This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.
For Ali Conder, the electric-bike boom was apparent on the first day her shop opened a month ago.
“We did 15 times what was forecast,” said Conder, general manager of the new Rad Power Bikes store that debuted in Sugar House in early June.
Conder said Rad’s “wagon” models, which can hold two child seats, have been especially popular in family-oriented Utah.
Seattle-based Rad is mainly an online seller, but it recently chose Salt Lake City to open only its sixth retail store, the first U.S. location off the West Coast.
“The interest from the local Rad community has been incredible, and our customer base in the Greater Salt Lake area is rapidly growing, making this the prime location for our sixth retail showroom,” said Rad Senior Media Relations Manager Kelsey Wickham, who also pointed to Salt Lake City’s “hundreds of miles of bike trails.”
A nationwide trend
That matches what Alya Hopkins is seeing at Salt Lake eBikes, a mile or so up 700 East from the Rad store. Hopkins says her business has tripled in the past three years. “It’s been up a lot just since gas prices went up.”
Other sellers tell a similar story. E-bike growth was driven first by pandemic-trapped people wanting to get out and move, but more recently it’s those spiking prices at the pump that are bringing in buyers. Battery charges that cost pennies are replacing $70 gas stops.
Utah is hardly alone. Last year more electric bikes (790,000) were sold in the U.S. than electric cars (652,000), according to Bloomberg News.
And while e-bikes are generally more expensive than human-powered two-wheelers, the gap is closing. New electric bikes start as low as $1,500, with high-end, carbon-frame, long-range bikes topping $10,000. Most shops have models in the $2,000 to $3,500 window.
The stores also service the bikes, and most of that service is the same as regular bikes: brakes, chains, lubrication. Hopkins said she’s seen a small number of frequent riders — people who commute 40 miles a day — who wear out their e-bike batteries, which cost hundreds of dollars to replace.
Most riders, though, haven’t had to worry about battery replacement.
Buyers of all stripes
So who are the buyers?
“It’s all over the place,” said Hopkins, including commuters, mountain bikers and older and disabled people who want to get back on a bike.
“The step-through bikes are really popular with older riders,” said Jacob Foote, manager of Salt Lake City’s Pedego bike store on State Street.
Like the Rad shop, the shop sells only one brand, Pedego, but, like Rad, that brand has commuter, cargo and mountain varieties. With weight less of an issue, many e-bikes have fat tires for a smoother ride, including on dirt.
Foote agreed that the spike in gas prices has raised interest considerably. While a 10- or 20-mile round-trip bike commute used to be only for the hardcore riders, e-bikes put that in reach of casual riders.
Not for children
E-bikes do not require any special licensing — for either the bike or the rider — but they aren’t for kids. Most types require that riders be at least 14. That has to do partly with weight. The batteries and motors put most models above 50 pounds, too much for a 12-year-old to manage.
And the motors cannot be any larger than 1 horsepower (750 watts). Above that, they are regulated like motorcycles.
E-bikes are categorized in three classes, depending on how they are propelled and how fast they go:
• Class 1 — A “pedal-assist” bike in which the rider must pedal to engage the motor. The motor stops assisting if the bike exceeds 20 mph. Cycling purists prefer pedal-assist bikes because the riding experience is closer to traditional bikes.
• Class 2 — These can be pedal-assist or completely powered by a throttle (no pedaling required), but the motor still stops assisting above 20 mph.
• Class 3 — These are pedal-assist-only, but the motor works up to 28 mph. A speedometer is required. These are more popular with long-range commuters and so-called cargo bikes.
On the road, e-bikes are regulated like regular bikes, and riders must follow all the laws other cyclists do. Children riding as passengers are required to wear helmets.
Unlike electric cars, there are no incentives available to e-bike purchasers in Utah, at least not yet. In Denver, the city offered a rebate of up to $1,200 on a new e-bike. Those were snapped up in three weeks. So the city is making another 2,000 rebates available in July.
Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.