I recently met up with a group of friends at a local restaurant, and since the weather was sunny, warm and dry all at the same time (rare in October in Oregon), I rode an electric bicycle I’m reviewing for Forbes.com. My friends know that’s part of my gig, but this particular bike was matte black and a bit more… motorcyclish, even though it was clearly a bicycle. It was also a bit more powerful than most electric bicycles, but only a smidge. And it was good fun to ride.
After pulling up, talked turned to the bike (after I was playfully called “cheater” for using it rather than a pure pedal power machine, because: Portland) and since we were next to a large, empty parking lot, some fun test rides commenced.
One friend returned after a sampling the pedal assist and then using the thumb throttle (which requires no pedaling) with a large smile and said “I gotta get one of these immediately!” He then followed up by saying “I haven’t had that much fun since I owned a motorcycle years ago.”
Motorcycling is in a tough spot these days. Harley-Davidson’s struggles – and gambles – are well known, and many other bike makers who are better insulated from declining sales by other products (cars, heavy equipment, boats, musical instruments, etc.) have seen sales numbers either fall, flatten or stagnate. Motorcycle-riding baby boomers, who sparked the industry to incredible heights in the 1960s on nascent but approachable Asian machines, are riding less due to their health (and mortality), and new riders are not exactly flooding into dealerships.
Young people just out of college these days have the world at their digital fingertips, and the many hours they spend on screens of all kinds is time they could be out riding – but aren’t. They also tend to have a lot of debt from school, gig economy jobs or entry positions in a wage-stagnated economy, making a motorcycle a luxury purchase. They save money where they can. Mass transit, rideshare services, and bicycles are how many prefer to get around, and the surging wave of affordable electrified bikes has extended their pedal-powered roaming range. They are also much more aware of their carbon footprint.
Additionally, many have been brought up in environments where their personal safety was given top priority at every turn by well-meaning but non-riding parents, so much so that riding a motorcycle now seems like a high-risk choice to many – if the idea has crossed their busy minds at all.
But the reaction of my friend after riding an electric bike for the first time made me rethink the possible futures, both for traditional motorcycle makers and newer electric-bike entrants like Zero and Lightning.
As has been well-documented, Harley-Davidson is the first legacy motorcycle company to bring a full-on electric bike to market, and during the run-up to the release of the LiveWire machine, H-D hinted more electric models were on the way – as were electric bicycles, which at the time, seemed like a bit of an odd vector for the company that has banked on an image that seemed very distant from including “cyclists.” But things are changing, perhaps quickly.
Now, Ducati has also joined the ebike fray (at least in Europe to start) with three models, and it’s all beginning to make better sense. It may have seemed obvious to some people that a motorcycle maker should also produce (or partner to produce) a branded powered bicycle, but if your lens is that of a long-time motorcycle rider, it’s easy to misunderstand the strategy as half-baked or a roll of the dice. It doesn’t seem that way to me any more. I’m not the first to arrive at this point, of course. Programs like Discover the Ride and NewTo2 are putting people on electric bicycles and electric motorcycles at motorcycle shows. But this is a concept more motorcycle makers should quickly latch onto.
Let’s just call out the obvious: An electrified bicycle is a low-powered motorcycle, especially if has that sneaky little thumb throttle that lets you still the pedals and effortlessly breeze along in near-silence. Those are known as Class II electric bikes, and the top speed for most electric bikes in the U.S. is 20 miles an hour, which may sound slow compared to car speeds, but on a bicycle, 20 is a pretty good clip, especially if you’re not pedaling.
And for those that would say these electric bikes are “electric mopeds,” like the smoking buzz bombs of yore, that’s not far from a technical truth, but the difference is the technology that powers today’s rides. These are true bicycles, with gears and the usual bike stuff, but also disc brakes, computer-smoothed assist systems, and the latest electric-car derived battery technology. Those old mopeds had pedals mainly for legal compliance. Ever try to pedal one? Not fun, and sometimes not even possible.
If a modern electric bicycle runs out of power, you just ride it like a normal bicycle. I recently rode my electric bicycle on a 100+ mile bike camping trip, loaded with gear. I usually just rode it like a regular bike in the flat, with no assist, and dialed in some boost going uphill. I’m not young, thin or particularly healthy and would not have been able to complete the trip on a regular bike because of those steep hills. But with 350 watts of power neatly tucked in the rear hub, I pulled it off. And it was a great time.
More powerful bikes, known as Class III bikes, can hit nearly 30mph with assist from pedaling. Some electric bikes clearly go far beyond any classification and begin to edge into actual electric motorcycle space, but they still have pedals which actually work.
Indeed, bikes like the UBCO FRX1, Cake Kalk& and the Stealth B-52 blur the line between bicycles and motorcycles, but also act as a bridge between the two camps. Downstream for those high-end machines, affordable electric bikes are getting faster, better, and cheaper, just like products in any genre of consumer technology. And as more people buy them and discover the fun and freedom of riding without pedaling, they are likely to consider taking the next step to something bigger, faster and more capable. It’s only natural.
Motorcycle makers would be wise to facilitate that first step, and be prepared with offerings that can provide an affordable, reliable and perhaps electrified path forward for new riders who decide that this powered bicycle thing is a pretty nifty trick, and what if it was a bit bigger and faster? In 1948, a Japanese businessman did just that by grafting a small gas motor onto a bicycle so people could go faster and farther than on a regular bicycle. His name was Soichiro Honda, and the idea seems to have panned out.