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The Electric Bicycle – its moment has come

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packster

As I’ve tweeted a few times lately, it is cycling heaven out there on the lanes at the moment. What does cycling heaven look like? Sunshine, but not too hot; not much wind; hardly any cars. 

The real trick is not so much that there is less motor traffic, but that the ratio of motor traffic to foot and pedal traffic has tipped, so that instead of being relatively rare, pedestrians and cyclists are outnumbering motorists. As a result, that psychotic sense of entitlement common to almost everyone who gets behind the wheel of a car is on the back burner. Though rest assured: the white van drivers are still twats.

I’ve been getting out there as much as physically possible, for an hour or so at a time, and it really is great to see people out with their kids, wobbling fearlessly along the lanes. I’d love for us as a society to go further: shut some roads or sections to traffic, cut down on the rat running, make the drivers go the long way. It would be so great for families with young kids and nervous cyclists to know for sure that a stretch of road would have no cars on it. People are still nervously hugging the stony side of the road, where most of the holes are, and I’d like to see them boldly occupying the centre, asserting their own sense of entitlement.

I’m sure a lot of people are eying that dusty/rusty old bike in the shed right now, and considering getting it out. And I’ve seen a few people struggling on the hills.

Funny story, my youngest cycles to her supermarket job every day, and someone asked her if she came up London Road, and then was dismayed and impressed when she said that she did. London Road is a bit of a hill, but is nothing to someone who has been up at least three categorised TDF climbs. That’s her, not me. Besides, to get home every day she has to come up our hill, which is properly steep.

But yeah, those hills. And on occasion, the wind. Those two things are likely to make someone throw down a bike and vow never again. I’m speaking here, you understand, as someone who has no time for the pretentious macho posturing of The Cycling Rules. No, I’m with you, casual and reluctant cyclists: I hate the pain.

I’m here to tell you: there is a solution.

It’s called an electric bike, and it is not cheating.

Let’s get the data out of the way first. Researchers at Brigham Young University found that:

Riding both types of bikes “placed the vast majority of participants in the vigorous-intensity heart rate zone,” the study authors concluded. The average heart rate of a test subject riding an e-bike was 93.6 percent of those riding conventional bikes. Moreover, electric bikes appear to be an “excellent form of aerobic or cardiovascular exercise, even for experienced mountain bikers who regularly engage in this fitness activity.” (Source)

Yep. 93.6%. And the spare 6.4%? That’s the hills, and the wind, and the pain.

Don’t misunderstand: current ebike legislation deems that you will be pedalling. There is no free ride. This is not a moped. It’s a pedal assist ebike. You pedal, and it assists.

So you will still get out of breath. If you push it, you may even sweat. But you will not hate the hills. In fact, you will grin as you breeze up hills that previously made you wobble and curse.

And if you have a heart condition, dodgy joints, or any number of other chronic conditions that make it hard to exercise, the ebike will get you out there.

A recent study by the University of Colorado found that when sedentary commuters – individuals who travelled to and from the office in their cars – switched to an e-bike, they saw marked improvements in their cardiovascular health, an increase in their their aerobic capacities and an improvement in the control of their blood sugar. They got healthier. (Source)

data

Here’s some of my own data, from my Fitbit (see image).

A 24 km ride (that’s just under 15 miles, in Brexit units), and I’m out there for just under an hour. See sidebar on speed.

In that hour, I’m spending three minutes in the mythical “Fat Burn” zone. From what I can glean, “Fat Burn” is not really a thing, it just means you’re above your resting heart rate. Then I’m spending 33 minutes in the Cardio zone. That means your heart and lungs are doing some work. And 23 minutes at Peak, which doesn’t mean you’re going to die, it just means you’re pushing hard. As you can probably guess from the coloured zones on the map, those are the hills.

Now, if you go out on a day and your legs feel particularly good, you might flip those Peak and Cardio figures around. But the point is, riding an ebike is good exercise. The only difference from an acoustic bike is: you’re laughing as you go up the hills.

I’ll put it another way for some of you older people. One of the reasons I’ve always gone back to cycling is because I always feel like myself on a bike. In some ways, being on a bike makes me feel 18 again. But if you really want to feel 18 again on a bike? Yep: ebike.

How Fast?
First of all, yes, that 24 km in an hour is more or less exactly 15 miles an hour. To a proper cyclist, that’s nothing. But to you and me, regular person wearing regular clothing, that’s a good deal faster than you’ll average on an acoustic bike. At my age (57) and level of fitness and weight, I might realistically manage an average speed of 12 mph on such a ride. The legislation means that your ebike stops helping you when you hits around 25 kph. In reality, the assistant tails off, so mine cuts out completely at an indicated 27 kph.
My bike weighs a ton (though an ebike doesn’t have to), and its gearing means that your top speed, down a hill, with no assistance, with your pedals spinning comically fast, is about 55 kph (just over 30 mph). My bike has hydraulic disk brakes.
On the other hand, you will use the gears to get up hills, and each gear you go lower will lower your speed. It’s simple physics. So on a steepish incline in, say, 3rd gear, your top speed is going to be about 16 or 17 kph.
And it averages out, over a ride, at about 25 kph. It’s respectable, but you won’t win races at that speed.

So how much do you have to spend?

Many visitors come to this blog looking for reviews of one of the cheapest ebikes there has been: a folder, from Decathlon. Decathlon’s current small wheel folder is about £750. 

I wouldn’t recommend it. There are too many compromises at that price, and the several my wife tried failed over and over again.

But Decathlon do make, by all accounts, decent non-folding ebikes.Their Rockrider electric mountain bikes get decent reviews. I note that, as of today, they have a women’s Rockrider on sale at £799. The normal price is double that.

