Electric bikes: what’s all the buzz about?

From multiple appearances on Channel 5′s The Gadget Show through to the Tour of Presteigne in Wales, electric bikes are attracting a lot of attention. For some people, electric bikes allow them to get to work without breaking a sweat; for others an electric bike is a means to keep up with a stronger partner. Pretty much everybody who rides one says they’re a lot of fun and it’s like having a tailwind with you at all times. We asked Peter Eland, of Electric Bike magazine, to give us an insider’s guide to the burgeoning e-bike sector and his text starts below the following important caveat:

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Most of the electric bikes you see for sale in the UK, and the rest of Europe, are pedal-assist bicycles. In other words your pedalling is boosted; you don’t get propelled without pedalling. There are some throttle-controlled e-bikes in the UK but the official advice from the UK’s Bicycle Association is to steer clear from such ‘twist and go’ e-bikes. The Department for Transport is said to be close to harmonisation with EU electric bike regulations and, in future, all e-bikes sold in the UK will likely be pedal-assist only. This is a grey area at present. Read on for more info on this confusion but bear in mind none of the material in this article should be taken as definitive legal advice.

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WHAT IS AN ELECTRIC BIKE?
An electric bike is a normal bicycle that has been adapted or manufactured to incorporate the assistance of an electric motor, while keeping the usual pedals and bicycle transmission. The motor assistance can help the rider go further than they would under their own power. With an electric bike you can tackle bigger hills, or simply ride with less effort.

Assuming they comply with the regulations (as almost all reputable electric bikes sold in the UK do), they do not require vehicle tax, insurance or a licence to use, and can be used wherever a standard bicycle can go, including cycle paths.

WHY CHOOSE AN ELECTRIC BIKE?
There are numerous benefits to owning an electric bike, whether you are already a regular cyclist or contemplating taking up cycling for the first time. Indeed, many of the advantages of non-assisted cycling apply to electric bikes too.

Get fit: In an increasingly sedentary world, more exercise would be a good thing for many of us, and building cycling into your routine is a good way to get that exercise. Even on a bike that has a motor helping you, you will get exercise. Just turning the pedals will keep joints mobile and burn more calories than sitting in a car or on a bus. If you suffer from painful leg joints, then the gentle workout offered by an electric bike might help, even if pushing hard is beyond you.

Of course, if you want an all-out no-pain-no-gain workout, a standard bike will make you work harder. But will you keep it up? Like a crash diet that leaves you feeling hungry all the time, taking on a long commute or a hilly locality might mean you start off with good intentions, but then start to find excuses to back out, and leave the bike in the shed. An electric bike, like a sensible balanced diet, could help you to maintain your level of activity, meaning that you get more exercise in the long run, using it several times a week. And of course, as you gain fitness, you can choose to use the assistance less and less, perhaps only on the worst hills, or into the strongest headwinds. And with assistance, you might feel able to travel further, increasing the amount of time you spend exercising. Cycling isn’t just about physical fitness either – there can be huge benefits in terms of well being, just from being out in the fresh air, seeing the countryside at a human pace, hearing the birds and experiencing the seasons. An electric bike can help you to do all that, just as a standard bike can.

Save money: With the cost of motoring and public transport ever rising, cycling for regular transport is one way to make your money go further. AA figures suggest that the average cost of running a car, including fuel, parts, servicing, tolls and so on, is between £1.00 and £1.70 a mile. For standard, non-electric bikes, the cost has been estimated at around 4.2 pence a mile, while for electric bikes it’s between 5 and 8 pence a mile. Some experts do put the cost per mile higher for more heavily used electric bikes – up to around 20 pence or so – using less optimistic estimates of battery life before expensive replacement is needed. But even at this level, assisted cycling is much cheaper than running a car.

Electric bikes do cost a little more than non-assisted bikes to buy in the first place, but they often hold their value well, and if you replace regular short car journeys with cycling, you can recoup the money quite quickly, and gain all the advantages of cycling. In places like London, where congestion charges apply, you will be exempt from them, and you won’t have the expense of parking charges. It might be wise to make sure that your bike is insured against theft or damage, of course, and this may be possible through your household insurance, or a specialist schemes such as from the ETA which explicitly covers electric bikes.

