CHARGED UP AND IN CHARGE
1000Larry Pizzi is not afraid to admit that he is officially a lifer in the bike industry. From his earliest days working in bike shops to his current gig as the Chief Commercial Officer of Alta Cycling Group (Diamondback, Raleigh, iZip, Redline, Haibike and Ghost brands in the U.S.), the 61-year-old has spent nearly his entire working life working on, riding and promoting two wheels.
For the last decade Larry has been a true pioneer in the e-bike space. His work with PeopleForBikes and the legislators of over half of the states in the U.S. has been instrumental in getting legislation passed for access to trails, bike paths and bike lanes for electric bicycles. In this excerpt of the Electric Bike Action podcast interview, we talk about his work and what we can do to help in this process, as well as what the future of e-bikes holds.
THAT WINDY DAY WITH DR. CURRIE
EBA: How did you get started with e-bikes?
LP: While I was VP of Marketing at Brunswick’s bicycle division around 1995, I met this gentleman by the name of Dr. Malcolm Currie. Back then, we had a host of bike brands, but Mongoose was one of them. And he rang me up and said, “Hey, my partner and I have a pretty interesting product we would like to come out and show you. And, he was an interesting guy. I don’t know if there was Google at the time, but whatever the equivalent search engine was, I flipped around to my desktop computer and searched for Dr. Malcolm Currie, and up pops a guy who was the CEO at Hughes and the Undersecretary of Defense during the Nixon administration.
And I said, “Sure, I’d be happy to meet with you, Dr. Currie.” He came in, and with his partner Richard Mayer brought in a very early-stage e-bike that had a lead-acid battery and a drive system that they had patented. And, you know, he described it as being something that was very inexpensive to manufacture, and his vision was that this could change the paradigm for personal transportation globally, not just in the U.S.
I remember it was a cold winter day in the Chicago area where our offices were and they wheeled the bike into the showroom. My first thought was that it looked pretty primitive, and it weighed a ton. To be honest, I was doubtful, and it just really didn’t ring any bells for me. Still, I listened to the conversation.
“And, of course, just like everybody’s first response when they get on any kind of an e-bike, you know, I came back grinning ear to ear.”
When Dr. Curry asked what I thought, I replied, “I don’t know why you’d want to screw up a bike by putting a heavy battery pack and a motor on it when bicycles are already the most efficient form of transportation.”
And there was a pregnant pause, like a very long pause, and he sort of leaned back in his chair and said, “Well, perhaps when you get closer to my age you’ll have a better understanding.” And all he asked was that I try it out. I looked outside and remarked about the less than favorable conditions. “Please, just do me a favor and take it for a spin around the parking lot.” And, of course, just like everybody’s first response when they get on any kind of an e-bike, I came back grinning ear to ear. “That’s really cool,” I said, “but I just don’t think it’s for us.”
He was really polite in response and just asked that if I had any contacts in the bike industry where I thought the bike could be a fit that maybe I could pass it on. The next day I was talking to Greg Bagni, who was the marketing guy at Schwinn, and when I mentioned it to him there was some interest, so I gave him the contact information for Dr. Currie.
Long story short, Schwinn became one of the early stage investors in Currie Technologies, which was Dr. Currie’s e-bike company at the time, and that’s what kicked it off. Dr. Curry and I stayed in contact. He was really grateful that I had made the connection with Schwinn and that it had translated into exactly what he was looking for.
And a few years down the road, I had left Brunswick and later landed at Schwinn/GT where I had an opportunity to engage with the e-bike product again, which was pretty successful coming from a startup. Unfortunately, it never raised much of an eyebrow at Schwinn, because they were looking for some pretty big numbers on it. It wasn’t huge at the time, but that’s how I got connected with Dr. Currie and with e-bikes, and ultimately went to work for him.
DOWN THE ROAD
EBA: How has the industry evolved over the past two decades into what we have today?
LP: When consumers are shopping for an e-bike today, they really need to be aware of things like the battery pack itself. Is it manufactured by a reliable source, not just the cells but the pack itself. If it’s built into a complete system, that’s what makes them safe, reliable and long-lasting. That was the component that was missing sort of early stage that made the pathway to getting e-bikes to proliferate problematic back in the early days.
