This year, hardly any bicycle manufacturer will exhibit here without e-bikes; and hardly any bicycle dealer will leave Eurobike without ordering some. In the long run, however, some of this activity will bring little joy to the customer, while some may even put the consumer at risk.
Suppliers now have their models ready and, to all intents and purposes, it is too late to make any changes for the 2011 season. However, dealers still have an opportunity, by targeted selection, to focus on quality and, thereby, long-term satisfaction and safety. To be sure, the 11,000 e-bikes recalled by ZEG in July because of potential broken frames are just the tip of the iceberg and should not be the subject of gloating; rather they represent an urgent warning to all concerned.
E-bikes: work of the devil?
Certainly not, yet technical innovations of this kind often interfere with existing technology more profoundly than would appear at first glance. Even leaving the electrical and control requirements on one side, electric motors and rechargeable batteries already imply four fundamental changes with regard to propulsion:
- E-bikes can travel much faster due to the support provided by the motor. Average speeds formerly only reserved for racing cyclists can now be realized with city and trekking bikes.
- Due to the electrical equipment, bicycles are much heavier such that weights of over 22 kg are the norm for e-bikes. The centre of gravity is also different.
- Even untrained cyclists can reach topographically challenging areas and thus quickly go downhill.
- Depending on where the motor is mounted, frames, forks and attachments are subject to significantly different loads due to the effects of propulsion.
Taken overall, the requirements mean that e-bikes have to be designed and manufactured differently. They also have to be equipped with better components than a "normal" bicycle for the same type of rider. By no means has every producer that has brought an e-bike to market taken due account of this.
Different categories of supplier vie for the dealers’ attention in the market in general, and at the exhibition in particular. There are established manufacturers with several years’ experience which, as a result, have continuously developed their products.
The second category consists of well-known bicycle manufacturers which have now jumped on the bandwagon and are presenting their first e-bikes.
Then there are suppliers with little or no experience in the bicycle industry but good contacts in the Far East, thus giving them access to low cost e-bikes.
Finally, there are manufacturers of retrofit kits, which can be used to convert almost any bicycle into an e-bike.
Where to order?
By matching requirements against suppliers, the decision becomes much easier for the dealer. As far as dealers are concerned, retrofit kits rule themselves out on their own account. Not only is the attachment of such "backpack" systems time-consuming, they often turn out to be unsatisfactory as well; the dealer is unreservedly transformed into a manufacturer of the complete e-bike. If any load-bearing part fails, the dealer is liable.
Tempting offers at low prices from sources with no history in the industry very often have little in common with the modern bicycle. In such cases, essential achievements brought forward by the bicycle industry in recent years - which have elevated modern bikes to a fine level – are usually lacking.
Brakes with almost no effect, frames that tend to fishtail, soft-as-soap wheel rims with the worst possible profiles, mudguards without safety devices, rim tapes that offer no protection, lights of almost glow worm standard, and so on, are not uncommon. Therefore, those who have no possibility to carry out serious testing had better stay away from such enticing "bargains".
In any case, bicycle manufacturers probably can ill afford such defects. Nonetheless, it is also worth taking a critical look as to whether e-bikes from manufacturers of regular brands or e-bike specialists were designed effectively or whether a proven model was merely upgraded on the run. A solid battery attachment, the careful laying of the wiring harness with no large holes in the heavily loaded section of the frame and a sophisticated lighting system are good first indications when buying.
Anyone who wants to find out more should jump on an e-bike. Most definitely, serious differences can be experienced in a road test.
Anyone who delights not only in the joy of acceleration but also likes to pull firmly on the brakes or shake the handlebars slalom fashion will soon notice which frame and fork construction was designed for load and speed, and which was not.
E-bike meets consumer
Trying out or - even better - regularly using various types of e-bike available in the store should be part of the dealer’s duty in any case. Even after many years as a bicycle dealer, one can still experience a surprise or two. Not only does the decision as to whether the motor should be at the front, in the middle or at the rear alter the appearance a little, or may offer the option to attach, or not, a gear hub with backpedal brake, it also profoundly affects ride performance.
The various sensors to determine electrical thrust, as well as the control equipment, lend e-bikes their most varied character. Advice and information for the customer are urgently needed.
To be sure, no dealer would wish to look on as, during a test ride in the courtyard, a jerky front-wheel drive throws the untrained potential buyer from the wanted bicycle, thus completely killing any desire to buy.
Service and repair
Potential e-bike dealers must also be aware that some investment in workshop facilities will most likely be needed. Depending on the manufacturer, battery and control equipment require different evaluation and measurement devices. Any dealer that does not have such equipment will soon be groping in the dark when an e-bike comes in for service. For this reason, dealers for whom the acquisition of such equipment is not (yet) profitable should therefore only procure E-bikes from manufacturers that provide a sophisticated service offering.
E-bikes and pedelecs generate new customers and stimulate business. Specialist dealers and bicycle manufacturers would be well advised to take advantage of this important business segment. However, this should not be done on the run; a certain commitment to product and technology are also absolutely essential.