- Associated Press - Tuesday, July 28, 2015

July 28—We drove Saturday to Cedar Rapids to look at electric bicycles at one of Iowa’s oldest bicycle dealers, Northtowne Cycling, a fourth-generation family business.

Electric bikes are getting popular these days. They may even be more than a fad.

Wind- and solar-power and electric vehicles of all kinds promise a new era in power and transportation that is easier on a badly damaged global environment.

I know conservatives don’t believe the earth is in trouble. They’re forever nostalgic for the past. Committed to 19th-century fuels and technology — meaning oil and coal — to keep their vision of the world spinning in the 21st century.

But the Earth itself is spinning out of control, metaphorically and literally, as a self-centered mankind consumes and excretes without regard for a precious, fragile environment.

The fitness crowd isn’t interested in electric bicycles. But they’re hardly the only people who would like to ride a bicycle to the store or the doctor or around the park for some fresh air.

Lighter frames and longer-lasting lithium batteries, better motors, more range (20 to 40 miles on a charge) and more power to climb hills and carry cargo, plus the ability to pedal, too, add to the electric bikes’ versatility, and ultimately will determine their viability.

They’re particularly interesting to people whose deteriorating knees, hips, spines, certain delicate organs and other health issues make pedaling a normal bicycle with a crotch buster of a seat not so fun anymore.

There are downsides. Bike batteries must be recharged. That requires an electrical outlet and two and eight hours between use. But the cost per charge to the consumer and to the environment is negligible.

Electric bikes are not inexpensive and they’re certainly not all equal. Figuring out which model is more complicated than picking a decent coffee maker (after spending a small fortune on whiz-bang models that break we’ve gone back to a no-nonsense one-button Mr. Coffee). But the cost of an electric bike is exponentially higher than a pure pedal-pusher. Making a mistake would inflict an expensive regret. Doing your homework is crucial.

Like cars, the quality of electric bikes can range from Yugos and BMWs to a solid Chevy.

These days the Internet is the handiest research tool, though the information can be suspect if you don’t cross-check alleged facts and check again. And again. I spent several hours reading reviews and watching YouTube videos of various electric bikes. The quantity of information, even the terminology (watts and amps, rotors and stators etc.) is mind-numbing. There are dozens of motor and bike makers, each with their merits and demerits.

Under federal law an electric bicycle must have working pedals (wink-wink) and a motor that does not exceed 750 watts of power, with 500 watts a more typical size. Technically, with the proper gearing, that’s enough power to haul 400 pounds of bike, battery, rider and cargo up one of Burlington’s hills without pedaling.

Legal top speed for an electric bike is 20 mph. But Americans love speed as much as they do tinkering with machines — and breaking laws they don’t agree with.

Despite stereotypes frequently assigned to men and women who like to get their hands dirty, few of today’s inventors have red necks and a confederate battle flag on their pickups’ tailgate.

The result of the urge to turn ideas into something practical has let do-it-yourself garage mechanics drive the electric vehicle market forward.

Most of the companies making electric bicycles weren’t brand-name companies. They are small startups owned by visionaries and funaholics.

It explains why grown men build giant electric (or gas) powered versions of the Big Wheels they pedaled as kids. The adult reincarnations can slide sideways (an adrenaline thrill known as drifting) at 20 mph and entertain (or irritate) an entire neighborhood. They may even be street legal, although being illegal wouldn’t stop these inventors.

Born gear heads are drawn to wrench fun from life. They amuse themselves no end. But they also make it interesting for those lacking equivalent talent. Those admirers who have no lack of appreciation for their beautiful mechanical creations.

There’s a reason certain cars, motorcycles, airplanes, trains — and yes, bicycles — are considered works of modern art as well as machines for contemporary transportation.

I am particularly enamored with what are called fat boy bikes with 3-inch-wide balloon tires.

They were designed for off-roaders who like careening through the wilderness. Some have been adapted to accept electric motors that assist the pedal pusher.

Naturally, the inventors want to push limits. One fat boy has a motor on each wheel, a total of 12,000 watts of electric power — or 16 times the legal limit if it were driven on the street instead of the woods. It’s faster than many motorcycles. It can’t run as far on a fill-up. But it fills the need for speed and thrills.

We looked over a dozen or so electric bikes Saturday but left without one in the trunk. Still, we have brochures and something to think about.

I’d really like to ride a big-boy Big Wheel, a craze I was too old to enjoy.

As a practical matter for a man in his seventh decade, I should be looking to a future in which I spring for a tricycle with a comfy bucket seat, a back rest, and a humongous motor to haul my bulk around town.

Fun comes naturally to the young. But older people want to have fun, too. Even it means the spark that energizes them has to come from a battery.

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(c)2015 The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa)

Visit The Hawk Eye (Burlington, Iowa) at www.thehawkeye.com

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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