News from the front in the war on bike purism

We’ve had a lot going on this week, with moving our store to a smaller, temporary space while we sort out our permanent retail showroom. Nonetheless, the wheels of my mind are always turning, and here are a few resulting random thoughts:

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On the financial situation in the US. This is the big, big news. I can feel it in the air – everyone senses change is coming. Yes it is. The current blow-up in the big banks was not at all surprising to me. I’ve been reading this great site, itulip.com, for several years now. Eric Jantzen, its founder takes the long view based on history about our present situation, which he predicted quite accurately a few years ago. It is a large and complex problem that boils down to one simple thing: the USA has way too much debt. It is not just government, it is all of us. We are in hawk up to our ears as a nation. And our creditors are nations like China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia. Our continued spending spree is dependent upon them continuing to provide us an ever expanding credit line. Let’s compare this to personal finances. One can get ever bigger credit lines and get further in further in debt – to a point. But when the creditors decide that the debts are too big to pay, they stop lending new money. What would (will) happen if (when) these countries decide to stop funding our profligate spending as a country? To sum up: ouch. A big change in the way most of us live, at least until we figure out how to get our manufacturing businesses re-started and re-build an economy based on true value, not just Finance, Insurance, and Real Estate (FIRE, a term coined by Mr. Jantzen).

What does this have to do with bikes? Two things. First, a big portion of our debt as a nation are the > $500 billion per year we spend importing oil. What do we provide in return for those 4.8 billion barrels of oil we import per year? Create paper (or electronic) money. Money that can be printed, or at least created out of thin air as new treasury issues (i.e. debt). We are racking up the mother of all debts – debts that will be very hard to repay with anything of concrete value, unless we sell off all our assets to foreigners. The best way to reduce this debt, here and now, is for all of us to use less oil. Based on my own personal experience, electric bikes are the best available option, here and now, not some pie in the sky electric car that may or may not exist in the future at a price that may or may not be affordable to most of us.

But second, we as a business feel a responsibility to our community. We think that at least some of our products need to be produced locally. It is a long road from where we are now to that future, because in the past years, it’s been pretty darn hard to compete with the Chinese and other countries on labor costs. But that is changing, slowly. Shipping costs are rising, while the dollar is sinking (see the stuff about our debt above, for an explanation of why). This means that as currencies like the Chinese Yuan rise against the dollar, imported products will get a lot more expensive. This is likely to re-balance the equation back towards making it favorable to produce at least some products at home. We are already starting in small ways – we build our own BMC wheels up in house, and we are designing a new DC/DC converter to power bike lights, stereos, coolers, etc directly from the main bike battery. That, too, will be produced locally. Those are small but important steps, providing local employment, and a tiny bit of insulation against drastic changes in world trade as various currencies re-balance.

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The eZee 26″ kits are back in stock. These are still one of our favorite kits for upgrading a bike to electric – light weight and reliable. Also, easy to install.

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We’ve had a lot of inquiries about the BMC hub motors. We hand-build each wheel, so we’ll be working hard to keep up with the interest.

Our next batch will be the new BMC V2 motors, which are capable of higher power and speed. Nominally rated at 600W, the new V2 motors have heavier wiring and internals to allow more extreme usage. They are capable of peak power of up to 1200W or so. We’ll post more here as we get these in our hands and on our bikes for testing. We also have a V3 wheel (1000W) for testing. That wheel is supposed to be very, very fast.

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Well, the title of this entry mentions bike purism. I recently saw an article about the explosion of electric bicycles now available in the market. Some of the commenters wrote in with a negative attitude about electric bikes. The objections raised are the same ones I’ve been hearing since my first e-bike in 1994: why do you need power when you have perfectly good legs? Are you a wimp? When will you “graduate to a real bike?”

