America at work
How This Disabled Veteran Found Mobility through His Electric Bike Business (Video)
Kira Halevy | December 29, 2016

Chris Nolte, founder of Brooklyn-based Propel Bikes, returned home from the Iraq war with a painful injury. A back wound kept him from pursuing his lifelong passion – riding bikes.

He later found that he could ride comfortably again thanks to electric-assist bike technology. Now, as a veteran entrepreneur, Nolte helps others with physical limitations experience the joy of cycling.

It all started in 2002, when Nolte hurt his back while serving in the Army as a transportation specialist overseas in Kuwait. One day, a fuel truck he was riding in violently veered off the rough terrain into a deep ditch.

The jolt left him in pain and unable to remain as physically active as he once was. After returning home and wanting to cycle again, Nolte came across an electric-assist bike kit online. Piece by piece, he tinkered with the parts and transformed his old bike into a slick electric ride.

This was it, the spark of hope the disabled veteran needed to get back on his wheels again. “It gave me a new sense of freedom to be able to get out, to enjoy myself, and to spend more time on a bike,” Nolte said.

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Experiencing that newfound freedom also ignited his desire to help others like him climb back onto bikes and ride comfortably again. He does just that six days a week at his Brooklyn brick-and-mortar electric-assist bike shop.

Before opening his spacious Flushing Avenue venue less than a year ago, Nolte, formerly a web marketer, sold electric bikes and parts online and from a second-floor office in Lindenhurst, New Jersey. He launched his startup with only six bikes. That might not sound like much, but it was enough to get business rolling.

Chris Nolte working at his Brooklyn-based bike shop.

Chris Nolte working at his Brooklyn-based bike shop.

Nolte was initially intrigued by how electric bike motors — built into the front or back wheel hub, or mounted on the center of a bike — amplify pedaling. They lend the sense that “you’re stronger than you are,” Nolte said.

What’s more, electric-assist bikes can be relatively easily adapted to the specific needs of the rider, often compensating for various challenges, including physical disabilities. They’re also a great option for bike commuters who traverse long distances.

“It’s been pretty cool solving some of those unique problems that people have,” said Nolte. “And we do that quite often. We kind of pride ourselves on that.”

To amplify his business reach from the start, Nolte did some research to dig into the market size. He learned that electric bikes hadn’t yet attracted a large following. Predicting that they would become increasingly more popular in the U.S., Nolte identified a clear need and placed his bets on the fledgling electric-assist bicycle niche. So far, it’s paid off. He says he now has a broad customer base and sales are strong and steady, though he did not disclose any specific financial data.

An electric-assist bicycle at Chris Nolte’s store.

An electric-assist bicycle at Chris Nolte’s store.

Nolte attributes his ability to quickly scale his business to the skills he gained serving our country during wartime.

“Think of it as being able to work with the limited resources that you have,” he said. “That’s something we deal with quite often in the military, that you always have to find ways to make do and to follow through with the mission. Also, once you go to war, the challenges you experience in business seem a lot less than what I’ve experienced overseas.”

Despite his striking story, Nolte presents himself as a low-key and matter-of-fact kind of guy. Wearing a down puffer vest and glasses at his neighborhood bike shop during our interview, Nolte advised aspiring veteran entrepreneurs to ask for help when they need it, and not be afraid of humbling themselves.

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In addition to his goal of helping riders of different abilities, Nolte is also on a mission to get people out of their cars. By making cycling more accessible for many types of riders through electric bikes, he hopes biking will become a realistic alternative to driving. With his shop situated along the bustling Brooklyn Greenway Initiative Bike Path, Nolte hopes to see infrastructure built up to boost commuter biking in New York City and around the country.

“I really wanted to do something positive for the country, for the world, and just try to make my impact,” he said.

As for the extraordinary impact electric-assist biking has had on him, one of the biggest benefits is how cycling helps him find focus as an entrepreneur.

“Cycling for me is kind of like a form of meditation,” Nolte said. “You can just focus on riding and not really think about anything else … I really enjoy that experience, and, as an entrepreneur, there’s always different things going on, and just getting out riding is a great way to clear my head and focus on my mission.”