The growing popularity of e-bikes: What are they, who's riding them, and is it cheating?

  • Matt Sammons of SamCycle Electric Bikes in Palatine is ready to serve your e-bike needs.

    Matt Sammons of SamCycle Electric Bikes in Palatine is ready to serve your e-bike needs. Courtesy of Matt Sammons

 
By Ralph Banasiak
Along for the Ride
Posted5/4/2021 6:00 AM

Call me old-fashioned, or a bike snob, but aren't e-bikes cheating?

Electric assist bikes, aka e-bikes, surging in popularity, make me pedal harder to catch up, literally and figuratively. Here to stay, with plenty of choices, they are more popular than ever with my fellow Baby Boomers, commuters and others. According to Sharon Kaminecki, owner of Earth Rider Cycling in Chicago, an e-bike dealer, 231 brands exist for riders.

 

What's an e-bike? Categorized as Class 1, 2, or 3, an e-bike has a motor, battery and a power display. Class 1 provides a power assist only when the rider pedals. Class 2 has a throttle-actuated motor; a rider can chill and not pedal. Both classes eliminate assist at 20 mph. Class 3 is similar to class 1 but maxes out at 28 mph.

$560 million business

National e-bike sales totaled $77.1 million in 2017, up more than eightfold since 2014, according to the NPD Group, a national market research organization. In 2020, e-bike sales hit $560 million, increasing 137% over 2019, seven times 2017 sales, and outperforming an already eye-popping 65% growth in overall bike sales last year.

My first experience with e-bikes occurred five or six years ago when a Bike Palatine Club casual rider showed up on hers. Cindy Prisching, junior high teacher and now Lake in the Hills resident, purchased one to equalize skills.

"I couldn't keep up with my husband, Craig," she said. "It's not that he was going so fast. I just didn't want to slow him down."

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Equalizing skills is one reason for their growing popularity. E-bikes are also attractive to those unwilling to forgo cycling due to age or injuries. Matt Sammons, co-owner with brother Tom of SamCycle Electric Bikes in Palatine, agrees.

Their typical customer is an "experienced rider, 60-40 male versus female and generally 45 to 75 years old," with enough resources, since e-bikes have a higher price point.

Sammons adds, "Sometimes it's a husband convincing his wife to ride with him. Sometimes it's someone bouncing back from a hip or knee replacement."

That typical demographic is also confirmed by Sergeant Russell Mandel, head of Arlington Heights Police Department's eight-bike patrol unit.

"I've seen more e-bikes than ever before," he commented. "In Florida on vacation recently, four out of five bikes looked to be e-bikes."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 
Deerfield Police Sergeant Tokarz and Detective Lorenz head out on patrol on their fat tire e-bikes.
Deerfield Police Sergeant Tokarz and Detective Lorenz head out on patrol on their fat tire e-bikes. - Courtesy of Deerfield Police Department

Sgt. Mandel, a certified instructor for the International Police Mountain Bike Association (IPMBA), recently acquired two e-bikes for his department. Both are courtesy of SamCycle Electric Bikes, one donated in 2020, the other a recent purchase.

A random survey of Chicago area police departments reveals that Downers Grove, Grayslake, Hoffman Estates, Homewood, Lake Forest and Palatine all have bike patrol units, ranging from two to 20 bikes. But only Arlington Heights and Deerfield departments include e-bikes, seemingly ahead of the curve.

On its website, IPMBA notes their increasing popularity with law enforcement, including municipalities in Washington state, North Carolina, the UK, and New Zealand. EMS e-bikes in Paris, known for severe traffic congestion, can reach an injured victim twice as fast as an ambulance, proving their value when every minute counts.

Commander Oliver Cachola in Deerfield remarked that his unit's two fat tire e-bikes "become a 'talking piece' for bike patrol officers. Residents routinely approach, inquiring about the bike, its unique look and features. Besides increased community interaction, e-bikes enable officers to respond to emergency calls expeditiously and without being too physically taxed upon arrival."

Clint Sandusky, IPMBA's E-Bike Task Force member, served 24 years in Los Angeles area law enforcement. At the February CABDA Expo (originally Chicago Area Bicycle Dealers Association), he listed other benefits of e-bikes, including removal of biking's "too" barriers -- too far, too hard, too hilly. He warned, however, their risks are also real. Faster, heavier e-bikes can be more challenging to mount, dismount, accelerate and brake.

Are e-bikes cheating?

Convincing me, Kaminecki told her April Ride Illinois e-bike webinar viewers, "You're not cheating if you're not competing."

To quote her shop's Learning Center blog (www.earthridercycling.com/earth-rider-blog/using-an-ebike-for-exercise#/): "Is getting to work without getting sweaty cheating? Is riding uphill at a steady 19 mph without getting out of breath cheating? Is keeping up with a stronger friend cheating?"

Permitted in the forest preserves?

Since 2020, most regional county forest preserve districts have also recognized the prevalence of e-bikes and have updated trail use ordinances. On Tuesday, April 13, Cook County board of commissioners approved use of Class 1 and 2 e-bikes on forest preserve trails, effective May 1. Prior to this change, motorized bikes were not allowed, according to Stacina Stagner, Forest Preserves of Cook County Communications manager.

David Pederson, police chief of the Forest Preserve District of DuPage County, also reported that Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are now permitted, based on a March 2020 ordinance update.

In Lake County Forest Preserves, Commander Jim Siefken says only Class 1 e-bikes are allowed on bicycle trails. Classes 2 and 3 are not, as of January 2020.

In McHenry County Conservation District, Chief of Police Laura King explained, "E-bikes are allowed on the regional bike trails at a speed not to exceed 15 mph." In 2020, "the ordinance change went from a prohibition of certain classes of electric bikes to a provision that just allows a speed restriction. This way all classes of electric bikes can use our trails as long as they comply with the speed restriction."

Laurie Metanchuk, Forest Preserve District of Kane County director of Community Affairs stated, "E-bikes have become popular in cities and more populated areas, however, they are not permitted in any Kane County Forest Preserve or on district-managed trails. E-bikes are motorized vehicles, and as such, are against the Forest Preserve District of Kane County's Use Ordinance."

May is National Bike Month.
May is National Bike Month. - Courtesy of the League of American Bicyclists
Cycling shorts

• Several villages will officially proclaim May as National Bike Month, a recognition supported by the League of American Bicyclists. Mayor Jim Schwantz issued a proclamation for Palatine. Brookfield's village board of trustees adopted a similar proclamation April 26. Bartlett's mayor Kevin Wallace will be the third mayor since 2011 to issue a bicycle proclamation as well.

• Ride Illinois, the statewide, nonprofit bike advocacy organization, got approval from Madison County Trails to host its Grand Illinois Bike Tour (GIBT) June 13-18. Executive Director Dave Simmons says registration is still open for this 200-375 mile tour of trails and roads, east of St. Louis, with daily distances of 45 to 55 miles.

• Several bike clubs are celebrating major milestone anniversaries in 2021. If your club is hitting 25, 30, 35, or more years, email me at alongfortheridemail@gmail.com.

• Join the ride. Contact Ralph Banasiak at alongfortheridemail@gmail.com.

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