I do not think everyone needs an electric bike. There are plenty of people who are young, fit, or live close enough to work/shopping/etc that they are perfectly happy biking by leg power alone. That’s great – I own 4 non-electrified bikes, and I use them often, and love them. But I also use and love my electric bike, for a variety of reasons that include: it is fun, it is great when I’m tired, it helps me carry heavy loads on my bike, it is more energy efficient than pedaling (because the food that I eat is transported mostly by oil-powered vehicles), it is great for hot weather, it helps keep me in shape, and it encourages me to ride the bike every single day and for all my errands.

So, my question is, why do the “purists” have to dump trash on the rest of us who find an electric bike practical and useful in our own lives? Excepting when I go on a rant like this one about their anti-ebike views, I don’t trash on their choice of bikes. I’ve never once said “fixies are stupid” (referring to the trendy fixed gear bikes). What is it that compels such folks to have such an anti-ebike stance? I think it stems from the attitude that bikes are all about racing and recreation, and not for real transportation.

I’ve had multiple customers call up to tell us the same thing. They go into their local bike shop, and ask about an electric assist motor, and the bike shop folks look at them like they are aliens. They walk out, search on the web, and find us.

Seriously, there are many good things about ebikes, and it surprises me that so many in the bike industry in the US are so unaware of these facts:
1. Electric bikes are the most efficient form of transportation on the planet. They get over 2,000 miles per gallon equivalent.

2. Electric bikes encourage more people to ride. They help people who are out of shape, or in shape, get back on the bicycle and get in the car less. This leads to less oil use, less pollution, and a lot more fit people, reducing healthcare costs for us all.

3. A little racing bike is a lot of fun, but it is not meant to carry the items that most people need to carry in their day to day lives. For example: today I used my electric cargo bike to transport my daughter 9 miles each way to and from daycare, I picked up Chinese take out food, I stopped at the hardware store and bought a set of items including a large 3′ x 3′ screen protector, and I had a change of clothes handy for an important business meeting. I rode over 30 miles, transporting these things with an electric assist, that consumed a total of about 500 watt-hours of power, which costs about $0.07 (seven cents). By comparison, a typical SUV would have consumed 1.5 gallons of gas ($6.00), equivalent to 55 kWh of energy. That is 110 times the amount of energy, and 85 times the cost. A Toyota Prius is better, but still not great: optimistically estimating 50mpg for in town use, it would be about $2.40 for gas (34 times as expensive as my bike, not counting the difference in maintenance and depreciation costs), but more importantly, the Prius would consume at least 22kWh of energy, or 44 times the energy that I used on my bike. Do the purists really prefer that I just keep burning oil?

4. Electric bikes are not very complicated, but for a shop to provide good support and repairs, they do have to understand electricity. I understand why typical bike shops are reluctant in this regard. In our shop, we have a group of people with degrees in Physics, Biology, Computer Science, and (most of) a math degree. With that kind of background, figuring out what’s wrong in an electrical system is not rocket science (it’s not like what I do in my day job, which is developing computer programs to analyze genomes). But the typical bike person is not versed in volts, amps, power, and etc. I hope someday the USA will get to the point where many bike shops are versed in these things, because that will help all of us. But that will take a lot of time. In the meantime, I just wish those folks who complain about e-bikes being “difficult to fix” would just come out and admit that the reason they are “hard to fix” is because the person making this statement doesn’t have the proper training to fix them.

5. I’m not going to “graduate” to a real bike (seriously, I’ve been asked when I will “graduate”)! I have non electric bikes, and I ride them fast and hard. But I ride my electric bike fast and hard too. It is a great bike. There is nothing to graduate to, except an even more advanced electric bike.

C’mon bike purists, let it lie. There are more important battles to fight that affect all of us who bike, like getting better bike facilities and friendliness in our cities.

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And finally, something that all cyclists should cheer about (electric or not): The “Bicycle Commuter Act” passed as part of the Financial Bailout Package. This provides a tax credit for “Any qualified bicycle commuting reimbursement,” of up to $240 per year ($20 per month that the bike is used for commuting). We’re not tax experts, but it seems that a bicycle hub motor used in commuting should qualify… (ask your tax person to be sure!)

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