By David Howard
Source: Bicycling Magazine
The industry throws a coming-out party for electric bikes
I was sitting on the same full-suspension, high-performance, all-carbon Santa Cruz mountain bike that won the 2012 downhill world championship. The bike’s knobby tires wrapped around an all-carbon wheelset. Standing next to me was Bjorn Enga, of Kranked fame, maker of all those groundbreaking freeride films, uttering words of assurance. “This,” he said, “is meant for shredding off-road.”
That should have seemed obvious enough, right? Yet something was clearly different. The Camelbak-type pack I was wearing held a battery plugged into a small motor just above the bike’s crank. As I started pedaling away, I turned a throttle with my right hand and the bike surged forward, nearly popping into a wheelie.
Thanks to a partnership with Enga’s new venture, Kranked Kustom, the Santa Cruz was now anelectric bike, better known as an e-bike—or at least Bjorn Enga’s particular vision of one. An industry event for media and retailers on Wednesday brought together many iterations of the colorful and controversial new breed of bicycle.
The e-bike has been slow to catch on in the United States. Sales last year totaled between 50,000 and 100,000—a small fraction of the number of units that moved in China and parts of Europe. That was part of the reason for the expo—to suggest that despite the sluggish start, there is still ample evidence of the e-bike’s inevitability. The event had the imprimatur of the industry heavyweights: Interbike staged the show with the backing of Bikes Belong and Bicycle Retailer and Industry News. (Major manufacturers such as Giant and Cannondale passed, saying that their lines were not ready, according to an Interbike official.) The event, which drew journalists from the likes of USA Today, O The Oprah Magazine, and Us Weekly, was held at Terranea Resort in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, amid laser-bright sunshine and lazily circling pelicans, the cobalt-blue Pacific twinkling beneath high bluffs.
The event in some ways resembled the bicycle version of the Westminster Kennel Club dog show, where the Newfoundland trots out after the toy poodle and before the schnauzer. Electra’s regal, retro Townie Go shared the same row as full-suspension mountain bikes from Easy Motion. Further up, Pete’s Electric Bikes, harnessing Nuvinci technology, displayed folders and a neon-green bike-share ride with a hefty basket and a locking-and-charging station, among other models. Around the corner, Pedego had fat-tire e-bikes, three-wheeled e-bikes, a tandem e-bike. Journalists and some 70 bike-shop dealers whirred silently on all of them along Terranea’s snaking roads and paths and sometimes across the resort’s lawns. A member of the black-shirt-wearing Kranked crew rode a long wheelie down a hill.
The buzz among attendees coalesced around one central idea: This is the future of cycling. And if the numbers prove to be accurate, they are striking. Pat Hus of Interbike estimates that there are now 150 million e-bikes in use worldwide, mostly in China. By 2025, he said, industry officials believe there will be 650 million in circulation and will make up 50 percent of all bike sales. Put another way: That’s 500 million e-bikes in a dozen years. “It is a paradigm-breaking technology,” said Bill Moore, founder of evworld.com, which tracks electric vehicles of all types.
Yet there are clear obstacles, Moore acknowledged. Elected officials across all layers of government in the United States—from federal down to municipal—have yet to agree on whether the bikes should be allowed on roads and bike paths, for example. New York City transportation officials recently banned them after getting inundated with complaints about out-of-control food deliverymen. At the heart of it all is the question of what actually makes a bike a bike: Does it need to have functional pedals? How fast should it legally be allowed to go? How big a motor?
Even the dealers themselves don’t agree on what’s actually a bike; as one dealer told me, “We don’t put throttles on our bikes because we don’t believe that’s a bicycle.”
They are remarkably different and yet in at least one way inextricably linked: They will all, big players and small, have to help find a way for e-bikes to gain mainstream acceptance. For one day, at least, the future looked as bright as the Southern California sun.