Here’s Why You Might Want One

For recreation, exercise and commuting, cycling has exploded in popularity during the coronavirus … [+]

Back in December, Deloitte released its comprehensive technology predictions for 2020, and foresaw a bull market for cycling – especially E-bikes. “We predict that tens of billions of additional bicycle trips per year will take place in 2022 over 2019 levels. This increase in bicycling will double the number of regular bicycle users in many major cities around the world where cycling to work is still uncommon.”

Deloitte noted that the first patent for an E-bike dates to 1895, and as recently as 2012, these electrified bicycles represented just a tiny niche in the industry. Not anymore – E-bikes began booming a few years ago and have since exploded in popularity. Deloitte predicted they will get hotter still, anticipating a “surge” from 2020-2023 with 130 million E-bikes to be sold, with interest especially growing at the higher end.

And all that was before the global coronavirus pandemic. Since then demand has greatly accelerated.

Electric vehicle website Electrek.com noted recent record sales growth outpacing even the lofty predictions and explained “why electric bike sales have skyrocketed during the coronavirus lockdown.” The site noted the versatility of E-bikes as more and more people want to get outside: they work for recreation, for fitness, for commuting, as an alternative to car based shopping trips, even off-road as high-performance E-mountain bikes have proliferated. From towing a trailer to the local farmer’s market to just going for a ride you might otherwise be physically unable to complete, E-bikes appeal to a wide swath of people, which explains their booming sales. At the same time, current desire to avoid enclosed public transportation is sharply raising bike commuting in U.S. cities, something already much more popular in the rest of the world.

I’ve done a lot of cycling vacations, and in recent years the best specialized tour operators like Butterfield & Robinson and Backroads have added E-bike options to their fleets – in a huge way. While these are usually an option, an alternative to road bikes, they have proven so popular that Butterfield added an a all E-bike Switzerland trip in 2014 and has since expanded with several more such itineraries, from Japan to Morocco to France, Italy and Spain, and recommends it as a great first cycling vacation for the less experienced rider. Backroads named E-bikes as one the top trends of 2020 at the end of last year and before the pandemic anticipated putting 8,500 guests on them this year. “We know there are people out there, couples, for example, who can’t ride together, and we want them to be able to ride together,” said Backroads founder Tom Hale, a 35 year veteran of the cycling travel industry.

I’ve seen firsthand how this has expanded the clientele for bike trips to multi-generational groups and lets grandparents who otherwise couldn’t keep up climb high mountain passes and complete lengthy daily rides with their kids and grandkids. Where I live, cycling in general is hot, and when I talk to people about E-bikes, they fall into two camps: those who already know about them and own or want one, and those who are first finding out – and then want one.

E-bikes use an electric motor to assist pedaling. I’m old enough to recall the brief popularity of the “moped,” which purported to be a combination bicycle and motor scooter, with both motor and pedal in its name, but you couldn’t really pedal them except for very short distances (and not uphill) in emergencies (like running out of gas). E-bikes are much different, primary bicycles with an added motorized assist. They can be ridden purely under human power, purely under electric power, or most commonly, with the motor assisting the pedaling for easier work and higher speeds (50% faster on average). It is essentially a regular bike that is much physically easier to ride.

E-bikes are especially popular with those who are not avid cyclists already and want a little help when faced with hills, headwinds, or commuting/shopping with heavier loads or cargo. For commuters, Deloitte noted that E-bikes can be faster point to point than either cars or the subways in urban environments, and riders can wear suits or whatever they wear at the office these days and sweat up to two thirds less than on unpowered bikes, which can mean skipping the lycra, shower and change upon arrival to the office. But the forecast suggested the biggest benefit was the ubiquity of charging, not requiring special stations like electric cars, and with the batteries now so light, riders can carry a spare.

Breakthroughs in Lithium Ion technology have made E-bikes lighter and more efficient, with greater range. The advances have mirrored those in electric cars, except that E-bikes are more accessible and more popular. Back in December, tech website TheVerge.com considered the rise of electric vehicles as a category and concluded, “Forget electric cars – E-bikes will be the top selling EV in the next decade.” Five months and a global pandemic later, they wrote, “Cities are transforming as electric bikes sales skyrocket. Returning to a car-dominated city after the pandemic lockdown is out of the question.” As cities from New York to Milan scramble to expand bike lanes, the trend is only going to get even more appealing.

In some ways buying an E-bike is even more confusing than buying a regular bike, because there are less traditionally dominant brands, many small producers, different technologies that are hard to compare, less brick and mortar shops, and a huge range of price points. I am a longtime and experienced road and mountain biker, so when I decided to try E-biking during this pandemic I did as much research as I could and concluded that my best bet and the most bang for the buck I could get easily in today’s market was Aventon. Not only does the company’s bikes and E-bikes (they make track bicycles as well) get standout reviews, but virtually everyone loves their customer service, and if like me, you are new to E-bikes, you may well need some help. There are more expensive and cheaper brands, but few such affordable brands that use recognizable, proven name brand components like Shimano and Kenda and get such rave reviews from both industry critics and actual users.

