Tech editor Dan Cavallari takes a critical look at the burgeoning market for performance e-road bikes, and investigates who, exactly, is the target customer for these high-tech and very speedy machines.
It’s a hot July day in Brussels, Belgium, and WorldTour teams are preparing for stage 1 of the 2019 Tour de France. Auto traffic clogs to a standstill—typical on any day in this city. On the other side of town, I’m preparing for something else: my first ride on Specialized’s Turbo Creo, an e-road bike that looks, feels, and weighs a lot like your typical, non-motorized road bike.
It feels out of place at the Grand Départ of the world’s greatest race. E-bikes? Come on, that’s not high-performance. We aren’t here to commute.
But the convergence of high-performance racing, and mobility, in a city that struggles with incredible auto congestion and happens to be hosting the biggest bike race in the world, is strikingly fitting.
It’s only my third ride on an e-road bike, though I’ve already spent a good amount of time on both commuter e-bikes and e-mountain bikes. I’ve had a ton of fun on each one I’ve tested. But e-road? It seems like a bridge too far. Why would I want to make the hills easier? That’s why I ride road bikes, after all.
I may be a bit curmudgeonly, but I’m no purist. I’m here riding the Creo to discover what makes these bikes worthy of a performance rider’s time. By the end of my ride through the outskirts of Brussels, I realize I’ve had one helluva good time, just as I did when I rode the BMC Alpenchallenge Road One on the climbs of Switzerland a few weeks earlier. But I’m by no means ready to run out and buy an e-road bike made for performance riding.
It leaves me wondering: Who, exactly, is ready to buy one of these?
If you build it, they will come
E-bikes initially found their place in mainstream cycling as utilitarian commuter machines. Then they were adopted by the mountain bike community—at least in certain parts of the world. But e-road bikes still seem alien to many riders, more so than any other bicycle toting a battery and pedal-assist motor.
That’s largely because so much of road cycling glorifies the process of working one’s way up the mountain, whereas commuters hope to make that process as easy as possible. Mountain bikers, too, often hope to avoid the painful act of climbing, putting up with them simply to get to the downhill parts. In those realms, pedal-assist motors make perfect sense.
Not so for the road rider. Taking away the challenge of the climb seems completely antithetical to the sport. Yet manufacturers seem to be going all-in on e-road bikes. Have they identified a prime user for pedal-assist road bikes who look and feel like racers?
E-road is so nascent, in fact, that there are just a handful of offerings out there. However, the competition to reduce the weight of these performance machines is evidence they’re being made with speed and agility in mind.
Specialized made waves with its Turbo Creo, an exceptionally lightweight e-bike that looks an awful lot like the company’s top of the line race bike, the Tarmac. BMC also has an e-road bike that looks similar to its Roadmachine endurance bike, complete with an integrated cockpit. And Trek’s Domane+ e-bike is modeled after the company’s endurance bike, the Domane.
In other words, these bikes may have electric motors, but they’re hardly designed for the commuting crowd. They are performance bikes with a focus on responsive handling, light weight, and going fast.
But who is the customer for a light, race-oriented, pedal-assist road bike? Does that rider exist? And is he or she willing to spend as much money on a high-end e-road bike as he would on a sweet motorcycle?
It seems so.
“Summed up briefly, [the customer is] anyone looking for a core, authentic road riding experience that wants to go farther and faster than they thought possible,” says Ben Edwards, Specialized’s global marketing manager for the road category. “We also believe new riders, and technology and electric-vehicle enthusiasts, can be attracted to the sport through cutting edge, performance e-road bikes.”
That’s a notable take for two reasons: First, it positions e-road more as an exploratory sport rather than a competitive one. Going farther faster certainly fits within the scope of racing, but it’s also the Sunday ride goal, which means Specialized seems to be focusing on the rider who wants to keep up, keep on, and see more with friends.
And second, it means there’s an audience well beyond the comfy confines of the bicycle industry. Exploration isn’t limited to seasoned cyclists. Indeed, that’s how many people find a life of bikes in the first place: going beyond, and experiencing a sense of new freedom.
Trek’s road product marketing manager, Anders Albergh, agrees.
“First, I think we need to establish that everyone rides for a different reason, so saying that road riding is all about suffering is just one perspective,” Albergh says. “Second, I think there’s a tremendous amount of privilege in saying that only riders with a certain fitness level are capable of enjoying certain rides and climbs. We’re finding that the riders that can most enjoy an e-road experience are seeing the value pretty readily. We just need to get the haters—who realistically, are happy on their ‘acoustic’ bikes—to be more welcoming to everyone.”
Many e-bike companies are quick to point out that e-bikes are bigger than the bike industry itself. E-bikes have garnered mainstream attention because they appeal to a broad mass of users who would otherwise be limited to automobiles, or the dreaded urban scooter—both of which come with a host of functionality issues.
For brands like Trek and Specialized, who have the budget and engineers to develop halo-level products, that means doing exactly that: catering to a refined customer who appreciates the high-end experience. The danger is, that might mean targeting only the wealthy customer so bemoaned by those concerned with affordability. Skyrocketing price tags can have the off-putting effect of keeping people from investing in a product that can change the world—not just because they can’t afford it.
“It’s supposed to be democratic,” says Hong Quan, founder of Karmic Bikes. “It’s supposed to be better, faster, and cheaper.
