Some motorcyclists say that e-bikes help them enjoy the road

Bike the Drive on a rainy Sunday but with a strong presence saw a wide range of typical courses gliding up and down the lakefront, from steel-framed cruisers to carbon fiber racers and everything in between.

But a different kind of bike has been particularly evident this year – one that some purists say isn’t a bike at all.

Electric bicycles, or e-bikes, have a motor that takes some or all of the load off a cyclist’s legs, and is a thriving segment of the bicycle market. About 1 million are expected to be sold in the US this year, and Elektrek magazine said that in Europe, along with their adaptation to technology, e-bikes could soon outpace car sales.

Chicago’s e-bike scene has taken a huge leap forward over the past three years, with Divvy adding about 7,000 to its rental inventory citywide, not to mention buying the riders themselves.

“E-bikes make it easier for riders of all ages and abilities to get around and help people take longer trips with ease,” said Erica Schroeder, a spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Transportation. “It was a very popular addition to the Divvy fleet and a huge part of the reason bike sharing was able to expand into more Chicago neighborhoods.”

The bikes come in three classes, topping the models that can reach speeds of 28 mph when the rider is pedaling. These aren’t allowed on Chicago bike lanes, but other classes, including those that can hit 20 mph without the rider turning the crank, are treated like their non-motorized counterparts.

Cyclists who ride electric models in Bike the Drive swear by them, saying the bikes allowed them to keep up with faster pairs or go for longer rides without feeling weary.

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

Olivia Arends, of Chicago, said she uses her e-bike to take her young son to the nursing home on her commute to work.

“Without electricity it would be really hard because he’s 40 pounds now,” she said. “This is really hard on the knees for long distances. This allows me to continue to enjoy the commuting on the bike.”

Linda Struchen’s e-bike has a throttle that allows her to go without pedaling, but she said she only uses it when passing through an intersection or going up a large hill. Otherwise, they use the assist to keep them active on the pedals.

“I think I read somewhere that if you ride an electric bike, you probably get half as much exercise,” a South Elgin resident said. “Well, that’s more exercise than I would have gotten (other than that)… We get out more than we would have gotten (without the bikes).”

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Kristi Riddell, of Schaumburg, said her e-bike sometimes elicits sarcasm when it overtakes serious cyclists.

“They’re in gear, they’re on road bikes, and if we happen to go around them on the road, they’ll (say) ‘cheater! ” She said.

“We don’t train for triathlons,” her husband Robert said. “We just do fun, fun bike rides to get around town. He gets us off the couch and out of our car. We go out and enjoy the weather, the parks, the wildlife. It’s so much fun.”

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

“We do this ride in Indiana, hey a hundred, and there’s this guy who goes out on that ride, he must be 65 or 70, and he’s still there, he’s still hanging, because he has that e-bike,” Dargah said. “It’s very stylish. It keeps people riding. They can go out and have fun. I support that.”

jkeilman@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @JohnKeilman

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