The electric bike isn’t a replacement for a bicycle. It’s the replacement for a car or a motorbike. That’s the line Guy Wheeler of Leftfield Bikes used when he got in touch with me a while back.
It’s an interesting view and as I continue to be surprised that electric bikes haven’t gained more traction in the UK, I invited Guy to share his views. I pass you on to Guy..
Before the tyres were even pumped-up on our new ‘pedelec’, two road racers appeared. One observed that it was electric and the other, that it was cheating… and thus began the debate: are electric bicycles ‘cheating’?
For those unfamiliar with the term, a pedelec is a bicycle with regular pedals plus a battery and motor. As you pedal, the motor adds a little assistance. When you stop pedalling, the assistance stops. It won’t drive on battery power alone: you have to make the effort to reap the rewards. They don’t require a license or number plates, you can ride it without the battery and when the battery runs out you can still ride it home.
Steve McQueen owned the predecessor of our 2012 Pininfarina-designed Velosolex.
In the UK, cyclists and pedestrians alike still think they are a replacement for a bicycle. We think that’s simply because their merits haven’t been communicated sufficiently well. Now that a 2 hour charge can provide a range of 50 miles, we see bicycles fitting into two distinct categories: Transport & Recreation.
When interpreted as ‘Transport’, electric bicycles can be viewed as a viable alternative to a car, tube, bus or train. What better way to go door to door between meetings in your finest suit, than with the sweat-free assistant electric bicycle? All the convenience of cycling, without the need for a shower at your destination.
The bicycle we refer to as ‘Recreation’, is the one we clip into and use at the weekends (and midweek, midnight, etc). The recreational cyclist isn’t really going anywhere but dresses for the occasion and follows the ride with a hot shower and a change of clothes. It’s the perfect way to spend a summer’s day, although hopelessly incompatible with daily life unless you’re either a cycle courier or work in a well ventilated area.
How to choose an electric bike
There are of course several factors to consider when choosing an electric bike. The most fundamental are beauty, range, weight and price. Almost all electric bicycles are limited to reach the same top speed, so these practical measures are more relevant. If the bike’s too pretty it is as likely to be pinched as a carbon racer left outside overnight. If the range is insufficient, you’ll be forever worrying when and where you’ll run out of juice. If it’s too heavy, you won’t be able to get it up stairs. If it’s really expensive, see the comment on beauty.
These aspects can all be addressed relatively easily. First of all, if you are planning to leave the bike outside for extended periods, remind yourself that it’s a ‘utilitarian vehicle’ and go for something which doesn’t stand out so much. Note too that when you take the battery out of the bike to charge it, you are making it less attractive to bike thieves.
Electric bikes vs public transport
Much like a regular bike, make sure you buy a decent lock and have the bike insured. The lock plus insurance will cost somewhere between of £100-150 per year depending on where you live. When added to the cost of the bike however, it will almost certainly cost less than a yearly Travelcard and that’s where it starts to get interesting.
If you currently commute between Zones 1-2, you’ll pay £1,168 for an annual ticket. For Zones 1-9, it’s £3,032. For under £1,000 you could by a electric bike and still have between £168-2,032 left over for the occasional ‘cheeky taxi’, when the weather’s awful. Perhaps the best thing is that at the end of the year you could throw the bike away and buy another one, without losing money. You won’t of course, but if you do move nearer to your workplace in year two, it won’t matter because the bike will already have paid for itself.
The Bike to Work Scheme is another factor to consider. If you are in full time employment and your employer signs-up, then you can buy any bike of £1,000 or less and pay for it out of salary deductions.
As for the price of the electricity, it’s nominal. Think of a regular car journey costing £10 in parking and another £5 in fuel, then imagine it’s more like 10 pence per day. You’ll enjoy the journey far more and with a good set of panniers you can carry 15kg of shopping and sundries without feeling it. Bought something huge? No problem, just pop the bike in a taxi and enjoy a guilt-free home delivery for two. Even adding a brief one-way weekly taxi fare to your annual outlay will still cost less than the annual travelcard.
Electric bikes vs scooters
What about a scooter? Well, the Vespa LX 125 retails at £2,949, add £120 for Compulsory Basic Training, then £300-350 for the motorcycle license, a further £500 for insurance and taxes, plus another £300 for a modest chain and a helmet. That’s £,4169 if you are over 25 and live is a safe area. Granted you can ride to Brighton and back with it in the summer, but how often are you really going to do that when a return ticket on the train is £29?
Here at Leftfield Bikes, we’re using the Velosolex instead of a company car. It certainly won’t replace the weekend plaything (clip-in, big grin), but as an alternative to being stuck in rush hour traffic or on a sweaty tube it’s a pleasure. As it’s a folder, it is still welcome on public transport so hopping on the occasional train is a breeze.
The unexpected surprise for us has been the sheer number of people who walk up to the bike and ask about it. The age range is broad too. Younger people think it’s chic way to scoot about, older people see it as a way of popping to the shops during the week and then participating with their children/grandchildren at the weekend. What’s not to love?
So is it cheating? In our view: absolutely and not at all. It’s not Cheating, it’s Transport.
Guy Wheeler, Leftfield Bikes
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As seen on The Guardian, BBC and The Independent.