“The bicycle market exploded over the last two years — I think it was 800%.” — Philipp Pfaeffli, owner of PedelecSQB Electric Bicycle Shop
HAVE YOU SEEN someone whiz past you on a bicycle that they weren’t pedaling and wondered how they were even moving? Welcome to the new world of eBikes. Electric bicycles (and tricycles) have exploded in popularity in the past few years, as the number of brands, price points and availability has grown. Designs and features have expanded greatly as well, with some eBikes barely distinguishable from conventional bicycles while others resemble mini motorcycles. More people are trying eBikes, ranging from city commuters who want an economical vehicle to seniors who thought they’d never be able to bicycle again. This week, Florida Weekly explores the world of electric bicycles for you. “The e-bicycle market exploded over the last two years — I think it was 800%,” said Philipp Pfaeffli, the owner of PedelecSQB Electric Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda, which offers sales, accessories and mechanical services for multiple eBike brands.
Like conventional bicycles, the demand for eBikes went up during the pandemic as people sought outdoor, socially distanced exercise and recreation opportunities. However, for those who wished to improve their fitness but had not regularly attended the gyms before they shut down, simply jumping onto a bicycle was not necessarily a viable option. With features that assist when needed, eBikes provided the extra boost that made going back to biking possible.
Rider: Woody Steketee eBike: Rad Power Bike Owned: One year “Our friends had a set of these we tried, and that’s how we got to like them. Rad is really easy to buy from. They’re on the Internet — that’s the only way they sell. They got a lot of different models on their website, but not as many color selections. They’re down to Earth a little bit — this bike comes in these two colors, and that’s it. I really like the Rad because it seems like they’ve got a system online that seems like they’re there to stay. They got a pretty good service department. I had a couple parts, when I got it, there was a defect in parts. I showed them in the picture, and they just sent me new parts.”
“Some of the campgrounds, the terrain is more hilly,” said Nancy Blume, an RVing retiree from Tennessee who is spending the winter in a Bonita Springs campground. “We went down to Stone Mountain, Georgia, and it was a beautiful park, but it was very hilly. We thought, ‘To be able to not have to get off and walk our bikes when it was that strenuous, wouldn’t it be nice if we could just kick in that pedal-assist and get on up that hill?’ We could go further, see more, explore more. I love eBiking and being able to go up the hills and things that I would struggle on otherwise.”
Rider: Vonnie Van Kampen eBike: Green Bike Owned: 1½ years “We picked Green Bike because they’re bigger for my husband. They fold in half so you can fold them down. It’ll go over 20 miles an hour, if you so desire. You can use what they call pedal assist where you have to pedal, but it helps you. Or you can decide to just pedal the whole thing on your own. Or it has this little lever that acts like a motorcycle where you just push the lever, and it does everything. So, any option you want, it has. After some research we heard that bigger tires were nicer to ride. Probably makes it heavier, but they are nicer to ride, and you could ride on the sand if you wanted to. There are shock absorbers on the front, so that helps it ride a little better. They’re a lot of fun, and we ride much further. The last ride we went on was 19 miles, and you can do that when you get pedal assist.”
While much of coastal Florida is short on hills, other than the inclines provided when pedaling over bridges, this state frequently offers a different challenge that an electric motor boost can help overcome: headwinds. Kicking in the boost serves as an equalizer that makes it feel as if you are riding on level ground and without facing into a strong wind. The pedal assist also makes starting again from a stop sign a breeze, rather than the dreaded stomp-and-strain that normally accompanies losing your forward momentum. Then there’s the peace of mind knowing that you can get home if you’ve underestimated the distance to your destination while overestimating your fitness and stamina level.
“eBikes give us a comfort in the range,” said Steve Blume, Nancy’s husband. “I wouldn’t go and ride 15 or 17 miles on a regular bike because you’re getting a long way out, so there’s always that concern about getting back. Am I going to be exhausted? So, an eBike, if you come up to hills, you can do it. It expands your range, so you get to see more because you can go farther with a comfort level.
Rider: Jil Geurink eBike: Green Bike Owned: One year “Vonnie is my sister and said, ‘You gotta’ get bikes like us.’ We have all the speed stuff on the gears, the pedal assist — it’s just push the button and go. Ours will go 50-60 miles on a battery charge, depending on how much you use the pedal assist. Folding in half — that’s a nice feature. You should make sure you pick an eBike that’s adjustable — the seat.”
“We got them because we were going to be going long distances. We went to Glacier National Park this past summer, and they have entry requirements for cars — only certain times and you gotta’ have a pass — but with a bike, you can go in and ride all over the place, so we did some long bike rides there. Cades Cove in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, at certain times they have only bikes there. We did that 14-mile loop, no problem, and pulled the grandkids in the bike trailer. Yes, we could ride regular bicycles, but with eBikes we go farther and see more.”
