"Electric" used to be a dirty word in bicycling.
The use of batteries and motors was cheating. That's what the naysayers said anyway -- many of them established bicycle companies. But things are changing and, as our demographic ages, many of these same companies now see the appeal of the e-bike.
"The reality is we have a baby boomer group that is very energized and excited about being able to extend their outside, recreational outdoor activities," said Ray Verhelst, director of the Electric Bike Association. And, just as importantly, he added: "the fact that this takes the hill out of the ride."
He's talking about bicycles that ease the burden on aging bodies with motors that erase the pain of pedaling up hills, propelling riders to speeds of 20 mph – or more -- with almost no effort for mile after glorious mile.
When it comes to electric bicycle riders, Verhelst said, "55 to 64 is the No. 1 age group. No. 2 is 45 to 54, and surprisingly, the No. 3 age group is 65 and older."
As recently as three years ago, there weren’t a lot of options for these groups – or anyone. It was mostly startups like Pedego and unknowns in China making e-bikes. Traditional bicycle companies steered clear until only recently.
Now, Trek, Cannondale, Specialized and Felt and so many other leading brands have stepped up to the plate, Verhelst said.
California is leading the charge. Companies like Specialized, Felt and Electra are all based here. Chalk it up to the weather or the fact that more cities are building bike lanes, but Southern California is also the number one market for e-bikes.
It's just a different market from traditional bicycles. According to Verhelst, it's made up of people who haven't been in bike stores in 6 to 12 months.
That’s why the Electric Bike Association hosts electric bike expos, like the one it’s holding at the OC Fair and Event Center in Costa Mesa starting Friday and running through the weekend.
Riders will have the chance to try 150 different models of e-bikes from 15 different companies, many of which are outfitted with an e-bike system from the German electronics company, Bosch.
Bosch is best known as an automotive supplier, but it got into e-bikes in 2011 and branched out to the U.S. in early 2015. It’s North American headquarters is in Irvine.
"We wanted to test the hypothesis. Will Americans fall in love with e-bikes as they had in Europe?" said Jonathan Weinert, with Bosch E-bike Systems.
To his point, in the U.S., just 1 in 100 bicycles sold at dealers is electric. In the Netherlands, it’s one in three.
"We thought no better place to do that than in the heart of the e-bike business, which is Orange County, Los Angeles, where many other manufacturers and suppliers are set up," he said.
Three years ago, just 100,000 electric bicycles were sold in the U.S. each year, and only half a dozen brands used the Bosch pedal-assist system. The market has since more than doubled. And today, 30 different companies use the Bosch e-bike system, which lets riders choose a level of electric assist that kicks in as they pedal instead of using a throttle.
The Canadians are in the game too. Over the summer, the e-bike company Elby was in Santa Monica giving a demonstration.
"The main thing to remember is, it’s just like riding a regular bike. You’ve got your pedals. You’ve got your wheels. You’ve got your brakes and you’ve got your steering," said Elby rep, Riley Knudson, during the demo. "The only thing is it allows you to get a little bit further and a little bit faster with a little less effort."
Dwight Anderson, of Dallas, was listening to his spiel.
"It’s always been a dream of mine to be able to ride to work and to do so in a state where I don’t sweat. Coming from a place where it’s 100 degrees every day, it sounds very appealing to me," said Anderson, who had never ridden an electric bicycle until he happened upon Elby’s free test ride on the boardwalk.
Manufacturers like Elby, as well as retailers, say the market for electric bicycles is evenly divided between riders who enjoy bicycling for recreation, but who aren’t as fit as they once were, and commuters who use them as an alternative to cars or public transportation.
Arturo Avallone fits that latter group.
He moved to LA from Italy a year ago and doesn’t have a car. Usually, he walks or takes Uber to get to his job, but he’s been looking for another option.
"I work at 7 in the morning," he said, "so sometimes I’m lazy to bike."
A regular bike, that is. On an electric, he said, "I push the button and it’s more easy for me."