Let's talk electric bikes: Q&A with an e-bike retailer

RadRover electric fat bike
© Rad Power Bikes

This interview covers a lot of ground, from e-bike benefits to how to buy the right one for you.

The electric bike market seems to be rapidly expanding right now, with a lot of new brands, a lot of choices for buyers, and yet a lot of people have questions or reservations about them, so I called up Steve Appleton of ReallyGoodEbikes.com and interviewed him. I distilled our hour-long conversation about e-bikes down to a slightly more manageable length, and edited it for clarity.

Q: Right now, prospective e-bike buyers can go to a dedicated e-bike store, or a traditional bike shop with a handful of e-bikes, a big-box store with e-bikes, or shop online for e-bikes. Could you lay out the pros and cons of the various e-bike retailer options?

Steve: Well, the e-bike market in the US is different than in Europe. You could say the European market is a little more mature, with a lot more choices and perhaps a lot more stores. I'm focused on the US market because I'm in the US, and the popularity e-bikes I would say is nationwide, but you find that southern California is the hot-bed for e-bikes. You have LA and the greater LA area, southern California, San Diego, just because the weather is nice and people are very exercise-oriented, and for a number of other reasons it seems like that is one of the main areas of interest. San Francisco, New York, and Florida are other areas where people are very interested in e-bikes. What you’ll see is that there will be stores that are dedicated to e-bikes, and some of the big guys like Pedego, they have their own branded franchises where you can go in and you can feel confident that you’re buying a Pedego bike, and you can go in and get it serviced and they have a great warranty. And their bikes are really nice, too, and they’re affordable.

Rad is another well-known brand. They advertise quite a lot online, and if you're on Facebook no doubt you've seen their advertisements for their bikes. They’re online, but a very well-known brand name, and there are a few others that sell both in their own stores and online.

As far as the different channels or places where people can buy e-bikes, there are branded stores like Pedego, there are some e-bike specialty stores – not too many, but in the LA area, you’ll have several that carry five or ten different brands, 20 or 30 different models, but those kinds of stores are not available to a lot of shoppers unless you go to the LA area. As an example, I live in Santa Barbara, and there is an e-bike store here, but they specialize in some rather expensive – you know, five-six thousand dollar – bikes. Haibike, Specialized, Trek. These are well-known names but they tend to be pretty expensive.

Then you'll have regular bike shops that have also expanded into e-bikes, so you go in and ask if they carry electric bikes, and they’ll say yeah, we have two -- this one or that one. And then you have the big box stores, like Costco, which carries genZe, which is a great-looking bike, and affordable, but only in two flavors, the step-through and the standard. That’s it, you’ve got two choices and they’re both decent bikes and they’re affordable and that’s great. But there are several hundred e-bike brands, and not all of them are represented in these branded stores or specialty stores or stores that carry regular bikes and e-bikes, or big box stores.

And then there are sites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, where a number of e-bikes are brought to the market through crowdfunding campaigns, and Sonders is probably the best known of those, and they are very popular. But there have been a lot of crowdfunding e-bike failures, too. People say this looks great, and they back it and end up hoping for the best, and it never comes to fruition, so there are challenges with that.

Then you have people like me, who run online stores focused on e-bikes. I also carry some scooters and electric skateboards, but my core products are electric bikes. I have about 35 different brands, and I work closely with the suppliers. It’s a dropship model, so I don’t have any inventory, I don’t have a physical store, I’m a non-stocking retailer. There are probably 25 or 30 stores like that online. Then of course, the manufacturers themselves might sell their product online through their own website, and they’ll work with people like me as dealers, and so you’ll find that I’m selling the same bike that my supplier is selling, but through a different channel. I like to think that for the customer, they get more choices if they come to me rather than just going to the supplier’s website directly, and I can sometimes provide more benefits to the shopper than the supplier can. More customer service, more extras. I could go into those, but the point is that they can call me and I’m there to talk to them about this brand or that brand, and the different considerations of how to buy e-bikes.

I should mention Amazon and eBay are also two channels where e-bikes can be found, but the thing is that there are different qualities of e-bikes. The type of bikes that you'll find on eBay or Amazon tend to be low priced and generally much lower quality. Some of them don't even have lithium batteries – they’re using old style SLA (sealed lead acid) batteries.