Electric bicycles can also serve as a great equalizer between people’s fitness levels, allowing spouses of differing fitness levels to ride together and facilitating multi-generational rides. Brian Figert, owner / guide of Airbnb experience Fort Myers Electric Bike Tour, said customers express interest in his tours not just because he shows them historic areas of town but because it’s done on eBikes.
Rider: Mike Geurink eBike: Green Bike Owned: One year “They’re easy to ride, and they’re comfortable. Pedal assist is real nice, if you get tired. Just go online, and start looking at them and do the reviews.”
“I think specifically they’re wanting to make sure that not only can the younger generation do it but also older people when it’s more of a family group thing,” Mr. Figert said.
With the expansion of eBike brands, features and price points, it’s important to understand basic differences so that you can make an informed purchase. Electric bicycles have motors smaller than 750 watts and are divided into three classes. Class 1 are pedal-assist only bikes, which means you must be pedaling for them to provide a boost, and the maximum speed for the motor is 20 miles per hour. Class 2 eBikes also have a maximum speed of 20 mph, but they have a throttle that gives you the option to rest and run the bike without pedaling. Class 3 eBikes again require you to pedal for them to work, but they’ll go up to 28 miles per hour. (Technically speaking, there is a Class 4, but they have motors larger than 750 watts and go over 30 miles per hour, so they are essentially electric motorcycles and require licensing.)
Rider: Lee Van Kampen eBike: Green Bike Owned: 1½ years “I was going to get a Rad, so I talked to the company and told them I’m 6-foot-6. They said they didn’t recommend their bike for people over 6-foot-4. So, I did research on Green Bike, and they we’re good for up to 6-foot-7. We just love them, and I have no complaints at all. We’ve had a lot of fun with them. I like the pedal assist when it’s windy or for climbing a hill because it gives you some help.”
Beyond the price typically increasing by class — and the attractiveness of an eBike that will run without pedaling or will run faster than 20 mph — class numbers become critical if you’re wishing to use your eBike on biking trails for non-motorized vehicles. If that is your intended usage, Class 1 is your safest purchase since those bikes top out at 20 mph and must be pedaled for the electric motor to provide a boost. One specialized, high-end $7,500 eBike, engineered to carry close to 400 pounds because it’s specifically marketed to deer hunters, includes a removable throttle so that the owners can temporarily downgrade the eBike’s class to legally traverse bicycle-only trails in parks on their way into the backcountry.
Additional running issues to research include the wattage of the motor, the voltage of the battery and the weight of the eBike. All factor into how many miles the eBike might travel on a single charge, which could be 30 to 120 miles, depending upon multiple factors. Of course, your weight and how much you pedal count as well. For a year, the Blumes owned matching Lectric XP Step-Thru eBikes. Both in their late 60s, Mr. Blume is 6-foot, 4-inches tall and weighs 225 pounds; Ms. Blume stands 4-foot, 8-inches and weighs 85 pounds.
Rider: Kelly Amonson eBike: Townie Go Owned: 3½ years “The only reason I changed to this eBike is the national parks were saying they weren’t going to allow throttles. This one has no throttle. It’s just pedal assist. With pedal assist, this one has a range of about 110 miles, but my butt only goes 30 — I need a tractor seat. I grew up riding a bike everywhere up until I was 18, and by 39 I had to have my hip and knee replaced, so I never felt comfortable on a bike again just because I didn’t think I could. For anyone with replacement parts, I recommend it. This has a pretty well-built frame. It fell off my motorhome going 65 miles an hour through Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and survived with some broken pedals and drive system — it cost me $70 to fix. That’s a Bosch drive system (motor), and that’s something that’s different about this bike is the motor is in the pedals. You can’t get a throttle with this type of drive system.”
“Weight is a big factor on e-bikes,” Mr. Blume said. “When my wife and I were riding and did exactly the same route, we’d get back and I had maybe only 25% battery left, but she’d had 60% battery left because, when you’re heavier, it pulls it down. It takes more battery power. And if you’re pulling kids in the trailer, it uses a lot more battery power.”
Electric bicycles also vary in the placement of the battery, with some having a visible battery while others have the battery hidden inside an extra-thick tube on the frame. The motor type and location vary, with a mid-drive motor or a hub-drive motor. A mid-drive motor is integrated into the pedal-crank location and gives a more natural pedaling feel, whereas a hub-drive is on the rear wheel and makes the eBike boost feel more like being pushed from behind. Another feature to check for is whether an eBike has a gear shifter and multiple gears, as multi-gear conventional bikes do. This can come in handy if you run out of battery.
Rider: John & Bonnie Gorenflo eBike: V-SF20 Owned: Didn’t say Bonnie: “We talked to friends as to what to buy. We looked on Facebook and YouTube to do a lot of studying with different types of tires — narrow tires, fat tires. We wanted to be off the road, sometimes. There’s a lot of trails down here, and off road, fat tires are a little more stable and will go into soft sand.” John: “And it’s a folding bike. It folds in half, and the handlebars fold down, so it can fit in the trunk of a car. If you have a hatchback and you drop the seat, you can get two of them in.”
“Just in case there’s any kind of malfunction in the bike, heaven forbid it happens, but things happen, if it breaks, you’re pedaling home,” Mr. Figert said. “At least you have gears to work with because the eBikes themselves, they’re not light.”
There are important reasons for the extra weight, and they involve more than the electric motor and battery. This brings us to a word of warning: In case you thought you could save a little money by slapping an electric bike converter kit from the internet onto a $100 bicycle from a big box store, be aware that it isn’t safe to do so. Mr. Pfaeffli points out that what makes a bicycle electric is more than just the assistance motor. Electric bicycle designs include specialized frames as well as hydraulic disc brakes designed to hold up safely to the higher speeds electric bicycles can reach. They also require a knowledgeable mechanic to service them.
Rider: Leann Krugh eBike: City Stroller Owned: Two years “Just go for comfort. Ride something you’re comfortable with, and another thing, don’t drink wine and drive your bike. It’s not a good move because it’s like our cars — same with the bike. Save your wine time for after riding bikes.”
“If you can fix an eBike, you can fix the regular bike,” Mr. Pfaeffli said. “The other way around is not easy. There is a lot about the electric you must know. When it comes to the mechanics, a lot of the mechanical parts are heavier, and the spokes are heavier and harder to lace on an eBike.”
Beyond these basic variations, many features differentiate types of eBikes. These can include the level of sophistication of the controls, with some having LED control and data screens and others having smartphone mounts so that the bike communicates with a phone app to provide the same information. Tire sizes and styles vary, with some having extremely wide tires for off-road riding that make them resemble gas-powered dirt bikes. The off-roading eBikes often come with spring shock absorbers on the front forks. One common and popular feature is a low-slung, cutaway, step-through style of frame that makes mounting the eBike easier, especially for older people.
Rider: Keith Czarniak eBike: Aventon Owned: One year “I got this bike for it’s bigger motor, so it’s faster. This was an upgrade on frame, comfort, speed and reliability. Same bell, though (ring, ding). I can do about 40 miles on a charge. Things for somebody to look at if they’re buying an eBike is, of course, test drive it, look for disc brakes, which is important, kind of like a car. Almost every one of these bikes have disc brakes, but this has what’s called hydraulic disc brakes.”
“The step-throughs are nice for women or people who have problems with their knees or bending, so we can accommodate them,” said Marshall Montalto, co-owner of the Pedego Electric Bikes franchise in Juno Beach.
Another consideration is transporting eBikes. Since they are heavier, some have wide tires and the step-through frame styles lack the high crossbar tube used to hang conventional bicycles from a rack — they won’t fit on regular bicycle racks. Some eBikes fold up for easier storage and transportation, but there is still the factor of lifting the 60- to 75-pound bike into a car trunk or pickup truck bed. And if you have two folding eBikes, will both fit into the trunk of a car?
“I only found a couple of racks that could support the weight of an eBike and were rated for travel trailers,” Mr. Blume said. “I’ve seen people post online saying a rack was great, and I’d post saying, ‘Read the fine print because the manufacturer says it’s not approved for RVs.’ That’s something people don’t think about, but I had to pay $700 for my rack.”
The bike rack’s price was a considerable bite, considering he purchased a modestly priced Lectric XP eBike that cost about $1,000. His wife’s current eBike cost considerably less — a tiny, ultra-low-end $349 Jetson from Costco — which she bought after riding her own Lectric XP for a year. While the XP worked for her tall husband, it didn’t fit her well because the manufacturer recommended riders should be at least 5-foot tall, plus she was an 85-pound woman holding up a 65-pound bike.
Rider: Barb Hamilton eBike: Electric Bike Co. Owned: Three years “I picked it because it was very sturdily made. I’ve had two knee surgeries, and it’s helped me to get my knees back in shape. It’s supposed to be able to go 40 miles, but I’ve never trusted it that far away from home ‘cause mine does not have seven speeds like some of these — this is just one speed. Always watch for the other person because cars don’t seem to do it.”
