Photo/IllutrationEiichi Katayama, left, an executive officer of Panasonic Corp., introduces the company’s sporting e-bike on May 18 in Tokyo’s Setagaya Ward. (Yoichi Yonetani)

  • Photo/Illustraion

Manufacturers of electric bicycles, once deemed “uncool” in Japan, are releasing stylish sporting models that have won over an unexpectedly large number of customers.

The main buyers are middle-aged and elderly people who use the battery-powered bicycles for sporting activities.

Cyclists in general view bicycles as vehicles that should be “pedaled by foot.” So electric bicycles were regarded as a type of “mamachari” (mom’s bike), the ubiquitous bicycles with baskets often used for grocery shopping and transporting small children.

Companies are striving to change that image.

Panasonic Corp. said May 18 it will market an electricity-powered mountain bike model in July that can run up to 107 kilometers on one battery charge. Its motor will help riders with hills and mountain trails, allowing the cyclist to pedal for long hours without becoming exhausted.

Panasonic’s stylish design includes an integration of the frame and battery to make the battery inconspicuous.

The model will be available for 225,000 yen to 380,000 yen ($2,043 to 3,451), excluding tax.

The company released its first sports e-bike in September last year priced at more than 300,000 yen. It proved so popular especially among health-conscious people in their 60s that sales are on pace to quadruple Panasonic’s initial annual goal of 200 units.

Panasonic expects to sell 2,000 units or more of its latest models, including a cheaper one that costs around 200,000 yen, annually.

Yamaha Motor Co., which released the world’s first electric bicycle in 1993, is also expanding efforts to develop sporting e-bikes.

Yamaha expects to market a new model in June that is designed specifically to run comfortably on “city streets.”

While the latest model’s power is not high, it can operate around 200 km on one battery charge.

Major bicycle parts maker Shimano Inc. developed a special component for sports e-bikes. Four Japanese firms, including Miyata Cycle Co., are expected to start selling electric bicycles using the Shimano part by the end of this year.

Sporting models accounted for only 2 percent of all 640,000 e-bikes sold in fiscal 2017, but Eiichi Katayama, an executive officer of Panasonic, said that ratio will increase.

“The market will further expand,” Katayama said. “You can understand the appeal (of sporting electric bikes) once you try them.”

Panasonic plans to organize cycling tours and rent e-bikes at tourist spots to urge more people to ride electric bicycles.