You'll also have the very very high end of the market where the bikes cost fifteen or twenty thousand dollars, so there are different price points, different levels of quality. You’ve got the dropship bikes, which everyone carries, this sort of generic brand. Of course a lot of these -- most of these – bikes are built in China and imported, but how they’re designed and how they’re put together, and the quality of the warranty is just so wide-ranging that it really does take some expertise to do the shopping properly. There are a couple of forums that people can go to ask questions or do their own personal research, so I’m just fitting into one aspect of this larger e-bike movement.

Q: Do you think the super cheap bargain basement e-bikes, as well as some of the ‘overpromise and underdeliver’ crowdfunded e-bikes are hurting the market? For example, the people who’ve had a really bad experience are never going to try and e-bike again no matter what, and because the market is so full and people don't know what to look for, they just see the price of five hundred dollars, and buy it not knowing any better.

Steve: Certainly, the quality of the product that you see on Amazon and eBay tends to be lower, and one issue with buying bikes online is that they they're shipped in a box and they can damaged along the way. I have had a number of customers call me and say well you know I got the bike but it was damaged in shipping, and so there are some challenges there as well. But to answer your question I would agree that that people are very scared about making a significant purchase like this online -- even in a store I suppose -- unless they have a good sales person to walk them through and show them why it’s a great bike.

But then of course there are the people who've done the research. I’ll have a customer who needs to spend an hour on the phone with me talking it through, making sure that I'm legitimate and that the bike is a good quality. I have other ones who will just call me up and say, yeah four thousand that's cool, let's do it. In my experience, the shoppers tend to be in their early sixties. The demographic is late fifties to early sixties, and these are people who have been around for a while and are not newbies to the world of online shopping or just buying things that are a higher price point. I suppose it’s true that whatever you’re going to buy, whether it’s a new refrigerator an e-bike, if you buy the cheapest one, a no-name brand, you’re going to get something that may not be as good as if you bought a high quality, well-reviewed product.

I myself try to only carry brands that I think pass the tests -- that are well reviewed online, that look like they're really well built, companies that have been around for a while. You mentioned all these Indiegogo and Kickstarter e-bikes, and many of these are companies that are just like okay, let's make an e-bike, its popular, let's do it. Other ones have been around for ten-fifteen years or more and they iterate -- they refine their designs based on input from their customers. That's one of the benefits of Pedego is that they've got a lot of customer feedback, and they go and they improve the design, so every year, every iteration is going to be a refinement, and they have the capital to be able to do it.

Q: What can you tell us about the current trends in e-bikes, and some advantages or disadvantages of buying a purpose-built e-bike, or a conversion kit or a drop-in e-bike wheel like the Copenhagen Wheel? How do you see this as a retailer?

Steve: There is a real division between pre-built, fully or almost fully assembled e-bikes, whether you buy it in a store or online, bikes that basically come ready to ride, and the whole category of DIY or conversion kits that can upgrade a conventional bike to electric. There are people who are building their own batteries and motors and it can get very technical, but I am not really in the do it yourself world. There are people who just get in there and tinker and do real custom stuff, and there is a robust DIY community for e-bikes, and I think it’s great.

Sometimes what happens is that some DIYers become e-bike brands because they loved it so much and they got their hands dirty and developed what they thought was a better everything. Luna Cycle is one example of this. They love to build them and get their hands dirty, and they’re not going to AliBaba just saying we’ll take ten of those. They’re designing them themselves, building them, and then making a business out of that.

Then you have sort of hybrids, like a drop-in wheels, like a conversion kit, but with thing is, with e-bikes, they do have a little more weight due to the weight of the battery and motor, and more power. So you’re delivering more torque and introducing new stresses, and the weight distribution becomes more an issue -- how balanced a bike is. There can be problems taking a conventional bike and modifying it for an e-bike without considering those new added stresses that you may be putting on it -- you can have your chain break or there are other factors. You can get electrocuted if you don't know how to work properly with batteries, and there’s also the battery control system. I like bikes that are pretty much all ready to go, that’s my preference as I’m not a do it yourselfer.

Q: It seems as if the major demographic for e-bikes seems to be older people. What benefits does an e-bike have for the Boomers and older riders?

Steve: The benefits of e-bikes are amazing. You get all the benefits of regular bicycle riding – exercise, cardiovascular, the mental health aspects of getting out in the world and being physical. Everything that you can imagine is beneficial of regular bikes is also true for e-bikes, because in their essence, e-bikes are bicycles. The benefits go beyond just regular cycling benefits, because e-bikes helping people get back into riding again. A lot of people who get into e-bikes, they used to ride bikes and they love being physical, yet they're getting a little older, and maybe have some arthritis or had a knee replacement. A lot of my customers are in the situation where they want to be physical, they want to stay active, and yet they live in a place where it’s hilly, or they’re worried that they won’t be able to make it back just pedaling. Or they want to keep up with a spouse who likes riding, but they’re concerned that they won’t be able to keep up, or family members that want to go for a ride with everyone else. Having the extra help of an electric bike is just amazing. It changes people’s lives, and if you’re really dedicated to it, it can get you out of your car.

