Trek's 2011 FX + WSD e-bike
Trek's 2011 FX + WSD e-bike (Courtesy of Trek)

Plug and Play

Electric bikes are for schmucks, right? Nah. The newest models are stylish, useful machines that will put a lot more riders on the road.

Trek's 2011 FX + WSD e-bike
Todd Balf

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I’VE FLOWN 3,000 miles from Massachusetts to get turned on in San Francisco. At the corner of Greenwich and Columbus in North Beach, a block or two from the City Lights bookstore, I see the young, stringy guy I’m looking for, standing in front of a place I still can’t believe is for real. It’s a two-week-old bike shop called the New Wheel, which deals exclusively in electric bikes—or e-bikes, or “pedelec” bikes, or buzzy bikes, or whatever Americans will end up calling bikes equipped with a 350-watt motor that helps you scoot up hills.

Trek's 2011 FX + WSD e-bike

Trek's 2011 FX + WSD e-bike M55 Terminus

“There really isn’t a good name yet,” says Brett Thurber, a 25-year-old graduate of the University of California at Berkeley who owns the New Wheel. Thurber is a smart, earnest entrepreneur who believes his stable of e-bikes represents a “complete transportation solution.” He’s clearly devoted to the cause: before he owned a store, he sold e-bikes to customers one at a time, using a trailer-towing e-bike to deliver the machines all over the city, even to nosebleed areas like Potrero Hill.

“It was pretty funny to see Brett with this trailer dragging behind him, with a bike tied down on it,” says Jane Goldman, a friend of Thurber’s who lives in Potrero. “One guy, two bikes. He was sweating even with the motor.”

Thurber is well-positioned to catch a big retail wave. According to green-tech analysts at the consulting firm Pike Research, annual U.S. e-bike sales are expected to more than double in the next five years, from 350,000 to 800,000. Meanwhile, in bike-crazed countries like Holland and China, the revolution has already arrived. In Holland, every fourth bike sold is battery powered. In China, there are 120 million ­e-bikes on the road.

Bike snobs may grumble, but the new generation of e-bikes hitting Europe and the U.S. are stylish, technically sophisticated, and hard to dislike. Steve Roseman, founder of the San Francisco—based Electric Bike Network, told me that riding one felt like “a fairy godmother tapped you on the shoulder and made you twice as strong.”

I’ve ridden an e-bike before, but never in a hilly, trafficky city like San Francisco—the perfect setting for a test of their utility. Thurber and I saddle up on a pair of handsome aluminum-framed Ohm Urbans and head for the steepest, most commuter-aggravating challenge we can find. That turns out to be the southeast face of Telegraph Hill, one of the fabled Seven Hells of San Francisco and an incline that organizers of the Coors Classic pro cycling event chose for the race prologue in 1985 and 1988. The uphill grades are somewhere between 20 percent and Oh My God.

After tapping the buttons on my handlebar-mounted computer—roughly the size and shape of a cigarette pack—and selecting level three (next-to-highest in terms of motorized assist), then level four (maximum), I find myself gliding to the top with quiet ease. I pass a haplessly laboring ten-speeder and almost feel compelled to apologize. Automobiles bumper-to-bumpering their way up the hill watch me whiz past and want some of what I’m having. I notice things I wouldn’t notice if I were grinding away under my own steam: the tight, lush scenery on Lombard, the sweet aroma of bursting cherry blossoms, the hangnail on my right pinkie. It takes us maybe five minutes to gain several hundred feet, at which point we jump off the bikes and grandly survey the gorgeous city below, unburdened by sweat, pain, or thirst. Puritan-leaning New Englander though I am, I like it.

Later, I check Coors Classic records for times of the world’s best racers on Telegraph Hill. It took Tour de France champions Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault—their heart rates redlining, no doubt—pretty much the same amount of time it took me and Thurber. Who, I might add, was wearing jeans.

IT’S NOT HARD TO IMAGINE just how popular e-bikes might become if gas hits $5 a gallon. Manufacturers like Giant, Trek,Kona, Brompton, Optibike, and Breezer are already producing models of several types, everything from city commuters and mass-­transit foldies to mountain, touring, and cargo bikes. At the 2010 Interbike trade show in Las Vegas, e-bike manufacturers set up a special test-track area for reviewers. Edward Benjamin, an industry consultant, told The New York Times that e-bikes are a “gift from God” for manufacturers, even in a steep price category currently ranging from $1,500 to $3,000.

