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Green eggs and electric ham

September 10, 2018

As far as I can remember cycling has always been a part of my life in some form or another.

As a kid, my brother and I would ride down the hill trying to lay down the longest skids in the gravel road. In high school, I raced mountain bikes on the weekends with friends. When I went to college for design I managed to design a b bicycle for my senior project. Outside of college, I eventually worked for a few bicycle companies designing bikes as a profession.

I now have three kids who have all started riding bikes as early as they could walk. We moved to Madison knowing it was one of the better cycling cities in the U.S. We purchased our home because it was in a city that allows us to live a car-free lifestyle. We even purchased a large cargo bike so we can haul the kids along with groceries or whatever we need. It’s safe to say that bicycles have been a large part of my life. However, for a large majority of people within the U.S. bicycles are simply an exercise tool or extracurricular sport.

I recently took an E-cycling tour through Switzerland’s Alps. I rode with a group of five guys and rode a total of five days, covering over 233 miles and roughly 23,000 feet of climbing.

I used a Trek Crossrip+, which is their latest Drop Bar Road E-bike (Electric Bicycle). The bike comes with the Bosch Gen2 speed motor, a 500wh battery which is good for about 45 miles in the lowest assistance level, or 25 miles on the fast setting. It has integrated lights that are built into the frame, a rear built-in rack, disc brakes and fenders. I had two rear fully packed panniers on the back rack, and two smaller add-on bags that hang off the front fork. I pretty much purchased this bike for the ride and can’t think of a better product for this type of riding.

Each day was a fun adventure that usually involved a lunch break where we could recharge batteries, which Switzerland is pretty used to by now. Most places we stopped at would ask if we needed an outlet for recharging. The ability to ride up some of the mountain passes side by side, talking and soaking up the view all while not popping a blood vessel was the most enjoyable part. I have done some of these climbs on my road bike years before and now doing it with friends on E-bikes was something completely different. (Just so we’re clear, the E-bikes I am referring to are pedal-assist E-bikes, which means the power is integrated into the pedaling of the bicycle. Not to be confused with a bike with a throttle like a scooter.)

This trip really would not be what it was if it hadn’t been for this product. Could I have done it without an E-bike? Sure, but it would be much more preparation and planning. It for sure would not be as fun, and we probably would not have gone the route we did. We intentionally picked a route with a lot of climbing with one day ending at a 28 percent grade for six kilometers. If we were on normal bikes, it would have taken a whole lot longer, with a lot more pain.

Revolution, not evolution

Most innovations within the Industry have been incremental changes. I like to say more evolution than revolution. A new rear cassette range here or new tire size there. You typically must know a lot about bicycles before you can understand the differences between year-to-year improvements.

If you’re not an enthusiast, you could miss a lot. So how do you make cycling appeal to a crowd of people who don’t really pay attention to bicycles in the first place? Furthermore, how do you make a product that attracts non-cyclists?

Flash back to 2007, when I was working in the bicycle industry with Cannondale in Europe. I worked with some influential people at the time and one in particular led me on to something called an E-bike (or electric bike). At first, I was a little hesitant because I (along with most people) thought this was only for elderly or people with disabilities. What value would I personally have for something like this?

I immediately changed my mind once I went on my first test ride. It was amazing! Little did I know that this product would change my life.

I quickly became an advocate and began telling everyone I knew that this is the new thing that will change the industry. It’s the one thing needed to bring the average “non-bike” person to consider riding a bike. I remember there being a lot of push-back, but within our group we had enough ammo to start making one of our own.

Being early to the game is not always easy but having the right product at the right time is the important part

I was thrown onto a project with a very small team to help develop a new E-bike system with Bosch, the same German company who makes drills and dishwashers. It was a brand-new segment for the company, but they saw promise in this category, enough to have a dedicated team to make a prototype.

We worked with them to help develop an E-bike prototype that was mid-mounted in the frame. This was a new thing for the E-bike industry. A motor that is integrated into the bicycle frame. It would require a specific frame and could not be adapted to any standalone bicycle. This is where we came in to partner with them in making the complete package of electric motor and bicycle in one.

Making this work took many prototypes and redesigns. It kept getting better and better each time.

It takes vision

I will say that it takes a certain kind of vision to see the value of something like this during its infancy. We tried to make it as appealing as possible from an aesthetic point of view, but not all management could picture this taking off. Many were skeptical, then impressed with the potential it had. No one really knew how to forecast it. Was it to replace the city bicycle? Where would they sell it – the same shop that sells standard bicycles? This was a huge problem within the industry. An industry that is so focused around the sports aspect of bicycles means you’re doing it with your own power, not with the help of a motor That’s cheating!!

Well, unlike the U.S., the majority of Europe use bicycles as transportation. This means people are just trying to get from A to B in the fastest way possible and most of the time a bicycle is the way to do this. So, you can see that if you can create a bicycle that is easier for that person, it will sell. And they did!

“The e-bike market is growing at record pace. The newest 2017 data clearly underlines that e-bikes nowadays are a preferred mode of mobility as well as for leisure and sports, also a clean, quiet and space-saving alternative for city logistics,” said ZIV, a German bicycle industry trade group.

In Europe’s four main markets, the growth rate of E-bike sales is over 21 percent. It has become an easy decision for a lot of Europeans despite being a lot more expensive than a standard bike. It makes their life easier.

When I came back to the U.S., the E-bike world was just starting to peek its head. So here I was again, with skeptics at every corner. A lot of people were putting them down and did not like the idea. Especially when it came to bike shops in the U.S. So much so that there sprouted specific E-bike shops across the US, dedicated to just selling a product that was the outcast. I remember going into bike shops here for research and asking if they sold any E-bikes and getting the response, “What’s wrong, don’t your legs work?”

Everyone seemed to think they were always in a competitive race and if their competition had an E-bike that would be unfair. I had to remind them that this is not about racing, it’s just a personal choice for someone.

Being early to the game is not always easy but having the right product at the right time is the important part.

Bosch with their E-bike system was not the first to the E-bike game, but they did have the right product for the right time. They are now working on their fourth generation and it is more integrated than ever, with a much more efficient battery life. They have sold millions of units worldwide and could now be considered the top of the game.

U.S. is catching on

Europe has accepted the E-bike as a normal transportation product. The U.S. is getting there, but still most people just don’t know enough about them. It’s also a segment that gets over-saturated with cheap knock-off brands that can catch fire and burn to the ground. This is the problem when something is growing as a market – everyone wants a piece of the pie, and something like this can give a bad taste to people who are interested but don’t know what to look for.

At this point in my cycling life, I am all about having fun and enjoying the ride, not about proving anything to anyone. I’ve done that. Now I just want to get out there and enjoy the outdoors on two wheels!

The point of this story is to show that even though the product development team is aware of the benefit and advantage the product may have, does not always guarantee that everyone else will.

I think as innovators or designers, it’s our job to look ahead and project the future. We have this task of predicting the alignment of technology, availability, cost and desire which will then lead to a successful product. However, you need all the stars to align to make something successful. In this case, it was an entire package, not just the product. Sales had to be on board, as well as proper marketing to explain its advantages. To make a new product successful you really must have all parts of the team aligned to get right.

Give E-bikes a chance if you haven’t before. Just like green eggs and ham, you’ll never know if you like it until you try it.

Happy trails!