By Richard Thorpe, Gocycle founder and designer.
The Netherlands, a land famed for its love affair with cycling, has capitalised on the benefits of e-bikes, selling them at a one-to-one ratio against traditional bicycles in 2018. Is it time for the rest of us to catch on? Are e-bikes the future, and more importantly, are they actually good for health? Here are my personal experiences. Having founded Gocycle in 2002, I have been at the commercial and development coal face of the e-bike industry for more than a decade. I truly believe they are the perfect solution for living healthier and more sustainable lifestyles.
Personally, I have been riding e-bikes for nearly 20 years – be it for daily commuting, running errands or simply fun – and I still love riding them today. I live close to my place of work – it’s around four miles each way. Most days, I’m able to commute to and from work as well as being able to make it home for lunch, and this is only possible because I ride an e-bike. We all experience work pressures, personal commitments and hot weather conditions, where commuting can frankly become a chore on a traditional bike. Electrical assist allows you to ride consistently – it makes getting out the door much easier, which is half the battle in staying active regularly, and especially with cycling to work in the early morning. Anything that reduces the barriers to get moving can only be a good thing, and e-bikes indisputably offer that.
Over time, I’m confident I’ve burned more calories and maintained my fitness level to a higher standard than if I was commuting on a traditional build. Prior to starting Gocycle, I commuted by a non-power bike – a single speed diamond tube frame. Despite its simplicity, convenience and its lightweight build, I just don’t believe I would be commuting as regularly as I have done on my Gocycle e-bike. It is not an altogether common occurrence, but those occasional times where you are tired, run down and have a 20mph headwind (seemingly both ways!) may make you decide that the experience was just too negative to continue, and the pattern will break.
On a Friday, for example, you will think to yourself: ‘I’m not doing that again’. Monday arrives and you decide to have a few weeks off. On an e-bike, that Friday morning commute will be a breeze, seemingly with a tailwind both ways, as the motor takes the strain. You’ll get to work on time, ready to tackle the day, and ready to cycle to work again on Monday. But it’s after a short break when an e-bike will really show its value. With a non-powered bike, your first commute into work after a two-week break will be hard. We all know the horrible equation: it seems to take two to three times longer to get your fitness back than the amount of time you took off in the first place, and that’s a huge barrier to getting back in the saddle. But with an e-bike, your first commute after a break will be a positive experience. You’ll get to work in a similar time and you’ll feel really good about getting back out there and not succumbing to lethargy.
In the long-term, e-bikes are simply easier to live with and they become a bigger part of your lifestyle, which results in a more active lifestyle on the whole. They become a part of your life in a way that traditional bikes – for many people – never can. E-bikes have the distinct advantage of enabling you to get from A to B, if you choose to, with very low effort/output. As they say with non-powered bicycles, ownership is high, usage is low. We spend too much time beating ourselves up over sticking with a fitness programme, and that inevitably leads to a stop-start regime. The e-bike is your trusty steed, patting you on the back and encouraging to get you back into the swing of things. If you don’t feel up to it, it will take the strain for the first half of the journey. Nine times out of ten, once you get moving, you’ll up your heart rate regardless of the help you’re being given.
It’s worth noting that commuting on two wheels can be stressful as well as dangerous (though driving or being stuck in traffic comes with its own type of stress). However, I have noticed a distinct difference in the feelings you have when arriving at your destination, be it work or home, between using a car or e-bike. The latter provides a sense of achievement, a feeling that you don’t need to go to the gym, that you’ve done your small part for the planet, and the mood boost you receive from natural endorphins. Arriving home or at work by car is usually a feeling of relief. Relief that you arrived on time, having just missed traffic, or if not, the relief of finally getting out of your car but ruing the time you have lost.
In my opinion, stress levels when commuting are reduced when riding an e-bike instead of a traditional bike. There are many times where the added power allows you to keep up with the flow of traffic better, or enables you to accelerate into a safer gap or stay ahead of a lorry behind you. E-bikes are more flexible in this area and for less fit or powerful riders, they could quite literally be a lifesaver. Some more solid research needs to be carried out, but in my opinion, across a wide range of abilities, e-bikes are surely safer than traditional.
When someone is considering purchasing an e-bike, I always point out that you will ride in exactly the same way you always have – you’ll simply get there quicker, travel further and have more fun! A recent Norwegian study highlighted in The Telegraph appears to corroborate this viewpoint. How much effort you put in is based on your personality, not whether you have a motor or not. Riders on normal bicycles used about 20% more energy than those on e-bikes, but the e-bikers got from A to B 20% faster. Most people would see that as a pretty reasonable trade-off. Also, when you consider that you’ll use the e-bike more over the longer term because it is more fun and more practical than a car – for short errands, for example – it’s clear the e-bike has the credentials to become the de facto commuter and recreational two-wheeler of choice.
These days, we are even seeing e-bikes cropping up in the road bike segment. I had previously believed that this was many years away, but I’m certainly not complaining – they make perfect sense as a great way for more riders to keep healthy. Consider those riders who are injured, or, for whatever reason, are unable to keep up with the Sunday group ride. Rather than giving up and spending weeks/months building up your fitness alone, there is now an option to keep doing what you love, having fun and staying fit. And with all the modern stats you get with cycling these days, it will still be easy to compare power output and calories expended so all in the group can maintain credibility among their peers.
Another area that e-bikes will show promise in is rebuilding fitness and mobility for those who have been treated for heart disease. Normally, patients treated for these conditions will not be allowed to drive for a certain period of time. E-bikes offer a credible transportation option, allowing the rider to avoid exceeding safe limits of exertion.
Who is really cheating?
As is the case every time we dare mention the e-bike, some will say it’s cheating. For me, cheating is getting in your car. Riding an e-bike could only be considered cheating if you are disguising your motor, or you have more power or battery capacity than is allowed in an e-bike race. But this ‘it’s cheating’ viewpoint is pretty pointless and negative. Any opportunity to reduce the barriers to more people cycling has to be utilised. I’m not a fan of e-scooter sharing programmes in their current form, but I believe they are helping to shift people out of cars and accelerating the transformation of our cities and roads to be safer and more cycle-friendly.
We all have different fitness levels, and e-bikes allow more people to stay more active. The more e-bikes out there, the more people will be cycling, and that can only be a good thing. One of the real ironies is that in the future, I predict that when it comes to cycling for fitness, the go-to machine will be an e-bike instead of a normal bike. Aside from the fun factor that encourages more usage over the long-term, most high-quality e-bikes come with a pedal torque sensor that provides the rider with their pedal power output. You don’t need to purchase expensive power cranks or be an electronics guru to understand the data and how to analyse it.
Many e-bikes have apps that allow you to monitor your strength and fitness levels. For example, we have a HIT (High-Intensity Training) stat on the Gocycle that provides you with your average power output over 20 seconds as well as peak power. We have a leaderboard running in the office, which is fun – though our resident rugby player is well beyond most of us mortals! I predict that there will be more of this e-bike health stat data coming as the industry moves to ‘e-bike 4.0’. It all really comes down to enjoyment. E-bikes make commuting more fun, and when exercise is fun, you are more likely to keep it up and make it a permanent part of your lifestyle. Are e-bikes good for your health? Yes, of course they are.