Is electric the way to go?

I’ve noticed more people riding bikes powered by battery or gas around my area. I’ve also noticed an increase of electric bike and gas kit offerings on the L.A. CraigList.

We had a chance to review the Wilderness Electric kit back in ’05 on another site; and I also had a chance to ride with one to work.

The electric kit was fun to ride, but the biggest drawback was the weight. The bike pictured tipped the scales at 80lbs making it hard to brake and also a slow handling bike. I commuted with the Electric bike kit for about a month, I then realized that I didn’t need it. I found myself pedaling more than using the electric kit. The biggest reason was that I didn’t want to run out of juice; even though the kit was supposed to last for at least 30 miles.

One great thing about the electric bike is that you can arrive to work rather fresh. I rode the last two miles with the electric kit so I was not sweaty at all. The kit also has a top speed of 20 MPH, not a slow bike by any means, but then there was the braking issue… a heavy bike meant a longer distance to come to a stop.

Prices of electric bikes and kits vary a lot, from $439 for the Wilderness Electric Kit to $950 for an E-bike. Another advantage of an electric bike is that you don’t need a motorcycle license nor does it need to be registered or insured.

Electric bikes may not be for everyone, specifically those who are looking into benefiting from the exercise that riding a bike provides. But for those who are looking into ditching the car and are really concerned about arriving to work sweaty or may not be in the best physical condition, an electric bike may be the way to go.


  1. Wayne Myer

    Electric bicycles are mostly a “Worst of All Worlds” solution. Furthermore, it is a solution in search of a problem. You have the additional weight, complexity, and expense of the electric drive, yet retain the mechanism of the pedal drivetrain. The range and speed do not work out to a fair return on the cost. A rider is better off just getting in better shape and riding more.

    And most of all, nothing says “Lazy!” like an electric bicycle.

  2. Ghost Rider

    If they had a much longer range before recharges, I’d give them the thumbs-up, but I mostly agree with Wayne. Isn’t pedaling the most efficient means of propelling oneself ALREADY? If you’re concerned about sweating, leave earlier and ride more slowly.

  3. Moe (Post author)

    30 miles is not bad if you think about it, my commute is less than that. Some people who have children at school can’t leave earlier, I can’t drop my kids off at school before a certain time. As I mentioned, I have seen an increase of motorized bikes, they were not for me but it is working out for some else who has actually left their car at home and that makes me happy.

  4. Josh

    An electric is a good choice for someone who would like to get (back) into cycling, but is out of shape enough to be discouraged by a regular bike. I was in that situation a few years back, and I think it’s safe to say that if I hadn’t gotten an electric bike then, I wouldn’t now be where I am: ditched the car two years ago, and have been almost exclusively getting around by un-assisted xtracycle ever since.

    It’s easy to say that someone should just get in better shape and ride more, but the reality for me was that wasn’t going to happen. Riding the electric was what got me into decent enough shape to get back on a regular bike. It wasn’t about being lazy; it was about being a fat desk jockey and living in a city full of hills. Leaving early and riding more slowly just doesn’t work when there isn’t a low enough gear ratio to get you up the hills between home and work, and who wants to walk a bike up every hill?

    It probably helped that I had a purpose-built electric bike, a Giant LA Free Lite, rather than a heavy aftermarket kit. That bike was heavy, but more like 45 pounds than 80. It was possible to ride it without the electric assist. And when I found that that’s what I was doing most of the time, I switched to an un-assisted bike, and haven’t gone back.

    There’s a valid niche for electric bikes, is what I’m saying. And those of us who use them aren’t necessarily lazy.

  5. tadster

    well put, Josh.

    I’m wondering how that Giant Rincon sure doesn’t look like an 80 lbs. bike… I guess the rack is devoted full-time to battery carrying duty.

  6. Moe (Post author)

    There’s 3 batteries wired in series on the battery pack, also, the motor (front wheel) weighs quite a bit as well.

  7. Mike

    Sure electric bikes have a place. Maybe not on a commuter bicycle board other than as a curiosity or occasional mention like this. But still…

    What’s amazes me is that more kids haven’t figured out that these are a loophole in the motorized vehicle law they could take advantage of. Just like pocketbikes were big for a split second before they were outlawed, these could be the next motorized menace out there, with various uprated hop-ups really testing the definition of what should be allowed on the street at all. This seems like some pretty easy plug and play kinda kits with plenty of internet support on various forums for info and support. And cheap compared to cars… or mountain bikes…

    But that’s not happening. Sad.

  8. Ghost Rider

    Josh, you brought up some good points…I hadn’t considered such ramifications, but you’re right — and perhaps an electric-bike rider will be encouraged to do more and more pedaling as things progress.

  9. Jen

    I’m not sure what this person’s bike weighs, but people interested in electric bikes should check out this blog, which links to bikeportland. It is written by a woman recovering from breast cancer, who is not yet able to resume cycling with a regular bike. She goes into good detail about the conversion. It is not current (stops at August 2007), but has good info. Her other blog is up to date, so I assume anyone wanting to contact her could do so through that blog.

  10. Jen

    And there’s this, also courtesy of a link from bikeportland. Okay, I’ll stop.

  11. Dwainedibly

    It’s a hot-weather solution. When it’s 75 degrees and 95% humidity at 6:30 am and you have to be presentable at work (with no showers available and a 7-mile ride) an ebike is the only cycling alternative that will suffice. If you don’t find yourself in that situation, consider yourself lucky, but please try to be open-minded towards those of us who are.

    Besides, there is still the chance to pedal home.

  12. 2whls3spds

    I have no problem with the electric powered assist on a bicycle. For many people it can make the difference between riding or not riding at all. We have a nephew that is handicapped, he can ride a bike but only very short distances. His dad purchased him one of the Schwinn Electrics it allows him to visit friends in the far reaches of the neighborhood and be able to ride with them, as well as with his family.

    I know yet another lady that uses electric assist on her custom trike, if not for the assist she would have to revert to a car for many of her day to day trips.

    Electrics make great sense in many applications. They are used in heavy cargo trikes and pedicabs to provide extra power when fully loaded.

    I am not a fan of the small gas motors for a variety of reasons, pollution and noise being the primary ones.


  13. Rapps

    I was thinking you could just peddle it too, but duh 80# that would be like having a 6th grader on the back! It scars me to think there would be untrained kids/people on the city streets driving something that they consider not a bike. Peddling keeps most riders connected to reality. I drove a Zap Car, it made me understand that riding a bike was way better in every way.

  14. Robert

    I can’t imagine that the weight of these things is going to remain static – as demand for them grows it’ll spur some innovation to reduce the weight of the batteries.

    I’m also not convinced by the arguments being made here that using an ebike is an act of laziness. If we are going to get a significant number of Americans to become bike commuters, ebikes are going to be part of that solution.

    I’ve never had the privilege of living in a flat city – SF, Seattle, and even my present home of Monterey have some significant hills to them, particularly in the city centers. One of the most common reasons I hear from people in those cities as to why they don’t bike more are the hills. And as anyone who’s seen SF knows, these are steep hills, not easily tackled by the average person. An ebike is perfect for these folks, enabling them to conquer the hills and therefore use their bikes more regularly.

    I should think our goal is to encourage more bike commuting, not maintain an arrogant attitude about our own accomplishments.

  15. Wayne Myer

    @Dwainedibly: When you discuss the ride home, you are still carrying unnecessary mechanism in order to pedal home. The sweat/presentable/no shower topic is a solved problem; adding inefficiency to a near-perfect motive system is a step backwards (to state the obivous). There are so many solutions to the shower problem that it is a matter of picking the one suits your mood for the day.

