Electric Bike Expo at Stanford

Demoing e-bikes at Stanford
Demoing e-bikes at Stanford

This past weekend Stanford Shopping Center hosted the Electric Bike Expo, one of six taking place in the western US. Roger and I found out about it quite by chance and made last-minute plans to drop in on its final day, Sunday. The Expo hosts bikes by about twenty different e-bike manufacturers as well as adventure companies using e-bikes, and even a company making e-bike charging stations! There were a few brands familiar to US cyclists—Trek, Felt, Raleigh, and Focus—but most were either new companies or established European brands such as Haibike, Kalkhoff, and Gazelle finally bringing their e-bike goodness to the New World. The one major brand that was missing was Specialized, which is just down the road in Morgan Hill, perhaps because Specialized would prefer you to try their e-bikes away from the other brands. That’s too bad because that was the one model, the Specialized Turbo, that I would have wanted to demo.

Cargo e-bike set up for hauling child
Cargo e-bike set up for hauling child

In addition to vendor booths where you could check out the various e-bike models, talk to company reps, and pick up informational brochures, there was also a small, closed off track where you could try out a multitude of bikes. As expected most of the bikes were commuter or hybrid style bikes with a strong number of e-mountain bikes. There were cargo e-bikes too. If there ever were a sensible idea, it would be to marry the cargo bike with an electric system: you can get some badly needed assist when you’re carrying a heavy load or when you’re going up a hill. No one had a drop-bar road e-bike. Clearly manufacturers are aiming for the commuter and casual cyclist and not the recreational cyclist, and that makes sense: e-bikes make commuting by bike a much more tolerable affair not just be reducing the effort but also by speeding up the commute and reducing its sweaty aftereffect. Arriving at work a smelly mess is not a good way to impress the boss or your clients.

Hawg of a different color: E-cruiser with sidecar
Hawg of a different color: E-cruiser with sidecar

Although there were a few, well, let’s call them “less heavy” e-bikes, this was accomplished by using smaller motors and batteries, which are probably enough for a city-sized commute. Most e-bikes are pretty weighty affairs pushing 50 pounds or more. That isn’t a problem for the engine as you’ve got plenty of watts to propel all that extra mass. But it is a problem if you need to store the bike on anything other than the ground level. If you live in a walk-up or even have to schlep your e-bike up a few stairs, you’re going to find just about any e-bike a real pain, if not impossible, to lift. You better have an elevator at hand and a large one too because e-bikes are not small. The good news is that if you have to lock it up outside, removing the battery and in some cases the computer head will make stealing it a lot less desirable. But I wouldn’t leave a $3,000 bike outside unattended.

Speaking of $3,000 that’s the other thing I noticed: these bikes aren’t cheap. For “serious” cyclists, spending a few thousand dollars for a new bike sounds about right, but for everyday people that’s practically the sign either of insanity or profligate wastefulness. Who are these companies marketing too? Casual cyclists and a lot of basic commuters aren’t looking to spend tons of money on a bike, let alone one they have leave locked up outside in danger of being stolen or one they can’t lift up the front stairs. At these prices you’re either indulging in an expensive fad or you’re already into the cycling lifestyle in spades. For e-bikes to take off the prices will have to come down a lot before we see them jamming up the streets of San Francisco in large numbers. Until then they’re going to be a distinct minority. Now, for the cycling addicts out there, rolling big coin on yet another bike involves a lot less hesitation. But currently manufacturers don’t really make the kind of bike that Mr./Ms. Road Cyclist would probably like to own. I’m talking about something that looks like a road bike. But they are coming and when they do I’m really going to enjoy going to an Expo to try them out. Until then it’s mostly going to be more commuter bikes or full suspension mtb rigs.

Solar powered e-bike charging station
Solar powered e-bike charging station

The e-bike charging station caught my eye. At first glance it all made sense: solar powered recharging stations spread throughout the land so you can top off your battery while you work/shop/eat! But upon thought it didn’t make any sense at all. Most commutes by bike are under five miles. Roger’s e-bike in Eco mode, which is plenty for all but the steeper hills, gets 40-50 miles per charge. So unless you’ve got a long commute or you’ve just forgotten to recharge your battery at home, charging stations are charming but unnecessary. Second, each motor/battery manufacturer has a different, proprietary motor, battery, and charging port. How are these charging stations going to be one-size-fits-all? Until one system becomes the standard (or is mandated the standard), we’ll end up with either (a) proprietary charging stations, (b) lots of dongles at the “pump” to connect to your port, or (c) you carry a universal dongle that connects your battery to, say, a two- or three-prong plug.

Speaking of proprietary, that’s another potential headache. There are about three systems currently on the market that are or are going to be widespread: the Bosch system (yes, the same company that makes your power tools), Yamaha, and now Shimano with its e-Steps system. Panasonic also has a system on the market. The rest of them are pretty much tied to one specific bike company. For example, Kalkhoff touted the fact that it had a proprietary, in-house designed motor and battery. (Specialized has the same for its Turbo, but its wasn’t present at the Expo.) That may have cachet to be designed in-house but what it meant to me is: (a) what if they stop making that system or their e-bike effort flounders? How then do I get replacement parts or batteries? (b) You mean I can’t get a battery from anyone else to fit your mount or whose voltage matches your motor? I have to order one just from you? How much will that cost? and (c) “What do you mean you don’t have a vendor in Schmoville?! I need to buy a battery there!” One manufacturer had bikes with three different battery designs (!). That’s taking customization to an absurd level. While for some that means choice, for me it means that maintaining one of their e-bikes for the long term is going to be either expensive or I’m going to end up searching on EBay for EOL parts or batteries. Right now the Bosch system seems to be the most palatable because it’s widespread (at least overseas), has a deep distribution network, and their system is used by a lot of bike companies. That means it’s not hard to get a battery or parts. Bosch also has come out with its new 500 watt-hour battery (the current is 400 WH) and they have kept it backward compatible with the mounts and the chargers of the older models, so at least they’re trying.

Lots of e-mtbs
Lots of e-mtbs

There’s no doubt that riding an e-bike is a lot of fun. But the current choices on the US market show that they’re not aimed at us for the most part. My guess is that in less than five years time the e-bike landscape is going to be different. Not only will there we rapid expansion in this country but there will also be some thinning out of the motor/battery systems. My guess is that Bosch will continue to do well and that Shimano is going to take off because it really knows the bike market and its e-Steps system offers potential integration with its Di2 electronic shifting system. Plus, we are going to see the spread of e-road bikes. Haibike already has one it is selling in Europe and the other companies are sure to follow.

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