Electric Bike Nirvana

By Bill Moore

Interbike brought together a dozen manufacturers and scores of electric-assist bicycles at beautiful Terranea Resort to introduce the media to one of the most exciting and sustainable innovations of the 19th century, one that has languished for far too long.

Okay... there is no freakin' way it can get any better than this.

Scores of electric-assist bicycles of every shape, size, color, and configuration are lined up for me ... and about 30 or so journalists -- to ride around the beautiful Terranea Resort on the most perfect day possible. It's even better than being the proverbial kid in a candy store. This is e-bike Nirvana.

The southern California resort, opened several years ago on a spit of land that juts out into the Pacific just north and west of Long Beach, is officially within the city limits of Rancho Palos Verdes. Santa Catalina Island appears so close you think you can reach out and touch it even though it is 26 miles away.

The occasion that brought me here was the opportunity to give the opening keynote speech at the inaugural Interbike Electric Bike Media Event. Interbike is the firm that manages North America's largest bicycle and fitness equipment trade show, now going on some 32 years and held annually in Las Vegas. The aim of the Terranea event, to which I hope I get invited again next year, is to raise public awareness of electric-assist bicycles in the United States, where annual sales are a tenth of those of tiny Holland.

My role this year was to provide the invited journalists with some historical perspective on electric bicycles, which, in fact, predate the invention of the automobile by half a decade. In 1880, two English engineers converted a Starley high-wheeled tricycle into the world's first electric bike. It wouldn't be until 1885 that Karl Benz would do the same in Germany, but this time with a primitive internal combustion engine. As I pointed out, if it weren't for bicycle technology, the automobile wouldn't have happened: Henry Ford's 1896 quadracycle being the perfect example. Most of its rolling parts clearly came off bicycles.

Beyond the history of e-bikes, which includes auto industry veterans from Malcolm Bricklin to Lee Iacocca, is the larger issue of why the United States lags so far behind even tiny Holland in the adaptation of electric-assist bicycles. A significant reason simply is a lack of awareness: American's just don't know they exist. This view was reinforced for me as I test rode various e-bikes around the resort and stopped to chat with other guests, most of them 'Boomers' like me. Every one of them was intrigued by the concept and not a one of them knew that electric-assist bicycles were available. As I pointed out in my keynote, which later I was told was very well received and 'spot on', there are two powerful drivers that will propel the wider utilization of e-bikes: demographics and re-urbanization. In the first case, two groups will find e-bikes of keen interest: the Baby Boom generation who will find electric-assist a boon to making cycling fun again, and Millennials who, for a number of economic and philosophical reasons, find car ownership less appealing than previous generations. The shift from suburbia back to urban centers with good public transit and walkable neighborhoods also militates against car ownership: traffic congestion and a lack of parking being two serious negatives to owning your own automobile.

After two hours of testing maybe a dozen different bikes out of the hundred of so available from Currie, Pedego, Pete's, Prodeco, Easy Motion, just to name a few, we broke for lunch with Bikes Belong's Bruno Maier addressing the group on his organization's work getting communities to invest in safer bike lanes. I captured his talk on audio and we'll have it up on in the coming week.

After lunch it was back on the bikes and more educational interfacing with manufacturers. I learned more about e-bike engineering that afternoon than in all my years of monitoring the industry. I also discovered what I liked about various technologies and, conversely, didn't like.

Several products clearly stood out, starting with the first e-bike I literally plugged into.

A trio of 'rad' mountain bikers led by Bjorn Enga from Whistler, British Columbia, brought down prototypes of their 1250W electric-assist mountain bike. Unlike every other e-bike out there, this one requires you to wear a backpack, which holds their lithium-ion battery. A quick-break cable snakes down between your groin to power the mid-motor. I rode it back to my caseta to change clothes.Talk about an exhilarating ride! The idea behind the wearable battery, that's something around 10 pounds, is to provide better balance on the bike. Bjorn told me it only starts to feel heavy after several hours of mountain biking. The Kranked team's plan is to use them to conduct tours in the mountains around Whistler, the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics. If I correctly recall, pricing will range from $9,600 up to $14,000 depending on configuration.

