This article was originally published in the July 2017 Princeton Echo.
One might be inclined to think that electric bikes are a modern invention. After all it was just a few months ago that television’s “60 Minutes” aired an expose on miniature electric motors being secreted away in the frames of professional racing bicycles, giving their riders a competitive advantage in a sports arena renowned for its culture of cheating.
But electric bikes have been around since the late 19th century. In 1895 Ogden Bolton Jr. patented a battery-powered bicycle with “a direct current hub motor mounted in the rear wheel.” Two years later Hosea W. Libbey invented a bicycle that was propelled by a “double electric motor within the hub of the crankset axle,” where the pedals are attached. A rear-wheel friction “roller-wheel” drive for an electric bicycle was patented in 1899 by John Schnepf.
The early electric bike technology survived but mostly as a bit of an oddity. Modern electric bikes got traction in the 1990s. Libbey’s crankset-mounted motor, reimagined and improved, became the basis for the now defunct Giant Lafree electric bikes. More recently miniature electric motors and high tech lithium batteries are being fitted into bikes designed for everyday cyclists. Rather than hiding the motors, the manufacturers are promoting them, and hoping they help create an important new segment of the cycling market.
Since most of us devoted bicyclists pursue the sport for its physical demands, and the exhilarating feeling of being able to partially coast down a hill after an arduous ride up the hill, an electric bicycle at first glance seems like a self-defeating proposition, or even cheating.
Recently I went to the grand opening of Sourland Electric Bikes in Hopewell and took up an invitation for a free ride on a Pedego pedal-assisted bicycle. The co-owners of the new venture, Russ White and Mike Gray, offer several models ranging from the Pedego Trail Tracker, a mountain bike with four-inch diameter tires, to the urban ease of the City Commuter. In addition they carry the Swedish brand Blix and the Bionx kit for conversion of a regular bike to an electric bike. (The shop shares space with Sourland Cycles, a regular bicycle shop that also offers tandems, tricycles, folding bikes, and a variety of other types.)
At first glance modern electric bikes, widely known as e-bikes, do not look much different from any other bicycle. Up close though, I couldn’t help noticing that most of them had fat tires and a large built-in rack for carrying the battery. Overall, the Pedego line has a robust rather than stylishly sleek look, although some models improve their appearance by hiding the battery in a casing as part of the frame. When I pulled the City Commuter model off its stand and pushed it a few paces, it was heavy going.
The pleasant surprise came when I moved out on to the road using the throttle to engage that 1.5 horsepower motor. The bike seemed amazingly light. As I worked my way through the levels of pedal assistance it had the feel of a racing bike. You can easily be up to 20 miles per hour in less than a minute. Of course, the rider is in control and can settle at any speed he requires.
New riders will need to be attentive to the controls, which are not complex but take a little time getting used to. The throttle is best thought of as an extra boost — not something to use all the time. It is most handy when starting out. Sport cyclists will really appreciate how well it gets you going from the bottom of a steep gradient.
A small panel on the handlebar shows speed, battery life, and level of pedal assistance. Five levels give you control over the amount of effort you are able or willing to put into the ride. As a reasonably fit, year-round bike rider I did not need to go above level 2 on the flat and 3 going up all but the steepest hills. Each rider must find her own level through simple trial. However you cannot ride entirely on the wheel-hub mounted electric motor. If you stop pedaling, you feel the drag immediately as the assist dies. But you are out to exercise, so some pedaling is a must.
At my request Mike Gray led a couple of us to Hopewell-Amwell Road, a steep road leading up into the Sourland Mountains. Having ridden this route several times on my road bike I can tell you that it is a challenging ride. But pedal assist took me up as if it were a mole hill. It really was exhilarating.
“Electric bikes are the transportation choice of the future for both recreation and commuting.” So says Russ White, the genial midwesterner who studied operations research at Stanford University, Class of 1964, relocated to Princeton during his career in the publishing world, and then took up his hobby, bicycling, as an avocation. In 2009 he founded the Trenton Bike Exchange, which provides needy kids quality bikes at an affordable price. Money raised — $600,000, so far — goes to the Trenton Boys and Girls Club.
White’s belief in e-bikes is strong enough for him and his partner to have dedicated a large area to Pedego at the front of their current “regular” bike store: Sourland Cycles. Pedego claims to be the largest e-bike brand in the U.S., based mainly on its distribution network of more than 60 outlets and sales of 10,000 units in 2016. Indeed, reviews indicate that the firm’s product is well regarded. White goes further, suggesting that the brand is “the Cadillac of e-bikes. Its excellence will force other companies out of business.”