You can build an amazing product when it’s $15,000, but the more difficult problem is to build a $1,500 bike. Personally I think the bike industry is going to miss it. They’re never going to get micro-mobility.”
And that’s what makes e-road so enigmatic: its dual role as a recreational product and a mobility vehicle.
E-road vs. micro-mobility: A critical divide
That term—micro-mobility—weighs heavily on the e-bike conversation. It sets a line in the sand between recreational bicycle riding and bicycles as transportation. On one side you have a luxury, while the other is approaching a necessity in the modern world, largely because it may be the future of how we get around. E-road fits into that equation, certainly, but mobility isn’t necessarily the primary driver of e-road development.
What exactly is micro-mobility? The specific definition varies depending on who you talk to, but generally speaking, it’s the category of lightweight transportation that can carry one to two users. Affordability plays into the equation in some definitions, while others focus more on the “last mile” solution, or giving users a way to get from public transportation to their ultimate destinations.
E-road, therefore, qualifies as micro-mobility. But Karmic’s Quan doesn’t believe high-end road bikes serve the movement well.
“It’s selling to the same person,” he says, “and it’s not getting new people into the sport. At the end of the day, only one person can buy a $17,000 e-bike and it’s the same person who buys a $12,000 Tarmac. We’re making some old dude feel better on the group ride. That’s not the customer I’m interested in.”
To Quan, there’s nothing remarkable about an e-bike at those price points, regardless of how well it rides. Instead, Quan insists that the beauty of the micro-mobility movement lies in the ability to create an e-bike at a price just about anyone can afford. And that’s a vital component to getting people out of their cars.
As such, Quan is putting his money where his mouth is with the release of the Karmic Oslo. Aesthetically and functionally, it’s the polar opposite of the Specialized Creo, and that’s intentional. One look at the Creo and you know it packs performance; that same glance, aimed at the Oslo, screams functionality. It’s affordable, small, comfortable, and fun. Quan says bicycle purists may not consider it a bike at all, and he’s perfectly fine with that. But the smaller wheel size, throttle and torque controls, and wide seat make it appealing for all the reasons many e-bikes may not be appealing to anyone with little or no bicycle experience. It’s approachable and useful.
The Oslo is a prime indication that Quan has his sights set well beyond what we now consider to be the bicycle industry, and for good reason. His goal is to expand the bicycle audience beyond the confines of our very comfortable and very familiar industry.
“The bike industry is going to miss micro-mobility,” Quan says. “They’re going to make premium e-bikes. That’s what we used to do. We’re going to build products that serve more people, and it’s going to be more affordable. It’s going to be transformative. It’s a real transportation alternative.”
It’s important to recognize, however, that there are all sorts of mobility customers. A Ferrari driver might choose the Creo over a more affordable bike for any host of reasons, style among them. And the Honda Civic driver might choose a Karmic bike for the practicality of it. Both of those customers are very real, and both will seek out the ride that suits their wants, needs, and budgets.
Further, the Creo rider may not be interested in micro-mobility at all, and that’s okay. It’s all about the experience, and making climbs easier isn’t necessarily a problem.
“There is no question, e-road bikes can make climbs easier, and for many riders that is a wonderful thing,” Edwards says. “But with the right e-road bike, an e-road bike that still feels like a great road bike, we’ve found that riders don’t climb any easier, they just go faster and climb farther. Riders who love the challenge of climbing will find that a great e-road bike opens up more great climbing. It does not eliminate the joy or effort, it amplifies it.”
Racing: chicken or egg?
The gulf between e-road and micro-mobility is wide. The same could be said about non-motorized race bikes versus your typical commuter bike. So while the e-road scene may not exactly become a boon for micro-mobility, it certainly has the potential to create a new segment of racing.
“We feel the reason we haven’t seen any e-road races or many performance e-road riders, is the bikes have not inspired a racey, performance experience,” says Specialized’s Edwards. “They’ve been heavy and based on systems designed for commuting or mountain biking. That’s why we started from the ground up creating the Specialized SL1.1 system.”
The proprietary system is designed to deliver a real performance road ride. As more bikes deliver this experience, Edwards says, we’ll see them enter mainstream road riding culture, and the desire to race them will likely follow.
The chicken seems to have come first. Now that the bikes exist, it’s possible we will see a new category of racing soon follow. It’s a narrative that’s already come to fruition with e-MTB racing, which is also still in nascent form. But once the tools existed, riders found a way to utilize them. It’s a gamble, but that’s exactly the bet Specialized is making.
Trek has also rolled the dice.
“There haven’t been a ton of great e-road bikes out in the market, so ridership has been low,” says Trek’s Albergh. “Traditionally, e-bike systems have been designed with the city or MTB rider in mind, but as technologies have evolved and matured, we’re seeing the viability of e-road bikes improve as something that could really make rides better for a whole swath of riders.”
So who is the customer for these bikes? For Specialized, at least, that remains an unknown. However, based on the popularity of its other e-bikes, the brand has an idea.
“In an ideal world it would be great to have that kind of info at your fingertips,” says John Cordoba, Specialized’s Turbo Creo SL product manager. “It would make our jobs much easier. As part of the product team we make bikes based on what we want to ride, listening to feedback from riders and retailers out in the field. Of course, these riders and retailers didn’t tell us exactly what they wanted, but that’s our job. We need to interpret their needs, and make the bike so lust-worthy that we all want to ride them.”
Are you the next customer of an e-road bike?