In most cities, you might not see much evidence of the e-bike invasion just yet, but in San Francisco you do. David Chiu, president of the city’s board of supervisors, rides one, and he predicts that e-bikes will “change how people think about bikes in urban areas.” Blazing Saddles, the city’s major bike-rental business, offers e-bike tours across the Golden Gate Bridge, and e-bikes are increasingly showing up beneath the butts of commuters on bike-path arteries like Market Street and Golden Gate Park’s JFK Drive.

By 2020, the city hopes that 20 percent of its inhabitants will use bikes (of all kinds) as a frequent mode of transportation. (The current figure is 6 percent.) In a place as hilly and windblown as S.F., that number would barely seem feasible without widespread use of e-bikes. Meanwhile, in the hills of Marin County—where mountain biking was born—the e-bike’s charms are being tested in novel ways. Some riders have taken to e-biking up steep climbs to feast more easily on what matters to them most: downhills.

As it happens, some of mountain biking’s biggest names are in on the e-bike action. This year, Bay Area mountain-bike ­pioneers Joe Breeze and Gary Fisher rolled out commuter and cargo e-bike models like the $2,800 Transport+, part of the Gary Fisher Collection by Trek, a sweet-looking cargo bike with a long-charge lithium-manganese battery. You could almost hear the gasps in traditional bike shops, but for Breeze the decision to enter the market was a no-brainer. “It’s part of the future,” his marketing coordinator, Mitch Trux, told me. “Why wouldn’t Joe want to make a great one?”

For Breeze and others, the idea of adding one more bike to the quiver would hardly seem controversial. But it is, in part because e-bikes, to some, don’t qualify as bikes at all. “Buy an electric bike, kill a Chinese worker,” wrote a Montreal blogger a couple of years ago, linking e-bikes to toxic lead-acid batteries and poor production practices abroad. E-bikes made in Europe and the U.S. use lithium-ion batteries, but to some purists, bike means a human-powered machine, and riding one involves use of legs and lungs only. An e-bike is no different from a scooter, you’ll hear shop owners say, plus they’re a bitch to fix because they involve unfamiliar parts like circuit boards and engines. A wrench-turner at a San Francisco bike shop told me that initially “they required almost an electrician’s level of skill” just to remove the back wheel and fix a flat.

And it isn’t just bike snobs who have their concerns. San Francisco is home to the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition (SFBC), the largest city-based bicycle-advocacy group in the nation. Until recently, SFBC hadn’t paid much attention to e-bikes, because they hadn’t really been on the radar. For them and for other urban bike-advocacy groups looking to green up city streets with bike paths, e-bikes are issue-complicating newcomers. They’re not exactly unwelcome—in principle, SFBC adores the idea of more people riding—but in places where bikes are controversial, bikes with motors are bound to be more so.

SFBC doesn’t see e-bikes as a potential problem but would like to monitor their use if they become common on dedicated bikeways, which are being planned and lobbied for in numerous cities, including San Francisco. And there’s the question of how much support you want to put behind a machine that costs so much. SFBC places a growing emphasis on bike-riding families. Is it realistic to imagine e-bike-riding families?

Even so, the new generation of e-bikes is bound to win hearts and minds. For starters, they’re designed well and they look great. The motor is tucked away in either the rear or front hub, and in some models the battery reclines like a hardcover book on a rear bike rack. The bikes’ lithium-ion batteries, which are standard on the high quality e-bikes sold in the U.S., last long enough for most commutes—30-plus miles—and ­recharge when you brake, go downhill, or stop for a 20-minute plug-in. If you don’t want to buy a new e-bike, you can buy a kit. Almost any bike can be retrofitted for around $1,200.

E-bikes, it should also be noted, reward effort. You have to pedal them for the motor to kick in, and when it does the engine cuts out once you hit 20 miles per hour. A drive-train torque sensor detects pedal force and relays the information to the system’s computerized brain, which in turn tells the motor how much juice it has to deliver to help your cadence stay honey smooth. Translation: an e-bike performs better for riders with a stronger stroke.

They’re also potentially democratizing, making bike commutes possible for people who’d normally opt out. Last year, on a transportation forum called Streetsblog Network, a poster identifying herself as “taomom” made the case in response to an e-bike hater who said that e-bikes were, by definition, a crime against bicycling.

