Going electric: E-bikes pick up speed in Encinitas

When Sandy Pirrone moved from the Midwest to Encinitas, she had a difficult time climbing the city’s many hills with her 10-speed bike. Her solution? Go electric.

“I ride the e-bike to work, to the grocery store, to the beach,” Pirrone said. “It’s convenient — I take my car a lot less now.”

She added: “People are definitely curious. Everywhere I ride, I get questions.”

E-bikes are gaining a foothold locally thanks to growing awareness, increased demand and more retail availability.

Salesman Ernie Robinet specializes in e-bikes at El Camino Bike Shop. He said sales have picked up steadily since the shop began offering them a year ago.

“They were viewed as this exotic thing five years ago,” Robinet said. “People are starting to embrace them with open arms.”

The shop sells about 10 a month, a number that’s expected to keep increasing. Mid-range e-bikes, costing $2,000 to $2,500, are the most popular there, he noted.

“At that level, you get more torque and the battery is better,” Robinet said.

“Not a ton of shops are selling them, making us more of a destination,” he added.

Robinet said e-bike customers fall into three categories, the first being baby boomers with disposable income.

In the second are commuters who want to save gas, avoid fighting for parking and arrive at work without breaking a sweat. Those who can’t make it up hills on their own make up the last category.

“A lot of people have a tough time with all the hills in North County,” Robinet said. “Importantly, the bikes give them the ability to get out there and exercise more.”

E-bikes, though a small share of the nation’s bicycle industry, are gaining popularity.

From July 2012 to July 2013, 158,000 e-bikes were imported into the U.S., nearly double the same period a year earlier, according to Ed Benjamin, chairman of the Light Electric Vehicle Association, an industry group.

Benjamin attributed this largely to the increased reliability of the technology powering them. Plus, there’s been a jump in retailers selling e-bikes, so people have more opportunity to give them a spin.

Sales are picking up nationwide, but more so in dense, urban areas, as well as places with a heavy senior population, like Florida, he noted. While North County doesn’t fit either of those descriptions, the area strikes him as being full of early adopters.

“My observation is that San Diego is generally a cycle-friendly place,” Benjamin said. “I don’t have hard data, but I expect you to have more than the average amount of sales and attention there.”

More than 47 million e-bikes are expected to be sold in 2018, with China accounting for 42 million, according to a 2012 report from Pike Research. The U.S. represents only a sliver of that figure.

“We’re at the back of the pack, but we probably have the most growth opportunity in the future,” Benjamin said.

But some obstacles must be overcome.

Notably, traveling by car is ingrained in the American psyche, he said. And e-bikes aren’t ideal for long distances. Also, some cycling enthusiasts perceive e-bikes as “cheating,” which Benjamin disputes.

“I’m willing to bet the guy who says it’s cheating has got big quadriceps, isn’t so old and is in great condition,” he said. “Most Americans don’t fit that description.”

E-bike batteries can last anywhere from 15 to 80 miles. They typically take two or three hours to recharge.

E-bikes come in two types. With one kind, known as pedal assist, the motor kicks in when the person pedals. Riders feel as if they have a constant tailwind. Others have a throttle that can be cranked when the rider wants to accelerate.

The latter type is banned in New York City, largely because of conflicts between delivery workers and pedestrians.

But Sheriff’s Sgt. Joe Tomaiko couldn’t find any collision or incident reports in Encinitas specifically mentioning e-bikes.

A special license isn’t required to operate the bikes, Tomaiko noted.

E-bikes are subject to the same rules as regular bikes, and they must conform to a few extra ones: Riders must be at least 16 years old and wear helmets.

“Personally, I haven’t noticed a ton of e-bikes out there, but that, of course, could change,” Tomaiko said.

Indeed, more are banking on the trend.

Electra Bike Company, a manufacturer that recently moved its global headquarters from Vista to Encinitas, has one e-bike in its line. But it plans to build on that.

“The e-bike segment, as a whole, is exploding everywhere, especially in Europe and Asia …,” Electra officials said in a statement. “The Townie Go is our initial move to the e-bike market, but certainly not our last.”

Josh Love is the assistant manager of San Diego Electric Bike Company in Solana Beach. He said that the company, which sells and rents e-bikes, chose to set up shop in the area because of increased demand.

“By the coast here, you’ve always had a strong contingent of cyclists, and they want to see what this trend is about,” Love said.

“UCSD is nearby, too,” he later added. “Instead of paying $800 for parking, students are choosing an e-bike.”

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