Utility cycling with an electric bike is a game changer

Electric bikes have no problem with hills; Edinburgh is full of them.
The ebike at Edinburgh Castle
The ebike at Edinburgh Castle

Utility cycling with an electric bike is a game changer

For Edinburgh residents, cycling in the city goes from cruising along flat, traffic-free promenades to lung-busting hill climbs whilst competing with lorries and cabs. But what is life like with an electric bike for transport? Claire Connachan, Cycling UK’s Communications Manager for the Big Bike Revival in Scotland, decided to find out.

I’ve cycled for transport in Edinburgh for five years now, and have seen all the benefits that regular utility riding offers - good physical and mental health, weight loss, significant cash savings, no time stuck in traffic and a solid enjoyment of getting from A to B being only some of them.

With several bikes to take care of, I’ve also got a good relationship with my local bike shop, Hart’s Cyclery in Corstorphine. When Hart’s offered me a loan of a Gazelle Orange C8 electric bike for two weeks, I leapt at the chance to see Edinburgh with electrons instead of thigh muscle. One quick tutorial later, and I was unleashed upon the city with a bike and a battery pack, ready to experience electrically-assisted everyday journeys on two wheels.

Welcome to the world of the e-bike


Claire gives her borrowed electric bike a loving look

A quick lowdown on electric bikes

After a few weeks’ riding on a Gazelle, I have only praise to give. The e-bike looked lovely, was comfortable and a pleasure to cycle. To get about I turned the e-bike on, decided how much electrical assist I wanted (usually 70% because I enjoy the path of least resistance), then turned the pedals while the bike did all the hard work. Easy.

It came complete with rack, wheel lock, bell, kickstand and chain-guard - all highly useful elements when cycling for utility trips. The best part -  as the bike was electric, the bike's weight didn’t matter, because I didn't have to pull any of it. Bliss!

I cycled everywhere for two weeks. I went shopping, went to work, visited friends and family, cycled to meetings, carried heavy items, coasted up and down hills, cycled in traffic and along cycle paths, routinely zoomed past blokes on fancy bikes (a particular favourite), enjoyed leisure riding, kept up with my fitter partner, and even led a cycle for Belles on Bikes Edinburgh. It was all effortless and fabulous fun.

Why do you even need an electric bike?

Everyone needs an e-bike. They make cycling for transport accessible. Wind and rubbish weather, hills, feeling sweaty, distance, poor fitness, illness, injury and lack of confidence all melt away when electric bikes are in the mix.

E-bikes transform everyday transport for all kinds of people and open up cycling as a legitimate way to get from A to B. Older people, disabled people, the less fit, overweight or those recovering from injury and illness can all ride an ebike, along with anyone else that just wants to get about, without arriving at their destination with a sweat moustache.

Electric bikes even tackle the biggest cycling barrier - fear of traffic. While the best solution is high quality, protected cycling infrastructure, riding an ebike can also help tackle traffic worries. Their speediness means that slower cyclists (like myself) can easily keep up in the flow of urban traffic, feel confident starting at traffic lights and say goodbye to the stress of feeling like you’re holding people up.

I won’t bother to bang on about the impressive benefits that cycling brings our nation through a more physically active population, cleaner air, less environmental impact, economic gains and fewer CO2 emissions. Suffice to say, more people riding electric bikes would create some excellent wins for society.

What’s it like riding an e-bike?

An electric bike is like getting around on a speedy two-wheeled couch, with all the benefits that self-powered cycling for transport offers and none of the effort. Running the Gazelle e-bike was easy, fast, cheap and gave me a gentle workout. For those looking to get places quickly, electrical assist gives you all the help you need until it cuts out at 15mph - perfect.   

Most of all, riding an e-bike is extremely fun. I had a permanent smile on my face for two weeks - something that is most definitely absent when squeezed on the train/bus/tram or sat in another traffic jam.

Is riding an e-bike cheating?

Sure. Just like driving, taking the bus or any other form of transport that isn’t your feet.  

Won’t you get stuck if you run out of juice?

Much like any fuelled form of transport, the electric bike does need topped up. The Gazelle’s mileage on a full tank of electrons was 70 miles on eco-assist, to 30 miles on its top setting; a decent distance for utility riding.

Most electric bikes have a range of around 60 miles, so there is ample opportunity to get around for several days without worrying if the battery will run dry. It’s easy to remove the battery pack and then plug it in to the wall; like charging a phone or laptop battery.

Unlike a vehicle, when the juice runs out you can still use an electric bike - it’s just heavy and will give you an extra-good workout while you pedal.  

You’ll never see me on a bike.


An electric bike is just as at home on the flat as it is on hills

 

Well, here’s the thing. All the stereotypes and most of the barriers that non-cyclists think of when the word bike is mentioned don’t really apply to electric bikes. E-bikes are a very convenient and easy way to get around, and that’s all there is to it.

Riders don’t need to think about lycra or getting sweaty - everyday clothes are ideal. Showering isn’t required. Heavy loads and shopping trips are no problem whatsoever, because electric assist carries the shopping for you. Wind and hills don’t need considered; the electron push slays any steep inclines or gusty headwinds. Distance doesn’t matter for utility trips - in fact, e-bike owners tend to do significantly more mileage because it’s so easy to get about.

