San Diego Electric Bike Expo—The Experience & the Trends.
When I heard the Electric Bike Expo was coming to my town I was quite pleased. When one of the organizers asked me to become involved I was honored. As the days led up to the event, I pondered just how my experience could become yours. My decision was to try my hardest to document every model of E-bike on video (which I did very successfully), and to get a feel for the trends the modern E-bike world is leaning towards. Plus, my leading of two group E-bike rides was something that got shared with many.
My twice-a-year E-bike event here in San Diego is exactly like this one, yet just a touch different (mostly in scope). Their no sales bend gives them both a vibe that doesn’t match your basic demo days at the E-bike shops and eco fairs. The idea here is to sell a lifestyle, yet the actual E-bike sales will come as the attendees realize just how great E-bikes can be as a life changer. The event easily got more people through the front gate than the first one in Tempe, Arizona a few weeks ago (1200 there). I would say this 3 day blast was a great success. BTW, my next E-bike event will be May 24th, 2016.
So, what did I find to relay to you? Keep in mind this is an opinion piece (mine, no doubt), as well as an informative one. I found many trends in the advancement of E-bikes, not all good. What was good, were all the people learning more about them. A lot of what I do is to get out the word they exist, and this event did that well. So many rides were taken on the 120+ E-bikes on hand, the track was semi-crowded almost all the time. I heard comments that a wider, bigger track would be nice, yet I thought it was good for an expo like this.
One trend that is both good and bad is the increased tech you see (and don’t see, hidden inside) in modern E-bikes. Keep in mind during this whole post that most of the 20 companies that presented their E-bikes here are big and have fairly deep pockets. These makers are really only about ¼ to ⅕ of all the companies that offer E-bikes in the US. Most of the smaller companies could never afford the multi-thousand buy-in for an expo like this. Plus, they don’t normally have E-bikes with these high levels of technology. Don’t get me wrong, high tech can be good, yet results in E-bikes with big price tags and systems that can be hard to diagnose and repair if problems arise (and they well might).
One thing caught my attention over and over. This was people having a problem getting the bikes going from a full stop. This is where a hand throttle can make such a big difference. Yet, most all these companies seem to feel people don’t need or want them (these E-bikes are what I call true pedelecs—you must be pedaling to get any assist from the motor). The reasons why they didn’t have them were varied. Some reps said they are trying to keep the riding experience pure (more bike like). Some mentioned liability issues. Some want to be able to offer 28 mph speed pedelecs (that in California can’t legally have a hand throttle). One quote went like this—Our bikes will never have a throttle.
I did see two people have an initial problem with the throttle (took off too fast) on the bike they were testing, yet on the second or third try, they mastered it perfectly. I saw ten times as many that could barely get their balance when starting out (or couldn’t at all) on non-throttle E-bikes. Of the 123 E-bikes there (my count) only 24 had a throttle. A few companies there do offer them as extra cost options. Throttles are much more common on the less tech oriented, lower cost E-bikes. I do have to admit these people (having the issues) were obviously not necessarily recent bike riders, yet the majority of people getting E-bikes are these same people. And this too, a throttle can really help you when you need full power in a tight situation (intersection maybe?).
As the event was very busy, I would think that some of the control problems people had with the throttles, (and the control systems in general) had to do with lack of proper instructions. The reps did their best to explain all the bike’s controls and features, yet it was just a bit on the hectic side. Make sure any time you get on an E-bike (at a shop, an expo like this or a friend’s), get the full rundown. Every control and lever can be different on every different bike. Be vigilant to get the knowledge you need to be able to evaluate the bike and to be safe. It is up to you.
Of those 123 bikes on hand, 83 use mid-drive motors. Once again, this high tech isn’t necessarily bad, yet totally wrong for most all E-bike buyers. Hub motor E-bikes are the preferred set-up for easy riding and people who aren’t hip to perfect bicycle shifting. Some of the mid-drives use the NuVinci Harmony automatic shifting hub, which does help quite a bit. And many of the mid-drives had a momentary power interrupt feature (still no hand throttle though) to keep the gears from pounding when shifted under motor power (this is a good thing).
Personally, I don’t mind mid-drives (yet prefer a strong hub motor). I have been riding forever (it seems) and shifting is natural for me. When ridden correctly they can be more efficient (at using the available battery power) and climb the steepest hills well. Some have poorly programmed control systems, so those I dislike with a vengeance. Having the throttle interrupt is a must with any mid-drive. Most all of them at the expo don’t have hand throttles, which is a bad way to go. The only one at the expo that did have a throttle is the same one that is on my latest project bike, ULTIMATE COMMUTER E-BIKE BUILD. It is a normally a conversion kit though, something that may not work for you.
