By Stan Purdum
I was dazzled recently by riders on ebikes.
Really. Dazzled, astonished, awestruck.
I was on a multi-day ride with some other riders on the North Carolina section of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is a very mountainous route, featuring many lengthy climbs, including one nine miles long with a 7% grade. Most of us were riding regular road bikes, but the three oldest participants had shown up with ebikes.
One of these was a tandem, and the captain, Larry, was 86 years old. His stoker, Diana, was 80. George at 82, was on a single ebike.
I’m a bit younger and have never been an electrified rider. Eight years ago, I had, without significant difficulty, pedaled the Virginia portion of the Blue Ridge Parkway, which is about as mountainous as the North Carolina section, but this time, I struggled more on the long climbs. The intervening eight years have taken a toll.
Our group has a no-shame policy about using the sag wagon, and I took advantage of that on a couple of the really long upslopes.
But not so the ebike riders. They pedaled up those climbs, including that nine-miler. In that case, I was already at the top and thus witnessed their arrival. They summited looking like they’d had a good workout but did not appear in distress or done in.
Larry is longtime rider who’s only recently added the electric setup to his tandem. He told me he doesn’t ride the throttle up the slopes, but simply uses the “assist” feature of the electric system. “I still get plenty of exercise,” he explained, and the fact that he’s still riding rugged terrain at 86 made me believe him.
I can still handle the terrain in my usual riding area, which is one of the hillier parts of Ohio but offers nothing resembling the long climbs of the Carolina mountains. Nonetheless, I suspect an ebike may be somewhere in my future, so I’ve begun exploring that realm.
I’ve found two seemingly contradictory facts. One is that the global ebike market was valued at about $23 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $48.46 billion by 2028. The fastest-growing market for ebikes is currently Europe and the largest market is the Asia Pacific.
The other fact is that ebikes are still essentially a boutique cottage industry, which is to say that it’s far from being a well-developed production line. Many of the people currently with electric rides have gotten there by tinkering with the non-electric bikes they already owned, adding either a front or rear wheel with a hub mounted motor or a mid-drive motor that fits in the bottom bracket and transfers the power to the rear wheel by means of the chain. See the differences here. (Larry’s tandem was a conversion, with a mid-drive motor added.)
These tinkerers have gotten their parts from online sources (and some of the early hub motor wheel makers are already out of business). Many of the mid-drive systems have come from BafangUSA. These tinkers have shared their experiences with one another, and someone has even come out with a magazine to address the knowledge gap.
The leading bicycle makers are now offering ready-made ebikes, but they are expensive. True road ebikes with dropped bars typically start at about $5,000, with flat-bar all-purpose ebikes often costing $2,500 or more. You can obtain these through your local bike shop, but ebike customers I’ve talked to say that the bike shop staffs are still learning about servicing these steeds, and it’s not uncommon for them to have problems with the e-systems that the shops staffs don’t yet know how to address. (George’s ebike came from a bike shop and has not given him problems.)
There are lesser-known bike sellers online offering bikes for direct purchase, usually at somewhat less cost, but more responsibility for fit, troubleshooting and service then falls on the buyer.
The ebike world in its current state reminds me of the days when personal computers were first being adopted by individuals. Obviously, the market potential was enormous, but the early adopters were piecing together computers with parts obtained from Radio Shack or building them from mail-order kits. Some personal computers could be purchased whole, but they came with instructions written by geeks who had little training in the art of communication, making the instructions almost worthless to the buyers. Some entrepreneurs addressed the knowledge gap by publishing magazines expressly about computer problems. Thankfully, the early adopters kept at it, shared knowledge with one another and eventually computer buying and operation smoothed out for the rest of us.
Something similar is happening in the ebike world today, so stay tuned. It’s going to get easier — and probably cheaper.
Stan Purdum has ridden several long-distance bike trips, including an across-America ride recounted in his book Roll Around Heaven All Day, and a trek on U.S. 62, from Niagara Falls, New York, to El Paso, Texas, the subject of his book Playing in Traffic. Stan, a freelance writer and editor, lives in Ohio. See more at www.StanPurdum.com.
Adrien Elliott says
I bought the Specialized Creo this past January and it has completely changed my biking. I am a 62 yr old female and the hills we were riding were just getting too tough. I was not really enjoying riding anymore. The ebike for me has flattened the curve. I now again love biking.
Bill Steward says
What about trikes? No one rides a trike because they want to. We have a cycling addition and can’t ride a bike any more. And an etrike is the progression .