“I live in San Francisco,” she began. “The last half-mile home for me is entirely up a ­ginormous hill. With an electric-assist ­motor in the back wheel, I’ve replaced a third of my car trips with carbon-free biking.… Electric bikes are certainly not for everyone, but they allow people who live on hills, who transport children or cargo, who have bum knees, or who have 10-plus-mile commutes to get around without a car. Bicycle purity is one thing; the fate of the planet is another. Let’s go for the planet, folks.”

CONFESSION: I WAS A bike snob once. My own “pedelec” awakening came two years ago, when I took an assignment in which I signed up my family for a car-free month. I forgot to tell my wife. She doesn’t ride. She’s fearful of city traffic and unsteady in maneuvers that regular riders take for granted, like remounting the bike after a stop. I grudgingly borrowed a Giant Hybrid Twist e-bike for her, thinking she might find some traction with a bike you don’t have to, um, ride. She loved it. She felt safe and happy.

Truth be told, I liked the bike, too. It kept me out of the car. I felt the good vibe of being on a bike without all the pedaling. I’ll always ride regular bikes for the fitness rewards, but taomom has a point: e-bikes open up roads for people who wouldn’t ride otherwise.

“I used to be a skeptic,” says Tim Blumenthal, an avid Boulder-based cyclist who heads the leading national bike-advocacy group, Bikes Belong. “To put it bluntly, I used to put e-bikes in the same class as Segways, but my thoughts have changed.”

Blumenthal saw the light during a test ride in Madison, Wisconsin, where, amid a throbbing crowd of thousands, he found that he could spin away most of the time but call on an e-bike’s amps when warranted. E-bikes, he decided, could and should become a powerful mass-transit tool. “I needed to come off my high horse and not be so smug,” he says. “I get it now.”

Part of what Blumenthal gets is a lovely counterintuitive notion: that the best way to ensure people are safe on their bikes is to get more bikes on the road. Studies have shown that when you increase the number of riders on city streets, the average motorist begins to change his behavior and adapt to their presence. In the estimation of e-biking proponents, these machines are the best and perhaps only way to get a huge number of people quickly deployed.

In San Francisco, as Brett Thurber and I tool around, there’s a poignant moment when we park our bikes on the Market Street sidewalk in front of the S.F. Bicycle Coalition. I go in, but Brett stays outside and fiddles with his iPhone. He would have liked to pop in and press the flesh with Leah Shahum, who runs the group, but he knows he must bide his time. His constituency, energetic as it is, is still small.

Clearly, the chief obstacle to that wished-for broader acceptance is price. Right now it’s anybody’s guess how and when e-bike prices will come down. The most obvious answer is that they’ll drop when demand
increases and the expense of production—mainly having to do with battery costs—
decreases. Until they do, proponents would do well to look for ways to make them available to ordinary people, not just as two-wheeled Priuses for bike freaks and prosperous first-adopters. Thurber says he’s closed a deal that connects e-bike buyers with green ­financing. Another sliver of light might be the pilot bike-share program that’s currently being studied far away from San Francisco at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

In a small but vigorous rollout, UT assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering Christopher Cherry is overseeing a campus bike-share model that will ­include e-bikes. The campus is large, hilly, and spread out, and its students are not ­exactly reluctant to reach for the keys to get around. This isn’t the campus culture of Berkeley or Madison, and a beefy, typically bombproof bike-share bike might not be enough to wean folks away from their gas-guzzler of choice. But what if an e-bike fills a necessary pragmatic niche—a populist way to get people from place to place that doesn’t require a highly fit user?

Needless to say, UT’s about-to-launch pilot is being watched closely—by potential investors, opponents, supporters, and Cherry himself, who really doesn’t know how it will turn out. Who will ride what? How many car trips will be saved? Can neophytes handle a process that involves card-swiping out a bike and paying attention to a battery charge? He realizes that e-bikes, with all their good green promise, are also more expensive. In this economy, more expensive isn’t good for the mass rollout of any consumer product.

But what if the economy gets better and gas prices stay up? The seeds have been sown. In London, Hertz is already renting e-bikes along with their Audis and Mercedes. Other cities are likely to follow, and it’s not hard to envision e-bikes pouring into Peoria and beyond. Prices would come down. The revolution would be here.

I smile when I consider the impact. The New Wheel would be a kind of birthplace of the revolution. And Brett Thurber—who was once scraping by and wishing on a dream—would be a wealthy man.