An e-bike up, close and personal. Dare you go electric?
Have you ridden an e-bike before? I hadn’t either. Until recently my only experience of one was seeing a very cool looking Mountain Guide rock up on one high on the forested slopes of Bavaria’s Watzmann. It seemed a pretty slick and painless way to gain height in the alps without too much effort and my interest was piqued. But that’s where the story ended.
However, over the past couple of months I’ve been lucky enough to test one extensively in and around my home in Cambridge (it’s a bit flatter than the Alps). Primarily this was for an online gear review of the specific model of bike, but it also gave me the chance to live alongside a battery-powered two-wheeler for a good while - and to see what that what it was like as a long-term companion.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, it’s actually been around since the 1890s. An e-bike is simply another design of bicycle, one which involves fixing a motor to the frame or crank and a battery to power it. It will then provide aid to the cyclist, reducing the amount of effort needed to push the pedals and gain a comfortable speed. Most will cut out at a reasonable lick (typically around 15mph), so the benefit comes mainly from getting the bike into motion and when heading uphill.
What’s particularly interesting is that it’s mostly an Asian phenomenon. The most recent statistics I could find show that around 150,000 units were sold in North America in 2016. That figure rises to an impressive 1.6 million in Europe, but then skyrockets to an incredible 32.8 million across Asia in the same year. Even bearing in mind relative populations, it’s fair to say that these are primarily a trend in the eastern part of the world.
Of course you might have an instant dislike to the very concept of an electric bike, and your thinking might go something like this: 1) bikes are beautifully simple things, and sticking a motor onto one removes much of the inherent charm from gliding along with as little fuss as possible, 2) if I stick a motor onto my bicycle then I’m going to be doing less exercise and therefore get less fit, which is one of the major benefits of cycling, 3) surely attaching a battery to a bicycle scrubs out the eco credentials too? I’m going to have to re-charge that battery periodically from the mains, and a large proportion of that energy will have been produced by burning fossil fuels…
… and so on, and so on.
All of which are very reasonable thoughts. They certainly all occurred to me before I got the chance to test one myself. And whilst they all remain valid there seems to be a great deal of charm within a good e-bike itself
Firstly there’s the giddy, almost childlike, thrill that comes the first time you push the pedals on one and feel yourself fly forward with three times the momentum you’d normally expect. It really is tremendous. You can then get overexcited and fly around your normal cycling route, obnoxiously overtaking everyone you meet with a third the effort it’d normally take. This will probably hit a ceiling when you head out on a Sunday morning, gleefully looking for hills on which to speed past teams of sweating MAMILs, hands off the bars and waving sarcastically as you rise upwards under the power of a smugly humming battery.
So, there’s that.
Then you begin to realise the other benefits. You could lend the e-bike to your younger brother or sister, or your old mum or dad, and go on long weekend bicycle tours with them receiving the battery aid whilst you use an un-powered bike to even out the playing field. You can commute to a workplace a far greater distance away than you might expect and probably not even break a sweat by the time you reach it. You can also use it just as you would your own exercise bike, but just covering longer distances. Perhaps you’ll go for a solid and unpowered 30km+ ride, but instead of making it circular you’ll head out further from home than you normally would content in the knowledge that you can switch the battery onto its full setting for the return journey and warm down on the way back.
You quickly begin to justify in your mind why this is a great - or maybe even essential - purchase. You’re cycling more often, you can turn off the aid whenever you want to give you the exercise you need and you might even find yourself using your car less than usual so you’re doing the environment a favour and saving money too. Great!
But then the downsides occur too. Firstly e-bikes tend to be very expensive. A good model will cost you around £1,700+ and they range into the £4-5k region too. Ok, so do regular bikes, but if you shell out that kind of money for a non-electric you’re likely to get something with absolutely sublime components designed to weigh as little as possible. With an e-bike the weight of the detachable battery alone is likely to be around 2.7kg. Even on a well-balanced bicycle that’s going to feel like a very heavy beast when unpowered and being used at low speeds. And finally you’ve got the fact that if this is going to be used as a solid commuting tool then you’re going to have to be very sure about where you leave it and how you tie it up. Personally I’ve had shonky, ill-maintained old bikes worth less than a takeaway pizza stolen in both Bristol and Cambridge (with decent locks on). Leaving something worth daytime quiz show prize money in a city centre whilst you do your shopping seems like the act of a madman, surely?
Overall it’s a choice of what your personal use will be. I’ve found a tremendous amount of affection for the particular model I was testing. Here are some photos to illustrate...
The handle-bar mounted controls typical of an e-bike. You can use this to adjust the amount of aid given to the crank, enter a sporty boost mode or change the display on the adjoining screen.
A hefty 2.7kg battery pack. This one is cleverly mounted on the frame to affect balance as little as possible, and is secured and released by a lock mechanism. Typically they take about 8hrs to charge from flat, and plug into the mains.
The motor on decent models is seamlessly worked into the crank.
The display on this particular model offers a distance and range gauge, a battery level indicator and a section showing which level of aid (from 1 to 3) is currently being dispensed.
The remaining range of 21 miles indicates that there’s only around a third of the 60 mile range remaining on the lowest level of aid.
A big benefit of an e-bike: it’s even easier than ever to go from the outskirts of a city like Cambridge...
… to the centre of the city without breaking a sweat.
Likewise, many models are now designed for on/off road use meaning that a well set-up e-bike could be all the two wheels you ever need.
Personally, I’ve had a great time testing an e-bike (for those that are interested it was the
Raleigh TS Electric). Whether it would justify the high outlay though? I’m not so sure. I feel that as a young, fit(ish) person I probably owe it myself to ride an entirely manual bike while I still can. Plus I’d get a decent traditional model for a third the price. But that said, it’s easy to see why e-bikes are enjoying such phenomenal success globally, and for commuters they are an utterly superb thing to consider. Particularly if it gets you out of your car.
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Until next time.
Dan Aspel is a journalist and Mountain Leader. You can find him at
www.lifesystems.co.uk to find a host of kit and equipment for your next outdoor adventure.