It is great that the road cycling industry has addressed the situation of allowing the current market to enjoy cycling later in life. But it still needs to address its future market – the younger market, who have bypassed road riding with mountain bikes and gravel rides. Road riding is rapidly declining in popularity.
Jim McSchwinn says
I don’t think that’s an industry issue as much as a “I’m so entitled I can’t wait to check my son’s friend’s tiktok video right now while I am driving 30 over the speed limit on a residential or rural street” issue. Most of the people I know who have dropped road riding have done so because of bad experiences with cars or fear of cars.
Connie Lorig says
I’m 72 and have been riding for well over 40 years. I love doing multi-day bike tours, but am finding that I just don’t have that kind of stamina any longer. I bought a Specialized Creo a couple months ago so that I can continue enjoying multi-day bike trips and I absolutely love it. It’s given me the option of riding more strenuous /longer rides without getting exhausted. I still ride my non-e Zinn road bike a lot, but the e-bike has given me options that will help me keep riding the Colorado mountains for many more years! I’ve had people tell me that I’m “cheating”, but I I’d be cheating myself if I didn’t find a way to keep doing the kind of riding I love!
John B. says
RAD bikes (an American company) has sold over 100,000 e-bikes in 30 countries and is growing at an incredible rate, offering a whole host of bike models well below $2,000. That’s hardly a “botique-cottage industry.” They face stiff compettion from Himiway and a half dozen other companies, including Harley Davidson, and BMW. Of course the biggest companies are still outside the U.S., but one Asian Company has already produced over 3.3 million e-bikes and there’s an Italian company not far behind. The writer may be new to the e-bike industry, but the industry is far bigger and better organized than this article suggests..
Stan Purdum says
I have no doubt your facts are correct, but that’s what I was getting at when I said “I’ve found two seemingly contradictory facts.”: the size of ebike market vs. the behavior of the early adopters. Certainly the market is enormous and growing rapidly. But many people moving to ebikes are getting their info from other early adopters and either assembling their own ebike conversion or buying the bikes from suppliers who are running faster than LBSs and other bike sellers have adapted to. And when it comes to something going wrong with the electric setup, the adopters sometimes have to figure the issue out for themselves or deal directly with seller of the ebike parts. Thus my comment about the boutique cottage industry. It may be a bit of an overstatement, and in another year or two it may not apply at all as the industry matures. But I think it still fits to some degree at the moment.
Jerry H. says
I have had a Cannondale Synapse NEO about a month and love it. I ride about 200 miles a week and have never felt better after each ride. I always try and keep the assist in Eco mode, so I still work pedaling, but going uphill and into strong winds higher power is not refused. My feeling before getting this bike for my 75th birthday was WHY, now I know because it makes life SO GOOD.
Neil Luks says
I am 79, and until this year used my Cannondale Synapse all the time. It became more difficult to not be the last in my biking group. Certain rides I “red lined” as dont do anymore. Then in Jan 2021 i bought the Synapse NEO, quite a change. I can ride any of the hills in upstate NY that we use, and keep towards the middle or front of the pack.
I feel much more energized when I get home, much fewer leg cramps, but still get a good workout..
Overall a great investment
David L says
I’ve been riding mtn. bikes and road bikes for long time. I spend many hrs. a year riding either road or mtn. I’ve pretty much have always ridden with younger riders than myself. I love the challenge of riding hard & fast. However, last year at 66 I found I couldn’t keep up and in trying to would completely exhaust me and couldn’t completely recover which made it even worse. I made the decision to buy a Trek Domane+ HP7 and I am so glad I did. So much so when mtn. biking season came around I bought a Trek Rail 9.8. These electric bike have made riding so much “fun” again instead of painful. The non ebikers I ride with on the road were a little hesitant at first but now really enjoy having me in the group now. I don’t try and out do any of them. I pretty much just stay up with the leaders on the hills and take my turn out front. They especially like it when I on the front with head winds or leading out at 28 mph for the final sprint. They’ll usually pass at the end as 32 is about the most I can get out of it. I rode 105 mile Big Dam Bridge ride last week with 4,250 ft. elevation that included two stops for water in 5 1/2 hrs. and still had 33% of battery left at the end. I did my share of pulling out front but only use the assist when out front or on the hills. I tell this not to brag but only to let others know how much “fun” an ebike can make cycling again. There is no way I can ride like this except with the ebike. I still ride my Roubaix on easier rides or recovery rides. Riding the electric mtn. bike is just as much “fun”. I say forget your ego and have “fun” again. It’s a choice.