At first, it feels like cheating. An electric bike sports all the basics found on any pair of wheels: pedals, handlebars, a triangular seat that demands a little butt wiggle to position oneself just so. But engage the pedal assist motor, fueled by a lithium battery, and a burst of energy will superpower each pedal revolution. A little push produces major movement. Suddenly you’re Lance Armstrong, fresh off a doping session and facing a smooth downhill grade—it’s all a little too easy.
Sweat-fueled bicycles as we know them have been around since the 1880s, with today’s models not all that different from the original invention. The electric bicycle is almost as old; America’s first battery-powered version was patented in 1895. Given technology limitations—weight, battery range—they remained oddities until the 1980s. In the 2000s, their use exploded. A 2015 review of international research cited more than 150 million e-bikes sold in the previous decade, calling it the fastest uptake of alternative-fueled vehicles in the history of motorization.
So why do electric wheels feel like getting away with something? Maybe because cycling has long meant intense athleticism, especially in Seattle. Most of us live on hills that host a master class in quadriceps abuse for conventional pedalers. Cycling here is a point of pride, a green way of life, a health regimen, a culture. Motors won’t take that away, especially if they’re not actually a swap for Schwinns.
E-bikes “are car-replacing vehicles,” says Paul Tolmé of Seattle’s Cascade Bicycle Club. “That’s the most exciting use.” Many club members, including Tolmé, own both, using the powered edition where they might have driven before: think grocery runs, or commutes that can’t end soaked in sweat. Cargo versions allow for easy rides with an awkward package or passenger on the back.
What’s more, battery power has made bikers of a whole new crowd. At the Rad Power Bikes showroom in Ballard, a salesperson estimates that older customers are the largest shopping demographic—new riders who thought they lacked the power to get anywhere on two wheels. Gary Fujioka Sr., a Cascade member, testified to the state senate’s ways and means committee in March as they discussed a bill to exempt e-bike purchases from state sales tax. After a major stroke, he calls his embrace of his electric bike “a more active and socially responsible lifestyle overall.”
Any animosity between the two kinds of pedalers—muscle versus motor—has largely settled. “In the old days people would say ‘You’re cheating, that’s cheating,’ but people understand what they are now,” Tolmé says. Cascade allows them on every club ride, including the famous annual Seattle to Portland event.
The country’s biggest e-bike seller sits above that Ballard showroom. Founder Mike Radenbaugh started Rad Power Bikes when he was just a high schooler; now his company has recorded more than $100 million in sales. Most projections predict global adoption will grow by double-digit percentages in coming years. They’re even, perhaps, finally cool: After Prince Harry’s famous Oprah interview aired in March, he made his first subsequent public appearance riding a Rad model in California. If a battery-powered bike is cheating, we cheaters are in good company.