    There are fringe contexts which I deliberately ignored. “Oh, my mother’s best friend’s cousin’s roommate had cancer and couldn’t ride.” Cancer unequivocally sucks and I loudly applaud the person that remains active during such a trial of the body and spirit. And yes, not everybody has the option of leaving earlier. SF-style hills are a matter of the right tool for the job (11-34, triple).

    None of the exceptions override the fact that an electric drive decreases the efficiency of the bicycle system. And that is the crux of my point.

    Agreed, anything that gets more people cycling is a good thing, even if it creates a little more pollution, waste, and inefficiency at the front end. It is still far better than any car. My comment about laziness was a joke, but the humor seems a little lost in this format.

  16. Jen

    @Wayne: I get the point about efficiency, but there comes a point when the “human machine” becomes inefficient as well. Even very fit cyclists use assists, as 2whls3spds points out (and that was why I supplied the link to the folks who make and use the stokemonkey motor assist, which you have to pedal). I understand absolutely the pure idea of “the fact that an electric drive decreases the efficiency of the bicycle system,” but I think it is also good for us to have a look once in a while at what we mean by “the bicycle system” and what we envision when we talk about using a bike for every day life. Let me be clear that I was surprised people were using gas engines on bikes; for all kinds of reasons, this just seems odd. I think that given the choice, anyone riding a bike would like the most efficient relationship between human and machine that s/he can get: this is why many of us get fitted for our bikes, spend too much time thinking about tires, etc. If only the same kind of counsel, as well as all kinds of bikes, motorized as well, were accessible by the populations who could benefit most. I am struck that the “fringe” you speak of is one of our society’s own making: there are many people, including the elderly of all stripes of physical ability, who just don’t think of a bicycle as a possibility for them. It would be great if the full range of possibilities, from ebikes to trikes, etc., were more in the public’s eye. I guess I think that one day, just as older folks sometimes have to give up their cars, some of us are going get weak hearts or balance issues, and shoot, there goes the 11-34 triple up the hill, and darn, I hope there’s something else out there that I can pedal to take its place. So this whole post and responses has been very intriguing. I hope Robert is right: if the technology for the batteries improves than the whole thing will be more efficient a machine as well.

  17. 2whls3spds

    I might add, that AFAIK you can legally operate a 50 cc “moped” in every state whether you have a license/training or not. Not much difference IMHO. I have looked at the stoke monkey as a possibility and have not ruled it out. I make a 40+ mile round trip to my parents house about once a month, I seldom cycle it due to the distance and the roads involved. Something that would let me cruise at a bit more than my 10-12mph average might sway me to get out of the truck for those trips.


  18. Joe

    I suspect that for those who don’t ride when (you pick the excuse: too hot, too cold, too wet, etc) there is the slightest reason not to, even the electric assist bike will stay in the garage. I’ve seen lots of those around, but I never see them in the winter. So, in my mind I just sort of classify them as fair weather toys. I really don’t think these things will encourage anyone out of their lethargy anytime except for the best of weather days.

    Just as an aside, I was in Ashland on Thursday (small college town, Southern Oregon, ultra liberal type place)and I saw the guy who is the bike mechanic at the “recycled cycles’ used cycle shop riding to work on an electric bike??????? What the??

  19. tehaboo

    yup i agree with joe,but this stuff maybe more efficiency and maybe as an important transporting certain country.I have been india before and i think they should have one of this stuff cause of majority of transporting is bike.And the most reason for now is on about saving in daily cost…Yup!the big issues “OIL”.There is no meaning on just 30mile for 5L petrol but if we can save it,i think we can considered our bud jet further on other.And for the best reason to get this stuff with is …yes for our health and also for keeping on healthy environment .

    review dahon and other type electric bike kit

  20. Michael

    Living in Houston, this morning it is 81 degrees with 78% humidity, I am offen on the fence about riding, particularly when there is a real chance my work will surprise me with having to go offsite during the day or wanting to leave for lunch (by then the temps are well into the 90’s, no chance of getting back smelling good). I still ride but like Jack said I have to ride much slower in order to arrive in reasonable “smelling” condition. A couple of avid-riding friends of mine bought E-zips from Walmart a while back and they couldn’t be happier. They said they use the motor on the way to work and pedal on the way home. A battery powered bike could definitely make me a more car-free person in the future.

