SALT LAKE CITY — In a building on State Street that was once home to a Ford Model T repair shop now resides a company dedicated to vehicles of a decidedly different and 21st century nature: electric bicycles.
Magnum Electric Bicycles opened its Salt Lake office last fall, adding to the Israeli company's growing presence since entering the U.S. market about two years ago.
Co-founder Jesse Lapin said electric bikes, or e-bikes, while relatively new to the U.S., have been a "thing" for some time in other parts of the world.
"I've seen data reflecting there are about 100 million electric bike owners in China," Lapin said. "And European countries have had a growing e-bike market for at least the past decade."
Last summer, Bloomberg News reported that while annual sales of electric bicycles were expected to reach almost 33 million in the Asia-Pacific markets and more than 1.5 million in Europe, North America buyers would likely only pony up for about 150,000 e-bikes.
Lapin said it's exactly this disparity that makes his company so excited about its prospects in the U.S. in general and specifically in Salt Lake City.
"Salt Lake City is really an astounding bicycle city, which is constantly in the top handful of cities in the country for bicycling," he said. "In just the short time we've been here we've seen interest in e-bikes really taking off.
"And we're adding new Utah dealers to our network of over 120 retailers across the country."
Cycling Utah publisher Dave Iltis said that while conventional cycling has seen steady growth in most parts of the country for some years, e-bikes have been slow to find a following. That, however, seems poised to change, he said.
"I recently traveled to Israel and there are e-bikes everywhere," Iltis said. "While they haven't quite caught on here, I think there is a very untapped segment of the market in the U.S."
For the uninitiated, the modern electric bike is almost indiscernible from a non-powered bicycle. They come in a variety of styles — from cruiser to commuter to mountain bike — with the "engine" contained in a slightly-larger-than-normal rear hub.
Depending on the frame style, lithium-ion batteries are in a detachable pack below the seat post or on the down tube, where water bottle holders are commonly found.
While the motor will power the bike on its own, pedaling is still very much part of the equation, and with the electric assist engaged, the ratio of pedal rotations to ground covered is of a more superhuman proportion. Batteries in the Magnum cycles will typically last for 40-50 miles and take several hours to recharge.
Lapin said one of the things that really sets e-bikes apart is that they're easier for a wider range of riders.
"E-bikes really open up cycling to people who aren't riding or haven't bought a bike because of hilly terrain, not being able to keep up with friends and things like that," he said. "Having the electric assist levels things out and brings more people into the biking community."
Mike Lowe owns E-Solar Cycles in St. George, a retailer specializing in electric bicycles and electric scooters. "E-Bike Mike," as he is sometimes known, said he has many customers who had previously given up on cycling in his hilly community who are now regularly getting around on two wheels — and enjoying it.
"There are so many people who want to ride but won't because when they get to a steep hill, they need to get off and push or turn around," Lowe said. "We put someone on an electric bike, and next thing you know they're taking that hill on, no problem."
Lowe said e-bikes from his shop are selling to a variety of customers, but the widest interest seems to be among older riders.
"I've got a customer who rides an e-bike 50 plus miles every other day or so," he said. "He's in his 60s or 70s and goes up Snow Canyon regularly, which used to be a place you'd only ever see really experienced riders."
Another plus of e-bikes, Iltis said, is it makes a zero emission commute on two wheels a much less complicated decision. Instead of having to find a way to manage a shower and change of clothes following a sweaty grind to work, an e-bike commuter can have the best of both worlds, so to speak.
"I think that’s where some of the shift toward e-bikes is going to happen," Iltis said. "When people realize that they can commute to work in a different way that’s less expensive and a lot more fun than being in a car."
More information on Magnum Electric Bicycles and a list of Utah dealers can be found at magnumbikes.com.