In a sprawling expo room filled with featherweight road bicycles and high-tech bike components, Ross Evans hoisted the $4,000 electric cargo bicycle off its shelf and carefully placed it on the floor of the Sands Expo and Convention Center.
Cargo bikes - the wheeled pack mules of the bicycle world - are going high-tech with the debut of the EdgeRunner, the first ultraupscale, single-frame utility bike on the market.
At this week's Interbike trade show, those who stopped by the Xtracycle company booth - admirers of bicycles that can carry everything from a dozen pizzas to three children or even a sofa - surveyed the EdgeRunner with awe. The bike, with a 500-watt motor, can travel 20 to 30 miles on a single charge, depending on the cargo weight and amount of pedaling by the rider, said Evans, the Oakland, Calif.-based company's founder and chief executive officer.
Cargo bike companies are pushing the high-tech envelope because they're counting on people using their cars less and bicycles more for practical purposes such as taking kids to school, shopping for groceries and delivering goods . AAA sets the annual cost of operating a car at nearly $9,000, and with gasoline approaching $4 a gallon, more Americans are using bicycles for more utility purposes.
That portends big growth for the $6 billion-a-year American bicycle market, which is now dominated by recreational riders.
"Historically, Americans have looked at the bicycle as a recreational item. Few have looked at it as a viable delivery system,'' said Wayne Sosin, president of Worksman Cycles in Ozone Park, N.Y. "That's now changing and it's led to the idea that bicycles as a delivery system is more mainstream."
An estimated 750 companies were represented at the three-day Interbike bicycle industry convention that concluded Friday.
Worksman Cycles, which has made utility bicycles for industrial and commercial use since 1898, has also caught the high-tech bug. The company is employing new lighter polycarbonate fenders and chain guards that don't rust and a new paint system for better powder coating, Sosin said.
Sosin declined to say how many utility bicycles his company sells, but he projects sales to increase in the double-digit range in the next year.
Ross also expects sales to increase in 2013, thanks to the launch of the electric cargo bicycle, a sidecar cargo bike that carried a dozen boxes of pizza around the massive Sands expo room last week, and a $999 folding cargo bike developed by the Tern bicycle company. Xtracycle and Tern, which specializes in the folding bike niche, partnered because Xtracycle doesn't have the resources to produce full-scale bicycles, Ross said.
Xtracycle also partnered with the Surly bicycle company to build a single-frame, one-piece cargo bike. Surly has also rolled out new products to augment its cargo bikes. For example, Surly now has a new adapter to connect its "Big Dummy" model to two different flatbed trailer models, the Bill and the Ted, Surly brand manager Peter Redin said.
Bicycle retailers said cargo bikes have a small but growing role because of the business use. Jerry Hiniker, partner in the Superior North Outdoor Center bike shop in Grand Marais, Minn., tells of a baker there who uses a pedicab with a product box to retail breads and rolls to locals.
Xtracycle's Ross said his company's sales tripled in 2007, but then fell by half when the economy slumped in 2008. Sales rebounded in 2012 with double-digit growth and are expected to jump by 20 percent to 30 percent in 2013, thanks to the rollout of the EdgeRunner e-cargo bike and other products such as the sidecar cargo bike, he said.
He said his company is tapping into two trends - growth in both e-bikes and in cargo bikes.
"It's a glorious combination,'' Ross said. "It's like chocolate and peanut butter. They're better together."