Thoughts on Electric Bikes, Part II
Some years back when I was an editor at Bicycle Guide, my colleague Joe Lindsey and I had the occasion to meet with a gentleman hawking electric bikes. He was the head of marketing for some electric bike company that is now less-remembered than Major Matt Mason. In 1997 the idea of an electric bike was a good deal less accepted than it is today. Worse yet, the pitch was a good deal less refined. The poor guy was desperate and it was evident in his voice, his pitch, his face. His big play was, “But it’s easier!”
Joe, in his wonderfully soft-spoken and gentle, but direct, manner responded, ‘Well, you see, our readers like the work. They want to pedal hard.’ There was a bit more to the conversation, but there was little to do at that point other than wish him well. I told him we weren’t hostile to what he was doing, but we just weren’t the right outlet. As we walked away, I turned back for a moment and the look on his face was less hang-dog than hanged-man. Returning to the office empty-handed clearly wasn’t how this little excursion was supposed to go and his next stop appeared to be the gallows. There have been few occasions in my life when I have said anything to someone that made them look sadder. I’ve never been so acutely aware what it meant to pity someone as I did that day.
Fast-forward 10 years. My buddy Jim buys his wife an electric bike as a way for her to run errands without always getting in the car. She’s lucky enough to have an exceedingly local life and rarely has to travel more than three miles from home. So one day she rolls up to the coffee shop as we’re hanging out post-ride. To my eye, with its 20-inch wheels and ultra-long stem extension (essentially a handlebar mast), it looks to me more like a travel bike than a proper bike. Naturally, Jim begins egging me on to take it for a spin. My refusals go unheeded; he doesn’t care that I’m in cleats, that it doesn’t fit, that I’m trying to be polite about not being interested. So I get on. The variety of bike she had included a twist throttle, meaning you could pedal, add in some electric power, or just ride it like an electric scooter.
As I rolled out, I did what cyclists do—I pedaled. That’s when Jim yelled after me, “Use the throttle!”
When I did, the resulting kick had a curious effect: I smiled. Actually, I didn’t just smile, I grinned. I didn’t need a mirror to know how large it was; I could feel my cheeks press against my helmet straps. Were I prone to embarrassment due to shows of public emotion, this would have sent me to a closet. Fortunately, I’m not easily flustered by my own actions, so as I headed back up the hill to my friends, it didn’t really bother me that they gave hearty laughs when they saw my smile set to 11.
The particular combination of acceleration and nearly noiseless operation is what made the electric bike such a revelation. Cars and motorcycles have taught us that big accelerations with motors make big noises. We’ve been taught to expect big throttle action to result in equal parts velocity and noise. After all, only half the love of muscle cars is a love of speed. The other half is a love for the growl, the aural conflagration that is the internal combustion engine. Lions wish they could sound so impressive. But when you take out the scream, no matter how lovely a symphony of pipes and explosions may furnish it, the combination of all-out-attack quickening and child’s-toy noise breaks our expectations, making the experience tantamount to a joke. And any time you multiply fun by funny, the result is a tightening of facial muscles combined with involuntary hiccups of air.
Yeah, I grinned and laughed.
I tell you that to explain why when the folks at Specialized rolled out the Turbo—their electric bike with a price tag like a top-notch race bike—and said, “You’re guaranteed to smile,” well, that’s when I didn’t laugh.
Now before anyone thinks this is a full-fledged review of the Turbo, let me say I’ve had exactly one ride on this thing and it was roughly as long as a network sitcom. That’s not really enough for me to do what I’d call a review. But as an introduction to a product, well, it had the same effect of a tasting pour at a winery. Yes, I’d like to purchase a whole bottle of that, please.
The first, biggest, difference between the Turbo was … hell, kinda everything. I’d like to point to how there’s no throttle, that instead there is a four-setting switch that dictates just how much electric assist you receive. I’d also like to point out how it handles like a regular bike, and how the gimongous battery fits into the down tube to keep the center of gravity as low as possible to improve the handling. They are all really stellar features that make the Turbo a very different line of thinking in the electric bike category.
It’s when the switch that determines how much assist you get is in the fourth and highest setting that the bike is at its most incandescent glory. For every watt you put into the pedals, the Turbo matches it, just like when your employer gives you a dollar-for-dollar match for contributing to NPR. The payoff for a watt-for-watt contribution, though, is way more fun. This is on the order of first-kiss exciting.
The Turbo will actually teach you a thing or two about riding, as well. Because it multiplies your wattage, if you pedal in squares, the bike will surge with each pedal stroke. I’ve never ridden anything that does more to reward a smooth spin. The handling is as balanced as a liberal arts degree. It’s nimble, but not too quick, and stable, but not lazy.
Now, I should make clear that this thing weighs more than both of my sons put together, more than most downhill bikes, more than a book by David Foster Wallace. It’s a good thing you won’t need to load this onto a roof rack; it’s unlikely most cyclists could lift it that high (I’m speaking for myself here). The good news is the wheels are military grade and roll up and down curbs with the nonchalance of a dump truck over flowers. Let me be blunt: This is a real bike, through-and-through.
The genius marketing move would be a $100 million TV ad campaign in which consumers were challenged not to giggle. Don’t giggle, get $100. Giggle and … you get to keep riding for another hour. I tell you, this thing is better than Six Flags.
At some point I may enjoy the opportunity (and I do mean enjoy) to do a full review on a Turbo. The challenge for the bike isn’t that you need to be convinced that the big, red S did its homework. It employs a proprietary battery developed by the same folks who do batteries for Apple’s mobile devices. Yeah, it’s like that. The bike employs myriad features to make sure it’s as easy to use as an iPhone. Actually, it’s easier.
The challenge with this bike is the suggested retail of $5900. If we compare this to purchasing a mountain bike from Specialized, the difference is that the mountain bike is a passion-driven discretionary purchase. We all-cap WANT a mountain bike. That purchase is aspirational—I’m gonna have so much fun on this! But the Turbo is much less likely to be seen through quite the same recreational lens. Sure, it will for plenty of people who aren’t currently cyclists, but I’d like to think that part of the Turbo’s charm and promise will be its ability to make believers out of existing cyclists. I harbor this suspicion that if thousands of dedicated riders were to add these to their quiver for commuting and errand duty (CED), that would be yet another win not just for this bike or electric bikes as a category, but for cycling as a whole.
Another suspicion: if the Turbo is unlikely to be a passion purchase the way a new bike usually is, something will need to make the purchase easier to swallow. After all, this will still be a discretionary—i.e., not a necessity—purchase for most people who consider buying one. There’s a chance that Ed Begley might ditch his electric car for one, but I can’t imagine too many people will turn to the Turbo as their sole means of transportation, at least in the good ole United States of Murka.
With that in mind, what I think Specialized ought to do is partner with GE Capital to come up with a financing program for the Turbo. There’s already a one-year-same-as-cash deal, but that means your monthly nut is the same as the payment for a very nice car. I’m thinking something that brings the monthly payment down below $200. At that point, I’d consider it.
It’s interesting to me that the Turbo is just a bike. It’s not a utility bike. There are (thus far) no accessories for it like racks or trailers for CED. Wouldn’t that increase the attraction for this bike? Wait, that gives me an idea.
Hey Mike, make if you’ll make a bakfiet Turbo and offer a financing plan, I’ll be first in line.