Budget Electric Bicycles are Fast Fashion
If you’ve read our poston Radpower, you know we have some strong opinions about what that company is doing in the electric bike space. But to be fair, they’re not the worst offender in the new world of online direct to consumer (DTC) e-bikes. As micro-mobility increases in popularity, consumers need to be aware of the differences in quality, repairability, and safety.
When a consumer purchases clothing from Shein, Zara or H&M, they’re getting a product that looks like a higher fashion item, but made of inferior materials and not constructed for long term wear. Many of these consumers may even consider disposing of an article of clothing rather than washing. Putting on an item from one of these companies may look fine at first, but they’re not destined for a long stay in your closet.
Similarly, companies producing low cost electric bikes promise the same experience as one purchased from a conventional bicycle shop. The truth is, these bikes are just like fast fashion apparel. They meet the minimum requirements to be categorized as electric bikes, but are low quality and prone to early failure. If you’re considering purchasing an electric bike, we know that one of the biggest barriers to entry is cost. But for what you save in the initial purchase, you will end up paying in diagnostics and repairs later.
We want to get as many different people onto bikes in Washington, DC and around the world as possible. As a bike shop centered around transportation, we see the e-bike as a solution to so many issues.
Land use and zoning issues?
Maybe we can’t solve every problem with them, but we’re on the record that they can change the world. So you would think that getting as many people as possible on them would be a good thing, right?
Looking at the current offerings from a variety of online vendors we can see e-assist bikes that start out as low as $350. Having worked on this specific model in the recent past, we can safely say it is not built for long term use. When a product claims to be sustainable and environmentally friendly, but ends up in the landfill after a year’s use, that’s not sustainable, it’s disposable.
When customers call us about various issues they have with a DTC ebike, we often have to deliver the news that the problem is either not repairable or greatly exceeds the new purchase value. We see motor failures occasionally, but far more often, there are electronics gremlins. Since these bikes are assembled with other low durability parts, conventional repair issues arise early in the bike’s service life.
We encounter certain repairs more often on DTC bikes. The most common repairs are brake and wheel issues. Companies often install low-end or insufficient brakes on these bikes, requiring more frequent adjustments and occasional failures. With most e-bikes capable of 20mph, reliable stopping power is essential. Due to their less expensive nature, most DTC bikes use hub-drive motors. When improperly built or assembled without correct tension, these wheels are prone to spoke failures. We have seen motor wheels with as many as 5 broken spokes on one wheel, which is alarming, especially when the rider describes carrying children.
Our relationships with Bosch and Shimano and their specialized diagnostic tools allow us to quickly and accurately determine the problem and get a solution. These companies provide in depth annual training and certification programs, which ensure our technicians are up to date with the newest equipment and repair procedures. With dedicated dealer support, we get immediate answers to questions regarding issues we haven’t seen before and parts support when a software update isn’t enough.
With a direct to consumer electric bike, we’re often not able to do any diagnosis beyond swapping out or disconnecting parts to see if there’s any change. To diagnose many of these bikes, we’re often placed in the role of the consumer and spend hours waiting on hold for a customer service representative to answer our questions.
When you purchase from an online based electric bike company, diagnosis by phone is only the first step. These e-bike companies will send out the lowest cost solution to your problem to be installed and tested by the consumer or their repair shop. When this solution fails to address the problem, it’s back to the phones. Direct to Consumer electric bicycles shift the labor and research of warranty repairs to the end consumer or their local bike shop. With labor rates based on our local market, it isn’t cost effective to have a technician waiting on hold for tech support.
Part of the reason these bikes can be sold for such a low price is that many companies don’t provide support after the sale. While some have a phone support line, others are unreachable. We see this occur primarily with bikes purchased on Amazon. Frustrated customers often complain about their inability to contact DTC companies for guidance on fixing a broken bike, often less than a year old.
Seeing a company like Van Moof enter bankruptcy leads to questions of viability of a bike after the brand disappears. Consumers who own a Van Moof bike could find themselves locked out of their bike if the company doesn’t maintain their servers.
Some DTC companies are different than others. We have had extremely good interactions with Priority with warranty issues in the past, and were pleased with their quick response to technical questions. Occasionally, we have had other companies that provided good service, but could not fix a recurring problem. This led to the consumer returning to the shop multiple times to fix an issue that should have been resolved on the first call.
Recent news reports and FTC recalls are highlighting the role of low quality micromobility lithium batteries in fires. The entire Bosch e-bike system is certified to UL 2489, which sets safety standards for all electric components. We feel safe having them in our shop. Each component has been tested and approved by Underwriters Laboratories (UL), a standards organization that is internationally recognized in the product safety field.
In a December 2022 letter, the CPSC urged manufacturers and importers of e-bikes to meet existing UL or ANSI standards. It asked that these companies comply with and certify that the devices they market and sell are safe for sale and use in the US. Failure to do so could result in enforcement action.
Several of our brands have recently partnered with Call2Recycle, a program that streamlines battery recycling for the consumer. This organization is proactively working to reduce hazardous waste in landfills. It is efforts like this that ensure products sold today have a closed loop for their end of use. Too often, an electrical fault or expensive service cost pushes a relatively new low-cost e-bike into the waste stream. Like a piece of cheaply made clothing, the cost to repair exceeds replacement cost and it becomes trash.
Getting more people to ride e-bikes in Washington, DC is one of our biggest goals. If you’re thinking about purchasing a bike online, stop into your local shop and ask the service department about their experience with that brand. Ask questions about their experience and capacity to service it.