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If you think cycling is too much like hard work, then an electric bike might be the answer. Ben Webb looks at the rise of the battery-powered option for two-wheeled transport

Home road Taking you
to new places
Taking you
to new places

The electric bike – or e-bike – is changing minds about pedal power. While the concept of a motorised boost is anathema to exertion-loving, Lycra-clad racers who tackle long distances and tough terrain as a test of their physical strength, it is actually opening up possibilities for the rest of us. As a quick and easy way to get from A to B, e-bikes make it possible to take on longer distances than is possible on a regular bicycle. And, by overcoming the barrier of steep hills, this clean, emissions-free mode of transport makes sweaty commutes a thing of the past, while opening up prospects for touring – in cities and out into the countryside.

Taking you to new places

With a little help
Philippa Perry, the author of How to Stay Sane and wife of colourful British artist Grayson Perry, is an enthusiastic advocate of the e-bike for one simple reason. “It's fun!” she writes in a review of e-bikes for the British newspaper The Guardian. “It feels like someone is giving you a push through the difficult bits.”

In essence, the e-bike is an ordinary bicycle that has been souped up with a battery-powered electric motor and some related gadgetry on the handlebars, more of which later. Once you start pedalling, the motor kicks in automatically although, on some models, you can choose when the motor starts and the level of assistance it delivers. And you don’t need a licence. As long as its motor cuts out at a maximum speed of 25kph, the e-bike is classified as a regular bike in Europe.

There should be no problem getting used to it: riding an e-bike is easy, just like, well, riding a bike. Cycling fan and e-bike convert Simon Malloni bought his e-bike when he moved to a hilly part of Cornwall in the west of England. For him, it has been a complete revelation. “I live beside a steep hill which would otherwise require me to get off and push,” he explains. “So now no trip presents a requirement to get out of the saddle. Only one hill has defeated the machine!”

All of which opens up new possibilities for exploring on two wheels. When it comes to cities, the e-bike gives you the potential to get away from the main – and busy – tourist sites and discover new cafes, restaurants, shops, galleries and parks in other parts of town. You might even end up visiting the surrounding countryside. 

Accelerating sales
E-biking is certainly growing fast in popularity, helped by being healthy and eco-friendly. Sales across Europe exceeded 1.6m in 2016, according to the Confederation of European Bicycle Industries, which represents manufacturers, an increase of more than 22 per cent on 2015. Bosch, which produces a wide variety of e-bikes, believes sales are going to accelerate. “The e-bike market is developing fast and furiously,” says Claus Fleischer, the head of Bosch eBike Systems. “We think in 10 years’ time one bicycle in two sold in European core markets will be an e-bike.”

One of the big challenges to the initial uptake of e-bikes was aesthetic. The first-generation drive units looked clunky. Newer models, however, have more compact systems that are cleverly integrated into the overall design. Some e-bikes are positively beautiful and futuristic – but also expensive.

The market is becoming increasingly sophisticated with drive units of different shapes, sizes and power being added to all kinds of frames. Manufacturers are not only catering for the style-conscious, metropolitan commuter used to riding a fold-up bicycle. An energy-saving electric boost is also attractive, it seems, to the weekend rider who loves touring on two wheels.

About 2,550 e-bike models were identified in a survey by e-bike-finder.com in 2016 with models aimed at urban cyclists and trekkers accounting for the most of this. And there is still plenty of growth potential. “We are convinced that e-mountain bikes are the shape of things to come,” Fleischer adds. “In the long term, e-MTBs will outperform conventional mountain bikes in the sales stakes.”

Technological advances
The more expensive the bike, the longer the battery charge will last – between 40 and 160km depending on the model, how the e-bike is used and the conditions. Most batteries are easy to detach from the frame so can be recharged using a regular wall socket, which takes three to five hours. And even if your battery does run out, you can always pedal home.

The e-bike is also becoming connected and many are kitted out with onboard computers that can display an array of information about each ride – the shortest route to your destination, perhaps, or the most challenging, or picturesque. It's also a personal trainer, adding lots of handy fitness information to the mix – calories used, average heart rate, top speed, metres climbed... the sky’s the limit.

E-bikes may once have suffered from something of an image problem but today’s models offer something for everyone. A defiant Perry, however, warns against becoming too serious and competitive in the e-bike saddle. “Yes, cycling can be a sport, but bicycles, primarily, are a mode of transport,” she points out. “Let’s stop confusing the two!”

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