The Future of E-bikes: A Prediction

"Is that a motor in your bottom bracket or are you just happy to see me?"
“Is that a motor in your bottom bracket or are you just happy to see me?”

 

Like most recreational cyclists I studiously ignored the nascent appearance of electric bicycles, or e-bikes, on our shores. I preferred to propel myself down the road, thank you very much. Using an electric bicycle seemed like another incarnation of laziness and of not knowing what to do with too much money. E-bikes also were oriented towards the commuter and ‘transpo’ crowd, and there it has some semblance of a rationale: you could commute to work and not arrive so sweaty that your funk would repel your coworkers, or for example if you wanted to haul your kid to Rooftop Elementary up Twin Peaks, you could use the electric assist.

In Europe electric bicycles, although still a small yet distinct portion of overall bike use, have been growing by leaps and bounds. Over the years Roger and I have seen them go from rare Bigfoot-like spottings to steady and regular appearances both in the cities and the countryside. Three years ago outside of Bern, Switzerland we ran into a group from Zurich, all of them on e-bikes. They were on rental ‘pedelecs’—electric bikes that you must pedal to get a power assist (i.e. no throttle)—and having a holiday in the hilly countryside east of Lake Geneva. They didn’t appear to be couch potatoes nor were they dressed in cycling drag: they were just regular city folk. When we stopped together at a cheese-making farm in Affolterm for lunch, I took the opportunity to chat with them about their bikes. They weren’t on anything special, some urban style bike with upright bars and a gear train, probably nine gears in back. They explained that they were out doing daily tours and that if they had to use regular bicycles they would never be able to do the distances or hills that they were covering and consequently see and experience so much less of the beautiful countryside. They said if you run down the battery on the bike, you are able to exchange it at train stations for fully recharged units and keep on riding. Apparently this zone of Switzerland had infrastructure that allowed for easy battery exchange—Elon Musk would be envious. Of course if you run the battery down, then you’re on pedal power only and since the bikes run about 50 pounds, that’s a lot of weight to lug around. But at least you can make it back to town.

After lunch we set off together and I was able to see them in action. They definitely were pedaling to get around and they were enjoying the countryside. In fact they loved to stop and take pictures of the spectacular views of the area. And, they were out doing something for exercise. At that point it sunk into my head that e-bikes wasn’t cheating at all: they were liberating devices. These folks were able to do something healthy and pleasurable that they very likely would not have done otherwise.

Roger loves his e-bike. As I mentioned previously, a couple of years ago he started having health setbacks. The result was that he was not just going slower but struggling much of the time. Rides were becoming exhausting efforts. No amount of training was likely to bring him back to his former level. The e-bike allows him to do all the riding he used to do and enjoy at the speeds he used to do (and faster!) at a power output he is able to sustain.

I don’t know of any other e-bike users in the club but I do know that the Den Daddy is actively searching for one. Maybe we should set up a Different Spokes subsection: Electric Spokes! Derek is in his eighties and still actively rides throughout Contra Costa. But he claims he can’t do hills anymore and thinks an e-bike will be of great help, and he is exactly right. However it is a bit ironic since the last few times I’ve ridden with Derek he has zoomed on the flats at close to 20 mph. I don’t doubt that he isn’t enjoying the hills anymore and he’s probably comparing himself to the way he used to ride, which I know from my own personal experience can be demoralizing. If he succeeds in finding a mount he likes, I think he’ll take to it like a fish to water. And he’ll be kicking your butt not just on the flats but the hills too. (You better hope his battery dies before you do!)

Speaking of kicking butt, Bill Bushnell, one of our former Ride Coordinators (but unfortunately no longer a member) rides an electric recumbent. If you rode with Bill back in the day you know that holding his wheel was difficult. Then he got a recumbent and it became almost impossible. Then he faired his recumbent and it was impossible! Well, Bill developed a health issue that cut his power and made riding more and more problematic. His solution was to electrify his recumbent. He still rides incredible mileage and does rides that would destroy you or me. If there were ever a poster child for the potential benefit of e-bikes for recreational cyclists Bill would be it.

"Dura Ace? Check. Carbon frame? Check. Motor & Lithium battery? Check."
“Dura Ace? Check. Carbon frame? Check. Motor & lithium battery? Check.”

 

The future development of e-bikes in the US is going to be very interesting. No doubt the majority of purchasers will continue to be very casual cyclists who just want to get from point A to point B without much effort. But with Boomers and Gen-X cyclists getting on in years there is another market to be tapped. Aging recreational cyclists no longer have to resign themselves to going slower and slower. Instead they can harness the power of an e-bike to keep going at the same pace they used to and/or to continue to do the big rides. For e-bikes to catch on with this crowd they’ll need to evolve in a slightly different direction to appeal to those enamored with carbon fiber and drop bars rather than your typical city bike with upright bars, a kickstand, and fat tires. We are just now beginning to see the appearance of that kind of e-bike, designed for fast road riding rather than commuting. The cost is already up there already because e-bikes aren’t cheap—you have to pay for the motor and an expensive lithium battery. For example Specialized’s top-end e-bike, the Turbo—which is a city bike—is now $7,000! It’s a piece of art and certainly Apple-esque in its suave mien but you’re still stuck with a boat anchor with flat bars. Admittedly weight is less an issue for an e-bike since the extra watts to propel that poundage can come from a battery rather than your paltry quads. From a design perspective e-bikes for this crowd will have to look and ride like what they’re used to riding: carbon fiber Venges, C60s, and Dogmas. Whether that’s to be able to hide the fact that you’re using ‘mechanical doping’ or because our esthetic sensibility has recentered around aero-superduper carbon bikes, it really doesn’t matter because that lithium battery and motor allow a drab city e-bike to drop every Pinarello in sight. Yet we know what a real bike is supposed to look like, so damn it, make one that looks like a Pro Tour bike even if it does weigh 50 pounds. When e-bike manufacturers catch on, look out! You’re going to be seeing a lot of e-bikes in the Bay Area. Maybe even under me.

UPDATE (2/2): Perhaps the marketing elves have been hard at work as I wrote. This bike checks all the boxes for a carbon e-bike: http://road.cc/content/tech-news/177447-first-look-€10000-typhoon-e-assist-packs-250w-hidden-motor

The details are sketchy but it looks like the Typhoon is not a pedelec: power assist is by throttle. Note for whom this bike is aimed: “The Typhoon clearly isn’t aimed at professionals, but wealthy cyclists that want a little assistance on the hills or for keeping up with fitter friends. The three modes mean you can get just a little bit of assistance, enough to help if struggling to keep up and about to be dropped from the group. Is there any problem with an amateur cyclist using such a bike, if it helps them to ride more, as long as it’s not used for racing?”

Weight is about 8 kg., or 17.6 lbs. It’s yours for just $11,000!

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