Ten years with Sustrans and a lifetime of cycling adventures hadn’t really prepared me for this: my first ride on an e-bike.
I’ve always been sceptical and a bit of a purist when it comes to e-bikes. I have to admit, I thought they were cheating and unnecessary.
After all, with a good range of gears and route planning even a hilly city like Derry, in Northern Ireland, can be navigated by bike.
Times and waistlines change, however, and as part of a recent workplace project that Sustrans is delivering in the North West of Ireland, I was finally given the chance to see if I could be converted.
My first e-bike experience
The machine I used is one of four e-bikes being used to encourage Derry City & Strabane District Council and Western Health and Social Care Trust staff to try their commute and local trips by two wheels.
My first impression of the e-bike was that it didn’t look like an e-bike, not the clunky, motor scooter kind that I had in my head anyway.
Apart from quite discrete battery on the down tube, there is little indication that it runs on anything more than your own steam.
The bike has four settings that provide increasing levels of assistance to your pedalling. The bike also has an eight speed Shimano derailleur gear set that you use just like a conventional bike.
Once I selected the appropriate assistance setting and gear, I was off.
Gently pedalling up Lawrence Hill at a top speed of 12mph whilst still on the saddle is a very satisfying experience.
As I glided to a stop, not even slightly out of breath, I thought wow! Now, this changes things.
Shipquay Street, Lawrence Hill, Chapel Road and Creggan Road are notoriously steep streets in the city that are usually avoided by all but the diehard cyclists with a wide range of gears. On my electric bike the hill didn’t exist any more, and that was only the start of the enjoyment.
Getting a boost up hills was an obvious one but the more I cycled around town the more I realised many other, benefits.
At roundabouts and junctions, statistically the most risky areas for cyclists, I was given smooth, quick starts to get me through them safely. Along the quay I breezed by two club cyclists on racing bikes struggling against the headwind, the dreaded “horizontal hills” (to their credit I did need to use power level four to overtake them).
The final benefit I experienced was just how much your distance and range can be extended. Returning back to base less than 30 mins later, I realised I had cycled around half the city at an average speed of 11 mph and never broke a sweat.
Are e-bikes the perfect solution?
Well, of course there is no such thing as a perfect solution.
Starting at around £1000, for most people, the cost of e-bikes is unaffordable compared to conventional bikes. Also, the additional weight makes e-bikes more difficult to transport (although some models feature a walk assist mode for when you are pushing the bike).
However, as costs have come down and battery life and recharge times improve, e-bikes are becoming more viable and an attractive option.
It’s been coined the “e-mobility” revolution, with the attention tending to be on e-cars and buses, but the highest selling electric vehicles on the planet are actually e-bikes with an estimated 35 million e-bikes sold in 2016.
In many Western European countries e-bike sales have been steadily rising. This year, e-bikes are expected to out sell conventional bikes for the first time in Germany and the Netherlands.
I can also see their attraction from those returning to cycling, or the elderly and less abled in society who may find it difficult to hop onto a conventional bike. Many European cities are also turning to e-cargo bikes to help move goods more efficiently in increasingly crowded urban areas.
With more and more kilometres of greenways being planned in Derry and the North West, particularly the cross-border greenways to Buncrana, Muff and between Strabane and Lifford, e-bikes could offer a viable alternative to the car especially for journeys longer than 10km. And what a fantastic offer for the region we would have if Derry introduced the island’s first public e-bike share scheme.
So yes, you could say I’m a convert and e-bikes definately aren’t cheating, they’re just a more sensible way to move about.
The UK is a funny old place sometimes. Head out on an electric city bike in any town, or rock up at a trail centre with an electric mountain bike, and you're sure to get some attention as a lot of people are curious about electric bikes. But sooner or later (sooner, in my experience) you'll get asked: aren't you cheating? Sometimes even car drivers will ask you that, which is pretty ironic as they sit in an armchair surrounded by two tons of metal and a combustion engine. Anyway, there’s more than one answer to this old chestnut...
Yes, of course it’s cheating
Having a big old motor give you a helping hand is clearly cheating. And, as pretty much anyone who’s ever tried it will will tell you, this is A Good Thing.
