COLUMBIA — On an electric bike, the world seems flat.
A cyclist on an "e-bike" can tackle Columbia’s hilly topography with ease and reach speeds of 20 mph or more on flat terrain.
Ted Curtis has been buying electric bikes on eBay and working on them for the past year. He has a fleet of seven e-bikes and operates a website called ebikecolumbia.org that serves as a point of contact for people interested in taking a test drive for up to a week. He currently loans out three of the seven bikes.
“It’s going to be really hard to get people interested in and investing in electric bikes if they don’t have the opportunity to ride one around for awhile,” Curtis said.
Curtis’ bikes are equipped with rear storage baskets, a battery and a charger. On each basket, an ebikecolumbia.org sign reads, “Exercise....Errands....Exhilaration!”
Before he set up the Columbia Electric Assist Bicycle Program, Curtis drew from a GetAbout Columbia study that identified the top two reasons someone would be reluctant to hop on a bike: lack of personal fitness and too time-consuming.
The e-bike tackles these reservations by assisting in the propulsion of the bike and by cutting the time it takes to get to work, school or run errands.
According to ebikecolumbia.org, e-bikes are federally classified as a bicycle if they have less than 750 watts of power and a maximum speed of 20 mph. If they fit this description, they are allowed on the MKT, Katy and other bicycle trails.
An e-bike looks like any other bicycle but has an electric motor. When a cyclist wants only to pedal, the bike functions as a regular bike, but when a cyclist needs to bolt across town running errands without breaking a sweat, the battery kicks in at the twist of the throttle like a lithium-powered Lance Armstrong.
Most e-bikes are “power-assist,” which means they are powered by either a lightweight lithium battery or sealed lead-acid battery, which is a bit heavier than the lithium version but costs about a third of the price.
Some e-bikes can power a cyclist for up to 15 miles without pedaling.
Before he became project manager at GetAbout Columbia, a $22 million initiative designed to promote bicycling and walking, Curtis was a founder and executive director of Trailnet in St. Louis for 13 years. Much like GetAbout, Trailnet was focused on making the city more bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly.
Curtis operates ebikecolumbia.org independent of his work for GetAbout Columbia and intends to continue carry it out as a solo endeavor.
“It’s really more like a hobby of mine than anything,” he said.
His next challenge is increasing the availability of the bikes at retail stores. New e-bikes range in price from about $400 to upward of $3,000.
The bikes Curtis purchased on eBay were usually around $500.
He said buyers should expect to spend $300 to $1,000 more than they would on a non-motorized bike. A lithium battery alone is usually between $300 and $400; a sealed lead-acid battery costs $80 to $100.
Walt's Bicycle Fitness and Wilderness Co. and Cyclextreme Bicycle Warehouse can order e-bikes or conversion kits for an existing bicycle that cost from about $400 to $500.
Tim Martin, a sales associate at Walt’s, said the store has carried a few e-bikes in the past, but they haven't been an easy sell because of their expense and riders' lack of familiarity with them.
Buyers of e-bikes tend to be long-distance commuters who don’t want to rely on their car or someone with a physical impediment such as a hip injury, Martin said.
Steve Stonecipher-Fisher, owner of Tryathletics, said that’s on par with the type of person who comes in to see his store’s single e-bike, a Kona brand with a $2,600 price tag.
“It’s usually not someone who is new or has been shying away from biking, but longtime bikers who are maybe looking for assistance up hills or commuting long distances,” he said.
Although spending thousands of dollars on a bicycle might seem excessive, Curtis notes on ebikecolumbia.org that it costs about 5 cents to fully charge an e-bike battery that will take a rider 15 to 20 miles.
According to the US Department of Transportation, Americans drive an average of 13,476 miles a year or about 37 miles a day. If a car got an average of 25 miles to the gallon, at October’s national average gas price of $3.48, a driver would spend $1,875 a year on gasoline.
Between coasting down hills, pedaling over flat stretches and using the motor to assist up hill, covering 37 miles a day on an e-bike doesn’t sound all that unreasonable.
“I’m almost certain that e-bikes will increase in popularity, especially in progressive places like Columbia and with transportation prices rising,” Fisher said. “It will take some transitioning, and I don’t think it will happen overnight.”
First Ward Councilman Fred Schmidt, an avid bicyclist, interchangeably rides a cargo, racing and electric bike. “At first, I thought electric bikes seemed kind of silly, but now I see how great they are,” he said.
“When you think about the cost of buying and fueling a car or investing in an e-bike, which costs practically nothing to run, e-bikes are peanuts in comparison to the cost of driving,” Schmidt said.
“Those first couple of weeks with an electric bike will completely win you over," Schmidt said. "You’ll be looking for an excuse to ride it."