So it’s not just the physical benefits of getting on a bike and breathing fresh air and all that, it’s being able to cut your connection to the car, and not have to sit in traffic and not have to pay for parking and registration, insurance, and maintenance. If you’re able to hop on your e-bike and go to work without sweating, or to the store, it’s transformational. I think a lot of people are discovering that they can live without a car, and I’ve had several customers tell me that at after a few months, they said they didn’t even really need the car anymore, or they got rid of one of their two cars.

It’s incremental movement toward a higher awareness of environmentalism and lowering one’s carbon footprint. I think you see similar trends with respect to eating habits. We’re not all going to stop eating meat, but maybe we eat less meat or less sugar or less refined carbohydrates because we know that even those small incremental improvements in our diet will have benefits, and we start exercising a little more, maybe we go for a walk every day, and then maybe a jog. And it’s the same with e-bikes, which can contribute to improving how we live in this world, which is in such need of more awareness. It’s like mindfulness, in that it’s thinking maybe I don’t drive the car today. Sure, it’s convenient to hop in the car to go to Trader Joe’s, but I can do that with an e-bike with a basket on it.

One of the first things that someone who is considering an e-bike should do is think about how would they use it? Is this for cruising around town, is this for going off-road, do they want to be able to carry stuff like cargo? And then choose between form factors -- do they want to a step-through frame, do they want a fat tire model, do they want it to be folding so they can stow it in the back of an RV or on a plane or whatever. The electric aspect aside, I think that shoppers should start by thinking about its use, and then once they’ve thought through, we can talk about if they should go for a rear hub motor or front hub motor or mid-drive, and what kind of brakes and battery. I think what happens is a lot people say I want a new bike, and then they go right to the motor wattage or how big the battery is, without all of these preliminary questions that are helpful to discuss.

Q: What are the most common myths about e-bikes that you debunk for customers?

Steve: Some people consider e-bikes “cheating” because if you’re an cycling enthusiast, you say I ride a bike, not an e-bike, because that’s cheating -- if you’re gonna ride, ride. I don’t consider it cheating at all, as that would be like someone driving a stickshift considering an automatic transmission cheating. Well no, it’s not cheating, it’s just convenient to not have to be using the clutch all the time. It’s just a choice.

I think people are concerned, perhaps unnecessarily, about the number of cycles that a battery can have. Lithium batteries don’t last forever, and they do require certain maintenance. You don’t want to expose them to big temperature changes, either hot or cold, which will definitely reduce the life of a battery. And you want to make sure that you have one from a reputable manufacturer, because we’re talking about devices that could catch fire or explode if they’re not properly maintained and monitored. I always tell my customers to not just plug in the battery and go off for the weekend. It’s important to treat this with some deference due to the fact that these are electrical devices.

Most are designed to be water resistant, but you don't want to just be riding through puddles without thinking about how is that going to affect the bike. It's just like with regular bikes, and when you come home from a ride you wipe down your bike and store it in the garage. If you leave it out on the terrace it's going to be exposed to condensation, moisture, potential theft, and so it's going to last a lot shorter, but if you maintain it properly and you treat it like the expensive device that it is. You maintain it just like you maintain a regular bicycle where you need to grease the chain and keep the tires properly inflated and adjust the truing of the wheels, and the brakes and cables need to be tightened. Those things are regular bicycle maintenance, and you have to do regular e-bike maintenance. The only difference is with respect to maintaining the battery, and that's really just about understanding. It's like your cell phone, you know you should keep it in the range of between 20 and 80%. There are a lot of resources online to talk about how to properly maintain a lithium ion battery and with that kind of basic knowledge, it’s just like changing the oil on a car. If you don’t change the oil, or keep the tires inflated, the car’s going to be no good, and the same goes for e-bikes. There’s just a certain level of maintenance that you or someone in a bike shop should do, and you will have a wonderful life on that bike for years.

Q: I notice you have a whole selection of fat tire e-bikes and wonder if you are seeing more people buying fat bikes for off road or for just commuting?