Save time: As with non-assisted cycling, electric bikes can offer door-to-door convenience for commuting and shopping. Rows of cycle parking stands are usually available in the middle of town or outside supermarkets, and if not, you can often find a lampost or sturdy railing to lock your bike to. There’s no prowling and kerb crawling for a parking space, or finding the right change for the ticket machine. With a basket on your handlebars, you can easily pick up a few odds and ends, and with a good set of panniers on your rack, you can fit in a few carrier bags of groceries. And if you’re really keen, then just like a regular bike, an electric bike can tow a trailer, for even more shopping, or a couple of kids!

Go further, faster, fresher: Even if you already cycle a little, an electric bike could extend your range, allowing you to do regular trips that you’d struggle to manage otherwise, such as a long commute, or a route that can’t avoid the big hills. If you’d like to cycle to work, but are afraid it would leave you too hot and sweaty on arrival, electric assist could allow you to moderate your effort, and still arrive on time. And in the rush hour, bicycles tend to be faster than cars, because although a car can achieve a higher speed, it’s more often stuck in a jam, while the bike filters past or takes advantage of cyclepaths and short cuts. For the same reason, journey times by bike can be more reliable, and less subject to delay due to roadworks.

Greener than a car: While electric bikes obviously consume electricity, that consumption is still far less than even the greenest car or motorbike. There are no fumes from an exhaust pipe. And if you get your power from a green supplier, or even generate your own with a wind turbine or solar panels, an electric bike is truly sustainable.

There are also embedded energy costs to an electric bike – and a few nasty materials in some batteries, which are not yet recycled – but the quantities are small, especially compared to most other modes of transport.

Have fun: A lot of the points above seem very ‘worthy’, but cycling can also just be great fun! If an electric bike allows you to cycle when otherwise you’d struggle to, then all sorts of activities are open to you: rides with the children or grandchildren, days out with friends for a picnic, even a touring holiday, if you can carry the charger and recharge the battery each night, staying at a Bed and Breakfast or hotel ought to make this possible. With a bike ready to go, you’re not constrained by bus timetables, and you can see the world at your own pace. If you’ve cycled regularly, but are finding it harder with age, then an electric bike could keep you cycling, and therefore fit and active for years to come, and if you’ve not ridden since you were a child, or you’re not so fit, then it might be your introduction to a whole new way of getting about.


WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF ELECTRIC BIKES?

There are two main types of electric bikes which differ in how they control the motor:

The throttle type have a switch on the handlebar, which you use to turn the motor on or off and to vary its power, as you would on a moped or motorbike. On most electric bikes you have to be pedalling for the motor to work: this is required by law in many countries. Some manufacturers supply bikes which let you just twist the throttle at any time for motor assist, so you don’t have to pedal at all if you don’t want to (sometimes known as ‘twist and go’). [BIKE HUB NOTE: The legal situation in the UK is as yet untested and not at all clear, although as below, the official advice from the Bicycle Association is for consumers to only go for pedal-assisted e-bikes].

Applying the brakes will cut the power, as well as slowing the bike, so you can’t be carried away when you want to stop. Incidentally, some machines which do require pedalling let you use the throttle without pedalling only at low speeds, so that the assistance can help you away from a standing start.

It’s also worth noting that as with the ‘rotation sensing pedelecs’ below, ‘pedalling’ (for motor activation purposes) generally just means turning the pedals. There’s no requirement for you to be actually putting in any effort, so if you wish you can just gently wave your feet around to ‘fool’ the system into giving you electric assist without you really contributing any work through the pedals.

Pedal-assisted e-bikes – also known as ‘pedelecs’ – have no throttle, so you don’t control the motor directly. Instead, the bike senses how much power you are applying to the pedals, and adds to it – so that when you are pushing hard, you get more help. It’s like a boost system which multiplies your strength. This system requires less thought to operate – you just pedal and it responds, instead of needing you to operate a throttle. Such systems also tend to be very good at assisting you from a standing start.

