Carving out a niche
Red Mountain Green Cycle is Chico’s first electric-bicycle shop
In a nondescript strip mall on East 20th Street sits a tiny, well-lit bicycle shop, Red Mountain Green Cycle, that opened its doors a few weeks before Christmas. It’s the first of its kind in Chico; it sells only electric bikes—bicycles with built-in plug-in motors.
“These are all bicycles, just like any other bicycle. You can pedal them and ride them, and there are different styles—road bikes, mountain-bike styles,” explained Tim Jeffers, general manager for the store. “What makes them different is that they all have a hub motor and lithium-ion batteries connected to them as well. This allows you to use power at any time, in any amount that you want to—so you can pedal as much or as little as you want to on these bikes.”
Jeffers’ first customer was his neighbor just a few blocks down East 20th Street—Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. Months before the shop opened, Jeffers sent a letter to the brewery’s bike-enthusiast CEO, Ken Grossman, offering to set the company up with a few e-bikes to try out. The letter eventually made its way to Mandi Mckay, the brewery’s assistant sustainability coordinator.
Sierra Nevada had for several years offered standard, non-electric bicycles to employees through its loaner-bike program, wherein brewery employees could check out a bicycle for personal or company use, any day of the week. It was part of the brewery’s “Green Machine” program, which aimed to get employees “riding their bike more, and not using their cars as much,” explained Mckay recently. But the loaner bikes, admittedly “low-end” and “not maintained very well,” bit the dust—and the program stalled out.
“When we heard about the electric bikes, we thought it might be a good way to revive the loaner program,” Mckay said. Jeffers lent the brewery two e-bikes to try out for a month, during Bike Month in May of last year. “People responded to them pretty well,” she said, and so Sierra Nevada decided to purchase two, which made their way to the brewery, parked alongside employee bikes, in October. Possibly due in part to the large gap from when the first set of loaner bikes was abandoned and when the e-bikes were purchased, the e-bikes have mostly been sitting around, admitted Mckay.
“Unfortunately with the timing, now it’s the really cold season,” she said. “Since we purchased [the e-bikes] … not too many people have actually checked them out. … It’ll take a couple of years to re-establish the program.”
In the meantime, those who have checked out the e-bikes have given them some good, solid tests. One employee borrowed an e-bike and rode it to his home in Paradise. “It made it, actually, all the way up the hill in one charge,” said Mckay.
Recently, Chris Baugh, Sierra Nevada’s senior research analyst, checked out one of the e-bikes to run errands. Baugh has been carless for three years, biking about three and a half miles to work daily on his road bike.
“I figured it would be much easier if I had more storage and an electric [engine], instead of stuffing as much as I could in my backpack and going on my road bike,” he explained. The e-bike has extra storage capacity, with a front basket and two deep rear panniers, allowing him to pack up more goods.
While Baugh said he enjoyed using the e-bike, he admitted he wouldn’t buy one. “It’s electric, and it carries a lot of stuff, and that’s what I need.” He noted that the “fit and finish are a little ‘sketch,’” with “weak” handlebars and insufficient brakes for the power of the bike (some e-bikes can go up to 20 miles per hour).
Mckay and Baugh agree that cyclists often aren’t sold on the concept of the e-bike. Their oft-repeated complaint is that a person who would normally bike might switch over to an e-bike and lose the opportunity to exercise.
“People look at cycling not only as an alternative form of transport but [also] for exercise, and if you’re using the electric motor, you’re not getting that exercise,” Mckay said. “Some people have expressed, ‘Well, why am I going to ride that, if I can just pedal [a non-electric bike] … and get exercise at the same time?’”
Mckay’s comments hit on the inability thus far of the e-bike industry to carve out a solid niche for itself: Is the e-bike a replacement for a car, or is it a replacement for a bike?
Jeffers, born and raised in Chico, regularly rides his e-bike around town, as do his parents, Dan and Jane Jeffers, the owners of Red Mountain Green Cycle. The Chico store is the second location for the family business; the first is in Boulder City, Nev., “an exceptional place to ride a bike,” said Jeffers, and the hometown of other family members. Dan and Jane travel regularly between their hometown of Chico and their second residence in Boulder City. Both locations feature the same models of e-bikes, priced from around $800 to more than $2,000.
Tim encourages customers to try out any or all of the models he offers, saying, “No one is expected to come in here and understand what electric bikes are and what they can do without actually getting to try them.”