Steve: I think fat bikes are one of the most popular, and growing in popularity among people. The form factor is just awesome and in fact we have ones that are folding fat tire bikes as well. A couple guys that go to Burning Man every year, and they take these fat tire e-bikes from Joulvert, so they’re Burning Man tested, the Playa and the Voyager folding fat tire bikes. Fat bikes are great in almost every situation, because in an urban environment it just smooths out all the bumps, the curbs, and it’s just fun. And one of the cool things about a fat bike is that you don’t need a suspension fork or rear suspension nearly as much as you might with a regular bike because the tires are sort of picking up that slack and are providing you with a nice cushioned ride, and not having a suspension fork, that's one less mechanical thing that might fail or has to be maintained. I have to say they seem to be very very popular, both the the short one -- the twenty inch tires as well as the full size. One last point is that fat bikes can be heavier overall compared to conventional bikes because of the motor and battery, but the weight becomes less of an issue with an electric drive system because the motor does most of the work.

Q: How did you get involved in e-bikes and electric scooters? Was there a ‘lightbulb’ moment for you?

Steve: I have a undergraduate degree in environmental studies, and so ever since I graduated from college I've been very much eco-oriented, and the way that manifested for me was going into urban planning and so I spent the first part of my career writing environmental impact reports and working to improve development projects. You know it's funny, because a lot of people are anti-development but then you say well where do you live? Oh, I live in a city. Well that's development, and we live in the developed world, not jungles. I always had an interest in design and architecture and in green -- green technologies -- and writing environment impact, reports you're sort of at the end part of the development process. You don't have a lot of influence over the nature of the design, but at least you can recognize and identify potential impacts of the proposed development and try to mitigate those impacts. That was the bulk of my career, and then recently -- within the last year or so -- I saw e-bikes and electric cars as the future, and I said I want to be part of that. I feel like I want to want to help improve the planet reduce carbon emissions, do something a little more meaningful than just write reports that get filed away and then nothing happens.

I felt like it was going to be a little more proactive if I pursued it, and I needed to do it in a way that would support my family and so, doing an online store seem like a great way. My wife and I love to travel, and so the idea of creating some kind of online presence that would allow us to manage whatever we do from where we are in the world was motivation. So I started ReallyGoodEbikes.com, and I'm new to the industry, I guess you could say. I've been in it for less than a year, but I learned quickly, and in that, I have learned a lot about not just the technology of course, but of the people who are interested in e-bikes and some of their struggles, the pain that e-bike shoppers experience, and it’s myriad -- it's complicated. They are technical mechanical equipment, and the technology is evolving, and so a big part of my job is not just selling e-bikes, but it's to educate people. I often have customers who want to talk it
through with me on the phone before deciding on a bike, and I'm also in different e-bike forums trying to answer questions there.

I've learned a lot about the struggles that people have when looking for an e-bike, and of course after they have the bike, there are ongoing issues with respect to maintenance. Not just bicycle maintenance, but how do you maintain the motor and the battery and controller, so there’s an added layer of technical knowledge that a lot of people who buy an e-bike are not aware of or don't really consider too much before they actually own the bike. So there's pre-sale education and there's post-sale service, which is made even more challenging when you don't have a physical shop, so you're trying to educate them online and then you also trying to provide customer support in a virtual setting versus a physical store.

The reality is that physical bike shops have been declining in the US quite a lot and there is a shift towards online for purchasing all sorts of things from groceries to e-bikes and I think that trend will continue. It falls on people like me to bridge the gap and figure out ways of providing great customer service online, but also there are entry points where there are still places for physical connection with customers. Just as an example, there's a company called VeloFix, and they will come to your home and assemble it, fit it for you, and provide that last mile of customer service. They're working with a number of large e-bike retailers and regular bike retailers to do that last mile fulfillment.

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Steve: I'm working on a project that I think is really going to be exciting. It's an e-bike database to help buyers compare the specifications for all of the different bikes out there. People have a real hard time doing comparison shopping because bikes are presented in all sorts of ways, and everyone has different technical specifications. They like to highlight the motor wattage or the battery voltage or the frame, and there are so many different technical specifications it makes it almost impossible to do meaningful comparison shopping. The database will hopefully include every make and model of e-bike available in the US, and use more than a hundred different technical data points, and then so before someone goes off and starts shopping, they can go here as a reference site and do sort of a comparative analysis.

ReallyGoodEbikes.com offers a free 50-page e-bike buying guide, and offers free shipping on orders over $100.

Related Content on Treehugger.com