Electric bikes, electric-assist bikes, e-bikes: Whatever their label, they will have center stage Friday and through the weekend at an expo at Burnsville Center.
Nearly all e-bikes made in 2015 were sold in Asia, but the U.S. market is robust and growing fast. In fact, sales are expected to grow to $24.3 billion by 2025, according to Navigant Research, a market research firm. Minnesota is part of that emerging market, said Ray Verhelst, the expo’s executive director and organizer. Bike-makers at the expo such as Trek, Stromer and Cannondale and local retailers (Penn Cycle and Erik’s Bike Shop) will have more than 170 e-bikes for test-riding on a closed-loop circuit. The models run the gamut from those for mountain biking, to commuting and cargo styles.
The event begins at 3 p.m. Friday and runs through the weekend (9 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Sunday). Admission is free. More details are online at bit.ly/ebikeburns.
In a recent conversation, Verhelst talked about where e-bikes fit on the cycling landscape; their allure for what he called the “atypical cyclist”; and where e-bike technology is headed. Below are some edited excerpts.
Why come to Minnesota?
We launched this (expo) a little over two years ago. We realized in the U.S. market in order to get people to truly experience how electric bikes are, they needed to ride them. And the only way they could ride them is to do demos. We have 176 bikes that have been registered for test-riding at this event. That’s huge for us. To have this many more here, and such a wide variety, speaks well for the marketplace there. The ability to come and test-ride on a closed loop circuit we create, it allows you to take every bike out and ride the identical path that you did on the course before. Now you can see the differences between this type of motor or a bike with suspension or without, or a mountain bike vs. a commuter bike vs. a cargo bike.
You spoke of the track. What did you create at Burnsville Center?
We are creating in about a little over 50,000 square feet in the parking lot a circuit that has a number of turns, an outside loop that allows people to experience the higher speeds, a main hill that we’ve built to allow people to experience how a motor kicks in, what an electric bike motor can do if you ride in terrain. We have a terrain lane. We’ve manufactured these very undulating bumps which are designed for people who ride through the woods on trails, on mountain bikes. It’s a casual, fun environment. You are dealing directly with the manufacturer’s rep, so you get to talk about not only the product and its competitive element, but the technical side. You get to learn about the bikes.
In general, who comes to these events?
Burnsville is probably in the other direction because (Minnesota) has so many avid cyclists, but greater than 50 percent of our attendants are people who have never ridden an electric bike before coming to the expo. It’s really an eye-opener.
Was Minnesota’s fervor for cycling part of the draw?
We are there to educate, but we leave it up to the manufacturers to tell us where there are bright spots in the country where they really want to go. In some cases, they want us to go to the heart of their market share. In other cases, they want us to go to new emerging markets where we get to introduce the technology to a growing segment of the marketplace. Minneapolis has a strong cycling culture, but electric bikes don’t necessarily fit into the strong cycling culture. They’ve got challenges with electric bikes. As your city continues to grow in the commuting facet, electric bikes are going to become a key component for people to go to and from work.
What do you say to concerns about e-bike use on trails and off-road?
When you have the age groups that I have at these events, there are not people looking for single-track terrain and dropping off cliffs, these are people who are looking for recreational, casual rides. To be able to do errands, maybe bring the bike on some sort of recreational holiday.
What’s the future of e-bikes?
Electric bikes are selling. There is a 79-percent increase in sales, year to date, from last year. They are selling. Whether you like them or not they are here. Brands that are growing behind it are companies that five years ago would have put a hex on you had you said you were going to build an electric bike. You are not going to be able to wish them away. You are going to have to find a way to make them compatible. But if you better understand who the potential customer is, there is less fear for cyclists. In most cases, the two will never meet.
What’s emerging? How have they evolved?
Weight has always been an issue. Lighter frame composite materials. Designs within the frames to where the battery doesn’t look as if it’s been stuck on with duct tape. Higher energy density (meaning battery cells with more power and longer life cycles.)