Respected Bicycling Magazine named the Aventon Pace 500 “Best Cheap Electric Bikes” and wrote “Stop wishing you owned an E-bike and just buy one already. The Aventon pace 500 is faster than most urban electric bikes and casts just $1,400… At $1,400, it’s proof that good E-bikes are no longer piling up on unattainable wish lists; they’re finally becoming a reality for the masses.” Electrek.com called the Pace 500, “A 28 MPH E-bike for $1,399 that is a commuting dream.” As for the model I got, the Level, website ElectricBikeReview.com summed it up: “The Aventon Level is a powerful and feature-rich Class 3 commuting electric bike, a new model from Aventon that is competitively priced with impressive quality components throughout.” Rival site ElectricBikeReport.com wrote, “Overall the Aventon Level is a fun high-performance E-Bike at the very impressive price of $1,599 with free shipping. It has many of the features found on electric bikes that are generally much more expensive. Considering the quality, ride characteristics, components, and accessories the Level offers so much value for the price of $1,599.” And so on and so on, these sentiments are common to just about review I could find.

Also, and perhaps most importantly these days, the domestic company actually has most models, including the top tier Level, in stock for delivery right now, which is not the case with a lot of producers, especially from overseas. They will ship direct with assembly instructions or you can go to one of their many brick and mortar retailers.

Aventon makes the most commonly sought-after style of E-bikes, for commuting, cargo and general use. The model I tried was the Level, their top commuter, designed to be a good enough bicycle that you can enjoy riding with or without assist. Available in three sizes for all riders, it packs a lot of punch for a $1,599 price tag. Features include a 750-watt motor with 28mph peak assist speed and 20mph motor only, generous 40-mile range on one charge (not including your pedaling) and large backlit LCD screen that’s easy to read even in bright sun.  It comes standard with a front suspension fork (75mm travel) to absorb any urban cracks and potholes and make your ride smoother and safer, well as the rack and fenders most commuters/shoppers want, usually an add-on.  You can add a trailer if you plan to do a lot of shopping (they sell the industry leading Burley flatbed as a very useful extra with lots of cargo capacity for $250)

The Lithium Ion battery from Samsung is removable, it has a thumb throttle and five speed levels, and the regular bicycle drivetrain is from industry leader Shimano – the same brand I have on all my high-end road bikes – with 8-speeds and easy rapid fire shifting. It has disc brakes, which are the new must-have upgrade on regular road bikes, though hard to find at this price point, and even more important on E-bikes. With the motor and battery, they are heavier, and thus require more stopping power, which disc brakes offer, and they also work better in the rain, a must for commuting. Frame is double butted lightweight aluminum, the material with the top strength to weight ratio for the money, and all Aventon E-bikes are built to the IPX4 water-resistant standard, which means they are totally fine to ride in the pouring rain.

Aventon also makes three other E-bike models. The Pace 500 ($1,399) is a slightly scaled down, more urban version of the top tier Level, also great for commuting and general use, with most of the same tech specs but a less performance-oriented frame design. The Pace 350 has a lower top speed and mechanical instead of disc brakes ($1,099). Both Pace models are also offered with step-through frame designs with no top tube. The Sinch is a unique small framed, folding E-bike, highly transportable with fat tires for stability ($1,499).

E-bikes have also fully entered the performance/fitness side of cycling as well as commuting. Among the many conventional bicycle companies that have gotten into them, the most notable is Taiwan’s Giant (along with Trek, Specialized and other well-known brands). As the world’s largest performance bicycle producer, the vertically integrated company owns its own wheel, stem and seat production, expensive components most companies have to outsource, as well as its own state of the art composite (carbon fiber) fabrication, and as a result, Giant enjoys a longstanding reputation for delivering very high quality at reasonable prices, all the way up to competitive professional levels. In fact, in 2020 Giant won top industry awards for its road bikes (Bike of the Year from Cycling Plus Magazine), gravel grinders (2020 Bike Awards Winner from Bicycling Magazine) and mountain bikes (two different models won their Bicycling Magazine price categories).

Giant also has the advantage of a large, established network of retailers across the country. In E-bikes, the company has been targeting cyclists as opposed to commuters or newcomers, with electrified higher performance variants of its core competencies in road, mountain and gravel bikes. For example, Giant makes several models of high-end E-mountain bikes up to $8,000 that look just like “regular” mountain bikes and have the same must-have technologies like high-travel dual suspension, electronic shifting, hydraulic disc brakes, dropper seat posts, and 29-inch wheels, plus top shelf components from SRAM, Fox and Maxxis, but with hidden motor assist. These are a more specialized sector of the E-bike industry, ready to take on the most rugged and technical wilderness trails that can ridden on any mountain bike, motorized or not.

My personal bottom line is that while I am not the E-bike target market, as I live in a rural area, can’t really bike to shop, work at home so I don’t commute, and am an avid fitness and nature cyclist, my initial skepticism was immediately overcome and I definitely see the appeal of E-bikes – to a whole lot of people, for a whole lot of reasons, all over the world. But the biggest plus it that they can get the person who didn’t ride or was on the fence about bike commuting out there, which is better for their health and better for the environment, and that means better for everyone.

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