Dagny and her e-bike during the halcyon days. (Photos: Taylor Griggs/BikePortland)

“E-bikes are the Wild West. It’ll all get sorted out eventually, but there will be a lot of heartbreak in the process.”

– Andrew Schnell, The eBike Store

My roommate and friend Dagny Daniel was in the market for an electric bike, and when she saw Rad Power Bikes was selling their entry-level e-bike for a $500 ($700 lower than its usual price), she jumped at the opportunity to buy it. When the bike came, Dagny put it together and charged it up, excited to hit the bike path.

But she’d only had it for a few days when the honeymoon period ended. Dagny and I were riding with a group of other people on bikes deep in the north Portland peninsula this past weekend when all the sudden, the lights on her bike turned off and the pedal-assist stopped working. (No, it wasn’t dead.) Eventually, we got it going again, but only briefly before it puttered out once more and she had to ride to back without any electric assistance or lights. Right now, the bike is sitting in our basement waiting for someone to figure out what went wrong and get it back in commission.

Dagny isn’t the only person who just bought a Rad Power bike. The e-bike company’s recent sale was very popular – turns out, $500 e-bikes sell like hotcakes. On my own Twitter feed, I heard dozens of accounts of people buying their first electric bikes because of this sale. One particularly exciting anecdote was from someone who said that the person who delivered their bike was so inspired by all the boxes of bikes he was delivering that he decided to get one for himself.

The Rad Power box.

Some e-bike advocates saw the success of this sale as an indication that there’s a demand for electric bikes that should be met with more rebate programs. The popularity of such programs in places like Colorado has shown that people are interested in buying e-bikes at reduced rates and once they have the bikes, they often become game-changers for reducing their car use.

But Dagny’s experience made me wonder if there are more people who have had trouble with their new Rad Power bikes and how local bike shops are dealing with it.

Rad Power is based out of Seattle, and they have brick-and-mortar service centers in some other cities in the United States and Canada (but not in Portland). They used to operate a mobile repair service in some other cities, including Portland, so people could get help directly from Rad Power, but they cancelled that program a few months before the big sale. (According to Rad Power’s website, local mobile bike repair service Velofix is still available to help.) This has left some bike shops in a lurch.

Employees at the The eBike Store in the Piedmont Neighborhood express skepticism about direct-to-consumer electric bike companies like Rad Power. Andrew Schnell, a sales employee at the bike shop, says he thinks they’ve been able to hone in on an important market of people who want functional, non-luxury electric bikes at an affordable price.

But the downside to Rad Power’s business model is that customers have to figure a lot out by themselves.

“I have no problem with the company,” Schnell told me. “But you get what you pay for.”

The least expensive bike sold at the eBike store is $2500 – twice as much as what the RadMission usually costs, and five times as much as its sale price. Schnell said he thinks it’s worth the cost for a better quality bike that you can get serviced locally, but he understands why people are hesitant to pay that much for a bike.

Schnell said he has had trouble getting ahold of people from Rad Power when he has questions about their bikes, so the shop is limited in what it can do to help people who run into problems with them. This has meant some angry customers leaving one-star Yelp reviews for the eBike Store, which never claimed to be a Rad Power retailer or service shop in the first place.

There are several stores in Portland that Rad Power owners have said will service their bikes. Rad Power’s website lists the Bikeologist Mobile Bicycle Repair and Upcycles as options for people who want to get help in-person. Clever Cycles said they can do some service on Rad Powers and are working to connect with a manufacturer in China to get part replacements in the future. (Part replacements for Rad Power bikes are hard to come by right now because of all the demand.)

Thankfully, experiences like Dagny’s seem rare. When I tweeted asking for people’s experiences with their new Rad Power bikes, I received overwhelmingly positive reports, and most people writing reviews online are very pleased with their purchase. (And by the way, Dagny isn’t giving up on her bike – she’ll get back on the seat as soon as she can, but it might take some time to find someone who can help.)

Schnell acknowledges that his exposure to the bikes is more likely to be negative because people are coming to the bike shop with their grievances. But his overall takeaway is that because this industry is fairly new, there are going to be some kinks to work out as e-bikes stake their place as a popular mode of transportation.

“E-bikes are the Wild West,” Schnell told me. “It’ll all get sorted out eventually, but there will be a lot of heartbreak in the process.”

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