Editor's Note: This story was corrected on April 28. An earlier version incorrectly identified the name of the company that makes the Townie e-bike. The company's name is Electra.
When you’re slogging along on your road bike this spring, struggling to keep the sweat out of your eyes on a tough uphill climb, don’t be surprised if you’re surpassed by a serene older person who looks hardly winded.
You’re not necessarily losing your edge. It’s more likely that person is riding an electric bike, which aids the bicyclist with an extra boost from a battery and motor housed on the bike’s chassis.
Some equate e-bikes to cheating, but advocates for the new machines say they actually open cycling up to those who were previously limited by age, health or other reasons. Regardless of how you view the machines, area retailers say their use is on the rise.
“We’ve had to make room on our showroom floor for these things,” said Dave Giokas, a sales associate at Blue Sky Bicycles in Saratoga Springs. “Before we just had one by the door, and if you walked by it we’d smile and talk about it. Now we have a whole e-bike section.”
Giokas said the store sold maybe one e-bike last year, and this year have already sold about five despite the biking season only just beginning.
“It’s huge, it’s been across the pond for some time now, I’d say roughly for 10 years,” said Giokas. “We’ve seen it in America for the last two, three years, and it’s just exploded.”
There are two main types of e-bikes: pedal-assist and throttle. There are also kits that are available online used to convert a standard road bike into an e-bike.
The Department of Motor Vehicles has rules regarding what “motorized devices” can be registered with the state, according to their website. Pedal-assist e-bikes cannot be registered under state law, but “mopeds” can. The state defines mopeds as "limited use vehicles with two or three wheels."
That definition does not address throttle e-bikes, and is further classified based on the top speed of the machine.
Giokas and other retailers in the area said they don’t sell throttle e-bikes, which require no human input to accelerate or maintain speed. They also occupy a murky legal space. For instance, throttle e-bikes are not legal in New York City, and it’s unclear if such a machine would need to be registered in other parts of the state.
There are at least two bills in the state Senate that seek to regulate e-bikes, though none have yet cleared the committee stage. Giokas said his store also refuses to install kits converting road bicycles to motorized machines, as the bicycles weren’t originally designed to support a battery and engine and doing so could be dangerous.
Instead, Blue Sky and other area retailers focus on pedal-assist e-bikes. These machines require the user to pedal in order for the motor to assist them in moving. If the pedaling stops, the motor turns off and the bike is coasting.
Rich Himmelwright, owner of Freeman’s Bridge Sports in Glenville, said his store sells pedal-assist e-bikes and he doesn’t know of any store in the area that sells throttle e-bikes. Giokas said the manufacturers he works with, such as Trek and Specialized, don’t offer throttle e-bikes.
For Himmelwright, the explosion in the popularity of e-bikes has been even more stark. Last year he sold four e-bikes, and this year he’s already sold close to a dozen. He said that in Europe, e-bikes command half of the bicycling market.
“We’ve sold quite a few already and the season's just begun,” said Himmelwright.
Himmelwright refuses to sell throttle e-bikes due to questions surrounding the legality of the machines in the state.
He said his store has carried the pedal-assist machines for the last four years, and sales have increased every year. Pedal assist e-bikes from companies like Trek, Specialized and Electra can be bought for anywhere from $2,600 to $5,000, depending on the options desired.
Each e-bike has an LED readout on the handlebars with information like battery life, pace, and how many miles have been traveled. They’re also equipped with front and rear lights, and an on-board detachable computer that must be attached to the bike in order for it to work. The machines weigh around 50 pounds each, and have different gear modes that can draw more or less power from the engine, depending on the user’s preference. The machines can get up to speeds approaching 30 miles per hour, but Himmelwright said it’s physically demanding to maintain such a pace.
He added that a user can get around four to five hours of life from a single battery charge, or 50 to 100 miles depending on the gear mode being used. The lithium ion battery, which is detachable from the bike chassis, typically charges in two to three hours he said, or 3.5 if completely depleted.
If a bike’s battery is completely depleted, it does not prevent the user from pedaling the bike manually.
HImmelwright said the machines are ideal for those in middle age or approaching old age who still want to enjoy bicycling without the physical demands that come with it. He said it also equalizes riders of differing skills who before would have a hard time with pacing when riding together.
E-bikes are also ideal for those who want to commute to work via bicycle, but can’t due to time or distance concerns. The machines allow bicyclists to travel longer distances without working up too much of a sweat by the time they get to the office, he said.
Lastly, e-bikes are used by those with health issues that previously preventing them from bicycling. Giokas of Blue Sky Bicycles said the store had one customer whose life was changed by e-bikes.
"We have a gal who purchased a bike and she had a medical issue that was preventing her from cycling, then she got an e-bike and she was doing 20 to 30 miles with her husband,” he said. “We saw her come in a few weeks ago and she was absolutely glowing, she dropped a lot of weight and it allowed her to get outside and get over the medical issue that was stopping her from bicycling.”
Himmelwright said the growing popularity of e-bikes has led him to fear that demand this year will outstrip supply.
“My concern is we’re not going to get as many as we need to sell,” said Himmelwright.
Giokas said he shares the same concern at Blue Sky.
As for safety, Himmelwright said drivers treat e-bikes as any other bicycle, and most don’t even realize the bike is electronically powered. He said he hasn’t heard any concerns from customers who have encountered dangerous situations from riding e-bikes. He also said he hasn’t heard from any e-bike customers that the machines are banned in any way from the area’s bike trails.
Gillian Scott, a spokeswoman for the Friends of the Mohawk-Hudson Bike Trail, said e-bikes aren’t something the organization has discussed much internally.
“The big concern on the bike trail is the speed. The speed limit on bike trail is 15 MPH, which regular bicyclists exceed all the time," said Scott.
Giokas said the only rule he sees on bike trails that may affect e-bikes is the speed limit, which he said should be respected.
Both Himmelwright and Giokas agree that e-bikes’ popularity will only continue to increase.
“It’s going to move more and more, it’s a coming thing,” said Himmelwright, who added that he’s seen suppliers increase their e-bike product offerings in an effort to keep up with demand.