Sunday, September 28, 2008

Optimism rages at Interbike

Image of titanium commuting bicycle at Interbike 2008
From Wired.com, 09.28.08:

As America Implodes, The Bike Industry Booms
LAS VEGAS--It's never been a better time to be in the bicycle business, what with global warming, childhood obesity and a failing economy.

The nation may be wracked by collapsing banks, foreclosed houses and a tanking economy, but there's no sign anything's amiss here at Interbike, the bike industry's annual trade show. In fact, it's party time as a perfect storm of eco-conscious consumerism, health-conscious lifestyles and wallet-sapping gas prices conspires to get people out of cars and onto bikes -- especially electric ones. "The gas prices are the best thing that ever happened to cycling," says Kevin Menard, whose year-old custom bike business, Traitor Cycles, is thriving. "I hope they go up even more."

The gargantuan trade show, and the crowd filling it, has never been bigger, organizers boast. A record 23,000 people and 750 exhibitors fill several acres of the Sands Convention Center, further proof that all is well in the bike biz..."You can feel the collective buzz," a smiling Tim Blumenthal, executive director of the bicycle advocacy group Bikes Belong, says from the middle of the bustling show floor. "It's a really, really heady time for us. This show feels very optimistic and that bucks the general economic trends. There doesn't seem to be many businesses that are thriving, but the bike business is doing very well."

Cycling enjoyed a "huge spike" in interest in June when gas topped four bucks a gallon, Blumenthal says. Much of the bike industry has enjoyed double digit growth since then. Some manufacturers have seen 50 percent growth in the last quarter, and dealers can’t keep up with demand. The service sector ("tubes and lube" in industry jargon) also is booming as old bikes are hauled out of sheds and garages and dragged into shops for tune-ups and tires. A growing number of people are ditching cars in favor of bikes for commuting to work or running to the supermarket, Blumenthal says. "Cycling for recreation in America has always been big," he says. "Now we're starting to see cycling for transport." (Read more.)
Interbike wrapped up last week, and from all reports, the bicycle industry is bullish on future growth. This is the same industry that long neglected the commuter market, as it chased the performance athlete and the single-track trail shredders. It's nice to see the industry finally waking up to the obvious market potential of the 98 percent of Americans who presently don't commute by bicycle. For complete Interbike coverage, see Cyclelicious and CommutebyBike.com.

One product category making a splash at Interbike is electric bicycles. As a traditional pedaling bike commuter, I have mixed feelings about electric bikes. I suppose I'll welcome more car-less commuters, even if they are on powered rides. But it feels a little funny to me. Electric bikes may reduce congestion and pollution, but won't address the public health issues of low physical activity levels among Americans. I'm also concerned about the safety issues (speed differentials, braking, noise, etc.) that arise from mixing powered and pedaled bicycles in dedicated bike facilities (bike lanes, bike paths). But maybe I'm just being a cranky geezer.

Your thoughts? Are electric bicycles a form of vehicular or cycle commuting?

Image: Web capture. Titanium commuting bicycle at Interbike 2008
Visit: Interbike 2008: Commuters are King in '09, Bicycling.com
Visit: Schwinn’s New Tailwind eBike: 25 To 30 Miles On A 30 Minute Charge, OhGizmo!
Visit: Bicycle makers tout two-wheeled hybrids for commuters, Los Angeles Times
Visit: More Americans Bike To Work, Voice of America
Visit: Manufacturers nailed it with new cruiser and commuter bikes, The Standard (St. Catharines, Quebec)
Visit: U.S. lags in global bicycling boom, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: CBS on bicycles in the U.S., Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Americans learn bikes cut costs and improve fitness, Bike Commute Tips Blog
Visit: Paul Dorn's Bike Commuting Tips Site

16 comments:

dr2chase said...

