Uphill, no problem — when one has an ebike

From Hollywood to Clarence House, riding an electric bike is all the rage. They’re even good for your health

If you have suffered the indignity of being overtaken by one, you will appreciate the power of the electric bike. It happened to me last week when a neighbour, who has never knowingly been spotted exercising, effortlessly glided past me with a tell-tale whirr.

Where once they were the favoured mode of transport only for the elderly or lazy who couldn’t be bothered to pedal, ebikes have been catapulted to the ranks of stylish status symbol. With their gleaming magnesium alloy frames and concealed batteries, the latest models are particularly fashionable. Leonardo DiCaprio, Miley Cyrus, Daryl Hannah and Sean “Diddy” Combs are among those to have been spotted on them.

Those for whom cycling is less about leg power and Lycra and more about the practicalities of getting from A to B are also taking to the concept in their droves. In an otherwise flat cycle market, ebikes are the fastest growing product of the sector. The latest figures from the Confederation of the European Bicycle Industry showed that the UK imported 120,000 ebikes in 2014-15. We are some way behind the Netherlands, where one in three bikes sold was an ebike, but with distributors citing rapidly depleting stock it is likely that UK figures will rise this year. “Innovations in alternative commuting are going from strength to strength,” says Craig Matley, Halfords’ ebike expert. “Predictions are that ebikes are set to be the big thing for commuters.”

For them, the ebike occupies the middle ground between a sweaty pedal to work and a moped journey — the bike’s electric motor aids the rider using a pedal-assist system, taking the strain off any strenuous moments during the journey. They do require some pedalling, however — something that surprised the Prince of Wales a few years ago, when he first attempted to ride one at an event at Clarence House.

Warren Djanogly, the founder of Smug Cycles, whose ebikes go on sale in the UK next month, says that powered bikes have advanced beyond recognition in recent years. A keen cyclist himself, Djanogly hit 50 and decided he didn’t want to “cycle like a loony in Lycra any more”. Neither did he want the expense of a scooter or motorcycle. “A lot of manufacturers took a cheap frame and just stuck on a motor,” he says. “Some of the bikes were practical, but none of them were at all good-looking.”

Djanogly describes his range of bikes as a blend of “British design sophistication and US retro beach style”, more the “Rolls-Royce or Aston Martin of the ebike world”. In many ways he typifies the customer that he is hoping to attract. “I want to cycle to work, but I don’t want to arrive all sweaty,” he says. “Ours are among an embryonic range of ebikes that appeal to executives and designers, the trendy Hoxton set who are cash rich and want something with kerb appeal.”

While you can buy a basic ebike for less than £600, the new generation of chic two-wheelers will set you back considerably more. Prices for a VanMoof — a Dutch design with an anti-theft tracking system and integrated lights — start at £1,825, while Smug Cycles begin at £1,925. Gocycle, another British company, raises the price bar. Its range of lightweight, foldable bikes were designed by Richard Thorpe, a former Formula One racing car engineer, and cost £3,299 or more.

The folding bike manufacturer Brompton has also employed F1 engineering nous — it is planning to launch its fold-up “pedelec” bike next year in partnership with the Williams team. “The guy on his £2,500 carbon-frame road bike will wonder why you’re cruising past him in a suit,” Brompton’s chief executive, Will Butler-Adams, said recently.

Serious cyclists are understandably sniffy about ebikes. Thermal cameras were introduced at elite cycling events this summer, including the Tour de France and the Rio Olympics, to help to stamp out “mechanical doping” whereby riders hide motors in their bike frames. The Tour winner, Bradley Wiggins, has compared the covert use of motors with blood doping.

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Even for many amateur cyclists, a battery-powered ride demeans the purpose of the activity. It’s like taking a Segway when you could walk or using fins to aid a swim. Hatti Lee, a founder of another UK ebike manufacturer, Woosh, says: “Sadly, some ‘proper’ cyclists think that they are a form of cheating, and I have heard reports of some ebikers being at the receiving end of mild verbal abuse, but perception is changing.” The reality is that ebikes don’t offer an effortless ride, just an easier one.

