Early September marked a major benchmark for our family: Mom’s 80th birthday. The event ushered in a wave of anxiety in the form of finding the perfect gift for an active octogenarian. Mom is fit; she’s an avid cyclist who still rides 10 miles a day. Yet she no longer has the strength to pump up her hybrid bike’s tires to exactly 85 psi, the optimal tire pressure to make it up the steep gravel hill at the end of her daily adventure without popping the tire. So whenever she needs a hit of air, she props the bike up against the garage and leaves the pump nearby, a gentle reminder to one of her five kids or multiple grandchildren to top off the tires.
Because the benefits of riding a bike are enormous—besides providing a boost to one’s mental health, cycling lowers the risk of coronary heart disease, stroke, high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and a host of cancers—we want to keep Mom riding as long as she can. The obvious solution seems like an electric bike, that miraculous invention that unsteepens hills and extends endurance. Research from a 2018 Portland State University study found that people 55 and older felt more safe when riding an ebike. That feeling of increased safety is far larger for older adults than for any other age group.
Yet, according to a 2020 study cosponsored by the American Association of Retired Persons and the League of American Bicyclists, the percentage increase in cyclist and pedestrian deaths has been larger among older adults than any other age group over the last decade. The study found that between 2010 and 2019, “the three largest percentage increases in bicyclist fatalities were among people 55 to 64 (38 percent); 65 to 74 (59 percent); and 75 and over (44 percent).” The study does not break down the prevalence of fatalities between non-motorized and motorized bikes, but the statistics were enough to give us pause. By giving her an ebike, would we be gifting my mom a weapon of self-destruction?
We decided to ask the experts. I first spoke with Ash Lovell, the Electric Bicycle Policy and Campaign Director for PeopleForBikes, a cycling advocacy group based in Boulder, Colorado. “It really depends on the stability, health, and comfort level of the 80-year-old person.” says Lovell. If we do decide to buy Mom an ebike, she added, we should do the following homework.
What Are Ebike ‘Classes’ and What Do They Mean?According to your state's laws, ebikes can be designated as Class 1, 2, or 3. That determines what you can ride and where.
By Matt Jancer
First, learn about the class designations of electric bikes and how they differ. In the US, that means Class 1, 2, or 3. A Class 1 bike only offers pedal assistance and has no throttle mechanism that lets the rider accelerate without pedaling. Also, the motor that provides the pedal assistance on a Class 1 bike tops out at 20 mph. Class 2 bikes offer pedal assistance and throttle assistance—meaning you don’t have to pedal the bike to move it—and they also have a maximum assisted speed of 20 mph. Class 3 bikes are pedal-assist only and have no throttle, but can go as fast as 28 mph under motor power. The class of ebike you should buy depends on the rider’s local terrain and their comfort level with the power-to-pedaling ratio. “Throttles are great for some people who live in hilly areas,” says Lovell, “because they won’t be marooned anywhere.”
Second, make sure the bike has high-quality components and batteries. Shoddy components—especially batteries—can be dangerous both on and off the road. The best bike manufacturers have a code of conduct, warranties, and FAQs prominently displayed on their website. “If they aren’t talking about battery safety and the quality of their components,” says Lovell, “then it’s probably a lower-quality bike.”
Lastly, buy the right bike for senior riders. For older adults, a frame with a step-through design makes it easier to get on and off. Heightened handlebars keep the riding position upright and more comfortable. Smaller wheels lower the center of gravity and make the ride more stable, while wider tires make it easier to roll over bumps and take the bike off-road. For riders who need extra stability, the best option isn’t an electric bike. It’s an electric tricycle. “I’d be comfortable putting my 90-year-old great-grandmother on a trike, because it’s not going to tip over,” Lovell says.
After choosing the bike (or trike), it’s smart for the older rider to review the rules of the road, says Bill Nesper, executive director of the League of American Bicyclists. First, order the 32-page “Smart Cycling Quick Guide,” which has a section on ebikes. It’s available for free to members of AARP, or $3.50 for nonmembers. There’s an additional short course, “Smart Cycling Tips for Older Adults,” available through the league’s website.
“Sometimes people who are aging have only learned what they have learned when they were kids,” says Michelle Bachaus of Wisconsin Bike Fed, who teaches older adults general bike safety as well as ebike-specific safety across the state of Wisconsin. “The rules of the road are totally different these days.” It’s helpful to review those rules, she says, and find a quiet street to practice them so that when they finally get on their new ebikes, “all they have to think about is pedaling the bike.”
