Around this time last year, David Frei was at the top of his game. He was coming off a season in which he had won a number of expert class and marathon length mountain bike races and had finished second in the U.S. Adventure Racing Association’s national points ranking as part of Team Alpine Shop.

However, as 2016 progressed, his performance began to fall off.

“I started to have trouble tripping on the trails,” he said.

Frei made an appointment with his doctor and underwent tests. Last October, he received the unfortunate diagnosis. He had Degenerative Motor Neuron Disease, most likely Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

It was shocking, especially for someone who had never broken a bone in his body or spent a day in a hospital despite a lifetime of adventurous pursuits.

“I was still doing pretty well,” Frei said about his mountain biking at the time. “My downhill riding was good, but after a while my uphill pedaling got pretty bad.”

That’s when fellow Team Alpine Shop member Jeff Sona suggested looking into an ebike, a bicycle with an electric motor that can provide propulsion through power-assisted pedaling or a throttle.

“It wasn’t even on my radar,” Frei said. “A fit racer would have no reason to buy a bike like that.”

Circumstances being what they were, Frei did some investigating and ended up purchasing a new Trek Powerfly 8 FS Plus electric mountain bike (eMTB) in February. He has since put the bike through its paces on a half-dozen hard rides on area trails.

David Frei and his Trek Powerfly

David Frei and his Trek Powerfly

“I still think it would be silly for anyone who is in good condition to get an ebike, but for someone like me, it sucks not to be able to keep up with your friends,” Frei said. “For now, it feels like I can be big dog on the trail again.”

Gaining Momentum
Chris Dial, owner of Momentum Cycles in O’Fallon, Mo., where Frei bought his Trek Powerfly, has seen similar reactions to ebikes. Many customers are dubious at first but after a bit of education (and a test ride) often end up adopting the new technology.

“A lot of people look at them and ask, ‘What are they?’ Initially, they scoff. ‘The whole point is to go out and get exercise. Why buy an electric bike?’ But we explain that there are all kinds of scenarios in which they make sense,” Dial said.

He has sold ebikes to husbands whose wives don’t ride, and vice versa, so they can take trips together on the Katy Trail. He has sold ebikes to RV owners who want no-fuss transportation once they reach their next destination. He has sold ebikes to retirees who prefer to ride to the grocery store rather than drive their car.

“We’re seeing interest across the board,” Dial said. “Everybody’s first thought is that people are buying ebikes for commuting, but the reality is that more of these customers are recreational.”

Momentum Cycles began carrying ebikes in early 2016 and has sold nearly a dozen since then, from eMTBs to street cruisers to hybrid road/trail models.

“Last fall, before it got cold, we were having the ebike conversation with customers every day,” Dial said. “Every person we get to test ride one comes back into the store with a smile on their face. They have a whole new perspective on what an electric bike is.”

Coming of Age
North American sales of ebikes reached 30,000 in 2016, even though electric models were not available from some major bicycle manufacturers until midyear. Marketing firm Navigant Research predicts that 152,000 units will hit our shores in 2017. The company also forecasts ebike sales to grow from $15.7 billion this year to $24.3 billion by 2025.

With ebikes having been heralded as the “next big thing” for the North American bicycle industry for some time — they’re ubiquitous in Asia and Europe — why are people here just now getting on board?

“I think the biggest change we’ve seen in the last couple years is that the product is something people want,” said Sam Benedict, mountain brand manager for Specialized Bicycle Components. “Especially on the mountain side, they were not great bikes before. They were clunky and looked funny and were not great handling, but that has changed pretty rapidly.”

Advancements in technology have resulted in longer battery life as well as smaller motors that are lighter and can be integrated into the bike frame. This in turn means a design that is cleaner and sleeker, with a better geometry.

Prices have also dropped. Some models now come in close to (or even below) the magic $2,000 threshold, making them about as expensive as a high-end conventional bicycle and therefore more attractive to buyers.

Growing Pains
Of course, with ebikes gaining traction, their users are enduring increased scrutiny from policy makers and cycling purists.

In Missouri and Illinois, ebikes are considered “motorized vehicles” and may use the right lane in roadways. Illinois also specifies that ebikes may use marked bike lanes while Missouri does not say. Ebikes are prohibited on sidewalks in both states. Neither specifically mentions multi-use paths.

Additionally, the Missouri Department of Natural Resources has this policy for ebike use on the Katy Trail: “Electrically assisted pedal-powered bicycles and tricycles (max speed 20 mph) as well as electrically powered-mobility devices for persons with disabilities such as motorized wheelchairs and scooters are allowed.”

Those in the mountain biking community, in particular, have concerns about the use of eMTBs and their impact on trails. The International Mountain Bicycling Association (IMBA) performed a limited study that found eMTBs to have a similar environmental impact as regular mountain bikes, but the social impacts are more complex.

IMBA’s established position on ebikes is “that recreational uses of public lands should be managed on an individual use and trail-by-trail basis, through the diligent application of benefits-based management, preferred use policies and sound, science-based environmental impact assessment.”

On federal land, eMTBs are not permitted on natural surface trails unless expressly stated in the land’s motorized travel management plan. On state land, neither Missouri nor Illinois has specifically addressed eMTB use on natural surface trails.

Both St. Louis and St. Charles County Parks allow only self-propelled modes of transportation on natural surface trails, with the exception of accommodating disabled access. Power-assisted wheelchairs are approved. Any disability related issue/requests are evaluated on a case-by-case basis.

Other country parks departments did not respond to requests for information in time for this story.

A Fun Experience
Pedego Edwardsville, which exclusively sells Pedego Electric Bikes, opened its doors in 2014 after Dave and Leslie Archer took a test ride while on vacation in California and got hooked.

“Before the end of that day, we were proud owners of a Comfort Cruise and an Interceptor,” said Dave.

Pedego City Commuter

Pedego City Commuter

The couple started with four models and a modest, one-room storefront but last year moved into a new 1,500-square-foot location with an office, service shop and display area boasting 10 wide-ranging models — city commuter, fat bike, compact folding bike, tandem and more. The business also offers rentals, group events and fun rides on trails that are easily accessible from the store.

“The paths take you through some of the most beautiful scenery in the Midwest, including the ride from Alton to Pier Marquette State Park along the first bike trail ever developed in Illinois,” said Dave.

You could call Mike Barro, owner of Swim Bike Run in O’Fallon, another a convert. He first rode a Strommer ebike about two years ago.

“I got on that, and then I was a believer,” he said. “Once you got on it and saw how fun it was, until you experienced it, it just didn’t do it justice.”

He brought a couple of Specialized eMTBs into his store about six months ago, and interest has been high. One customer was a military veteran who, due to injuries sustained in the line of duty, could no longer ride like he used to.

“The ebike lets him get out there and still enjoy himself. He reported back to me that he’s ear-to-ear smiles,” said Barro. “I definitely see a day when I call my buddies up and instead saying, ‘Let’s go out and ride 20 miles,’ I say, ‘Let’s go out and ride 50.’ It’s the power to ride more.”

And it’s not just individuals seeing the upside of ebikes.

“It will take some time, but I think cities are seeing the benefits to making bike-friendly communities. The City of St. Charles has a bicycle master plan. It’s coming,” said Chris Dial. “They see the benefit of drawing more young families and the benefit to the economy. I think ebikes will grow along with that.”

Author: Brad Kovach is the editor/publisher of Terrain magazine.
Images: Courtesy of Specialized Bicycle Components, Pedego Electric Bikes, David Frei