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Ryan Lichtenwald had been following Rad Power Bikes, a brand of ebike, since around 2017. In 2018, he pulled the trigger and bought his first ebike — a Rad cargo bike. It quickly replaced his second vehicle, and today Lichtenwald, his wife Allie, and young son get around just about everywhere from their Schofield home on ebikes, their son in a baby seat. Whether it’s farmers market trips, date nights at Whitewater Music Hall or just one of many joy rides around town, the ebike is a central part of their lives.
Lichtenwald took his love of ebikes even further: He runs Ebike Escape, a YouTube channel and website devoted to all things ebike. He reviews bikes and accessories on his channel, and on his website. The YouTube channel has more than 3,500 subscribers and its turned into a source of income for the couple. He also runs a forum for Rad Power Bikes owners, and traffic on that site has taken off recently too.
That Lichtenwald’s business has taken off should be no surprise — the electric bicycle industry has shifted into overdrive as well, with ebike sales slowly dominating the market. Industry reports detail a huge rise year over year in ebike sales, as electric-powered bikes gain more and more converts. That sped up a lot during the pandemic.
Another example? In January, the Trek Store in Wausau has 20 ebikes pre-bought. “I don’t usually have 20 bikes bre-bought in January, period,” says John “Nacho” Nowaczyk. He points to the two rows of Trek ebikes in his store. “Sold, sold, sold, sold…” he continues. Of the dozen or so ebikes on the stands, only one is available for purchase; the rest are spoken for.
So what gives? Why are ebikes becoming so popular? A good word to sum it up might be “accessibility.” Ebikes remove a lot of barriers for folks, both in terms of physical ability – ebikes work generally by pedal assist, which means the electric motor powers the bike as you pedal, and is adjustable to add variable levels of power. But besides physical ability, they help make longer trips into shorter ones. One could get to an office 10 miles away not only much faster, but without dripping in sweat.
If you’re wondering why this is an Abode Series story, it’s because ebikes offer a unique solution to commuting, an important part of living. They also could assist financially – an ebike as a replacement for a second vehicle for people could replace a lot of expenses associated with motor vehicles – yearly registration and wheel tax, maintenance and gas. The Lichtenwalds can attest to that.
And as the stats show, they’re becoming a growing part of many people’s mode of living. The numbers bear that out.
Ebikes by the numbers
B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
John “Nacho” Nowaczyk says ebikes at the Trek Store have been hard to keep in stock, they’ve been so popular.
Mordor Intelligence compiled a report about ebikes and the numbers are pretty staggering. The ebike business in 2020 was valued at $23.89 billion and is projected to keep growing between 2021 and 2026 at a rate of 11.86% per year.
According to the report, two trends that otherwise might conflict — the need to own a vehicle as public transit options diminish and the growing concern with environmental protection — are a perfect conflict for ebikes to solve. They’re environmentally friendly but also help people commute without a motor vehicle.
Europe is the fastest-growing market right now, with a 39% share of the bicycle market, Mordor says. They’re the preferred mode of commute in Germany.
In North America the growth rate is considered medium; not as strong as Europe and Asia, but stronger than Africa or South America.
Brands like Giant and Merida are the top ebike makers, but generally the ebike market is considered a fragmented one. New companies are popping up all the time offering ebikes that range from mini-bike style ebikes that almost resemble mini motorcycles to cargo-style haulers and bikes that mimic just about every kind of non-motorized bicycle. One brand even blurs the line between bicycle and motorcycle, with bicycles that look like high-speed street bikes.
The U.S. is considered a medium growth market by Mordor, but don’t let that fool you — it’s still some pretty impressive growth. In 2019, 3.7 million ebikes were sold in the U.S. In 2020, that number increased at least 23%, according to a recent article in Forbes.
Ebikes seem to be popular amongst a wide range of demographics, but they seem to be split between what types of bikes they like. At Trek Store, Nowaczyk says most of his customers buying ebikes are Boomer or older GenX generation buyers.
According to a survey conducted in 2018, the most respondents came from riders in the 55-64 age range, followed by 45 to 54 age ranges. But there were strong numbers across the board. Of those surveyed, 44% said they used their ebikes for recreation, 34% for commuting and 29% for personal errands. Those who commuted with an ebike were less likely to also use a car for commuting.
