By Paul Willerton
This piece originally appeared in Bicycle Times Issue #31
To say the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 was “revealing” would be an understatement. It spawned offshoots that rocked the world, such as the automotive industry crisis of 2008-2010. Followers of financial markets were handed more landmark moments in a two-year span than they thought they’d see in a lifetime. While automakers asked for bailout packages, Congress cast blame in all directions. As the big three U.S. automakers were handed huge sums of money, they were accused of having the wrong lineup of products, not building what consumers actually wanted.
With the congressional hearings playing on the television in the background, I sat up in dazed, distant thought. During the 1990s, I lined up and plunked down fat monthly auto payments to the companies that were now under intense pressure. Gas was cheap, at least compared to today, and driving bigger, burlier vehicles was the trend. After all, it’s in our nature to burn the cheapest resources at our disposal.
My conclusion was that no matter how bad things get, there is no stopping the bicycle.
While I listened, I had more than a twinge of regret. Resources were disintegrating at an unprecedented pace. I thought of all those payments I had made on vehicles eventually sold at huge losses. The operational costs alone I had spent in the previous 15 years on those massive metal beasts would have been enough to buy homes, outright. None of it made me feel good. Some positive things did emerge from all the pain. Political affiliations shifted. Lifestyle choices and plans for a less wasteful future were backed by the resolve to make them reality.
Like many areas, my town was hit in brutal fashion during the crisis. Sadly, a few formerly well-off people made the conscious choice to end their lives. It’s shocking to observe such graphic punctuations in the midst of a mere financial crisis. When losses mount and all news is bad, going for a bike ride isn’t a bad remedy.
Coincidentally, it was during that time I discovered the electric bike. Somehow, the simple act of throwing a leg over an electric bike and gliding away became incredibly empowering. Riding any quality bicycle can deliver a similar feeling, but there were realizations that made the electric experience different. The fact that the crisis was happening simultaneously no doubt fueled stronger feelings.
My conclusion was that no matter how bad things get, there is no stopping the bicycle. If I never owned a car again, I’d still shuttle hundreds of pounds of supplies to and fro. I could carry passengers. The worst weather would always pose a challenge, but if push came to shove, cycling would somehow get it done. Crisis? Let’s ride it out on bicycles. Electric bicycles, too.
Did the measures that went into place to stem the bleeding of the crisis work? While the jury is still out, I’m not waiting to have the right bike for when we find out. It’s not a doomsday prophecy. It’s a personal style of cycling developed during the crisis period that makes even more sense today. There are a lot of big vehicles on the road, still. Somehow those hefty SUVs riding on shiny 22s look precariously pre-Crisis. Are they the vehicles that were passed down to freshly-minted high school drivers? Destined to ride out their years within city limits? Meanwhile, the rising number of young families adopting the bicycle equivalent of the SUV is astounding.
What is the SUV of bicycles, anyway? Here in the USA we just love ‘em large. Who didn’t love stuffing an SUV with everything — and everyone — you might possibly want on a trip and finding the open road? My eight cylinder engine got cut to four, but that doesn’t mean I’m not bringing the SUV of bikes on road trips. My long wheelbase cargo bike with rear hub motor sees endless action at home and on the road. Its heavy duty—and I mean heavy—steel frame is adorned with parts mainly scrapped from old mountain bikes. Eight speed Shimano XT and XTR from the mid 90s has been given new life.
Conveniently, weight is not an issue for electric SUV bikes and they don’t need many gears. Sounds a lot like a pre-automotive crisis SUV, doesn’t it? The most expensive bits of componentry are of course the battery, motor and control assembly. Its 48 volt, 350 watt power system provides smooth, quiet, virtually seamless power that makes every ride a joy. There are areas where components were upgraded due mainly to concerns about safety. Big, heavy bikes that can carry multiple kids need to have super strong wheels and excellent stoppers. Its 26×2.4” tires were engineered with electric bike speeds in mind. Those could still use reinforcement, as punctures under heavy use are still too frequent.
Cyclists understand what picking the right tool for the job means. I built my electric SUV bike at a time when my interest in four wheeled SUVs waned. While the bike fills that role more in spirit than utility, it has easily outpaced the four wheel version in thrill and adventure.
Out of all the electric bikes I’ve owned, this SUV bike has seen by far the highest usage. First of all, for two 11-year-old girls it’s the the most fun way to get from point A to B. They love it in the city and on lonely roads. The family would now rather park the car on the outskirts of a town and ride in on one bike. Who knows how long that can last, but for the last two years those rides have been a highlight of our trips together. If bickering in the car gets to where I need a break, I’m hopping out and riding for a while. If the kids come along or not, everyone’s differences are quickly forgotten.
For solo trips into the country, the bike shows its value as a hauler. Bike camping trips that previously involved packing gear like it’s a life or death ascent up K2 now enjoy near car-camp comfort. It’s amazing what a cooler full of ice, good food and beverage does for morale on a long bike camp trip. Having the power to bring along a premium sleeping pad, fishing gear, waders, boots and even a raft and oars is another bonus. Laden with this much gear, the climbing ability of a rear hub motored bike is dramatically reduced. No doubt it would be better served by one of the mid-drive units that are becoming available now.
Cyclists understand what picking the right tool for the job means. I built my electric SUV bike at a time when my interest in four wheeled SUVs waned. While the bike fills that role more in spirit than utility, it has easily outpaced the four wheel version in thrill and adventure. Close friends wondered if building the bike meant we wouldn’t be riding mountain or road bikes together, anymore. In actuality, the electric bike hasn’t reduced traditional riding at all. It has meant more time on the bike for the whole family.
Today, SUVs are rolling off automakers assembly lines. People still line up to buy them, proving Congress wrong. The allure of space, size and power rules the senses of the SUV buyer. Will it be electric SUV bicycles that turn the heads of buyers not otherwise in the market for a bicycle? If the reaction on the street to this family’s do-it-all utility bike is any indication, there is little doubt of at least one desirable electric bike market segment for the American consumer.