Eighty-year-old Barbara Melchiskey of Camden has loved to bicycle her whole life. When she developed hip problems a few years ago, she wasn’t willing to give it up.

So, Melchiskey traded her road bike for an electric bicycle. She still pedals, and usually uses the motor on its lowest setting unless she needs a boost to get up a hill. Nowadays, she says, “I’m not afraid of hills, and Camden is all hills… I know I can do it.”

Melchiskey named her e-bike Obie (more on this later). Since she and her husband share a car, she depends on Obie for transportation as well as exercise.

“I use it to go visit my friends, for knitting group or anything around town,” she said. “We take it with us to places like Acadia and Cape Cod, so we can ride on the trails.”

E-bike sales are soaring, particularly in China. They typically cost upwards of $2,000, far more than a regular bicycle. But they are used worldwide as an inexpensive and environmentally friendly alternative to a car.

While U.S. sales lag far behind many other countries, they are growing here, too.

CycleMania, a Portland bicycle shop, has been selling them for about a decade, and sales have increased during that time, said David Brink, the store’s co-owner. The store sells two brands, Trek and Cannondale, at prices ranging from $2,600 to about $4,000.

Some e-bikes look like ordinary bikes, others resemble motorcycles and and at least one, the three-wheeled Organic Transit Elf, looks like a space-age conveyance.

Brink said most e-bike customers are seniors like Melchiskey who have biked their entire lives and “still want to live the lifestyle that they did in their younger years.”

Melchiskey rides her motorized bicycle near her home in Camden. She still pedals, and usually uses the motor on its lowest setting unless she needs a boost to get up a hill.

Melchiskey rides her motorized bicycle near her home in Camden. She still pedals, and usually uses the motor on its lowest setting unless she needs a boost to get up a hill.

The growing popularity of e-bikes has led to questions about whether they should follow the same rules as regular bicycles or be treated more like motorcycles. Some cyclists and traffic safety advocates have expressed concerns about e-bikes sharing paths with regular cyclists and pedestrians because of their faster speeds.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission regulates the production, sale and recall of e-bikes with electric motors of less than 1 horsepower and speeds of less than 20 miles per hour. But some e-bikes travel as fast as 50 miles per hour, and they are not regulated by the commission.

A 2015 study by the League of American Bicyclists shows that regular bicyclists have mixed attitudes toward e-bikes. On one hand, many recognize their potential to provide health benefits and an eco-friendly alternative to cars. But some purists object to the very idea of a bicycle with a motor.

“I ride bicycles, unicycles and motorcycles,” one person quoted in the report said. “Like e-bikes, they’re different from one another and require their own skill set to be safe for oneself and others. Just don’t call them bicycles.”

Some states and municipalities have passed laws regulating e-bikes. For example, a Colorado law prohibits e-bike riders from using their engines on multi-use paths.

When the Maine Legislature passed a “vulnerable users” law last year, e-bikes were among the vehicles covered. Abby King, the Bicycle Coalition of Maine’s advocacy coordinator, said her group has no current plans to request further regulation of e-bikes.

The League of American Bicyclists embraces e-bikes as an innovation that allows more people to use bicycles for transportation. But Ken McLeod, the League’s legal and policy specialist, said his group shares the concern that “there are types of e-bikes that are not appropriate for certain uses.”

Portland City Councilor Jill Duson, a lifelong cyclist, bought an e-bike in 2008 after she developed back and knee problems. She used the bike often to commute from her North Deering home to downtown Portland.

But one day, she crashed on the railroad tracks near Woodfords Corner. The speed of the e-bike contributed to the crash, she said. Afterward, Duson no longer felt safe riding her e-bike, so she switched back to a regular bicycle.

Melchiskey, the Camden cyclist, encourages people to do their homework before buying an e-bike. Depending on the brand, the bikes differ in how many speed settings they have, how long the batteries last and how much they weigh, among other factors.

Melchiskey purchased an Evelo. One feature she particularly likes is that the motor cuts off as soon as she stops pedaling.

“Riding a heavier bike and learning to use the motor was a new learning curve for me,” she said. “I did take a tumble a couple times before I decided to obey her. Hence the name Obie: she who must be obeyed.”

Obie weighs 65 pounds – heavy enough that Melchiskey and her 84-year-old husband, Steve, must lift it together to get it on their car’s bike rack. That’s about three times heavier than a typical road bike. Melchiskey has discovered one problem with her e-bike that is not easily solved: Her husband can’t keep up with her.

“He doesn’t have an electric bike – and I can’t talk him into getting one,” she said. “I have to wait for him at the top of the hill.”

Shoshana Hoose is a freelance writer who walks and bicycles in Greater Portland and beyond. Contact her at [email protected]


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