Bike the Drive sees growing number of e-bikes; riders say motorized assist helps them enjoy the road

·4 min read

Sunday’s rainy but robustly attended Bike the Drive saw the typical, vast array of cycles gliding up and down the lakefront, from steel-framed cruisers to carbon fiber racers and everything in between.

But a different kind of bicycle was especially evident this year — one some purists say isn’t a bicycle at all.

Electric bikes, or e-bikes, have a motor that takes some or all of the load off a cyclist’s legs, and they are a booming sector of the bicycle market. About 1 million are expected to be sold in the U.S. this year, and the publication Elektrek said that in Europe, which is further along with its adaptation of the technology, e-bikes could soon outsell cars.

Chicago’s e-bike scene has taken a major jump forward over the last three years with Divvy adding about 7,000 to its citywide stock of rentals, to say nothing of riders buying their own.

“E-bikes make it easier for riders of all ages and abilities to get around and help people make longer trips with ease,” said Erica Schroeder, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Transportation. “They have been a very popular addition to the Divvy fleet and a major part of why bike share has been able to expand into more Chicago neighborhoods.”

The bikes come in three classes, topping out with models that can go up to 28 mph when a rider is pedaling. Those are not allowed in Chicago’s bike lanes, but the other classes, including one that can go up to 20 mph without the rider turning the crank, are treated the same as their motorless counterparts.

Cyclists riding electric models at Bike the Drive swore by them, saying the bikes have allowed them to keep up with faster spouses or go for longer rides without growing weary.

“What this bike did is take me back to when I was a kid and I rode my bike all over the place, wherever I wanted to go, miles and miles and miles,” said Julia Watt, who splits her time between downtown and Wheaton. “In recent years, I was getting to where 6 miles was exhausting. Now I can go 35, 40 (miles) without being too tired.”

Olivia Arends, of Chicago, said she uses her e-bike to ferry her young son to day care during her commute to work.

“Without electric would be really hard because he’s 40 pounds now,” she said. “That’s really tough on the knees over long distances. This allows me to still enjoy bike commuting.”

Linda Strohschein’s e-bike has a throttle that allows it to go without pedaling, but she said she uses it only when going through an intersection or up a big hill. Otherwise, she uses the assistance to keep her fresh on the pedals.

“I think I read somewhere that if you’re riding with an electric bike, maybe you’re getting half as much exercise,” said the South Elgin resident. “Well, that’s more exercise than I would have gotten (otherwise) ... We get out way more than we would have (without the e-bikes).”

Kristy Riddle, of Schaumburg, said her e-bike sometimes draws a taunt when she zips past serious cyclists.

“They’re wearing the gear, they’re on the road bikes, and if we happen to go around them on the path, they’ll (say) ‘Cheater!’ as you’re going by,” she said.

“We’re not training for triathlons,” said her husband, Robert. “We’re just doing recreational, fun biking to get around town. It gets us off the couch and out of our car. We’re getting out and enjoying the weather and the parks and the wildlife. It’s a lot of fun.”

One of those serious road riders, Don Darga, who lives in Deerfield, said he had no problem with his fellow cyclists getting an electronic boost.

“We do this ride in Indiana, the Hilly Hundred, and there’s this dude that comes out on that ride, he’s got to be 65 or 70, and he’s still there, he’s still hanging, because he’s got that e-bike,” Darga said. “It’s pretty neat. It keeps people riding. They can get out there and have fun. I support that.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman