Electric Bikes: It’s not Cheating, it’s Transport

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 solex 1971
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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23 Responses to Electric Bikes: It’s not Cheating, it’s Transport

  1. s 16/05/2012 at 7:13 pm #

    You should visit New York City. Electric bikes are a continuing menace there (in the hands of delivery people) despite local regulation that deems them illegal.
    http://www.dnainfo.com/new-york/20120228/upper-east-side/fines-against-electric-bikes-could-double-under-pols-plan

    • Mary 17/05/2012 at 3:22 pm #

      I live in Florida, and absolutely love my ebike. I ride anywhere with in 10 miles of my home. Bike safety is 50% you and 50% them, don’t forget that.

      • s 20/05/2012 at 1:05 pm #

        That’s rather like saying you have 50/50 chance of winning the lottery. While you may consider yourself to be a contientious operator of your ebike, that does not mean every ebike owner is, don’t forget that.
        A large, diverse place like New York City doesn’t frivolously develop such specific legistlation.

  2. Dave 16/05/2012 at 10:22 pm #

    “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.”

    This is complete rubbish, and surely goes against the entire ethos of ‘londoncyclist.co.uk’! Why are you broadcasting this guy’s commercially-motivated attempt to put people off cycling (the regular kind) around London?

    Non-electric bikes are 100% viable as transport as well as recreation, as every cyclist knows.

  3. TL 17/05/2012 at 3:13 am #

    This man can’t be allowed to get away with claiming cycling is “incompatible with daily life” when hundreds of thousands of Londoners use bikes every day to commute, shop, socialise, transport children and goods, and much more .

    To say bikes are limited to weekend leisure use in special clothing reinforces the worst stereotypes that many people spend a lot of energy refuting.

    There are arguments in favour of electric bikes – perhaps for long distances in rural areas where there are many hills, replacing cars and buses – but they’re totally unnecessary for 99% of the population of urban areas.

    The financial, health, environmental and convenience advantages of human over electric power are so overwhelming that electrics bikes simply aren’t a rational choice for normal people.

    Not that these facts will stop greedy salesmen trying to foist them on the public unnecessarily…

    If this article is paid-for advertorial, you should be honest in flagging it up clearly to your readers so they can judge its merits (and those of other blogposts) accordingly.

    • Darren 18/05/2012 at 3:48 pm #

      Agreed.

    • Fred 21/05/2012 at 11:12 pm #

      I agree as well.

  4. Jonathan 17/05/2012 at 8:38 am #

    “The financial, health, environmental and convenience advantages of human over electric power are so overwhelming that electrics bikes simply aren’t a rational choice for normal people.”

    I have a Pedelec that I use for transport and cycle about 20 miles per day. I would simply not be able to cycle this distance on a regular bike. I also need to arrive at meetings in a suit. So I am afraid I completely agree with the article.
    Pedelecs are great in the following circumstances

    1. If your range requirement is greater than your body can deliver
    2. You are over a certain age (maybe 50 60 70 80??)
    3. You need to carry clothes, laptops etc.

    They aren’t terribly expensive in my view and charge on about 7 p worth of electricity because like bicycles they are small light and efficient. I am a great fan of cycling too but for older people Pedelecs are terrific.

  5. Alan Moore 17/05/2012 at 10:24 am #

    I’m in my 40s and am enjoying the health benefits of cycling to work (11 miles round trip). But I can see the day coming when I will want a little assist, for the sake of my knees if nothing else.

    Many electric bikes seem to have a much larger range than I need, and are as a consequence much bulkier and heavier than I would like. Is there a more modest assistance suitable for 10-20 miles which fits inconspicuously into, say, a Dutch-style town bike?

  6. Lindsey 17/05/2012 at 1:27 pm #

    I don’t see electric bikes as an attempt to put people off regular cycling, rather an attempt to encourage more people to ditch their cars.

    There are many people who are attracted by the prospect of cycling to work but perhaps because of age, minor disability or the distance just being slightly too far they can’t do it. With an electric bike they might re-consider.

    I don’t think there are droves of regular cyclists who are going to throw their bikes away and rush out to buy an electric bike just because they exist!