Another standout was Prodeco's titanium e-bike, which at 32 lbs. (14.5 kg), can arguably be said to be the lightest production electric-assist bicycle in the world. The battery is hidden in what appears to be a water bottle, and the motor is so small, you'd be hard pressed to identify it from a conventional wheel hub. It is an impressive engineering achievement and clearly raises the bar for the industry.

When I walked into the media event, I had never heard of BH Bikes: shows you how much I know about the conventional cycling industry. Turns out the Spanish company has been building bicycles for more than 100 years and through their Easy Motion line, they produce some really nice electric-assist bicycles. Fitted with Bosch mid-motors, they offer a very nice e-bike experience.

Maybe I should take a moment to explain the different drive systems. Essentially there are two basic types: mid-motors where the electric motor and controlling electronics are integrated into the pedal crank. The second is the hub motor, typically ranging from 200 watts up to 750W, the maximum allowable in the USA. In Europe the limit is 250W. Most of the e-bikes on display were in the 350W range. As I pointed out to some of the event attendees, Bryan Allen flew across the English Channel in 1979 in AeroVironment's Gossamer Albatross on less than 250W, as he pedaled the flying machine from England to France. Incidentally, AeroVironment not only designed the Kremer prize winners, but also the GM Sunraycer and General Motors EV1. Their next project was an early electric-assist bicycle called the Charger.

Each drive system has its advantages, but in Dean Keyek-Franssen's view -- he's with Pete's Bikes in Boulder, Colorado -- the mid-motors are far more dependable and, he argues, energy efficient. That being said, I was very impressed by the BionX hub motor. While most of the bikes I rode with hub motors produced a noticeable, but not distracting or unpleasant, hum or buzz, the BionX motor is dead silent. That may be one of the reasons smart chose it for their e-bike, just now starting to hit the market.

Maybe the most 'interesting' e-bike at the event was the big, fat-tire beach bike just introduced by Pedego. Its huge 4-inch tires and 600W motor are designed for use on beaches. It's a real show-stopper and was developed for a local company that does ecological tourism in southern California.

Among the many things I learned is that I am not a fan of cruiser-style bikes. It's really a personal taste, as well as, physical fit thing. I don't really care for the up-right position, but from talks with the manufacturers, this style is one of their best sellers; and that's fine. My personal e-bike, which I've had now for some 10 years is an early WaveCrest Labs TidalForce M750 based on a mountain bike-like frame. That pre-disposed me to absolutely fall in love with Currie's new eFlow electric bike. It's my personal top pick of the event. It's nimble, quiet, powerful, and… sadly… about $4,000. Of all the bikes I rode, it suited me the best and delivered the performance I wanted from it. While it offers a twist throttle, its pedal-assist or pedelec drive is a delight to use. My second choice would be either the Easy Motion or Matra (the French automotive firm) e-bikes with either the Panasonic or Bosch mid-motors.

I rode bikes until they started knocking down the booths and loading bikes into vans and trailers, and I didn't ride half of the ones on display. And maybe that's the most important message here. There are now e-bikes to meet just about everyone's needs and preferences from price to performance to fashion. Love big balloon tires and 50's styling: you'll find it. Want something racier or more off-road capable: you'll find it. Want a practical commuting machine to get you to work and back dependably without working up a sweat: you'll find it. Every color of rainbow and beyond are at your fingertip with prices ranging from reasonably affordable to wildly extravagant.

The bottom line is this: bicycling is maybe the most efficient form of personal mobility on the planet, and most affordable. Add electric-assist and it becomes more than just a recreational toy or fitness machine; it becomes a serious alternative to the car, at least for those journeys under 3 miles (and 40 % of all trips fit that category). Give us safe bike lanes and storage facilities and e-bikes become an affordable and, importantly, sustainable way to get around.

To see what is doing in the e-bike arena, be sure to check out our new commercial spin-off: Photos from the Terranea event will be published in the next issue of EV World Insider Illustrated.

Times Article Viewed: 7125
Originally published: 15 Feb 2013


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