Health

Electric Bikes Are More Popular Than Ever—and Just the Boost You May Need During the Pandemic

Especially for new cyclists, battery-powered bikes are easy riders.

Photograph courtesy of Pedego Electric Bikes

Last fall, months before the corona­virus hit, I made a purchase that would end up making my life easier, safer, and more enjoyable during the pandemic—though I couldn’t have known it at the time.

An electric bike had never been on my wish list, though I’ve had a lifelong love of cycling. I had fallen out of the habit of riding my old 21-speed, partly because my Cleveland Park neighborhood isn’t very bike-friendly—there are no bike lanes near my apartment, and the side streets are mostly narrow and hilly.

Then I overheard a colleague rave about his e-bike. He said it was good exercise—although his model had a motor, he had to pedal to engage it—and he rode places he would otherwise have driven to or taken Metro.

That weekend, I test-rode an e-bike, zipping up hills I couldn’t have managed on my own. With the click of a button, I turned on only as much assist as I needed to climb, then turned off the battery when I didn’t need it.

It was a great way to get around. It was a surprisingly good workout. And it was exhilarating. I imagined myself riding to work, enjoying bike paths on the weekends, and running errands on my bike. What I never could have imagined is that having an e-bike would keep me active and sane during the coronavirus scare. I’ve been able both to avoid public transportation and to get together with friends while keeping our distance.

The bike I bought was a $2,500 Trek from Griffin Cycle in Bethesda. As an e-bike owner, I’m part of a trend. In 2015, independent bike shops across the country sold about 9,500 electric bikes, according to PeopleForBikes, a nonprofit group that promotes cycling. Last year, those shops sold nearly 125,000.

The pandemic seems to have accelerated this trend. Todd Ketch, who owns Pedego bike shop in Alexandria, says business has been brisk in the past few months. Some people who canceled a vacation decided to use the money on a new bike. Others were bored being at home and looking for an outdoor activity. “The numbers have been pretty crazy in terms of sales,” he says.

As electric bikes have grown more popular, manufacturers have been adding a multitude of features—hydraulic brakes, Bluetooth, GPS, crash detection, antitheft tracking.

Different e-bikes provide power in different ways. Some require you to pedal to make the motor come on—a feature called “pedal assist.” Others have a throttle, which works whether or not you’re pedaling: Just twist the throttle on the handlebar and you’ll surge forward. Some have both.

My Trek is fairly basic. It has four levels of pedal assist (but no throttle), nine gears, disc brakes, front and back quick-release wheels, and a simple bike computer that tells me how fast I’m going and how much battery power is left.

I can remove the battery—with a key, for security—to charge it, and it can power my bike up to 20 miles an hour.

Some pricier bikes have more levels of assist and a motor that can get you going up to 28 miles an hour. Some have considerable cargo space and optional seats to bring along a couple of young children or even another adult.

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The motor’s placement makes a difference. A mid-drive motor—low, in the middle of the frame—feels most like being on a regular bike. A motor on the hub of the back wheel can give a sense of being pushed.

One thing to know: E-bikes are heavy. Mineis one of the lighter ones, at about 40 pounds, without the five-pound battery. After I brought it home—and after several neighbors took it for a spin and gushed about how fun it was—I had to stow it away, down eight steps to the basement of my apartment building, which has no elevator. It got away from my grasp, bumped down the stairs, and crashed. No harm done, fortunately. But I couldn’t get it back up the stairs. It was too heavy.

I worried I’d made a $2,500 mistake.

Adding to my second thoughts: I was told that the bike was too heavy for a regular bike rack. If I wanted to trans-port it, I would have to have a hitch installed on my car and buy a sturdier rack, which I didn’t want to do. Even with the wheels taken off, it didn’t fit inside my Honda Civic.

Then someone questioned whether I could legally take my e-bike on bike paths. I looked up local regulations and saw that “motorized vehicles” aren’t allowed on many of them.

Fortunately, these obstacles fell away one by one. A friend came up with an ingenious way to get my bike out of the basement that involved walking backward up the stairs while rolling the front tire with my hands. (It’s hard to explain, but it worked.) He also showed me how to get it back down after removing the front wheel, going carefully step by step and bracing my back against the wall.

I also learned that even though I have a bike with a motor, I can legally ride on most area bike paths. That’s not necessarily true for all electric bikes. (A summary of bike laws by state is at peopleforbikes.org/e-bikes, including how the states categorize electric bikes. The Washingtonian Area Bicyclist Association has direct links to the local laws at waba.org.)

I’m now riding whenever I get a chance, swooping down hills, confident that on my return trip, I’ll be able to glide back up those hills to get home.

I still prefer bike paths to streets, especially busy streets, so when I had an errand in Bethesda recently, I rode south through Rock Creek Park from Cleveland Park to Georgetown, then caught the Capital Crescent Trail north to Bethesda and arrived a few blocks from my destination. It took me several miles out of my way, but it was a beautiful day and I was getting exercise, taking in the scenery, and having fun.

And that is really the point.