Staring up the bike path of the Manhattan Bridge on a recent frigid February morning, I feel the familiar dread when confronted with a steep, uphill climb. There are few things more discouraging to a city biker — especially a fair-weather one like me — than an arduous, sweaty ascent in work clothes. But before my thighs can cramp up, I remember that I’m riding a new electric bicycle from a company called Wing.
With just one rotation of the pedals, the e-bike’s battery-powered 350-watt motor kicks in and I zip up the bridge’s incline at a steady 20 mph. I whip past Citi Bike riders with chattering teeth and even a few professional racing-bike types. Within minutes I am on the Manhattan side of the bridge, wondering what the hell just happened.
Within minutes I am on the Manhattan side of the bridge, wondering what the hell just happened.
Electric bikes are becoming a convenient and fun way to commute around a city, but they can be pricey. The average e-bike can cost $3,000, with some models getting up to $5,000 or more. But these prices are dropping, as new models come onto the market — and if you don’t mind giving up some of the glossier, high-tech features like embedded digital displays, retractable cable locks, and and theft tracking and recovery, you can find a really good quality e-bike for under $1,500.
The newest entrant in this lower price category is Wing Bikes, a New York City-based company that launched in 2018. Wing wants to be the affordable e-bike for city residents who are sick of shady ride-hailing services and stalled subways. And if you don’t live in a city, that’s fine too: Wing’s e-bikes could be a realistic alternative to owning a car.
“We’re going full force at this point”
Seth Miller said he founded the company after his first electric bike was stolen from where it was parked in front of the midtown office building where he worked. The company that manufactured the bike had disbanded, so he started researching different suppliers. He soon discovered that a majority of the e-bikes sold in the US are just cobbled together from a variety of off-the-shelf Chinese-made parts found in a catalog. It sounded simple, so Miller figured he’d try it himself.
“We’re going full force at this point,” Miller told me. To start out, Wing is selling three models — the Freedom (in silver and black), Freedom Fatty with extra-large Kenda Krusader tires, and the smaller Freedom S. All are available at a temporarily discounted price of $1,295, and will start shipping in March and April.
At first glance, Wing’s e-bikes share some design features with Dutch e-bike company VanMoof’s flagship bikes, most noticeably the elongated top tube (23.3 inches) with embedded front and rear lights. There are differences — VanMoof’s battery is embedded in the frame, while Wing’s is external — but to look at them side-by-side, one could easily conclude that Wing is just a less-expensive version of the VanMoof.
The Freedom’s motor is more powerful than the VanMoof Electrified S — 350w vs 250w — but the VanMoof is technologically superior, with touch-sensitive display, enhanced security system, and an “invisible” lock built right into the rear hub. The Dutch-made bikes are also more expensive: VanMoof’s Electrified X2 and S2 list for a discounted $2,598, while Wing’s e-bikes are available now for an “early bird” price of $1,295; if you order later, it’ll cost $1,695 — which is still almost $900 less than the VanMoof.
“Anyone can mimic a design, but not the tech that goes into it”
“[VanMoof] is a great company, but we drew our inspiration from a number of places,” Miller said. “It’s a cool look. We wanted a battery that you could take off the bike.” (For its part, VanMoof isn’t sweating the design similarities. “Anyone can mimic a design, but not the tech that goes into it,” a VanMoof spokesperson said.)
As is the case with any e-bike assembled from Chinese parts, Wing has its share of clones that can be found for sale on sites like IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. For example, the Danish company Strom Bikes has a model for city biking that also looks incredibly similar to Wing’s Freedom — and is apparently several hundred dollars cheaper too. This is also commonly found with electric scooters, with startups buying Chinese-made models and rebadging them for sale in the US.
There are generally two types of e-bike: throttle and pedal-assist. Throttle e-bikes, common among food delivery workers, don’t require any pedaling, just a twist of the handlebar to get moving. Wing’s e-bike is pedal-assist. The bike’s battery provides a boost while you pedal — up to 20 mph — but if you stop pedaling, the bike slows just like a regular bike.
The Freedom’s motor gives you five different levels of boost, and the 36-volt battery offers up to 35 miles of range. You can track your power level and speed, as well as your battery life, on a digital display mounted to the handlebar. I have to admit I spent nearly all my time on the Freedom riding in the highest level, where I could pedal up to 19 mph to 20 mph without even breaking a sweat.
The two most common electric motor styles used in today’s e-bikes are hub motors and mid-drive motors. The Freedom uses a hub motor, which was located in the center of the rear wheel. Hub motors typically don’t offer the same natural maneuverability as the increasingly more common (and more expensive) mid-drive motors because their weight is concentrated in the rear of the bike. It can be jarring when the motor prevents you from going faster than the allotted speed, especially when cruising downhill, but 20 mph is the legal maximum for e-bikes in the US. (In the EU, it’s even lower: 25 km/h, or 15.5 mph.)
The rest of the bike is equally impressive. Integrated lights in the front and the rear run directly off the main battery, so you’re never replacing coin cells or AAA batteries. And the disc brakes give you plenty of stopping power. The 36-volt battery attaches to the down tube and is designed to be easily removed for recharging. A key-lock at the top of the mount ensures that no one can steal your battery if your bike is left in a public place. And a built-in alarm system, activated with a car-like key fob, is ear-splitting enough to keep thieves away altogether. (Miller promises the alarm’s sensitivity is tuned so it shouldn’t go off if the bike is jostled at a public bike rack, but I didn’t have the bike long enough to test this out.)
My one complaint is the bike’s weight. This sucker is heavy! The aluminum frame looks light, but the the hub motor (4 pounds) and battery (5 pounds) add up. The bike’s total weight is 39 pounds, which is about average for e-bikes but not something you’d want to lug around all day. “This is not a solution for everybody,” Miller admits. “If you live in a fifth floor walkup this is probably not going to work.”
I discovered these downsides when, on my third day with the bike, I got a flat tire and had to carry it onto the subway with me for those last few miles back to my apartment. The cause of the flat is unknown; the bike mechanic who eventually fixed it didn’t see anything wrong with the rims. But the experience of trying to maneuver an almost 40 pound e-bike on and off a crowded subway car during rush-hour is not one I can recommend.
Whether squeezing onto the 4 train or pedaling through Lower Manhattan, I notice a few curious glances at the bike with the big battery in the center of the frame. This is not surprising; e-bikes are huge practically everywhere but the US. According to the latest figures from the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry, e-bike growth in the UK is up from 40,000 units in 2016 to 63,000 in 2017.
A flat tire lead me to discover how heavy this thing is
Across Europe, where e-bikes were embraced by the public long before the rest of the world, e-bike growth has averaged in excess of 20 percent each year between 2014 and 2017, with a whopping 25.3 percent growth to a total of two million e-bike sales in 2017. Analysts predict that strong growth will continue, with worldwide e-bike sales expected to hit $23.83 billion by 2025. A lot of that growth will be right here in the US.
Having spent some quality time with Wing’s e-bike, I understand why so many people are excited about the growing popularity of electric-powered vehicles like bikes and scooters. They take a lot of the work out of getting from point A to point B, while retaining all of the joy. They can give you more confidence when navigating a treacherous city terrain that prioritizes cars over people. And let’s face it: bikes are cool, and always will be.