony got a stern warning from his doctor: At age 60, his luck and good health would not last much longer.
“She said I had to get moving. I agreed, but I thought, ‘What the hell am I going to do?’ ” Tony recalls. “I went into research mode. With an e-bike, you can get as much or as little help as you need. Maybe it was a good solution.
“Still, I don’t rush into things. I’m an engineer, an incrementalist, a deliberate decision maker. So I put on my lab coat. And I didn’t tell (Patty) this, but she was my test experiment.”
When his unwitting lab rat had an ecstatic reaction to e-biking, bombarding him with photos and stories after returning buoyantly from rides to work, he deemed the experiment a success. They won a free bike for him by writing tear-stained sweepstakes letters to Pedego, although Tony says he would’ve bought one of the bikes anyway, which run about $2,500.
E-bikes, already huge in Europe, are growing fast in America. The boost they give riders as they pedal helps them power sweat-free over hills and through headwinds—“ the two things everyone hates about cycling,” says Bob Bibee, owner of the Pedego bike shop in Irvine where the Barcenases bought Patty’s bike. It’s why middle-aged couples and commuters, the main e-bike markets, love them, Bibee says.
Tony was scared on Day One of his new life. He hadn’t been on a bike in 25 years. He happily accepted an offer of six weeks leave from his company, Fluor Corp., just to learn how to ride his bike. “I knew I needed to build up,” he says.
In early January 2015, he rode tentatively with Patty as she commuted to work on Irvine’s network of bike paths. He struggled to work the gears and was utterly exhausted by the stress of this new physical activity. But when he arrived home, he was stunned by what he’d seen and done.
“The change of scenery you get on a bike is amazing,” he raves. “Always something new—the tunnels under the roads, the bridges, the way you engage with humanity, see the workmen fixing the roads.”
He picked up Patty that evening and was awestruck over what he’d accomplished: 25 miles. Granted, a part of that was with help from the motor. But he, a guy who had trouble walking, did the rest. The motor does not work without pedaling.
A big moment for Tony came that weekend at Quail Hill, which sits at the base of a 300-foot knoll that climbs from the 405 Freeway exit into Shady Canyon. Even on Level 4, the maximum electric assist, a steep grade like the Shady Canyon bike path requires strenuous effort, all the more to propel a 330-pound guy. Patty insisted they do it; Tony, who had charted the route on Google maps, insisted on “chickening out” and going to Starbucks at the shopping center.
“I’m an incrementalist, remember?” he told her. “Step by step, no big leaps. Don’t accelerate the pace of the experiment. We are not going up Shady Canyon!” “Like hell!” she said, blasting full-speed up the hill.
“I hauled ass so he couldn’t stop,” Patty says. “I knew he had to chase me.” And he did.
“When we crested the hill and looked down into Shady Canyon, it was like Nirvana,” Tony says. “It was a breakthrough, way ahead of schedule. I was amazed. I didn’t have to call 911. I didn’t die.”