The transport correspondent from The Sunday Times has visited a number of e-bike retailers and has found some of them are wrongly advising customers on the legality of "speed e-bikes", which can reach 28mph but should therefore be classified as mopeds not e-bikes. Mark Hookham's report is following up on a joint announcement from the Bicycle Association and the Motorcycle Industry Association from March this year – the organisations warned that an e-bike with more than 250 watts of power is a moped.
The headline in today's Sunday Times is "28mph ebikes speed past legal limit" (behind paywall). Hookham writes: "Retailers are selling powerful electric bicycles with motors capable of breaking the regulations limiting their speed."
An undercover reporter – probably Hookham himself – found that a staff member in 50Cycles, a retailer with stores in London, Loughborough, Bristol and Shoreham-by-Sea in West Sussex, did not warn that a speed e-bike being looked at could not be used on UK roads unless it was registered as a moped. The staffer claimed it was a “grey area” and that he was only aware of two customers who had registered their ebikes as mopeds.
He said that the 50cycles store had sold four speed ebikes that day alone and they were proving to be “very popular” with commuters: “They will commute eight or nine miles into London and they just want to go fast, basically.”
The staffer told the undercover reporter that speed e-bikes "look exactly the same as all the other bikes”.
Tim Snaith, director of 50cycles, said the staff member’s pitch was “incorrect” and he would be "retrained".
Some e-bike retailers sell "dongles" which trick e-bike speed sensors, and can double the speed at which motors cut out. Such dongles are advertised – wink, wink – “for use on private land only”. At last week's Eurobike one of the exhibitors was an app company which claimed customers could tweak their e-bikes with their smartphones.
In the UK, pedal cycles with electrical assistance can be legally ridden by anyone over the age of 14 without any of the regulations of a motorcycle (insurance, registration, licence etc.) if they produce no more than 250 watts of power (continuously rated) which cuts out at 15.5mph. This output is measured by the manufacturer as part of the bike's compliance with CE marking requirements and the bike is labelled accordingly. More than 250 watts of continuously rated power and the electric bicycle ceases to be an electric bicycle and becomes, in the eyes of the law, an electric moped.
There are no "grey areas" when it comes to selling high-powered e-bikes, warned the Bicycle Association and the Motorcycle Industry Association back in March. The organisations said they were concerned that some sellers are unaware of – or ignoring – the regulations pertaining to the sale and use of "speed pedelecs". (Pedelec is a portmanteau of the words "pedal" and "electric".)
Some retailers are claiming that the high-powered e-bikes they stock are for "off-road use" and that this makes them exempt from existing rules. It does not, said the March statement from MICA and BAGB.
The Bicycle Association has a draft code of practice dealing with the supply of e-bikes. The organisation's operations director Steve Garidis told BikeBiz:
“The Bicycle Association represents the professionalism and high standards of the vast majority of the UK cycle industry. We recognise and support the huge potential of electric assisted bicycles which have much to offer consumers. High powered, so called ‘speed pedelecs’ are not bicycles, even if they look similar, and should never be sold as such.”
Some on social media are wondering why the Sunday Times is fretting about 28mph e-bikes when it tests cars capable of breaking speed limits many times over. However, e-bikes are allowed on cycleways, and when such machines have been souped-up to travel at faster-than-allowed speeds this poses a clear danger to those using cycling facilities.