They also do Dutch style commuter bikes and hybrids starting at around £999.

I know you’re baulking at the price. Two things about this. Bikes are like anything else, in that to get something slightly better can cost a lot more. And it has always been true, even of acoustic bikes, that once you go beyond the absolute basics, the price goes up. My carbon road bike was a couple of grand, but to get something like the professionals ride would cost you five times that.

data 2

Data source.

The second thing about the price to remember is that it could replace your car for shorter journeys. Quick trip to the shops for a pint and a loaf? Riding to work if it’s less than, say, 5 miles? Most people do walk if the journey is less than a mile, but as soon as the journey is over a mile, the vast majority of people drive. And fully 67% of all journeys are under five miles. A commute of, say, three miles holds no fear on an ebike. My own commute is 12 miles, once I’ve avoided the main roads, so I only do it on occasion. But if I worked within 5 miles of work, I’d do it all year round.

And your employer might participate in the Cycle to Work scheme, under which you can save a good third of a price of a bike through salary sacrifice. There used to be a £1000 limit, but that’s gone. Check out the Green Commute Initiative, for example.

So I recommend you spend at least £1000.

If you don’t want to go the Decathlon route, you’ll find a range at Halfords, and from well-known brands like Raleigh. My wife settled on a Raleigh folder called the Stow-E-Way. It’s only a folder in the sense that you could get it in the back of a car, or keep it in your caravan or camper and take up less space. The current model is £1350, and has a range of about 50km. My wife paid £1100 for hers, which was £100 deposit, and the rest with a voucher under the Cycle to Work scheme.

Don’t worry about range, by the way. We’re not doing Grand Tour stages here. My own ebike, which is heavy and has a big battery, will do nearly 70km on the highest level of assistance. If, like me, you’re going out for an hour’s exercise around the lanes, or (as I suggested above) commuting less than 5 miles to work, range is not an issue.

My ebike was, at the time of purchase, the Nice German Car of ebikes. It cost around £3000 and has that huge battery, balloon tyres, and a carbon belt drive instead of a chain. It’s low maintenance and clean, won’t make your trousers oily. On the downside, it weighs a lot. There a lot of good bikes in this category, like this Merida, or the Moustache Range, or several from Riese and Müller. For more familiar brands, you’ll find models from Giant, Specialized, Canyon, Bianchi, and Trek, among many others.

If I had young kids or wanted a something to carry the shopping (a proper car replacement), I’d get a Riese and Muller cargo bike, like the Packster (see picture at the top of this blog). These start at around £4000, and now we’re talking proper car replacement, and lots of options in terms of size, capacity, and even seating. This is where you make a commitment not to have that second (or third or fifth) car that spends most of its time parked, and get something that can carry a pretty decent load of shopping, or plants from the garden centre. And if you think this idea is whacky or eccentric, consider a short break in Copenhagen and open your eyes.

Now we’re into the silly money territory, I’ll say this. My first ebike is not going to be my last. It’s probably the best £3000 I ever spent, and I will definitely get another. When I don’t need a commuter bike that can carry panniers and has big balloon tyres for comfort, I’ll probably get myself one of the newer road ebikes with the lightweight Fazua motor. Some of these are very expensive, but something like this Boardman is under £3k.

The only issues I see with ebikes going forward is the bewildering range of choice and their relative invisibility in retail environments. Part of the problem is the continual stream of Kickstarter type projects, which present somewhat eccentric ebike concepts which in some cases literally reinvent the wheel. When ebikes are so mainstream that every major manufacturer is offering them in all shapes and sizes, I don’t see the need for weird startups. On the other hand, you want to try before you buy and see it before you buy it, unless you’re a weirdo like me. But this is changing. Rutland Cycles have a good range on the shop floor, and you can always see the Decathlon range in their stores.

But if you’ve got lots of time right now, browse around the internets, check out the Youtubes, and spend some time looking at the manufacturer web sites. You might find your next object of desire.

2 responses to “The Electric Bicycle – its moment has come”

  1. rashbre Avatar
    rashbre

    I agree. My first (and still only) electric bike is a Brompton, which easily folds down small enough to go in the boot of the car.

    I normally leave it ready for action in the garage, with a saddlebag on the back, so that I can pop along to the big shop, or into town for a selection of shops.

    It’s brilliant because although my route is mainly flat, there’s one awkward hill down to the river, which can be bothersome when I’m coming back. Not because I can’t climb it, but because it takes me some time, which can hold up sniffy 4-wheel drives behind me.

    With the electric on its second setting, I can briskly take the hill as if I’m about 20 years old, which is fine and surprises an occasional pedestrian. Yes, my heart rate does peak on the climb.

    I did originally get the bike as a substitute for an electric car for small journeys and I’m pleased to say the fuel refills on the big motor are less than monthly unless I’ve been to, say, Newcastle.

    Notwithstanding the current Isolation, my biggest concern is still secure parking. If I go into a chatty place like a pub I can take it in or park it under the table, but if I’m shopping for groceries it’s still a faff to D-lock and chain it.

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    1. RFM Avatar

      Security is a big issue of course. Riese and Müller (and some others) do build a lock into some of their frames, although this only locks the back wheel to the frame rather than securing it to a post. Others offer wireless tracking. My employer (and at least one former employer) has a lockable bike shed, in which I store permanently a gold-rated D-lock and cable. So I don’t have to carry a lock to work, but I agree it’s a problem when you just want to grab a pinta from the shops.
      The best solution for a secure lock you carry around is the Abus Bordo Granit, which folds down to a size that can be secured to the frame. Not cheap, however, at £87, and weighs 1.5 kg.

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