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.