Ask a hardcore cyclist about eBikes and he or she will likely be dismissive. But the electric motor-assisted bicycle is coming into its own.
One of the Southland manufacturers that saw the potential for the putting the ‘e’ in bicycles is longtime cyclist Larry Pizzi (below right), president of Currie Technologies and founder of the brand IZIP, the Simi Valley-based eBike company that will display its E3 Metro at KCRW’s Reinventing The Wheel event Sunday.
The E3 Metro, designed to be utilitarian, recently won 2014’s prestigious Cycle Design and Innovation Award at the Taipei Cycle Show, one of the world’s biggest bicycle fairs.
The bike was designed by Taiwanese-born, Art Center-educated Daniel Shiau, above, who joined Currie Tech early last year.
DnA spoke with Larry and Daniel and learned about how a lifelong bicyclist became an eBike evangelist, the challenges of reinventing the (bicycle) wheel and just how far an eBike can take you.
DnA: Your products come with two brand names, Currie Tech and IZIP. What is the difference?
LP: Currie Technologies is a development company created in late 1990s by Dr. Malcolm Currie, who invented a propulsion system he hoped he could sell to bike companies. He was way out in front in the eBike revolution.
Currie is not really a brand; its a technology and we put it into all our drive systems, which we call Currie Electro-Drive.
DnA: So what is IZIP?
LP: IZIP is a brand that I created in 2005 and it was still pretty early on in the eBike phenomenon. I noticed that eBikes had gone mainstream in the Netherlands and had spread to Germany.
DnA: How did IZIP come about?
LP: I started IZIP as a brand (Pizzi spelt backwards, less one z) and we started designing electric bikes that looked like bicycles. Being a cyclist I thought that I wouldn’t ride something that looked really foreign and we achieved that by integrating the battery and other electronics into the frame and bikes design, so it looked as much like a normal bike as possible.
DnA: What is the difference between an eBike and a moped?
LP: Those had internal combustion engines and they became very popular here for a short time in the mid 1970’s, but they faded away because they were not particularly efficient, and you had to have registration and license and so on.
DnA: Why don’t you need a license for an eBike?
LP: When eBikes came about a federal law was passed that classified them as bicycles and not motor vehicles. Under this law, passed in 2002, a class of vehicle called a low-speed electric bicycle was created and that we market today, giving us the benefit of not needing all the standard motor vehicle requirements like turn signals, headlights and a speedometer that a motor cycle or motor scooter would need.
The Federal law states that the top speed limit for an eBike is 20 miles per hour, under motor power only, with a 170 pound rider on a flat, paved surface. Of course you can add human power and go faster; and a lighter-weight rider can go faster, so the speed is a variable but its top speed means the vehicle is not unlike a normal bike, from a speed standpoint.
DnA: If lots of people start whizzing along on eBikes might it get dangerous on the roads?
LP: These things aren’t any more dangerous than a normal bicycle; if people are riding them ethically and following the rules of the road they are just as safe as a normal bicycle. The real variable is infrastructure and being able to share that with low-speed eBikes.
Where you can use them and how they can be used are determined by every state’s vehicle code. In California they can be ridden in a bike lane adjaacent to a roadway. But on a trail or class 1 bike path they may be restricted.
DnA: How did you become an eBike manufacturer?
LP: I’ve been involved in the bicycle business since I was a teenager. When I was 12, I was exposed to cycling as a sport then as soon as my parents allowed me I got a job in the local bike shop and worked there though my school years.
Then I went to Philadelphia College of Art to study industrial design and while I was midway through university the chain of shops I’d been working for went out of business. One of the men working there and I saw an opportunity to buy the assets of this business and start our own. I owned Bike-Tech for 13 years and grew it into a three-store chain.
Then I got involved in the other side of the industry, the wholesale and distribution side.
Later, I was offered an opportunity with Schwinn back to the Midwest but my wife wanted to stay in Santa Monica and I found myself in the job market and this gentleman Dr. Malcolm Currie rang me up and said, I read in the trade press you may be looking for a job.
I joined in 2002 and after he retired I took over the company in 2005. We really were ahead of our time and it’s only in the last few years that the product has become ready for primetime.
