Gettin’ a Charge: Not for the lazy, Jim turner’s electric bikes are high-performance machines. Photo: Courtesy OptiBike
Jim Turner, 55, the owner, founder and chief engineer of Colorado’s OptiBike likes to proselytize about electric bikes.
“It’s common to run away from what’s hard, but it’s my personality not to do that. I do what I want. That’s the mythos of America,” he says with a wry smile. “If you don’t do what’s hard, you don’t have a job. It’s too competitive out there.”
Optibike produces the only electric bike that is 100-percent made in America, and Turner designed and owns the proprietary internal processors, motorized electronics, frames, “everything,” he says. And most of it’s manufactured in the Front Range, with assembly and R&D occurring at Optibike’s location on 28th Street in downtown Boulder.
“We definitely swim upstream from the norm,” explains Turner, who founded the company in 1998 and started production in 2006. (Today, he has six full-time employees, 12 total, including his two sons, who work part time.) “I wanted an electric bike, and no one was selling what I wanted. So I decided to build exactly what I wanted.”
What he wanted was a high-performance “pedal-assisted” electric bike with a powerful, long-range battery that was integrated into the frame, allowing for better balance, durability and maneuverability. Turner is very competitive and prides himself on creating new markets for his bikes. He raced motor cross professionally in the 1970s and 80s and competed in Ironman triathlons against Dave Scott and Mark Allen. An engineer by schooling and a former engineer in the automotive industry, the guy knows how to isolate a goal and achieve. But besides passion for the better mousetrap (and a heartfelt belief in healthy lifestyles and green technology), Turner might also be motivated by sibling rivalry. His brother Paul Turner founded Rock Shox bicycle shocks and sold out after the 1996 IPO, moving to Hawaii. Jim proudly points out that he’s turned down several offers for industry partnerships, venture capital and IPO ramp ups.
“We want to be a long-term part of the community and create local jobs,” he says.
It’s a unique attitude in these greedy times, although his top-of-the-line USV (ultimate smart vehicle) Optibike costs $10,000–$13,000; the R-series performance line costs $10,000-$12,000; and the women’s Helia about $9,000. High-end components, custom frames and lithium batteries from a 50-mile radius don’t come cheap.
“Our customers are the kind of people who look for the best,” Turner says. “That’s why they come to us… Yes, our bikes are expensive, but they’re better.”
OptiBikes are, in fact, stupid fun to ride. They handle like a mountain bike but drive like an electric motorcycle. (Federal law classifies electric bikes as bicycles, not motorized vehicles.) As commuter tools, they are unparalleled—fast and entertaining. Most of OptiBike’s sales are in the U.S., with international sales to 30 countries accounting for 25 percent. The most expensive limited edition OptiBike sold to date was shipped to a customer in Slovakia. (According to Turner, a total of 175,000 electric bikes from many different manufacturers sold in Holland alone in 2011.)
Locally, Turner has partnered with Boulder Indoor Cycling, where the velodrome pacer rides a modified OptiBike with 700c wheels, tiny bars and mechanical wheels to avoid hydraulics on the track.
“Other e-bikes could never handle the g-forces, and the handling would be off,” Turner points out. “Professional racers are getting exposed to our bikes and see that they actually work.”
In 2011, Turner completed the annual Assault on the Peak road race up Pike’s Peak on an OptiBike, climbing the course, which gains 7,700 feet in 24.5 miles, in just 1.5 hours. So in his case, the preaching actually delivers.