Electronic bikes can help make more people bicyclists

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Imagine: you’re halfway up a hill on your bike, pedaling feverishly as beads of sweat trickle down your face. Exercise is great — and necessary — but wouldn’t it be nice to get a little push up that hill?

Cue the electric bike.

E-bikes have been popular in Europe and Asia for years, but only recently started to gain popularity in the United States, said Northtowne Cycling owner Derek Stepanek, who’s seen a significant spike in e-bike sales in the last three months, despite selling them at Northtowne in Cedar Rapids for the last 15 years. People come from all over the region — Minnesota, Nebraska, Illinois and Indiana primarily — to buy e-bikes at Northtowne, he added.

The increase in popularity, he believes, is due to e-bike technology finally catching up with consumer’s desires.

Ryan Baker, owner of World of Bikes in Iowa City, agreed.

In the past, World of Bikes didn’t carry e-bikes because their “batteries had issues, electronics had issues. ... The technology wasn’t quite to the point where we’d want to handle it as a shop,” he said.

Now he’s reconsidering because today’s e-bikes are more reliable, lighter weight and have longer battery life. They can go farther faster, climb steeper hills and support more weight than ever before, Stepanek added.

Still powered by pedals, most e-bikes have a pedal-assist system that supplies electricity from a rechargeable lithium ion battery to the motor, but only when the cyclist pedals — so no, it won’t do all the work for you, but it will make a noticeable difference when biking up hills, through headwinds or when your legs are tired from a long ride.

Many models have multiple settings so that you can adjust the amount of assistance you receive, ranging from nothing at all or hardly noticeable to a reasonable lurch with each revolution of the pedal. Some are sensitive to the speed and force of your feet, calculating just the right amount of power to ease your effort but not so much that exercise is out of the equation. A few models also offer a throttle, Stepanek said, which assists those who at times cannot pedal. As long as it still has pedals, can’t go more than 20 miles per hour and has a motor smaller than 750 watts, it still is considered a bicycle, not a motorized vehicle, he added.

Depending on the quality of bike and battery system and how much power you use, one charge can last anywhere from 15 to 120 miles, but for most people, 80 miles is plenty, Stepanek said. If the battery dies, however, the once easy ride becomes much more challenging, as e-bikes generally weigh between 50 to 60 pounds. Luckily, all you need to recharge is a regular outlet and a charger.

Prices range from around $1,000 to more than $5,000, but the “sweet spot,” Stepanek said, is between $2,000 to $3,000. Every e-bike is different, though, so he suggests trying different models and working with an expert to find what best fits your lifestyle before buying.

Some in the cycling community consider e-bikes “cheating,” Stepanek said. But he disagrees.

“It’s just more fun,” he said. “It makes you feel like a bionic biker.”

The U.S. bike industry “loves to sell to hard-core clients,” he continued, explaining that bikes and cycling gear are often targeted to those who ride for competition or distance. Because of this, he said, the bike industry isn’t growing. They’ve forgotten about the average rider — those that may be looking for exercise, but also a fun and easy way to get around, he said. Whether it’s riding for utility — getting from point A to point B or carrying heavy loads — or for exercise, Stepanek asked why not reduce some of the challenges to make the experience more enjoyable? Especially for those who wouldn’t be biking otherwise.

“It gets people riding instead of not riding,” Stepanek said. “Any pedalling is better than none.”

For example, people may choose to drive to work instead of ride because they don’t want to get sweaty. E-bikes not only keep up with traffic, but also make the commute less messy, even in business casual. Others may choose not to ride because they know there’s an unavoidable hill on their route that’s too physically demanding. An e-bike can help them work up the strength over time to eventually conquer it on their own. E-bikes can also help those who are aging, those who are unable to keep up with faster family and friends or those with physical disabilities that prevent them from riding.

Sixty-year-old Jan Treftz Allen, for example, thought her cycling years were over after being diagnosed with Multiple sclerosis (MS) 12 years ago. She used to bike more than 2000 miles a year, but her MS slowed her down. Before buying an e-bike a few weeks ago, she’d nearly all but quit.

Now, with her pedal-assist three-wheeled electric TerraTrike with backup throttle, she can bike with her friends again.

“I feel confident that I can go for a decent ride and still get some exercise and not feel really tired when I’m done,” she said. In the past, a long ride would leave her feeling “nearly dead.”

Dan Duclos, 61, bought an e-bike for his wife who was reluctant to ride with him because she couldn’t keep up, he said. Since they bought it, not only do they ride more together, but he’s put thousands of miles on the e-bike himself, he said, explaining that it’s great for mountain biking, gravel roads and steep hills. He rides to and from work in Dubuque — he’s a professor at University of Dubuque and former swim coach at Dubuque Senior High — and used it for two days of his fifth RAGBRAI this year.

“You can pretty much go anywhere with it,” he said. “I ride a lot more now because it’s more fun. I look forward to going out and doing a ride. You can go a lot faster and you don’t have to get all hot and sweaty.”

Mary Meisterling bought her e-bike less than a month ago after losing interest in riding due to steep hills near her home. Although she said she “still feels winded when going up the hill,” she can make it up without dismounting and isn’t “intimidated by hills anymore,” she said.

E-bikes, she concluded, “transform your riding experience.”

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