The last basic trend I had to cringe at is the wave of super prices these high tech E-bikes sport on the tag. The two local newspaper articles I read about the expo used top-end bikes as the example noted. One said they typically cost $5000 (a cargo E-bike). Another showed the correct range ($1500 to $7000), yet highlighted the most expensive ones. Sticker shock was kind of laid out ahead of time, still the prices of these E-bikes on hand was on the high side. My survey of all the makes there, found of the 123, 44 are less than $3000, 75 between $3000 and $6000, with two above that.
A full 111 of these E-bikes on hand use hydraulic actuated brakes (most disc, a few rim). Any good mountain biker can tell you how great they work, yet will also tell you that if you grab the brake lever with more than two fingers you will probably go down. As you watch the 77 videos I posted from the expo (if you watch them), you will see that I am kind of a one-man spokesperson for two finger brake levers. Many had them, most didn’t. On a mountain bike you can move the levers farther away from the hand grip to mimic this, yet on an E-bike the bars are so crowded you usually can’t.
It is my strong feeling that all companies that use hydraulic brakes need to use these two finger levers. I would also strongly recommend you avoid any E-bike (or regular bike) with this brake style that has the full-sized hand brake levers. Those brakes work and modulate fantastic, yet are so powerful that even the best riders can eat it quickly when they are applied heavily. Many E-bike riders are not those people, so my worry is aimed towards them. Learn to use your brakes right and be careful out there (although in an emergency stop all that can go out the window). Once again with high tech stuff, although this style of brake should be close to maintenance free, problems cost more and are more complicated to fix (and raise the base price of the bike).
To sum it up for the trends—You don’t have to buy the most expensive E-bike just because they were the ones at the expo. In the $1800 to $3000 range there are so many good quality, nice riding and dependable E-bikes available. Less than that you are risking quality and performance. You most likely don’t want a mid-drive E-bike. There is a good chance that a dual-control E-bike is right for you (pedelec and throttle combined). Try to avoid hydraulic brakes, and if you can’t, heed my warnings. Don’t let price be your only guide, yet if you want and need the best one, that’s cool. And of course, buy your bike from a smart and savvy E-bike dealer, never online.
There was almost no one there to show and promote E-bike conversion kits. For many they are the preferred way to get on an E-bike. Don’t discount this possibility. Normally you have to be bike smart to do the conversion yourself, although many shops will take on the job for you. I do my best to review E-bike conversion kits when I can, so check out my index of articles if that interests you. And, many of the E-bikes presented here at the expo I have reviewed, so look for those articles and videos too.
The event was fantastic. The excitement was obvious. The E-bike world is growing and they are a great way to have fun, save money, get exercise, and be green. Riding an E-bike can lower your stress levels and rise your happiness. My household uses them often and recommends them to all we talk to. They are a big part of our future, I hope you can see they can be a big part of yours.
I led two group E-bike rides at the expo. The first one had 26 riders. We took a fun ride to the local national park. The 5 local E-bike shops were invited so they could bring extra E-bikes for people to join in, although only one of them did actually bring the bikes they promised (kudos to them). If you check my group ride videos you can probably tell which one came through as expected. They were also there to let the attendees find where an E-bike could be purchased, as there were no actual sales at the expo.
There will be 4 more Electric Bike Expo events this year. Houston, Texas—March 11-13. Palo Alto, California—April 22-24. Portland, Oregon—May 20-22. Denver, Colorado—date to be announced. They are hoping to plan more locations and dates this year and next, so keep an eye on their website and Facebook page for all those (links below). I had a great time and am doing my best to be able to plan to attend as many as possible. If you are thinking E-bike, you should too. If you can’t, don’t worry, most any E-bike shop will let you test ride their bikes for free.
One more tip, as you test the E-bikes, make some simple notes (likes and dislikes) as you finish each ride. You will find (especially at an event like this) that by the time you get on the 4th E-bike, you will have trouble remembering the 1st. This will help you narrow down the perfect bike as your test rides pile up. Have fun.
E-bikes rock, Turbo Bob.
“I am a bike enthusiast; there’s a certain amount of romance to bikes. They’re both beautiful and utilitarian.”—Dave Eggers.
You can get more info from the expo on their website and Facebook page.
I posted 77 videos from the expo. You can find them all by following the links from these couple.