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Electric Bikes Generate a Following

Trends * Sales are up as product offerings increase and marketers play up their obvious benefits. Some see them as a crucial step in consumer acceptance of electric vehicles.

February 23, 2000|STEPHEN GREGORY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Ten years ago, Ed Carter swore off the smog, traffic and parking hassles of cars and embraced the nonpolluting freedom and simplicity of bicycles as his main means of transportation. Now the 41-year-old Culver City resident has found an alternative to his alternative.

In October, Carter bought an electric bicycle, joining the growing ranks of U.S. consumers looking to add a little kick to the standard two-wheeler and in the process, manufacturers hope, sparking greater acceptance of electric vehicles as a viable substitute for gasoline-powered cars.

"I wanted to get something nonpolluting that I could use for longer distances or when I was tired," said Carter, a film archivist who rides 10 miles each day to and from work. Helping him in that commute now is an E-Bike, an electric bicycle manufactured by EV Global Motors Co.--a Westwood-based start-up notable for one of its founders, retired Chrysler Corp. executive Lee Iacocca.

The E-Bike can operate as a standard bicycle or, with the flick of a switch, travel up to 15 mph without assistance from its rider, thanks to a battery-powered 400-watt motor mounted in the hub of its rear wheel.

In a twist on the two-car household, Carter can choose between his E-Bike and his 21-speed GT road bike, depending on his mood and the circumstances of the day.

"Sometimes you just don't want to show up places all hot and sweaty," he said, offering one of the reasons he opts for the E-Bike over his regular bicycle.

*

Since their first notable appearance in the United States in 1994, electric bicycles have registered increasingly bigger blips on America's consumer radar with each passing year. In 1995, for instance, just 1,500 were sold nationwide, said independent bicycle industry consultant Ed Benjamin. Last year, sales hit 30,000, he said, and that number is expected to surge to 120,000 by the end of this year.

Up till now, buyers have largely been affluent, retirement-age couples who bought sets of his-and-hers bikes, Benjamin said. Fleet sales to law enforcement and businesses have accounted for 5% of sales.

"We've reached that critical mass where the product is really going to take off," Benjamin said.

Already electric bicycles seem to have made inroads among a variety of demographic groups.

"From what I've seen, it covers the whole spectrum from young up to seniors," said Mike Alas, manager of Millennial Motors in Oceanside in northern San Diego County. The retail shop, devoted exclusively to electric scooters and bicycles, has sold more than 40 electric bicycles and do-it-yourself conversion kits (used to transform regular bicycles into battery-powered road bikes) since it opened in November.

"Everybody loves the bikes," Alas said. "I don't know how the word is being spread, but it's being spread."

Manufacturers such as Currie Technologies Inc. of Van Nuys are hoping that the word resonates particularly in the ears of baby boomers. The company plans an aggressive marketing campaign this year aimed at consumers in their 40s and 50s--two age groups that were instrumental in popularizing mountain bikes in the '80s and '90s and now may need a little zip in their pedals as they get older.

Indeed, many models of electric bicycles, such as the E-Bike and Currie's E-Cruiser, have retro '50s styling that seems squarely targeted at boomer nostalgia. Marketers also hope to play on other popular consumer sentiments: concern for the environment, disdain for rising gasoline prices and, perhaps the most easily tapped, aversion to pedaling up hills.

"We're out to take hills out of the equation," said Currie co-founder Richard Mayer, whose company builds four models of electric bicycles. "People on bikes hate hills."

*

Steve Burd, 45, of Yorba Linda used to be among them. Two years ago, the plastic-moldings maker dreaded huffing and puffing up inclines every time he went riding with his 7-year-old daughter. She rode a single-wheeled trailer bike attached to the seat post of his mountain bike so that, in theory, the pair could pedal as a team. On hills, however, Burd found himself doing most of the work.

Now neither of them has to do much. Burd fitted his bicycle with a battery-powered motor manufactured by ZAPworld.com, based in Sebastopol, north of San Francisco, and considered the pioneer of the U.S. electric bicycle industry.

"If I come to a hill and I need a little power, I just push the button," said Burd, who liked his ZAP unit so much that he bought one for his 73-year-old father.

ZAP and Currie products, Benjamin said, have been among the most popular sellers. Meanwhile, EV Global's E-Bike and a model called Lafree made by Taiwan-based Giant Manufacturing Co. have made major strides in the market since their introductions early last year, he said. Another player on the horizon is Ford Motor Co., the world's No. 2 auto maker, which plans to introduce its own electric bicycle in the summer as part of its Think line of electric vehicles.

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