If there is one thing I learnt in my week of riding an electric bike, it is that the cycling public of London puts people who use the assistance of a motor on roughly the same moral plane as the Daily Mail puts immigrants. They are probably the sort of people who double-dip their chips and disrespect queuing. In short, they are cheating.
Were cycling a sport, with rules dictating that a rider may only use her own energy, then, yes, it would be cheating. But for those of us not competing in the Tour de France, for those of us simply looking for a way to get around town safely, comfortably and quickly, using an electric bike is not cheating any more than using an electric kettle. And unlike double-dipping or queue-jumping, e-biking has no societal cost – if anything, it carries benefits.
Let’s start with the most important consideration: safety. In a previous piece for 1843, I complained that a small minority of London’s cyclists can be aggressive and impolite on the road (to which that small minority responded by being aggressive and impolite to me on Twitter). One reason is that they are poorly served by London’s still developing cycling infrastructure. Sometimes breaking the rules is the only way to stay alive. Another reason for their blasé approach to traffic regulations is that setting off from a standing start is the most energy-intensive aspect of cycling. That is why some are loath to stop for red lights or at pedestrian crossings.
E-bikes remove the second reason entirely and ameliorate concerns about the first. A common misconception is that an e-bike requires no effort – that they are simply cut-rate mopeds. On the contrary, most e-bikes only supply motor assistance when the pedals are pushed. Depending on the cycle and the power setting, a rider can get between anywhere from one-and-a-half to three times as much energy out of the thing as she puts in. That means setting off becomes near effortless, making cyclists more likely to stop when they should.
Moreover, the assistance helps cyclists rapidly accelerate out of danger if they find themselves in a sticky situation. And just in case they get carried away, British law requires all e-bikes sold here to cut out motor assistance at 15mph, or 24kmph, in line with other European countries. (North America has a more generous 20mph limit.)
The second benefit is speed. Rides that my commuting app estimated would take an hour rarely took more than 40 minutes. No matter what power setting I used or what distance I had to go, I shaved on average between a quarter to a third off the estimated time. A third benefit is style, with the added bonus of convenience: since e-bikes require far less effort, you can ride upright, in your normal clothes and arrive as fresh as when you set off. For people who commute any decent distance to work, that means skipping the shower and change of clothes when you arrive. Then there is public health: people who wouldn’t otherwise consider cycling – because of age, ailments or distance – are more likely to use them and in the process get more active too.
Why, then, do more Brits not use these marvellous machines? In 2015 nearly a third of all bikes sold in the Netherlands – the Garden of Eden for cyclists – were electric. In Germany, the Netherlands, Austria and Switzerland together, they represent 10% of bicycle sales by volume. In both Germany and the Netherlands, unit sales of e-bikes are well into the six figures, compared with the low five figures in Britain. Next year, Paris plans to overhaul its bike-sharing fleet so that one in three new bicycles will be electric. Lyon and Stockholm are planning all-electric fleets of 5,000 shared bicycles each.
E-bikes have their drawbacks: even the lightest one is significantly heavier than an ordinary bike. They need to be charged, which can be a bit of a hassle if you live in a flat. And they are expensive. (The one I tested, an entry-level model from Moustache, a French company, costs about £2,000.)
Yet none of these criticisms should be considered a deal-breaker. The weight isn’t an impediment if the motor is engaged. Most models come with a removable battery for easy charging. And reliable e-bikes from a reputable manufacturer can be had for about £1,000, or about the price of a high-end road bike. (Dan Parsons of Fully Charged, the shop that loaned me a bike for trial, says that anything cheaper won’t last very long and will end up being more expensive to maintain.)
I think the principal reason Brits have yet to warm to e-bikes is the cussed pride they take in suffering through their commutes. That is ridiculous and a shame.
Yet this may be about to change. Transport for London, the city’s transit authority, is keen to promote the use of e-bikes as part of its general drive to get more people cycling. Raleigh, Specialized, Giant and others now offer their own versions. Brompton, a popular London-based manufacturer of folding cycles beloved by people unafraid of looking silly, will start selling one next year. The entry of mainstream brands should help normalise e-bikes and remove some of the stigma attached to them.
After not owning a bike for a few years, I started cycling again this spring, and immediately fell back in love with it. I use my bike largely for leisure or to see friends, and one of the wonderful things about cycling is how it opens up the city, revealing corners and crannies that remain hidden when you travel on foot or by public transport. But if cycles reveal a city, e-bikes flatten it: for the week that I used one, London opened up to me even further, making me feel more confident on large roads and helping me ignore hills altogether. I found myself cycling more and more often, and going to places I would otherwise never have considered. As for worries about looking silly: my lycra-clad compatriots ensure that I have nothing to fear on that front.
Leo Mirani rode a Moustache Samedi 27 XRoad 1 courtesy of Fully Charged, a dedicated e-bike retailer in Bermondsey, London, where it is available for the discounted price of £1,750.