Wearing my cargo bike hat, yes, electric bikes are ok. There's cargo-bikers for whom the electric assist makes the difference between using the bike, or not; often, a large daily hill, or hot and humid weather are factors (sometimes both). Some of these people have gone completely car-free.

In addition, on the American diet (one with a non-trivial percentage of beef/pork), if you ride a bike enough to require extra calories, the electric assist is actually more fuel and GHG-efficient.

On the other hand, electric assist is one more thing to break, and more thing to make your bike heavy, inconvenient, and worth stealing (a lot of the value is in the batteries). I don't use my cargo bike for everything; for short errands, an ancient Raleigh 3-speed with a frame lock is the bee's knees. One and two-mile errands on "normal" bikes don't need electric assist.

antbikemike said...

I have to point out that Traitor bicycles are not a custom frame builder in Seattle, but a designer having frames built in China.

Tony Bullard said...

I agree about electric bikes. I think people end up selling themselves short. You're already biking, why not get one of the best benefits out of it?

dr2chase said...

PS near Boston, I don't have e-assist. My brother, in Florida, and I think more nearly car-free, has said he is thinking about it. Both of usually ride cargo bikes.

The other downside of e-assist is that for normal bikes, it probably reduces the safety of the bike. Most people cruise at 15mph or below, whereas e-assist is usually set to add power up to 20mph. 33% more speed, and 75% more energy, makes a big difference to stopping distance.

EcoVelo said...

Electric bikes aren't for everyone, but they may be a viable option for physically impaired or elderly persons. For instance, my Mother-in-Law loves riding her trike but, because of her bilateral knee replacements, she is unable to climb anything but the smallest hills. Electric assist would be a fantastic thing for her.

Alan @ EcoVelo

Noah said...

Electric assist is a mixed bag. It's not nearly as noisy as those smog-belching contraptions that pass me occasionally on my commute (cheap mountain bikes and cruisers fitted with noisy, high-RPM 2-stroke engines) and many of the models seem to only work if the rider is willing to at least make some attempt at pedaling the bike. I think bike lanes and multi-use paths teeming with electric rides pushing 25 MPH would be bad and unsafe.

I'm hoping that the electric bikes act as a "gateway drug" to either get people introduced to cycling again before quickly growing tired of nightly recharges and the heavy weight of electrics. Most of the electrics I've been seeing have removable battery packs that bring the weight of the bike down comparable to heavy x-mart mountain bike territory. I can imagine that people may eventually use the bikes for quite a while, and leave the batteries at home for most recreational trips.

Regardless, this is an exciting time for the bicycle industry, and it's revolutions like this that spur rapid advances in technology and falling prices for older (yet wonderful) stuff.

Yokota Fritz said...

I have mixed feelings about e-bikes also. They don't seem like "real" bicycles to me. I certainly see the usefulness of electric assist for the mobility impaired, but this isn't the main market the e-bike companies are going after.

I tried a couple of e-bikes and they're undeniably fun, but I might as well ride a motorcycle if I want fun and fast.

Thanks for the link love, Paul.

Anonymous said...

While optimism is good, the facts are that the industry as a whole is not as healthy as this and other stories state. Bike sales are on par with last year after falling behind 07 for the first 6 months.

High end sales are falling off drastically and while the units are being replaced with lower end commuter/hybrid types overall $ sales have fallen. The data from Bikes Belong is anecdotal at best and not representative of all shops.

While there were SOME commuter bikes and accessories at the show - it was still chocked full of high end shiny bits that the general cycling public has no interest in.

The commuters shown here are all well above $1000 retail showing that the industry is still disconnected from the base that pays its bills.

John in Calgary said...

On Fridays I use a regular bicycle for commuting to my work destination which is a 20km/12 miles round trip. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays I use my Bionx electric assist Trek bicycle to commute 46km/29 miles round trip. Before the electric bicycle I would only bicycle one of the longer days because of fatigue from riding into work, standing all day in the OR at work, and then bicycling back home. It is a pleasure to cycle both of the longer days now.

