We're In An Electric Bike Spike

It's a bike boom caused by the coronavirus.

Claudia Wasko on bike
Claudia Wasko on her bike.

Allan Crawford 

In his 2017 book "Bike Boom: The Unexpected Resurgence of Cycling," Carlton Reid writes that there have been many bike booms and just as many bike busts. "Booms are controlled by prevailing fashions, and fashion, by definition, is fickle. Down the through the years there have been many media references to bike booms. Such mentions usually need to be taken with a pinch of salt."

Now, we are in the middle of a serious bike and e-bike boom; retail sales of e-bikes are up 85% over last year. Is it different this time? Is this boom for real? Claudia Wasko thinks so. She is the Vice President and General Manager of Bosch eBike Systems in the Americas.

Claudia spoke with Treehugger, noting that the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated a trend that was happening already, calling it a "huge boom," and that it would have been even bigger had there not been supply chain challenges due to the shutdowns.

She tells us she is "100% convinced that it is here to stay, that e-bikes are a great way of dealing with congestion and fighting obesity." She described how streets have been closed and bike lanes built to accommodate all the new riders, and that "most of those riders say they will continue riding after shelter-in-place orders are removed."

How Much Power?

Gazelle Medeo at the Fort York Museum
Gazelle Medeo at the Fort York Museum. Lloyd Alter

Bosch makes mid-drive motors, batteries, and controllers that it sells to over 40 bicycle manufacturers, including Gazelle, which made my e-bike, shown above. The bikes have to be custom-designed for the motors and it is a high-quality product that costs a lot more than a rear hub motor. They are also designed to the European standards, which sets a 250-watt nominal power rating and a peak power of 600 watts, whereas American rules allow up to 750 watts. I asked if this created a marketing problem for Bosch and she said "it's hard to communicate value, you can lose your sanity." However, she pointed out that rated power is not all that meaningful, that nobody on an e-bike is using 750 watts for more than a few seconds, and that what matters in the real world is torque. "You've got to look at the newton-meters!"

Big easy loaded
Surly Big Easy fully loaded in Minneapolis.  Lloyd Alter

I noted that I often get complaints when I discuss this, like one from "a big guy in Seattle who needs 750 watts to get up the hills" – Claudia promised that if she put him on a bike with a Bosch drive he would not have a problem. I will also note that I have seen Surly Big Easy cargo bikes fully loaded and it did not seem to huff and puff.

Bike Shop or Online?

Sticker on door of local bike shop
Bike shops can provide service with a smile.  Lloyd Alter

Another question I had for Claudia was about the prevalence in North America for online shopping for e-bikes. After I wrote "Why I Think Buying an E-Bike Online Is a Really Bad Idea" I got a lot of pushback from people who said "There are two bike shops in my town. If you’re not wearing $500 worth spandex they don’t want to talk to you." Women and older people in particular complained about bike shops. (I had to write a mea culpa.)

Claudia noted that North America did have a much higher percentage of online sales than in Europe, but also that attitudes towards e-bikes have changed dramatically this year because of the pandemic. Most bike shops are making 20% of their sales from e-bikes now, they are more expensive so have greater profits, and those attitudes have changed fast as they saw the opportunities. She is also seeing a lot more stores opening that sell e-bikes only, addressing it as a separate market.

Pedelec or Throttle?

I first met Claudia Wasko as a guest of Bosch at CES in 2014, when they were introducing their drives to North America. The very first question I asked her then is the same one I asked in my interview, and I could have saved everybody some time because she pretty much gave the same answer to the question of whether bikes should have throttles or be pedelecs, where the motor gives you a boost as you pedal. She said that throttles have their place, particularly for people who cannot pedal, but added:

"We perceive an e-bike as a bike and it should feel like a bike. There should be the healthy element of cycling, you should be engaged. It should be treated as a bike and able to go anywhere a bike can go."

In Europe, if it has a throttle, it is considered a two-wheeled moped and is subject to different rules.

So Will It Be a Bike Boom or Bust?

Toronto bike lane
Toronto bike lane. Emma Alter 

Bosch tells us that "according to a weekly PeopleForBikes survey of 932 U.S. adults, 9% of American adults say they rode a bike for the first time in a year, because of the pandemic. And most of those riders say they will continue riding after shelter-in-place orders are removed." Claudia Wasko reiterated this. But many of these new riders were comfortable doing it because so many cities installed temporary bike lanes to accommodate them, without the usual objections from everyone in cars who complain about losing lanes and parking spaces.

pyramidhat comment
Screen capture CBC 

But I wonder how long it will be before all those drivers are back on the road, and when they and all the politicians who fought every bike lane all revert to form. I only hope that Claudia Wasko and the bike manufacturers keep selling every bike they can make, that the e-bike revolution really takes hold, and that the changes that we have seen this year survive the pandemic.