The rise of the electric bike

Faster than a pedal bike and more efficient than their petrol-powered cousins, e-bikes have come of age. Richard Peace finds out about one of the fastest growing bike trends to see if the future of two wheels is truly electric

Photo: Alamy

If you have travelled to major cities in the Netherlands or Germany it would be hard not to notice the rise and rise and of the e-bike. In 2015, sales in the Netherlands stood at 276,000 (around 28% of total bike sales) and in Germany it was 535,000 (around 12.5% of total bike sales). Now that trend appears to be emerging in the UK, with media reports suggesting around 30,000 to 40,000 bikes are sold annually (still a small percentage of the total bike market but growing rapidly).

So what’s all the fuss about? In a nutshell you get most of the benefits of a regular bike but without having to struggle up hills or brave headwinds only to arrive at your destination sweaty and exhausted. And, as with a non-electric bike, e-bikes do not require any red tape (insurance, MOT, etc.) as long as the assisted speed is limited to 25kmh (around 15.5mph) and the motor output rated at 250 watts or less.

E-bikes do have their detractors, though many seem to be a little misinformed about how they actually work. The battery-powered electric motor is there to assist the rider, i.e. to make pedalling easier, not to replace it entirely. This is because most e-bikes sold today are pedelecs – you have to pedal to activate the motor, though you can set the level of power delivered by each pedal stroke or even turn the motor off completely and pedal as with a regular bike.

Why go electric?

E-bikes are not just about having an easier life pedalling up hills, though that’s undoubtedly a large part of the appeal. Electric bike expert and publisher of transport magazine A to B David Henshaw lists their benefits:

Cuts through congestion In theory a car can average a high speed, but in reality speed often falls below 10mph in cities. An e-bike can maintain a higher average speed than a bicycle, yet take advantage of the full network of cycle facilities, giving access to routes that cars and motorcycles cannot reach. The result is often a faster door-to-door journey time than any other mode. With few hold-ups, estimating your arrival time is very accurate too.

No sweat Perspiration may not be a serious issue when you’re out for a leisure ride, but it’s more important if you’re commuting, with the prospect of arriving at work sticky putting a lot of people off two wheels.

Surely not safer? It sounds unlikely but the mathematics are intriguing. Think of a steep and busy road, with cars climbing at 30mph. If you previously slogged up the hill at 6mph, but can tackle the same gradient at 12mph on an e-bike, you will see 33% fewer cars, and they will pass you at 18mph rather than 24mph. The same principle applies to road junctions and roundabouts – the faster your acceleration, the sooner you can get out of trouble.

Hill conquering Mentioned already but worth reiterating. Provided you supply a reasonable amount of effort, you can expect to climb hills of 1:10 (10%) on an e-bike with ease, and clear a maximum gradient of 1:7 (14%), or even 1:4 (25%) with the right bike. In hilly country, the effect is nothing short of miraculous.

What about the money? While purchase cost is a little more than a conventional bike, mechanical wear and tear is about the same, and electricity is so cheap as to be largely irrelevant. There is, however, an extra expense in terms of battery depreciation, making e-bikes more costly to run – typically 8 to 12p per mile versus 3 to 7p per mile for a non-assisted bike. However, compare this with the cost of a moped, car, or public transport, which go from 20p per mile to 150p per mile.

Motorised but no red tape E-bikes are bicycles in the eyes of the law, so they don’t require tax, insurance, MOT or a licence. You are of course free to insure the machine if you wish, but there’s no compulsion to do anything but enjoy yourself.

Personal fitness Research has found that 46% of conventional bikes are used only once or twice a week, with a further 30% being used once a fortnight or even less. Because many people find riding an e-bike is a great deal more enjoyable in hilly country, into strong winds, or when carrying heavy loads, users tend to make more frequent use of them. The motor provides up to half the effort, but more regular use means more exercise for the rider.

And if you want to trade it in Varying in price from around £450 into the thousands, an e-bike can cost more to buy than a conventional machine, but they tend to hold their value, so you get a lot of your money back when you move on. The cheapest machines are best avoided as they are likely to be the least reliable. Many higher priced bikes are of an extremely good quality.

Pedelec cyclist on the way, Upper Bavaria, Germany

In hilly country, the e-bike effect is nothing short of miraculous. Photo: Alamy

Plugging in to the future

I’ve reviewed several e-bikes over the years and here’s my list of the current favourites – many leaders in their class, many typifying current e-bike trends.

Momentum Electric Upstart (£999) A superb commuter with automatic two-speed gears and 18kg all up weight including mudguards and lights. It’s really quick too, even above the assisted speed of 15.5mph. A lot of e-bikes can be very hard work to pedal above around 16mph, so the Upstart stands out in this respect.

KTM Ventura Cross 9 (£1599) A great value hybrid bike with a high-quality Shimano motor for good hill-climbing ability.

Cube Stereo Hybrid 120 HPA Pro500 29 (£2899) Bosch crank motors are the market leaders in e-mountain bikes, a rapidly growing area, and this is a typically high-quality offering from their huge range. Other powerful crank motors used on in e-mountain bikes come from Brose, Shimano and Yamaha.

Steinbach Sonnblick E-Assist (£ POA) At 8.5kg, this is claimed to be the lightest electrically assisted road bike on the planet. While other manufacturers have concentrated on making the battery and motor sleeker, the motor used in this Steinbach model goes the whole hog and hides the battery and motor almost completely.

Work in progress    

While e-bikes are fantastically practical tools they do have weak spots. Most use lithium-ion batteries, which have a limited lifespan and when their capacity is reduced to a minimum or they fail, they currently cost several hundred pounds to replace. And, of course, motor and battery come with a weight penalty, potentially a big downside if you need to regularly lift the bike.

Nevertheless, technology, weight and longevity are improving and most e-bike batteries come with a minimum guarantee of two years. So the next time someone on an e-bike effortlessly steams past you on your conventional two wheels, you should probably consider this the shape of things to come rather than a soon-to-be forgotten fad.

Richard Peace is a regular contributor to Cyclists’ Touring Club magazine and Cycle magazine

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