Huge advances in E-bike technology mean that this odd-ball of the cycling world is having a moment. Vishaka Robinson finds out why they might be a key part of the solution for Bath’s traffic problems and meets the city’s early adopters.
Bath is infamous for its bowl shape: flat in the centre but quickly sweeping into the limestone hills that surround it. For those trying to forego a car and commute to the centre by foot or bike, the hills around Camden, Bear Flat and the University of Bath can be more exercise than you bargained for, especially if you live in Lansdown, the city’s highest point at almost 800 feet.
But now the next generation of electric bikes, lighter, cheaper and even more energy efficient, are making the idea of biking through Somerset – even up its steepest hills – achievable whatever your fitness level.
“We’ve had an average 30% increase in sales every single year since we opened seven years ago,” says David Tod, owner of E-bike specialist, Take Charge Bikes on Lower Bristol Road. He stocks more than 70 models and can order in most brands.
He’s sold battery-powered cycles to everyone from the Mayor of Bath to Richard Wyatt and thinks the city is set to embrace the new technology in a big way.
“We’ve had more than 100 people taking part in the trial scheme this year,” says Tod, who’s the go-to provider for the free, two-week electric bike trials offered through the council and the University of Bath.
In exchange for a deposit of £100 you can borrow an E-bike for a fortnight, along with locks, panniers and lights (you’ll just need your own helmet), at the end of your stint you’re under no pressure to buy – although of course many do.
Finding alternatives to using the car in our city centre is something we need to tackle head-on. Last year’s Government Air Quality Plan singled out B&NES as one of the 29 local authorities with excessive levels of roadside nitrogen dioxide pollution.
“We are currently looking at options for supporting roll-out on street E-bike hire, which will overcome issues of maintenance, storage and security, which put off many potential e-bike users,” says a spokesperson from B&NES. Also pushing for change is transport minister Jesse Norman. He’s contemplating an E-bike version of the incentive given to those who buy electric cars; at present people buying electric cars receive up to £4,500 off the purchase price.
But many locals are already converted, citing health benefits as being just as key as ecological ones. E-bikers will burn on average 350 calories an hour and recent Norwegian research found that E-bikers are working out far harder than you’d imagine: The study discovered that E-bikers are 8.5 times as active as when resting; normal cyclists are only a little more active at 10.9.
For Stephen Paul, who runs a local food delivery business and is often seen peddling elegantly through town on his Urban Arrow cargo bike, having an electric bike was the cornerstone of his business.
“I think people have really twigged that an electric bike is a genuinely viable alternative to a car, which is brillaint for Bath with it’s chronic air pollution and congestion problems.”
He bought his during a trip to the International Cargo bike Festival in the Netherlands and will tell you it’s not just able to carry groceries, but comes with an interchangeable family box (complete with seat belts, a windscreen and a roof) that’ll carry up to three children.
“I do see more and more electric bikes around which is great. I think people have really twigged that an electric bike is a genuinely viable alternative to a car, which is brilliant for Bath with its chronic air pollution and congestion problems,” says Paul. Adding that even Bath’s notorious hills are no match for a combo of peddle and electric power: “I can easily get up all the main hills like Bathwick, Lansdown and Ralph Allen. There’s a killer one where Frankley Buildings is near our base in Larkhall, which some cars struggle with, thankfully I’ve never had a delivery there but think the bike could manage it.”
Going via peddle also means you don’t have to negotiate the city’s expensive parking quagmire (B&NES collects an average of six million pounds in parking charges each year). “Once people try them the benefits are so huge that they never look back,” says Tod. “Who knows, in five years time with some infrastructure changes Bath could give Amsterdam a run for its money.”
Need to know…
1. As a rule, the more you pay for your E-bike the longer your battery will last. So a full charge will take you between 25 and 70 miles. Of course, how you use your bike (ie how much you peddle, your weight and how many hills you encounter) will impact the number of miles a fully charged battery will do.
2. You can buy an electric bike for as little as £600 for a no-frills commuter bike (expect a 25 mile run on a six-hour charge) to a to a limited edition Blacktrail BT-01 for a touch under £60,000.
3. Riding an E-bike costs 0.4p per mile, while a medium-sized diesel car costs 34p per mile. They can travel at up to 15.5mph with the motor on, and some bikes can cover 70 miles on a single charge.
4. E-bikes are like a normal bike with the addition of a built-in electric motor and battery. Riders still have to pedal, but the motor will kick in to help. The new generation of E-bikes are far lighter thanks to the introduction of lithium batteries.
5. With the modern systems on E-bikes you can choose how hard you want to work yourself and how much assistance you want from the bike. The electric motor won’t assist you when you’re travelling more than 25km (15.5 mph) making it no more dangerous speed-wise than a conventional bike.
The anatomy of an e-bike
Most E-bikes are heavier than traditional pedal bikes due to the added weight of the motor and the battery. On the road this is not a problem as the motor assists your ride. However it may be worth spending more on a lighter bike if you need to lift it regularly. e.g. if you live in an apartment.
Sensors constantly communicate ride data to the motor, the built-in computer calculates how much torque is needed and when the motor needs to assist the rider.
3. LCD Display, and power indication
Depending on the bike, the power options, digital displays and switching will vary. Most now have a digital dashboard that will display things like speed, distance, power and battery life.
Top of the range E-bikes are now incorporating the latest Li-ion battery technology housed into the frame. Some can be charged in under two hours, and will have a range of 75Km on a single charge.
Many e-bikes now come with lights as standard built in equipment, powered directly by the main battery.
Like traditional bikes, the braking options are generally disc or calliper. The latest in E-bike technology senses when the brakes are engaged and will cut the E-bike motor motor to increase safety.
Most E-bikes have gears. These are either traditional manual pedal bike gears operated by a gearshift on the handlebars, or fully automatic.
There are two main types of motor: hubdrive and crank-drive. Hub driven motors deliver power to the front or back wheel. Crank driven motors are housed in the frame and deliver power to the pedal crank.
The trend is now integrated connectivity with Bluetooth chips built-in and smartphone apps allowing you to both track your bike and lock it remotely.