Cyclists late for work aren’t necessarily out of breath these days.
Whether commuting downtown, climbing hills to wineries or traveling for hours on long trails, there’s help for that: Battery power can help keep bicycle wheels rolling when legs or lungs want to give out.
Over the past few years, cyclists with creaky knees — or who just want to keep up with faster riders — are finding that power-assisted pedaling provides wind-in-the-hair excitement and cheap transport. Electric bikes are growing in popularity, especially among folks over 50. With an e-bike, battery-powered motors can give cyclists a little, or a lot, of help while pedaling. Or they can choose to pedal it without power.
Charles Knapp said he often gets worn out when walking just 30 yards. At 69, he’s battled prostate cancer. Almost three years ago — and 30 years after he’d last cycled — he bought an electric bike from a Pedego dealer in Oakland.
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“I love it,” he says. “I ride it almost every day, 20 or more miles. You can go anywhere. It’s been a lot of fun.”
The Manchester resident likes to ride the Mississippi Greenway to the old Chain of Rocks Bridge. “My son-in-law gives me grief,” Knapp says. “He says it’s not really like riding a bike. I tell him, ‘you don’t know unless you’ve tried it.’” Keeping Knapp company while he rides is additional technology: a Bluetooth helmet streams music or baseball games.
Although e-bike sales have been growing for years, the Light Electric Vehicle Association estimates that the US imported nearly 790,000 electric two-wheelers in 2021, a huge surge from 463,000 in 2020. While not a sales figure, the tally “is a useful proxy for the state of the US e-bike market,” reported Bloomberg News, which also noted that e-bike sales seemed to outsell electric cars last year.
With prices for e-bikes running about $1,000 to $5,000 and up, the two-wheel vehicles are much cheaper than a Tesla, of course. And the bikes’ batteries can be charged with a regular home outlet.
Local bike stores report interest that seems to coincide with the national trend.
Kayce Peters, store manager at Big Shark Bicycle Co. on Big Bend Boulevard, said that even though summers are the busiest time for sales, this year’s high gas prices have coincided with a definite uptick in business.
“Especially with e-bikes, people are coming in to explore them as sort of a car-replacer, car-reducer option,” he said.
He said e-bike use has been steadily growing for a while, but that momentum has particularly accelerated over the past couple years, amid a “COVID boom” in biking — and has recently kicked into another gear.
“This summer is kind of the year when e-bikes are totally mainstream,” he said. “E-bikes are now as much a part of our bike shop as mountain bikes are. It’s no longer a separate, small category.”
At Kickstarter Katy Trail, shop manager John Matthews said the store rents and sells e-bikes and regular cycles. Last year, the store had just two e-bikes for rent because that’s all it could get. Now it has 15 to 20 e-bikes at its Augusta location. Often, all are reserved for the weekend at $38 for two hours.
Matthews said even riders in their 20s rent them. Sometimes a couple includes one person who is a stronger rider, so the partner will rent an e-bike. Then the other person will want one, he said.
“It allows them to cover more ground in less time,” Matthews said. They may want to log extra miles on the Katy Trail or not waste too much time puffing up hills to a winery.
Deanna Kakouris, who owns South Side Cyclery with her husband, Tim, agreed that interest is rising among buyers who want to ride the bikes on gravel trails and off-roads. E-bikes are available in models geared to haul cargo, climb mountains or hold up to heavy commuting.
Pedal-assisted bikes for sale through stores usually travel up to about 20 mph, although some hit 28 mph. They require no license, registration or insurance in Missouri or Illinois.
“E-bikes are a game changer,” said Karen Karabell, who is an instructor with CyclingSavvy. “They truly can replace car trips.” Karabell said she doubts she will ever buy another car.
But she said knowing bicycle safety is essential. She recommends the American Bicycling Education Association’s program at cyclingsavvy.org. Through a partnership with Great Rivers Greenway, metro riders can use the gatewaybikeplan coupon code for free lifetime access to a series of educational videos called Ride Awesome.
“While Ride Awesome is for all cyclists, it’s perhaps even more important for e-bike riders,” Karabell said. “Speed gets people into trouble.”
Local bike dealers also recommend doing research before buying an e-bike. Kakouris warned that cheap bikes only available online may be short-lived purchases because motors could break and local repair shops may not have parts for them or be willing to service.
She pointed out that some bikes sold with throttles or online extras are hard for riders to handle. Throttles give the bike more power without pedaling. Some states don’t allow all types of e-bikes on all paths or they have speed limits.
Kakouris also warned that conversion kits, which can be attached to a regular bike, may be unsafe for regular bikes with rim brakes because the bike’s brakes aren’t built to deal with a motorized vehicle. Brand name e-bikes usually have disc brakes.
E-bikes, which often weigh about 60 pounds, are categorized into three classes, come in multiple models and have different quality motors and batteries. Cargo bikes can even have two motors, which can add to a bike’s weight. Some of the lithium ion batteries can be unlocked and taken inside a home to charge. But because lithium batteries can catch fire, Bicycling.com warns against using aftermarket or bargain batteries and advises unplugging batteries after charging.
In addition, riders should understand how a battery will help a rider. A seller might say a battery will last, say, 50 miles a charge, but riders need to understand that number can vary depending on how much power the rider uses.
Bike riding may be a skill never forgotten, but that doesn’t mean it can’t get harder.
Bill Sauerwein says e-bikes keep “people mobile and active.”
He and his wife, Carla, opened a Pedego store in Oakland in 2019. The store, which only sells e-bikes, is right on Grant’s Trail. “Our business has grown exponentially,” he said.
It started with a bang, he said, when people wanted to get out during the pandemic. Recently, gas prices have brought buyers, he says.
He uses his own bike so much, he and his wife now share just one car. Sauerwein does not advise that children ride e-bikes and said his primary demographic is customers over 50. (Some manufacturers specify their e-bikes are meant for ages 18 and older.)
One of his customers was Henderson Smith III, a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who worked at Scott Air Force Base and now lives downtown.
He first rode an e-bike in Australia while working as a consultant during the pandemic. A neighbor convicted of a DUI had an e-bike and let Smith try it out. Post foot and knee surgery, Smith, 64, is a convert. He said he still gets a cardio workout but can cycle much longer.
“I used to ride quite a bit but sometimes found it painful,” he said. Now, people at Trailnet events or on bike paths “are huffing and I come cruising by.”
Bryce Gray of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.