At this year's Eurobike it was impossible to miss the growth of e-bikes. Far from being an inconsequential niche, a fad, they had their own hall, the demo area hummed with electric motors and business was brisk. But what's driving this growth and how far will it continue? We spoke to some of the brands to ask what they thought.
First though, some numbers. In many markets, e-bike sales are growing much faster than any other type of bike. Granted they're starting off from a low base, but in Germany for instance, e-bike sales grew 11% in 2015, with around 535,000 units sold.
And in the Netherlands, they grew a spectacular 24% to reach 276,000 e-bikes sold. In all, the global market saw 35 million e-bikes sold in 2015, according to the updated Electric Bike World Report, with much of this demand coming from China.
German firm Bosch, which makes e-bike drivetrain systems, predicts that European acceptance of e-bikes is growing so fast that in the medium term, one in every three bikes sold on the continent will be an electric model.
Most people agree that it will be a much tougher sell in North America, where e-bikes suffer from an underwhelming introduction that took place a decade ago to undercooked technology, and the legitimate concerns of many mountain bikers that they'll be abused on MTB trails and lead to loss of access rights. Plus, of course, the historically low price of gasoline in North America, which is also believed to suppress e-bike sales.
But taken as a whole, the future looks bright. Let's examine why…
1. E-bikes can be ridden by everyone, irrespective of age, health or fitness
This answer keeps coming back when you ask people what's so attractive about e-bikes: they can be ridden by almost anyone. They effectively level the playing field so it doesn't matter if you're a bit older, you're less fit, or you have health issues — you can still enjoy the benefits of riding a bike. Even if you live somewhere really hilly, too.
And that's a big gain when you consider that obesity and heart disease are among the biggest killers in the Western world. Doctors in the UK recommend that adults should do 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week to stay healthy, and that target is much more achievable if you're cycling everywhere.
"People are increasingly aware of environmental issues and health issues. E-bikes are good for older people and those with health issues," says Jonathan Yin, associate vice-president of premium Taiwanese brand BESV.
Tamara Winograd, director of marketing at Bosch eBike Systems, believes that the normal "early adopter" pattern is reversed when it comes to e-bikes: it's the older generation who have latched onto them first. "We started marketing to the 60+ age group, typically with step-through bikes, and it wasn't well-received with younger people to begin with. They said, 'I don't need it, I can ride a normal bicycle.' But within three years e-bikes have become a lifestyle product, it's fancy to be in the city and use an e-bike instead of a car."
2. In big cities, motor traffic's getting worse and worse
Anyone who lives or works in an urban environment will know that car traffic is taking over our cities. It's dirty, noisy and dangerous, and a dreadfully inefficient way to travel, as demonstrated by the urban planning poster above. By comparison, e-bikes are much cleaner, they're silent, and limited to 25kph in many markets.
"E-bikes are an important element in urban mobility," says Nils Niederheide, head of marketing at Benchmark Drive, the e-bikes division of tyre manufacturer Continental. "There are more and more negative things having an influence on using a car in cities, such as parking, fuel prices and the environmental impact."
3. E-MTBs can give you more riding time
One major benefit for mountain bikers is that e-MTBs can give you more riding time. "There are people who already ride mountain bikes and realise they have new opportunities with an e-MTB, it's not an either/or decision," says Winograd. "For example in the evening, you have the possibility to go for a short ride with an e-bike, and you can train yourself in a different way. It allows you to do more, have more rides, in a short period of time."
4. Bike companies see a new revenue opportunity
Here's an obvious reason why e-bikes are being marketed so heavily at the moment: bike companies see an opportunity to make more money. Duh. For context, bike sales in mature markets like North America and Western Europe aren't growing much. Many retailers had a rough year in 2015 due to a summer washout, and it's believed that e-bike sales are less prone to fluctuations caused by the weather.
"The e-bike market is an additional segment where you have a chance to grow as a manufacturer," says Joakim Steinweden, head of marketing and communications at components manufacturer JD Europe. "It's not as settled a market as the rest of the bicycle market, where everybody already has his slice of cake. There are still some chances to claim your own niche."
5. The bikes themselves are getting better, and more attractive
Here we come to the final piece of the puzzle: the bikes themselves are becoming much nicer to look at, and to use. "E-bikes are getting better and better, there is a wider range of electric bicycles available for each type of personality, so the product is getting more and more attractive," says Nils Niederheide at Benchmark Drive.
They are no longer the ugly, low-function things they once were: during BikeRadar's e-bike week earlier this year, we shared five e-bikes that could replace your car and five unusual e-bikes that are worth knowing about. The point is this: batteries are getting better, motors are becoming more powerful and there are now e-bike models for nearly every type of rider and terrain.
Are you thinking of buying an e-bike? Let us know in the comments below.