A Bike For The (Older) Ages

I’ll bet that 95% of all baby boomers living in single-family homes and condos have a bicycle or two hanging from the rafters of the garage or clinging to the back of a storage cage somewhere.  Most of them haven’t been ridden in well over 10 years, but their owners still harbor a hope that one day they will again have the time, energy, and courage to enjoy a bike ride. Or maybe they just can’t bear to get rid of that symbol of a more active time of life.

Take heart, boomer bicycle enthusiasts: the ebike has arrived! Starting in northern Europe and quietly growing over the past few decades, ebike is a relatively new industry, with new companies making waves on the biking scene and, thanks to a rapidly aging America, poised to take over much of the biking world by 2023. An online search for ebikes will quickly and easily familiarize you with who is doing what and what they are offering today. 

In truth, battery-powered bikes are far from new.  The idea has been around since the 1880s, when the first “electric bicycles” showed up in the patent offices of both the U.S. and France. Many designs followed, some never advancing beyond the drawing board or patent office.  In the latter half of the 20thcentury, Japanese technology and manufacturing entered the field, with both Sanyo and Panasonic developing and marketing their versions, which mostly showed up on the streets of Europe, while America was still enjoying its love affair with the automobile.  

The most important breakthough in the evolution of the battery-powered bicycle came in 1989 with the invention of the ‘Pedelec’ (known today as pedal-assist). Rather than utilizing a throttle mechanism, the Pedelec allowed riders to enjoy the look and feel of a traditional bike, with the motor being engaged and controlled by their pedaling motion. Both throttle and pedal-assist varieties are utilized in the modern ebikes being produced today. In addition, the use of Lithium-ion batteries has allowed ebike manufacturers to develop lighter and more efficient bikes than were previously possible. Now people can ride longer and go further.

Even without the pandemic, the combination of modern technology and the aging of America have created a perfect storm for the bicycle industry. Suppliers are hard-pressed to keep ebikes in stock. They are flying out the doors of bike shops that carry them and new specialized ebike-only stores are springing up in cities and towns across the U.S.  

My husband and I discovered ebikes on a vacation. We were headed to Barcelona for a week and I was doing some advance planning for our trip, when an ad for a wine-tasting-by-bike tour caught my eye. We had talked about getting out of the city for a day or two during our stay and this sounded like a lot of fun.  But were we physically up to it? Would we embarrass ourselves and hold back a younger, more fit group of bikers? I emailed the tour operator and asked about the terrain, knowing that big hills would be a kick-out factor for me. He emailed back to tell me that yes, the terrain was hilly and would we be interested in reserving one of the ebikes for a small extra fee. I grabbed it, we went on the tour, and had a great experience on the ebikes. The next year we sought out and rented ebikes during a trip to Ashland, Oregon. We were hooked and are now the proud owners of two of them. They took the place of our aging 10-speeds in the garage. 

Ebikes allow us older riders to get all the exercise we want, with the option of employing the pedal-assist motor when our personal energy has been drained.  It’s a great solution for that interminable itch to get back on a two-wheeled vehicle and feel the wind on our face at a time when those aging muscles just don’t give us what we would like of them. 

Prices of ebikes are slowly coming down to earth, with some manufacturer’s base models dipping under $1000.  Fancier models with more features can go as high as $10,000, but there are excellent models for casual riders (without long commutes or a need for top speed) in the $1500. range. In considering an ebike, it’s also important to understand the laws that govern them. Peopleforbikes.org has excellent state-by-state information on ebike regulations. They also serve as a lobbying group for the rights of bicyclists everywhere.

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