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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)


Air Date: Week of

It’s spring and electric vehicle enthusiasts around the country are charging their motors for the 9th annual American Tour de Sol. The 350 mile race runs this year from Waterbury, Connecticut to Portland, Maine. Drivers will compete on distance per change, efficiency and consumer appeal. Their vehicles range from home built solar racers to mass produced minivans. One category of competition that’s surging this year, is the electric bike. The race has featured pedal assisted power before, but for the first time, 3 of the 5 competing bikes are actually available to the public. Steve Curwood decided to call Bill Webster, President of Charger Bikes, of Monrovia California, to talk about his entry while taking this new technology out for a spin.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth, I'm Steve Curwood.
It's spring, and electric vehicle enthusiasts around the country are tuning their solar electric systems for the 9th annual American Tour de Sol. The 350 mile race runs this year from Waterbury, Connecticut, to Portland, Maine. Drivers will compete on distance per charge, efficiency, and consumer appeal. Their vehicles range from home-built solar racers, to mass-produced minivans. One category of competition that's surging this year, is the electric bike. The race has featured pedal-assisted power before, but for the first time, 3 of the 5 competing bikes are actually available to the public, although the versions for sale don't come with solar chargers. We decided to call Bill Webster, president of Charger Bikes, of Monrovia, California, to talk about his entry while we gave this new technology a try.

[Tone call sounds]

CURWOOD: Hi, Bill, this is Steve Curwood, from Living on Earth, in Boston. How are you doing?

WEBSTER: Hi, Steve. I'm doing great, thanks.

CURWOOD: I'm looking at your machine, here, has "Charger" in big letters on the side, and this kind of big mystery box, on it, in the middle. What what am I looking at here?

WEBSTER: Well, basically, what we've done is, we've taken a basic mountain bike, but what we've done, is we've buried a small 1/2- horsepower electric motor, down in between the pedal cranks. And if you peek at the back wheel, you'll see that there's actually two chains that are going to the rear wheel.

CURWOOD: Oh, I see. Oh, yeah. Two chains back here.

WEBSTER: Right. One chain is going to the pedals, like you normally have.


WEBSTER: The other chain is going to this motor.

CURWOOD: Uh, hum.

WEBSTER: And, and what makes the bike neat, is the big box, that's down in the, the 'V' of the, of the bike, has a, onboard computer on, there, and the batteries, and everything to run the bike. The computer on board is determining how much effort you're putting into the pedals--

CURWOOD: Uh, huh.

WEBSTER:--and then it will, match or multiply your effort, with the motor, in real time.

CURWOOD: Listen, I told my wife Liza I was going to look at this bike today, and she said, "Great! It's an electric moped!" And I said, well, I don't know. What is it, Bill?

WEBSTER: It's actually not a moped. Ah, the way this thing works, is because you're pedalling, and the bike is assisting you, or, or multiplying your effort, the Department of Transportation has said this is not a motor vehicle; it's a bicycle.

CURWOOD: Hey, I'm looking on the back wheel, and it's got this funny doohickey, ah, attached to one of the spokes. I should take this thing off?

WEBSTER: No. That's a little magnet, and, and there's a little speed sensor on the chainstay back there, and that's what measures, the, top speed of the bike. In, in some state, ah, here in California, in particular, the top speed allowable by law is 20 miles an hour, under assist. So, what, ah, what that, ah, speed sensor is doing, is it's checking to see how fast the bike is going, and as you go past 20 miles an hour, it'll actually, turn the motor off, and as you slow back down, it'll kick the motor back in. And no, if you take the speed sensor off, you can't fake out the system.

CURWOOD: No?! What, what if I want to go faster? What about-- aren't you going to run this thing in the Tour de Sol?

WEBSTER: We sure are. Now, we're going to go to the Tour de Sol, and, which is the, electric vehicle race, and obviously, there, ah what we've done is, we've, we've got a special chip that we've, put in, that doesn't have the, ah, the governor on it. And, we're getting assist, up to about 32 miles an hour.

CURWOOD: Ok, you know what I'm going to do, Bill? Ahm, technology is great, but it's not really, safe or appropriate for me to talk to you while I ride on this bike, so I think what I'm going to do, is to go take it for a ride, try it out, and then give you a call right back, huh?

WEBSTER: Well, that's fantastic. Do you know how to turn the bike on?

CURWOOD: Well, tell me what I should do here.

WEBSTER: There's a little keyboard on the top of the bike. If you press the "1" button--

CURWOOD: Uh, huh.

WEBSTER:--the "2," the "3," or the "4," you're selecting the level of assist. Basically, match my pedalling 1 to 1, 2 to 1, 3 to 1, or 4 to 1. Now, you also have, a 7-speed gear shift, up on the right-hand handlebar, you've got a little grip-shift--

[Clicks of shifting]

WEBSTER:--and it'll all you to shift into any one of 7 gears. So you should have some fun. Be sure to shift gears, and try different levels of assist, and, and ride!