A ‘pedelec’ has a motor which works in response to your pedalling – there’s no on-off throttle as such. There is often a way to set the assistance level, though. Within this category there are two levels of sophistication.

At the higher end (in price, anyway) tends to be the ‘torque sensing pedelec’. With this type, the bike senses how much power you are applying to the pedals, and adds to it – so that when you are pushing hard, you get more help. It’s like a boost system which multiplies your strength. This system requires very little effort to operate -you just pedal and it responds, instead of needing you to work a throttle. This sort of system also tends to be very good at assisting you from a standing start, because it feels you push strongly as you set off and provides plenty of power in response. However the sensors (often pedal rotation, pedalling force and road speed are monitored) and complex control systems needed to make all of this work does add to the cost.

A less elaborate system is used in a ‘rotation sensing pedelec’. Here, there’s still no throttle, but the only sensor used is one which checks that you’re pedalling forwards, and how fast. Most such bikes simply turn the motor full on (or at whatever assist level you have set) whenever you’re pedalling. Or to be more precise, the motor cuts in a few fractions of a second after you start pedalling – so when setting off, you’re often straining without assist for at least
part of the first pedal stroke until the motor cuts in. Likewise, when you stop pedalling the motor runs for just a fraction of a second after you stop. Generally this type of bike has contacts in the brake levers which also cut out the motor power the instant you squeeze the brakes.

As with the ‘throttle type’ electric bikes, for rotation-sensing types ‘pedalling’ (for motor activation purposes) generally just means turning the pedals. There’s no requirement for you to be actually putting in any effort, so if you wish you can just gently wave your feet around to ‘fool’ the system into giving you electric assist without you really contributing any work through the pedals.


Electric bikes also vary in where they put the motor.

Front hub motors have the advantage that they’re very easy to add or remove, and they don’t interfere with the bike’s transmission, so it can easily use low-maintenance hub gears, for example. Rarely will any effect on the steering be noticeable.

Rear hub motors have the advantage that there’s no possible effect on the steering, and there’s more weight on the back wheel for traction, especially on steep hills. But using one does mean that hub gears are not possible, and they can make removing the rear wheel to fix a puncture (never the easiest job) a little more tricky.

Crank drive systems have the motor near the pedals, driving the rear wheel via the chain. This means that the motor benefits from the bike’s gearing system, so that it can run at its most efficient speed more of the time. Crank drive machines tend to be very good at hill climbing for this reason (hub motors are less efficient at high loads and low speeds). Crank drive systems are only available as ‘torque sensing’ types, which sense your effort and multiply it.

As with normal bikes, electric bike come in all shapes and sizes, with different styles of bike for particular purposes: for example mountain bikes, folding bikes, racing bikes or town bikes. Town bikes are one of the most popular styles, and generally have a fairly upright riding position and include a rack, mudguards and lights – everything you need for day to day use, or for comfortable leisure riding.

Apart from the motor, all the other parts of an electric bike work in just the same way as a normal bike. The mechanical parts are generally standard bike parts, available at dealers everywhere.

HOW HEAVY ARE ELECTRIC BIKES?
An electric bike will be heavier than a non-electric one, of course, because of the battery and the motor – typically the whole bike weighs between 24-30kg. But a well built bike with a good lightweight frame will still be easily ridable, and the assistance offsets the extra weight. If you’re likely to need to lift your bike much – for example to bring into a house, or put onto a train, it’s worth trying a few to check you don’t struggle.

HOW MUCH DO ELECTRIC BIKES COST?
As with anything, the price varies according to the quality, and usually, a little more money will get you a better bike. At the bargain end, bikes start from around £500, and they can go up to well over £3000, with plenty of choice in between.

There will eventually be the cost of replacing the battery to consider, and that can be up to around a third of the original purchase price – although unless you’re a heavy user it shouldn’t be necessary for several years. It’s also wise to keep any bike maintained – if you aren’t able to do that yourself, factor in the cost of a bike shop service. The cost of each battery charge is very small – typically 5 to 10 pence to fully charge a battery.

