It's no secret the Dutch love their bikes. The Netherlands is a bike-crazed country, a place where 1 in 4 trips are made by bike and 99 percent of the population rides a bike at least once a year.
The most popular style of bike rolling out of shops? If you're picturing one of those hulking black Dutch city bikes with enclosed chains, you're a little behind the times. Last year, for the first time, the best-sellers in Holland were e-bikes, which accounted for more than 50 percent of all new bicycles sold, according to a study produced by the association of Dutch bike sellers. That's a big bump from the previous year, when just 28 percent of new Dutch bikes had an electric battery attached to a motor that helps turn the pedals.
The majority of the Dutch have discovered what Wake Gregg has been preaching since opening Portland's first all-electric-bike shop in 2008.
"An electric bike is the most efficient form of motorized transportation ever devised," he says.
And yet, in Portland, e-bikes are still in the extreme minority. No hard stats on e-bike sales exist, which has to do with our dealership system and the way they're coded by importers. Sales are up according to everyone we talked to, but they're nowhere near the 1-in-3 figure bike industry insiders expect when the market is fully matured.
Rich Fein moved here to be part of that market.
Fein came from Akron, Ohio, to open Cynergy E-Bikes on Southeast Powell Boulevard after retiring from the solar power industry.
Portland met the five requirements he'd heard make for a good e-bike market: decent weather, hills, good cycling infrastructure, a bike-friendly culture, and wealthy people living in the inner city.
The only hold-up he's seen? The culture.
"That's what's been a surprise to me," he says. "I get the feeling that the acceptance in other cities is higher than here and that they're growing a little faster than we are here. And the best I can determine, especially compared to California cities, is that they're less inhibited about the type of bike they're going to ride."
In other words, e-bikes have run into the buzz saw of the Portland paradox: People here have an enviable lifestyle and resist anything that threatens to change that lifestyle—even when stunting evolution will create conditions that destroy everything they've ever loved about the city.
Portland is a fast-growing city—a place where anyone who drives during a punishing rush hour can attest to the desperate need for more people to use "the most efficient form of motorized transportation ever devised."
Yes, e-bikes use electricity—it costs about 5 cents to travel between 30 and 50 miles—and the bikes themselves cost about two grand. But the carbon footprint of an e-bike is only about 1.5 percent that of a typical car.
E-bikes are ridiculously efficient for the rider, too. Using a loaner from Cynergy, my bike commute home—which normally runs 43 minutes—took just 25 minutes. I actually burnt more calories, too. Doing 20 mph up hills is fun, and motivated me to pedal hard.
And yet, Fein says many cyclists side-eye until they try.
"I've never had a cyclist who's gotten on an e-bike for a test ride who's not come back with a big smile on their face," he says. "Once they're on it, they get it."
Don't take it from us Ohioans, though. Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of BikePortland.org, loves his experiences with e-bikes.
"For me, it changed the power dynamic on the road. People that are on a bike, unless you're really gonzo, you're used to feeling like you're not quite as powerful on the road," he says. "Even on neighborhood streets, you're looking over your shoulder, riding on the right, stuck on the gutter, hoping nobody hits you."
Then Maus borrowed a front-loading Dutch cargo bike from Clever Cycles. He had what he calls a "light bulb-hey-wow" moment.
"I got on this cargo bike with an electric battery where I could easily go 20 miles an hour on neighborhood streets, and it had a big footprint," he says. "Instantly, I was like, 'Fuck everybody else! I'm not playing second fiddle here! I'm totally legit!' I had no qualms about being right in the center of the road. None at all."
Why haven't more Portland cyclists embraced that feeling? Maus says it's the same issue that stalled the city's bike-share program and protected bike lanes.
"Because we've been such a bike town for so long, it works against us," he says. "We have so much pride in being cyclists. So when new things come around, there's this resistance. It's weird. It's this tribal thing that kicks in and it prevents us from being an inclusive community."
Gregg, who opened Portland's first dedicated e-bike shop, says there's sometimes envy by traditional cyclists.
"I've had people yell, 'You're cheating!' when I pass them on a hill," he says. "Usually it's the guys in Lycra, the ones who drive 100 miles to take a 50-mile bike ride, who get pissed. They view cycling as their recreation, their exercise, and they think I'm somehow cheating. The commuters, the people who ride bikes every day to get where they're going, those people get it."
Those commuters are, of course, like the Dutch.
"Who wrote the rule that says that using a bike for transportation has to be difficult and sweaty?" asks Fein. "It's transportation. The more efficient that we can make it, the better. And anything's more efficient than getting into one of these cars—getting into this big steel capsule that's isolating you from everything else around you, taking up a bunch of space on the road, and getting stuck in traffic."