Electric Bikes Gain Momentum

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In the hilly countryside of southern France, Bob Rosso and a clutch of riders leaned into their road bikes and cranked hard to conquer another long climb.

Glancing sideways, Rosso saw something strange.

“There was one of my friends, cruising by us with a smile on her face, looking like Mary Poppins,” said Rosso, owner of the Elephant’s Perch, an outdoor gear store in Sun Valley, Idaho. “She’s not the most athletic person, but she had rented an electric bike, and it allowed her to ride with us in this very hilly country. In Europe, people have discovered that electric bikes are a great equalizer and allow families to stay together.”

Over the past five years, Americans have also realized the advantages of electric bikes, or “e-bikes,” which use battery powered motors to provide mechanical assistance when a rider cranks the pedals.

According to e-bike manufacturer Haibike, its U.S. e-bike sales more than doubled between 2015 and 2016, while another e-bike company, IZIP, said U.S. e-bike sales grew 400 percent from 2014 to 2016. An estimated 152,000 e-bikes were sold in North America in 2016, according to Navigant Research.

“These bikes are becoming more popular because they extend your physical abilities,” said Rosso.

For the better part of a decade, the e-bike market consisted mainly of Baby Boomers riding on pavement. But, the landscape has changed as companies have introduced electric bikes for off-road trails, and millennials have adopted e-bikes for urban transportation.

While e-bikes are gaining momentum, it’s going to be a while before they rule U.S. trails and bike paths. First of all, they’re expensive (high-end models can cost $3,000 to $5,000), so many people just can’t afford them.

Plus, federal, state and local regulations prohibit the use of e-bikes on certain trails, and communities are still working to incorporate e-bikes into their existing trail systems.

Despite these obstacles, e-bike sales worldwide could grow from $15.7 billion in 2016 to about $24.3 billion by 2025, according to Navigant Research.

Baby Boomers and millennials lead the pack

Even though e-bikes face challenges, they have one clear advantage—the power to change people’s lives.

“We’ve sold bikes to quite a few people who had significant health setbacks, and this allowed them to get back out there,” said Rosso.

At the Elephant’s Perch in affluent Sun Valley, the average e-bike customer is fairly wealthy and at least 40 years old. For some of these customers, traditional mountain biking is too difficult, and e-bikes allow family members to ride together even if they’re not in the same physical condition.

In Woodland Hills and Culver City, Calif., the Wheel World bike shops also sell the majority of their e-bikes to older consumers.

“It’s mostly people 45 to 60,” said owner Kyle Paulson. “We also see that millennials are very interested in them, but most just can’t afford it.”

Even though e-bikes are pricey, a growing number of millennials are using them for transportation. “With young urban dwellers, we’re seeing traction with faster Class III pedal-assist bikes than can reach a top speed of 28 mph,” said Larry Pizzi, president of Raleigh Electric, IZIP’s parent company.

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Introducing people to the outdoors

As millennials use e-bikes to negotiate the urban jungle, a growing number of riders are opting for off-road electric bikes.

“We ship two trail bikes for every commuter or recreational bike,” said Miner of Haibike.

When e-bikes first arrived on the market in the 1990s, they used heavy, inefficient lead-acid or nickel-metal hydride batteries. But the newest models employ lightweight Lithium-ion cells that produce the energy needed to negotiate tougher terrain.

In the next few years, new technologies could propel e-bikes to even higher levels of performance.

 “The big changes coming are with battery life and the battery management software,” said Miner, noting that current batteries allows riders to travel up to 200 miles, depending on the conditions and bike settings.

In addition, companies are producing smaller battery packs that are integrated into the bike frame to make products more attractive and nimble, said Pizzi.

“The drive systems keep improving as well, getting lighter, with improved torque almost every year,” he said.

Trail access remains an obstacle

Despite advancements in technology, e-bikes must overcome certain challenges, including “a lack of adequate bicycling infrastructure,” according to a 2016 report from Navigant Research.

The Bureau of Land Management and the U.S. Forest Service still classify Type 1 e-bikes (with a maximum power-assist speed of 20-mph) as off-highway vehicles, lumping them in with gas-powered ATVs and dirt bikes. Until the federal government changes its regulations, e-bikes will be prohibited on certain public lands.

However, states and municipalities are creating their own laws to accommodate e-bikes. In 2015, California passed a law that classifies various types of e-bikes and allows lower-speed models on bicycle trails.

Many communities dropped their objections to e-bikes after study by the International Mountain Bicycling Association showed that lower-speed Class I e-bikes impact the environment about as much as a regular bike.

 Still, some traditional mountain bikers oppose the use of motorized bikes on local trails.

 “Typically it’s the racers or the downhill riders,” said Paulson of Wheel World. “But people riding bikes for recreation are completely open to the idea and welcome it.”

 

 

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