  21. Mike C

    There’s also a difference between people who choose to bike to work because they want to be on a bicycle and those who bike to work because it is a cheap form of transportation. The former will eschew motorized transport, even something as bike-like as fitting an engine to an existing bike. The latter will look for alternatives and come up with both gas and electric engine conversions in their search for economical transportation. I doubt that a lot of people will go from bikes to motorized bikes; there will be a much greater shift coming from the already motorized side of things.

    So while electric bikes might be inefficient compared to simply pedalling a non-motorized bike, if it gets people out of cars and onto two wheels, I don’t mind them at all.

  22. Iron Man

    I’ve encountered some motorcyclists (even guys on Harleys) who seem to enjoy some kinship with me because of my two wheels. I guess I could act in kind and show some love to the electric bike riders out there. They aren’t for me at all, even if there are times when I would wish to have an engine to help me out, but I guess I don’t need to dismiss them.

  23. Kristopher

    Once you ditch sealed-lead-acid batteries, the weight issue goes away.

    Search ebay for LiFePO4 batteries.

    A cheapie walmart i-zip and a 36V LiFePO4 battery makes a usable long ranged commute machine.

    I current commute with an EZ-1 ‘bent, a heinzmann hubmoter, and a 36V lithium iron phosphate battery … range on one charge is 16 miles without pedaling, much more with. With 450 Watts of assist, hills become flat … which I need, as I cannot shower at work, and work in an office.

  24. Shay

    Having a motor assist may mean less effort, but it’s overboard to call their riders necessarily lazy. For one, most of these are “assist” or “hybrid drives” – they are NOT mopeds. The electric bikes I’ve seen and used still have to be pedaled, and with the extra weight of the bike, the rider still gets some stiff resistance. The heaviness also made it slow. In my experience, the extra weight of the motor and battery only pays for itself on really steep hills (> 5% grade).

    I’ve been commuting on an ebike since April, and I’m about to switch out to a standard bicycle. In my experience, the electric components were VERY unreliable. I could ride for about 3 weeks, then something would break, and I’d have to spend a week (and a couple hundred dollars) to fix it. Rinse and repeat for a few months – anyone want to buy a bike? 😉

    They have their purpose, and I see why people like them. Believe me, ebike riders have MUCH MUCH more in common with standard bike riders than even motorcycles, let alone cars. Same “get off the road!” comments, same issues of cargo room and speed.

  25. Stuart M.

    The bike in the pricture looks like from the Stone Age of electric bikes. Kalkhoff, Gazelle, Giant, EZee, all make electric bikes that weigh between 20 to 30 kilos. They have decent range, thanks to Lithium batteries. I can think of many uses for electric bikes: hauling a trailer, bringing the groceries home, driving your kid to kindergarten, getting up pesky hills, these are all times when an artificial “wind at one’s back” would be welcome. Electric bikes aren’t just for the disabled. I would get one , if I could afford them!

  26. Jon Karak

    A bicycle with power assist isn’t a sign of weakness, its a sign of transportation alternatives. Commuters of all stripes should be supporting that.

  27. Linda

    I agree with Jon Karak (above). It isn’t a sign of weakness or laziness. Transportation alternatives are much needed. I think Electric Bicycles are possibly the solution to many of our problems today. To name a few…Peaking World Oil Production, Land Use, Pollution, Global Warming, and even Human health. If you don’t mind I’d like to post a link to our family run shop. Remember “You get what you pay for”, try to shop locally and buy quality. Oh yeah…don’t support the billionaire Walton children (Walmart). Not only is their customer service non-existent after the purchase, they won’t assemble it for you like us.

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