Yes: this will make your riding easier
You can ride for longer, or for the same distance with minimal effort. A motor flattens out the topography, making hilly rides in normal clothes a reality. You can go off exploring up that hill or down that path without worrying about it being a waste of your limited energy. You can sail up the long fire road climb to where the fun starts. And then when you reach at the bottom you can sail up it again. It’s very liberating. It changes the nature of climbing completely, especially on a mountain bike. What used to be the slog to get to the good bit now becomes a good bit in itself. You get to enjoy the whole of the ride.
It’s fun. You’re out in the fresh air. You don’t have to tax your vehicle. You don’t need special training, or much equipment, or expensive insurance. It doesn’t cost anything to park. It costs basically nothing to refuel. It’s fun. Oh, I said that. What’s not to like? If you’re out cycling solely for fitness then you can work as hard on an e-bike as you can on a standard bike, if you want to, and that extra input from the motor might be the difference between keeping up with your fitter ride buddies, or getting dropped off the back. If getting about easily is your main concern, you can do the same ride for less effort. But even then, riding an e-bike is giving you much more of a workout than sitting in your car.
No, of course it’s not cheating
This notion that an e-bike is some kind of nefarious and unfair advantage is mostly a reflection of the UK's relationship with the bike as a whole. Back in the first half of the latter century, everyone cycled everywhere. They did it because it was an easy and cheap way to get around. Cars were expensive and relatively uncommon. But the advent of mass motoring, and the lack of provision for cycle travel in transport planning for many decades, saw everyday cycling sidelined. Modal share for bikes dropped to low-single-digit percentages almost everywhere as cars took over our towns and cities.
Now cycling is on the rise again, but from a low base. And the base is mainly people who see cycling as a sport activity. They're not necessarily racing cyclists, but they are a cross-section of people who have been happy to mix it with fast moving traffic, for want of any other option. It means they're predominantly young, and fit. And male. You only need to look at the data on the ride-logging website Strava to see that there's many thousands of us here in the UK that are fastidiously recording all our activity. And trying to beat those commuting times... the same sport bias holds true of mountain bikers, and even leisure cyclists, to a lesser extent. It’s a product of the system we have.
I'm exactly the kind of sport cyclist I've described above. I hold a British Cycling license and I race in the 3rd cats, one rung up from the bottom. I don't ride an e-bike for those races, it's not allowed. I do ride e-bikes though, all the time. Some days I'll put on my lycra and smash out an hour of hard graft before work. Other days I'll hop on the e-bike and roll down the hill, safe in the knowledge that I can get back up again without it costing me anything other than minimal effort and about 2p in electricity. I love going out on an electric mountain bike and exploring, too, or heading to Bike Park Wales and getting some downhill runs in without needing to book, or queue for, an uplift. Whatever is the right tool for the job.
Calling people out for using an e-bike for day-to-day transport or leisure riding is pretty bizarre, when you consider it. For a start, journeys that the majority of city e-bike riders are doing would otherwise be done by car, or on a bus, where allegations of cheating are pretty rare. People make the decision to ride an e-bike for a whole range of reasons. It might be that parking is an issue and being able to just leave an e-bike outside the office saves them stress and time. It might be that they like to ride to work, but want to do it in normal clothes and don't want to show up a sweaty mess. It might be that their commute is a bit too far to do it under their own steam, day in, day out. We have the longest average commute in Western Europe, after all. If they’re riding for leisure it might be that they’re stretched for time and want to get the most fun out of their few hours they can spare at the trail centre, or on the bridleways. Whatever; you make your choices based on your needs.
You can't cheat at having fun!
You can't cheat at going to work. Or the shops. And you can’t cheat at having fun, or getting to the top of the trail centre climb; the irony of someone saying it’s cheating when they’ve just sat in the uplift minibus with their bike on the trailer is a delicious one. Unless someone’s handing you a trophy when you get there, you can’t cheat at just getting around, having fun on your bike. It’s nonsense. If you want to ride hard and get fitter, by all means do. But there's a whole world of reasons for riding a bike out there, and if we want to make cycling normal in the UK then we need to embrace cycling because it's easy, and fun: not just as a sport activity. Electric bikes have a big part to play.