"Whoa, cool bike,” a deliveryman says when Buck Ward passes him near the Canal Walk downtown.
Ward is pedaling — but not too hard — as he climbs the 12th Street hill under the Downtown Expressway. He’s on an electric bike. A battery on the back makes the hill feel like a beach boardwalk.
“I think Richmond has discovered biking — the bike trails, the bike lanes,” Ward says. “We have more and more people who want to get out there but they don’t necessarily have the metabolism for long rides.”
He’s riding one of the 20 electric bikes he bought in December to rent and sell — a fleet that’s taking over space at RVA on Wheels in Shockoe Slip.
Unlike the audience for electric models showing up at local bike shops, Ward is targeting a decidedly less athletic consumer. His pitch is to boomers and less mobile people who want the fun of riding without the required physical output.
His Pedego-brand bikes join Segways that are for sale and rent, as well as trolley and electric car tours.
“It appeals to someone different who might not otherwise get on a bike and ride,” Ward says, “knowing that they have the safety of the pedal assist when they want it.”
The purchases represent a “significant investment,” Ward says, but he’s not worried about the venture.
“The expectation is that the electric bikes will be much more acceptable to the general public because they have ridden a bike before,” he says. “A large percentage of all bike sales in Europe now are electric bikes. Here, it’s just starting.”
For commuters who live a bit too far from work, Ward thinks the promise of showing up at the office without breaking a sweat might convince a few of them to ditch their cars.
It’s a niche that early Segway proponents once thought the contraptions would fill — an alternative to cars in cities. But the magical quality of their uprightness scared some people away, and Segways have become more of a novelty tour vehicle.
“And with Segways you’re nervous about taking them out too far,” says Adrienne Fegans, whose family bought three of them from Ward almost a decade ago. “When your battery dies, somebody’s gotta drive that thing back.”
Fegans says her family stored its Segways in the bay of their RV and rode them around campgrounds. But an encounter with an electric-bike user in Florida converted the family. She sold the Segways and bought an electric bike from Ward — one of three he’s sold since December.
Prices start at $2,300.
“I love to ride bikes but I’ve had three knee surgeries so it hurts to ride after a while,” Fegans says. “And if the battery dies, pedaling still gets you home.”
While Fegans says she’s not bold enough to commute from her Chesterfield County home to her downtown job, she’s looking forward to taking it on the Virginia Capital Trail when the weather warms up.
Ward thinks the electric bike is the answer to the “range anxiety” of the trail — people who want to visit Shirley Plantation by bike, but don’t think they can make it. Or on such hilly destinations as Hollywood Cemetery.
The electric bikes top out at 20 mph, similar to what an ambitious manual biker might achieve. A 48-volt battery will last about 60 miles with moderate usage. And you’ll need four to five hours to charge it, plugged into a typical wall outlet.
The battery makes it heavier than your average bike — about 45 pounds — so it probably won’t appeal to apartment dwellers without an elevator.
For comparison, a simple small scooter at Scoot Richmond starts at $1,600 and has top speeds of about 40 mph. But you must ride it in regular traffic.
“Wherever you can ride a normal bike, you can ride these bikes,” Ward says of the electric ones. They’re going to be big. He can feel it. S