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Originally published Monday, August 18, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Europeans love their electric bikes ... made in China

Electric bikes are more popular than ever in eco-crazy Europe, especially cheap models imported from China.

The Associated Press

PARIS — My electric bike is no Batmobile, but it makes me feel like a superhero. The motor is so quiet, it's easy to forget it's there when I'm pedalling through the streets of Paris — only I move much faster than a regular bike and I don't sweat. When I ride uphill, it feels like someone is giving me a push.

The silver Chinese import that I bought for 300 euros ($470) might not look as flashy as Christian Bale's wheels in "The Dark Knight," but it is much cheaper to run and kinder to the environment, too. All of which helps explain why electric bikes are one of the hottest buys in Paris this summer — and are filling the streets of Amsterdam, Beijing and beyond. "It's become a new means of transport," said Olivier Birault, owner of the Paris store Velectris.

"In France, we lost the culture of the bike after the war when it was seen as old-fashioned or for poor people.

"Now it's coming back — and with the latest increase in gasoline prices, we are seeing enormous interest."

More than 10,000 electric bikes were sold in France last year, up from 6,000 in 2006, according to the Conseil National des Professions du Cycle, an association of bike professionals. The trend is hitting all of Europe. Sales in Germany this year are expected to double the 60,000 sold in 2007, according to Hannes Neupert, manager of ExtraEnergy, a nonprofit organization promoting electric vehicles headquartered in Tanna, Germany.

In the Netherlands, sales of electric-powered bikes increased from 45,000 in 2006 to 89,000 last year, according BOVAG, a motorized-vehicle industry association, which expects the meter will read 121,000 by the end of 2008. That compares with an estimated 10,000 units sold across the U.S. in 2007, according to the Gluskin-Townley Group, which does market research for the National Bicycle Dealers Association. The popularity results from imports from China, where manufacturers make affordable models.

Alberto Antonelli, whose family has been running the Molari bike shop in the seaside Italian resort of Cattolica since 1902, says he stopped selling European brands because customers balked at the price tag.

"The Chinese bikes are less than half the price of Italian ones, and clearly that makes a difference to a lot of people," he said.

China has more than 1,400 electric-bicycle manufacturers, producing around 5.5 million units a year, according to the China Bicycle Association. According to Economic Reference, published by the official Xinhua news agency, China exported 3 million electric bicycles in 2006, worth 40 billion yuan (or $5.8 billion).

Imported electric bikes don't come much cheaper than mine, which my partner assembled and then upgraded by fitting three-speed gears and a new basket. Its performance is starting to fade after nine months, particularly the battery, which is made from lead and has a limited life span. If I run out of juice, the heavy battery makes it difficult to ride uphill.

But it still incites curiosity wherever I take it. At least twice a week, I get stopped by passers-by. "How does it work? Are they very expensive?"

At the top end of the market, where electric bikes can cost upward of 3,000 euros ($4,600), some models look like something Batman would ride — if he rode a bike. The latest high-end models will go 62 miles without recharging, weigh as little as 44 pounds, and offer funky features such as regenerative braking.

Birault says bikes are only the start of an electric revolution. "People are waiting now for the electric car," he said.

AP writers Bonnie Cao in Beijing, Toby Sterling in Amsterdam and Franziska Scheven in Berlin contributed to this report.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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