Electric boost puts e-bikes on the fast track

Purists might scoff, but batteries and motors can help casual riders get more out of the great outdoors.

Your next bicycle could come with a power switch.

That’s because bike manufacturers are putting batteries and motors into bikes, giving an electric boost that can shorten miles and flatten hills. Children have always marveled at the freedom bikes offer. Now, e-bikes can give adults that sense of liberation, too.

The feeling is so strong it convinced Don DiCostanzo, who lives at the top of a hill in Corona del Mar, California, to found e-bike company Pedego. “I liked to ride to the beach, but I hated to ride back,” he says. E-bikes make the ride easy, and now he’s selling 12,000 e-bikes a year in more than 60 stores worldwide.

DiCostanzo, 58, focuses on baby boomers looking for recreation or wanting to keep up with the grandkids. “Ninety-nine percent of our customers would never have purchased another bike in their lifetime if not for us,” DiCostanzo says.

But don’t think e-bikes are just for older folks. Serious riders are embracing e-bikes to commute to work. And they are opening the great outdoors to people who don’t feel fit enough to bike up hills and mountains without a boost.

Fun factor

Several things are pushing e-bikes mainstream. Modern batteries store more energy. City dwellers crave better transportation. Electric cars have made battery power fashionable while showing the technology to be environmentally friendly.

Worldwide e-bike sales are expected to grow from 32 million in 2014 to at least 40 million in 2023, says Navigant Research. Most of that growth will be in Europe and Asia, where people often use bikes to commute.

“In the US, the bike is more sporting equipment than a means of transportation,” says Claudia Wasko, a director at Bosch, a top motor and battery supplier. But that’s likely to change, she says. “The US market will follow the example of Europe.”

And why not? A bike with a motor is just plain fun to ride.

“It’s a fantastic fusion — one of those rare occurrences where two different technologies come together and create something far greater than either one on its own,” says Bjorn Enga, founder of boutique e-bike maker Kranked near Vancouver, British Columbia.

E-bikes conquer any hill in San Francisco, adds Dave Rodriguez, former marketing chief of Dylan’s Tours, which has 30 Pedego e-bikes. “It’s darn near driving a moped in a bicycle lane. It’s too cool for school.”

But they also undermine the very definition of a bicycle. Can you really call it biking if you barely have to pedal?

Choices galore

E-bikes fall into two categories. Pedal-assist models amplify the power of your legs with a motor that kicks in when you push the pedals. And throttle models boost the power when you twist a handlebar-mounted actuator, similar to revving a motorcycle engine. Battery packs on a bike’s frame or rack supply power to a motor placed near the pedals or built into the rear wheel’s hub.

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