On any fine spring day, you might see Minneapolis resident Saundra Crump zipping around on a bicycle, with her 2-year-old granddaughter and 3-year-old grandson in tow.
Although the retired nurse acknowledges that she's not athletic, she wanted to incorporate more exercise into her daily routine. So, last year she bought an electric bike, and added a Burley trailer to tote her grandkids.
"To be able to pop them in and take them on a ride is great," said Crump, 75. "With the e-bike, you can go longer distances. I can go from my house to Home Depot in St. Louis Park to look at some new tiles. I don't use my car that much."
This spring, you may notice e-bikes sprouting everywhere as more people like Crump turn to them to get around town in a greener way and boost their physical activity.
Although e-bikes in some form have been around for decades, they're just now hitting their stride — with ridership rising — thanks in part to the decline in public transit during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"They're incredibly popular," said Dorian Grilley, executive director of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota, who shares two e-bikes with his wife. "As our population ages, people are rediscovering bicycling through e-bikes because they help you with hills, they help you keep up with your spouse or friends if you're not in the same condition, and they're kind of a great equalizer."
What e-bikes offer
E-bikes don't look much different from conventional bicycles, but they have a small rechargeable electric motor and battery attached to the frame or wheel hub that can boost a rider's pedal power. Bonus: E-bikes require little maintenance. Lubricate the chain, check the tire pressure and get a tune-up every year or two.
Best of all, e-bikes can give older adults a new lease on an outdoor life. The motor helps people who want to start cycling, exercise more or drive less, especially those with mobility limitations. E-bikes are allowed on the same paths and trails as traditional bicycles in the Twin Cities, but check with your municipality first.
Studies show that people ride more often and farther on e-bikes than on conventional bikes, while exerting less physical effort. Evidence also shows that e-bikes provide just as much aerobic and cardiovascular fitness, and e-biking may improve well-being and brain function in adults 50 and older.
Most e-bike batteries last up to 40 miles on a charge. One 2020 study estimated that carbon emissions could be cut by 12% if 15% of car trips were done by e-bike.
Minnesotans have the option of three classifications of e-bikes based on maximum speed and motor power. Two types are pedal-assist styles, which help riders when turned on and can reach speeds of either 20 or 28 miles per hour. A third class features a throttle, which means you don't have to pedal at all, and a maximum speed of 20 mph. Riders can adjust the level of assistance on all types.
Becoming more affordable
If you're new to e-bikes, however, you might be overwhelmed by the options available and the high price of many models. But for older adults, the most popular types are cruisers, upright city e-bikes and cargo e-bikes, according to local experts.
"Initially, [e-bike] manufacturers targeted cycling enthusiasts, but now they're realizing the elderly are a huge market," said Luke Breen, owner of Perennial Cycle in Uptown Minneapolis. Older adults like the Gazelle and Linus upright city e-bikes, as well as the Tern cargo e-bike, he said.
Ann Paulson, owner of two Pedego Electric Bikes shops in Eden Prairie and Mendota Heights, also noted that older adults like its lowest step-through models, which are easier to get on and off. California-based Pedego manufactures about 20 types of e-bikes.
Increased demand boosted e-bike prices and supply chain issues caused a shortage of parts over the past few years. But prices are stabilizing and supply has improved, experts said. Still, you can expect to pay about $1,000 to $4,000, and prices can top $10,000.
Avid mountain biker Bjorn Haavik of Minneapolis stopped riding for about a decade after spinal fusion surgery, until he bought an e-bike. The $8,500 price tag for his Santa Cruz Heckler electric mountain bike was well worth it, he said.
"I can only ride an e-bike, and this will get me back on the trails, not just sidewalks," said Haavik, 65. "When I tried to ride a [conventional] bike after my surgery, it would hurt my back so much. Going up hills on an e-bike is like riding on the flat."
Tax credit proposals in Minnesota and nationally aim to help more people, including seniors on fixed incomes and low-income residents, access and afford e-bikes. State legislators are considering the E-Bike Credit Bill, which works more like an instant rebate of 50% to 75% off the cost of an e-bike, up to $1,500, at a Minnesota retailer. Nationally, a bill would offer individuals a 30% tax credit up to $1,500 to buy a new e-bike, with income caps.
Sense of accomplishment
You don't even have to buy an e-bike thanks to e-bike share programs in some areas. In Minneapolis, Lime Mobility and Veo Mobility this year are starting new app-based programs to fill the void left by the withdrawal of Lyft's Nice Ride program. Lime began providing 1,000 pedal-assist e-bikes in mid-April, and Veo has initially provided 500 e-bikes with a throttle starting May 1, said Dillon Fried, interim mobility manager for the city of Minneapolis.
Lime also is talking with the city of St. Paul to supply at least 200 pedal-assist e-bikes, but details were still being hashed out, said LeAaron Foley, Lime's director of government and community relations. The price for both city programs would be a $1 unlock fee plus 39 cents per minute, with discounts available for eligible residents.
Just a few years ago, "we spent so much time explaining what is an e-bike," Paulson said. "Now, everyone knows what an e-bike is, but there are some subtle differences, and everyone is trying to figure out what e-bike is best for them."
Saundra Crump, for instance, did extensive research before buying her $1,500 Aventon cruiser at a local shop instead of online, because she didn't want to assemble it.
Last year, Crump completed a 34-mile group ride in St. Paul, something she says she never would have been able to do on a traditional bicycle.
"I wanted to be able to ride with a group and have some assistance to keep up with the group," Crump said. "The e-bike gives me a little extra energy. I feel accomplished."
Tips for choosing an e-bike
These tips may help you choose an e-bike:
Do your homework. Shop around. In comparing the many brands and types of e-bikes, consider your purpose, advised Dorian Grilley of the Bicycle Alliance of Minnesota. Do you want a cargo bike to haul grocery bags? Do you want to ride on dirt trails?
Do test rides. Before buying, take different e-bikes from a local shop on a test spin. You also can rent an e-bike or try a local e-bike sharing program before buying one. Make sure you're comfortable with the weight of an e-bike (most weigh 40 pounds or more), the battery location, the handlebar height, getting on and off, and stopping.
Check the battery. Consider how far the e-bike will travel on a battery charge and how long it will take to recharge from a wall outlet. To compare e-bikes, multiply the battery voltage by its amp-hour rating for watt-hours, which is the amount of energy stored in a battery. Pedego Electric Bikes' Ann Paulson recommends a removable battery, which deters theft and is necessary for winter storage.
Customize. Match an e-bike's geometry to your body size and limitations. E-bikes with a low threshold are good for people with bad knees and hips. Those with shoulder issues may find higher handlebars more comfortable because you sit upright. People with arthritis may like Y-shaped handlebars.
Accessorize. Check if the e-bike comes with any accessories. Most e-bikes come with LED lights operated by the battery, but a helmet, lock or fenders probably will cost extra.
Rack it up. Consider getting a bike rack for your vehicle if you want to start rides away from home or travel with your e-bike. Crump likes to go on group rides that often start in a different city, such as Stillwater. She invested about $800 in a rack that attaches to her car's tow hitch and has a ramp to roll her bike up and lock it to the rack.
"The difference between that and another rack was about $450, but I thought I'm not going to get any younger," Crump said. "The bike is 65 pounds. I didn't have the strength to lift it. Think 10 years ahead. Is it going to work?"