In terms of buying the right bike, Bachaus lives by one simple rule: “The key to safe biking is being comfortable and confident,” she says. “As long as you can get on a bike and ride it and feel good, it’s probably the right bike for you.”
With all due respect to trikes, it might be difficult to convince my mom that she needs a third wheel. But there are some sweet two- and three-wheeled choices out there. We narrowed our list down to four.
Gazelle Arroyo C7 HMB Elite
Gazelle is based in the Netherlands, where electric bikes have been in the mainstream much longer than in the US, and the company has years of experience building beautiful ebikes that work well in varied environments. The Gazelle Class 1 ebike ($3,399) is the ultimate comfort cruiser with high-quality components that combine seven-speed Shimano Nexus gearing with a Bosch 500-watt-hour battery that travels up to 70 miles on a charge. The design is classic Dutch, with a sleek aluminum frame outfitted with practical accessories like a rear rack and front and rear lights. The bike has a step-through frame and positions the rider more upright than other Gazelle ebikes. The ride is made more comfortable by wide, stable, puncture-resistant tires, and suspension systems built into the seat post and fork. At 50.9 pounds, it’s one of the lightest we’ve found.
For another relatively lightweight option, check out the Tern NBD S5i ($4,699), a small and light electric bike (it weighs 52 pounds) with a frame that's especially easy for smaller riders to step through.
Trek Verve+ 3 Lowstep
Trek's Verve+ 3 Lowstep ($3,300) is a hybrid Class 1 urban cruiser. It hits the sweet spot between comfort, power, and safety. For comfort it offers a step-through aluminum frame, a suspension seat post, and wide, stable tires. A nine-speed Shimano drivetrain powered by a removable Bosch 500-watt-hour battery not only powers the bike and provides 30 to 75 miles of range, its integration into the downtube provides better overall balance and aesthetics. The easy-to-read Bosch Purion speedometer allows the rider to scroll through functions without having to take their hands off the handlebars. Included front and rear lights are a plus for safety. At 54.61 pounds, the Verve +3 is just about 4 pounds heavier than the Gazelle. It adds more weight, but one bonus feature the Verve has that other bikes don’t is the ability to add a second 500-watt-hour battery to double its range.
Rad Power Bikes RadRover 6 Plus Step Through
A so-called fat bike that’s able to conquer all types of terrain, the Class 2 Rover 6 Plus ($1,599) is the sixth iteration of the bike that put Rad Power Bikes on the map. It has a throttle; give the right grip a half twist to kick the motor in when tired legs can’t pedal anymore. It also has 4-inch-wide fat tires that roll over just about anything, a step-through aluminum frame, comfy upright positioning, and a more powerful 750-watt motor with a range of 25 to 45 miles per charge. The seven-speed bike is a sturdy choice for a gentle user like my mom who rides on mixed gravel and pavement, occasionally into the winter months when wider tires are more essential for staying upright. There are two caveats: While the bike is a great budget option, it uses lower-end components. They will likely stand up to her daily 10-mile ride over rolling hills on pavement and gravel, but if something should go haywire, the bike weighs almost 74 pounds. That’s a heavy load for an 80-year-old to push home.
SixThreeZero Electrified EvryJourney 250W Tricycle
If balance and comfort are the priorities, this classy, gentle Class 2 trike from SixThreeZero ($2,200, on sale for $1,540) is the ticket. It has an ergonomic frame that keeps riders in a relaxed, upright position, with four further customizable adjustment points: tilting the seat forward or back, raising the seat up or down, tilting the handlebars forward or back, and lowering the handlebars up or down. The bike has a 250-watt motor inside the front hub that gives it a range of 40 miles on a charge and a speed of 15 mph in full-electric throttle mode. Those numbers increase to 60 miles of range and 17 mph in pedal-assist mode. A USB charging port allows the rider to charge a phone while they are riding. A generously sized rear basket fits a load of groceries, library books, beach supplies, or even a large puppy. At 76.2 pounds, the trike is no featherweight, and your loved one will need a garage or secure patio to park it. But it is a stable, secure ride. Its flashy frame colors, like navy blue with contrasting teal sidewalls on the tires, might even convince my mom that three wheels can be just as fun as two.
Update, November 15, 2022: This story was updated to correct an error about where Gazelle is based. The company is based in Dieren, the Netherlands.