LP: That’s because of the battery technology and now we have high rate discharge, lithium ion batteries, this type of lithium ion cell was developed for electric vehicles. These are the same batteries that Elon Musk uses in the Tesla and is looking to build a battery plant in the US with Panasonic as his partner.
DnA: Tell us about the E3 Metro.
LP: What we were seeing starting to happen is that people were using eBikes not only for recreation but for commuting and we saw the need for a utility bike that could carry packages and so forth, but we needed to find appropriate ways to incorporate load carrying into the bikes design. In 2011 we introduced the first version with an integrated rear carrier and front basket, that you could put relatively heavy packages on.
Then in late 2012 we hired Daniel. He’s had a lot of years designing bicycles and he took a crack at a total redesign and out of that we netted the design award. We were very proud of it; all the shortcomings that the first two iterations had were addressed and fixed.
DnA: Daniel, you designed the E3 Metro. When did you come to LA?
Daniel Shiau: I grew up in Taiwan and came to Los Angeles in 1987 with my wife (now we have two kids). Then I went to Art Center College of Design for two years. I had studied industrial design previously in Taiwan. After five trimesters at Art Center I went to UCLA to get a masters in fine art.
Then after that I worked for design consultant and then started to work for Giant bicycle company in Newbury Park. I was working for them on mountain, lifestyle and road bikes and then I left the industry for four years and then came back to Giant. By that time they had electric bike division in Shanghai and that’s where I got involved with electric bikes.
DnA: I read that eBikes are huge in China? Is that correct?
DS: The eBike became popular because the Chinese government banned the gas-powered scooter. There are tens of millions of eBikes in China, but it is a very different market from the US. In China the eBike is used in a way similar to a moped; they tend to use the motor more and pedal less. Americans and Europeans use more of pedal-assist.
DnA: When you joined IZIP you were given the task of designing the E3 Metro. What did that involve?
DS: Metro is a utility bike and the geometry has to be designed for comfort riding, not for racing. The geometry, the handle bar, saddle and then the pedals, have to be arranged to be comfortable. And then once you define the right geometry you need to develop a sturdy, robust and reliable structure so people can put weight on it. We tested the rear carrier to make sure it can hold a weight of 55 or 60pounds.
And the bike is a black color so it gives you a robust feeling. But we added a lighter feature of a bamboo panel on the top of the carrier.
We tried to make it look like a regular bike and not to intimidate the people who are used to a regular bike. If you look at detail you see the motor and the battery that don’t exist on the regular bike. But from a distance you can’t tell it’s not a regular bike.
DnA: Bikes have been around for over 100 years. Do you enjoy the challenge of redesigning a bike?
It is a great challenge to design a bike. My father used to say, a bicycle is only two wheels, how much can you do to change that? But there is revolution in the industry, every year there is something more. There are lots of areas to explore, especially with the new technologies relating to eBikes.
DnA: Do you yourselves ride your eBikes? Larry?
LP: Of course. I use an eBike for around-town kind of things and on the weekends I don’t get into my car. I live in Santa Monica and the company is in Simi Valley so I don’t commute every day but I try to do so when it’s light in the evenings at least a couple days a week.
DnA: Santa Monica to Simi Valley? That’s quite a hike! How far?
LP: The distance is 40 miles. I go over the Sepulveda pass into the Valley or I go on PCH and take Topanga. It’s doable on an eBike if you start early and come back late. But climbing 3,000 feet through the SM mountains so it would be very challenging on a normal bike.
DS: Yes. I live in Simi Valley which is less than six miles from work so two or three days a work I ride the bike. Also I ride eBikes during the weekend as I need to test the bikes, and I really enjoy it.
DnA: What do you think are LA’s prospects are for becoming an eBike city?
LP: Most definitely it holds a lot of promise. We have great weather, we have long distances between places and it’s just a perfect scenario for an eBike. Even normal cyclists that ride for fitness look to an eBike because it gives them the possibility of commuting. It enables people to go further and faster and arrive not destroyed and in need of a shower. You can ride an eBike as hard as a normal bike but it does enable you to get from Point A to Point B with less effort.
For more on eBikes, listen to this DnA segment. And meet Larry Pizzi, Daniel Shiau and IZip dealer TJ Flexer of Orange 20 Bikes, at our Reinventing the Wheel event Sunday, May 18.