Electricity boosts leg power for bicyclists

Times Staff Writer

If you lose your car to the economic downturn, you can get a hybrid that uses no gasoline.

The two power sources: electricity and your thighs.

The electric-assist bike, which takes much of the fitness factor out of cycling, has been around for years mostly as a curiosity. But it’s finally getting some love in the bicycle industry with improvements in technology (thanks in part to developments on the electric-car front) and as trends swing toward commuters, baby boomers and those who want to shrink their carbon footprints.

Schwinn has just unveiled the Tailwind, which uses new battery technology from Toshiba Corp. to get about 30 miles (depending on the terrain and on how hard you pedal) on a 30-minute charge. That’s a drastic reduction in charge time compared with what was previously available.


Also on view this week here at Interbike, the nation’s largest bicycle trade show, were numerous casual models propelled by pure leg power and gravity. They feature comfortable seats, high handlebars and covered gears to protect the rider from grime.

And there has been much hype about another old standard -- folding bikes that with the click of a couple of levers break down to sizes that can be carried onto a bus or tucked under a desk.

The emphasis, industry observers say, is less on bikes for the spandex crowd and more for those pedaling to a job. Or at least a job interview.

“Just a couple years ago everything was about high-end, carbon fiber bikes,” said Megan Tompkins, editor of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News.


“Lance Armstrong was driving interest in road bikes and consumers had a lot of money to spend on high-tech racing machines. Now there’s a pretty dramatic shift.”

Here’s a sampling of what’s new in the biking world where the mantra -- even with an electric assist -- is two wheels good, four wheels bad.

* Electric-assist (a.k.a. e-bikes)

These bikes are too much fun. That is, if you are counting on cycling to keep you fit. Sure, you can pedal them hard, but faced with a hill on the way home from work, who could resist switching on the juice?


Not the Dutch, who have taken to e-bikes much more than Americans have.

“There is, in the Netherlands, an aging population that still wants to commute,” said Zach Krapfl, an electric-bike engineer at Schwinn.

This was the first journalist test of the Tailwind, which Krapfl and crew had secreted behind a van Tuesday at a test site outside Las Vegas. The white bike, which looked like a retro beach cruiser, had its rectangular battery secured under a cargo carrier behind the seat. “You can take it out and plug it in anywhere,” said Tom Mount, director of products at Schwinn.

Weight had always been a drawback for e-bikes and the Tailwind is no exception, coming in at about 38 pounds. But that’s a good deal lighter than many other bikes in the class.


Price will be $3,200 when it comes out early next year, but many racing bike enthusiasts pay that much.

Out on the road, the Tailwind on a downhill shimmied a bit and felt insecure. But once the pedaling started and the power kicked in, the e-bike did what it was made to do -- sail down the road and up hills with little effort.

True to the name, it felt like riding with the wind at the back. But the Tailwind was always polite. It was made to max out at about 15 mph on the flats, and when pedaling stopped the power cut out.

It seemed just the thing for a pleasant family outing -- if your family can afford it.


The competing Izip Express, by contrast, would be more at home at a Hells Angels convention. This electric-human hybrid worked on the same principle but was much, much more souped up.

Like an amusement park ride broken free of the park.

“Fun, right?” asked Justin Shniderman, director of product development for the Izip line made by Currie Technologies Inc. of Chatsworth. He yelled this as he zoomed past a pack of hard-core regular bike riders, getting dirty looks.

The Express, which is also scheduled to be in stores early next year, is not as technologically advanced as the Tailwind -- a full charge takes about six hours. And the bike weighs about 60 pounds. It costs $3,000, but less zippy Izip models start at $800.


You don’t even have to pedal the A2B from Ultra Motor Ltd. to get it to work. It just takes a twist of the wrist, and off it goes, no fitness involved. Recharge time for the 70-pounder is about four hours, range is about 20 miles, price is $2,700 and the ride is smooth. It started selling last month.

Any of these bikes could handle a shortish commute by L.A. standards, but for e-bikes to really catch on it might take a hybrid in which the pedaling also recharges the engine, at least enough to extend the range.

“We’re working on it,” Krapfl said.

* Folding Bikes


Weight has long been a factor with folders too. But the latest bike from Dahon Inc., which put out its first folding bike in 1983, is the Mu SL, which weighs about 19 pounds. That’s less than most mountain bikes and many road models.

In bicycling, less weight almost always means more cost. The Mu SL sells for about $1,100.

The company’s most popular model is its Speed D7, which weighs 26 pounds and sells for about $400.

Dahon marketing manager Stephen Cuomo demonstrated how fast one of the bikes could be folded into less than half its full size.


In a 20-second flash he was done. Then Cuomo looked up apologetically.

“It only took 15,” he said, “when I was on the ‘Today’ show.”