CURWOOD: I will, but now, my, my mountain bike at home has got 21 gears. This has only got 7, am I going to miss them?

WEBSTER: You'll miss a few, but the nice thing is, is you basically have the equivalent of, Greg LeMond riding on your bike with you, at a 30-pound weight premium.

CURWOOD: [Laughs, astonished.]

WEBSTER: So, I don't think you're going to miss them that badly.

CURWOOD: Ah, hah. All right, look out, here comes Greg Lemond! I'll talk to you later. I'll call you back.

[Cars passing]

CURWOOD: A little test, that I thought I'd do today, is, in Belmont, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston, along Concord Avenue, it's a nice, flat area, and then it goes up a very steep hill, to a conservation area called Habitat.

[Bike gear whirring]

CURWOOD: One of my favorite spots here in the Boston area, and as usual in Boston, there are plenty of cars and traffic here.

[Cars pass by. Click of bike gear change]

CURWOOD: I've got like one level of assist, in the top gear, and I can't say I really notice that big a difference here. Ok, well, we're starting to head down a little hill before we go up the big one.

[Louder whirring]

CURWOOD: Ah, now I'm getting to a pretty steep part of the hill here--

[Bike gear change clicks]

CURWOOD:--have to downshift. Oh. Well, this is a big difference. I'm not going all that fast, but boy, is it sure easy to pedal. Um, but the steepest part of the hill is yet to come. Whup, here we go!

[More whirring]

CURWOOD: Now I am going up the steepest part of the hill.

[Whirring, whirring]

CURWOOD: This is a hill that would challenge anybody on a bike. And I'm having to put some effort into it, but


CURWOOD:--this is easy! This is amazing! Just for kicks, let me try it without the assist.

[Low buzz saw thrumming]

CURWOOD: Oh, boy, huh, huh, boy, I feel like the, chain saw. Let me to kick it in again.

[Whirring again]

CURWOOD: Ooh, much better. The thing that's cool about this is that you just pedal--


CURWOOD:--and, it's like somebody's, giant hand is gently pushing, pushing you along.

[Car passes, bike whirs and fades]

CURWOOD: Hello? Hey, Bill, this is Steve.

WEBSTER: Hey, welcome back. How was your ride?

CURWOOD: Ah, hey, listen, I have a future ahead of me as a superathlete.

WEBSTER: [Laughs.]

CURWOOD: So, ahm, who's buying this bike?

WEBSTER: Who's our market? Well, the main market right now are baby boomers. Ahm--

CURWOOD: Baby boomers? You know, folks like me, huh?

WEBSTER: Yeah, ah, or me. It's folks that want to, go farther, faster, re-experience cycling, get out and stay active, but riding a mile or two around the park with the kids is getting boring, but the, the big hill, or the the tough ride that's, facing you to go further is, is kind of dissuading you from using cycling as one of your, exercise activities. The other market is, is commuters. There, there is a growing, bicycle commuter market, where people are riding in to work. You know, and the electric bike allows you to live a little further away from the office than you might think about using a bike.

CURWOOD: Or up a hill from the office, anyway.

WEBSTER: Exactly. So that's kind of fun. We have another market, that we're discovering, and that's that, lots of couple ride, and, it turns out that one of the spouses usually ends up being a better cyclist than the other.

CURWOOD: Mm, hm.

WEBSTER: And so they don't ride on weekends anymore together, because the one, cyclist can't keep up.


WEBSTER: So this is a, this is a bike for the keeping-up rider.

CURWOOD: So how many of these have you sold?

WEBSTER: Well, actually we just, ah, we just started production here. I've got a couple thousand that have been sold already. And that's just in the US. And the United States is probably the smallest market in the world for electric bicycles. The huge markets are going to be overseas, where, commuting is the primary application. Over 150,000 electric bikes were sold in Japan last year, as second cars, basically.

CURWOOD: So, is the idea to get people, out of their cars? Do you think you can sell, the electric bike, the "Charger," as you call it, to, people as a, instead of a second car, or a third car?

WEBSTER: In the US, probably not. I think, in the United States, it's a, it's a recreational vehicle primarily, and it's a, it's a fair-weather commuter, maybe. You know,
unfortunately, just the, the mind-set of commuter isn't, isn't to bike commuting yet.

CURWOOD: Well, Bill, I want to thank you for taking all this time with us, and letting us ride your bike for a while.

WEBSTER: Well, thanks, Steve. I'm glad you had fun. Let all your people have a good time on it, and we'll look forward to seeing you at the, at the Tour de Sol race.

CURWOOD: Bill Webster is president of Charger Bicycles in Monrovia, California. Thank you, sir.

WEBSTER: Thanks a lot!



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