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Frank Gray

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An Electric Bike

This video is about an Electric Bike

Michelle Davies | The Journal Gazette
Michael Brown, left, and Damien Parish polish an Electric Townie, a multigeared electric assist bike at Summit City Bicycles and Fitness, which sells about a half dozen of the bikes each annually.

Impress biking friends

Pricey electric assist bicycles an option to mopeds

Life on a moped is a hard one.

It’s bad enough that everyone looks at you and assumes you got busted for drunken driving.

January and February are the cruelest months. You’re forced to ride in subzero temperatures, so the wind chill is always 35 below, even when the wind is calm. And the people who see you are now almost positive you’ve lost your license. Who else would ride a moped in that weather?

Then comes the summer, which isn’t much kinder. Mopeds are easy to steal, and there’s a good chance that will happen to your machine.

I once spoke to a police officer who told me that if you see someone on a moped, there’s about a 50 percent chance that it’s stolen. That’s what happens when you’re driving a vehicle that isn’t licensed or registered and the owners don’t bother to keep a record of the machine’s serial number. You can steal a moped, spend $5 on a can of spray paint to change the machine’s color and be on your way.

For all their drawbacks, though, they do beat walking.

But now members of the Indiana legislature are taking aim at mopeds, looking to require people to pass a test on rules of the road, get a license plate for their machines and, some people hope, to get insurance.

There are always bicycles. We’re seeing more and more of those on the road today, but they’re nowhere as fast as a moped. In fact, when riders keep their bikes in low gears, they don’t travel much faster than walking speed, no matter how fast they pedal.

So why not try an electric assist bicycle?

People have made electric assist bicycles for years, many made by minuscule producers building them out of their homes.

What makes these bicycles interesting is that you can ride them like a regular bicycle, but by flipping a switch or turning a key an electric motor is engaged to help the rider along.

They aren’t like motorcycles, though. You can’t just sit and be propelled. You have to pedal to activate the motor, and the harder you pedal the more boost you get.

They work well. At Summit City Bicycles you can watch a video of a bicycle engineer who, just for fun, entered a race in Los Angeles and, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt, blasted by hard-core road bike racers using a bike with electric assist.

It was funny.

The problem is, the bikes just haven’t caught on.

At Summit City, they get a couple of dozen inquiries about electric assist bikes every year, sales manager Barry McManus said, but they only sell about a half a dozen a year.

That’s because they aren’t cheap. The one electric assist they have on hand right now (a potential customer crashed while test riding it, but it’s been repaired now) is made by a maker called Electra, and it can go about 22 mph.

It lets you travel at a race pace without breaking a sweat.

But it’s not cheap. The bike costs $2,200, though serious road bike riders might consider that a little on the cheap side considering they ride $5,000 bikes.

For that reason, the electric assist bike probably won’t replace the moped if the state cracks down and starts requiring licenses and insurance for mopeds.

Electric assist bikes are more likely to appeal to people who aren’t cyclists but want to make good time, but the price would have to come down dramatically to make them more popular, McManus said.

That’s not likely to happen. The batteries alone cost hundreds of dollars, and then there are the motor and gears.

But if the moped does get regulated into obscurity, there is an option out there, and if you hide the battery with a bag of fruit, you can really impress people with your cycling skills.

Frank Gray reflects on his and others’ experiences in columns published Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. He can be reached by phone at 461-8376, by fax at 461-8893, or by email at fgray@jg.net. You can also follow him on Twitter @FrankGrayJG.

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