Tanna, in the German state of Thuringia close to the border with Czechoslovakia, is not easy to get to from the UK. It involves a flight, a long train journey and then a 20-mile trip in a car to reach this rural part of the former East Germany. While it’s geographically remote it’s the epicentre of the e-bike world because Tanna is home to ExtraEnergy, a non-profit consultancy that has been plugging battery-powered cycling since 1992. The organisation was founded by visionary Hannes Neupert, an expert on LEVs, “light electric vehicles”. (He gave me a lift to the train station in an electric car, naturally.) Neupert’s “Das Powerbike” of 2000 was the first book about electric bikes, some time before the industry started taking e-bikes seriously. The 43-year-old is also the author of “The eBike Book” of 2013, a more up-to-date hardback. (He also wrote this history of the e-bike, German-language only.)
Neupert’s ExtraEnergy is, in effect, an electric-bike institute, a centre of both excellence and education.
Born and schooled in Stuttgart, some 220 miles from Tanna, Neupert returned to the Thuringian village in 1999, nine years after German reunification. His parents, born and raised in Tanna, moved back with him, taking over a complex built by Neupert’s grandfather.
ExtraEnergy is run from the family’s extensive landholdings in the village, with the consultancy employing eight people in buildings converted from what was a small factory, and surrounded by houses owned and lived in by the extended Neupert family.
As well as the consultancy business and testing lab run from Tanna the former factory also houses an electric vehicle museum with 1200 e-vehicles, including a folding e-bike produced for BMW and used by athletes and officials at the 2012 London Olympics, and a tiny solar-powered e-car, made by Maserati in 1973 at the height of oil crisis. Adorning one wall is the remains of Lotte, a solar-powered airship which flew across Australia in 1993, built by Neupert as part of a college project. Tucked away in a corner is a Mad-Max-style cargo-carrying electric recumbent, built by the teenage Neupert, already fascinated by battery-powered propulsion.
While his children dot around the enclave on muscle-powered bicycles Neupert is convinced that electrification is the future.
In 2010 he told a Light Electric Vehicle conference that traditional bicycles would go the way of the dodo: “Electrification will kill the mechanical bicycle within a few years like it has killed many other mechanical products. Bicycles … will remain as historical items hanging on the wall.”
Neupert described the pedal-powered bicycle as likely to become a “fossilised cult object” similar to the washing mangle, the mechanical typewriter and the mechanical camera.
He has since softened this view, admitting that “analogue” products also have a future, but remains convinced that the majority of consumers would rather be battery-boosted up hills rather than tax their muscles alone. “Any analysis of development trends over the last 100 years shows a strong and unmistakeable trend towards electrification,” he believes.
And he’s very much in favour of the suck-it-and-see form of promotion for electric vehicles. ExtraEnergy’s road show takes a testing track – including ramps – around Europe to demonstrate the capabilities of the latest e-bikes, including cargo trikes.
Tanna is also the world’s leading location for e-bike testing, a service that ExtraEnergy offers to manufacturers and to newspapers such as Der Spiegel.
ExtraEnergy fits e-bikes with power and stress sensors, GPS units and other tech, and then test riders take them on set courses over the Thuringian hills and through local towns. It’s very possible that the benchmark tests you see on the e-bikes in your shop will have been conducted in Tanna.
And the next generation of e-bike enthusiasts are also being manufactured in this otherwise sleepy backwater. While I was there a group of students from a Munich school – “they’re techno kids,” said Neupert – were being shown the history of e-bikes in ExtraEnergy’s museum. They lapped up the information and then spent hours riding e-bikes over ExtraEnergy’s test ramps. Even the smallest of the students could propel their peers sat in the buckets of the cargo e-trikes. “The future is electric,” smiled Neupert.