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How an e-bike can help you return to fitness

16 Nov 2020

Of all the myths we hope to bust in Cycling Electric magazine, one stands out: the notion that by riding with assistance you are somehow ‘cheating’. Here we reveal how the electric bicycle is opening exercise up to people who perhaps wouldn’t otherwise cycle – and find out how it’s helping even professionals keep on keeping on

The bicycle industry has long been guilty of focussing most of its marketing spend on fast and athletic imagery that seeks to inspire us to be fitter and quicker and focus above all on personal bests. The emphasis has seemingly been to inspire the masses to shave seconds from a Strava segment that will require the lungs of a Tour de France winner to get near a top ten ranking. For most of us, it’s simply not realistic and probably not the reason why we choose to ride.

A simple fact of life is that fitness, for whatever reason, is not guaranteed. The assumption that we are all cycling for the same reason is likewise flawed. Some of us cycle simply for leisure, for others it may just be a means to capture that perfect mountain summit sunset snap for Instagram.

Quite simply, cycling, assisted or otherwise, is open to everyone and no reason is required. The days of pitching cycling primarily towards the middle-aged man in Lycra are coming to an end.

Electric bikes aren’t quite like other bikes, either. The term ‘leveller’ is often bandied about: while there is arguably no longer a prime buying demographic, many of those purchasing an electric bike will do so in a bid to level the playing field either with their partner, others at their club, or even their own fitness.

One very good reason to buy yourself an electric bike is to stay in shape when the hills seem to get steeper by the day. Better still, it’s a reason for those putting off an exercise regime to bite the bullet and get back in shape with the confidence that when the going gets tough you’ll not be overdoing it. 

Lose your inhibitions

Chris Cherry, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, has been analysing how an electric bike might ease people back into a fitness regime.

‘E-bikes are particularly good at providing the consistent moderate physical activity that doctors recommend because they smooth out the most strenuous ‘vigorous’ physical activity that can inhibit sedentary individuals from taking up cycling in the first place,’ he says, adding that the other evident benefit is that ‘people use them more than other exercise strategies, so they’re very good for meeting doctor-recommended goals.’

For Mike Edwards, whose heart required a stent after he noticed a shortness of breath, experiencing an electric bike could set in motion more regular exercise. When he tried our Ridgeback Electron, the light assistance it offered clearly made an impression.

‘Without a doubt an electric bike could meet the requirements my doctor laid out and I genuinely really enjoyed the exercise,’ Mike says. ‘We were able to socialise on the ride, which was new for me when cycling. I really took something from the added layer of enjoyment – I didn’t need to hold back energy for the chat.

‘Prior to this experience I thought they were somewhat like a moped. However, there is a greater value to riding an electric bike as I could feel that it could make me fitter. It’s the freedom of a moped, but with a health benefit as well. That’s a revelation.’

People with a similar exercise quandary to Mike make take heart from a study by University of Boulder, Colorado, that backs the notion that even light exercise can be hugely beneficial to overall health in the long term. The research, published in the European Journal of Applied Physiology, found that cardiovascular health can show a marked improvement after as little as a month of sustained electric bike use. Not only that, but aerobic capacity and blood sugar control improved too.

In the test, 20 subjects were asked to shift their transport habits towards electric bikes for 40 minutes three times a week. With measurements drawn from a heart rate monitor, incorporating the electric bike into their transport routine proved immensely beneficial to the subjects’ health.

Hot on the heals

While the obvious reasons to pick up an electric bike might be fitness-related, they have also proved useful to those carrying injuries that require gentle physical work to nurse them back to a comfortable place.

Dan Bennett, who joined Mike on one of our Ridgeback e-bikes, had been a skateboarder in his youth but in his 40s began to develop a knee issue that made pedal-powered cycling alone strenuous. With a back problem to add to the mix, he found the unisex low-step frame particularly welcome.

‘I damaged my cartilage skating when I was much younger and that’s never really rebounded,’ Dan says. ‘Add to that the sciatica and despite my love for it, cycling has become progressively more difficult. I used to ride my mountain bike every day, often up to 25 miles at a time off-road.’

It took a trip to New Zealand to visit family to re-ignite Dan’s desire to cycle – and not for the reasons you might expect.

‘I was invited during my visit to join my dad and his friends on a ride. I joked with them that they remind me of the old boys on Last of the Summer Wine, but there they are, on e-bikes, looking very casual and taking in the views of each climb we hit. This ride is my first time on an e-bike and I’m just immediately sold. Not having to strain myself leaning over the bars on the climbs is a game-changer for my back and, all of a sudden, my knees don’t have to come up with power that they used to.

'Having that assistance is transformative to my ride and very quickly I’m enjoying the scenery in a relaxed and upright position with the benefit of being able to hold a conversation. It became incredibly social, which even in my youth I would have struggle to chat on ascents.’

Mike and Dan’s experiences are far from unique in e-bike circles. Echoing the University of Boulder trials, a further study in Norway titled ‘Physical activity when riding an electric assist bicycle’ focused on a pool of eight people of varying fitness. Researchers found the subjects, aged 23 to 54, to be demonstrating physical exertion 95% of the time when riding an assisted bike, but without such great strain that they run the risk of overdoing it.

When measuring oxygen consumption of electric bike riders, it found that users were 8.5 times more active over the resting rate. The same test conducted solely with pedal power produced a result not significantly higher – just 10.9 times over the resting rate.

A separate finding discovered that pedal cyclists used, on average, around 58% of their lung capacity over the specified circuit, while electric bike riders used 51%. Both readings were a finer margin than any of the researchers could have forecast.

