Amy Silverston explains the benefits of a small motor
My cycling habit developed out of being a last-minute Annie – never allowing time to wait for buses or tubes, congestion hold-ups or finding a parking place. With a bikeyou know how long it will take to get there and you travel door-to-door, not to a bus stop or car park miles away.There are goody-goody arguments for cycling that talk aboutexercise and saving the planet, butif I am going only 3-4 miles I’m too lazy to give serious consideration to buses or tubes because they involve getting to then hanging around at bus stops or stations.Also, I don’t like carrying shopping bags – a bike can carry more with little effort.
When I got multiple sclerosis, which affected my legs, cycling became crucial to my existence. Picking up my feet – fundamental to walking –is hugely effortful, but when cycling you push down; a lot of the time you don’t pedal at all.
Thenthe fatigue that plagues people with MS started to restrict my cycling range – after a certain amount of exertion, muscles stop responding to orders. Journeys I make regularly began to be more than I could manage. I caught more buses, but the problem was walking to/from bus stops at either end. Walking oneself to a standstill, unable to go on, is alarming. I needed the independence of two wheels.
Two wheels with an engine is calleda motorbike. Tax, insurance and obeying street parking rules are all mandatory; bicycles have an air of respectful lawlessness. A pushbike bike with powered pedalling sounded more my style.
There are two types of e-bike motors: hub or crank drive.The first onesI tried, with the motor in the hub of the front wheel,did not suit me at all. The motorstarted when it realised the bike was moving, after a couple of turns of the pedals, but came in with too muchinitial powerfor my liking. The motor cut out when the brakes were applied or pedalling stopped, but I had visions of freewheeling towards a junction, pedalling a bit more to get to the lights and the motor suddenly kicking in, making the bike leap forwards as a large red thing bore down from my right.And what about Kentish Town Road, where you need to manoeuvre steadily but notveryquicklybetween parked cars and slow-moving traffic?
The business of having to wait a couple of turns of the pedals before the motor came to life wouldn’t work for me when setting off from outside the house as we are on a hill – on my ordinary bike I was starting to losemy balance before gaining enough speed to stay upright.
Looking for something that would suit me, I explained to a nice man in a shop in Hampton Wick that what I wanted was to have power-assisted pedals, not a bike that felt like a racehorse at the starting gate. “You want a Kalfhoff,” he said. A what?Coming home a couple of days later after an hour’s test-ride around Bushey Park, I burst through the front door like a spoiled four year old, wailing, “I want one!”
A crank-drive e-bike has the motor under the pedals,pullingthe bike chain. A torque sensor in the centre of the chain wheel (the one with spokes where the pedals are attached) tells the motor to respond in proportion to how hard the pedals are pushed. This effectively magnifies your pedalling power, from just enough to move the bike to sailing along an open road. In a line of traffic, starting to move when traffic lights change, the bike doesn’t suddenly leap forward and into the rear bumper of the car in front.
Three power settings mean the motor’s contribution ranges from adding 50% to your own pedal power, doubling it or, on the top setting, increasing pedal power by 130%. So you still have to pedal, but not nearly as hard. Legal restrictions mean the motor’s contribution ceases when the bikes gets to 15mph, so I am overtaken by lycra-clad figures on bikes with wheels thin as a digestive biscuit.
It is not speed but endurance that matters to me. I live in Dartmouth Park, from where everywhere is either up or down. The bike gets up Laurier Roadfrom the farmers’market with several kilos of vegetables in the basket without any huffing and puffing. However, it is long, drawn-out inclines that are the killers on an ordinary bike – not the sort of steep that has you getting off to push, but they go on for sweaty ever: going up to Camden on Royal College Street, Highgate Road from the carpet shops to Hampstead Heath (through that horrid bit approaching the lights at Chetwynd Road); Holloway Road from Sainsbury’s to Archway and the entire lengths of both York Way and Tufnell Park Road.
These types of road put people off cycling to work,but arewhere an electric bike comes into its own.It’seasy going, you don’t arrive in asticky breathless heap and it is faster than by ordinary bike. Yesterday,the journey back from Russell Square to my kids’ school,opposite the bottom of Highgate Cemetery, took thirty minutesand I could have gone faster if the roads were less bumpy. The ordinary bike would take a good ten minutes more.Otherwise it isallowing an hour for three buses.
E-bikes are significantly heavier than a normal bike. How the weight is distributed – where the battery is located – affects its balance. Some have the battery on a rack above the back wheel, making them feel less stable than when it is above the pedals, i.e. under the rider, keeping the centre of gravity low.
I wondered if an electric bike would be a problem to maintain, but with the motor in a sealed unit that need never be touched, the rest of the bike is no different from any other and can be serviced at any bike shop.
My other concern was whetherthey are a magnet to bike thieves. Less than you would think, apparently, because they are useless without the key to remove the battery and its charging unit. Spare chargers for some models are readily availablethough not cheap – £100.
The type of bike I bought has only one UK distributer and shop. Rightful owners are told to notify the shop as soon as their bike goes, as it is highly likely that the shop will get a call from someone who has just ‘acquired’ a Kalkoffand needs a battery charger. The helpful shop will take the caller’s details,then promptly pass them on to the rightful owner. Of thehalf dozen that have been stolen since they have been selling them, four were recovered hours or days later when the new owners contacted the shop. Two were never heard of again, suspected dumped in frustration with flat batteries.
Electric bikes cost more than ordinary push bikes. Ones with the motor in the front wheel hub -especially those manufactured in China -are cheapest, starting at about £450. The batteries will do 25-40 miles on a full charge.
The one I bought is towards the other end of the scale, approaching £1,700.Kalkhoffs are made in Germany and have satisfying qualities of Teutonic engineering. The battery does up to 60 miles on a full charge, which takes about five hours and costs 5p. The battery can be charged 1000 times. (When it needs replacing they cost about £500, working out to 50p per charge cycle.)
To put the purchase cost of an e-bike into perspective, an annual Zone 1-2 travel card is £1,216; a Vespa starts at £3,000. If you are paid through PAYE, a chunk of thebike’s purchase price can be discounted through the government’s Cycle to Work scheme. The employer buys the bike which the employee repays through their salary before tax, saving 20-40%. The scheme applies to bikes up to £1000, saving £200-£400.
If an electric bike is a tempting idea, all the shops are eager to offer testrides, though many only stock the cheaper hub motors. If you want to try a crank motor you are welcome to try mine rather than go all the way to Hampton Wick. The week I got it, at school pick-up time there was a succession of mothers going “Wheee…!” up and down Croftdown Road, followed by the headmaster whizzing round the playground shouting, “I’ve got bionic legs!”
www.bikeradar.com– see Buyer’s Guide to Electric Bikes (how to choose features to suit your requirements)
www.atob.org.uk/electric-bikes/electric-bike-price-guide-uk/- Electric Bike Price Guide (lists all electric bikes on the UK market)