Electric bicycles have long been a popular mode of transport in Asia, but the U.S. has only recently taken to e-bikes. Sales of e-bikes grew by 240% in the U.S. between July 2020 and July 2021, according to sales data from American market research company NPD Group. That's about 16 times the growth rate of traditional bicycles during the same time period.
"We surpassed our expectations [in 2021], for sure," says Adam McAnulty, owner of the local Pedego e-bike shop.
The pandemic certainly deserves part of the credit, as people had more time to spend taking up a new outdoor hobby. E-bikes also have high appeal for baby boomers, which make up a massive portion of the American population.
"We get a lot of customers who come in, and they haven't ridden a bike in 30 years," McAnulty says. "It's really cool to see people who wouldn't normally be doing these things getting out and adventuring."
People who struggle with hills on a traditional bike can ride anywhere they want on an e-bike, and people who normally consider 10 miles the maximum distance they could ride on a traditional bike are able to go farther, he says.
"They're not applying as much effort, so it's a little bit easier on their body, but they're still getting exercise — as much exercise as they want to," McAnulty says.
His customers often get bikes just for commuting, in an effort to get away from using their car as much as possible. "We're a small city area-wise, so as long as you're staying in the downtown area, you can get anywhere within 4 to 5 miles or so," he says.
If you're considering an e-bike, McAnulty recommends taking a test ride first. It's also important to have a shop that you know can service the bike for you if you ever have issues, he says.
The average price of a good quality e-bike is $3,000-$4,000, although you can find low-end bikes at places like Amazon and Costco for as little as $500-$700, and very high-end bikes can cost up to $15,000, says McAnulty.
So, what makes a high-quality bike? It depends on what you want out of the bike and where you plan to ride it, but here are a few important components to consider:
> Hydraulic disc brakes, which provide more stopping power than mechanical disc brakes.
> A good watt-hour battery, which will determine how long you'll be able to ride per charge.
> The right type of motor for your needs. "A lot of people really focus on the motor size, which, in my opinion, is not a huge deal," McAnulty says. "It's really determining if you want a mid-drive motor or a hub-drive motor."
Hub-drive motors are on the front or the rear wheel — typically the rear — and the motor is separate from the drivetrain, which is the system that allows you to pedal the bike. The motor can still propel the wheel when you pedal, but if the motor fails, you can still ride it like a regular bicycle. Most hub-drive bikes also have a throttle, which allows you to ride without pedaling at all.
Mid-drive motors are located in the crank area where the pedals are, and the benefit of this type of e-bike is that it's a bit more like a traditional bicycle. "You're inclined to change your gears a lot more like a regular bike, and [it] can also be a little bit more efficient with hills and with off-road terrains," McAnulty says.
Why go electric?
The main reason is that e-bikes provide a more easy-going ride than a traditional bicycle, says McAnulty.
"I mountain bike, and I pedal around the city on my regular bike, but there are some days when I just want to kind of relax and cruise. The biggest advantage [with e-bikes] is you're just able to sit back and kind of take everything in. From a cycling aspect, you don't have to worry about how hard you're pedaling, how fast you're going and how high your heart rate is. You go out and just enjoy the ride — like cruising down the Riverwalk and checking out all the sights. It's just a really easy way to get out and about."