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REWORK: Riding COVID’s curveballs

04:47pm June 03 2020

Jean-Baptiste Malandain, at his Sydney hire business, says there has been a surge in demand for e-bikes. (Emma Foster)

One of the few commercial beneficiaries of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia has been the electric bicycle hire industry, enjoying the dual boost of a spike in demand for food delivery and aversion to public transport. 

Hire business proprietor Jean-Baptiste Malandain said his business in Sydney’s Alexandria, WeRide Rentals, was one of the first in Australia to offer e-bikes as well as motor scooters and demand had jumped in recent months. 

“Before the lockdown we only had about a dozen electric bikes but when we saw what has happening to takeaway food demand we took the opportunity to get more, taking the total to 30,” said Mr Malandain, who also operates a catering company, Excuse My French Services, that has suffered a drop-off in business. 

“Every one of them is spoken for at the moment and there’s a waiting list to hire a bike.”

Mr Malandain said that while it’s possible for scooter riders to get a provisional motorcycle licence, younger customers find that an extra layer of complication when they are planning their lives on essentially a week by week basis.

“We’d love to get more of the e-bikes from China but there’s a holdup there with production, most likely caused by COVID, and we’ve been told we won’t be able to get any more before August or September,” he said.

According to real-time data from credit bureau illion and AlphaBeta, spending on food delivery is up more than 200 per cent compared to “normal weeks”. Like other retailers, much of this has been online with Westpac Economics estimating total online retail sales jumped more than 20 per cent in April as traditional “in store” sales dived around 20 per cent. 

But how does the future look for e-bike operators once the lockdown eases and diners return to eating out in restaurants?

“That’s an interesting question,” Mr Malandain said.

“That will of course affect the demand for takeaway meals but we suspect there’s going to be a strong interest in e-bikes across the board, from ordinary citizens who have seen how practical they are.”

“After COVID eases we plan to branch out beyond rental and start actually selling the bikes.”

But while Mr Malandain seems to be mining a rich seam of new business, there’s always a complication lurking somewhere.

“All I have to do now is find a supplier who can provide the bikes for which there is such a good demand,” he said ruefully.

Philip Kui, who manages a nearby e-bike hire station in Sydney’s inner west, said that before COVID he had 110 bikes of which maybe 60 were out on hire at any one time.

“Now they’re almost all out on hire, over 100 of them,” he said, noting that there are always a few bright yellow bikes in his workshop for maintenance and repairs.

Like Mr Malendain’s, Mr Kui’s business also hires out motor scooters but they said there’s less demand for those, partly because people need a motorcycle rider’s licence for any engine capacity above 50cc and most hire scooters in Australia start at 110 cc.

“We charge $80 a week for e-bikes and it’s obviously very convenient for takeaway riders to hire on a week by week basis,” he said.

Electric bikes, which are powered by batteries that last around six to eight hours but can be pedalled as well, have taken off in recent years for both work and commuting.

Hire customer Etienne Duford, another Frenchman who arrived in Australia in January, said he has been juggling part time work doing takeaway food deliveries with trying to rescue his broken down car in Port Macquarie.

“It’s not a great situation but it’s still better being in Australia than in France at the moment,” he said, referring to the more stringent French lockdown. “(But) at least the car’s not in Queensland,” he continued, noting the closed border.  

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Westpac Group.


Andrew Main is a freelance journalist and writer who spent 37 years as a financial journalist and stockbroker in Australia and Europe, mostly writing for major newspapers in Australia. He is the author of two books and was the joint winner in 2004 of the top prize in Australian journalism, the Gold Walkley Award. But he still doesn’t take himself too seriously.

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