I was recently very fortunate to be given a free loan of an electric bike (e-bike) for a few days by Edinburgh Bike Cooperative and I have been having a great time trying it out. More posts to follow about riding an e-bike and the particular bike which I used, and also about a little commuting experiment I tried out on it.
I had a really interesting discussion about e-bikes in general with a very helpful staff member when I picked up the bike. We got chatting about how e-bikes are becoming more popular and about how there is still a bit of an attitude of “but that’s cheating!” towards them.
I can totally understand this attitude, because it is an attitude I have found myself holding. That is, until I tried electric bikes.
Cycling and Suffering
I think this “but that’s cheating” attitude stems from a deeply held belief that cycling should always incorporate an element of suffering. This is something that many pro cyclists will tell you – to be a good racing cyclist you have to know how to suffer on a bike. As someone who has raced time trials I can testify to this at an amateur level – time trials generally involve reaching your pain threshold and sticking at it for as long as you can.
There has always been something of a divide between those who consider themselves cyclists and those who consider themselves to be people who ride bikes. I think that this belief in suffering might be one of the things which distinguishes the two groups.
- Tend to own a fair amount of lycra and consider the wearing of such attire to be socially acceptable, if not ‘normal’.
- Tend to own more than one bike.
- Sometimes forget that their bikes are not actual family members.
- Like cake.
- Believe that cycling should involve suffering
People Who Ride Bikes
- Tend to cycle in ‘normal’ clothes and can be indistinguishable when off their bikes, unless carrying a bike helmet.
- Have encyclopedic knowledge of local cycle paths and quiet routes.
- View their bike as a convenient, fast, free and ecologically sound means of transport.
- Like cake.
- Wonder why anyone would feel that suffering on a bike is a positive thing.
In a third, slightly confused category, there are those of us who are ‘people who ride bikes’ and who are ‘cyclists’ in our spare time.
I suspect that ‘people who ride bikes’ are slightly more open to the concept of e-bikes than ‘cyclists’. I suspect that only a ‘cyclist’ would say “but that’s cheating”. But I suspect that there is a role for e-bikes for both of these groups (and those of us who are somewhat confused about our cycling identity).
Electric Cargo Bikes
After riding a cargo bike without e-assist for three years, I really did feel like I was cheating or in some way copping out when I bought an e-assist cargo bike. I had this niggling feeling that I was less of a cyclist because my bike had a battery. Three months later, I can recognise how I felt for what it was – absolute nonsense.
I bought the e-assist cargo bike because the sheer weight of the cargo bike in a fairly hilly area, with children now almost 4 and 6 was damaging my knees. I need my knees to last for many more years and I have every intention of riding bikes until the very end of my life, so I need my knees to continue to work properly. I also want to continue to cycle my children to school for many more years in one way or another. An e-assist cargo bike was the perfect solution.
In the past three months I have cycled almost 800 electrically assisted miles on the cargo bike. Without e-assist I could not have done this kind of mileage. So, by my reasoning, going by mileage alone, my bike having a battery has made me more of a cyclist.
Why Electric Bikes?
So why would I need an e-bike? Actually, I don’t. Not at this point in my life. However, I have really enjoyed the opportunity to test one out because I do see enormous potential in them.I think commuting to work is where e-bikes really come into their own and I would certainly consider one when I return to paid work.
I would like to live in a society which is considerably less dominated by motor vehicles. A society in which the streets are safer places for all users and in which children can cycle, scoot or walk to school. A society in which more people are healthy. A society with less air pollution. I believe that the more that people can be enabled to travel by bike, the more likely this alternative society becomes.
There are some obvious groups of people for whom e-bikes are a fantastic enabler. But I can also think of some which may be less obvious.
- Older people or anyone with health issues. Like me! If your knees aren’t what they used to be then an e-bike might just open up new possibilities.
- Those who do not feel fit enough to cycle. You do not have to be super fit to ride any bike, but a lack of fitness means you travel slower, and longer distances are a challenge. You can still get fit riding an e-bike as you remain in control of the amount of assistance you are getting. As you make fitness gains, you can turn the assistance down. If you get tired (or hit a howling headwind), turn the assistance up.
