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Electric bike sales are rising in Philly; they make commuting easier

E-bikes are a bright spot in the bicycle industry, sparking many to saddle up, even as total bicycle unit sales are on the decline. Local pundits will tell you why.

Ebikes put the wind behind your sails, "take 20 years off your life" and make "a ten mile commute feel like a three mile ride," say advocates at the Philadelphia Bike Coalition and Philadelphia-based industry powerhouse Advanced Sports
Ebikes put the wind behind your sails, "take 20 years off your life" and make "a ten mile commute feel like a three mile ride," say advocates at the Philadelphia Bike Coalition and Philadelphia-based industry powerhouse Advanced SportsRead moreBosch

Much is riding on the Electric Bike Expo, a new extension of the Philly Bike Expo re-convening Saturday and Sunday at the Pennsylvania Convention Center.

U.S. sales have been falling in most bike categories, down 5 percent this year through September, reported the Bicycle Product Suppliers Association.

But battery-powered "pedal-assist" e-bikes – which put the wind beneath your wings — are bucking the trend and appealing to all ages.

With styles expanding, drive trains improving, and prices dropping, "they are one of the only growing sales categories" (along with bicycle motocross) "in bikes," said Brian McKinney of Advanced Sports International, the Northeast Philadelphia-based global-maker and seller of strong brands (Fuji, SE, Krestrel, Oval Concepts, Phat Cycles, Breezer, Tuesday) and proprietor of 106 Performance Bicycle shops across the United States.

"European and Asian cyclists have been way ahead of us in shifting to e-bikes," McKinney said, with the category selling 3.5 million units a year. As of  two years ago, ASI sold only one e-model in the U.S., and just one in 100 bikes sold domestically was electric. "But this year we have nine different e-bikes in our U.S. Fuji, Breezer and Tuesday brand lineup," he noted. Models now extend beyond touring bikes to multi-terrain and casual beach cruisers, with the latter, a coming-next-month rear-drive Fuji Sanibel, going for $1,399. ASI is bullish that U.S. e-bikes sales will collectively hit 200,000 units this year, and reach 500,000 + in a few years. And at Performance Bicycle shops, "we're looking to create a separate section for them."

About 120 models from multiple makers will be available for Expo visitors to test-ride on an indoor track, complete with a hill, which will help to demonstrate a major e-bike selling point, said Jonathan Weinert, North American sales manager of Bosch, the expo's lead sponsor and a major maker of drive systems to power these two wheelers.

"The magic is that it senses your torque, how fast the wheel is turning," Weinert said. "That dictates how much assistance is added. You still feel like you're pedaling a bicycle, but stronger. It's like taking 20 years off your life. And yes, now you can make it up a steep hill."

That's a key pitch to a primary market, the baby boomers who grew up riding their bikes and might again if incentivized. "You can turn up the power assist as you need it or run just on your pedal power," said the Bosch exec. And while e-bikes in the past became punishingly hard to pedal after the battery ran down, those with Bosch's new Active Line motors  "are as easy to pedal with the power off as any other manually geared, multi-speed bike."

The activists steering the Bike Coalition of Greater Philadelphia are also gung-ho on e-bikes.

As the cost comes down, suburbanites with limited resources "will now see taking a job in the city as much more doable," noted the bike group's regional planner Leonard Bonarek. "Now their ten-mile commute to get to SEPTA or a suburban train becomes easy. The e-bike is a great equalizer. We can count on the average" (non-powered) "cyclist doing three miles of commute each way. With an e-bike that's easily tripled. It's bringing new people into the cycling scene who aren't the road warriors, who don't see themselves as incredibly fit."

Foldable e-bikes "you can take on a train and then continue to use at the other end of the ride" are also starting to emerge with brands like Voltbike, noted coalition executive director Sarah Clark Stuart. "A colleague who lives in Doylestown rides one to the train that comes into Philly. Then he rides all over the place."

E-bikes are also worming into the bike-share world, with operations like Jump in Washington, D.C., noted coalition research director John Boyle. And most U.S. towns and states are coming around to approving the use of at least "Class One" (pedal assist, not throttle controlled) e-powered bikes, he added. "New York City is an exception, and the law in New Jersey is fuzzy. They want e-bikes to be registered and licensed like other motorized vehicles, with a VIN number, but bike makers don't use them."

"The relatively flat terrain of Philadelphia, like that in the Netherlands and Barcelona, makes us ideal for e-bikes, extending the riding range of a bike charge well beyond 50 miles," enthused Sam Ebert. A longtime Philly bike tech, he's now product manager for the local Junto Bicycles, now introducing a $2,220 "direct-to-consumers, 99 percent-assembled" e-bike boasting a 60-mile range and citified fat tires.

The Electric Bike Expo is co-located with the Philly Bike Expo at the Pennsylvania Convention Center, 1101 Arch Street, Hall "E," Broad Street Entrances. Hours: Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m to 4 p.m. Tickets: $8 -$25.

Coming Nov. 12: A special "55 + Thrive" Sunday business section will profile Junto Bicycle Works Ltd., a Fishtown electric-bike manufacturing start-up.