Mount Washington man markets electric bicycles

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Jason Seybold has seen hard-core cyclists, those guys who spend thousands of dollars for fast road bikes, take off with an air of chagrin when they try the electric bicycle he helped design.

They all come back grinning. It's because just by pushing a thumb lever on the handlebars, the bike can take off without anyone pedalling.

Joseph Balena was one of those guys. He lives at the top of Mount Washington and used to put his bike in his car, then drive down to the South Side Flats, take the bike out and ride. He would then load it back up in the car to go home.

When he started to research electric bikes, he found one he liked enough to start selling. Now, tucked in part of his Station Square portrait studio, there's a display offering E+ Electric Bicycles for sale.

Building and selling electric bicycles in the United States is a niche market, said Mr. Seybold, the manufacturing engineer and one of the founders of the Virginia company making the E+ electric bikes.

The U.S. Department of Transportation defines an electric bicycle as "any bicycle or tricycle with a low-powered electric motor weighing under 100 pounds with a top motor-powered speed not in excess of 20 miles per hour."

In China, sales of electric bikes are measured in the millions. In the United States, they are measured in the thousands. In the United States, various types of electric bikes cost anywhere from $1,500 for the most affordable model to $12,000 for the Optibike out of Boulder, Colo.

Some electric bikes have batteries mounted on the frames. Some can be recharged only by plugging them in.

The E+ starts at $2,600. It runs on a motor built into the rear wheel and the battery in the front wheel. The system can be set so that anytime the bicycle moves, it helps recharge the battery or so that the recharging happens only during braking, like the hybrid Toyota Prius. But recharging the battery causes resistance that can make it harder to pedal.

The whole assembly of motor and battery is built into the wheels and fits between the forks of the bicycle and can add about 35 pounds to the weight.

Mr. Seybold said the motor and battery could fit between the forks of about 80 percent of the traditional bikes sold in the United States. Still, about 1,000 of the E+ electric bikes have been sold. The company sells the system on a variety of bikes, including recumbent models with back support.

The bike can go about 20 miles on a single charge, and an optional second battery can be attached to the rack to double that distance.

In Pittsburgh, any help going uphill is welcome. Mr. Balena said he could hop on his bicycle, ride down to the South Side, tool over to Frick Park and ride the trails, then get back to the bottom of McArdle Roadway and head on up without having to worry that his legs are dead from the previous miles.

Despite the motor, electric bikes are allowed on trails and walkways because they are still considered bicycles.

Mr. Balena said that when he first got the bike, he found himself sitting and riding without pedalling. Then he started to help the motor along, providing some of the power needed to move the bike, mostly because it gave him something to do.

Ann Belser: or 412-263-1699.


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