Thursday, May 23, 2013
By KEN ALLEN
Many folks in the U.S. and around the world possess an honest desire to leave a smaller carbon footprint, and in many places, families cannot afford an automobile. These circumstances have set the stage for electric bicycles, called e-bikes.
This little machine just plain looks like fun for non-traditional bikers, particularly outdoors types who need quiet, easy, sweat-less transportation to access backwoods deer haunts or fishing waters behind gates, common in Maine.
E-bikes also appeal to people wanting a somewhat easy pedal, particularly while climbing hills. This need can never be underestimated. More on this topic later.
So why aren't e-bikes swamping U.S. markets now?
In my humble opinion, three negatives hold back sales:
• Most e-bikes cost too much to mass-market. For example, Schwinn sells a modestly popular e-bike for just under $3,000, and in April, I saw an e-bike at L.L.Bean for $1,200. Many serious bicyclists own fancy road bikes that cost less.
• Bicycle-shop owners are reluctant to get into e-bikes because of the need to learn new technology for repairs.
• More importantly, customers aren't clamoring for e-bikes now, and bicycle shops appeal to traditional bikers such as myself who wouldn't be caught dead on one.
I can understand the e-bike appeal, though.
In China in 2008, where options are less expensive, e-bike sales outnumbered those of cars and trucks.
This year in the Netherlands, where conventional bicycles were already ultra-popular, 120,000 people will own e-bikes. In the United Kingdom, customers bought 23,000 e-bikes in 2009, up from 15,000 the previous year. This year the sales figure is expected to hit 30,000.
When manufacturers offer mass-produced e-bikes at affordable prices, sales will skyrocket in the United States. I expect big box stores will lead sales with inexpensive e-bikes.
My e-bike forecast depends on the following customer bases:
• This market will appeal to casual bikers, including commuters (less sweaty pedaling), folks with minor health issues such as knee, back or respiratory problems, those who pedal too little to build leg muscles, and as I indicated, people wanting to access areas for outdoor sports. Readers can add to the list.
• Not every bicyclist pretends he or she is racing in La Tour de France or the Tour of California while flying down a steep hill or dancing on the pedals during a brutal climb. In short, folks less serious about biking but dedicated to inexpensive, carefree travel will want an e-bike.
• Municipalities in the United Kingdom have bought e-bikes to rent. E-bike rentals might eventually flourish in tourist areas worldwide when prices drop.
Not to belabor the issue, but it requires effort and some pain to build bicycling legs. Twenty years ago, I dreaded hills, but my legs developed so climbing strikes me as great exercise -- something to savor, not dread.
Not everyone has the dedication required to reach that goal, though.
E-bikes will interest those casual bikers who want fun transportation, but in the process, they'll get some exercise. The bikes will get folks outdoors into fresh air where they'll feel wind brushing their faces and see all the neat things that eyes pick up when traveling 10 to 25 miles per hour (and faster) as opposed to a steady 55 and 60 mph.
E-bike manufacturers push the idea that their product works best for urban biking, beginning with ease in finding a parking place. However, rural pedaling is a perfect e-bike option -- just sailing down a ribbon of highway that slices through fields, woods and villages under a wide blue sky.
One point about e-bikes may change as technology develops, but right now, most manufacturers did not design these bikes to recharge from pedaling, a popular misconception about these machines.
With an e-bike, bicyclists draw a net amount of power from the battery pack to assist riding, particularly for hill climbing. Then later at home, riders replenish the power source from a wall outlet rather than working extra hard on the trip to build up a battery.
One last thought:
Not long ago, a statistic caught my eye that should appeal to bicycle-shop owners. One recent year in the UK, e-bikes accounted for 10 percent of the sales but generated 30 percent of the revenues. Money talks.
Ken Allen of Belgrade Lakes is a writer, editor and photographer. He can be contacted at: