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The appeal of e-bikes: 5 facts from a new study

Posted by Michael Andersen (News Editor) on November 7th, 2013 at 2:18 pm

Jeff Bernards new e-bike-2
Conversions, like this bike with a unit from E-BikeKit,
are more common than e-bikes off the showroom floor.
(Photo by J. Maus/BikePortland)

After years of being theoretically exciting, electrically assisted bikes are finally becoming common in the United States — enough for people to start studying their many benefits.

A new study by John MacArthur of OTREC at Portland State University offers some early results about the people e-bikes serve, the ways they get used and their possible role in reducing auto dependence in U.S. cities.

Here are a few useful facts from MacArthur's presentation (PDF) at a PSU Friday transportation seminar last month:

1) Converting a bike to an e-bike is slightly more common than buying an e-bike from scratch. 48 percent of e-bike users purchased an e-bike, whereas 52 percent converted a standard bike (most commonly a mountain bike, but 13 percent of them a cargo bike or Xtracycle) by adding a battery and motor.

2) E-Bike conversions are usually cheaper than purchases, but not always. 70 percent of e-bike conversions and 46 percent of e-bike purchases were done for $1500 or less.

3) E-bike trips seem especially good at replacing car trips. The most common reason to go electric was to replace some car trips, though health, ability and comfort were also common reasons people took up e-bikes.

4) E-bikes turn people into daily riders. 55 percent of e-bikers rode their standard bike weekly or daily before the purchase. After the purchase, weekly or daily biking rose to 93 percent. Even the few (6%) who had never ridden bikes as an adult were now riding weekly or daily.

5) The biggest complaint with e-bikes is their weight. About 26 percent of respondents called it the main downside. (Another 8 percent, meanwhile, said there was no downside to riding an e-bike.) Fewer than 5 percent cited fear of theft or battery charging time.

Keep in mind that the 553 e-bike owners in this survey were reached via email, retailers, blogs, web forums, social media, meaning this is a disproportionately engaged and passionate audience. Still, many of the findings are worth thinking about, both for consumers considering e-bike purchases and for policymakers thinking about the benefits of promoting e-bikes.

Finally, here's my favorite slide from MacArthur's presentation, summarizing the potential for e-bikes to change the demographics of bicycle lovers:

I'm looking forward to the first time Ms. Strong and Fearless blows past me while I'm climbing Southeast Ankeny.

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  • Christopher Sanderson November 7, 2013 at 2:31 pm

    Someone just shared this with me today. http://www.stickybottle.com/latest-news/this-ground-breaking-invention-just-may-be-about-to-revolutionise-commuter-cycling-forever/

    Looks pretty cool, and looks lighter! I think that's my thing with e-bikes is their weight, and then I feel like I am dependent on the motor and battery to move all that weight around.

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    • Anne Hawley November 7, 2013 at 2:55 pm

      I'm keeping a close eye on the FlyKy wheel as it develops. It seems like a great possibility to retrofit a less expensive/secondhand bike.

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    • ChamoisKreme November 7, 2013 at 3:05 pm

      Andy Botwin tried to sell these on Weeds... Ahead of his time.

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      • gutterbunnybikes November 7, 2013 at 7:38 pm

        Hub motors have been around for a while they've even been made for cars too....Nothing really that new there at all other than the "ap".

        Personally I can't wait for the backlash against "ap"controlled devices. So not only can I lose my phone, but hey whoever "finds" it can now (or soon) find and unlock my bike (perhaps a friends bike too), enter my house, car and what not.

        I'm not a Luddite by any stretch, but that much - and probably more - control of my life and my stuff on one little pocket sized device is a bit more than I'd like offer the world. At least the old fashioned way they gotta figure out which bike or car might be mine when I loose my keys, take my wallet for my address and credit cards, and get both to get into and find and easily enter my house.

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    • Chris I November 7, 2013 at 7:14 pm

      Rolling weight is the worst kind of weight. This concept is highly suspect because of basic physics. It is much more efficient to carry the battery on the frame. Really, it is only saving a few wire connections. I don't see the major advantage.

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      • El Biciclero November 8, 2013 at 9:59 am

        The major advantage is that you can just swap out a wheel and have an e-bike. Put your "normal" rear wheel back on and have an ATP-bike.

        It's true that rotational weight makes it a little harder to get the wheels spinning, but if you have to introduce rotational weight, the closer the weight is to the axis of rotation, the better.

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      • Tom M November 9, 2013 at 11:58 pm

        Yes, getting over the momentum is a small problem.
        But where you get improvements over other types are:
        1. Less energy loss due to power transmission losses. A direct drive removes the transmission completely.
        2. Fewer parts = less to go wrong = probable better reliability
        3.Easier to get people to buy, install, and most importantly use them.
        4. Too many e-bike conversions are driven by friction. This is incredibly inefficient and wears your tires much faster.

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      • dr2chase November 10, 2013 at 8:21 pm

        If you're going to say "physics", then practice physics. Rolling weight AT THE RIM counts twice, once for rotational momentum, once for linear momentum. Rolling weight near the axle only counts extra in proportion to its distance from the axle; half-way to the road means it only counts 1.5x.

        It will make the butt end of the bike kinda heavy, but compared to a loaded cargo bike, not really that much. I wouldn't plan on too much bunny-hopping.

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  • q`Tzal November 7, 2013 at 2:39 pm

    Fearless 4% granny rocks the auto lanes as she owns the Hawthorne Bridge. Maybe she's fearless or maybe she's more afraid of dying in a "home", either way she's bad ass.

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    • Tom M November 9, 2013 at 11:59 pm

      I can hear her quote:
      "Use it or loose it sonny!"

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  • Rob November 7, 2013 at 3:01 pm

    I've definitely noticed an increase of commuters on e-bikes recently. A couple of observations: 1) Why do they often seem to be clunky, upright bikes (I don't think I've ever seen one on the road that looks like a sleek, efficient machine). 2) A few of the people that I've seen riding them are obvously not used to riding fast - kinda like sticking a beginning cyclist on a fast descent...

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    • A.K. November 7, 2013 at 4:03 pm

      "1) Why do they often seem to be clunky, upright bikes (I don't think I've ever seen one on the road that looks like a sleek, efficient machine)."

      My guess is that when you're not doing 100% of the work, being efficient as possible isn't a priority, even though it would probably help the battery last longer.

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      • Rob November 7, 2013 at 4:29 pm

        Yeah, I guess your're right - if it goes fast enough and far enough, who cares...

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      • Paul November 7, 2013 at 5:23 pm

        Comfort and practicality. Easier to look around and behind you an an upright. And you can hold an umbrella or eat a sandwich when you don't have to hold any of your weight with your arm.

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    • wsbob November 7, 2013 at 11:58 pm

      The electric bike market is one that's gradually taking shape. What gets built depends on what's thought that people will buy.

      Sleek, electric motorcycles have been designed and built, so especially with the kind of frame shapes carbon fiber allows, I'm sure someone could put together an electric road bike with the motor as 'e-assist', if that's what somebody wanted to let them ride a road bike with drop bars, develop their road bike handling skills, and have some help climbing steep grades. Too keep a manageable pace with motor vehicle traffic, a rig like that could be nice for some people when circumstances require taking the lane. Sort of like having a turbo charger.

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    • Ken Wetherell November 9, 2013 at 2:31 pm

      E-assist is fantastic on a sleek bike and used with a fast riding style for efficient long distance commuting and cargo hauling. For several years, I used my Surly Disc Trucker/Xtracycle with Stokemonkey e-assist system on my 42 mile round-trip commute. For the last year, up until this summer, it had aerobars and front and rear fairings that I built out of coroplast. The Stokemonkey assist cuts out at 20mph, so everything above that was all me and/or gravity. The fairings and aerobars reduced drag significantly and I found that I could often maintain 20+mph on flats and MUCH faster with even a slight downhill grade. That thing was a fast, efficient machine and I found myself riding hard all the time trying to live in the 20+ "all me" zone as often as possible. The battery/motor was awesome for maintaining speed in a headwind and to get the extra weight up hills, including the 18% grade up to my house. An added bonus was the copious enclosed, dry cargo space for clothes, lunch, laptop, groceries...Now, my Disc Trucker/Xtracycle is naked again (aerobars are still on -- long live aerobars!) and we put the Stokemonkey on a 1985 Schwinn MTB/Xtracycle for my kids to use in our crazy hilly area. My 15 year old daughter rides the crap out of it -- my dream come true! Btw, the 3 year old 10ah LiFePo battery is still going strong.

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    • Tom M November 10, 2013 at 12:06 am

      Upright bikes work much better for comfort oriented cyclists. An ebike falls directly into the desirable category for these cyclists as well. In addition, if you've had a serious back injury there is no way that a race bike in any way makes sense.

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  • BlueSurly November 7, 2013 at 4:09 pm

    If anyone has questions about ebikes I'd be happy to answer. I commute 16 mi round-trip every day on an electric Surly 29er I converted. I love it, and everyone who's given my bike a try seems to truly enjoy it.

    @Christopher and @Anne, sorry but I would bet money against the FlyKly succeeding (even though I wish it would). Several reasons, but the short one is: how often is your bike close to an outlet? The batteries are internal. Another likely issue is the heat/ventilation.

    @Rob: 1. Anything sleek would likely be factory-made, and most brands seem to favor utility over style. Neo and Stromer have some decent-looking ones. There's also the comfort factor.
    The conversions are always going to look a little Frankenstein-ish. There are just too many wires and parts to hide. I would gladly take something more subtle.

    2. Scary to hear. It's definitely a different skillset and requires much more defensive riding if you're riding a powerful one.

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    • Matt November 7, 2013 at 9:41 pm

      Hey, I have questions! I just got a job in Wa, about 9 miles (18 round trip) from my place. I'm thinking about converting my cross--check into electric assist. What are your thoughts? I think I could probably avg. about 15 miles /hr without assist and then hopefully 20 with. I'd like to think that with eassist I can essentially subtract any headwind I'll ever have.

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      • BlueSurly November 8, 2013 at 6:05 am

        @Matt that sounds very doable and realistic, and yeah headwinds aren't as much of a pain anymore. The cross check will be a great bike for conversion (steel has some benefits due to the amount of force being generated).
        Also if you can plug-in at work that will allow you to buy a smaller battery (good thing because of weight and $). Do not buy Sealed-Lead Acid (SLA, like car batteries). They're tempting because they're cheap, but they're just bad for ebikes. If you can afford it, go with Lithium. Search for ebike simulator for a great site to help gauge how powerful a motor and how large a battery you want. I use 36V 14Ah and each way uses about 5.5Ah on moderate hills with a fair bit of pedaling.

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        • Dave Thomson November 8, 2013 at 9:42 am

          And be aware that whatever you pay for that Lithium battery will be a recurring cost. If you charge the batter a couple of times a day you will be lucky to get 18 months out of it before you have to replace it. Also be aware that cheaper Lithium batteries tend to have shorter life spans. A2B magazine in the UK has been following e-bikes for several years, and battery reliability / lifespan is one of the biggest financial downsides.

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    • Anne Hawley November 8, 2013 at 1:29 pm

      "Several reasons, but the short one is: how often is your bike close to an outlet?"

      My bike lives outdoors and I have outdoor power outlets. It wouldn't be a huge deal to arrange a park-and-plug-in in my back yard, and probably not in a lot of garages/sheds, either. But I can see where access to an outlet could be a problem for a lot of otherwise potential users.

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  • GlowBoy November 7, 2013 at 4:34 pm

    I haven't seen very many e-bikes (not that I've noticed), but I have seen a few bikes in the last year or two that were powered by small gas motors. And of course going well above the 20mph maximum allowed for electric propulsion.

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    • gutterbunnybikes November 7, 2013 at 7:47 pm

      Those are load and annoying, besides what is the point. Just get a moped or a motorcycle.

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      • gutterbunnybikes November 7, 2013 at 7:48 pm

        Sorry, loud and annoying....

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      • Gasbiker24 November 8, 2013 at 8:17 am

        The point is mpg. Mine gets 146 mpg. No registration. No insurance. Street legal. Cruises at 20-25. Top speed 30mph.

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        • wsbob November 8, 2013 at 11:39 am

          An excellent point that is too. A couple weeks ago, I saw a guy riding an old Schwinn cruiser bike that he'd powered with a small gas motor mounted over the back wheel. Maybe with a leaf blower motor, which I've read that some people have used very successfully.

          Looked kind of cool, like a lightweight version of early motorcycles. I'd rather bicycles powered by these little gas motors doesn't increase in popularity, but also realize they may be a good answer to some people's transportation needs. The noise, exhaust, and closer contact with gasoline are really nasty things that go along with use of the small gas motor powered equipment.

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  • Craig Harlow November 7, 2013 at 5:11 pm

    20 MPH isn't the max for electric propulsion, but in Oregon it is the maximum capable speed for the vehicle to still be allowed to operate under bicycle-specific laws, i.e. using the bike lane and sidewalks, etc. ("capable", regardless of actual operating speed)

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    • El Biciclero November 8, 2013 at 10:06 am

      I don't think an e-bike is ever allowed on the sidewalk, regardless of max speed capabilities. Bike lane, yes, as long as 20mph is the top speed.

      I wonder whether "governed" top speed counts as max capable, e.g., if (as in the FlyKly video) I can set the top speed of my motor to 20 for now, even though my particular e-bike could go 25 if I let it--would it satisfy the requirements for being allowed in the bike lane?

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  • Craig Harlow November 7, 2013 at 5:13 pm

    Oregon E-bike definition http://www.oregonlaws.org/ors/801.258

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  • Craig Harlow November 7, 2013 at 5:14 pm


    Electric assisted bicycle means a vehicle that ... Has a power output of not more than 1000 watts, and ... is incapable of propelling the vehicle at a speed of greater than 20 miles per hour on level ground.

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  • Craig Harlow November 7, 2013 at 5:16 pm

    Sorry about the multiple posts above. Was having trouble getting the site to accept normally okay characters like parenthesis and semicolons in the comment.

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  • bendite November 7, 2013 at 6:16 pm

    Am I being a jag-off if I call them low powered mopeds?

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    • q`Tzal November 7, 2013 at 6:49 pm

      If they go faster than 20mph by electric power alone: no.
      If they comply with state and federal laws and cannot power over 20mph: yes.

      Mainly because we don't want inaccurate rhetoric to negatively bias small minded police.

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    • Ken Wetherell November 9, 2013 at 2:43 pm

      I promise not to call you a jag-off. But, if you ride what is commonly known as a "moped" with the motor off and then ride an e-bike with the motor off, you will no longer call an e-bike a moped. If you do, I might call you silly. :)

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  • joel November 8, 2013 at 7:13 am

    ebikes are super common in tokyo, especially with parents. regular new bikes run 300-500, while ebikes 800 and up. often you see baby seats on the front. the ones i tried did not go too fast, and i still was changing gears, which i didnt expect i would do on one of these. definitely i could see having one of these with a young child for sure.

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  • Chris Anderson November 8, 2013 at 7:45 am

    I love my e-assist Bullitt. The motor was what put us over the edge to be able to go carfree.

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  • BlueSurly November 8, 2013 at 8:43 am

    @Chris Anderson those Bullitts look very cool, I'd like to go from 80% bike to 99 or 100%. Did you go through Splendid Cycles or DIY? How's the ride when empty, or on rough roads?
    Also I'm gonna have to read up on Couchbase, sounds interesting.

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    • Chris Anderson November 8, 2013 at 9:38 am

      Splendid and they are great about ongoing service and software upgrades. Even our three-year-old gets excited to see Barb and Joel.

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  • Evan Manvel November 8, 2013 at 8:55 am

    I'm thrilled John did this study; E-bikes are definitely an interest in taking on the challenge of Seattle hills (as well as wayfinding, training on gear-shifting, social rides, bike escalators, etc.)

    A clarification: these numbers are based on a self-driven survey, hence the respondents are neither random nor necessarily representative of the overall E-bike market.

    For example, I expect that people who take the time to convert a bike to an E-bike are overrepresented, as they're likely more enthusiastic and hence more likely to want to share their story, be on Facebook groups, etc. More casual users/buyers of pre-built E-bikes may be underrepresented.

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  • El Biciclero November 8, 2013 at 10:12 am

    "I'm looking forward to the first time Ms. Strong and Fearless blows past me while I'm climbing Southeast Ankeny."

    This already happened to me going up SW Montgomery. As I was nearing the last little bend before the intersection with SW Patton, here comes a lady scooting right past me, gray hair fluffed out from under her helmet, as if the hill were nothing. I suffered a momentary loss of machismo, but then I saw her battery...

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  • matthew vilhauer November 8, 2013 at 12:01 pm

    when j.b. set the bike in the pic up I did a bit of maintenance & and tuning and was happy to help. it has a top speed of around 28mph and a 40 mile range on a single charge. yes lithium batteries have a lifespan and they can be recycled. just figure out the operating costs per mile and you'll see this is a real winner. adding a e-assist to a bike you already have is much more effective than buying an E-bike, which is basically a moped with an electric motor. better handling, performance and if you do one like the bike in the pic it flies under the radar for a lot of thieves that look for the prettiest bike in the rack. it's actually an early specialized lugged steel stumpjumper with shimano xt components.

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  • Barbara Stedman November 8, 2013 at 1:06 pm

    I see more and more ebikes passing me on SW Terwilliger. I always thought that eBikes are the answer for the hills in SW Portland. After all our 20-minute heighborhood radius is much smaller than in flatter areas of town. So an ebike can get you further and could entice people who can't or don't want to deal with the hills.

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    • nuovorecord@gmail.com November 9, 2013 at 10:03 am

      That's been my experience too. I'm seeing e-bikes these days going up Vista or Park in Goose Hollow. I think they're just the ticket for those living on the west side of PDX.

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  • JP November 8, 2013 at 1:10 pm

    Well, OK, I'll be the bad guy here. Personally, I find this e-fad very discouraging. An e-car, yes, as a trade-off it's monumentally better than a gasoline vehicle, if a person has to drive at all. An e-bike though is a huge step backward compared to a bicycle, the most energy efficient transportation ever invented. You can pick it up with one hand and it can take you anywhere in town for the cost of breakfast, which you had to eat anyway. E-bikes come with significant environmental manufacturing consequences, an ongoing thing, as mentioned above. If a person is physically challenged in some way, through age or infirmity, then absolutely, the e-boost is beneficial. But for an otherwise healthy person, which is nearly everybody buying one I think, and presumably already environmentally aware, why is an e-bike not an embarrassment? We are a nation of increasingly lazy-ass fat buggers, this e-trend seems to me to be further encouragement of that.

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    • Chris Anderson November 8, 2013 at 2:29 pm

      I'm more than fit enough to do without the e-assist, but that doesn't make it less fun. I'm the guy zipping up the hill with his feet in the air because I can. But for some reason I tend to forget to charge the night before long rides and end up without much assist those days...

      As far as environmental costs -- chances are if I had to do all the work to get across town and back I'd still keep a car around for the days I'm not up to it, but with e-assist the car only had to gather rust for a month before we decided it wasn't worth hanging onto.

