E-bikes lighten the load when exercising, commuting
To the average person, an e-bike looks a lot like any other standard bicycle. But the difference comes when you hop on and start pedaling, only for a boost of power — courtesy of an onboard battery and electric motor — to kick in and help with the pedaling at certain key times, like when going uphill.
They’ve been around for a couple of decades, but e-bikes, or pedal-assist bicycles, have been rapidly gaining popularity in the U.S. in recent years for a variety of reasons. Some people are looking for an environmentally friendly commute to work that’s not an automobile, but also isn’t as labor-intensive as a traditional bicycle. Others are hoping to get more physically active and fit.
In selecting a model of e-bike — and within the particular bike’s settings — customization is available to meet a rider’s wants or needs.
“They have different levels of help,” said Barbara Toth, who co-owns E-Bikes of Southern New Mexico, based in Las Cruces, with her husband James Toth. “You can call on a little boost or a bigger boost. You can choose not only how much assistance you want but also how little.”
E-bikes generate that pedaling assistance power with a lithium battery that charges indoors and later is hooked to the bike. It powers a small motor, which, depending upon the model, can attach to the front or rear wheels.
Barbara Toth said that in recent weeks, she’s begun riding an e-bike. Her husband, James Toth, has been an avid bicycling enthusiast for much of his life. And for several years, Barbara Toth said she was able to ride a tandem bicycle with him. But, in part because of a health condition she has called fibromyalgia, she fell out of the habit. The disorder is marked by fatigue and musculoskeletal pain, among other symptoms, according to Mayo Clinic.
Barbara Toth said she’s struggled with balancing a bike while starting off on a ride. And she always worried about riding too far away from home, only to run out of energy and wind up stranded. But the e-bike eases both concerns.
“I’ve not ridden a bicycle on my own for well over 30 years,” she said. “Based on my own experience, I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to be able to ride a bike again.”
Riders often experience a joy-filled moment the first time they’re riding an e-bike and the pedal assistance kicks in. Barbara Toth said she was no different. She’s optimistic about the possibility that e-bikes will help other people with health issues or certain disabilities by giving them a way to both exercise and get around the city.
“People who couldn’t do it if it was all under their own power have the ability to do it with the e-bike,” she said.
'It's still exercise'
Research is still being conducted about different aspects of e-bike use. But one small study — funded in part by the city of Boulder, some Colorado bike shops and a nutrition company — found that e-bike use could offer notable benefits to people who are otherwise sedentary. Study participants who lived sedentary lifestyles were set loose with e-bikes and asked to commute to work with them three times a week at whatever speed they chose, according to a 2016 New York Times article. By the end of the study, riders overall had better blood sugar readings and less body fat.
James Toth, co-owner and operator of E-Bikes of Southern New Mexico, rides a Populo Lift, a pedal-assist bicycle brand, on Monday, June 4. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)
At issue is that, even though e-bikes offer assistance pedaling, the rider must still expend energy pedaling, too.
“It’s still exercise,” said David Hill, owner of Ride On Sports bike shop, 2001 E. Lohman Ave. “It’s not a moped. It’s not a motorcycle.”
Most American adults don’t get enough exercise. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey found that just one in five adults gets the recommended amounts of both aerobic and weight-bearing exercise.
Yet another study, carried out in Sweden, monitored e-bike riders and compared them to riders of conventional bicycles. Researchers found the e-bike cyclists tended to experience critical incidents — crashes or near-crashes with pedestrians, vehicles or other bicycles — at a higher rate than conventional riders, according to CityLab.com. E-bike riders tended to travel faster on average, the study found, which could contribute to crashes when other people incorrectly assume e-bike riders are moving at conventional bicycling speeds.
No license needed
A 2002 federal law defined e-bikes as two- or three-wheeled vehicles, powered by an electric motor of 1 horsepower or less, that when carrying a 170-pound person under battery power alone, travel at less than 20 miles per hour, according to the National Conference on State Legislatures. The bicycles can travel faster than that when a combination of pedal and battery power are used.
James Toth, co-owner of E-Bikes of Southern New Mexico, talks about the different types of e-bikes he sells, including e-bikes built to handle off-road and rough terrain. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)
In addition to federal legislation, states are able to enact their own laws regulating e-bikes and their use. Nearly 30 states have done so, according to the NCSL. New Mexico is not among them.
The New Mexico Motor Vehicle Division’s website indicates the division’s practice is that e-bikes are “considered to be bicycles (not mopeds or motorcycles) and are not subject to the titling and registration requirements of the Motor Vehicle Code.”
Three states, including California, have set up tiers to distinguish among types of e-bikes, according to the NCSL. Beyond the three tiers, more-powerful vehicles are considered mopeds and require licensing and registration. The tiers are as follows:
- Class 1: A bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
- Class 2: A bicycle equipped with a motor that may be used exclusively to propel the bicycle, and that is not capable of providing assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 20 miles per hour.
- Class 3: A bicycle equipped with a motor that provides assistance only when the rider is pedaling, and that ceases to provide assistance when the bicycle reaches the speed of 28 miles per hour, and is equipped with a speedometer.
Weighing costs and benefits
E-bikes can come with a hefty price tag that may put them out of reach of many buyers. Still, proponents noted savings from within other components of a person’s budget — such as spending less on vehicle fuel and maintenance — could readily make up for an investment in an e-bike.
A row of e-bikes sits at the home of James and Barbara Toth, co-owners of E-Bikes of Southern New Mexico. (Photo: Josh Bachman/Sun-News)
Hill, owner of Ride On Sports, said he’s been stocking e-bikes for about five to six years. He said the market is limited because of the economic challenges in the region, but there are people seeking them. After having problems several years ago with some e-bikes on the lower end of the cost spectrum, he said he now sells a line of Specialized brand e-bikes that run in the range of $2,700 to $6,000 for a road bike and $4,500 and up for a mountain bike.
“They do pretty well for us, but it’s a higher-ticket item,” he said.
The Toths said their bikes range between $1,000 to $2,500. In addition to the purchase cost, the bike’s battery wears down eventually and must be replaced, which can cost several hundred dollars.
“I’m thinking you should expect 10,000 miles out of a battery,” said James Toth.
Hill said he’s noticed interest in e-bikes tends to spread by word-of-mouth. One person will buy a bike and realize it’s more fun to ride with a buddy. Soon, the person’s friends or family are in the market for them.
“They’re fun to ride, and when you ride them, that really sells the unit,” he said.
Diana Alba Soular may be reached at 575-541-5443, firstname.lastname@example.org or @AlbaSoular on Twitter.