At the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of tinkerers in U.S. garages were experimenting with adding the new technology of the internal combusion engine to bicycles, and a flurry of varied approaches were tried. A few of those endeavors survived to become full-fledged motorcycle manufacturers. It sort of feels that way today with electric bicycles — and they're elbowing their way into the motorcycle world.
That was clear last week at AIMExpo, where one small corner of the exhibition hall was dubbed the Cycle Volta e-bike Pavilion and featured electric bicycles and motorcycles, including an indoor track where you could test ride them. For many of these startups, it was the first time they'd tried introducing their goods to the motorcycle industry.
Globally, electric bicycle sales are huge, led by China, and they exceed motorcycle sales in many countries. In the United States, however, the segment is still new and fairly small, so companies are experimenting with a variety of approaches, just as the early motorcycle makers did.
Here are four electric two-wheelers — three bicycles and one motorcycle — that were on display at AIMExpo that you maybe haven't heard of yet.
Super73 is a California company founded in 2016 on Kickstarter that is trying to leverage the Southern California cool factor with some celebrity name-dropping on Instagram along with lots of photos of beautiful young people having fun on their bikes. They've already gotten involved with Roland Sands and raced their bikes in the Super Hooligans series.
"We got our inspiration from the 1970s Taco mini-bikes and started this trend of motorbikes that are in between bicycles and motorcycles," said co-founder Aaron Wong. "It's got the look and style of a motorcycle but the ease and safety of a bicycle."
That creates the opportunity to get young people on two wheels by removing the barriers of having to get a motorcycle license and insurance, he said.
The Super73s look like mini-bike frames without the engine — but with bicycle pedals. On the Z1 models, the 11.6 Ah battery is tucked under the seat, mostly invisible and the motor is in the rear hub. The forthcoming S1 offers a larger battery. Prices start at $1,300 for the Z1, which Super73 claims weighs 59 pounds and has a range of 15 to 25 miles.
The company sells mostly direct to consumers in the United States, though Wong said they also plan to sell bikes through a variety of kinds of retail dealers.
If the Super73's minimal battery makes it look like a stripped mini-bike, the slim batteries on the iGo models allow them to pass as regular bicycles, at a glance.
iGo is a Canadian company that's been building e-bikes since 2006 and has a lineup of 14 models. "We want to have a bike for everybody," said iGo's Michael Courval.
iGo is definitely rooted in the bicycle world. Most of the company's 100-plus dealers are bicycle shops, though they also sell through hardware stores and chain stores like Costco. AIMExpo was the company's first time at a motorcycle show.
The full range means iGo offers everything from urban commuters to mountain bikes in the $2,000 Canadian to $2,500 Canadian price range, using rear hub drives and featuring quality parts such as disc brakes and Shimano derailleurs. Then there's the $6,950 Canadian Carbon CGV with a mid drive and carbon frame. The iGo bikes can be tuned through the company's app.
If the designs above reflect their trendy Southern California and sensible Canadian origins, then so does the QuietKat line from Colorado, which is something entirely different. This line of off-road bikes (there's a trike, too, and trailers for hauling your camping gear into the woods or your field-dressed deer out) is aimed at people who want a motorized assist to get out into nature without disturbing it with the noise of an internal combustion engine. Think hunting, fishing, or backwoods exploring.
"We're not trying to replace your motorcycle. We're not trying to replace your bicycle," said QuietKat's Ryan Spinks. "We're a whole new category. We'll get you into the back country and get you back out."
These fat-tire off-road bikes have seven-, eight- or nine-speed gear sets, 11 Ah or 16 Ah batteries, and provide claimed range of 40 to 58 miles, if you help by pedaling (half that if you let the battery provide all the energy). Prices range from $2,349 to $6,199.
While the others are electric bicycles (by my definition — they have pedals), the two models offered by Swedish company Cake are motorcycles. No pedaling required. Or possible.
The two models are the Kalk&, which is street-legal, and the Kalk OR, which is off-road only.
"It has that Swedish aesthetic and it takes inspiration from bicycles for enduro-style riding and downhill riding, especially with the OR, with the light weight. It's unique in being so light," said Cake's Gareth Fons.
The off-road Kalk OR weighs just 152 pounds and the Kalk& is about 20 pounds heavier, with the components needed to make it street-legal. The 50 Ah battery sends power to the rear wheel through a 420 chain. Riders can choose from three ride modes ("Explore," with limited speed and maximum range, "Excite" and "Excel" for maximum performance) and three levels of regeneration (freewheel, similiar to a two-stroke motorcycle or similar to a four-stroke). Top speed is 50 mph on the OR and 56 mph on the Kalk&. A full charge takes about 2.5 hours on a standard outlet.
On the off-road Kalk, the rear brake is operated with a lever on the left hand grip, like a scooter, with the idea that the rider is going to be standing and moving around and it's easier to use a hand brake. The Kalk& has a traditional foot-operated rear brake. Fully adjustable Öhlins front suspension on both models is one of the quality components.
The price is also premium: $13,000 for the Kalk OR and $14,000 for the Kalk&, with free shipping from Sweden.
Bicycles in moto-land
Those weren't the only companies, both new and established (Yamaha was also showing some electric bicycles), that displayed electric two-wheelers at AIMExpo. Many of the attendees at the show are powersports dealers, so it is a good place for startups to show their inventions to dealers.
Many of the seminars at AIMExpo covered topics such as growing the ranks of riders and selling to younger customers, and electric bicycles are a good way to do both, I believe. For young people living in urban settings (and that's the demographic trend), an electric bicycle is a viable commuting option that's cheaper than a car, easier to learn than a motorcycle, and doesn't get you to the office in need of a shower to be presentable, like a bicycle.
I assume the industry will consolidate and product niches will form as it matures, but right now it's interesting to see the diversity of approaches, and I expect to see even more of them at the next AIMExpo.