Could Electric Bikes Be the Next Big Thing?

electric bikes

MARIN HAS LONG been in the fast lane when it comes to cycling — the sport of mountain biking was born on the slopes of Mount Tam — so it’s no surprise to find denizens of Fairfax, Larkspur and other Marin towns among the U.S. early adopters of electric bicycles. These aren’t mopeds, but bikes you can pedal, with small, silent electric motors that can provide a boost when you’re climbing a hill.

Already popular in Europe, e-bikes have faced headwinds from U.S. cyclists who see e-assisted pedaling as cheating. But an environment-and-fitness-minded populace, who would bike to more places if it weren’t for the hilly terrain, makes Marin a fitting front line for an e-bike revolution. More and more Marin residents are joining the e-bike ranks, many choosing electric cargo bikes that help them tote groceries and kids car-free.

A recent sign of shifting gears came when San Francisco e-bike specialist The New Wheel chose Larkspur Landing, right next to the Golden Gate ferry terminal, for its second store.

electric bikes

Who rides? A large contingent of e-bike adopters are parents. Film editor and designer Liz Canning, of Fairfax, was an avid cyclist, but when she gave birth to twins, she thought her time on two wheels was over. She was liberated by adding an electric motor to her ShuttleBug, a bright blue cargo bike with a wheelbarrow-like passenger compartment in front. When her kids got bigger, she traded up to an e-assist Bullitt. Before she got her first cargo bike back in 2010, she had never even seen one; now there are at least 20 dropping off at her kids’ school every day, many of them electric.

Canning is making a documentary about cargo bikes titled Motherload, which she plans to release in 2017. Not all e-bikes are cargo bikes, and not all cargo bikes have electric assist, but the two bike innovations go so well together that enthusiasts are seen as an overlapping group rather than two separate subcultures. “E-assist has certainly popularized cargo bikes by making them more accessible and more useful,” Canning says.

electric bikes

Other e-bikers are commuters who want to arrive at work without sweat stains. The New Wheel co-owner Brett Thurber looked fresh as a daisy in his denim apron on a recent warm Saturday, despite having pedaled his Stromer ST2 S e-bike across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Larkspur store. Thurber also didn’t break a sweat while closing a deal with locals Eric and Tina, who were buying a pair of Gazelle Arroyo e-bikes after a few test drives. Neither had ever experienced assisted pedaling before, and both were glowing with delight.

Another demographic: longtime mountain or road bikers who don’t want aging or injuries to end their riding days. “I go on recreational rides with people on road bikes, and I carry their lunches and luggage,” says Michael Bock, a longtime e-bike enthusiast who, at 65, sometimes finds himself on long rides with much younger cyclists.

Where will you see them? A longtime hub of e-bike culture, San Anselmo’s The Bicycle Works co-op, just closed, but Thurber hopes The New Wheel can grow into a cultural center in its own right. He plans to host a bash with brand demos, food and music at least once a year and to publish a magazine full of ideas for e-bike adventures. “It’s like the early days of cars — you’d get your Michelin guide and drive around the French countryside to restaurants,” he says.

When do they meet up? Unlike members of cycling clubs who ride together on weekends and pose for group photos in matching Lycra shirts, e-bike riders tend to operate alone or in pairs — getting the commute or errands done. That said, cyclists on e-bikes are increasingly spotted at mainstream bike events, from Fairfax’s annual Biketoberfest and Streets for People festivals to Kidical Mass, a family-friendly version of Critical Mass, where families with kids join up for safe group rides. The New Wheel plans to offer guided bike rides starting in early 2017 and will have a few e-bikes to lend out.

electric bikes

Why do they do it? For starters, riders feel that they are helping to save the earth. Today’s e-bike motors use a tiny amount of electricity — a 150-mile ride consumes less energy than a five-minute hot shower, according to The New Wheel. Although it may seem counterintuitive, people also ride e-bikes to get more exercise. A recent study showed that commuters who tried electric-assist bikes became measurably fitter after just a few weeks.

The motor removes obstacles that discourage people from riding a bike, notes Tom Boss, off-road and events director for the Marin County Bicycle Coalition. “Because of Marin’s hilly terrain, most people are not going to choose to ride a bike if they’re going to shop. They’re not going to want to haul that stuff up a hill on a bike without assistance,” says Boss, who got his own e-bike four years ago after noticing one overtake him on the road, its rider sitting straight up as if on a Sunday cruise. “It’s also about getting to your destination in a little faster time frame.”

E-bike riders laud the convenience: avoiding traffic, parking, and school drop-off lines. One San Anselmo couple, Andrew and Rebecca Popell, turned a 35-minute freeway school commute into a nine-minute bike ride up a (formerly) forbiddingly steep path, thanks to an e-bike with two motors. “For pickup, there’s this huge lineup of cars, and they’re all waiting there for their kids, and there’s nowhere to park. And with the bike, you just zip right by them,” Popell says in a trailer for Canning’s Motherload. San Geronimo’s Michael Bock uses e-bikes for pretty much everything, even getting back up Mount Tamalpais to his van after hang gliding.

electric bikes

How do these bikes work? Most e-bikes go up to 20 miles per hour, although a more powerful variety can reach 28. Thanks to a 2015 California law, the slower type of e-bike is allowed on regular bike paths and lanes, while the faster kind faces some restrictions. The growing popularity of electric mountain bikes has raised some controversy, with some parks and open-space areas banning them from trails; check rules before you go. Most modern e-bike motors are powered by lithium-ion batteries that you detach from the bike and plug into a standard outlet, where they’ll fully charge in a few hours. Battery range varies from 20 to 120 miles per full charge.

How can you get started? The first step is to test-drive an e-bicycle, or better yet, a few different models. Customers at The New Wheel in Larkspur can get on the Marin North-South Greenway bike/ped path right outside the front door and in minutes experience the thrill of effortlessly pedaling straight up nearby hills. The New Wheel also has a rent-to-buy program wherein the rental cost can be applied to a purchase. Fairfax Cyclery has a few e-bikes for test riding. Vallejo’s e-bike seller Leonardo Cycles guides a community bike ride on the second Sunday of each month and offers two of its e-bikes for use on these rides; call for more information. If you’re sold on the concept, you can buy from one of the outlets listed below. Or, considering that new e-bikes usually cost between $2,500 and $5,000 (more for souped-up cargo bikes and really high-end models), you can save money by browsing used e-bikes on Craigslist or on The New Wheel’s website.

The New Wheel, Larkspur,; Leonardo Cycles, Vallejo,; Blue Heron Bikes, Berkeley,; Mike’s Bikes, San Rafael/Sausalito,; Pedego, Tiburon; Fairfax Cyclery, Fairfax,

This article originally appeared in Marin Magazine’s print edition with the headline: “Electic Avenue”.