Detroit might be known for its automobile industry, but an electric bicycle company founded in Brazil believes the Motor City is the perfect place to make its two-wheelers. The Brooklyn-based Vela Bikes is transferring its entire manufacturing and assembly operation from China to Detroit with an eye on ramping up production and capturing more market share.
Vela specializes in elegantly designed and high-tech e-bikes for city riders. They feature an oversized seat tube that houses a cylindrical battery that can be removed, so riders don’t have to take the whole thing inside for charging. Power is provided by a 350-watt motor that assists riders up to 20 miles per hour. The technology comes from the Vela app, which includes GPS, Bluetooth, a 4G sim card, and a USB charging port.
Two Vela models are currently available: the Low Step, designed for riders 5’1” to 6 feet tall, and the High Step, designed for riders 5’7” to 6’5”. The retail price for each is around $1,800.
Vela was co-founded in 2012 in Sao Paulo, Brazil, by lead designer Victor Hugo Cruz and CEO Justin Kosmides. According to the Vela website, the company’s original mission was to “create a bike that was both classic in design but also one that included the leading e-bike technology.” Vela also wanted to keep the technology “so well hidden that no one would know it was electric.”
Vela has sold thousands of bicycles since launching more than a decade ago. Although it eventually moved its firm headquarters to Brooklyn, Vela still has its research and development and South American headquarters in Sao Paulo. Additional operations are located in more than 10 other cities around the world.
The e-bike market has seen rapid growth in recent years, driven by a global trend to encourage more sustainable modes of transportation. Governments have invested in bike-sharing programs, bicycle lanes, and pedestrian-friendly streets. The idea is to increase transportation options, enhance road safety, and improve the environment.
The Light Electric Vehicle Association projected that more than 1 million e-bikes would be sold in the U.S. in 2022. Data and research company Mordor Intelligence puts the current North American market at about $800 million and expects it to more than double by 2028.
Moving its manufacturing operations from China to Detroit should help Vela become more efficient and competitive in a crowded U.S. e-bike market. It includes established bicycle brands such as Trek, Specialized, and Cannondale and smaller niche players like Aventon, Rad Power, Juiced, and Blix.
Vela’s manufacturing and assembly will be done at a 50,000-square-foot factory operated by Detroit Bikes. The company launched in 2013 with an eye on helping establish a bike industry in a city best known for its cars and trucks.
Last year, Cardinal Cycling Group, an Arkansas-based bicycle investment and management firm specializing in making e-bikes in the U.S. and Europe, bought out Detroit Bikes. As of early 2023, Detroit Bikes still operated under its original name.
Relying on factories in China proved both unsustainable and logistically impossible for Vela. Even simple things like getting replacement parts quickly or making maintenance upgrades were a challenge. The process should be much more manageable closer to home in Detroit.
“This bike is very doable in the United States. We’d like to say you can do it in every state, but you can’t,” said TJ Karklins of the Cardinal Cycling Group. “There’s no reason Detroit shouldn’t own the electrification of transportation in America.”
Vela began moving its operations in October 2022 and planned to complete the process by spring 2023. The company has set a goal of producing 5,000 bikes in 2023.