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Mechanical doping and the rise of e-bikes

By Posted on March 22, 2016
Blog

Dave Hurst
Director, Market Analysis
NextEnergy

One could not be blamed for having a jaded view and blasé response to yet more news of doping in professional cycling. In fact, I find it hard to believe that the governing bodies of any professional sports (and yes, cycling in particular) could be shocked by doping scandals. Yet, the professional cycling world was shocked (again) in January. This latest incident however was not your run-of-the-mill doping story, as it involved something that’s been termed “mechanical doping”. In a nutshell, a small motor and battery are concealed inside a bicycle frame and provide additional power to the cyclist.

I find this is interesting because I believe it points to two different, intriguing trends. The first, into which I won’t delve far, is the future doping challenges facing professional cycling. Not only do you have the biomedical challenges of trying to catch those trying to cheat with pharmaceuticals, but you have the new challenge of gear that could be “mechanically doped”. How long before that includes the human cyclists? Is it really too farfetched to believe that within a relatively short timeframe we could see moving from implantable devices that track performance to devices that improve performance? Then what? Chest and knee X-rays before each leg of the Tour de France?

The second trend is one of the new era of e-bicycle design and innovation. Arguably one of the challenges of the early e-bike market was a design question. Early in their lifecycle, e-bike designs were typically heavy, urban or beach cruiser styles with batteries built into racks on the back. Like the diversification in the overall bicycle industry, e-bikes have seen diversification of segmentation as well, with commuter-style e-bikes, fat e-bikes, cargo e-bikes, and more. Despite this, drop bar road bikes or cyclocross bikes have not been a big draw for e-bike manufacturers.

The lack of interest in road-style e-bikes has likely been in-part fueled by demographics. Survey research from the Transportation Research Board (TRB) pointed to two main drivers of e-bike demand: need to carry more cargo (shopping, commuting, etc.) and medical conditions that limit participation in traditional bicycling. In previous conversations that I’ve had in the industry, baby-boomers were the main buyers (45% of the TRB survey respondents were age 55 or older), but more recently that has started change as commuters increasingly recognized the benefits of e-bikes.

E-bikes market share in the US have been increasing but still garner a smaller share than markets in Japan, Germany, The Netherlands, or Belgium. Will the ability to build a bicycle that doesn’t “look” like an e-bike fuel greater interest from a broader demographic? Several companies have already bet on that. Stromer (a Swiss e-bike company) was one of the first to integrate a battery into the downtube of a bike, and many others have followed. Increasingly smaller systems, like the Vivax Assist seem like a natural progression. While this will undoubtedly fuel the controversy around access for e-bikes, these small systems also offer other benefits beyond the subjective appearance or nefarious race benefits, including less exposure to the elements and lighter weight (which helps not only on the road, but when city dwellers get home and would like to haul the bike up a flight of stairs to their apartments).

 

With the sudden interest in small, inconspicuous motors and batteries like those used in cases of mechanical doping, it seems inevitable that these will find their way into a wider range of products. However, other features of e-bikes may ultimately prove to be more attractive than “inconspicuous-ness”. Integration of smartphones, multiple sensors, and bike sharing platforms may push e-bikes into the mainstream more than the aesthetics.

In the automotive world, there is an old adage, “Win on Sunday, sell on Monday,” pointing to the importance of racing to selling cars. Already there may be evidence that mechanical doping is contributing to the rebirth of that adage for the e-bike market. Certainly, growing acceptance from Millennials and Gen-Xers, increasing design and technology options, and more product availability all help with Monday sales.

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