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E-Bikes: Still the Thug That You Love to Hate

Through my Internet travels yesterday, I unassumingly stumbled upon this piece in Bicycle Retailer. The article tells of an e-bike drivetrain manufacturer, NuVinci, that’s partnering with Evelo Electric Bicycles on an incentivized weight loss promotion scheme of some kind. The gist of it is that, for 30 days this summer, they’re putting up $10 a pound for every pound that you lose on one of their bikes. Needless to say, like with most advertising campaigns, my thought process went clear in the opposite direction of the ad’s intent. Sure, there’s the obvious low hanging fruit to be plucked clean regarding e-bikes, but instead, the promotion actually inspired me to peer deep into my pensieve regarding the future, if any, of E-Mountain Bikes.

Being a bit of a pragmatist, the gears started turning in my head on just how much money was being devoted to this “contest” of sorts. And without getting into all of the possible economic variables, NuVinci and friends stand to easily part with around $250k this summer. Sadly, though, they’ll still be pushing around the same stupid e-bike a quarter of a million dollars later. The idea of spending piles of cash to promote a seemingly worthless product (at least to me, anyways) is unsettling to me, which is why my focus turned back onto the general history of late 19th and early 20th century invention — the era where, with a swig from a cocaine riddled soda and a huff of ether, nearly any idea was passable as a good idea. And in my opinion, no invention of the zeitgeist dared to dream as big as the field of aeronautics. However, while the dream was there, the daunting bite of a reality consisting of death, destruction, and financial money pits was omnipresent. In other words, flight needed to be incentivized in order to spark growth and ingenuity.

The premise behind this is simple — for centuries, the driving force behind nearly every technological innovation has been money. Whether it be the cold, hard cash that’s derivative of a successful utility patent or the winning of an out-and-out prize, companies, nations, and ideas all bow at the alter of the almighty dollar. And not surprisingly, inventors usually attend the same weekend service. Not following? Put your imagination cap on: It’s 1901 and horses still carry more favor than automobiles. At this time, what in the world could be more insane than the concept of flight? Then again, what could possibly be more intriguing?

In the dawn of the new century, the Brazilian visionary Alberto Santos-Dumont glove slapped the face of danger and flew his dirigible around the Eiffel Tower. Why? Well, partly to win the Deutsch de la Meurthe Prize, and partly to win the accompanying 100,000 Francs. A few years later, Henry Farman flew a one-kilometer circuit in a heavier-than-air ship. Why? For 50,000 Francs and the chance to win the Grand Prix d’Aviation, of course. In fact, much of aviation’s history reads like this (I recommend reading Wings of Madness if you’re interested in the subject). First, there’s a contest with a hefty prize put up by an eccentric patron. Second, people bust their ass to be the first across the line.

Even today, the same approach of incentivizing innovation is being applied to space flight and exploration. There’s the already fruitful SpaceX Prize, and even more recently, the Google Lunar XPrize. If you don’t see where I’m going with this, I’ll break it down into simpler terms — NuVinci and Evelo would be better off putting up their don’t-be-fat-cash to incentivize a radical development in the e-bike arena.

As it stands, the current e-bike platform offers little to nothing for the already dedicated cyclist. But think of it, a long-travel travel mountain bike, under 35lbs, that offers pedaling assistance for those in the lift-line and shuttle contingent of mountain biking. LaPierre is drawing near to this concept with its Overvolt, but with only 140mm of travel and a two to five hour battery life, its 45-pound weight seems hardly justified.

Another place where the current e-bike paradigm falls flat is that its feet are dipped in two pools — traditional mountain biking and whatever world Bosch decides to make up. Perhaps this is just the personal philosophy of someone who only had a car for a year, but electric motors and derailleurs just don’t mix. In other words, an internal gearbox seems to be the most logical direction. Though, in today’s world, this would make something that’s already obtuse even larger and more cumbersome. But this is all derivative of the underlying problem: the e-bike manufacturing industry has grafted itself to the savvy and technology of Bosch.

Right now, Bosch is widely considered to be on the cutting-edge, and yes, they do have an existing platform for the aforementioned technology. However, the size and weight of how it is compared to what it should be is like comparing Zach Morris’ trusty Motorola to an iPhone. Likewise, these technologies will inevitably get smaller overtime, but without competition, there’s little incentive for Bosch to push the pace to something truly revolutionary. But if you gave a guy like this a million dollar incentive to make an e-bike that looks and feels like a normal mountain bike, his driveway tinkering would probably go off the charts. The result? An e-bike that wouldn’t inspire guilt from a real mountain biker — no one should cry into their ice cream over riding an e-bike.

But while an invention contest seems historically appropriate and cost-effective, I’m left wondering why no one has leaped this hurdle? The reason is glaringly obvious, though. You see, e-bike manufacturers really don’t care about attracting “real cyclists.” If you actually examine the Leisure Trends reports, bike sales are performing like shit, and sales growth is about as stagnant as a cesspool. However, there’s a massive, untapped market of potential commuters and hobbyists out there. Simply put, the game theory shows that the risk of inventing a new market makes more sense than swaying the already opinionated, which is evident given that the transit/fitness and leisure/lifestyle categories of bikes experienced the highest percentage of growth in March, dwarfing mountain and road bikes at 54% growth combined.

So, what’s the moral of this story? It’s that money talks. Yes, with a cash incentive, the e-bike could easily invent a way to extend an olive branch to the dedicated cycling contingent. But when it’s already making easy money off of a new faction of the market, innovation isn’t going to accelerate proportionately with growth. If anything, morphing the categories doesn’t make fiscal sense in the short term, and as you’ve probably figured out by now, the cycling industry isn’t exactly renowned for its long-term vision. The real question is if you’d ride one?