    I think we should be encouraging people to stop using cars and public transport rather than condemning them for wanting a little extra help with their pedaling!

    • David 18/05/2012 at 12:36 pm #

      Agree. For me, it’s primarily about modal shift – getting people onto more sustainable forms of transport. Also, in the UK, there is still this perception, mostly amongt cyclists, that “it’s not proper cycling”, and hence they are not supportive – they are missing the point as, again, it’s back to modal shift.

  7. Alex 17/05/2012 at 2:55 pm #

    I see potential for these when I’m older (hopefully, much older) however cycling isn’t just about getting from A to B, but a welcome physical activity too.

  8. Runa 18/05/2012 at 10:16 am #

    HI, I’ve just started a new job that’s on the cycle scheme and I’m looking to use the scheme to get an electrical bike. If you have any suggestions or experience on how to make the most of the scheme, I’d love to hear about it. I’m not sure which price category to go for or what bike to look for and I also don’t know if I can purchase any bike on the scheme.. Help!

    • Darren 18/05/2012 at 3:45 pm #

      If it’s the cycle to work scheme, I presume you will have up to £1000 available? You can get electric bikes in this price bracket but (and this is only my opinion, many will surely disagree) you will generally be getting a low-spec and dubious reliability. It will also be fairly heavy and I would be checking the quality/replacement cost of the battery.

      These factors would not be such an important consideration for recreational users but for commuting every day it’s just a few things I would be considering.

    • Andre 11/06/2012 at 11:03 am #

      Hi Runa

      We are 3 e Electric, electric bike manufacturers. Have a look at our website http://www.3eelectric.com for our full range of ebikes.

      They are great to ride and compare very well against more expensive makes and models.

      I met Guy who wrote this article yesterday at the Bristol eBike festival. He’s a great person to advise on which ebike is best for you.

      Happy ebiking!!

      Andre

  9. Raymond 18/05/2012 at 12:46 pm #

    Moin,
    here in Germany the Pedelec-Boom is growing. It’s amazing riding along fighting against the wind and you see a group of pensioners out on a trip looking fresh and enjoying the ride. They’re not cheating, without the help of the E-Motor they wouldn’t be on a bike. Let them ride it’s a damn sight better than sitting at home or in the car.

    Greetings and don’t forget it vote for Andreas at lovingthebike.com

    raymond

  10. Darren 18/05/2012 at 3:39 pm #

    A few points;

    Guy seems to have a skewed perspective on this but I factored in his commercial motives and guess that is to be expected.

    I saw no mention of the cost of replacing the batteries which is often unbelievably high and unless they are properly maintained they do have a propensity to expire before their expected life cycle.

    The article clearly does not comment with balance. Pedelecs are not the only form of electric bicycle; you can indeed get ones with a supposed ‘boost’ where you can travel without adding any pedalling input. Perhaps Leftfield Bikes are not in that particular market?

    I like reading different articles and perspectives on cycling – less so where they appear to have a large element of bias.

    That is all.

    • Jonathan 21/05/2012 at 11:14 am #

      I have a Kalkhoff bike with an 18 AH battery which gives me a cycling range of about 50-60 miles.( My estimate not manufacturers’ ) The replacement battery costs about 600 Euros and they say that it is good for 1000 full charges.

      Assuming this is an exaggeration lets say 800 charges you get about 45000 miles on a battery. For a 20 mile per day commute that is about seven and a half years for 600 Euros. On top of this you will spend about €200 on electricity which will go up in price so lets say 900 € in total. That gives you a cost of 40p per day.

      I have to say it looks like a bargain to me! I would say however that this doesn’t take into account the fairly significant up front cost. As far as I can tell there is no such thing as a good, cheap Pedelec but I am pretty sure this is true for all bicycles.

      • Darren 22/05/2012 at 12:32 am #

        True.

        You were savvy enough to buy a brand with one of the better batteries.

        Many others will last nowhere near 800 charges.

  11. Darrel Stamp 29/05/2012 at 4:45 pm #

    This is great for anyone who cannot drive for whatever reason. It provides more freedom than a standard push bike and you don’t have to be ultra fit to use. The cost is also pretty low in the long term.

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