Joan Churchill takes her e-bike out for a spin in Buckfield. The electric assist means she is biking more than ever. Electric bike owners often say they considered e-bikes demeaning, a bit of a joke, and an expensive, temporary fad – until they tried one.
Once they pedaled the newest generation of e-bikes, their preconceptions were upended – for a host of reasons, but chiefly because today’s e-bikes are far lighter and sleeker than they used to be and now look like traditional bikes. Beginning around 2014, the once clunky battery was incorporated into the bike’s frame. Bikes that used to weigh 80 to 90 pounds now weigh as little as 30 pounds.
Mainers today use e-bikes to commute without a car – and without sweating. Many appreciate easily climbing hills they once struggled up. Some Mainers whose serious health conditions prevented them from cycling are able to with e-bikes. And many cyclists who once thought of e-bikes as a cheat now appreciate that the pedal-assist models do require riders to do the work – just a little less of it.
“Probably one in every 100 bikes you see now is an e-bike,” said Ben Sawyer, the manager at CycleMania in Portland.
E-bike sales in the United States have soared from $42 million in 2016 to $142 million in 2018, according to the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association in Boulder, Colorado. In Maine, some bike shop owners reported sales doubling each of the past few years, although none contacted for this story would give specific data.
Today, most bike shops around the state rent or sell e-bikes. There’s even a stove shop in Westbrook (owned by an enthusiastic bike fan) that sells them. The city of Portland plans to offer at least 200 e-bikes, not pedal bikes, when it rolls out the city’s first-ever, bike-share program next year, said Jeff Levine, the city’s director of planning and urban development. Because of the climbing e-bike sales, the Maine Legislature is considering regulating them, mostly under the same laws that regulate traditional bikes. Bike shop owners and advocates who testified for the bill predict the trend will continue.
“At my shop, we have worked with stroke victims, people with multiple sclerosis, and with other persons who have suffered devastating injuries that greatly impact their mobility. And electric-assist technology is often the key to enabling these individuals to return to the sport they love,” said CycleMania owner David Brink when he testified in front of the Legislature last month. “Electric-assist bicycles are growing in popularity across the world, as well as right here in Maine.”
Ben Grenier, manager of Rainbow Bicycle in Lewiston, said he got few requests for e-bikes until two years ago. Now customers ask for them constantly. Churchill attaches the battery to her e-bike before going for a ride. Today there are more models and types of e-bikes – not just the original e-bike hybrid. Manufacturers produce electric road bikes and mountain bikes, even full-suspension mountain bikes. E-bikes can cost as much as $8,000, but most are priced between $2,500 to $3,500 and some run as low as $1,500. All, however, are significantly higher than old-school pedal bikes, which sell for $300 and up.
Some e-bikes with a pedal assist can reach speeds of 20 to 28 mph. Other e-bikes have a throttle, which allows a rider to cycle up to 28 mph with no effort at all. Many bike shops in Maine carry only the pedal-assist model, which requires that the battery be recharged every 45 to 60 miles, depending on how fast a rider pedals and how much they weigh.
Riders can turn off the electric power on an e-bike and enjoy that traditional pedal power, shifting between gears. But turn the electric boost power up to “turbo” – and feel transformed. With very little pedaling effort from the rider, the bike will launch forward and go much faster with this added electric “push.” Once the rider stops pedaling, the electric assist stops, and so does the bike.
All these changes have led to an e-bike community that is more varied than it once was. E-bike riders today may be ordinary cyclists who want to bike to work in their office clothes without sweating. Or city dwellers who want to use their car less and can use e-bikes to get their shopping done. Or doting grandfathers: Range Morton, the manager of the Gorham Bike & Ski in Portland, remembers a grandfather who came to the shop to buy an e-bike so he could pull his grandkids with his bike, as he had once done with his children. Joan Churchill with her e-bikes. She liked her own so much, she bought one for her partner. Staff photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette.
Joan Churchill in Buckfield bought a $2,400 e-bike hybrid a year ago to encourage herself to commute more. With it, she increased the number of days she cycles the 46-mile, round-trip ride to work from two days each week to five days in warmer weather. She has been an avid cyclist for 25 years, but she is time-pressed, and cycling the hilly roads on her commute north of Lewiston took more time than she had. The e-bike solved that.
The other selling point: with the battery off, the bike weighs just 38 pounds, making it an easy lift on to her car (traditional bikes, depending on the model, weigh less than 20 pounds). As a result, she bikes more often. She rode 3,000 miles last year – and lost 10 pounds. Churchill loved her e-bike so much, she bought a second so her partner can ride with her.
“The e-bike makes it so much more fun. The hills make it such grunt work. But when I’m on the electric bike, it feels springy in my legs. I feel like I have 20-year-old legs,” said Churchill, who is 59. “E-bikes flatten the hills… even the longest, hardest hill.”
Last Father’s Day, Carla Tonks bought her husband Brett an e-bike. It transformed their lives.
Carla Tonks, a competitive triathlete who has qualified for U.S. Nationals, wasn’t able to bike with her husband after he had a defibrillator put in for a congenital heart condition. He could do only limited riding, and only on flat courses. When Carla Tonks, suggested that Brett try an e-bike, he was against the new cycle craze that he viewed as “not much different than a moped.” Carla bought him a $4,600 Giant electric road bike anyway.
Brett brought it outside to try, and the new ride brought him near tears. “Cycling had become something I could do, but in a very limited way,” Brett Tonks said. “This opened it up. The bike fills in where my heart holds me back. It’s life changing.”
Before the e-bike, he could ride 5-8 miles in an hour on flat courses – a frustration as the couple own a vacation home in hilly Bethel. He now rides 12 to 18 miles in an hour on any loop he wants – and he has lost 15 pounds. Best of all: he can ride again with his ultra-fit wife.
“It’s not demoralizing anymore,” Brett said. “I’m not struggling. I don’t feel it assist me until I’m going up hills. Then, it has this magic when I can’t quite get it done.”
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