This is the article we submitted for the October edition of the Hayling Islander.
Fancy an electrifying experience!
Wilf asks if an e-bike might help you get bitten by the cycling bug
I just tested one of the latest models, a Kalkhoff Sahel, and it was, well, electrifying. And a lot of fun. We see more and more of them, especially from Germany and Holland.
Purists often say it’s cheating, and less exercise. But you might find you actually get more exercise, not less, because e-bikes tend to get used more often, and they’re a bit heavier when you’re saving the battery. You still get the health benefits, because you still have to pedal (that’s why they’re called pedelecs). They just detect when you’re pedaling, and amplify your leg power to help you go faster.
So they’re great for smoothing out hills, or against a headwind on the sea front or the Billy Trail. Or getting somewhere fast, but staying cool. Or for keeping up with someone who’s a bit too fast for you. Or for people with health problems.
Portsmouth CTC has members in their 80’s who now use e-bikes to get up the hills, so they can still join us on 40 and 50 mile rides. Even mountain bikers have caught on. They say skiers get an electric lift to the hilltop – why shouldn’t they?
Commuters and everyday utility cyclists find they’re comfortable to go about twice as far on an e-bike, making all sorts of new journeys possible. And that includes pubs – you can drink and drive (responsibly, of course!). Per mile, they’re at least 3 to 5 times cheaper than buses or trains, and 5 to 12 times cheaper than cars. Not quite as cheap as pure pedal power, but the most energy efficient form of powered travel, equivalent to a car doing 1,000 to 2,000 mpg. The actual electricity cost is negligible.
But they’re still just bicycles in the eyes of the law, so you’re exempted from tax, MOT, driving licence, and insurance (although insurance is still a good idea). And you’re allowed to ride on cycle paths and anywhere a normal bike can. That exemption only applies if you’re 14 or older, the motor power is 250 watts or less, and power cuts out above 15.5 mph. You can go faster, but you have to do all the work.
Be wary of more powerful models – they’re legally motor vehicles, so are not exempted. The law is unclear about models with twist-grip power control, but we’ve never heard of anyone being prosecuted.
So why isn’t every bike an e-bike?
Well, they add £300 to £1,000 to the new price, and they’re heavier, with more to go wrong. Lithium batteries might need replacing every 2 or 3 years if used daily and heavily. But they can last much longer if you buy trusted makes, and use more leg power.
Not all e-bikes are equal. Cheaper models have often had reliability problems, especially with batteries, which are expensive, and few of them have really succeeded in delivering power smoothly in line with pedal pressure. It can be very disconcerting to stop pedaling at a junction, but find the power carries on for a second or two. And even more disconcerting if it goes wrong and you can’t buy spares.
Most e-bikes extend the battery range by letting you switch between high power for hills, medium for general use, eco low power, or off, where you don’t use the battery at all.
There are dozens of kits to convert an existing bike, but I would caution against it unless you’re an enthusiast and pretty technical, especially if you need it to be reliable, e.g. to get to work. Most kits have dubious origins, which brings issues with quality, repairs and spares.
Some use front wheel drive, which can cause front fork failure unless strengthened. Others power the rear wheel, making it back heavy. But the ideal place for motor and battery is the centre, using a crank-drive, which is much harder to retrofit to an existing bike.
Designing the best features into a new bike is much easier. The premium makes, mostly German, generally have smoother power, better controls, longer and more predictable battery range and life, and better reliability and maintainability. They sound expensive, but people often sell them years later at close to what they paid for them. Remember the old saying ‘buy cheap, buy often’.
- Look up AtoB.org.uk for the best advice. They don’t sell bikes, so you can really trust their independence.
- Choose a dealer who has a track record in quality e-bikes.
- Test ride a premium brand before parting with your cash on a cheaper model.
- Get a proper fitting and a test ride. You must be comfortable to ride it.
- Aim for a battery with twice the range of your longest journey.
- Make sure the battery is locked in, so only you can remove it (for charging, to lighten the bike for lifting, and to make it less attractive to thieves).
- Check the charger is easily portable, so you can charge en route.
- Insist on at least 2 years warranty, especially for the battery. A warranty is only as good as the company providing it. If they go out of business, it’s worthless.
- Check you can get long term servicing and replacement parts.
- Don’t forget a good lock!