I was among those who scoffed at battery-assisted pedal power until I first tried an ebike with a group of friends in the Swiss Alps a couple of years ago. For starters it was stylish, looking more worthy of an American road trip than a boring commute. And unlike the cumbersome bikes I had seen around town with their clunky, bolt-on battery packs, the motor was barely visible.

On that occasion I “cycled” — it was more a matter of rotating the pedals with much less power than would normally have been used — up fairly significant hills with no thigh-burn, no sweat. While one friend in the group who had opted not to go electric was noticeably struggling, the rest of us flew past with a satisfying hum.

There are rules — you must be at least 14 years old to ride one on a public road and the bikes shouldn’t weigh more than 40kg. Other than that, they require only the same safety equipment as a regular bike and can be used anywhere you would normally cycle.

Be warned. Last week a Sunday Times investigation revealed how even those who ride them to the office risk breaking the law. To classify as an ebike, the electric motor must have a maximum power of 250 watts and be programmed to cut out at 15½mph. Anything more powerful is deemed to be a moped and must be taxed, insured and registered with the DVLA.

Some retailers are selling ebikes so powerful that they are capable of exceeding this 15½mph limit. So-called speed ebikes with 350-watt motors can zip along at up to 28mph and are, unsurprisingly, proving popular with commuters who want a nippier ride.

For executives and designers, our ebikes have kerb appealWarren Djanogly, the founder of Smug Cycles

Are they really a poor excuse for exercise? Surprisingly, studies are showing that they can actually help you to shed pounds. In a trial, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder recruited a group of office-based couch potatoes and issued them with ebikes so that they could ride to work. They wanted to find out whether the daily pedalling had an effect on fitness, even though it was power-assisted.

Each volunteer underwent laboratory tests of body composition, aerobic fitness, blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure before being given an ebike, a heart rate monitor and a GPS device and sent on their way. They were asked to commute on the battery cycles at least three times a week for a month, spending a minimum of 40 minutes in the saddle, but at any speed they felt was comfortable.

When they returned to the lab four weeks later, most of the subjects had ridden up to 50 per cent more than their required daily tally and at a greater intensity than expected. It meant that even with the help of battery power they had accumulated a level of daily activity comparable with a moderate workout, such as a jog, a power walk or a gentle swim. What’s more, tests revealed they had less body fat and better aerobic fitness than when they started, and had controlled wayward blood sugar levels. Reporting in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, the researchers noted how most of the participants had described their ebiking as “fun” and several had bought battery bikes for themselves.

“We shouldn’t see them as an alternative to regular cycling in terms of activity,” Djanogly says. “They don’t replace it, but they offer something else. They offer the freedom that you get with a bike but with more return for less physical effort. And they are more practical than mopeds because you can take them on the train.”

Most people who buy ebikes aren’t after a top-speed adrenaline rush. In the University of Colorado trial, cyclists were content to cover the ground at a moderate 12mph. There is, of course, a novelty factor to the ebike and I’m not sure it wouldn’t wear off. That said, I can see the appeal when I get off the train after a hard day and am faced with an unassisted uphill pedal all the way home.

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Three of the best ebikes

■ Smug Cycles (smugcycles.co.uk)
Price: from £1,925

Features alloy frames, a multi-sprung padded saddle and 3in tyres. The seat post conceals the battery and the crank motor is placed by the pedals. The 36-volt battery powers you for approximately 20-30 miles. On sale from October (you can order in advance), when it is likely to be snapped up by anyone seeking a retro-style ebike.

■ EBCO UCL-80 (halfords.com)
Price: £1,999

A 250-watt Bosch motor teamed with Shimano Nexus 7-speed gears helps you to nip through traffic. It has a rear-mounted battery with an impressive range of up to 75 miles that recharges in 2½-3½ hours. Also features a front suspension fork to ensure you stay comfy on uneven terrain.

■ Gocycle G3 (gocycle.com)
Price: £3,299

A top-of-the range ebike with detachable wheels that mean it can be stowed away, and an ultra-lightweight frame (a little over 16kg) making it perfect for the city commute. It has a battery range of about 50 miles and takes about 5½ hours to recharge. There’s even an accompanying app to track your ride and calorie burn.

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