A cancer diagnosis knocked Mike Brown off his feet three years ago and into a five-month hospital stay. At the end, the Army veteran who had kept himself fit into his 60s with regular cycling couldn’t walk 50 feet without the help of two nurses and a walker. In his broken state he dismissed the idea he would ever ride his beloved bicycle outdoors again.
Last summer, thanks to the gentle exercise he found with a customized Trek bike fitted with an electric motor and battery, he was racking up 25-mile trips with old riding friends and telling others of his motor-driven recovery.
“I never thought I would be as strong as I am again,” said Brown, of St. Paul.
His joyful conversion to electric biking comes amid a wave of new interest in e-bikes, with major bike brands like Specialized, Trek and Raleigh unveiling new designs for people who want some help getting down the bike path or daily commuters who don’t want to arrive at work out of breath.
The bikes still are a small slice of the bike market in the United States when compared to China (31 million e-bikes sold in 2013) or Europe (1.4 million sold in 2013), but the U.S. imported some 198,000 e-bikes last year, a 30-percent increase over the previous year, according to Ed Benjamin of the Light Electric Vehicle Association.
“We’re seeing the mood change,” he said.
A small but growing number of bike shops in the Twin Cities have e-bikes on the sales floor, with Varsity Bike and Transit in Dinkytown among the earliest adopters. Shop owner Rob DeHoff promotes the electric bike as an alternative to using a car, a switch he promotes with stickers, patches and shirts that read “Pedal Less Oil.”
He’s also happy to help cyclists like Brown get back on the road again after a health setback.
Among DeHoff’s more popular models is the Stromer, a sleek-looking Swiss bike that hides a bulky battery inside the frame. A powerful electric motor drives the rear wheel. The bicyclist still has to pedal, but the motor kicks in to help out for up to 55 miles, depending on how the bike’s configured. Like all e-bikes, its range will depend on the terrain and conditions and the rider’s weight and riding style.
The added technology significantly increases the cost of the bike — the Stromer starts at about $3,000, and other models can cost much more.
Asking someone to pay that much for a bike has been challenging, because “it’s a category with such a huge unawareness rating,” said Brent Meyers of Stromer U.S. “So many people in the U.S. don’t know what an electric bike is.”
Meyers said he’s still beating back the notion that it’s a bike for a lazy person.
“With our bike, you still have to pedal to make the bike go,” he said. “They’re still getting exercise. They’re going to go faster and further with a lot more ease.”
Joe Schur has heard it plenty of times out on his Prodeco Outlaw, a $2,000 electric bike — other non-electric cyclists tell him he’s cheating.
“Of course, I’m cheating! But who cares?” he shot back while on a recent ride in Minneapolis. Powered by a 750-watt motor, the largest allowed under U.S. regulations, the bike carried him silently across the Stone Arch Bridge in downtown Minneapolis as joggers and bicyclists huffed past him.
“I used to do the old pedal way for a long time but … osteoarthritis. I couldn’t go anywhere as near as far. Now that I have it, I wish I would have gotten it much earlier,” he said.
On a recent trip to Beijing, Schur said he saw more electric than traditional bikes. The cyclists themselves were decked out in office clothing, not much Lycra. “They’re just going to work or going to shop or wherever,” he said.
Bicyclist Craig Baillie is on his third electric bike in about six years of riding, his latest being a Surly winter bike with a Bionx electric conversion kit. The kit can turn most any ordinary bicycle into an e-bike by replacing one of the wheels and fitting the battery to the frame or on a rear rack.
“It’s amazing what you can get through,” said Baillie. “I didn’t wipe out all winter long.”
He originally looked into electric bikes to save on parking costs. An art director for a local advertising and marketing firm, Baillie lives in Dinkytown but often meets people downtown for work. Every meeting was a search for parking and a fee. The bike was part of the solution, and the electric motor meant he could wear business clothes and not stinky workout gear to meetings with his clients.
His $3,400 bike takes six hours to charge to full power and carries him along at about 20 mph. Strangers often ask him about it, noticing the battery attached to the frame and the motor tucked into the rear wheel’s hub. “I just tell people that I love it, and it’s amazing,” he said.
The hub-mounted electric motor is still the most common among e-bikes, but a new system from Bosch and a handful of other manufacturers has moved the motor to the crankset, where the pedals turn. These “mid-drive” e-bikes take advantage of the bike’s gearing to keep the electric motor spinning faster, where it uses power more efficiently.
It’s hard to know what to make of an electric bike without riding one, so with the help of a loaner bike from Varsity Bike and Transit, I set out to get the complete story. After some quick instructions (“It has four power settings; here’s how you charge the battery”) I walked out the door with a Stromer.
