I expected it to be clunky. To my surprise, the ride was not clunky.
It wasn’t clunky and it wasn’t loud, my other expectation. You pull on the throttle and the bike goes (it really goes), and the only sound it makes is a breezy, bombinating “zzzz.”
I later learned from Don DiCostanzo, co-founder and CEO of Pedego Electric Bikes, that my reservations were not unique. Getting a first-timer onto a Pedego, he said, is the first but only major challenge on the way to ownership.
“One of the secrets to our success is the fact that we have all these places that rent ‘em,” he explained. “Cause our goal isn’t to get people to buy one of our bikes, we just want them to go ride ‘em.”
How Don personally gets that done is by giving away Pedego watches for every free test ride. You meet Don, you get a watch (full disclosure: I got a watch).
“It’s like a free tasting,” he said. “I can’t have a taste test, I’m not a Costco – you can’t taste my fancy donut or my bread or my pastrami sandwich – but you go ride one of these bikes for an hour, you’re now going to be experienced and find out what an electric bike is all about.”
My ride took place on a Tuesday morning alongside the Silver Spin crew of Pedego Greater Long Beach, a weekly senior event that leads from the store’s parking lot to the pier at downtown Huntington. You can see me in the video below wearing the oversized purple helmet and looking a bit like Buster Keaton in a hoodie.
The store’s co-owner Beth guides the tours and, yes, she really is as cheery in person as she is in their commercials:
Before Pedego, Beth and Brian were more or less convinced that their pedaling days were behind them. The strain and the exertion were taking a toll as the two got older. Brian, who suffers from diabetes, fell ill one day while the two were out riding, setting off a minor emergency that ended with them hanging up their bikes.
The two later became Pedego die-hards when they learned that the ebike allowed them several options in terms of assisted riding, giving a continuous boost whilst they pedaled or a completely effortless coast for up to 30 miles per charge.
As I learned from Beth and later Don, Pedego’s biggest selling point among senior consumers is not so much that the bike is a clean, environmentally-sound alternative to a vehicle, it’s the fact that it allows seniors who thought they were done with bike rides and exercise in general to get back out and enjoy themselves again.
Here we see the genius of Pedego at work: It’s a product of green innovation that serves a purpose beyond a consumer giving themselves a green pat on the back. The bike happens to be clean and efficient, but it’s meant to be enjoyed.
That could explain why Pedego has emerged at the forefront of the ebike industry.
How Branding Built a Better eBike
Before Pedego, co-founders Don DiCostanzo and Terry Sherry had a weekly ritual: a bike ride down to a local bagel shop on Saturday mornings for coffee. The shop was at the bottom of a hill, so the ride down was always a blast, but the ride up was something of a challenge.
Don became interested in electric bikes as a way to turn the uphill battle into something less exhausting. But the bikes he got weren’t up to snuff.
That’s right. Bikes, as in plural. Don bought five ebikes from five different manufacturers in less than a year. He was looking for the ultimate customer experience, and he wasn’t getting it. Don spent over 30 years in the automotive industry, and it was his time at Wynn’s USA that gave him a sense of what customers want and what makes them loyal to a product.
For an old-school car guy, the answer was clear: If the product didn’t exist, he was going to build it from scratch.
Pedego began on the back of a napkin while Don and Terry worked out the details of what they loved, liked and hated about electric bikes. From that initial meeting to the company’s founding in 2008, the men dedicated themselves to building not just a better ebike but a lifestyle brand in the vein of Wynn’s, Apple and Tesla.
“Wynn’s had a philosophy of all these worldwide distributors, and they were all independent businessmen, they were all entrepreneurs,” Don explained while giving me a guided tour through Pedego’s Irvine, California headquarters. “So we decided when we got into this business that we’d have the same thing in our dealer and distributor network.
“In the bike industry they usually carry four or five different brands,” he said. “We want to be more like Apple or Tesla. You go into an Apple store, down the middle of the store is all their computers: their iPads, their iPhones, their Macs, all that. On the walls are all their accessories. When you were in Beth’s store, what did you see?”
I thought for a moment. “I saw Pedego.”
“All the bikes down the middle,” said Don, “all the accessories on the wall. It works. And there’s a great opportunity because the people who buy the bikes then want to buy some things to trick ‘em out – they want to put lights on ‘em, they want to put a basket on ‘em. They all want to make it their own.”
The model has served the company well. As of this writing, Pedego has sold over 20,000 bikes – 8,000 in the last year alone – in more than 800 stores and 40 countries. It claims to be the fastest growing ebike company in the world.
“One of the thing’s that’s important to us is colors,” said Don when we reached the showroom. He waved his hand over a panoply of Pedego models, each as bright as the bar of a rainbow.
He then dashed from a purple Pedego to a rack of dangling fenders with a surprising agility for a man of his towering stature. Watching Don at work is not unlike watching a 21st century Willy Wonka assemble an electric gobstopper.
He held up the fender. “So let’s say this person says, ‘Oh I love the pink, but I like purple. What am I gonna do?’
“Well,” he said, “you get a pink bike and put a purple fender on it. Right? And women love that. Men could care less. We don’t even want fenders, let alone colors of fenders. Guys will buy black. We say, ‘All we got is black,’ they’ll say, ‘fine.’ You ask a woman, she’ll ask, ‘Don’t you have pink? Don’t you have purple? Don’t you have yellow?’ So we make ‘em in all the different colors.”
I turned to Teri Sawyer, Don’s head of PR and Marketing, who accompanied us on the tour. “Is that right, Teri?”
“Yes,” she answered sardonically.
