At first glance, the sleek racing bike doesn’t look out of place in one of Toronto’s oldest high-end cycling stores.
But, on closer examination, there’s something a little odd about the water bottle. It’s actually the battery for the motor hidden inside the bicycle frame and the on-off switch is a barely-visible bump where the thumb rests on the inside of the handlebars.
This bike, the first of its kind imported to Canada, represents the latest in bike innovation — and controversy.
The Epowers road bike sits at the crossroad of possibilities: One direction is a means to cheat in sports, the other is an expansion of electric bike options for recreational riders or commuters who want the experience of riding a real bicycle but need a motorized boost on the big hills — and can afford the hefty price tag.
The “affordable model” of this 22-pound carbon fibre bike retails for $15,000, plus tax.
Recent statements by the bike’s Hungarian engineer, Stefano Varjas, that he was paid to keep quiet about his technology for 10 years so it could be used secretly in professional bike racing make his product as controversial as it is expensive.
The last thing the sport of cycling — which hasn’t recovered its public image in the aftermath of Lance Armstrong and other doping scandals — needs is fresh scandal around doped bicycles.
While no one has been caught in the Tour de France or a similar road race using a bike with a small, silent motor and battery entirely hidden in the frame, a rider was caught at the 2016 cyclo-cross world championships.
Belgian racer Femke van den Driessche, who was banned for six years, is the first and only rider to be charged with mechanical doping. But the international governing body for cycling, UCI, was sufficiently concerned about the rumours of secret motors to start inspecting bikes at major races years ago and introduce specific sanctions for technological fraud in 2015.
“I haven’t promoted it because it’s a little controversial,” Henry Erlichman, owner of La Bicicletta, said about the Epowers bike sitting at the back of his Toronto store.
Erlichman wound up with the bike through happenstance having once sold a bicycle to Laslo Szemeredy, who is now working with the Canadian distributor to find retailers and thought of his shop. But he’s still not sure if he wants to sell them.
“Everyone has heard about them but no one has seen it up close so there’s that curiosity factor,” Erlichman said, about why he agreed to check it out last week.
Varjas’ claim that his technology could have been used in professional cycling as far back as 1998, more than a decade before the rumours of such things even started, was recently covered by the CBS news program, 60 Minutes, adding to the intrigue.
“From a sports point of a view, it’s almost a taboo, it’s got such a negative connotation,” Erlichman said.
Indeed, his staff didn’t even want the Epowers bike in the store, believing it sends the message that they condone mechanical doping.
“We’ve built up our business on cycling and fitness and here’s something that goes against what we’re promoting but there’s certainly a need for (better e-bikes),” he said. “Here’s something that actually is aesthetically pleasing that someone wouldn’t mind riding, where the other ones are totally in another league.”
While Europe has a far wider array of electric bikes that look more like traditional bicycles, what’s become more popular on Toronto streets are electric scooters, which are far too heavy to even use without the motor. And the bulk of the mountain bike style e-bikes that are available and more affordable also have quite large and heavy motors and battery packs.
When Erlichman thinks about the need for an Epowers type of bike, he’s thinking, in particular, of Antonio Pavan.
Pavan’s love affair with bicycles began in Italy when he was 15 years old. He was a successful racer there in the 1950s before moving to Canada to work in construction. He raced successfully here for a time before opening a shoe store and eventually returning to his beloved Pinarello bicycles with his own shop in Mississauga.
Pavan Cycles is closed now but — at 83 years of age — he continues to enjoy 100-kilometre rides three times a week with his group.
“We’re still going, the only thing is I feel bad because I start to slow down,” Pavan said.
“Really, in 100 km I don’t need much, only when it comes to tough pushing (up a hill) I can’t push anymore. I can go my way, no problem, but to stay with the younger guys it’s not so easy.”
Pavan is the grandfather of his cycling group, with the next eldest member just 58; the young men he wants to stay with are in their 20s.
The Epowers bike that Pavan came to La Bicicletta to look at has a battery life of over an hour and can add roughly 15-20 km to the speed cyclists can generate on their own. That provides a substantial boost to climb up a hill, stay with a group in a strong headwind or simply have an easier, more enjoyable ride.
“I don’t want to bike by myself,” Pavan said. “I like to go with the team and I need this to help me.”
Someone like Pavan would seem to fit the bill for why Varjas says he created the Epowers brand.
“It’s made sporty, you need to be fit or you can’t ride this bike,” Varjas said, in a phone interview. “It’s not a (traditional) e-bike, it’s a special assistance bike but you need to pedal.”
He paints scenarios of mature riders being able to extend their cycling lives — the motor can even be remotely connected to a heart rate monitor to come on automatically when a rider’s heart rate goes over a certain threshold — young kids keeping up with their parents and riders with a disability getting the opportunity to enjoy a racing-style bike.
But Varjas does seem to be in an awkward marketing space.
He’s been only too happy to talk about being paid millions to keep silent about what he could make so it could be used by cheaters in the ranks of professional cycling and selling bikes to “rich and famous people” who don’t want anyone to know that they have a motor.
He says that such things have made it difficult to retail his bikes more widely and that’s why he created the EPowers brand two years ago, so people could see its uses beyond racing.
“The consumer will understand what kind of bike it is,” he said.
While racers routinely spend $15,000 or more on their bicycles — indeed the Epowers isn’t the only bike of that price on the showroom floor at La Bicicletta — that’s far more than most recreational riders and commuters are able and willing to spend.
But e-bikes which require pedaling, whether they are a road or more upright mountain bike style, are where Jared Kolb, executive director of Cycle Toronto sees growth potential.
“In Toronto, the future is really bright for the (pedal style) e-bike. We’re aging, there are a lot more people living more and more years and they still want to stay physically active but hills are a much bigger problem when you’re 65 or 70 than when you’re 25 or 30,” Kolb said.
He’s sees that market growing even more as the city continues to expand bike lanes and create safer cycling conditions allowing more people to feel comfortable cycling.
Varjas recognizes his bikes, manufactured and shipped from a small plant in Hungary, aren’t for everyone.
“The price is high,” he said.
And it only goes up depending on what customization a customer wants.
“We sell it with the battery water bottle but we have it inside the frame (also) it just depends on your budget.”
Indeed, an Epowers swith a more powerful motor and the battery entirely hidden inside the frame costs up to $30,000.
On – 28 Apr, 2017 By Kerry Gillespie