I’m about fourteen seconds into demoing a Super73 electric bike in a quiet Irvine, California industrial park when I “get it.” The “it” in that sentence being why these vehicles seem to inspire such cultish devotion from their rabid fanbases on social media and Reddit. The answer is easily visible in my dorky smile.
Tearing around a football field-sized parking lot at 32mph? Feeling like I’m on an old-school motorbike but without the same level of road rash risk, big trucks to contend with, and the need for a special driver’s test? It’s a nice balance of convenience, comfort, and cool. No wonder celebrities from Jack Black to Joel McHale to Meek Mill rep the brand for free.
After a few more minutes, I understand why every single surf grom in the town where I live, Laguna Beach (CA), seems to ride an electric bike of some variety. Just the chance to dodge the city’s notorious summer traffic by using the bike lanes is appealing enough to make me long for one. And while most of the e-bikes on the market cost upwards of $1000, the middle of the price bell curve is still substantially less than a Vespa or a top-notch, unmotorized racing or road bike.
“You like it?!” a helpful media relations manager asks as I fly past her for the third time.
“Tooooootalllyy!” I call over my shoulder, pressing the throttle down as far as it will go.
“The COVID lockdown came in March, the bike boom started in April, and since then demand for e-bikes has spiked through the roof,” Matt Ford, competitive cyclist and owner of Rock N’ Road Cyclery tells me. “We have five stores and can’t keep them in stock. It might not even be the specific bike someone is looking for, they’re just saying, ‘I want to be in that e-bike world, so… I’ll take it!'”
Ford’s assessment of the massive sales boom for e-bikes, particularly since the start of the pandemic, is echoed by brands across the industry. Super73, ONYX, Rad, and Specialized have all spent a fair chunk of 2021 back-ordered online. Wait times for the most hyped bikes can stretch for months, as fulfillment problems due to pandemic-related factory closures collide headlong with unprecedented demand.
“E-bike growth has continued at historic levels,” Dirk Sorenson, an analyst at The NPD Group, told Bicycle Retailer in July. He noted that sales spiked 84% in March 2020, 92% in April, and 137% in May. All of this growth was great, of course, save for the fact that it coincided almost too neatly with production hubs in the US and China shutting down.
“We started to hear about problems downstream in our supply chain in January 2020, heading into Chinese New Year,” says LeGrand Crewse, founder of Super73. “So a lot the production targets of our new bikes were delayed for about 90 days. Then demand started to dry up before turning upward again and spiking.”
By summer, the angle went from “spiking” to vertical. It hasn’t slowed much in the months since.
While Covid backlogs plagued many e-bike brands from the 2020 Christmas season into the new year, rabid fans of the vehicles didn’t seem to mind much. They continued to gather on forums and social media, posting their adventures and design tweaks (Super73 and many of its competitors celebrate people customizing their bikes).
Investors weren’t bothered by the wait times, either. In February 2021, Super73 took on $20 million in outside funding; Rad Power Bikes announced a successful $150 million raise that same month.
As the industry has trended upwards, it’s also innovated. The number of companies and range of bikes has rapidly blossomed, year over year — with styles that Matt Ford notes “often couldn’t be more different and still be categorized as bikes.” Bikes made by Super73 and ONYX really aren’t built to be true “pedal bikes” in any sense, they’re more akin to the old gas-powered mopeds. ONYX even calls itself an “electric drive train motorbike” on its website and on social platforms (though it’s got pedals to retain its e-bike status). On the flip side, Specialized bikes still look and feel like the rest of their product line; they’re “pedal-assist” bikes– not meant to do all the work for you. Somewhere in the middle are companies like Segway (yes, that Segway), which has gone the moto-dirtbike route, and brands like Rad Power Bikes, which focuses on adding carrying capacity, convenience, and ease to the standard bicycle experience.
Everyone is racing to find their lane. Just like with car brands, there are millions of considerations that go into that — some related to pure aesthetics, others related to overall vibe (the community around the bikes, public perception of them, etc.). Then, of course, there’s the matter of performance.
“Honestly, I started thinking about getting my e-bike because it was so cool looking,” says Joe Collord, who waited three months for an ONYX bike to help with his San Diego commute. “I was looking for a road bike and this did everything I needed, plus it was a blast to ride — I mean, you’re silently weaving through traffic at 45 miles per hour.”
The second half of his comment highlights something of a sticking point in the e-bike world. Though the vehicles have different bodies and designs — Joe’s ONYX looks like a cafe racer, the Super73 I tested is more like a military-issued lowrider, Rad bikes look like actual bicycles, etc. — the real differentiator is power. And when it comes to power, California currently divvies the bikes into classes I, II, and III, with different rules for each. Other states have other parameters, with many rules feeling mushy as new tech outpaces legislation.
In California, the top speed for class III bikes is 28 MPH. Anything faster than that is a motor vehicle and governed by the Department of Transportation (DOT). But there’s no enforcement mechanism in place and, since all of these bikes have pedals, it would be hard for a police officer to pull a rider over unless they’d been caught on radar gun. Sure, someone going 60mph on an ONYX might be easy to identify, but someone flying down a bike lane at 32mph on a Super73 will have an easy time skirting the rules.
When I ask Collord about registering his ONYX with the DMV I can almost hear him cringe. “Well… not yet. I do drive in the car lanes — because I don’t want to be a dick flying past cyclists at 45 miles-per-hour — but I haven’t registered as a motor vehicle.” He pauses. “I am looking into it.”
Eventually, there will have to be hard and fast rules created to govern e-bikes. Right now, it’s more like the Wild West, for better or worse. It’s no shocker that people who buy an electric bicycle because it’s so convenient would also prefer not to deal with the hassles of the DMV.
“The pandemic changed everyone’s thought on how they get around,” Super73’s CEO LeGrand Crewse, tells me a few weeks after my demo and our initial interview. “They’ve realized that they don’t always need a car and I don’t think that’s changing anytime soon. We’ve historically thought of two-wheeled vehicles in the US as recreation more than transportation — that’s not the case elsewhere and I’m glad to see it changing here.”
The shift is visible in most coastal cities in Southern California — the unarguable epicenter of America’s e-bike boom and where many brands are headquartered. It’s sure to be seen elsewhere soon enough and could, potentially, have a positive impact on traffic flow in a legitimate way. Delloite’s famous tech predictions estimate e-bike sales between 2020 and 2023 at 130 million units. Meanwhile, GreenAmerica.org puts e-bikes at 1/10 the energy use of automobiles, with electric energy being significantly cleaner than gas and e-bike emissions landing at precisely zero.
Potential applications stretch beyond commuting and into the travel sector. Already, hotels are starting to offer e-bikes (and even e-retro mini SUVs) for rental. Post-pandemic, it’s easy to imagine multi-day trips, part pedal-powered and part electric, through the American Southwest and other wild spaces. City tours, which already utilize e-scooters, are sure to hop on the e-bike wave.
“Obviously, the huge interest is good for us and our industry,” Crewse says. “But these bikes are good for the environment, they’re good for connecting communities, and they’re good for the world at large.”
After demoing multiple bikes over the course of months, I’ll add one undeniable x-factor: “They’re also fun as hell.”