When first-timers take an electric bike out for a test ride, they return smiling from ear to ear, says Dean Cromwell, a bicycle shop owner in Billings, Montana.
“We call it ‘the electronic grin,’ ” he said.
Sales of e-bikes are taking off, with older riders the most avid buyers and biggest consumers.
Nationally, sales of e-bikes are up almost 60% year-over-year as of June, according to market research, and last year, unit sales of e-bikes rose 73% at specialty shops after more than doubling the prior year.
For Cromwell, sales of e-bikes were insignificant five years ago and now are his biggest dollar-earner after full-suspension mountain bikes. Last year, his electric bike sales were double the previous year, and this year’s sales are up 70% over last year.
E-bikes might be pedal-assisted, requiring constant pedaling, or have a throttle, which does not require pedaling.
Easier for tackling hills and headwinds, they use batteries — unlike mopeds that use gas-powered internal combustion engines.
The typical buyers of an e-bike are a 58-year-old-woman and a 59-year-old-man, said Don DiCostanzo, chief executive and co-founder of Pedego Electric Bikes in Fountain Valley, California.
“We’re baby boomers selling to baby boomers,” said DiCostanzo, 62, whose company makes 20 models, including an electric tandem, trike and folding bike.
“We focus our whole business model on people who are over 50,” he said.
E-bikes weigh more than traditional bikes by 10 to 15 pounds, and they fetch higher prices.
According to the National Bicycle Dealers Association, the average retail price for an e-bike at a specialty shop is $3,500, much more than a traditional bike.
‘Further, faster, funner’
At age 59, Cromwell rides a conventional bike and also an e-bike for eastern Montana’s off-road trails.
“The catch phrase I use is ‘further, faster, funner,’ ” he said.
A recent study found older cyclists using e-bikes not only were getting the same brain benefits as those on standard bikes, but showed improvement over those on conventional wheels.
E-bike riders showed an improved sense of well-being and rode more often than the others, it found.
A 2016 study at the University of Colorado Boulder found people who rode an e-bike for 40 minutes three times per week showed, in a month, improved cardiovascular health, aerobic capacity and blood sugar control, and they also lost body fat.
At Mission Electric Bike in Providence, Rhode Island, the older customers arrive saying they “want to get back out there … and get back in shape,” said owner Tyler Justin.
“That’s my bread and butter,” he said.
“Adding this electric part just really opens up what’s possible with the bike,” he said. “You feel comfortable and confident that you can ride out to whatever and also make it back.
“It’s all the good parts of biking and none of the bad parts.”
Regulations vary around the country over the bikes’ use. In many states, slower-speed but not high-speed versions are allowed.
But in New Mexico, for example, electric bikes are subject to licensing and to the same insurance requirements that apply to motor vehicles.
New York City recently ended a crackdown and allows electric bikes, which are widely used for food deliveries.
Lyft, which runs New York City’s bike-sharing program, took its fleet of pedal-assist electric bicycles off the city streets due to brake problems, but says they will return in late September.
The ride-sharing company also recently took its newly launched fleet of electric bikes off the streets of San Francisco, after at least two reportedly caught fire.
Yet in Wisconsin, the police department in Green Bay has outfitted its bike patrol with e-bikes. This summer, the bike share program in Madison became the first citywide system in the United States with a fleet consisting entirely of e-bikes.
On the national level, the U.S. Department of Interior, which oversees the National Park Service and other federal land, just said days ago that e-bikes going up to 20 miles per hour would be allowed on trails and in areas where conventional bikes are permitted.
To Cromwell, e-bikes help solve world problems as well.
“There’s no emissions, people are getting fat and they need exercise and things are congested,” he said.
“So that checks off three of the major things that they can help with.”