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Kevin McGreal, a retired Toronto police officer, rides one of the 23 million e-bikes sold last year.
Kevin McGreal, a retired Toronto police officer, rides one of the 23 million e-bikes sold last year.

Transportation

Keeping up with the E-bike fad Add to ...

Kevin McGreal is an unlikely revolutionary. And yet the retired Toronto police officer, now in his mid-60s, is at the forefront of a movement that a handful of small Canadian companies hope will become a global tidal wave.

Mr. McGreal is a devoted e-bike rider. On nice days he balances his 220-pound-frame on what is essentially a bicycle with a 500-watt electric motor, pushes off and starts pedalling until the bike reaches three kilometres an hour. Then he throws a switch and the motor takes over.

There is a basket for groceries on the back and storage under the seat. In truth his e-bike, the Austin from Toronto-based Daymak Inc., looks more like a slick European motor scooter. And he loves it.

"These e-bikes are absolutely terrific," he says. "For my money they are absolutely the best way to get around the city when the weather permits."

If hefty retired policemen are embracing e-bikes can the rest of the world be far behind?

Manfred Gingl and Aldo Baiocchi hope not. Both have put their money behind small businesses designed to take advantage of the convenience, cost, health benefits and energy savings that e-bikes can bring to city dwellers.

Yet both have taken decidedly different approaches and have targeted different markets. The common thread, however, is they both believe e-bikes are the future and represent a huge potential market for Canadian companies.

Global sales of e-bikes, which are powered by batteries and can be recharged using a standard electric outlet, reached 23 million in 2008, with 90 per cent of them sold in China, according to Electric Bikes Worldwide Reports. That same source predicts the global market will more than double by 2012. Granted, only 730,000 of those 2008 bikes were sold in North America, but sales could quadruple by 2011.

While Mr. Baiocchi, vice-president of Daymak Inc. (his wife Yehmaneh is president), says he would like to claim he foresaw the explosion in demand when he founded Daymak in 2001, he cheerfully admits it was almost a fluke that saw him become a major designer and importer of e-bikes from China.

Last year he sold 1,100 of them in 15 different model types through two corporate and six franchised Ontario stores and about 50 dealers across the country. He could have sold an additional 1,000, he says; he just could not get enough from China.

"Two things happened that saw sales explode," he says. "First, gas prices soared above $1 a litre; second the Ontario government fast-tracked what was to be a three-year pilot study of e-bikes and made them street legal. Demand has shot through the roof."

The dramatic change in demand and the equally dramatic change in the province's attitude toward e-bikes was a far cry from the situation in 2001 when he decided to get his then-five-year-old daughter Daniella a battery-operated scooter to ride up and down neighbouring sidewalks.

"I couldn't find one in Canada, and when I found one in the United States they wouldn't ship it because e-scooters and e-bikes were illegal in Ontario," he says. "But I thought there must be some way around it so I ordered about 150 e-bikes in various models from China. Transport Canada seized them the moment they were unloaded from the boat.

"I needed pre-approval from Transport Canada and they all had to meet requirements like giving a 17-digit vehicle identification number, front and rear reflecting lights and stuff like that."

So back those e-bikes went. Mr. Baiocchi sat down and designed bikes that Transport Canada approved of, then slowly started to import them.

"I had to also deal in gas-powered scooters as well to make a buck," he says.

Now e-bikes pay their own way at Daymak. He has a staff of 15 plus 10 contract workers, and that includes a trio of engineers designing controllers, the system that regulate the power the scooters need. The controllers are key, he says.

"The Chinese controllers are great if you weigh 55 kilos, but since the average Canadian rider can go up to 91 kilos, we needed beefed-up controllers," Mr. Baiocchi says. "The stock Chinese e-bikes won't take you up a hill."

His goal is to design and manufacture his own Daymak bikes in China and sell them throughout North America and Europe. He already has a small two-person office in Rome.

Mr. Gingl is aiming for a different market.

His BionX electrification kits can convert any bicycle into an e-bike. Even though they are pricey at about $1,000 each, they are state-of-the-art and enough in demand that he projects sales of 50,000 units this year and double that next, mainly in Europe.

To tackle the harder-to-sell North American market he is negotiating with about 15 of the top traditional bicycle makers to include them as original equipment.

He has also created prototype e-bike recharging stations. Some of these coin-operated stations are already on trial in Austria.

"My vision was always different," says Mr. Gingl, president of Magna Marque International Inc. of Aurora, Ont. The company is a spinoff of auto giant Magna Inc. and for decades Mr. Gingl was founder Frank Stronach's right-hand man.

"I wanted an e-bike that accentuated the pedaller's power," he says.

In other words, a battery-operated system that would turn even the most frail cyclist into a bionic man. He allows that in venues that allow the motor to do the work, BionX systems come with a lever that can shift from pedal assisted to full e-power.

While he started Magna Marque six years ago it was the past 18 months that saw the company begin to soar, he says.

Now the Aurora headquarters has 100 employees and its own manufacturing plant. Another 50-some staffers work locations in Europe, the United States and China.

"What we are doing now is working on a low-cost system for countries such as China," he says. "Canada has the potential to be a world leader in this new e-bike sector."

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