Electric bikes had a shaky start when they appeared on the UK mass market the best part of a decade ago. Often imported and sold without any real backup, with cheap cycle components and with heavy lead-acid batteries, they were never going to impress the cycle trade. Indeed, any dealer who ended up with an ‘electric bike shaped object’ to repair may now view the prospect of a new generation hitting the market with a heavy heart.
But although many of the early bikes were frankly horrible, customers kept on buying them. Why?
Because, electric bikes satisfy very real needs – for people who already ride and for people who don’t ride at all.
When cycling is primarily a form of transport, the rider just wants to get from A to B quickly, easily and reliably. An electric bike lets you get to work less sweaty. Journey time and effort is basically unaffected by headwinds. You can keep up better with traffic on the hills, and the motor helps you accelerate safely ahead of following cars at traffic lights. It’s also fun. Those are real benefits.
For leisure cyclists, electric bikes are also very attractive. Why strain when you’re mainly on a cycle ride or holiday to enjoy the scenery, the company of others, and the fresh air? Many elderly cyclists also find electric bikes extend their cycling enjoyment by years once they start struggling to keep up with the group unassisted. More real benefits.
As for people who don’t yet cycle, the electric bike offers an easy way in. It’s a concept people grasp instantly: cycling without the effort. It’s a great leveller: even the least physically fit or confident can get on a bike knowing that the power assist will let them keep up. Fear of humiliation, of being left behind, is removed. It’s a great boost to know that even if you meet a hill, it won’t be an agony of straining to get up it. And because electric cycles tend to make it easier to ride without gear-changing, that’s another technical worry out of the way. Again, all real benefits to an insecure newcomer to cycling.
Why invest now?
That’s a lovely rosy picture: hordes of happy customers buzzing along on electric bikes. But, we all know that many early builds just couldn’t deliver such a vision.
So what’s changed? Plenty.
First, the technology, and batteries are key. Almost all electric bikes now use lithium-ion battery packs, which store three to five times as much energy per unit weight as the old lead-acid models (and for next year’s batteries, it will be even more). Instead of battery packs weighing 10 to 15 kilograms for a typical 20 to 30-mile range, we’re now talking two or three kilogrammes. The motor and controller add perhaps two kilograms as well, so with a decent frame, bike weights can easily be sub-20 kg.
The improvements haven’t stopped at the battery. Driven by the European market, serious companies have now thrown significant sums at research and development, and the result is efficient motors with sophisticated control systems and reliable performance. For the major suppliers, this is backed up by spares, training and all of the approvals needed for peace of mind when selling in the EU.
High-profile names like Shimano, Bosch and Panasonic in the market are another sign that the time has come to take electric bikes seriously.
That, however, is all just words. What convinced me was going to a specialist dealer (Onbike in Kidderminster) and trying a selection for myself. As a still moderately fit and strong rider who’s ridden unassisted for several decades I was deeply unconvinced until I found myself whisked up a hill as if it wasn’t there, by a motor I could hardly hear.
Since then I’ve been riding electric bikes galore for review in the magazine, and they keep on impressing me. There’s a brute of a model with dual batteries for 60-odd mile range, another with a motor so silent that I sincerely can’t hear when it’s on – but I can feel it push!
Yes, there’s room for improvement even among the best, and still some bikes best avoided at the bottom end. But try a really good electric bike. The experience might just convince you that the time is right to go electric.