E-bikes are selling like hot cakes. But are bike shops prepared to service them when they break?
Ed Benjamin shouldn’t be surprised anymore when he sees an electric bike cruise down his quiet south Florida street, but he is.
When COVID-19 gripped the world last year and sent nearly everyone home, Benjamin, who founded the Light Electric Vehicle Association in 1996, said his neighbors flooded out of their homes and into the outdoors.
As the world ground to a halt, he watched from the window of his home office as his historically empty suburban neighborhood came alive: People were going on socially-distanced walks; they were spending time in their yards; and, most notably for Benjamin, they were riding e-bikes.
Benjamin has sat at the helm of LEVA for the better part of three decades. The trade association of about 400 members spans 29 countries and is the loudest voice championing e-bike mechanics, dealers and manufacturers. From day one, Benjamin’s job has been to spread the good word about e-bikes to pretty much anyone who would listen. Even back in ‘96 when e-bikes were little more than an odd novelty, Benjamin knew they would one day change the entire world’s relationship with bicycles.
But it has been a slow burn, especially here in the United States.
Before March 2020, the sight of just one e-bike cruising down his street would have caused enough excitement for him to point and shout from his desk, calling “honey come see!” to his wife across the house.
Now, of the roughly five bikes a day he sees roll by his window, at least three are e-bikes. He still has a hard time containing his excitement.
“I think they’ve woken up to electric bicycles,” he told me on a late-March phone call.
It would seem his neighbors aren’t the only ones.
‘If you don’t know how to work on electric bicycles, you’re going to get left behind.’
In just the month of June last year, U.S. sales of e-bikes priced higher than $1,000 were up a whopping 190 percent over the previous June, according to a report from the market analysis firm The NPD Group. The growth of e-bike sales that month eclipsed every other category of bicycle on the market, with only the relatively new (and very popular) gravel bike category coming close.
The evidence of this growth is not just limited to Benjamin’s suburban neighborhood. I’ve seen it, too.
Each weekday I sneak away from my desk to knock out a quick six to eight mile ride on one of the dozens of test bikes housed at Electric Bike Report’s offices in St. George, Utah. I’ll usually cruise through some neighborhoods and hop on the local bike path that follows the Virgin River. On any given day, I’ll count at least a dozen other e-bikes on the path — outnumbering traditional bicycles at least two to one. A few years ago, you’d be hard pressed to find an e-bike in this area. It makes it hard to not notice how things have changed.
LEVA produces a report each year that tracks the number of e-bikes imported to the U.S. (most e-bikes are made in Asia). That report for the past year is not yet available, but Benjamin said nearly 400 companies imported e-bikes to the U.S. in 2020, making compiling the data an “overwhelming task.”
For Benjamin, the growth tells him a few things: The first is the obvious lesson that e-bikes are a huge driver of the leaps we’re seeing in the bicycle market today. And the second is the type of caution you’d expect from a guy who used to own a handful of bike shops: Mechanics and the bike shops that hire them need to be prepared for the incoming flood of e-bikes needing maintenance.
“If you don’t know how to work on electric bicycles, you’re going to be left behind,” he said. “E-bikes are not just a flash in the pan. They are not going to go away.”
Bike mechanics well versed in the art of tuning derailleurs and servicing suspension are soon going to see more and more e-bikes in their stands. Those bikes will still need much of the same service most mechanics are used to, but they also will need work done on their electrical drive systems — which many bike mechanics still shy away from.
The topics of software, motor problems and faulty batteries are taboo in most traditional bike shops. While most techs can talk your ear off on the pros and cons of Campgnolo and Shimano, they’ll be mum — or even standoffish — if you ask a question on a Bosch or Fazua drive system. Benjamin thinks this is probably because bike techs either don’t understand e-bikes or don’t like them.
Either way, it’s a problem, according to Benjamin. By not tackling the e-bike wave head on, bike shops are effectively leaving money on the table.
It’s something LEVA’s been working to fix since 2008.
This course would normally be tackled in person, but the global pandemic had me and six others from around the world signing into a Zoom call. Benjamin, who teaches the classes in addition to running LEVA, held court over the bunch which included a mechanic running a bike nonprofit in California, an aspiring e-bike mechanic from Oregon and a knowledgeable Australian who had a business building electric motorcycles.
It was a very intense two days.
The course was comprehensive, covering everything from basic electrical theory and best safety practices to primers on how you use tools foreign to most bike mechanics like multimeters and Anderson crimpers. While currently online due to COVID, there’s still a hands-on element to the course. LEVA mails each participant a pack of loose cables and connectors you need to solder together before you can be deemed certified.
After you complete the class, send photo proof of your correctly soldered and crimped wiring kit and pass a few tests, LEVA deems you a card-carrying e-bike tech and mails you a certificate to hang on the wall.
For shops, that certificate signals to customers that your techs are trained and qualified to service their e-bikes. And for mechanics, it may make you more valuable to an employer — especially as the e-bike market continues to grow.
There’s two ways to get certified from LEVA. The first, a self-guided method, is a little cheaper but lacks the thorough instruction from Benjamin and an incredibly useful maintenance manual. The second, is the live instruction version (which I did), which includes two six-hour days of instruction and access to a plethora of additional resources.
If you’re on the fence about the class and full-fledged certification, at least become a member of LEVA. It’s $30 for individuals or $150 for a small business, and a membership not only supports LEVA’s efforts but gives you access to the organization’s in-house industry experts. Perhaps more importantly, though, a membership makes you a part of LEVA’s international network of e-bike industry experts, engineers, salespeople and companies. Those connections can be precious as the budding e-bike industry continues to grow.
Even with the market growth over the past several years and the seemingly exponential jump of e-bike sales during the COVID-19 pandemic, Benjamin says the U.S. is lagging about ten years behind Europe and Asia, where e-bikes account for half or more of all bicycle sales in some countries.
Veterans of the American bicycle industry are watching the current growth with a skeptical eye. Their business is booming, but bike booms have historically led to big busts. Benjamin has faith this time is different, and he thinks e-bikes are why.
“In case you haven’t noticed, the future is pretty bright,” he said, just before our call ended.
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