“Dang,” I said to myself. “My legs are on fire. Time to downshift.” The grade was steep, and as I peddled up the trail I noticed other bikers stopped at the top catching their breath. Still struggling even after downshifting, I grinned to myself, “Time for my secret weapon.” I toggled the switch on my handlebars up to PAS 5, and instantly the bike was half as hard to peddle. I was moving at a pretty good clip when I reached the top, and I heard one of the other bikers mumble the word “cheater” as I left them in my dust.
Welcome to the wonderful world of e-biking, the word describing battery-powered, peddle-assisted electric bicycles. You can rent them in lots of places, and perhaps you’ve even noticed brightly-colored models (rentals) seemingly abandoned on busy street corners. Not only are they becoming increasingly popular for recreational bicycling, but urban dwellers have learned they can save on gas e-biking to work, reduce air pollution and get a pretty good workout at the same time. But is riding an e-bike really “cheating?” That depends on your point of view.
We talked with Kyle Chittock, owner of Bolton E-Bikes in Grass Valley about the explosive popularity of e-bikes in recent years.
“Five or six years ago,” said Chittock, “to see an e-bike going down the street was a very rare sight. It’s really just in the last three to five years that they’re taking off in the U.S. Around 2016 electric bike sales in Asia were somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-million per year. In the United States it was like 100,000. I doubt if anyone knows how many e-bikes are sold in the U.S. now, but I’m sure it has to be in the millions.”
The technology in building lighter and more powerful batteries has helped extend the range of e-bikes making them more practical. “If you go back 15 years ago,” continued Chittock, “then you’re talking about lead acid batteries. A bike that had a decent range wasn’t very powerful and it had maybe 30-pounds of batteries on it. They existed, but they just weren’t as good as what we know today.” Today’s modern lithium batteries have become a real game-changer. Modern e-bikes, depending on how they’re used, can get 20-50 miles on a single charge.
“Where we’re at now,” Chittock continued, “is just about every e-bike manufacturer has some or all models backordered for a month or several months into the future. I started building e-bikes here in Grass Valley. Every bike was assembled by hand from the frame up, often customized for the customer for a certain battery or other options. Eventually it got to the point where I could not build the bikes fast enough. That’s when we started having the assembly done overseas. Now the bikes show up and they’re basically done. We do a final inspection and sometimes slight modifications if needed.”
Modern e-bikes come in just about as many forms as traditional bicycles. There are e-bikes built for riding on streets, hauling groceries, carrying passengers, folding e-bikes and even e-bikes for fat-tire mountain biking. Laws governing where modern e-bikes are allowed have been slow in keeping up with their popularity.
In California e-bikes are regulated like bicycles and are not subject to registration, licensing or insurance requirements that apply to other vehicles (although many e-bikers insure their bikes against theft). There are three classes of e-bikes: Class 1 is a motorized bicycle that only provides assistance when the rider is peddling, and only until the bike reaches 20 mph. Class 2 is a bike equipped with a throttle-actuated motor that ceases to provide assistance when the bike hits 20 mph. A Class 3 e-bike is the same as the Class 1, except motor assistance cuts out when the bike reaches 28 mph.
“Basically,” said Chittock, “anywhere you can go on a bicycle you can ride an e-bike, unless there is some sign that specifically says otherwise. If a city passes an ordinance that you can’t ride a Class 2 e-bike on a certain trail, they have the legal right to do that. If there’s no sign or anything posted, by default it is legal.”
When in doubt about where e-bikes are permitted and where they’re not, it’s best to search in online about specific trails, parks or wilderness areas. It’s also smart to call the governing body in advance for clarification.
“I’m in Grass Valley,” Chittock said, “which is right in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We have some of the best mountain biking trails. Pioneer Trail in Nevada City has parts that go from 3,000 feet up to 5,000 or 6,000 feet in the pine trees, single track trails, those are some of my favorites. Millions of dollars are being spent on new bike paths in the Truckee-Tahoe area.”
According to the New York Times article “E-Bikes Are All The Rage. Should they be?” recent studies suggest riding e-bikes can provide riders with a respectable cardiovascular workout. E-Bikers may not have to work as hard as traditional bicyclists, but the studies concluded they are more likely to ride greater distances and enjoy the ride more.
“If you’re interested in and e-bike,” Chittock recommended, “just go ride one. It doesn’t even matter what brand it is. That will give you some idea of what it’s like. If you decide you want one, you should probably buy one sooner than later.”
“The pandemic has crushed manufacturing and things are going to be behind,” Chittock added. “Most e-bike companies are going to continue to be sold out of inventory for the next year. If you think they’re out of stock now so you’ll wait until spring when the weather’s nicer to buy one, there may not be any to buy.”
For more information on just about every facet of e-biking, check out Kyle Chittock’s videos on YouTube.
Northern California’s Outdoor Digital Newsmagazine