On Mondays and Thursdays I use my Honda 600 to cover 60km/38 miles roung trip.

The electric assist doubles the weight of my Trek. But as a motorcyclist, this is no big adjustment in feel. The Trek handles nicley. The electric assist works seemlessly.

I find that my electric assist is just keeping pace with the fastest/fittest cyclists out on the paths. Max speed is 32km/hr(20 mph). So I am not that noticeable or unusual.

Stopping the heavier bicycle is not a big deal. I can still make sudden stops easily. The electric assist cuts out automatically.

I figure it costs me 7 cents in electricity to make the round trip of 46km/29 miles. Maintenance is zero on the electric components. The rear hub electric motor is brushless and sealed. The lithium ion battery pack will need replacing after 800 charges. So that will be a significant expense every 3 years or so.

I view the electric assist bicycle as an experiment in hybrid travel. So far it is a fun experience. I get where I am going twice as fast with half the personal energy output. Steep, long hills are a blast. Headwinds are no biggie. I am more likely to get on the bicycle in inclement conditions and leave the car/motorcycle at home.

Anonymous said...

Electric assist bikes are OK if the top speed is 18 or so. Why use them and diminish fitness?

I see their purpose as making bike commuting an option for those who live in places with steep hills. One would use the assist when climbing the hills.

gwadzilla said...

Electric Bikes are MOTOR-cycles
and well...

I do not want them swarming around me on the streets or on the bike paths
definitely not on the bike paths

the spirit of the bike is not saving the environment or saving a buck
the spirit of the bike is riding a bike

Anonymous said...

I have a good friend at work that myself and another co-worker recently encouraged to bike commute. He purchased an inexpensive old mountain bike, and then added an aftermarket electric upgrade. I know all of us fit and thin folks can get a little uppity, but it has allowed him to ride with us into work, and yet get considerable exercise on the way. I would encourage electric assist bikes to get more people on the road -- it will only increase resources!

Anonymous said...

I own two bicycles, one electric and one non-electric. I love them both.

I read an article about the differences between the e-bikes sold in China and the ones sold in the U.S. According to the article, in China, the consumers want the bikes to look as much as possible like mopeds. In the U.S., consumers want the e-bikes to look like conventional bikes because the riders are concerned they look like they are "cheating." There are several companies that sell e-bikes with electric components and batteries that are mostly hidden, such as Schwinn. This pretty much sums up the attitude in the U.S.--e-biking = cheating. I don't think the attitude makes much sense. In my mind, the e-bike is a wonderful hybrid of a commuter vehicle and a piece of gym equipment with a much better view! Much like a treadmill or exercise bike, the e-bike allows the rider to control his/her effort level. If you lower the intensity on a treadmill, do you call it cheating? If you buy a carbon fiber bike instead of a steel bike, is that cheating? Why is e-biking any different? You can "work out" just as hard on an e-bike as you would on a conventional bike if you want.

Oh, by the way, e-bikes sold in the U.S. are limited to 20 m.p.h. for the electric motor. Mine is limited to 16 m.p.h. because it's a folder. So, e-bike does not necessarily mean fast.

Anonymous said...

all e-bikes the the US are hybrid electric, not MOTOR cycles! with limited top speeds of 20 mph, and most slower, you are more likely to get run over by an angry cyclist on a carbon fiber trek before a non cyclist actually using their electric bike.
As for the fitness of it, if someone who does not use a bike at all gets on a hybrid electric bike once or twice a week, how much more exercise are they getting? twice as much.

electric bikes said...

I like e-bikes, they are very easy to ride and suit for all conditions

davebarb said...

My ebike allows me to bike commute without putting on bike clothes or requiring a shower. Denying this as a great commute option because of snobbery is absurd. I used to commute with my road bike and the hassle of the extra gear and changing clothes made is less inviting than riding my ebike.