Mike testifies to the truth of this finding. ‘Most people my age have let age catch up with them and so cycling comes with a feeling of insurmountable effort,’ he tells us. ‘With age comes impatience and I think this assistance could conquer a frustration I often feel with travelling by other means.

'I like the enjoyment that this could bring to exercise. With where the technology is now, I could pair my smartwatch with the computer and have the motor respond to the heart rate numbers I’m advised to hit to regain control of my health in the near term. I am a bad manager of my time, so building achievable exercise into my routine would prevent me being my own worst enemy and ending up in the pub.’ 

Safe journey

Another argument for the electric bike’s benefit comes from replaced motor trips. Dan attests to this having become a reality since his return from New Zealand.

‘I often now leave the truck at home and take my own e-bike for trips into town,’ he says. ‘Taking these extra trips adds energy to my day, whereas before I felt a bit time-sapped by sitting in traffic, finding parking and generally wasting time I now have back. I’ve shed a little weight by having a more active lifestyle and I’m pretty sure it’s these extra trips by bike that’s doing it.’

While academic research and personal experience alike indicate that the electric bike presents a path back to health, let’s conclude by pointing to one more study on the subject that further adds weight to the notion that the electric bike is far from ‘cheating’.

Data provided by a 10,000-strong pool of European electric bike riders discovered that not only were riders of assisted bikes riding more often, but they very often ride significantly longer distances than they otherwise would have.

The paper – published under the informative but unwieldy title ‘Physical activity of electric bicycle users compared to conventional bicycle users and non-cyclists: Insights based on health and transport data from an online survey in seven European cities’ – concludes that ‘e-bike use leads to substantial increases in physical activity in e-bikers switching from private motorised vehicle and public transport, while net losses in physical activity in e-bikers switching from cycling were much less due to increases in overall travel distance.’

So the benefits are clear. Whether it’s your first time cycling in a decade, or part of your daily ritual, choosing to go by electric bike is a wise investment in both your health and your enjoyment of exercise.

Why former Tour stage winner Sean Yates now swears by the electric bike

Depending on your interest in pro cycling, Sean Yates may or may not be a name familiar to you, but to many he is one of British cycling’s greats: a stage winner in the Vuelta a España and Tour de France, just the third British rider to wear the yellow jersey, a victor in the Tour of Belgium and veteran of four pro teams over a 14-year career.

Now Sean is approaching 60 and he’s promoting the electric bike, despite his achievements in the mountains of France.

Now a resident of Valencia, Sean continues unabated with the ‘mentality of a 25-year-old’ towards exercise, but with certain constraints that health problems and a series of crashes have placed upon him. We caught up with him enjoying lunch, overlooking the passing Vuelta a Valencia with his wife.

‘We both got up here by electric bike,’ Sean says. ‘At this stage we are 20 miles in and have had an enjoyable afternoon watching the riders pass by; I’m not sure that would be possible if it were not for our electric bikes.’

While Sean can, and does, still ride a pedal-powered bicycle, health issues that began in his 40s have given him reason to pause and consider his options.

‘I had a number of health scares over the years, starting in 2003, and it’s gradually got worse. On top of that I had a bad accident at the end of 2016 that sidelined me for 18 months. I managed to impale myself on a branch; it nearly killed me. On top of my heart problem I was starting from scratch to regain my fitness, so initially I bought an electric mountain bike to try to transition back to cycling.’

One thing that initially drew Sean to electric bikes wasn’t his experience of cycling, but seeing holidaymakers in Gran Canaria who don’t normally cycle explore summits they’d otherwise have little chance of reaching. It was a lightbulb moment, he says. Immediately he saw that a little assistance could be a huge leveller for those who haven’t cycled for a long time.

‘What’s always attracted me to cycling is the immense freedom you feel in the saddle and I think it’s excellent that a broader range of people now have access to the same things I enjoyed over my career, but within their own physical boundaries,’ he says.

Sean’s own physical boundaries are somewhat incompatible with the topography of his home, which meant that on rides with friends he was admittedly struggling to keep the pace. Now, aboard his Ribble SLe road bike he and his wife are able to maintain the pace in the hills with friends.

‘It’s often quite off-putting to go with somebody fitter than you. If you don’t have an e-bike, hills can put you off the ride altogether. Having an e-bike enables you to accompany someone. Today that’s got my wife and I out into the sun for a lovely ride on the very same terrain the pros are passing through.’

Asked whether he could replicate his performances of old on the electric bike, Sean is optimistic. ‘On level one of assist I could complete a typical Tour de France stage, on level three maybe not. I’m typically set on level two assistance.

'I do have a battery pack fitted that gives extra range and I think that’s an area where these bikes will improve in future. Battery development is still in its infancy to some degree, so in the near future I expect to have space for a water bottle instead of the extra battery.’

Sean’s words of advice to those who want to improve their fitness, or have health issues that prevent them matching earlier achievements, is simple: ‘Try an electric bike. See how you feel. It’s never too late. My motto is always to keep the faith that you can carry on; with an electric bike you most certainly can.’

He concludes: ‘If you are in a situation where you feel that you can’t get out the front gate because of a hill, the electric bike is a means to take that first step. Assisted cycling can be a means to improve your health, lose weight and get to a point where you feel you are well enough to ride a normal bike.

'Who’s to say you might not then go further? It’s got huge potential, but mostly we can tap into a wider audience who thus far have felt unable to cycle – that’s important. So I really would recommend a demo ride to get started.’