At Interbike, the largest U.S. bike show, electric bicycles have been around for a while, even though some bike purists snub their noses and think they don’t belong. Electric bikes belong and I hope they sell well.
Any two-wheeler that pulls someone out of a car gets my vote, and that includes motorcycles.
I tried out a couple of electric bikes at Interbike 2010, where 30 electric bike companies showed up. I was blown away by how fun they are to ride! I could see myself riding to work averaging 20 mph, instead of 14 mph. By law, electric bikes have a governor limiting their speed to 20 mph (not pedaling).
Looking more closely at electric bikes, you’ll discover they’re not a panacea. Batteries don’t last forever, they need recharging, the bikes are heavy, and they’re more complicated than a regular bike.
However, they can be a lifesaver for someone just getting into cycling. Millions of Americans are so unfit that the simple act of taking a walk or a bike ride is a challenge. Even experienced cyclists may find they have a place, especially for long commutes.
E-bikes, as they’re nicknamed, are changing rapidly as the market matures. Companies come and go. Volkswagen has even shown a folding e-bike, although it can’t be pedaled. Trek has an e-bike line. A recent trend is toward e-bikes that look more like motorbikes than bicycles. They can be pedaled, with effort. They’re big and bulky, have wide tires, and motorcycle-style throttles.
Some e-bikes have electric-assist or “pedelec” where power kicks in only when you pedal. Personally, I would opt for power-assist and look for the lightest possible bike. If you’re a home mechanic, you can buy a kit, which runs about $400, and retrofit.
Some big box stores sell affordable e-bikes (less than $500), but you’d be better off buying through a bike shop that can give professional advice and service, and sells better bikes that cost more but last longer. Cupertino Bicycles sells Ultra Motor e-bikes. It’s one of the best bike shops in the South Bay.
Most electric bikes run off a hub – front or rear – that generates power using a big electromagnet and planetary gears. Some retain the traditional freewheel for shifting gears. There are also mid-drive hubs that can mount under the bottom bracket or elsewhere on the frame.
Batteries are improving, but they will only give you a 20-mile range, at best, more likely around 10 miles reliably. Lithium ion batteries with an iron phosphate cathode — much lighter than NiMH batteries — are available. Of course, the more you pedal, the greater your range.
E-bikes generate between 300 and 600 watts. Lance Armstrong in the Tour de France could sustain 500 watts for about 20 minutes while climbing, so you can have all the strength of Lance on an e-bike.
Range is influenced by the following: wind, rider weight and load, road gradient, tire inflation, battery capacity, and motor efficiency. Riding uphill drains a battery quickly.
I tried out two bikes: the Stromer from Switzerland, new the U.S. market, and the Ultra Motor A2B Metro ($2,700). The Stromer is more bicycle, while the Metro is more motorbike. The Stromer offers in one bike both “pedelec” assist (or power assist), and a handlebar throttle. You get to choose your mode.
E-bikes cost as much as $12,000, but $1,000 is typical price for a quality entry-level electric bike. For $2,000 you buy a more elaborate e-bike with a better battery and a throttle or mixed-mode throttle and power on demand.
Recharging a bicycle battery runs about 5 cents, which sure beats the price of a gallon of gas.