Electric Bikes are Fun…and for Police Work

by Erik Pearce, PCI #1184
U. of Wisconsin at Madison Police Department

"Electric bikes are fun, but not for police work”.  These were my sentiments a few years back.  Fast forward to my experience with the new Trek Police E-Bike and we might have a game changer.  The following article describes my experiences with e-bikes and policing, and a review of the new Trek offering.  I hope you enjoy.

Two years ago, our agency was given two police specific e-bikes (from a company that is more commonly known for its snowmobiles).  My impressions were not favorable.  Some officers in my agency loved the bikes to get from point A to point B.  However, A to B is only 90% of what we do on a bike.  Our bikes need to perform equally well (if not better) the other 10% of the time.  This 10% involves dynamic situations and extremely slow speed maneuvering.

To elaborate, the snowmobile bike was a whopping 70+ pounds, and handled as well as you’d expect from a 70- pound bicycle.  The power was rear hub generated, and the bike felt unbalanced.  However, the biggest concern was a poorly developed drive-train that would lurch at inopportune moments.  These e-bikes operate by providing assist (power) to the drive train when you pedal.  You pedal a quarter-turn, and it triggers the assist.  The snowmobile bike would have a delay in the assist, and the bike would lurch.  For instance, riding slow speed in crowds proved challenging, as you’d be constantly braking to counter the ill-timed assists.  Riding dynamically (chases or cornering) was also a problem, as you can well imagine.  Having the bike lurch while you’re attempting a crossover dismount, or during a sharp turn, could have disastrous consequences.

You can imagine that when Trek came calling for me to test out their new police e-bike concept, I had a healthy bit of skepticism.  However, determined to keep an open mind, I (along with a fellow IPMBA cyclist) headed out to Trek’s world headquarters in Waterloo, Wisconsin, to meet with their development team. 

[Full disclosure: I’ve been a fan of Trek bikes for a long time.  In my many years of competitive road and off road cycling, I rode primarily Trek products.  To say I was looking forward to the opportunity to tour their facility and see their exclusive MTB test trails is a major understatement.]

The e-bike movement is sweeping through Europe, and Trek (along with other manufacturers) is trying to promote the platform here in the U.S.  During the initial meeting, the Trek development team seemed very interested in hearing about how bike officers spend their days, and what sort of demands we would place on their new bike.  They wheeled out their prototype concept, which was a Frankenstein of a top-tier MTB frame, equipped with the latest in Bosch bicycle power assist, an integrated (welded) rear rack, and an array of emergency lights and siren.  After a lengthy Q-and-A session, it was time to ride the bike.

The Bosch system has a bar-mounted display screen that shows your level of assist and the bike’s remaining battery.  The Bosch drive has four levels of assist (five if you count zero assist).  As the amount of assist increases, the range decreases.  According to the Trek reps, the lowest level of assist (level 1) allows for 55+ miles, and the highest level (level 4 “turbo” mode) allows for a 23- mile range.  These are approximates, and will vary due to various factors in riding style and terrain.

My initial impression of the Trek (without the assist) was that it was well-balanced and not overly cumbersome.  Yes, it was still a 30+ pound bike, but I had no problems pedaling it around the parking lot.  It didn’t feel delicate, but I still asked the Trek staff if they minded if I did some stairs. 

After receiving permission to try to break it, I hammered up and down the stairs at Trek’s main entrance a few times with no assist.  Going down the stairs, the bike handled just fine.  Without the assist, going up was not for the faint of heart.  It was possible for me, but I would hate to ask a Police Cyclist Course student to ride up any stairs with a 30+pound bike.  Lofting any heavy bike isn’t particularly easy.  Now, riding up stairs using the assist is a different story.  Even at the lowest setting, the Trek muscled up the stairs far more easily than any non-assisted bike I’ve ridden.

Let’s talk about the assist drive.  This was my main concern with the snowmobile bike, but the Trek completely won me over.  The drive feels very intuitive.  When you pedal, it offers an almost instantaneous assist.  The assist was seamless, and I felt no hint of the “lurching” issues I’d previously experienced.  The power unit is contained in the bottom bracket area, and the remote thumb-actuated electronic selector was placed such that I didn’t have to search for the controls.  Make no mistake, this is not a moped.  It will not power itself.  You need to pedal to move the bike’s 29” wheels.  Overall, it feels (and handles) like a bicycle. 

After the initial test ride, Trek allowed our agency to ride the prototype for a few months.  We provided a lot of feedback on the design.  Trek listened, and a good number of months after we tested the prototype, they provided us with a production model to test.  I spent a few weeks riding the production bike on patrol, and found that both the prototype and production bikes handled and performed equally. 

I work in downtown Madison, Wisconsin.  We have an extremely diverse variety of terrain, including busy city streets, gravel running trails, monster hills, and natural areas.  In my experience, our bike officers will ride anywhere from 10-20 miles per 10 hour shift, depending on calls.  On average, I believe I doubled the mileage I would have ridden by using the e-bike, and never ran into a battery that didn’t last.  I also found that days I would have normally taken a car, for instance, when assigned to a more remote patrol district, I took the e-bike instead. 

Officers often take squads equipped with bike racks and bring their bikes along.  The e-bike’s ability to take me further and faster boosted my confidence in my ability to quickly respond to more remote calls without staging a squad in my district.  We also have those days when our legs are fried, and we dread having to ride up some monster hills, or it’s windy out, so we take a car instead.  With the e-bike, I simply rode more (hills...wind…meh...).  

There were a few minor negatives.  The bolt-on kickstand performed extremely well at first, but later failed (blew apart) during testing.  I am hoping that a beefier kickstand is in the works.  We’d also like to see some form of optional add-on integrated lighting system, something that could be bolted on and plugged into the existing power supply.  Trek tells me these issues that are being looked into.

Overall, Trek did a great job on bringing a viable workhorse of a bike to market.  Trek lists a retail price just shy of $3500, which is more than our typical bikes cost, but then this isn’t really your typical bicycle.

In conclusion, we need to first discuss whether e-bikes have a place in police work.  There is certainly debate amongst cycling purists about the platform.  There is even push-back from various jurisdictions on whether to allow e-bikes on bike paths, trails, etc.  For some agencies, policing on bicycles is still a niche or a novelty.  I think we’ve come a long way in promoting bicycle patrol, and it’s more mainstream than ever.  However, convincing agencies to adopt e-bikes, could be an uphill battle.  They cost 2-3 times as much as a typical police bike, and let’s face it, there are a lot of people who resist change. 

But that said, it’s hard not to fall in love with the concept of these e-bikes.  They allow you to go further, faster, and with less effort.  You still get exercise, but you’re not wasted at the end of your shift.

They also maintain all the advantages of bicycling:  the stealth, the approachability, the ability to get places a car (or even a motorcycle) simply can’t go.  I think e-bikes have an uphill battle in becoming mainstream in policing, but I hope those leading the way will continue to push forward.

Erik is a 16-year veteran of the UW Madison Police Department.  He has taught numerous Police Cyclist Courses as well as at several IPMBA Conferences.  Erik’s involvement with bicycles has spanned 30+ years of riding, racing, and wrenching on bicycles.  His experience also includes nine years as a full-time bike patrol officer, and teaching 2-3 Police Cyclist courses each year.  He can be reached at empearce@uw.edu

Photos courtesy Erik Pearce.

(c) IPMBA.  This review appeared in Vol. 27, No. 2, of IPMBA News 2018.

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