22 February 2017

Electric bikes are for old people… aren’t they?

Young woman and man riding Stromer ST1 electric bikes

Some people think an e-bike is just like a normal bike except you don’t do much work – good for dodgy knees. Here’s what it’s really like riding an e-bike in London

Electric bikes are essentially standard bikes with a battery and motor which gives you assistance as you pedal, which is why they are treated legally like a regular bike (except you have to be 14 to ride one). The assistance can be adjusted from almost nothing to a level that makes you feel a little bit superhuman – but with London traffic and no worries about when it can be charged next, I find it best to leave it set to max.

Here are the good things about them and why young, fit people should ride them too:

They’re quick

E-bikes accelerate swiftly to 15mph or so and pretty much stay there. You can be off at the lights just after the motorbikes but before the cars, keeping you clear of most other traffic through junctions, which is where the majority of accidents happen. The other major advantage is that hills don’t make much of a difference – I’ll only lose a few mph riding up to somewhere like Hampstead – and it feels much safer to keep your speed closer to the rest of the traffic. Once up to speed, then yes, someone fit on a road bike will pull away from you, but you’ll soon be at another set of lights.

They give you confidence

The combination of fast acceleration and maintaining a good speed makes it easier to ride with assurance and assertiveness – important when riding in London. You are less reliant on other road users making allowances for you, and you are more visible if you stay in front.

You can wear normal clothes

Any time of year outside the dead of winter, I can’t ride a normal bike without arriving hot – I try and go more slowly but maybe I’m running late, want to get through the next light before it changes etc. Plus there’s the effort of getting back up to speed after multiple stops.

E-bikes give you the speed without excess effort, so you don’t get to work or a meeting uncomfortably hot and worried about not smelling so fresh.Chain guard on a bike

Also you can ride them in everyday clothes – they all have mudguards and the majority have chain guards so you don’t need bike clips. And putting on a suit doesn’t mean that you have to leave the bike at home and take the tube.

Longer journeys are just as easy

Most cyclists in London have a mental perimeter around their home that they are comfortable riding in – any further just feels too far to go by bike. An electric bike easily doubles the radius or more. A commute that seemed too far to cycle is doable, and the days you just don’t have the energy to go by bike are pretty much over.

They’re practical

Most e-bikes, and particularly Dutch bikes like those from QWIC, are made to be used for all kinds of trips and errands. In contrast, bicycles used in London are often road bikes, single-speed fixies or hybrids. All of which are lightweight with skinny tyres and generally don’t come with mudguards, locks etc, so you have to buy those as extras. And you would never see one with a stand.

Bicycle frame lock

But put a frame lock (the type that is fixed to the frame and stops the rear wheel turning) and a stand on a bike and it can be used in a different way. If you need to stop at a shop for something, you can leave the bike right outside without searching for a post and lock it in about 5 seconds. Keeping half an eye on it while you’re inside is enough, as you know the bike’s going to be too heavy for someone to run off with (more about the weight later). Obviously it’ll need to be locked up more securely for longer periods, but all the fiddling around finding a post of the right size and then threading a lock through the frame just for a 2-minute errand is eradicated.

The other thing that can make a bike way more convenient is taking away the crossbar. Yes, it’s a ladies’ bike, but get over it (at Propeller we use the term step-through, as it’s more descriptive). The crossbar is there for stiffness, so that all your effort goes into making the bike move forward instead of flexing the frame, but if there’s a motor doing a lot of the work the wasted energy is irrelevant. Just think how annoying it is sitting down on one of those tables with benches attached in a pub garden and you wonder why you’d want a bike with a similar barrier to getting in the saddle.

But wait, what about the weight?

Yes, everything so far has been positive, but that’s because a bike that’s part moped is such a good way of getting around town. It wouldn’t be right to ignore the weight, as that may be an issue, particularly if you’re used to carrying your bike upstairs to a flat. Electric bikes are heavy compared to a standard bike, mainly because they have a big battery and a motor. You really don’t notice it when riding, since you’re not doing all the work, but you do when lifting or carrying. A typical e-bike could be a bit over 25kg including the battery, but there are some lighter alternatives if the weight is a concern. For example, the compact series QWIC FN7 weighs a little over 20kg and the Gocycle G3 is only 16.3kg. Taking the battery off helps make carrying easier too. Most people can find an e-bike that works for them.

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