Would you like to cycle, but find that hills are a problem? Do you struggle to keep up with friends or family when out on a ride? Or do you just hate cycling somewhere only to arrive at your destination all hot and sweaty? If you answered “yes” to any of these, then an electric bike may be just what you’re looking for.
When one of our members asked us about electric bikes, we had to admit that we didn’t know too much about them. So in order to address this gap in our knowledge, we turned to expert Nick Williams, who runs local e-bike shop, Velospeed. Based in Aldworth, opposite the Bell Inn, Nick sells a range of bikes including:
- practical bikes for everyday transport;
- sporty urban bikes;
- hybrids / trekking bikes;
- mountain bikes (including hard-tails and full-suspension versions).
He even stocks a sturdy cargo bike that can transport payloads of up to 150kg!
So the first thing we wanted to know was, “how do they work?” E-bikes are powered by an intelligent electric motor, which is either built into the hub to drive the wheel directly, or else located around the bottom bracket to drive the cranks. Depending on the level of sophistication of the motor, it either has a motion sensor or a torque sensor, so it only provides power when you start pedalling. Most e-bikes have a control on the handlebars that allows the rider to select the level of assistance they require, or even turn it off completely. Hub motors tend to be found on the cheaper bikes, while the more expensive ones have the more sophisticated bottom bracket motors.
We were also curious to know how fast they went. Nick explained that legally all electric bikes are required to stop providing assistance at 25 kilometres per hour (15.5 mph). You can, of course, keep pedalling and go faster, but the bike won’t be helping.
Our next question was, “what is the range of an electric bike?” This is a tough one to answer, since it depends on the bike, the battery, how much assistance you require and how many hills you encounter along the way. However, most people can expect to get 25 to 40 miles on a typical ride. If you are reasonably fit and use a low level of assistance, then you can eke this out to anything between 60 and 90 miles.
E-bikes mostly use lithium-ion batteries. These can be plugged into the mains and are charged like a laptop or mobile phone. Depending on the model, they will take 3-6 hours to reach full charge from flat. The cost is surprisingly reasonable at between 5 and 10 pence per charge. Early electric bikes suffered with unsightly, bulky battery packs that spoiled the lines of the bike, but these days, they tend to be much sleeker and better integrated with the frame.
So how reliable are they? Nick reports that his customers have experienced very few problems with either the motors or the batteries and there is no additional day-to-day maintenance required. The batteries are swappable, but they are quite expensive.
With all our questions answered, it was time to give them a spin. One of the advantages of having a bike shop in Aldworth is that there are plenty of hills around. This allowed us to quickly assess the benefits of an e-bike.
The first bike we tried was a Momentum Upstart, which is a fairly traditional looking bike with an upright riding position. At £1,000 it is at the lower end of the e-bike market. This Chinese-made machine has a hub motor with a two-speed rear hub that changes gear automatically as your speed increases. The limited range of gears means that it is best suited as an urban commuter bike. However, even with relatively high gearing, it still made light work of the hills around Aldworth.
Next on the list was the Moustache Lundi. Moustache is the main brand that Velospeed stocks. All of their bikes are crank driven by a Bosch motor and battery pack, which is a highly reliable system that is used in many of the top electric bikes. As a dedicated e-bike brand, they design all of their bikes from scratch, and are happy to question traditional road bike design. Certainly, the Lundi looks unlike most other bikes on the road. It has a box-section frame with a step-through design, integral lighting and Y-shaped handlebars, which produces an upright riding position. On this model, the battery is nicely integrated into the rear luggage rack. The model we tested had the 8-speed Alfine hub gears which gave a nice spread of ratios and made for very smooth shifting. This certainly felt a step up from the Momentum that we tested earlier. Everything about it felt reassuringly solid and well-considered, but then so it should, since the cost is just over £3,000 for this top-of-the-range version.
If the Lundi is a little bit ‘out-there’ in terms of its design, then there is a whole host of other models available, such as the sporty urban ‘Friday’ model (shouldn’t that be Vendredi?), the Samedi trekking / hybrid bikes and the Dimanche ‘performance bikes’. These come in a range of variants costing between £1,800 and £4,000.
The last bike that we tried was the Samedi full-suspension mountain bike. Gary Fisher (known in the industry as the inventor of the mountain bike) has been quoted as saying that electric mountain bikes will be “the next big thing”, so we were keen to give these a try. With big fat tyres running at ridiculously low pressures, this was surely a step too far. But no, it steamed up the hill, gliding over potholes as though they weren’t there.
Overall, we were really impressed with our first experiences of electric bikes. While they may be more expensive than their conventional counterparts, there is no doubting the sophistication of the technology that’s involved or the quality of the designs. If you have any lingering doubts, then a visit to Velospeed will quickly put put your mind at rest.
And to those of you who say that an electric bike is just cheating, we would say that any form of cycling is better for you than sitting in a car. And what’s more, studies show that e-cyclists use their bikes more than people with conventional bikes, and could therefore be more active as a result. So just think about that next time someone breezes past you up a hill!