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Simon Cowell’s crash: How safe are e-bikes? A user’s guide to electric bicycles

  • August 11, 2020

Electric bicycle sales are soaring amid the coronavirus pandemic, but how safe are they? 

Safety concerns about e-bikes sparked again after Simon Cowell broke his back in multiple places while trying out his new e-bike on Saturday in the courtyard of his Malibu home, Syco Entertainment confirmed to USA TODAY in a statement provided by Ann-Marie Thomson. 

Cowell, 60, underwent six hours of surgery that included placing a metal rod in his back.

The “America’s Got Talent” judge isn’t the only one trying out an e-bike. Research analyst Ryan Citron of the consulting group Guidehouse confirmed to The Verge that e-bike sales “have been increasing rapidly” as consumers look for “more personal mobility options and physically distanced transport in the age of COVID.” 

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E-bikes can run on electric power as well as by pedaling.

In 2019, wholesale bike sales were down for every category except e-bikes, which were up 24.7% over the previous year, according to a Bicycle Product Suppliers Association Sell-in Report. Bicycle manufacturer Trek described e-bikes as the company’s fastest-growing segment

So what exactly is an e-bike? And how does it differ from a standard bicycle or motorcycle? While an electric bicycle may look like a typical one, an e-bike has an electric motor to help riders move along with less pedaling effort, which is helpful for rocky or uphill rides. 

They can be a fun mode of traveling – if used correctly. It’s important to note that e-bikes vary greatly in speed, with some going as fast as 60 mph, similar to an electric motorcycle. 

USA TODAY spoke with two e-bike experts, who offer their safety tips for potential e-bike users. 

Make sure all parts of the e-bike are properly installed.

Bob Dowling, a tactical e-bike expert and consultant for manufacturer QuietKat, stresses checking that the front tire is connected properly. If you don’t have the mechanical expertise to install the front tire yourself, go to a certified bicycle specialist. 

Read the manual, cover to cover, before getting on the e-bike.

“Some good advice … If you buy an electric trail bike, read the manual before you ride it for the first time,” Cowell tweeted Sunday night after his accident. 

Forgetting to read the manual isn’t an uncommon problem. Riders should have an understanding of what the torque of their e-bike is. 

He notes that Cowell may not have expected “the tremendous power and torque of his new e-bike. He may have popped a wheelie as he took off for the first time, probably trying to turn the bike.”

Always wear a helmet.

Helmets are the single most critical piece of safety gear for electric and pedal bikes, says Micah Toll, an electric bicycle advocate and journalist for Electrek.

“Most electric bikes are actually quite similar to pedal bikes, with riders on both generally achieving speeds of 20 to 25 mph on flat ground,” Toll says. “At these speeds, a helmet is critical to preventing head trauma in the event of a crash.” 

Keep everything, including pants and shoelaces, away from the chain.

Dowling suggests wrapping the bottom of loose-fitting pants in duct tape or taping shoestrings down to avoid them getting caught in the chain while cycling. 

Ride within your limits, and go easy on the throttle.

While electric bicycles are functionally similar to pedal bikes, the motor of an e-bike can help riders travel further and ride longer. However, Toll emphasizes, it’s important not to overdo it, especially on your first few rides.

Along with an electric motor to magnify pedal power, some e-bikes also have a hand throttle that doesn’t require pedaling. New riders should use the throttle sparingly at first and take the time to get used to controlling their bike, says Toll. 

Practice situational awareness at all times. 

“Think like the car in front and behind you,” Dowling advises. Other motorists may regard you as “just a bicycle,” without realizing you’re approaching intersections and other crossings at the same speed as a motorcycle or other motorized vehicle. 

Familiarize yourself your e-bike in a park or parking lot.

The extra power of a typical e-bike may come as a surprise to new e-bike riders, so it’s safest to get acquainted with an e-bike away from cars or other hazards, Toll says. 

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