Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- What was shaping up to be the year of the electric car has turned into the year of the electric bike. The Covid-19 pandemic has created a global quandary about how to travel quickly and safely, leading to increased interest in bicycling. Demand for e-bikes, especially, is rising. Pedal-assisted models can reach speeds of about 30 miles per hour, helping people get to work without having to rely on public transportation while also offering a chance to exercise—riders still must pedal.

For companies like Specialized Bicycle Components Inc., in Morgan Hill, Calif., the interest is validating a longtime commitment to electric models. Founded by Mike Sinyard in 1974, the company developed its first commercial e-bike in 2013—the Turbo S, a high-speed commuter model that was a departure from Specialized’s bread-and-butter road bikes. The model “landed our tag line, ‘It’s you, only faster,’” says Chris Yu, Specialized’s leader of product and innovation, and it became the foundation for all electric models going forward.

Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed

Turbo S demand was steady the first few years; then over the past three years, the company says, sales of all turbo e-bikes have more than doubled (Specialized declined to give specific sales figures). There are seven e-models today—including the newest, the SL Vado Turbo, a commuting bike released on May 12. All use technology similar to that developed for the Turbo S. One change from that first model: The motor has moved from the rear hub to the bottom bracket, between the pedals. Shifting the weight improves efficiency and handling.

The company is the only maker of e-bikes to also build its own motors. “For us, it’s not just about one piece of it,” says Yu. “There’s the tech stack, that’s a foundational enabler, then the frame, the fork, the wheels. It sounds basic, but after 46 years of development, one thing we know is details matter.”

Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed

The Turbo SL 1.1 motor shown below debuted last year. A custom-designed magnesium housing has helped to reduce the weight of the motor and the bike. The development in part was based on Turbo S rider feedback, asking for the same power, but lighter.

Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed
Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed

Sinyard is enthusiastic about the growth opportunities in electrification. “There are analysts saying that the most important EV isn't cars but bicycles,” he recently told the trade publication Bicycle Retailer—he believes it’s companies like his own that should lead, “not the car companies.”

Retailers see Sinyard as a kind of electrification evangelist, says Nelson Gutierrez, the owner of Strictly Bicycles, a shop in Fort Lee, N.J. “He told us years back that we have to own this sector, it’s only going to grow,” he says. Gutierrez opened his store ten years ago, and from the start was a licensed dealer for Specialized and several other higher-priced brands including Cannondale and Trek. E-bikes have been part of the inventory from the start.

Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed

Buyers still are cautious given the price tag, Gutierrez says. But the fears about commuting, especially on longer train and bus routes from the New Jersey suburbs into Manhattan, have led many new customers through the shop’s doors. Before the crisis, Stricly Bicycles rang up about 1 e-bike sale every week to two weeks. Now, 8 to 15 e-bikes leave the shop every week, Gutierrez says.

Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed
Getting Lighter and Faster, E-Bikes Reach Cruising Speed

Not that cycling is immune from the challenges presented by the current crisis. Deloitte recently revised an outlook that had predicted cycling would see a 1 percentage point rise in the proportion of people who bike to work, between 2019 to 2022. Now, Anisha Sharma, the lead for Deloitte’s Tech, Media and Telecom industry group, sees no change for 2022. She predicts the proportion of bikers is likely to decrease for 2020, given work from home and lockdown mandates globally that have been in place for several months.

Increasing density in cities and suburbs are among the factors that will continue to push electric bikes forward, say Yu and Ian Kenny, Specialized’s head of marketing for the Turbo line. “It’s not that people won’t use cars anymore, but they’ll use a car for the trips that make sense and maybe not buy a second car, and buy an e-bike instead,” says Kenny. “We do believe there’s this moment now, this tipping point.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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