Ebikes from well-known, established bicycle brands range from $3,000-$5,000 range, much more expensive than a regular bicycle but far less than even a cheap, used vehicle.
But many new bike brands cost less than that, and many of them are pretty good, Lichtenwald says. Rad Power Bikes range from $1,099 to $1,899 and are well-regarded, especially for their customer service. Other brands like Ride1Up, Juiced and Scorpio are selling at lower price points but still offering quality bicycles. The price can be a hurdle, Lichtenwald says, but the amount of money ebikes can save can make it worth it. “It’s definitely a lot cheaper than operating a car,” Lichtenwald says. “At this point we have about 4,300 miles on the Rad Wagon (his cargo bike). It’s paid for itself, with very little maintenance.”
Lichtenwald also warns about going too low on price. “There is a cutoff. You want your bike to last years and years.” Nowaczyk offers similar advice.
The Custom job
Bob Fisch, known by many in Stevens Point as Poky Pedal Bob for his years leading the Poky Pedaling Stevens Point rides, rode bicycles for transportation for about 50 years. That included in the 90s and 2000s in Portland, Ore., considered the mecca for bicycle transportation.
With good transportation infrastructure, Fisch says, getting around on bicycle is ideal except for two scenarios: large hills and carrying heavy objects. “As a utilitarian bicycle rider of above-average fitness, I felt that I shouldn’t have to be an extraordinary athlete to deal with these two situations,” Fisch told City Pages.
About three years ago, Fisch purchased an ebike, which allows him to traverse hills and carry heavy loads not only on the bike itself, but with a flatbed bicycle trailer he once hauled using a non-electric bicycle. For Fisch, he likens the ebike to a vehicle — similar to how an economy car and a pickup truck are examples of types of motorized vehicles, an ebike is a type of bicycle for a certain set of purposes. They allow him to haul heavy things, get up hills with ease, and make long-distance travel more doable. Fisch has traveled to Wausau overnight, as well as other cities in Central Wisconsin.
And when Fisch talks about hauling, he’s not messing around. Fisch has hauled 200+ pounds of mulch on his ebike. “With this much weight in tow, even a short not-so-steep incline would require a tiring effort when towing with my standard bicycle,” Fisch says. “But with my ebike towing loads like these, I have many times climbed effortlessly over a railroad overpass at 15 mph.”
Like others interviewed for the story, Fisch nearly always uses the pedal assist, though his bike does have a throttle. Sometimes he will use it from a dead stop to get the bicycle moving, but otherwise he almost exclusively pedals the bicycle. He still rides regular bicycles but the ebike allows use cases beyond the standard bicycle.
Fisch, a former Intel engineer and math professor, went beyond just buying an electric bicycle; he customized it. Through some pretty clever design, Fisch designed a locking basket with plastic piping, turn signals, a very loud horn similar in volume to an automobile’s and some very powerful front and rear lights. Fisch managed to match the color on the piping with the bicycle’s particular shade of red, such that it might appear to an onlooker to have come from the manufacturer that way. “As I started making plans for my intercity ebike travel, it occurred to me that I would be safest from traffic on rural roads if my ebike had features similar to those found on a car,” Fisch told City Pages.
A new lifestyle
The numbers seem to make clear that the trend toward ebikes isn’t going to slow anytime soon. For those embracing them, they appear to be more than a simple gadget or recreation tool – they’re helping push a new type of lifestyle, possibly a car replacement, or at least letting folks make some trips via bicycle that otherwise might have been out of reach.
Have the laws around ebikes caught up to the trend? Not even close, says Nowaczyk. Nowaczyk says that’s likely to change, however. He met with members of the county parks commission and gave many of them a demonstration, allowing them to ride one. “They were like ‘OK, why is this an issue?’” Nowcaczyk says.
Parks Director Jamie Polley says the city and county committees have discussed ebikes and don’t see any reason to restrict them further than the current state statutes. Not all municipalities are yet on board with that yet, with some posting about ebikes not being allowed on certain trails.
That’ll likely change as the trend continues. When used right, advocates say, they can start paying for themselves through saved car trips or even the expenses of a second vehicle, depending on one’s situation. They can make that trip to the farmers market a lot more fun.
If the trend continues, there will probably be one in your garage in the near future.