I set the power to low, saddled up, turned the pedals a couple of times and then felt the motor kick in. It was as if I was being coaxed forward by an invisible force.
Even knowing that it was coming, I smiled at the feel of the electric push. An intersection approached, so I braked and the motor disengaged. After a turn I had blocks of open asphalt ahead, and I let the Stromer run. It had no trouble pushing me up to 21 mph as long as I was pedaling, even if I didn’t give it that much effort.
After a few blocks, I switched the Stromer into “power” mode, the highest setting. I didn’t go much faster, and I later learned that setting it in power mode simply kicks in the motor sooner from a stop. (The bike’s top electric-only speed of 20 mph is governed by federal and state law.)
Lost in the thrill of my first electric bike ride, I let the bike do a lot of work as I conquered a massive hill along West River Road, flew past other bicyclists and made it home in record time.
The battery registered plenty of charge, so I didn’t plug in the removable battery overnight and dreamed of a fast morning commute.
It wasn’t to be. Halfway to work my invisible team of horses unhitched themselves from the wagon and ran off. The Stromer slowed to a mere 16 mph. That’s still a good clip for a normal bike commuter, but after my mercury-like ride home the previous night, it felt unbearably slow. Still, I was biking and got in a good workout. Unlike its distant cousin the all-electric car, an electric bike still functions when the battery dies.
Locking the bike up at work, I slipped the battery out of its compartment and carried it into the office with me. It sat on my desk as it charged. The ride home, suffice to say, was smile-inducing.
A second loaner from Varsity Bike, this time a Felt Lebowske, introduced me to off-road e-bikes. The fat-tire Lebowske uses the Bosch mid-drive system, and sailed up snow-covered hills this winter as if I was a Tour de France rider. On a late night ride around the city, it charged across a frozen Lake Calhoun after I got bored riding on the bike trail. The snow-covered lake would have been a tough slog on an ordinary mountain bike, but with the Lebowske, I flew along at 15 mph. It was late at night, no one else was on the lake, and I had the distinct sensation of flying as the Lebowske easily navigated the snow and ice.
Back on the Stromer, I wondered what it would be like to run errands. On a lunch hour, I biked 3 miles across town dressed in office clothes to buy something for my son. Even though I had pedaled at 21 mph, I walked into the store breathing easily. It was like I had gone for a walk. I zipped back to work with no more effort and gave thanks for the easy parking at both ends of the trip.
Even as a long-time bike commuter, the e-bike rides were revelatory, no more so than when I pulled alongside a few road cyclists, the winds slipping over their spandex as they rode in full tuck.
That’s another one of the joys of riding e-bikes, said Brown, the cancer survivor.
“It’s fun to see these speedy guys coming down Summit Avenue. I can stay right with them if I want to. They turn around at the red light and there I am, sitting right behind them, this old guy. It’s just fun.”
Matt McKinney • 612-673-7329
A former colleague of mine agreed to conduct a challenge — a race, really — between a car commuter and an e-bike commuter (in this case, me). The start was the same for both commuters: a house in the Como neighborhood of St. Paul. So was the finish: a parking lot in downtown Minneapolis. We started at the same moment, each of us tapping “Start” on a smartphone app that measures speed, route and distance. Laws would be followed by both drivers, meaning stops at stop signs and red lights. A block after the start, we separated, taking different routes to our destination.
So how did they do?
The e-bike won, by nearly four minutes.
The car driver took what he imagined would be the fastest route to the highway, based on his observations from months of car commuting. I took bike paths and bike lanes, and benefited from a stretch of bike lane between St. Paul and Minneapolis that zips between the St. Paul and Minneapolis campuses of the University of Minnesota. It’s a quick route, and it’s off-limits to cars.
Afterward, car driver Chris Havens said he hit every green light heading north on Snelling, but then, disaster: “Any sense of progress halts at the on-ramp to Hwy. 36 westbound. The meter light seems to take forever.” His pokey commute along Interstate 35W finally speeds up to 60 mph just before the Mississippi River, and it’s smooth sailing to the finish line from there.
On my e-bike I cruised about 21 mph for most of the ride thanks to medium-strength pedaling and the electric motor dutifully whirring away. A lost bike commuter along the route asked for directions, and I stopped briefly to tell her how to navigate the new Dinkytown Greenway, which allows bicyclists to speed underneath the congestion of Dinkytown without much traffic.
Crossing the Stone Arch Bridge into Minneapolis, the skyline rising to meet me, I thought that I might win due to the electric motor and to a bike route that allowed me to cross the Twin Cities at rush hour without seeing much traffic.
On this day, that proved correct.
Distance: 9.56 miles
Max speed: 62.2 mph
Distance: 6.46 miles
Max speed: 27.6 mph