White asserts that there are several types of buyers for some form of assistance in their riding. Seniors who want to stay active, spouses who don’t quite have the stamina to keep up with an active significant other, people who want or need to dramatically improve their health, and those who haven’t ridden for years and want to get back to it. Promotional materials cite the example of the 457-pound woman who bought a Pedego e-bike and got her weight down to 180 pounds. She now rides the 38-mile round trip to work daily. Finally commuters who, tired of traffic problems, see the e-bike as a viable alternative and typically ride two to five miles a day back and forth to work.
The speed of innovation in the U.S. economy is quite dizzying. In the e-bike world there are already many innovations and improvements.
E-bikes break down into three drive types. First the assistance motor is located in the hub of the wheel — most commonly in the rear wheel; less often, in the front. Second it is sited in the crankset hub, also known as mid-drive, the large front gear to which the pedal is attached. Finally there is the friction drive, where power is transmitted directly to the tire by an external motor.
There are some high-tech refinements. For example, built-in cruise control, torque sensors that adjust the level of assistance the motor provides based on how hard the rider is pedaling, cadence sensors (cadence is the rate at which a cyclist turns the pedals.) NiCad and more recently lithium ion batteries have vastly improved battery life.
As with most human activity, though, there are some negatives with e-bikes.
First, they are expensive. A speedy review of the web found that although some are below $2,000 a cost in the $3,000 to $5,000 range is more usual. By comparison, my own good quality road bike, a GT Grade, sells new in the $1,500 range. The average buyer rides only occasionally and tends to regard cycling as a bit of fun rather than sport. He is unlikely to be prepared to pay these kind of prices.
For anyone looking for an e-bike at a lower price, conversion kits are a possible way. However, they can cost in excess of $2,000. The Bionx PL 350, including battery on sale at $1,800 might be considered a bargain. There are of course some which are priced much lower. But when prices sink too low, I saw one for less than $190, one should be very wary about quality and reliability.
Two kinds of kit are most popular. First is a replacement wheel with the driving mechanism inside a specially built hub. A certain amount of skill may be necessary for assembly, so beware if instructions assume that you know how to build a new wheel. A separately mounted battery is also necessary – they are not always included.
The second type can be driven either by a gas-powered two stroke engine or by an electric motor. Either way power is transmitted to serrated shaft, which in turn sits directly on the tire driving the bike by friction. This can be very hard on tires. Note too that adding power assistance to an older bike can interfere with the structural dynamics of the bike. Not only does it add weight, it may put more strain on parts that are not built to take it.
Second, it is never a good thing when any bike breaks down. If an e-bike breaks down you may be in for a tougher time. You cannot easily manhandle it into a rescue vehicle and may need to partially dismantle it. If you need to walk to the nearest help, it is heavy to push. The Pedego I test rode weighs in the 60 pound range. My regular bike weighs about 20 pounds. If you lose the assistance of the motor you cannot expect to ride off without serious effort. You will be carrying an extra 60 pounds of bicycle weight. You face the same problem even if you temporarily replace an e-bike wheel with a spare from a regular bike.
Remember too that the battery limits the distance you can ride. Depending on the rated power of the battery and intensity of use, a rider should be able to ride between 30 and 50 miles. She will likely need a re-charge within two to three hours. Gray told me that he knew of an experienced sport rider who, by limiting assistance to level 1, managed to ride his Pedego 89 miles on one charge. An average rider should not expect to get even close to this.
Third, there are possible legal issues, depending on the type of vehicle you purchase. Briefly, the question is this. At what point does a bike with some form of motor driving it become a motor vehicle and thus subject to the legal requirements that go with this designation? Should such vehicles be registered, display identifying number plates, be required to have accident insurance? Should owners have to be licensed to drive them?
So where should the line be drawn? Twenty-five miles per hour is a high speed not easily sustainable by inexperienced riders, but by no means unusual among fit cyclists. Ask yourself, if a woman on an regular bicycle can move along at such a speed, why should an e-bike be subject to different rules of the road just because that speed is attained by the assistance of a motor?
For now, the industry seems content to follow recent regulations in California which became effective in January, 2016. They define two of three classes of “electric bicycle” as “equipped with fully operable pedals and an electric motor of less than 750 watts.” Classes one and two peg the maximum speed to 20 miles per hour and currently many manufacturers install a governor to enforce this limit. Other e-bikes are capable of speeds up to 30 miles per hour — the Haibike, for example.
