Electric bike start-up cruises on sustainable energy

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John LeStarge

John LeStarge, owner of Chicago Electric Bicycles, says his battery-powered bikes provide a low-cost alternative to taking the train or bus to work. Photo courtesy of Chicago Electric Bicycles.

John LeStarge says his two-wheelers can beat public buses on crowded city streets.

Sporting batteries that propel them at speeds up to 20 mph, the electric bikes also surpass other forms of transportation on cost-efficiency, traveling 15 miles on just a nickel of electricity, said LeStarge, owner of Chicago Electric Bicycles LLC. The company began producing and selling its own line of electric bikes online in November and then opened a storefront on Grand Avenue in the spring to let people test-drive the battery-powered bicycles before buying them. “Once you ride these bikes, you’re addicted,” he said.

When it comes to environmentally friendly transportation, few options compare with electric bicycles, which have been mainstays in Europe and Asia for decades, where millions are sold each year. But they’re just beginning to catch on in the United States.

“It’s such a new technology, people are still slow getting the concept,” said LeStarge, who has a patent pending on his Stealth Cruiser bicycle design.

LeStarge started building electric bikes in the spring of 2008, when gas prices were rising and consumers were looking for low-cost transportation alternatives. He put his plans on hold when the U.S. Army National Guard deployed him to the Afghanistan in 2008. He continued researching the business concept while overseas, and launched the business when he returned in late 2009, he said.

While gas prices are less of an issue than they were in 2008, the green-energy movement is attracting attention. And the advent of a new generation of lithium-ion batteries that are lighter, safer and longer-lasting than earlier versions is spurring new interest in all forms of electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles, experts said. “With lithium-ion batteries, the whole industry is back to life,” said Said Al-Hallaj, chief executive at AllCell Technologies in Chicago, which offers a patented phase change material technology that absorbs the heat generated from lithium batteries, making them safer and doubling their lifespan. Its batteries currently are being used to power electric scooters and bikes, but soon will be in electric and plug-in hybrid automotbiles and trucks, Al-Hallaj said.

The potential for electric bikes is great, given the size of the target market, which ranges from college students to senior citizens, LeStarge said. Electric bike riders need to be 16 years of age or older and ride on the street, not the sidewalk, but few other rules apply.

“You don’t need any gas or maintenance. You can ride 10 minutes to work and not break a sweat. And you don’t have to waste time waiting for trains and buses,” LeStarge said.

Once cyclists arrive at their destinations, they can carry the batteries with them and charge them by plugging them into ordinary outlets, with no additional equipment required, LeStarge said.

LeStarge builds his bikes in a small warehouse on the city’s West Side. His low overhead has allowed him to keep his prices below those of most U.S. competitors. LeStarge’s top of the line bike is the $1,500 Stealth Cruiser, which includes a lithium-ion battery that can last 1,000 charge cycles, or about three to five years, while his $900 Comfort Cruiser bike uses a heavy lead-acid battery that lasts about 300 charges, or two years.

LeStarge also has started converting existing bikes to electric power for as little as $599 by adding rechargeable batteries to sturdy two-wheelers. “Converting wasn’t in the business plan originally, but people kept asking me, ‘Can you convert this bike?’” he said. “We can convert almost any bike to electric, as long as the frame is secure,” he said.

Chicago Electric Bikes also makes repairs, mostly of electric bikes bought online from overseas manufacturers, LeStarge said. “Usually it’s a battery issue,” he said. That’s one reason LeStarge is particular about the batteries he uses in the bikes he builds.

When selecting an electric bike, “It’s all about the battery,” Al-Hallaj said. “The difference between a good battery and bad is performance,” he said. Lithium-ion batteries typically weigh one-fourth to one-fifth that of the weight of lead-acid batteries and last longer, he said.
Some electric bike batteries only last six miles on a single charge and wear out after five months of regular use, said Jim Turner, president of Optibike.com in Boulder, Colo., which offers high-end electric bikes designed to last. Turner wasn’t aware of his new Chicago competition when a reporter called him in July. Optibikes are sold exclusively online and run from about $6,000 to $12,000, with the price determined partly by the battery.

Turner said his American-made bikes are positioned as car replacements rather than bike replacements and can travel at 20 mph for 40 miles without a recharge, depending on wind. The batteries used in Optibikes come with a three-year guarantee, but Turner is currently working with AllCell on higher-performance lithium-ion batteries that could last even longer. “We’re focusing on the audience looking for the best product and the best performance,” Turner said.

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