In the UK, it may be possible for employees to get an electric bike (costing £1000 or less) at a ‘salary sacrifice’ discount, through their employer, as part of the Government’s Cycle to Work scheme. The employer can adminster such a scheme themselves, or take advantage of a number of organisations who will provide the service for them. The bike is paid for through a salary sacrifice, and at the end of the hire period is usually offered for sale to the employee. Savings may work out at 30-40 percent.

HOW GOOD ARE E-BIKE BATTERIES?
Batteries are key to the performance of an electric bike. They need to be reliable, store a useful amount of energy and not weigh so much that they cancel out the benefit of the motor. Battery technology has come on in leaps and bounds in the last few years – think how big mobile phones used to be!

The latest generation of bikes generally use lithium-type batteries. Several different ‘chemistries’ fall under the ‘lithium’ description (and several quality levels are available from battery suppliers). As a consumer, you’ll just have to trust a reputable manufacturer to have done the research – and to stand behind their choice.

Any rechargable battery will have a limited lifespan – depending how often you fully deplete it and charge it, this may range from a couple of years to many years. When you’re choosing a bike, ask about the seller’s battery warranty – a promise that the battery will retain a certain level of capacity after a certain time or number of charging cycles. It’s also worth considering how well established the retailer is, as you will need to replace the battery eventually. It’s the cost of battery replacement which raises the price-per-mile of an electric bike, rather than the tiny cost of the elctricity required to charge it.

HOW FAR CAN I GO ON ONE CHARGE?
The range of any bike will depend on a number of factors. These include the number and steepness of hills, the degree of headwinds, how well your tyres are inflated, your weight, the air temperature, and of course, how much you use the motor as opposed to just your own power. On a flat route, using the motor sparingly, a lightweight rider might get 5 times the range of a heavier person relying on the motor more in hilly terrain. Many bikes claim an average of 20-30 miles, on flat terrain with gentle pedalling. Carrying a spare battery will extend that of course, but increase the weight. If you are likely to come close to this range, it’s probably a good idea to seek the advice of an experienced dealer, and if possible hire a bike to test on your likely routes.

The capacity of a battery is measured in Watt hours, or Wh. So if a battery had a capacity of 100 Watt hours, it could in theory power a 100W lightbulb for an hour before it ran out.

You’ll often see battery capacity quoted instead in Amp hours, or Ah. This is another useful way of comparing batteries of the same voltage: the higher the Ah, the longer the battery will last and the further you’ll go. But Watt hours is a more universal measure, because the power a battery can deliver depends on it voltage as well as the current (amps) it puts out. Watt hours are simply amp hours multiplied by voltage (in Volts, V). Nowadays most electric bike batteries are nominally 36 volts, so Ah is a convenient measure.

Typical sizes (at 36 V) are 8 or 10 Ah, with some of the latest larger batteries going as high as 18 Ah or more.

Of course, a higher rated battery will cost more, and weigh more. If your journeys are short, just buy what you need to get there and back with a fair bit in reserve. On the other hand, larger batteries also tend to be better at delivering high peak current levels, which might be useful if you live somewhere hilly.

As a battery ages, it will become less efficient, so the maximum range and peak power will gradually drop towards the end of battery life. Look for a battery guarantee specifying a specific percentage of capacity after a number of years or charge cycles. When a battery does need replacing the cost can be considerable.

HOW LONG DOES IT TAKE TO CHARGE THE BATTERY?
This varies from bike to bike, but on average it takes 4-6 hours to charge the battery fully. In most cases the batteries can be removed from the bike for charging, so you could keep one spare one charged to use if necessary. But for most people, the battery can charge overnight while the bike isn’t needed.

Generally, batteries just slot or plug into the charger, which is plugged into a standard 13amp socket. If you intend to take the bike away overnight, it’s worth seeing the charger to check how heavy or bulky it is to carry with you.

