July 2017 - BICYCLING
Make More Possible
By Dave Kraus
Do those hills seem to just keep getting steeper as you get older? Would you like to be able to keep up with your spouse or partner who always drops you like a stone when you ride together? Would you like to get the exercise benefits of cycling by commuting, but don’t want to arrive at the office bathed in sweat? Do you have a physical disability that limits your ability to exercise?
If you answered “yes” to any of the above questions, then you could benefit from the expanding selection of electric-assisted bikes – or “e-bikes” – that are available from a variety of manufacturers. If you have heard about e-bikes and thought using one is like cheating for a “serious” cyclist like you, then maybe it’s time to learn more.
E-bikes have been a legal category of transportation since 2002, when federal law was amended to distinguish them from other two-wheeled vehicles, such as motorcycles and mopeds. Electric bikes are divided into three classes:
Class 1 – Pedal-assisted and only add power if the rider is actively pedaling. They provide up to 75% of the exercise benefit of a completely human powered bike, and are limited to 20 miles per hour top speed. Class 1 e-bikes are the only type currently approved for sale in New York State.
Class 2 – Can’t go faster than 20 mph, but can have throttle assist. In other words, you can pedal, but you don’t have to.
Class 3 – Pedal-assisted like class 1 bikes, but can go up to 28 mph.
Though federal law legalizing e-bikes was adopted in 2002, the NYS legislature never passed legislation to adopt the federal standard. So while it’s legal to sell e-bikes in the state, the NYS Department of Motor Vehicles considers them to be “low-powered motorcycles,” even though they look like and operate like regular bicycles. It’s technically illegal to operate them on roads, though it’s extremely unlikely that that local law police offers will ticket riders. E-bikes look so much like regular bikes that it’s doubtful local officers will even realize you are riding one.
But that legal status will change very soon, if electric bike advocates are successful in their campaign to get legislation passed that legalizes e-bikes on the road, and creates a process for regulating them.
Paul Winkeller, executive director of the New York Bicycling Coalition (nybc.net), is leading the organization’s campaign to legalize e-bikes. They have national backing from the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association (bpsa.org) and People For Bikes (peopleforbikes.org), a non-profit cycling advocacy organization that has made New York and California its two top priority states for passing e-bike legislation.
This national effort resulted in a California law legalizing e-bikes in 2015, but New York has proven to be a tougher situation, Paul says. In each of the past three years, the state Senate has passed a bill legalizing class 1 e-bikes, but a companion bill in the Assembly has never made it out of the Transportation Committee to a vote in the full Assembly, but he is hopeful that a bill legalizing e-bikes will pass next year. The goal is to introduce a three-class system that will allow local communities to opt out of allowing any of the three classes of bikes they feel are not appropriate for their locality. “It gives locals much more ability to regulate, and also gives them the authority to regulate which classes can go where,” Paul says. But he is also realistic about NYS politics. “We’d be thrilled with class 1 bikes – in a perfect universe that would be a great start.”
Local bike shops are already selling class 1 e-bikes, which include models from most of the larger bike companies, and some smaller players in the new product class. Garrick Dardani, co-owner of Steiner’s Ski & Bike in Valatie and Glenmont (steinersskibike.com), has been selling e-bikes since 2013, and currently carries several models from Trek. He says sales of the bikes have improved a lot this year, as word spreads about their advantages, and the technology improves. “Older e-bikes had motors in the wheel hubs, but the newer crank based systems from Shimano and Bosch make it feel like a normal bike,” he says. “It feels nimble, light, and it doesn’t feel any different pedaling.”
But “talking about e-bikes is a hard conversation sometimes,” he adds. “Often the first thing that comes out of someone’s mouth is ‘it’s a cheater bike.’ But once you get across the fact that an e-bike is giving access, where’s the harm there? Then the walls start breaking down a little bit.”
Garrick says his typical e-bike buyers in the Glenmont store are commuters who want to ride into work in the Capital Region without sweating a lot, and in the Valatie store its “older folks who want to ride in Columbia County and have more access to different terrain.” He also says he hasn’t heard of any local riders who have been hassled for riding their e-bike on the street.
Tim Bonnier, owner of Tomhannock Bicycles, also has not heard of any legal issues for riders, and agrees that commuters and older riders are his two big customers. He is in his fourth season of selling e-bikes from his store in Pittstown, just east of Troy. Tim says that the utility and comfort factors are important considerations for his customers, and he is planning on adding several more brands to his selection.
The riding experience is a bit different, he says, since the bike does weigh more than a regular bike. The battery and motor can add up to 25 pounds to the total weight. But with the power assistance, owners are more accepting of that, and most models have wider tires, which means a more comfortable ride.
Tim says prospective owners should keep in mind that an e-bike needs two to three hours to fully recharge, and will generally get 25 to 40 miles of power depending on how much assistance the rider uses. “But even if you lose your battery, it’s still a functional bike with all the gears.”
Tim also adds that that e-bikes are certain to keep increasing in popularity for customers who can benefit from their unique features, and new uses that will appear, such as mountain biking. “There’s a lot of older guys who used to ride mountain bikes back in the day and they’re not as able to get out in the terrain any more. But guess what, now there’s a motor that will help them get back out there and have a great time!”
Dave Kraus (email@example.com) of Schenectady is a longtime Capital Region cyclist, photographer and journalist who is, um, shocked by the popularity of e-bikes – but is learning more. Visit his website at krausgrafik.com.