Where German Cars Falter, E-Bikes Gain in Power

Germany’s automakers are facing steep challenges as they convert to battery-powered lineups and confront rising competition from China. But business is booming in another corner of the German transport industry: e-bikes.

Sales of bicycles in Germany reached a record 7.36 billion euros, or $7.8 billion, in 2022, with e-bikes accounting for nearly half of sales, according to the German Bicycle Industry Association. The group is forecasting that this year, for the first time, Germans will buy more e-bikes than conventional models.

Electric bicycles and scooters are the backbone of what’s known as micromobility, seen as crucial to cutting the carbon emissions of transportation and helping to ease pollution and congestion in European cities. Analysts at EY cite e-bikes as the factor behind predicted annual growth of 4.6 percent in Europe’s bicycle market in the coming five years, as more people adjust their lifestyles to cut emissions. At the same time, the number of privately owned cars could drop by as much as 25 percent, according to a study by PWC, as consumers shift to car sharing and alternative mobility models.

Germany’s auto industry has noticed. Porsche offers a sporty, all-terrain e-bike — with the carmaker’s familiar gold-and-red crest under the handlebars. Audi has a similar model.

“Demand for micromobility is growing,” said Sandra Wolf, the chief executive of Riese & Müller, a leading German bicycle maker with a wide range of electric models. “E-bikes play an important role in that.”

Sandra Wolf, chief executive of Riese & Müller, with one of her company’s cargo e-bikes.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

Germany is Europe’s largest overall market for bicycles, and in recent years German bike makers have seen a growing demand for their e-bikes abroad, especially within Europe. China is the world’s largest producer of e-bikes, but duties imposed by the European Union on Chinese imports have helped to shield producers in Europe.

Several German firms are among the leading e-bike manufacturers in Europe, along with rivals in France, Italy and the Netherlands. In the first quarter of this year, exports of battery-powered bicycles made in Germany jumped 56 percent from a year earlier, according to the German Bicycle Industry Association.

That sort of growth has attracted investors. Last year LRMR Ventures, the investment firm of the National Basketball Association star LeBron James, led a group investing €30 million in Canyon, a German bicycle producer based in Koblenz, with an eye to expanding its e-bike offerings and presence in the United States.

Germany’s largest automobile show, in Munich, was rebranded as a “mobility” fair in 2021. During a panel discussion at the show this month, Oliver Blume, the chief executive of Volkswagen, explained how his company was working on technology to reduce the cost of the batteries for electric vehicles.

Ms. Wolf, who was also on the panel, said cycling was already filling the space for more affordable, sustainable transportation. “It is one of the cheapest transport modes and one with easiest access,” she said.

Riding bikes in Munich during the mobility show. Last year, the average e-bike in Germany sold for nearly $3,000.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times
Parts of the Audi e-tron electric mountain bike.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times
A Riese & Müller electric bike.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times

Still, the average e-bike in Germany sold for €2,800, or nearly $3,000, last year, according to the German Bicycle Industry Association, a high price point that has made leasing popular. Across Europe, some companies are offering employees a perk of leasing an e-bike for commuting. Delivery firms are also renting electric cargo bikes — the larger models capable of carrying heavy or bulky loads — for their drivers.

Automakers are getting into this market, too. “Bike leasing is booming,” said Christian Dahlheim, the chief executive of Volkswagen’s Financial Services division, which handles leasing of the company’s cars. Volkswagen recently teamed up with Pon, a Dutch company, in a venture focused on leasing bicycles to workers via their employers, with an eye to expanding in Europe and the United States.

Companies known for auto parts also see opportunities in e-bikes. Bosch, long a leading supplier of powertrains and other technology for German automakers, is now a major supplier of the batteries, motors and brakes for e-bikes. Technology originally developed for cars, such as anti-lock breaks, are now being used in e-bikes.

Increasingly, customers are looking for more nimble, lighter e-bikes that can carry cargo loads of up to 140 pounds. Such models are growing in popularity, with families seeking a car-free way to transport children and groceries.

Older riders who want to remain mobile and active, but are looking for what William Kraus, 67, called “a little boost,” are another growing target market. Mr. Kraus, who tried several models on display at the show in Munich, said he hadn’t decided on the right one yet for himself and his wife.

But he was convinced that the next vehicle he bought would be an e-bike.

“They take the strain out of riding and make it more fun,” he said. And while prices ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 were still high, they were a fraction of the $35,000 starting price for a new electric car.

Riese & Müller’s display at the mobility fair. E-bikes offer “one of the cheapest transport modes,” Ms. Wolf said.Credit…Felix Schmitt for The New York Times
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