Caroline Cooley has been riding a bike for longer than most of us have been alive. And though the retired nephrologist (a kidney specialist), is now 70 years old, she’s probably still logging more miles in a week—many of them on Knoxville’s root-ridden singletrack—than many of us spring chickens.
Her secret? A pair of Specialized e-bikes, namely the Levo SL (an electric mountain bike) and her Como, a cruiser with upright handlebars and panniers that’s perfect for grocery pick-ups and commuting around town.
The e-bikes are, of course, fun and functional for Cooley, but she also loves that they serve as tools for expanding the boundaries of who is considered a cyclist.
“I look like a little old lady,” she tells Bicycling, laughing. “I’m not what you thought was a typical bicyclist. Take a look at me: I have lots of gray hair. But people will notice me, and it just projects a great image for biking in our community. [It shows people] it’s not just guys in their Lycra.”
To be clear, Cooley still frequently heads out on her metallic purple Specialized Stumpjumper—in fact she raced it in a 50-mile partner event, the 3 & 6 Hours of Loyston Point, this May. (She and her husband achieved their goal of finishing in under six hours.) But in what’s turned out to be a rather ironic turn of events, her e-mountain bikes have allowed her to hit the base fitness level necessary to maintain race pace on her standard frame.
Cooley was not exactly first in line to get an e-bike. When her husband Jim bought her the original Specialized Levo—the exact same e-bike model he had—for her 66th birthday, she was pissed. “I said, ‘I can’t believe you got me this!’”
All of her own preconceptions about e-bikes, especially that they aren’t useful for exercise, rose to the surface. “I had that attitude of ‘I need to stay fit, and I don’t need a motor to stay fit,’” she says.
But she’d been noticing her cardiovascular capacity starting to diminish. She was riding shorter distances than she used to and was avoiding certain trails because of their length or difficulty. Recognizing that an e-bike would allow her to keep riding—in many ways, at a similar level to how she always had—she was willing to give it a try. And it’s turned out that that electric assist has reinvigorated Cooley’s 65-year-long passion for cycling. “At some point you go, ‘I don’t want to ride 20 miles. I can’t do it anymore. It’s just too hard,’” she says. “But you could on an e-bike.”
The love story with bicycling began when Cooley was a six-year-old riding around La Marque, Texas, on an adult-sized bike with 26-inch wheels because “that’s all that was available,” she remembers.
“My mother would just let me go. I could go anywhere I wanted in [La Marque],” she says. “It gave me a sense of freedom.”
That same sense of two-wheel-induced independence resurfaced when she started college in 1969 at the University of Texas. It was a time of political unrest, Vietnam War protests, and unfortunate fashion trends, and Cooley’s three-speed was her ticket away from the chaos and stress of her zoology major to the calm of Lake Travis roughly 20 miles outside of town.
“Austin was a really weird place at that time—everybody was wearing bell bottoms and smoking grass—and since I didn't have a car, it was easier to get around on a bike. So, I got my old three-speed from home and started riding it around until it broke.”
Biking was also integral in her courtship with Jim: The pair would escape the stress of their internal medicine internships at District of Columbia General Hospital with rides along the Potomac River. A decade later—after she’d moved to Knoxville, had built up her own medical practice, and became a mother to two sons—biking became a family affair with Saturday morning outings to Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, her eldest zipping along on his big-kid bike and her youngest in the Burley trailer.
Vacations too often centered around two wheels, with a mountain biking excursion to New Zealand (one son came along), a week-long group ride following the Tour de France (just her and Jim), as well as plenty of adults-only trips to Moab, where they’d tackle Slickrock, Dead Horse Point, and sections of Porcupine Rim—and then reward themselves with the obligatory burger and fries. Family reunions often took the Knoxville residents to Colorado towns like Crested Butte and Telluride—and driving rather than flying allowed them to bring along their own bikes, and a few spares for other family members.
In the late 90s, Cooley began racing her mountain bike, not professionally, but competitively. She’s done the 12 Hours of the Hill of Truth endurance challenge multiple times and took home $20 and a first-place finish in a local race at Big South Fork National River and Recreation Area. At age 49, she tried her hand at the Leadville 100, Colorado’s infamous suffer-fest, which starts at an elevation of almost 10,500 feet and follows a very not-flat 50 miles before circling back on itself. Unfortunately, a crash near mile 44 (the result of a faulty front brake) left her with a broken rib, and though she still gritted out the route’s biggest climb to the 12,424-foot-high point, the jarring descent proved too painful, and she bowed out at mile 64.
Clearly, a decades-long love affair shouldn’t end just because your lungs hurt when you go uphill or your hands are numb for the first minutes of an early season, early morning ride—not when there’s a tool like an e-bike that can remove those barriers. Not when a little assist can offer the rider that same sense of freedom experienced as a five-year-old venturing out on her own for the first time.
“The e-mountain bike allows me to climb. I can stay on. I can ride more miles than I would normally. I can get up steep sections that I used to be able to get up on a regular bike, [but] now, I just don’t have the oomph,” Cooley explains. “And it’s nice because sometimes, if you’re not feeling the best that day, on a regular bike you’re suffering. But on an e-bike, you can say, ‘Okay, I’ll just boost the power up a little bit and make this enjoyable.’ You don't have to be miserable.”
As the president of Bike Walk Knoxville and chair of the board of Bike Walk Tennessee, the now-retired nephrologist has been a powerful advocate for making streets safer for cyclists. Among friends, however, Cooley has been a lovingly pushy promoter for e-bikes. She points to a dear friend and long-time riding partner who was hesitant to hop back in the saddle after a broken shoulder, but who now loves her e-mountain bike because it’s easier to overcome rocks and tree roots. At Cooley’s suggestion, another friend, who had gained enough weight that riding a standard bike was difficult, invested in an e-bike and “just took off with it,” she says. “His rides got longer. He started commuting to work. He said it just made all the difference in his life.”
In Cooley’s mind, that’s the beauty of an e-bike. The rider gets a helpful assist, so “you can go longer and farther. You actually may get more exercise overall because you’re not pushing to your max. If you push to your max, it just wears you out quicker,” she says. “The health benefit [of an e-bike] is that you will go more often because it’s not so strenuous.”
E-bikes also make it possible for fit, experienced cyclists to ride with less fit, less experienced riders. With e-bikes, the stereotype of who qualifies as a cyclist expands.
Indeed, bicyclists can be septuagenarians in sundresses zipping around town or gray-haired women on mountain bikes (electric and standard) ripping down dirt trails. Cooley is evidence of both. “When I get on my bike and ride, I don’t feel like I’m 70 years old. I just feel really vital,” she says. “It makes me euphoric.”
Had she never discovered e-bikes, Cooley would still be out riding her standard model; it just wouldn’t be as much fun. “I would never have given up biking,” she says. But with an e-bike, riding has once again become “more about enjoyment. It’s more that I’m not suffering. I can’t imagine not having one.”
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