A version of this article ran in the June issue of Bicycle Retailer & Industry News
By PAUL TOLMÉ
PORTLAND, Ore. (BRAIN) — Shop owner Brad Davis’s career as an e-bike entrepreneur offers a peek inside an often overlooked but increasingly profitable corner of the electric bike market: e-bike conversions.
A decade or more ago, before the industry pivoted and began pumping out e-bikes in all shapes, sizes, and price points, many e-bikes on American streets were DIY retrofits. Early adopters had to figure out how to install a motor and battery system themselves or find a shop to do it.
“There wasn’t anything good on the market,” said Davis, who saw an opportunity. Thirteen years ago, he co-founded EcoSpeed, an early e-bike conversion kit that never really took off. “The batteries all kind of sucked.”
Davis pulled the plug on EcoSpeed six years ago and opened Nomad Cycles, which specializes in converting existing bikes with aftermarket motors — mostly from Bafang. “Essentially, Bafang came out with their BBSHD system, and it was so good and so cheap that we just started buying theirs.”
Today, Nomad has a six-person crew that retrofits cargo bikes, trikes, and a wide variety of bicycle styles.
Multiple dealers and suppliers interviewed for this story said Bafang is the top motor supplier in the conversion market. “Bafang is the market leader for North America by far. They have their thumb on the conversion market,” said Adam Ostlund, co-founder of Electrify Bike Company in West Jordan, Utah.
Other motor manufacturers supplying the domestic conversion market include Tongsheng — like Bafang, based in China — and CYC Motors out of Hong Kong. Promovec is a Danish brand that has opened a U.S. office with plans to begin selling conversion kits to dealers.
Other suppliers include smaller brands like Electric Bike Outfitters in Denver that source motors, battery cells and electronics from China and re-brand them for dealer and direct-to-consumer sales.
Electrify Bike Company, located in the greater Salt Lake City metro area, has expanded into multiple sales channels in recent years, offering conversion kits for sale to both dealers and consumers, doing conversions for walk-in customers and now opening a retail store to sell its own branded e-bikes. “We will build up existing bike brands and sell those as conversions,” said Ostlund.
Dealers say that price is a key factor in why consumers choose a conversion rather than a complete e-bike off a showroom floor. For the cost of a heavy, entry level e-bike, consumers who own a nice bike or frame can continue riding it with an electric conversion.
“A lot of people already own really nice bikes, but for a variety of reasons they can’t or don’t ride them anymore,” Ostlund said. “The motors we use for conversions are often the same motors used on pre-built e-bikes.”
Retirees, Eco-Conscious Consumers, and the Adaptive Market
Reliable data on the size of the domestic e-bike conversion market is scant, but retailers and suppliers say sales are booming. Consultant and Light Electric Vehicle Association Chairman Ed Benjamin analyzed Customs import records to estimate that about 24,000 DIY kits entered the country last year.
Benjamin cautioned that this opaque market is challenging to track and his count may be low.
Asked to describe their customers’ demographics, dealers said they are often older individuals and retirees — the same consumers courted by e-bike brands.
Another customer base is individuals with physical challenges or injuries that need a trike or hand cycle or adaptive bike.
“You can save thousands of dollars” by converting an existing acoustic adaptive bike or trike, said Livingston, a mechanical engineer who founded EBO in 2015 after undergoing chemotherapy that scarred his lungs. He converted a bike to electric assist and found it helped his healing.
“This week alone we converted three bikes for people with MS (multiple sclerosis),” Livingston said.
The Hostel Shoppe in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, one of the largest recumbent trike dealers in the country, is among Electric Bike Outfitters’ dealers. The Hostel Shoppe got into the conversion business a decade or so ago using the now defunct Bionix system.
“We are adding e-bike kits to a lot of those trikes that people have already bought from us in the past,” said Jessie Bostic, marketing manager for Hostel Shoppe. “It gets those folks who already own a bike and who don’t want to invest $3,000 to $6,000 in a new complete e-bike.”
Livingston of Electric Bike Outfitters said he sells kits to shops in almost every state. “Some dealers do one or two conversions a year, and we have others that order 100 systems. We have a lot of shops in Florida.”
Davis’s customers at Nomad Cycles include parents who “bought a cargo bike when their kids were small and now the kids are bigger, and they need some power. If you already own a decent cargo bike, it’s a big savings to convert it.”
Davis described another type of customer as the “conscious commuter” who owns a good bike frame and feels it would be wasteful to buy a new e-bike.
Other customers want a more powerful e-bike than they can find in a shop selling Bosch or STEPS powered e-bikes. Oregon law allows e-bikes of up to 1000 watts.
Warranties, Batteries, Supply Chains, and Safety
Nomad charges from $1,200 to $2,100 to add a Bafang rear hub motor or mid-drive. Most of Nomad’s conversions are for transportation or utilitarian bikes, said Davis, noting that a freight delivery company hired him to electrify its freight trikes.
Davis uses Bafang motors and as for batteries, he rolls his own. He sources GA cells from Sanyo and packs them into varied sizes of battery cases, paired with a battery management system circuit board.
Livingston said he sources motors from three different factories and makes its own batteries using Panasonic, LG, and Samsung cells. “We work with the big three. We don’t do generic cells,” Livingston said.
Livingston said his company is acutely aware of safety and that all his batteries and kits are tested and run through diagnostics to ensure they are functioning properly.
Promovec, the Danish brand, tries to control what type of bikes are converted. “We don’t allow people to put them on, for the lack of a better term, department store bikes,” said Steven Harad, general manager of Promovec America. “We always ask what kind of bike our customers want to put the system onto. We implore our dealers to do the same thing.”
As with the rest of the bike market, supply chain problems and the pandemic have caused shortages. “Everything we have in stock is pre-sold,” Harad said. “With Shanghai shut down due to COVID we are struggling to get our next orders out.”
Promovec’s entry into the American market is a sign of the growing demand for conversion kits. The company’s mid-drive motors are designed to be installed in one hour. “We designed it for moms and dads and the average cyclist,” Harad said.
For Ostlund, who came into the bike industry after a “thankless” career in high tech, working in the e-bike conversion marketplace is pure joy. Many of his customers are ecstatic to be able to ride a bike or trike for the first time in years. “That is a customer base that is currently not being served by e-bike manufacturers.”