The eco-friendly e-bike
Chico Electric Bikes’ John Brockman wonders why e-bikes have yet to catch on in Chico
A septuagenarian couple parked their electric bikes under the shade of a young oak, folded out the built-in solar panels mounted on the battery pack in the back, and sat on a bench to enjoy a few pastries while the bikes charged. They’re from a middle-income flat-terrain valley town famous for its towering oak trees and the river that runs through it, with a population of about 90,000.
Nope, not Chico, but rather Pardubice, a town in the Czech Republic, about 60 miles east of Prague. It is just one of many cities across Europe boasting significant growth in electric-bike sales. About a third of the bike models in a typical bike shop in the Czech Republic are now electric.
John Brockman, owner of Chico Electric Bikes, which he runs out of his home, says that’s exactly the market he thinks could benefit from e-bikes here in Chico—older adults. “Not everyone wants [a bike] for exercise. Some people just want them for fun. Especially baby boomers and such—because you can get out and ride a lot, and have all the fun … [even if] you may not be in good enough condition” to ride a regular bike, Brockman said.
Here in Chico, bicycle shops are on almost every block downtown, and yet there is just one electric bike for sale in all of those bike shops—at Campus Bicycles on Main Street. Tucked in the back of the store is its one e-bike model called the Ride+, a pedal-assist electric bike offered by popular bike brand Trek. Budd Schwab, the store’s owner, has never sold one in the three years the bike has sat in his store. “It’s a great product. It’s a Trek—it’s phenomenal. Top quality, you can’t find anything better than that,” said Schwab.
Campus Bicycles manager James Vandewalle said that he has seen an uptick in interest in e-bikes in the last few years—he estimates the store gets about 15 to 20 customers inquiring about them per month, on a busy month. However, noted Schwab, standing among the 150 shiny non-electric bikes he sells at his shop, “There is interest, but interest doesn’t pay my rent.”
Down the street, Pullins Cyclery goes a significant step further in frustration with electric bikes. Pullins not only does not sell electric bikes, its staff refuses to work on them, even if the problem is a simple flat tire or other non-electric component. Steve O’Bryan, the shop’s owner, is strong in his opposition, saying they’re “not worth the effort, difficult to work on, [and there’s] no training available to teach you about the electric bikes.”
Brockman doesn’t get it. “They’re exactly like any other bike. They have a motor, battery, and a switch. If something goes wrong, you just replace that part. Everything else is exactly like any other bike.” He has sold four e-bikes in the last year, entirely by word of mouth. Brockman is surprised that Campus is the only local bike shop willing to carry an electric bike. “It’s just prejudice, that’s all.”
Outside of Chico, electric-bike riding is steadily growing in popularity—from e-bike tour companies as close as Sacramento, to City CarShare’s new e-bike borrowing system in San Francisco, to electric-bike-centric stores in virtually every major city in the Western United States—including at least two shops in Sacramento.
In an attempt to boost awareness of e-bikes, this past June Boris Mordkovich, the CEO of Massachusetts e-bike company EVELO, and his wife completed a well-publicized cross-country e-bike trip from New York to San Francisco, spending less than $20 to recharge their batteries along the way.
So, what’s the holdup, Chico?
Vandewalle said, “It’s just like electric cars, actually. The two limitations are range and expense.” He says that when those interested in the shop’s e-bike hear the price, “the conversation is over.” Schwab agrees. “It’s like Gore-Tex rain gear. People who are riding in the rain aren’t buying Gore-Tex rain gear. They’re buying trash bags,” he explained.
Brockman exclusively offers Pedego brand e-bikes, which start at a retail price of $1,800. The cost of e-bikes can range from the $440 Walmart offering to high-end, tricked-out models costing upward of $4,500. Many e-bike shops and companies, including Sacramento’s theelectricbikeshop.org, offer price-savings calculators to determine in how many months the bike would pay for itself, and how much each battery type would cost to recharge.
Brockman says a multi-mile e-bike ride to run errands, or just a pleasure ride through the park, is perfect for an e-bike’s range—and cheaper than a car. “If you’re spending $100 a month just running errands in your car, which is probably pretty realistic, and you can replace 90 percent of that with this, you’re saving 90 bucks a month,” minus the cost of recharging, which is dependent on the battery type, but typically is from a few pennies to a quarter. “It doesn’t take too long for that to pay for itself. In the process, you’re having the fun of riding an electric bike.”
Chico should have the right market—baby boomers wanting to bike for fun, but needing a boost to get downtown and back; commuters riding to jobs at parking-strapped mega-employers like Enloe and Chico State (“The biggest market for these bikes in the United States is at hospitals and universities,” Brockman said); and eco-conscious riders wanting to save some money on gas.
“I think they will catch on. It’s inevitable. They’re such a no-lose proposition,” said Brockman. “Everybody who takes a demo ride on them … comes back with a big grin on their face.”