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    • GlowBoy November 8, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      "why is an e-bike not an embarrassment?" Because an e-bike is a lot less of an embarrassment than a car -- really, we're talking about a smaller electric motor than in most people's furnaces, and a battery pack well under 1/2 kWhr. Talk about making the perfect the enemy of the good! And the overwhelming majority of people - even here in Portland - are currently unwilling to give up their cars. If e-bikes gave us another 5-10% mode share, great. Don't let your purism get in the way of making the world a little better!

      I should also point out that a lot of the people I know who have kids and have managed to go car-free have done it by electrifying their cargo bike. If they were puritans about cycling they'd still be driving cars.

      OK, so I admit that an e-bike might be a slight embarrassment if you're only using it for 2-4 mile solo rides in the flat parts of inner Portland. But I think most people are looking at them either for hauling kids and/or cargo, or for getting over those West Hills.

      Frankly, as a daily Portland-to-Beaverton commuter I don't always feel like hauling myself up 800' over those hills every day myself. I still do the full ride home on the vast majority days, but my solution for those occasional days when I Just Don't Feel Like It has been a folding bike that I can squeeze onto those crowded evening MAX trains. If I didn't have that option (and the day may come when too many of the trains are jam-packed) I'd be thinking about an e-bike myself.

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  • RW November 8, 2013 at 1:35 pm

    Lots of people who've asked me about e-bikes present valid excuses for wanting all the help they can get. I'm too fat, I have a bad knee, hills are too hard to pedal, I get too sweaty pedaling, daily commuting over a few miles saps my energy, short commutes are actually dangerous "junk miles" and on and on. Through these inquiries I've come to realize that not everyone is designed and built to be a proficient bicycle user. Amsterdam took a couple generations to become what it is, not an overnight intro of a simple wheel swap and futzfone bait and switch.

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  • ward November 8, 2013 at 5:00 pm

    I have a road bike with an EcoSpeed retro fit on it. It allows me to bike commute the 25 miles one way that I couldn't normally. And lest you think I'm "cheating" , I don't turn on the battery to get to work. The EcoSpeed system powers all of the gears and I can still very the throttle and pedal input at will. Saves me $10 a day in gas and car upkeep.

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  • Rich November 10, 2013 at 9:47 pm

    There is a very passionate group of ebikers throughout the world, who absolutely love their machines. I'm one of them (converted my own). Check out endless-sphere and electricbike (.com). Retail ebikes are making good progress with weight reduction and functionality, except they are still too expensive IMO.

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  • jeff bernards November 11, 2013 at 7:25 am

    I love to ride my bike, I'm currently on an extended bike tour across the mediteranean. But for transportation, the e-bike is king. I go 3 times as far and alot faster! I rarely used my car, my transportatin of choice is the e-bike. On this tour I met a Swiss guy, may 75-78 years old touring with an e-bike, what are your grandparents/parents doing? The e-bike will replace the car before a bicycle will. For the planets sake, support the e-bike movement, it's going to happen.
    p.s. that's my bike in the photo, battery location has really helped keep the weight well balanced versus putting the battery on the back rack.

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  • Lit on Lithium November 11, 2013 at 8:09 am

    I'm with Rich, and have been an avid e-bike enthusiast for about 12 years now. I ride for sport and exercise on quiet country roads and have a modified Tidaforce SX bike with 24Ahs of lithium on the rear rack. Since 2006 I've had about 15,000 miles of accident-free fun on it and seek out hilly rides I can no longer handle on my road bike. The bike is powerful and silent, and I regularly sneak up on wildlife on it. Even had a black her sighting a couple years ago in Sharon, CT. For those of us pushing 60 or better and about that many pounds over our ideal weight, an e-bike can still get us out there for fresh air and some moderate (read non-cardiac) exercise on the uphills. Long live e-assist!

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