Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 29, 2023

E-bikes jolt Mathnas into new venture

New-found passion turns into Chattanooga Electric Bike Company

John Mathna loves mounting anything with two wheels and heading for the longest stretch of road he can find. Ever since he first rode a pedal bike as a child, he’s enjoyed the freedom, the open air and the way his ride connects him to his environment in a way he says a car can’t.

Mathna continued to ride a bike after an injury took his left arm and necessitated the use of a prosthetic. Unfortunately, he had to stick to flat surfaces, as he was no longer able stand and pump the pedals to take a hill. “I was still riding my bike but avoiding big inclines, which isn’t easy to do in Chattanooga,” he recalls.

Then came the day Mathna rented an electronic bike – a bicycle with a motor that assists with propulsion – from one of the Bike Chattanooga kiosks. He says the experience introduced a new world to him. “I no longer had any limits to where I could take a bike,” he says. “I had a blast.”

Mathna’s wife, Diana Davies, was with him that day. She confirms the experience changed her husband’s life. “It made him want to start selling e-bikes,” she recalls.

Mathna, who once ran the leasing department for Volkswagen, figured out a way to turn his budding passion into a business. At first, he rented e-bikes to a local tour company; when people began inquiring about purchasing e-bikes, he opened a retail shop on McCallie Avenue. The store will be a year old in November.

“A lot of e-bike brands are only available online, so people were blindly spending up to $3,000 on a bike,” Mathna explains. “Once it arrived, they had to assemble it. Then they had what they had, and if they were disappointed, returning it wasn’t easy.”

Mathna and Davies are standing in the center of their retail space at Chattanooga Electric Bike Company (chattebikes.com), where several neat rows of sleek-looking e-bikes are tilted into their kickstands. The models range from entry bikes like the Yamahas in the display window at the front of the store to the more feature-laden – and far more expensive – Zen models hand built in Nova Scotia.

“We offer everything from single-speed e-bikes with a limited range all the way up to the $8,000 Urban Arrow,” explains Mathna. The former weigh close to 35 pounds, which are slightly heavier than a pedal bike but look and feel nearly the same; the latter are 9-foot cargo bikes with a top speed of 20 mph and a battery range of 30 miles.

“We also sell electric mountain bikes, which are going to become very popular after Walden’s Ridge Park opens on the side of Signal Mountain,” Mathna continues.

Offering a varied product line opens Chattanooga Electric Bike to an assortment of customers, including people in their twenties who want to live an environmentally-conscious lifestyle, parents who want to transport their children to a park or school in an Urban Arrow, and retirees who want to stay healthy, Mathna continues.

“I sold an e-bike to an 82-year-old man. He’s been a road biker all his life but needed a little boost. Most of our bikes are pedal-assist, which means you still need to do the work. It’s a great way to improve and maintain your health.”

“E-bikes also lower emissions and bring people out of their cages,” adds Davies.

Davies arrived from her and Mathna’s Fort Wood home on a Zen a few minutes earlier, wearing a helmet for safety. A Realtor with Real Estate Partners, she says she rides her e-bike to wherever she can, including showings and closings. Davies also joins her husband on trips to the grocery store, restaurants, the movies and the Nightfall concert series.

“I can’t tell you when I last drove to the grocery store in a car,” Mathna says. “It’s a change in mindset. I put about 50 miles a week on my e-bike.”

Living downtown makes easy work of short rides, although Mathna tallies many of these miles Tuesday nights, when he and Davies ride about 20 miles round trip to The Woodshop, a bluegrass bar on St. Elmo Avenue near the Georgia border.

“The first thing we ask ourselves is, ‘Can we ride there?’” Mathna says. “Then we ask, ‘Do we feel comfortable riding there? Do we feel safe? Is there a place to lock our bikes?’”

Most of the time, the answer is yes, says Davies. Sometimes, it’s no, although she says she and Mathna know Chattanooga and the surrounding area well enough to map out alternate routes.

That said, Mathna and Davies insist they shouldn’t have to take this measure to bike safely to any location in the city.

“Bikes are accepted here. Bikes are welcome here,” Mathan concedes. “But the infrastructure is lacking and needs fast improvement.”

E-bikes might not be built for speed in the way a motorcycle is – most travel at speeds below 25 mph – but they are selling quickly, Mathna claims. He says Chattanooga Electric Bike is selling about 30 bikes a month; after Mathna adds this tally to the e-bikes and pedal bikes other local shops are selling, he estimates 1,000 new bikes are rolling onto the city’s streets each year.

Mathna’s optimism is not unfounded. TheRoundup.org, a website dedicated to promoting environmental awareness, reports the global e-bike market was valued at $27.2 billion in 2021. Projections indicate the market will grow to $54.5 billion by 2027 and $118.6 billion by 2030.

“The city has a responsibility to provide the infrastructure for these bikes,” Mathna insists. “We need protected bike lanes; we need bike lanes that are not a part of the city’s streets.”

“We want to feel safe while riding through Chattanooga, and we want our customers to feel sale while riding through Chattanooga,” adds Davies. “We’ve met with a number of city officials and transportation people. It’s coming along. People are helping.”

Meanwhile, Mathna continues to expand his business model. In addition to selling e-bikes, he’ll assemble a bike someone ordered online and can’t put together – as long as it’s one of the brands Chattanooga Electric Bike sells – and is doing repairs.

Mathna is also drawing up an e-bike leasing plan for his business, which he believes will suit cargo bikes well. “I believe cargo bikes are the wave of the future,” he says. “They could even be capable of taking over cars.”

One thing is assured if Mathna’s vision of the future becomes reality: If possible, he’ll be riding alongside them, enjoying the freedom, the open air and the way his ride connects him to his environment in a way a car can’t.