Life with an e-bike

The electric motor is all the rage these days – powered mobility without a hint of tailpipe emissions – and the e-bike in particular is becoming ubiquitous on city roads and beyond. But what is it actually like to use one, day in, day out?

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There was a time when electric bikes were – let's face it – a bit of a joke. Heavy, expensive, not very nice to look at and with very little range in the battery. While the young and beautiful sped ahead on carbon fibre ultra-light pedal bikes, the e-bike was the bicycle of choice for the terminally unfashionable.

But things change – and e-bikes certainly have, out of all recognition. Instead of being ugly and lumpy they now come in every road- and mountain-bike style, with state-of-the-art braking and frame technology, and often with an impressive range from much improved batteries. Today you can enjoy a cutting-edge biking experience plus the power of an emissions-free electric powerplant and look good while doing it.

People are increasingly willing to give the e-bike a go. Cars have long held sway in the Sicilian capital of Palermo, for example, but the city is making a name for itself as one of the most e-mobile cities in Italy. You'll see plenty of e-bikes – and e-scooters – on the streets. All helping to mitigate a 2011 scientific study that showed vehicle emissions in Palermo were a significant cause of emergency hospital visits for respiratory problems.

Take a test drive

Palermo also has plenty of places to rent e-bikes. And it's a good way to test the experience for yourself, particularly because a mid-range bike costs around €2,000 to buy. For that price you will get a model that looks much like an ordinary hybrid street bike, apart from a small motor between the pedals and a battery that sits on the rear wheel rack. It is likely to have super-responsive disc brakes and an integral lighting system and is certainly nothing to be ashamed of.

The first thing you realise when you set off is that you really do need those big disc brakes: e-bikes are heavy and difficult to stop. The entire bike weighs around 22kg, which is about twice the weight of a conventional performance road bike. But you soon realise that the weight doesn't really matter, because the modest 250W electric motor packs a surprising punch, especially on the highest ‘turbo' setting. In fact, when you first set off the power surge can come as a bit of a surprise to anyone used to using muscle power alone.

E-bikes are ‘electric assisted' machines: in most countries an e-bike is only an e-bike if it can also be pedalled, otherwise it becomes a moped and is taxed and regulated accordingly. And that is the glory of them – you think pedal power but you get electric power as well, so it is a bit like suddenly getting promoted to road-going superhero.

A superior form of transport

Where an e-bike really comes into its own though is on hills (and Sicily is not short of these). Inclines that would have most people getting off to push their pedal bike are no sweat at all and going uphill feels a lot like cruising downhill. The only caveat is the battery: run out of power on these heavy machines and getting anywhere will suddenly feel like a struggle.

But after a few days on an e-bike in Sicily, cutting through traffic queues, gliding up steep hills as if they were flat roads and crossing the city from top to bottom and side to side several times without once stopping for a refuel (a mid-range e-bike will do at least 60km on one charge, even in turbo mode), you may start to feel a bit superior. After all, you are going faster than the cars, at a fraction of the price, with none of their emissions.

You may even ask, why didn't someone think of this before?

In fact, someone did. A man called Ogden Bolton was granted a patent for a battery-powered bike in 1895. Several more electric bike designs followed, even before the start of the 20th century – the only problem was that they were not very good, and certainly not good enough to challenge the petrol engine.

But what goes around comes around. Today the e-bike is back. And this time it looks like it is going to stay the course.