Life, it is often said, is a journey, not a destination.
Boris Mordkovich’s journey has taken him from his birthplace in Lithuania to Brooklyn, back to the former Soviet Union with nonprofit Kiva, from Capetown to London (in an 1980 Land Rover) and, most recently, from New York to San Francisco, on an electric bicycle built by Evelo, his startup company.
And he’s just 27.
“When a good adventure is offered, you don’t refuse it,” Boris said, when we talked via Skype the other day.
Boris recently reached out to me to tell me about his latest adventure, Evelo, which is one of a dozen or so companies trying to persuade Americans to try electric bikes–which are not not motorcycles or mopeds, but bicycles with pedals that get a boost from an electric motor.
If you’re reading this blog, you’ve heard about electric cars. But you may not be familiar with electric bikes. I was surprised to learn from Boris that about 30 million electric bikes were sold worldwide last year. Probably 90% were sold in China, and another million or two in Europe. But even in the US — notwithstanding all the hype about Tesla, the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf–electric bikes may well have outsold electric cars. I’d be more definitive but reliable statistics on e-bikes are hard to come by.
Why would anyone buy an e-bike? The Evelo website answers that question with a set of questions of its own:
Are you looking for a more environmentally friendly way to get to work without getting worn out or breaking a sweat?
Do you want to ride a bicycle more often but find the hills or headwind daunting?
Is there an injury or a physical condition that prevents you from getting back in the saddle?
Do you want to ride more with your significant other, but have a hard time keeping up?
Is driving to work or around town becoming too expensive due to the high costs of gas, insurance, and vehicle payments?
To underscore the environmental benefits of e-bikes, Evelo this spring will launch a 30-Day Electric Bike Challenge, which challenges people to give up their car keys and use an electric bike to commute, run errands, and or just get around. To the degree that electric bike trips become a substitute for car trips, they reduce carbon emissions, air pollution, traffic congestion and oil dependence. They’re good exercise and fun to ride, too.
Lots of companies want to sell e-bikes in the US. Big manufacturers like Trek and Giant make them, as do smaller companies like Currie Technologies, which is sometimes described as the market leader; Prodeco, which recently built new factory in Florida; and Polaris, which is better known for making all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles. An e-bike called the Faraday Porteur got a lot of attention when it was posted last year as a project on Kickstarter.
Boris and his older brother, Yevgeniy, launched Evelo in 2011. Before, Boris created a print magazine about Internet marketing, worked for Kiva, the nonprofit that makes loans to entrepreneurs in the developing world, and helped to launch Relay Rides, a peer-to-peer car-sharing service. In between, with friends, he set out on a 22,000-km ride across Africa in an old Land Rover and chronicled his adventures in a blog called We Going Up.
Coming out of the world of car sharing, Boris saw potential for electric bikes. “An electric bike is a really good substitute for a second car,” he said. “And if you live in a place where you have car-sharing available, it can be a substitute for a first car.” The growth of bike infrastructure in the US — new bike lanes, parking, etc. — adds to the potential allure of electric bikes.
But the business faces challenges, too.
Electric bikes cost more than conventional pedal pushers. Evelo’s bikes retail for about $2,000. That’s a lot of money for recreation, not quite as much if you substitute an e-bike for car trips. Evelo notes that for about $1 in fuel costs, an electric bike can travel 250-500 miles–it’s cheaper than a car or public transit. Of course, you’ll have to provide some of the power yourself, as I’ll explain in a moment.
A second obstacle to the growth of electric bikes is lack of awareness, which is one reason why Boris set out on his coast-to-coast bike trip last year. During the 75-day trip, he stopped in various cities to talk about e-bikes, and spread the word on his blog. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to travel at a speed of 20 miles per hour,” he told me. “It stops being about any particular destination.”
Still another challenge for Evelo is distribution. E-bikes are too complicated, for now, to sell in big box stores. Independent bike shops tend to scorn them. So Evelo is relying upon existing customers, who are called Ambassadors, to spread the word about its bikes and offer test rides.
Which is how I found myself on the Patuxent River trail near Columbia, Md., last week where Jon Krespan, the proud owner of an Evelo bike was waiting to greet me and give me a test ride. Jon, who is 54, is a former county firefighter and a friendly guy who uses his bike to help him cope with chronic pain caused by a broken neck that he suffered on the job. With an e-bike, he said, “I can bike for a lot longer without trash myself physically. So I can go farther and still be comfortable.” He still gets a workout and enjoys being outdoors just about every day.
The bike offers riders lots of control. You can simply pedal it, like a conventional bike, without the motor. You can ride in a mode called “pedal assist” where the motors gives your pedaling an extra boost, which feels like you have a brisk wind at your bike; you can set the bike for a low, medium or high boost. Or you can use a throttle that turns on the motor to get you going before you start to pedal. The bike is easier to ride than it is to explain!
I rode for about 20 minutes along the trail, and used the motor part of the time, in low mode. That delivered plenty of power to boost me up hills. A standard lithium-ion battery will last for up to 40 miles in pedal-assist mode, and the battery can be easily detached and recharged in a standard plug.
I like the Evelo a lot. About the only drawback I found was the weight, which topped 60 pounds. That wasn’t a big problem when riding, but I wouldn’t want to try to put the bike on top of my car or carry it up a flight of stairs–a problem for urban commuters.
As costs come down, the technology improves and baby boomers age into the 50s and 60s, I think we’ll be hearing a lot more electric bikes in the years ahead.