Grinning, Don asked, “Teri, what color did you get?”
“Mine is coral and turquoise,” she said. “And a white basket.”
All trimmings aside, the Pedego is an impressive machine. There are five basic models, including a two-seater (the only tandem bike in the e-market), and at least one in development set for release next year.
Each model can be customized (right down to the tire color), weighs about 55-60 pounds and is good for 1,000 charges or three to four years of regular use. The basic structure of the bikes hasn’t changed very much since Don and Terry developed their product line in 2009.
“They’ve been building bicycles for 100 years,” said Don. “What are you gonna do to a hand brake?”
The electric components, meanwhile, have significantly improved. When Don started selling electric bikes in 2007, battery packs were about 30 pounds. While touring the factory floor, Don removed a pack from a Comfort Cruiser and handed it to me. Today, he said, the battery is equivalent to “a sack of groceries” – just a little over six pounds – without any loss in power.
The motors, too, have also grown more efficient and compact. An original Pedego motor weighed about 12 pounds. The 2014 model has about half the weight and twice the power.
Pedego riders can choose from four different Samsung lithium-ion battery types, starting with the standard 36 volt, 10 amp model, which can take a rider about 20 miles with no pedaling. The 15 amp model can go up to 30 miles, while the 38 volt goes even further. The “fat tire” style Trail Tracker models boast a 48 volt, 15 amp battery that can go 60 miles on one charge – though every Pedego model can be fitted with any battery type, as each of the packs is the same size.
With this kind of hardware, it seems like even a standard Pedego could exceed its 20 mph speed limit. Don says this is absolutely true. However, any motorized bike that runs over that limit is legally considered a moped.
The bikes take between four and six hours to charge and standard bikes retail for anywhere between $2,000 and $3,000. The Super Cruiser Pedego built for Ford is the company’s most expensive bike ($3,695).
At a starting price of $2K, Pedego draws comparisons to Tesla beyond its electric insides. But Don was eager to explain why the bike isn’t a budget-breaker.
“You could make a clear-cut case why it does work into the budget,” he said. He mentions Peter Pae, who wrote an LA Times piece on Pedego. “Peter would tell you he’s saving $600 a month since he bought his Pedego. And how is Peter saving $600 a month? Because Peter rides the bike to the train station in Tustin. He gets off at Union Station and then he rides his bike to the office, parks it next to his desk, does his work, and then does the reverse when he goes home. He got rid of a car.”
Peter and his wife, Don said, have gone from a two-car family to a one-car family, which is both better for their budget and better for the environment.
But for those whom a single payment of two- to three-thousand dollars is still out of their reach, Pedego also offers a $50-60 monthly financing plan.
Don said he’s been asked by various companies to develop a cheaper bike, but there’s a reason why Pedego costs what it does. First, there’s the battery to consider.
“Nobody expects the batteries to come down except Elon Musk,” he said. “And if they do come down, then yes. […] But I don’t know that for a fact, I can’t tell you that’s going to happen.”
Second, it’s about quality.
“We’ve seen just the opposite happen in the electric bike category,” he said. “The cheap bikes have gone away. People buy bikes that don’t work, that don’t take ‘em far enough, they crap out, they get disappointed, the word spreads and nobody buys ‘em anymore.
“So, Walmart used to carry electric bikes,” he said. “They don’t anymore. They were selling $699, $799, they all crapped out and they got returned. One of our competitors, eMoto, went out of business because they sold a whole bunch of ‘em to Costco and 30 percent got returned – 30 percent! ”
Don shrugged. “Costco said, ‘We want a cheap bike.’ […] Well if you get a cheap bike, everything’s cheap on it. Cheap seats, cheap frame, cheap tires. I could make a $700, $800 bike,” he said. “I wouldn’t put my name on it. I’d be embarrassed.”
The worst thing for Pedego, he said, would be if the company made a cheap bike that didn’t meet their standards and riders found out about it. Because it would diminish what they stand for. “There’s no question we could make a bike that would retail for $999, no question,” Don said. “But at the end of the day, it’s not gonna be a quality product, because the battery’s not gonna last very long. The battery might be good for a hundred charges, because it would be a lead-acid battery. That’s how you get the price down.”
When it comes down to it, Don believes the issue is not about luxury but integrity.
“It’s More Fun Going Up the Hill”
Pedego began with two guys just trying to make going uphill less of a chore than going downhill. Today, most people tell Don they actually have more fun going uphill than going downhill. Having pulled the throttle of a Cruiser at the base of a Huntington Beach hill while the Pacific Ocean crashed beside me, I include myself in that party.
“Everybody else wants to satisfy their customers,” said Don. “A satisfied customer isn’t worth anything to me. It means they’re not going to bother me or complain. I want delighted customers.”
Don is a self-confessed “eco-terrorist turned eco-trepreneur.” He made his former living selling chemicals that made people’s cars run better and look better, chemicals that, he admits, contaminate the environment. “[We] didn’t think about it, didn’t know about it at the time,” he said.
“This was in the early eighties. Green was something that the weird people did. It was like, ‘Oh, man, stay away from that person, they’re a greenie.’ It was a dirty word. It really was. It was like, those were the weirdoes.”
He felt that way, he said, throughout various positions in the automotive industry and elsewhere.
“When I got into this world,” he said, “the bike world, I realized that bikes, whether they be regular bikes or electric bikes, are part of the solution, not part of the problem. And we don’t have to rely on natural resources.”
Today, Don is happily dispensing watches and converting bike purists and non-cyclists alike to the chill church of Pedego.
“We do sell fun,” he said. “And selling fun is more fun than anything I’ve ever done.”