It is clear e-bikes have a bright future, but it’s equally clear that no one knows yet what that future will look like.
There might be no term more annoying than “analog bike.” But it’s become something of a joke throughout a year of tradeshows chock-full of e-bikes. Interbike 2018 was no different: There was an entire hall dedicated solely to e-bikes, and they infiltrated the rest of the show floor too at just about every manufacturer’s booth. It is clear e-bikes have a bright future, but it’s equally clear that no one knows quite yet what that future will look like.
At the moment, it seems we’re in the “chuck a motor on it and see what happens” phase of e-bike development. Everything from folding bikes to fat bikes and beyond seem to have massive batteries attached to their down tubes. While some of these creations will live on in more refined iterations, others will die an embarrassing death. Do we really need e-gravel bikes, for example? Isn’t that sort of antithetical to the whole point of gravel riding? Time will tell.
What’s clear is that there’s a massive audience for pedal-assist bikes. This should both cheer and dishearten those of us still riding “analog” bikes. (Yep, feels gross saying that.)
Let’s start with the good: The growth of e-bikes means more butts in bike seats. Those who were afraid they couldn’t make it over that hill between home and the office will probably be encouraged to give it a go now. In turn, that means more people scratching their heads, saying, “Why is bike infrastructure in the U.S. so dangerous? What can I do to help change that?”
Things get a bit more complicated on the dirt side. Trail access is already a tenuous issue for mountain bikers, and adding pedal-assist bikes has already complicated the matter. It’s vital for anyone with or without a battery on their down tubes to speak correctly about what’s coming. These are pedal-assist bikes, not motorized bikes. They are pedal-assist bikes, not e-bikes. They aren’t one step away from a motorcycle, and if you’re a mountain biker shouting that on social media, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. Take the time to ride a pedal-assist mountain bike and you’ll see why.
Before you start in with your comments about how I’m a motorized bike apologist, let me state this clearly: I’ve ridden them, I enjoyed myself. And I have no intention to buy one for myself. But I’m certainly not the guy who’s going to try to close the door on an entire population of would-be cyclists. That’s exactly what motorists and trail naysayers have been doing to us for decades.
On a simpler level, e-bikes just aren’t that good yet. They’re still incredibly heavy and limited in range due to battery life constraints. And they’re just another thing to plug into the outlet at home before and after every ride. They add heaps of weight to the equation, which adversely affects handling.
That’s not to say they aren’t fun. Early mountain bikes certainly weren’t as capable as today’s more refined machines, yet one look at an old-school, early nineties mountain bike video reveals a whole helluva lot of fun being had on hardtails with a whopping 40mm of suspension. Refinements will happen over the course of years and we’ll look back on these earliest e-bike iterations with a combination of nostalgia and forehead-slapping hindsight. Early adopters will rub their quads remembering that ride eight years ago when the battery died 10 miles from the trailhead. Then they’ll likely hop on their 22-pound pedal-assist mountain bike with a 12-hour battery life and wax poetic about how cool bikes have gotten over the years.
In other words, e-bikes aren’t coming; they’re here. And whether you like them or not, it’s time to figure out where they fit in the big tent that is the cycling community. They can be a boon for us all if we’re smart enough to embrace them. Otherwise, we’re doomed to segment ourselves again, which only works to the advantage of those who want to limit our access to roads and trails.
Analoggers, meet the Motorized. Now go forth and conquer.