Most states have regulations for variously named vehicles: electric assisted, motorized vehicle, bicycle with motorized helper, and so forth. Maximum speeds vary from 20 to 30 mph. Some require a license, a helmet, a minimum age; others don’t. More than a dozen states, New Jersey among them, have no regulations on the books defining e-bikes or setting speed limits. The idea that potential buyers might find themselves somehow “illegal” could have a deadening effect on sales.
Right now though, the possibilities are wide open for any U.S. business looking for an opportunity in the e-bike world. Already there are hundreds of manufacturers including BM, Elevo, Izip, Blix, and Haibike. Huge international companies like Ford, Bosch, and Honda also have a stake in the business. So do some of the most well know marques in the traditional bicycle world, each vying for a bigger slice of the tiny but growing U.S. market. Cannondale, Giant, BMC, Trek, Specialized, and Schwinn among others currently produce at least one model of electric bike.
Whatever the differences of opinion about the viability of e-bikes, Navigant Research suggests that good news is coming. “The North American e-bike market was relatively flat in 2015…the United States still has strong potential [for increased sales].”
Worldwide sales are around 35 million, with the Asia Pacific region dominating the stats at 32.8 million. By comparison U.S. sales are extremely low at 150,000, affording anyone willing to go against some serious competition a grand opportunity to be in at the beginning of a potentially much larger market. The folks at Sourland Electric Cycles no doubt expect to be among them.
I love the exhilaration that comes from pushing the bike along, bumping up against 20 milies per hour when the wind is favorable and have yet to be overtaken by someone on an e-bike. Yet I know when it happens I shall scowl at him or her muttering under my breath about how it is a form of cheating. Especially if it’s just after I’ve pedaled my way up the hill leading out of Lambertville. I also know that I’m not getting any younger. Sooner or later the ups and downs on the bike will get to be more challenging and I will begin to think about how I can extend my life on the bike. When that day comes I will no doubt look back to my experience with the electric bike and head off to my favorite dealer to get one.
Sourland Cycles, 53 East Broad Street, Hopewell 08525. 609-333-8553. www.sourlandcycles.com.
Kopp’s Cycle, 38 Spring Street. 609-924-1052. www.koppscycle.net. While Kopp’s — established in 1891 and believed to be America’s oldest continually operating cycle shop — doesn’t normally stock electric bicycles, it can order one for a customer. It also can install a conversion kit on a customer’s non-electric bike.
Jay’s Cycles, 249 Nassau Street. 609-924-7233. www.jayscycles.com. Jay’s stocks Trek electric bikes, with the most popular model being the XM700, with a crank-mounted motor that has a range of about 50 miles on a charge and costs $3,500.
A skeptic weighs in
Jason Fenton, an active and avid cyclist, known to his customers as Jay or Jaydog, is owner of the high quality Halters Cycles in Montgomery. He maintains a more guarded view of the e-bike market. “There’s a good deal of fluidity in the e-bike business right now,” he says. His business is firmly in the world where a human pushes the bike along with muscle alone.
“At our store enquiries about buying e-bikes are minimal,” he says confirming his belief that the sale of conventional bikes continues to be where the action is. Total U.S. bicycle sales of 17 to 20 million units in 2015 seem to support his view. “No bike shop in Princeton could survive by selling e-bikes exclusively,” he says. Note that White and Gray continue to run their conventional bike shop.
Fenton sees a good placement for e-bikes in the rental business, where the occasional, relatively unfit rider can easily be encouraged by pedal assist to visit the prettiest or most interesting sights of their vacation spots.
“I am in a wait-and-see mode,” Fenton says. “We are in the infancy of the technology and should expect to see greater changes in the next five to ten years.”
Fenton is by no means resistant to coming changes. After a recent motorcycle accident, he was unable to ride a conventional bike. So he promptly acquired a battery-driven one for personal use. The new bike allows him to continue his commitment to repairing and building off road trails for the New Jersey Off Road Bicycling Association (NJORBA). He gives his electric bike two big thumbs up as a workhorse, concluding that the Bosch motor, mounted in the crankset hub, is the best engine in its breed. “This thing can haul me plus a hundred pounds of tools and equipment over very rugged terrain,” Fenton says.
Halter’s Cycles, 1325 Route 206, Montgomery Shopping Center. 609-924-7433. www.halterscycles.com.