E-bikes in Canada: Electric Assist Gains Ground

In countries where cycling is a transportation mainstay, electric-assist bicycles are gathering plenty of fans, boosting retailers’ bottom line, and even finding support from government. But the Canadian market is slower to embrace the ‘pedelec’ as power-assisted bicycles are commonly called. Nonetheless, electric-assist is gradually building market share among commuters, recreational road riders, and even mountain bikers.

It’s estimated that 35 million electric bicycles were sold around the world in 2016. But only 300,000 units are attributed to the North American market. Consider the population dominance of the USA and even without official statistics to reference, it’s clear that the e-bike remains a niche product in Canada.

Kevin Senior, Bow Cycle
Kevin Senior, Bow Cycle

More E-bikes on Canadian Roads

Nonetheless, an astute observer would notice more e-bikes on Canadian roads. That’s good news for retailers and distributors, who welcome e-bikes in their product line-ups, because they appeal to a new kind of cyclist. Offering time-saving benefits for daily cycle commuters, an easier ride for occasional users, and an alternative to the minivan for parents loathe to give up their bike to get the kids to school, e-bikes expand the customer base for bike stores beyond the iron-thighed enthusiast.

“We realized this is a whole new segment for us,” notes Kevin Senior, owner of Bow Cycles in Calgary and president of the Canadian Independent Bicycle Retailers Association (CIBRA). “Most of the people are 40+ (years). Some who used to ride but haven’t been on a bike for several years.”

That’s a demographic observation supported by market research according to Claudia Wasko, Business Unit Leader of Bosch eBike Systems Americas.

Claudia Wasko
Claudia Wasko, Business Unit Leader of Bosch eBike Systems Americas

“We recently conducted a survey in North America interviewing end consumers, but also dealers and bike manufacturers. Currently the strongest e-bike consumer group in the US and Canada are the Baby Boomers, defining “better health” and “fun” as their main reasons to ride e-bikes. The majority uses them for recreation and exercise (34%) and “commuting” (20%) whereas “trail/mountain biking” was stated less (9%).”

The advent of e-bikes is also bringing new players to the cycling world and fostering innovation among established brands. Cycling powerhouse Shimano offers ease-of-use with its e-bike drivetrain solution – the automatic-shifting STEPS system.

Shimano Steps e-drive system

“Shimano STEPS provides accessibility in a few different ways,” says David Blondel

Shimano Canada’s Marketing Manager – Bicycle Components and Accessories Division. “We see it in the rider who hasn’t been on a bike in years, maybe in part due to an injury or age, who can really benefit from the pedal assist that Shimano STEPS offers. It continues with the rider who has a lengthy commute to work, who wants to ride, but doesn’t want to show up sweaty. Lastly, we have seen riders go farther, expend less energy and really experience different parts of their cities, parks or trail systems from atop a bicycle. It’s a wonderful thing.”

Canadian e-bike supplier Bionx was one of the first companies to offer a level of quality superior to the low-cost (and low-quality) Chinese imports that marked the first wave of e-bikes. Their aftermarket kit quickly became a preferred upgrade for cyclists wishing to convert their regular bicycle into an e-bike. It also found favour with bike manufacturers seeking a plug-and-play OEM solution for adding pedelecs to their marque.

Bionx P-350 DX e-bike conversion kit

Today Bionx continues to supply both markets, with over 20 brands utilizing them as an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) supplier and countless bikes transformed from strictly human-powered to e-assist with one of their hub drive systems. The company’s focus is on road cycling, but Paul Gingl, Chief Operating Officer for BionX International is supportive of the growing interest in e-MTBs.

“We see the commuting/casual to be the biggest sector for us. Hub drives are great for “on road” applications and highly efficient. We are glad though that companies like Bosch and OHM are paving the way for off-road e-bikes.”

Bosch, in business since the late 1800s, has long been known for its electronics, especially in the world of automobiles. Today the brand has also become synonymous with e-bikes. The Bosch mid-drive system is standard equipment on over 70 e-bike brands and is actively promoting electric assist for off-road cycling applications.

“We see a huge potential in offroad use, as the user group will get younger – a phenomenon which we have seen in Europe, where the fastest growing segment is eMTB,” notes Wasko. “Creating a more favorable regulatory or policy environment for pedal-assist trail access is key for the proliferation of offroad use.”