These Pedego eBikes have their batteries under the rear rack but otherwise look like conventional bicycles. PHOTOS BY LAURA TICHY / FLORIDA WEEKLY
“I loved the idea of matching bikes, and I loved how the throttle, gears and brakes on the Lectric bike worked,” Ms. Blume said. “But when it came to reality, I would put on the brakes but would have to literally jump off to get my feet on the ground. Steve told me to turn off the power before I jumped so I didn’t accidentally hit the throttle.”
Mr. Blume said that he was once at a stop sign when she went sailing past him into a flower bed, so his concern about a throttle accident was valid. The end of her days on the Lectric XP came when they went for a ride across a field on a slope, and Ms. Blume crashed the eBike four times. The risk of injury was no longer worth it, so she started looking for a different bike.
So, with so many brands and model features, how do you choose the right eBike for yourself? Options can include taking test rides at dealerships, borrowing eBikes if friends have them, taking eBike tours, renting eBikes at tourist locations, and viewing owner group Facebook pages and YouTube reviews. Mr. Blume specifically recommends the Facebook groups as troves of useful information.
Philipp Pfaeffli (in the red helmet), the owner of PedelecSQB Electric Bicycle Shop in Punta Gorda, rides along with a potential customer during a test ride of a pedal-assist electric bicycle.
This reporter had the opportunity to test ride a higher-end European eBike at PedelecSQB that cost somewhere in the $2,000-$3,000 range, as well as try riding the Blumes’ Lectric XP and Jetson, and the three bikes truly rode differently. Admittedly, I would also expect a BMW and a Kia to handle differently if I were comparing cars.
I would describe the European bike as a “smart bike” that seemed to intuitively sense when I needed assistance with pedaling up a grade or starting from a stop sign, and it delivered exactly the right amount of boost that I needed. It was like driving a car with an automatic transmission and required no extra thought beyond standard bicycle operation to ride.
By comparison, the Lectric XP was more like driving a car with a manual transmission. As the bike driver, I had to make decisions about when and how much to engage the throttle and gear speed. It required more active thought on the part of the driver, but it felt like something I could have learned to do if I bought the eBike.
Nancy Blume stands with her Jetson eBike as a group of eBicyclists who are spending the season at an RV resort in Bonita Springs gather in front of the clubhouse.
Riding the tiny Jetson was a little unnerving. Ms. Blume describes it as “squirrely,” which is an apt description. With its narrow handlebars, small wheels and small pedal crank radius, I would describe it as similar to the tiny clown bicycles at the circus, but I could see how it could work for someone shorter than me. It only has an on-off switch for the power and a hand throttle to turn. The faster you pedal, the more boost the Jetson adds to your speed. I felt as if I could have easily lost control and crashed it. I was glad that Ms. Blume had advised me to stop pedaling and coast as I neared any curves or turns so that it wouldn’t keep boosting my speed. Since the bike came from Costco, Ms. Blume could only sit on it in the store and assess it on the internet by reading the Jetson owners’ Facebook group page and watching YouTube reviews before buying, but she is satisfied with her purchase as the bike fits her well.
Renting an eBike for the day would be a good way to take an extensive test ride. The Pedego brand situates franchisees in popular tourist areas so that the sales and service dealerships double as eBike rental locations. Mr. Montalto has several models for rent at the Juno Beach dealership, and Pedego also has franchisees in downtown Fort Myers, North Naples and Marco Island.
For those who are unsure about trying to run a rental eBike on their own, taking a tour is a good option. It provides for more time on the bike than test riding at a dealership but provides the assurance of having a guide if you have trouble trying to operate the eBike. Mr. Figert’s three-hour morning tour includes 20 minutes of eBike orientation and then the remainder exploring downtown and historical areas of Fort Myers.
On a recent tour, a party of people who appeared to be of mixed fitness levels and ages pulled out of his driveway, and everyone took off well on their eBikes except for one woman who was a little older and heavier. She appeared to be struggling with getting the hang of the eBike. Mr. Figert quickly noticed she was lagging and pulled the whole tour group over so that he could assist her. After a couple of experiments with seat height, she was able to balance, pedal and coast smoothly, at which point he resumed the tour. The group whizzed around the corner as he kept an eye to be sure she was now able to ride her eBike.
So, if you have heard about eBikes but weren’t sure if they were something that could help you, consider your options for testing out a couple of different models to see if an eBike could get you back on the road.
“Anybody can do it,” said Mr. Montalto. “A lot of people who are 75 or 80 years old, they’re out there on eBikes, and they wouldn’t have been able to ride otherwise.” ¦