Riding an e-bike isn’t about cycling. It’s about getting places. And who doesn’t have places to get to?  

You could buy a car for that!

It’s true, you could probably buy a second-hand car for the cost of the Gazelle or any other decent electric bike. But running and maintaining a car includes tax, insurance, fuel, MOT and mechanical maintenance - not cheap. As most of this doesn’t apply to cycling, you’ll be quids in with an e-bike.

Even if you never want to be without a car, an e-bike is a real option for the rising numbers of households with second or even third vehicles. It's a viable alternative to a second runaround for everyday errands, short trips and a daily commute and can do almost everything a vehicle can, without the hefty price tag.

Are there any downsides to having an e-bike?

Yes. There is downside if you borrow an e-bike: you have to give it back.

Other than that, there are only good things to be had from owning an electric bike. It’s like a regular bike, but miles more fun.

To sum up electric cycling

E-bikes are for everyone, not just cycling fans like myself. In many ways, this article shouldn’t even be on a cycling website, because an electric bike is perfect for someone who wants to get from A to B quickly, cheaply and easily, but wouldn’t normally consider cycling an option. After two weeks of effortless pedalling, I cannot think of a better mode of transport for everyday trips.

If you have a spark of curiosity around e-bikes, I'd suggest you hire one like I did from Hart’s Cyclery and see if you like it before investing in one. 

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Comments

This article is great, and I couldn't agree with the pros of e-bikes more, but I’m not sure about the comment about “an electric bike is perfect for someone who wants to get from A to B quickly”.

Around my 42nd birthday this year, after years of being “too busy to exercise”, I couldn’t help but notice that I had become a little porky! Following years of commuting 16 miles across the New Forest to my place of work in my car, (sneering at lycra clad cyclists as I passed them) I was put off buying a bike as I (for no apparent reason) had become an “anti-cyclist”! However, the time had come to do something to lose a few pounds and cycling seemed the way forward, as my dislike of cyclists was in no way as strong as my dislike of the idea of going to a gym!

I tried out an e-bike and it was fantastic. I purchased a lovely Raleigh Strada E and the glorious summer weather led me using my newly purchased bike to commute across the beautiful New Forest. I was immediately clocking up around 160 miles a week on my wonderful new machine. I got fitter really quickly! This was excellent but now I was fitter, the motor of my £2k+ e-bike was doing very little work, as I was constantly over the ridiculously slow speed restriction of 25 kph. (This country insists upon this limit by law). This meant that I was riding a 21 kg bike with no motor assistance most of the time!

At the end of the summer I wanted to take bikes for our annual family holiday in France and my e-bike would be far too heavy to lift onto the car roof bars. I consequently bought a cheap mountain bike. (I thought this would be perfect for a few light trails but it turned out that my new cheap mountain bike wasn’t up to proper off-roading which I really got into when I returned from holidays; this led to the further purchase of a much more expensive mountain bike!)

After a three-month period of e-bike commuting and enjoying off-road riding on my mountain bike, I’d become 2 stone lighter and relatively fit, which led to becoming frustrated with the excess weight of the e-bike as it is so difficult to keep the speed much over 25KM/H. I eventually purchased a posh road bike which I now ride to work on dry days. (Where I don’t need to carry a change of clothes, etc.)

The days that I ride my road bike, my 26 KM daily commute is faster by around 7 to 8 minutes and it requires little more effort than riding the e-bike. This can be seen in the below statistics which are based on my daily cycle to work. (Although I do end up with a lack of luggage carrying capability.)

E-Bike:
25.67 KM which averages to around 55 minutes.
Average heart rate 145BPM.
Average speed 27.67 KM/H.
Average Calories burned per commute - 1107 CAL.

Road Bike:
25.67 KM which averages around 47 minutes.
Average heart rate 164 BPM
Average speed 32.77 KM/H
Average Calories burned per commute - 1190 CAL.

The average heart rate and calorie burn is admittedly higher for the human powered bike, but I wonder what would happen if I eased off on the road bike to match the speed achieved on the e-bike? I bet it would be really close between the two.

Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing e-bikes at all; The purchase of my e-bike has led to further purchases of 3 additional bikes because the e-bike has rekindled my love for the sport of cycling and despite now favoring my human powered bikes to the e-bike, I maintain that it still has its place in (my now well stocked) bike shed.

My hybrid E-bike is an awesome utilitarian machine which can be ridden over rough roads and can carry luggage with very little impact on performance. I know I can jump on it and maintain 24.9 KM/H without even breaking a sweat. The only issue is that exceeding much over this is utterly draining.

I don’t think Chris Hoy could get an e-bike to average much over 26 KM/H without being shattered after 20 miles or so!

Personally, I feel that the speed restriction placed on e-bikes is far too low. If the restriction was increased to 35KM/H then this would alleviate the problem with the drive train weight and I am certain that this would save the NHS millions of pounds from a fitter nation as car drivers start to see the benefit of e-bikes.

The other thing worthy of comment is that my commute does not involve stop-start riding. I occasionally need to slow down for a horse or donkey but that’s about it! In a city an e-bike would come into its own and the current speed restriction would probably be ok for this. I wouldn’t know as I don’t like getting on the wrong side of a cattle grid as buses scare me!

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