Surface 604 e-MTB

E-Bike Adoption Trend Remains Slow

But, what’s holding back an e-bike revolution, whether it’s on the streets or in the woods? With traffic congestion growing, transit systems typically underfinanced or nearly non-existent in many Canadian towns, and a growing network of cycling infrastructure in major cities, it’s surprising that more people aren’t adopting e-bikes as a transportation alternative. The vast network of trails and wilderness access roads also offer fertile ground for putting more people on pedelecs, yet e-bikes are rarely spotted. Industry reps say rules and regulations must take part of the blame.

“The bylaws both on and off road are the biggest challenges,” says Paul Gingl. “On road and bike paths are easier to work with right now than off-road acceptance.”

Kevin Senior notes that in his city of Calgary they recently had some success – with e-bikes now allowed on the city’s network of bike paths, but there remains obstacles, such as the Alberta law mandating motorcycle-style helmets to operate a power-assisted bicycle on streets and highways.

“Some of the laws are a hindrance,” says Senior. “Because they are outdated.”

Claudia Wasko also sees outdated rules as a challenge, but notes there are other factors to consider.

“One big barrier is definitively the regulatory situation… where outdated laws create uncertainty for both dealers and end consumers. The resistance of Land management and core MTB community towards eMTB creates limited access for eMTBs on public lands. Furthermore, we still observe a huge hesitation by many retailers who either have had bad experiences with low quality products from China, (or) are pure bike enthusiasts who don’t want to sell products they are not passionate about, or just are not willing to invest in this category (inventory, training, tools).

That perspective regarding retail hesitancy is echoed by Raymond Dutil, president and CEO of Groupe Procycle, the parent company of Rocky Mountain, Miele, and their ebike brand eVox. He also thinks consumers are still learning about the benefits of e-bikes.

“The first problem in Canada is dealer network acceptance. Some are worried about (selling) electronic devices like e-bikes. Also, the consumer acceptance of commuting by bicycle is so far from the European market.”

Dutil notes that their eVox line represents a second time around for Procycle’s e-bike ambitions.

“We at Procycle introduced our first e-bike in the 90s. It was too early and we only did it for 2 seasons). But 5 years ago we restarted an e-bike project (eVox) with the development of our own electric motor. We strongly believe in the e-bike market in North America, it will be smaller than the European market and will take more time to get acceptance but the consumers who try it love it.”

“Education is key,” says David Blondel. “We can talk about e-bikes, however, people need to experience a ride on an (e-bike). I have yet to see anyone ride a STEPS bike without smiling. It’s a fun experience!”

Subsidizing E-Bikes Working Overseas

Another reason Canadian e-bike sales may be slow to grow – a lack of government incentives. Some European cities now offer e-bike subsidies of as much as €2000 cash back to buyers (Munich) or $1200 for an electric cargo bike (Oslo), while in Canada about the best a prospective e-bike buyer can hope for is a few hundred dollars in rebates if they get rid of their car through programs such as British Columbia’s LiveSmart transportation incentive program.

With quality e-bikes typically costing anywhere from $2000 and up, cycling consumers might be excused for thinking that their adoption of greener transportation solutions goes largely unrecognized by government, especially when the purchase of an electric or hybrid automobile can trigger thousands of dollars in similar government incentives.

There’s good reason to presume that improving incentive packages for prospective customers could help increase sales. Oslo’s cargo bike subsidy program mentioned earlier was launched due to the success of a previous initiative offering up to $600 for the purchase of a regular e-bike. Unsurprisingly, free money to make eco-friendly choices will attract customers.

Overcoming outdated rules. Educating consumers. Attracting political support. If this trio of challenges wasn’t enough, Canada’s independent bicycle retailers also must contend with the spectre of a new competitor – the all e-bike store. Nonetheless, there’s hope that the market will sustain e-bike specific shops and traditional cycling stores alike.

“There is definitely e-bike specific stores,” notes Kevin Senior. “ And there’s definitely an opportunity for more people to sell e-bikes. (But) I think bike stores will still be the main outlet.”

Shimano’s David Blondel also believes there’s room in the marketplace for both approaches.

“Shimano has a long history of working alongside retailers, building up our Shimano Service Centre network and investing in technical education for all retailers. Of course, as the e-bike market continues to grow, and more e-bike specific retailers appear, Shimano will provide dealer support and education to that channel as well.”

Claudia Wasko of Bosch reiterates the observation that the e-bike consumer may be a new breed, distinct from a traditional cycling enthusiast.

“The fact of the matter is that e-bikes have made cycling accessible to all sorts of people – a lot of these people have a lack of cycling background in the recent past and need a different approach than the typical bike customer. We see a bright future for bicycle retailers to be extremely successful in the ebike business if they are willing to seriously commit to this category.”