Why I Think Buying an E-Bike Online Is a Really Bad Idea

CC BY 2.0. Everybody is hard at work servicing my bike at Amego/ Lloyd Alter

If e-bikes are going to replace cars, they should be taken seriously and maintained properly by people who know what they are doing.

As we often say on TreeHugger, e-bikes will eat cars. On Forbes, Scott Kramer reviews an e-bike and writes, "I am officially selling my car to ride an electric bike full time. No, this isn’t a publicity stunt. It’s a real thing. I ran the numbers and it makes perfect sense." A Juiced CrossCurrent X convinced him.

First of all, it’s fast. I can easily get it to 28 miles per hour and feel completely stable and in control on it. Secondly, it’s just plain powerful with plenty of torque you can feel.... It also has a thumb throttle, which is incredibly handy at times — even though I prefer to pedal.

28 MPH and 750 watts makes this a Class III e-bike under California rules, although they are not supposed to have throttles. The Crosscurrent X is a very nice bike, with a "custom spec 750 Watt geared hub motor that is not found on any other e-bike." It's a lot of bike for the money at US$2,499, far less than a comparably spec'ed bike from a bike shop. That's the big benefit of the Internet: no store, no staff, no property taxes, no overhead makes for a much cheaper bike.

California bike rules

© People for Bikes/ California e-bike classes

But also, no advice. No checking you up and down and wondering if this is the best choice for you, with a 750 watt motor that goes 28 MPH. Do you know that Class III bikes can't legally go in Class I separated bike paths, those nice fully separated trails along waterfronts? That you legally have to wear a helmet at all times? It doesn't say so on the website.

A while back I quoted Carlton Reid:

Clearly, online ordering has changed the marketplace for bicycles. Consumers may say this is a good thing, but I argue that – in many ways, and most especially for consumers – it’s not.

That post was about regular bikes; with e-bikes, this is far more critical. 28 MPH is FAST – if something goes wrong because you didn't assemble your bike correctly, it can be deadly. Your brakes had better be in great shape if you can go that fast. And that "custom spec 750 watt motor" – what if something goes wrong with it? You are now peddling a 59-pound bicycle.

There is no question that bike shops aren't perfect; Gloria Liu wrote an article in Bicycling Magazine about how some shops are awful to women and older riders. "Unprofessionalism, poor customer service, and sexist and elitist treatment in bike shops has been well-documented."

Virginia Block at Amego

Virginia Block at Amego/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But as e-bikes become more common, and more stores like Toronto's woman-owned Amego that don't even sell regular bikes become more common, this will be less of a problem. It's a different world, a different market.

Scott Kramer of Forbes is not a neophyte, and says he had tried 15 e-bikes. "I already envision using it for regular activities that were slightly out of range for my other e-bikes — not because those bikes were incapable but because this has so much power."

Well, yes, it has so much power because it is a Class III bike. But that's not for everyone and it can't go everywhere. Who is going to explain that if you read a review and buy it on the Internet?

Sticker on door of local bike shop

Lloyd Alter at Dismount/CC BY 2.0

E-bikes are more complicated than regular bikes. They are subject to different kinds of wear and tear. They should be carefully chosen to be appropriate for the user. They should be maintained by people who know what they are doing. My Gazelle e-bike has a Bosch mid-drive, but that puts a lot more power through the chain and derailleur, and needs even more care. I am really happy that my local shop, Dismount, knows how to do this, because I don't.

I support my local bike shops and wouldn't buy a regular bike on the Internet, but there is so much more going on with e-bikes and the risks are so much greater. I am increasingly convinced that buying them on the Internet is a really bad idea.

Juiced, the maker of the CrossCurrent X, makes a case here for why buying online is a good thing; a bike shop in Sussex, UK, makes a good case for why you shouldn't.