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E-bikes: cycling with the current

Electric bikes could be set to make a big impact – not just on the cycling community, but on society as a whole.

There has always been a bias against the e-bike – that feeling that it is cheating, a stigma of laziness. But as the cycling boom continues not just in the UK but across Europe, the role of the e-bike is not only gaining acceptance, it is now moving to centre stage. While there are a host of reasons that an e-bike may suit individual needs, the key point is that they make mobility more accessible to more people.

According to figures collated by Halfords, there will have been 50-60,000 electric bikes sold in the UK in 2019, around a fifth of all bikes sold, and this figure is sharply on the rise with predicted growth of 30 per cent next year.

However, the first myth to dispel is that cycling an e-bike is no longer cycling. It is. It is still exercise but with the advantage that the level of exercise can be set and changed by the rider. To understand why this is such a fundamental change for the good, you need the perspective of someone who suffers from restricted mobility.

Hence I decided to take a suitably charged trip through the lanes of Kent, to see if replacing my ordinary road bike with an electric equivalent provided a more liberating experience. Restricted by a condition called fibromyalgia, my love of sport and exercise has taken a severe hit in recent years. It is a chronic pain and fatigue syndrome with no known cure – so the question is: “What do I do about it?”

Some forms of activity are good for ‘fibro folk’; non-impact exercise such as swimming and Pilates, for example. Cycling also comes under this category but, even then, an energetic ride has negative consequences for the days ahead. By energetic, I mean a 30-40km route with a few hills – the sort of distance that those with a modicum of fitness would scoff at.

In a slightly contrived ‘Top Gear’-style challenge, I decided that a 100km cycle would be the target, without recharging the battery on the route. The bike I was to do this on was the new Connect model from British manufacturer Volt. It is a stylish machine that looks as if its design heritage comes from a standard hybrid bicycle rather than from the chunkier ‘trimmed-down moped’ look of several of the early e-bikes.

From my brief experience, there are two questions every non-e-biker asks about an e-bike: ‘What’s it like to cycle without any power?’, and ‘What’s the range of the battery?’ The two are connected.

The bike, compared to its lightweight non-motorised counterparts, weighs a ton.

The frame is made of aluminium with no trace of carbon fibre, but of course it is the battery and, if you are carting it around, the battery charger, that bulk the bike up. It actually weighs in, with battery and charger, at over 20kg, which is around double the weight of a mid-range road bike. The assumption would be that this weight would make e-bikes tough to cycle without battery assistance, but that is not the case.

The Connect is an efficient bit of engineering, and cycling unaided in most conditions is little different from an ordinary bike. It does start to bite as the uphill gradients increase, but equally its weight gives a nice extra zip coming down. Should the battery run out of juice, therefore, you still have a very acceptable bike to take you home.

‘[We know] people will not use an ordinary bike quite simply because they haven’t done in the past – this is a way of getting people on bikes that they will use.’

James Metcalfe, Volt

There are two battery options for the Connect, one with a stated range of 60 miles and the other with 90 miles (96km and 145km respectively). These were determined by riders of around 70kg cycling in ‘eco’ mode. The manufacturers recommend a weight limit for riders of 100kg – and, being honest, I am embarrassingly close to this limit. Also, going up hills, and my route was by no means flat, I wanted to make full use of the battery power. As is typical in e-bikes, this model has three power modes: Eco, Norm and High. I therefore had concerns that the extra weight, combined with using the battery to full effect, would potentially use up all my battery power before the 100km was achieved. Not quite the drama of Clarkson and co racing to the North Pole, but an interesting bit of balancing to start a Sunday morning in Kent.

The details of the journey are unimportant, except to say that to avoid the burning August bank holiday sun I left before it rose and consequently had the most joyous peaceful experience in the Garden of England. Peace, incidentally, is not affected by the motor, which makes less noise than the tyres on the road.

Disappointment came after 82km when a second puncture (I repaired the first with an inner tube of the wrong size and it therefore also failed) caused me to call for help and I had to give up. However, both my legs and the battery would have survived the full 100km and so, taking out my misfortune, I consider the challenge to have been met – spiritually at least.

Among the revelations along the way were that the effects of the wind, which can be a killer for the cyclist, seemed to be  diminished, effectively powering through the headwind. And you also can’t hide the fact that a saddle is still just a saddle. If you are going to spend five hours sitting on it, then –like any other bike – it needs to be one you are comfortable with.

There are legal limits on an e-bike – the motor cannot be rated at more than 250W and the top speed using motor assistance can be no more than 24.5km/h, at which point the motor simply switches off. During my trip, I reached an invigorating 55km/h on a downhill stretch and an average across the journey of 21km/h.

Such performance levels are ideal for commuters who do not want to arrive at work in sweaty clothes. “You can then cycle back home without power if you want the exercise,” says co-founder of Volt James Metcalfe. “We also get a lot of delivery riders in London using our bikes – like Deliveroo or Uber Eats – just because they are faster. Even in a full day they don’t do more than 60 miles and we now have a battery that does 90 miles.”

However, there is a bigger picture here. As the e-bike stigmas diminish, so the opportunities increase. In 2017, I celebrated 200 years since the invention of the bicycle (the uncomfortable looking wooden ‘dandy horse’) with a look at the notable developments over its history. One of the most significant came in 1885 when John Kemp Starley was attributed with having invented the first safety bicycle.

Unlike the ‘Penny Farthing’ style of bikes that came before it, it had wheels of similar size front and back. Beyond the benefits of engineering efficiency and stability, it meant for the first time that women could use the bicycle in an acceptably dignified and safe fashion. This invention is consequently credited with being a huge step forward in the mobility and liberty of women. And there is a parallel with the rise of the e-bike.

While couriers and commuters will be the obvious main customer base for e-bikes, initially at least, it could be that there are many who may find e-bikes an enabling tool on the road to health, mobility and opportunity.

Metcalfe says: “In Scotland you can get four-year interest-free loans to buy e-bikes and there is a scheme [also in Scotland] where anyone can borrow an e-bike to try it out. It is part of Active Travel – a big push in Scotland to stop people being so sedentary. They know people will not use an ordinary bike, quite simply because they haven’t done in the past, so this is a way of getting people on bikes they will use.”

Whether people have not used bikes in the past because they can’t, or because they won’t, is not necessarily relevant. If e-bikes can allow people with disabilities, or limited abilities, to return to mobility, or even just enjoy exercise again, then they could prove as significant as the safety bicycle was in the 19th century.

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