DOES THE BATTERY CHARGE AS I RIDE?
Sometimes. Regenerative braking, or charging as you slow down or go downhill, is possible, but not often implemented, as it’s hard to regenerate useful amounts of charge. It can be especially useful if you have long descents, though, as the drag from the motor as it charges the batteries will ease the load on your bicycle brakes as well as topping up the battery. Systems offering regenerative braking tend to be at the expensive end of the price scale.

HOW FAST CAN I GO ON AN ELECTRIC BIKE?
Legally, the motor must stop assisting you when you reach 15.5 mph (25 km/h). Of course, you can pedal faster than that, and it’s certainly possible to go faster than that downhill, so the top speed is up to you. A good comfortable speed for general commuting and riding about town is between 10-15 mph, so the motor should assist you whenever you need it.

CHOOSING AN ELECTRIC BIKE
If you’re thinking of buying an electric bike, a good thing to do is think about what you’ll be using it for – do you want something for pottering about town shopping, something suitable for long days riding, something that will fold for storage, or something a bit sporty? You may find that as you try bikes out, your ‘wants’ change, but having some starting criteria will help you to start looking, and help a dealer to show you the right bikes.

Once you have some idea about this, and what your budget is likely to be, the best course of action is to visit as many dealers as you can, and try as many bikes as you can. Obviously, this will be easier in areas with lots of dealers, but even if you can only visit one, try to test a few bikes. Different models have different handling characteristics, and just as one pair of shoes will feel ‘right’, one bike is likely to suit you best.

Before you visit a dealer, think about the questions you might want to ask about each bike, and the sort of after-sales service the shop can provide. It’s easy in the heat of choosing a big purchase to forget about asking these sorts of questions, especially if you’re new to buying a bike. Things to consider include weight, battery life, ease of charging, and availability of spares and servicing.

Peter Eland
Editor, Electric Bike Magazine

MORE INFO
Electric Bike Magazine
AtoB magazine
Pedelecs forum
Electric Bikes Buyers’ Guide

THE LEGAL STUFF: important info from the Bicycle Association of Great Britain
A rider must be over 14 years old to ride an electric bike, but they are not required to pay Vehicle Excise Duty, register the bike, have insurance or wear a helmet. An electric bike may use the same cycle facilities as a normal bike – such as off-road cycle paths, Advanced Stop Lines at traffic lights, designated cycle crossings and so on. And of course, they can use the roads, unless bikes are prohibited (such as is the case on motorways).

Now comes the confusion: there are a number of key features which define an electric bicycle in law. Although there’s currently a little UK/EU fuzziness in the regulations, the de facto rules are that the machine must not weigh more than 40kg, the motor power must not exceed 250 watts, and the motor must cut out at 15.5mph. In addition, it must have working pedals, and meet the relevant standards for a normal bicycle.

Currently, there is no court tested difference between UK and European regulations in terms of power control. In the UK, it is possibly and theoretically legal for an e-bike throttle to be operated without the pedals turning (so that you may ride on power alone), whereas in the rest of Europe, the pedals must be turning for the power to be applied. It’s likely that the UK will soon come into line with European standards for new bikes, but that anything currently legal will remain legal. It’s this ‘currently legal’ that is very much open to interpretation and the clear advice from the Bicycle Association is that throttle-controlled e-bikes should be neither supplied by UK suppliers, nor sold by UK retailers. Caveat emptor: buyer beware.

It is worth noting that the UK Department for Transport has, over time, hardened its line on Electrically Assisted Pedal Cycles (EAPCs). In May 2010, a new information sheet from the DfT, said those ‘twist and go’ e-bikes with – wink, wink; nudge, nudge – ‘off road’ throttle assistance do not comply with the rules. “We are aware of some electric cycles that have a switch offering a temporary increase in top speed – often advertised as an ‘off road’ facility. When the switch is pressed the vehicle can be propelled by the motor at a speed greater than 15 mph. Vehicles with this feature fitted, in our opinion, do not comply with the GB EAPC Regulations. Vehicles and riders must comply with the appropriate motor vehicle requirements i.e. registration, driver/rider licensing, insurance, use of an approved helmet etc”.