Rachel L. Davis is an avid bicyclist. But as a working mother of two, with a third child on the way, she doesn’t have time for long bike rides. “In my world, getting my exercise has to be part of my daily life,” says Davis, 36, who owns a marketing strategy company based in Washington. “I live in a hilly part of D.C., and as I’ve become more pregnant, more tired with more children, I don’t have as much energy to be biking 40 miles or biking to Alexandria.”
She found a solution in JUMP Bikes, which rents out dockless ebikes. “The ebike is a fantastic option if someone has a little less energy but wants to get some exercise, burn calories and still get around,” Davis says.
Electric bikes or ebikes, widely popular in Europe and China, are steadily making their ascent in the U.S. bike market. Erik Saltvold, founder and owner of ERIK’s Bike Shop, a Midwest-based chain for bike sales and repairs, says the ebike is the fastest-growing specialty bike in the industry. Last October, market research company NPD Group reported that electric bike sales had grown 95 percent in the 12 months ending in July 2017, with sales totaling nearly $65 million.
Those buyers aren’t likely to get a major workout. Researchers from the University of Tennessee found in a study of walkers, ebike riders and traditional bike riders that those who completed a 4.43-kilometer hilly route on an ebike used 22 percent less energy than traditional bikers and 64 percent less than walkers, most likely because the ebikers got to the finish line faster than the others. But perks included higher levels of enjoyment and no need for a shower when they were done.
“Sometimes people who pedal a lot kind of scoff and say, ‘Oh, I don’t need an electric motor.’ Quite frankly, that’s right,” says Dave Abadie, owner of E-Bike KC, an ebike conversion company. “If you ride a lot for exercise and even for competition, an electric bike is something you wouldn’t be interested in getting.”
Instead, ebikes offer a “gateway” to exercise, says Thomas Whitaker, director of marketing for Faraday Bikes, a San Francisco-based ebike manufacturer. He notes than in their market research, 10 percent of customers use ebikes to recover from an illness or injury. “I think it’s a familiar and fun way to exercise without being hard on the body. People recover and then continue to do more and bike more.”
The National Institute for Transportation and Communities believes ebikes remove barriers to cycling, such as physical limitations and challenging topography. The results of a recent survey “indicate that, by reducing the physical demands on the rider, e-bikes are encouraging more people to replace car trips with bike trips,” it says. The survey found that 37 percent of frequent cyclists and 27 percent of non- or seldom-cyclists who bought an ebike now primarily use their ebike to commute to work, an encouraging sign for transportation officials who want to increase bicycle commuting. (May 18 is National Bike to Work Day.)
Electric bikes are categorized by classes: Class 1 ebikes are pedal-assist cycles with a top speed of 20 mph. (Some localities have banned Class 2 and Class 3 ebikes, which are throttle on demand.) The trick to using a Class 1 bike is to, well, pedal. “If the pedals stop, the bike doesn’t go,” says Saltvold, who describes using an ebike as akin to running on a moving walkway in an airport terminal. Whitaker notes that customers say they switch off the pedal-assist to get more exercise, then turn it back on when going up a hill or wanting to increase their speed.
Although ebikes are easier to use in some instances, such as climbing hills, there are safety concerns. Because the bikes are heavier than traditional bikes, balance can be a problem. And, of course, ebikes allow people to cycle at higher speeds than usual. “A normal rider will average between 12 to 15 mph, where an ebike rider will average between 15 to 20 mph,” Abadie says. An increase in the number of deaths of elderly male ebike riders in the Netherlands has been attributed to their overconfidence in being able to ride at high speeds and to mount and dismount the bikes.
If you’re interested in an ebike, you have a couple of options: converting your existing bike or buying an electric version. Abadie says a bike suitable for conversion will have a powerful brake system, wider tires and a strong frame that can hold the motor and battery. He charges $800 to $1,200 to find the right parts and motors for a particular bike.
The average price of new ebike is about $2,500, according to the NPD Group report. At the upper end, the S-Works Turbo Levo FSR 6Fattie/29 by Specialized comes out at a cool $10,000. Even its lithium ion battery is expensive, costing up to $800 to replace.
Davis plans to invest in an ebike after she has her third child. “This could take me back to my years of biking a lot,” she says. “Now I have multiple children, I don’t have the physical capacity to bike uphill with that amount of weight. The ebike changes that situation.”