Why e-bikes are becoming more popular during the pandemic in Sonoma County


Before buying an electric bicycle, 71-year-old Peter Schindler had trouble keeping up.

On rides around Sonoma County, the retired TV and movie producer often fell behind the pack or was dropped altogether, a frustrating experience for a guy who used to tear up L.A.’s racing circuit.

On his e-bike, however, it’s a different story. By using the power assist, Schindler, who lives in Santa Rosa, can zip along comfortably at 25 mph or more, which is fast enough to put him at the front of the peloton.

“As if I was a young racer guy, which is fun,” he said.

Electric bikes are game changers for older riders, rekindling their passion for the fast and furious days, flattening mountains and allowing them to travel farther and faster. For riders young and old, they can cut down on commute times or simply allow us to pedal without feeling like we might die.

E-bike sales, already brisk before the pandemic, are soaring, fueling inventory shortages and price increases for some sought-after models. The U.S. market for e-bikes grew by 263,000 bikes between 2016 and 2017, a 25% gain, according to eCycleElectric Consulting.

The Trek bike store in Santa Rosa sold more e-bikes in 2020 than in any other year, and some models are already back-ordered until 2022, according to store manager Kyle Bundesen.

Older riders are helping fuel these trends. Bundesen said e-bikes give people who struggle to ride because of their age or health the opportunity to experience life on two wheels again — or even for the first time.

“It makes it less of an effort to get going on the bike, because it assists you. You can go farther and get a better workout,” he said.

That comes with a few caveats. E-bikes come in three classifications, with some offering pedal assistance and others throttle power. If you rely heavily on the latter, you’re probably not getting the full health benefits of cycling.

But you will arrive at your destination faster.

Eris Weaver, the 62-year-old executive director of the Sonoma County Bicycle Coalition, transitioned to an e-bike for her commute to Santa Rosa from her home in Cotati. As a result, she shaved 30 minutes off her total travel time.

“Not only do I get there quicker, but I’m less sweaty, which is nice,” she said.

Weaver said e-bikes are the fastest-growing segment of the bicycle market.

She said e-bikes “help get people on bikes who might not otherwise and grows our movement for better bicycle infrastructure.”

The price for lower-end e-bikes continues to come down, with some models selling for around $500 at some big box stores.

Sonoma Clean Power is launching an e-bike incentive program in March to give income-qualified customers $1,000 toward the purchase of an e-bike from a local dealer.

Higher-end e-bikes feature more powerful motors, bigger batteries with longer range, carbon frames and wheels and electronic shifters.

Schindler bought his Specialized S-Works Turbo Creo SL e-bike for $12,000 in 2019. A newer model now retails for $13,500.

For about $5,000 less he could have purchased an electric Vespa scooter. But that would have deprived him of his workout.

Schindler said he can burn as many calories and elevate his heart rate as much on his e-bike as he can on a regular bike simply by adjusting the power assist. Last year, he logged about 7,000 miles on a bicycle — electric and otherwise — which is roughly equivalent to pedaling across the United States and back.

The former racer uses the Strava app to track his performance. To avoid controversy, he notes when a ride has been completed on his e-bike so other riders don’t think he is trying to cheat them out of a virtual trophy.

For other riders, simply being able to ride is the goal. On Specialized’s website, a man named Gary wrote that he purchased an e-bike from the company while he was recovering from a heart attack.

The man wrote that his bike “has allowed me to ride like my old self and restored my ability to pursue my life’s passion for riding — it’s often easy to forget about my medical limitations.”

Charlie Niles can relate. The 79-year-old retired car dealership owner from Santa Rosa was seriously injured in a hit-and-run crash in July 2020 while he was test riding a Trek e-bike. By then, he had already decided to buy one of the bikes, which he now credits with getting him out on the road again.

Niles said he’s back to climbing hills and racing along the flats like a man half his age.

“It allows you to ride at a level higher than you would for your current age and ability without getting yourself worn out,” he said.

In California, Class 1 and 2 e-bikes are allowed anywhere regular bikes are allowed. For Class 3 e-bikes, riders must be 16 and older, wear a helmet and not ride on a separate bike path, according to Weaver with the bicycle coalition.

Electric-assist mountain bikes are not permitted on trails or fire roads in Trione-Annadel State Park. Sonoma County Regional Parks allows Class 1 pedal-assist bikes on all paved trails, and currently not elsewhere in the parks. That policy is under review, according to a parks spokeswoman.

For Schindler, whose showbiz career included working with the likes of Mel Brooks and Billy Crystal, e-bikes are the latest reel in his lifelong love affair with cycling and with bikes.

“I like the way they look; I like the freedom,” he said. “They’re just the ultimate form of entertainment.”


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