- Less confident cyclists. One of the problems which less confident cyclists face is feeling very slow compared to other traffic around them on the roads. E-bikes allow you to up your speed a little on the roads and then slow down to a more leisurely pace away from traffic. They also allow you to pull away faster which is hugely helpful if your route includes right turns at busy junctions.
- Those who live in windy areas. The day I collected the e-bike was very windy and because I was riding in one direction back to my house – right into the wind – the assistance was much appreciated.
- Those who live in hilly areas. Do not underestimate how much hills can put people off riding a bike. If you are a fairly new cyclist or not very confident for whatever reason, the thought of trying to get up a hill and just not managing it can be enormously off putting.
- Those with children to transport. I love my cargo bike. For me it is the perfect solution to transporting my children. But cargo bikes are not for everyone. Bike trailers are also a great way to transport children, but they can be heavy. I have spoken to a couple of folk who hired bikes with trailers for their children on holiday at Centre Parks, only to find that towing a trailer is really hard work! An e-bike with a trailer opens up so many more possibilities. If you are dropping off children before going to work, the trailer can be unhitched and locked up for the day, leaving you to cycle to work on a normal sized bike.
- Women who would like to cycle to work. Bear with me here. I am in no way suggesting that every woman who wants to cycle to work needs an e-bike. However, concerns about appearance do stop some women from cycling to work. I am a bit of a scruff to be honest. I rarely wear makeup and tend to live in jeans. But that is because I am currently a stay at home mum. When I go to work there are expectations around appearance. I cannot wear jeans and I do straighten my hair and wear makeup. I really do not want to go to all that effort and then mess it all up on the way to work. I also do not want to cart straighteners, hair brush and makeup to work and do it there. With an e-bike you can choose not to break a sweat. Bump the power up to full and let the bike do most of the work. You can always put in a bit more work on the way home if you want the exercise. While I had the loan of an e-bike, I tried this out for myself – more to follow!
- People who don’t have showers at work. See above. Nobody wants to feel slightly sweaty at work all day.
- People with a long commute to work. If you live 10 miles from your work and you work five days a week, that’s 100 miles cycling a week. To some this is a fantastic prospect. To others it is a huge barrier.
- ‘Cyclists’ with tough training sessions to do. Again, bear with me. Even if you are a ‘cyclist’ with a passion for suffering, there might just be a place in your life for an e-bike. After all, the the ideal number of bikes is n+1. Before I got the e-assist cargo bike, I was seriously struggling to ride my road bike at the weekends. My ‘commuting’ was transporting the children and it was knackering. With the e-assist cargo bike, I can now cover 20 miles in a day and still complete an interval session on the turbo in the evening. I am planning to race my road bike this year and I a really not sure that I would manage that without e-assist for transport during the week.
If e-bikes are one answer for so many people, why are we not seeing them on every street?
- Cost. E-bikes are still pretty expensive. If you are absolutely sure they are the answer for you then they are worth the investment and cheaper than a car. Cycle to work schemes also only cover bikes up to £1000.
- Security. Some work places have wonderful bike storage facilities. Others less so. If you are going to invest this much money in a bike, you need to be confident that it will still be where you left it at the end of the day. I don’t worry too much about my e-assist cargo bike when I lock it up because it is distinctive and well known as my bike. You also need to know how to get it shifting if you want to steal it! I am told that they are so common in Holland that there are cities where nasty people drive about in vans stealing them because there are so many.
- Image. E-bikes can be wonderful for people with mobility issues. But they have many more uses beyond this. Riding an e-bike is not a ‘cop out’. Unless you want it to be a cop out, in which it most certainly can be!
So, Isn’t That Cheating?
We need to do away with this attitude of “isn’t that cheating”. Even if you sincerely believe that e-bikes are cheating, never say this to anyone, not even in jest. E-bikes are not for everyone. But they are a fantastic resource for many.
Unless you are planning to ride the Tour De France. That is cheating.
If you are interested in finding out more about e-bikes, watch this space, and also check out the range carried by Edinburgh Bike Cooperative.