EBA: Switching gears a little bit, tell us about your work with bike legislation and getting better
e-bike laws and the whole three-class system.
LP: After I had sold Currie Technologies to Accel Group in 2012, I was on the board of the Bicycle Products Suppliers Association (BPSA), and last year we merged with our industry-funded advocacy coalition called PeopleForBikes. I have been chairing the committee that has worked on developing model e-bike legislation and trying to get that legislation passed on a state-by-state basis. In 2002, we go back to Dr. Currie’s involvement in getting legal and legislative initiatives moving. He was very involved with getting e-bikes to be considered a consumer product, like a bicycle is considered from a safety perspective. And because it was motorized, it was considered under U.S. law a motor vehicle and governed from a safety perspective by NHTSA (National Highway Transportation Safety Association).
In 2002 they were able to effectively get some legislation passed, and a bill signed into law that defined what a low-speed electric bicycle was. It moved from being under the guides of NHTSA to being under the guides of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, and it was defined within the definition of a bicycle.
That was a huge thing because, prior to that, you needed turn signals and powerful headlights to meet all these safety standards that any motor vehicle were required to have. But, it didn’t accomplish any guidelines for use at the state level, because each state has their own vehicle code and determines where various types of vehicles can be used, how they can be used and what kind of infrastructure they can be used on.
EBA: Which makes it a train wreck for the industry to deal with how they make their bikes.
LP: Exactly. So, we started with a focus on California and New York to have the number one and number two from a population perspective. That’s when I reached out to the folks at PeopleForBikes, and we began to
get cycling advocates educated around e-bikes.
There were two issues they were most concerned about—bikes that could exceed 20 mph and continue to have assistance from a motor, and e-bikes with throttles as opposed to pedal-assist e-bikes. So, we created three different classifications that were within the guidelines of the federal government’s definition of a low-speed electric bicycle. That definition is very broad, but in principle, it says an e-bike has to have operable pedals and meet the safety guidelines of a non-electric bike.
And, it can be powered by a motor, and under motor power alone it could generate a top speed of 20 mph and could be up to 750 watts of power. It was ambiguous about how fast it could go when you combine human power, and that’s how we got to our Class 3 definition of 28 mph. The law was ambiguous about pedal-assist because the concept of pedal assist wasn’t very well-formulated back in 2002. When this law passed, the technology using torque sensors was really just coming around to be applicable.
We created these three classes: Class 1, which is pedal assist only with a top speed of 20 mph; Class 2 is the same, except it can have a throttle in addition to pedal assist; and with Class 3 the motor doesn’t cut off until the bike gets to 28 mph. And after talking to lawmakers and cycling advocates in addressing their concerns about bikes with a top speed of 28 mph, we agreed that they could exclude them from use on bike paths or shared infrastructure.
EBA: Yeah, but it definitely helps having the classes standardized between states with how they approach it and how they look at it.
LP: Well, this was the premise of us drafting model legislation. So, you know, lawmakers have a difficult time writing language unless you help them. So beyond defining these three classes, we developed model legislation about the various requirements that would go hand-in-glove with this three-class definition. California was the first state that adopted this three-class legislation. This is the sixth year that we’re working on this. I’m pleased to say that we now have three-class e-bike legislation in 28 states.
EBA: If there is anything that EBA readers could do as far as helping with legislation, can they write to their congressman to help this?
LP: That’s a great, great question. The first thing to do is go to the PeopleForBikes.org website, and under the e-bike portion of the site, there is basically a resource guide of all the things that you can do to help move legislation in your particular area. From the standpoint of getting state and local parks to embrace e-MTBs, we encourage people to start their own pilot program, and there’s great information on learning how to do that on your own.
EBA: What’s next for e-bikes?
LP: I think technology is a pretty amazing thing, and our lives are touched by common products that have benefited significantly from technology. The neat thing about e-bikes is, you’re carrying around a stored power source, so it’s easy to implement a chip in a rim or something that can tell you, “Oh, your tire pressure is low.” And, I think we’ll wind up seeing a lot more of that kind of integration of technology (IoT) and in our products as time goes on.
Editor’s note: This is a very condensed version of our conversation with Larry. You can listen to the entire interview of the Electric Bike Action podcast available HERE and on iTunes, Stitcher, Spotify, YouTube or wherever you like to listen to podcasts.