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  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Max Mack of Sacramento checks out a Hebb Electroglide electric-assist bicycle at the Electric Bike Shop.

  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Mike Majors, owner of the Electric Bike Shop in east Sacramento, rides an Ultra Motors Velociti that'll hit 20 mph.

  • RANDY PENCH / rpench@sacbee.com

    Mike Majors and one of the models at his shop. He says two types of commuters are buying electric-assist bikes. The difference is when they want the workout: on the way to work or on the way home.

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Getting Around: Little electric motors put the fun back in bicycling

Published: Thursday, Oct. 6, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1D
Last Modified: Wednesday, May. 30, 2012 - 10:38 am

Kirby Smith knows statistics and salesmanship. It's a good skill set for working in the cycling industry because Smith's job in "production and client development" is marketing a misunderstood bicycle.

Smith and his colleagues recently were among more than two dozen vendors selling electric bicycles at Interbike, the cycling industry's annual mega-trade show in Las Vegas.

"The question I always get asked is, 'What's the point?' " said Smith, whose Fort Worth, Texas, employer, Bodhi (pronounced Bo-dee) is among ebike newbies.

"At Interbike last year, an editor of a bicycling magazine came up to me and said, 'You know what? These are cool, but they're just wrong. You defeated the whole purpose of a bike by putting a motor on it.' "

Despite the tsk-tsking of cycling purists who believe electric bikes aren't actually bicycles, power-assisted bike sales appear to be on the rise.

At least a half-dozen bicycle retailers in the Sacramento region sell electric bikes. The Electric Bike Shop in east Sacramento is the only store that sells them exclusively.

"I've got two types of commuters who are coming in here," said owner Mike Majors, whose store is approaching its first anniversary. "I have the commuter who has the shower at work, typically doctors and nurses who work long shifts. They want to ride a bike into work and get a workout.

"They work a long day. The last thing they want to do at the end of the day is get in a workout. They use the motor going home.

"Then I have the commuter who doesn't have a shower at work. They ride to work with power and then at the end of the day take off their suit and tie, and get a workout in going home."

Electric bikes are also available in mountain bike and tandem varieties, the latter of which is the preferred option for friends Randy Ott and Pattie Joidin of Sacramento.

Since January, Ott, 71, and Jodoin, 72, have been riding as far as 10 miles together. Ott, a former engineer who built electric car conversions, has owned several electric bikes. The tandem, or bicycle built for two, allows the friends to travel to the market or exercise together despite varying skill levels.

Smith, the Bodhi sales rep, said people might ride bikes for exercise, but they also want to have fun.

Of the 10 million bicycles sold last year, he said, most were kids bikes.

"How many kids buy bikes for exercise?" he said. "People who put on the spandex and go ride 70 miles, are they having fun? Yes. And the mountain bike guys, do they enjoy it? Yeah.

"So what I am saying is if the purpose of a bike is to go out and have fun, and yet only 3 percent of the population gets on a bike, the other 97 percent maybe would like to have a little help."

California law categorizes bicycles with electric motors of less than 1,000 watts and with a maximum speed of less than 20 mph as bicycles and not motor vehicles.

Yet, because of county ordinances, electric bikes aren't technically allowed on recreation trails such as the Jedediah Smith Memorial Trail – commonly known as the American River bike trail – that bisects Sacramento.

Tim Castleman, owner of Practical Cycle in Old Sacramento, said the ordinance should be re-evaluated since it was enacted in the 1980s, when power-assisted bikes largely had gasoline engines.

"The reason I use an electric-assist bike is because I ride 20 miles a day, six days a week," said Castleman, who's operated his store for about 1 1/2 years. "First of all, the physical demand of that … six days a week, it would take a toll on anybody, except the most fit. But I'm 53, and I don't need that."

On a traditional bike, he said, his commute would take 45 minutes to an hour. With an ebike, it takes 35 minutes.

"So I cut down on my commute time, and when I get here I'm not all sweaty," Castleman said. "I don't have to wear any special clothing. In fact, I wear what I'm wearing. I get on and I go. I'm not all tired, either.

"There's the time savings, the physical aspects and there's the fun. It's just fun. It puts the joy back into bike riding."

Electric bicycle patents date to the late 1890s. But it's only in the past decade in the United States that manufacturers began to make concerted efforts to offer electric bikes and conversion kits.

Technology is changing quickly. Some heavy-framed bikes with large, detachable battery packs weigh as much as 70 pounds. They work only when the motor is engaged and aren't usable as standard bikes.

But more electric bikes offered by mainstream manufacturers such as Schwinn, Giant and Trek and newer companies e-Moto, Pedego, Stromer, Currie Technologies and Breezer, among others, sell power-assisted models. They can be operated as traditional bikes but also as electric bikes when power assistance is needed.

Electric bikes use removable, rechargeable lithium-ion battery packs. Riding distances range from 15 to 40 miles depending on the size of the rider, speed and power-assistance levels. Batteries can take three to six hours to recharge in standard electrical outlets.

Like traditional bikes, electric bikes vary greatly in price, from $500 to more than $5,000.

Bodhi, which has two models, has the smallest and lightest ebike battery. It detaches from the frame and when reattached rests flush.

It's also the first U.S. manufacturer to equip bikes with a continuously varying drive train made by NuVinci that offers automatic or manual shifting.

"The people in the U.S. who are buying electric bikes today are baby boomers," said Smith. "The average age of our customers is 59."

Worldwide, he said, electric bike sales are going crazy: 22 million sold last year. An estimated 20 million were sold in Asia, a million-plus in Europe and tens of thousands in the United States.

"In Asia, they're selling as transportation because they can't afford cars. In Europe, they're selling as transportation because they can't afford gas," Smith said. "In the U.S. … most electric bike companies are trying to sell electric bikes as being eco-friendly or being green or being a great way to save money on gas and how to get from point A to point B.

"All of those are very valid and great things. The problem is, the consumer in the U.S. doesn't buy an electric bike for any of those reasons. They're buying them for fun. They remember how much fun it was as a kid. But somewhere along the way there was a hill or a headwind and they didn't want to fight it.

"This allows them to get back on the bike and have fun."

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by James Raia



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