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How e-bikes are getting people back into cycling

16 Nov 2020

Some of us will fondly recall a time when enthusiasm for exercise felt just that little bit more attainable. At your peak, perhaps you felt able to spend a day cycling through alpine scenery on nothing but your own steam, banana in the back pocket just in case the fuel powering your fire evaporated at any point.

When heading towards later life, many of us dream of fresher legs. Although you may be enjoying the experience no less, as time ticks on the ghost of your former personal best is several minutes up the road ahead and it is pulling away faster each day.

Over time it becomes less about chasing the King of the Mountains record and more about reaching the summit with enough energy left to squeeze the brake levers on the way back down.

Thankfully the technology now exists to help you reduce the gap on your younger and more energised self. Modern electric bikes are increasingly smart machines and some, with a little help from tiny sensors, even know when you’re getting tired.

If riding in eco mode becomes a slog, it takes just a dab on the dashboard computer to knock the motor’s assistance up a gear or two, keeping your focus on the path ahead or your ride partner’s conversation.

Of course, most of us will have struggled with our local topography at some point, looking on at the conquests of professional cyclists as some sort of superhuman effort. As it turns out, even for some of our most decorated athletes the e-bike has kept the door open to replicate former feats.

Wisdom of stages

Brian Robinson was the first Englishman to finish the Tour de France and the first to win a stage of the famous race. Nowadays, aged 89, you might expect him to have slowed the cadence to a crawl. While he freely admits ‘I’m the oldest in the pack’, he’s by no means necessarily the rider most out of puff.

‘Only when I was laid in a hospital bed would I have considered giving up cycling,’ Brian says. ‘I had a bad accident about ten years ago and cycling thereafter felt like I had a wooden leg. In response to this I sourced an electric motor from a tandem’s front wheel and I put it on my bike for a few years.

‘That was in 2011. I got on with that fine, but somebody gave me an electric bike in 2014 to ride during a tour of France. It was a Haibike and it weighed 30-odd kilos, but it showed me some potential progress and a path forwards for my enthusiasm for cycling.’

The technological advance since 2014 has further enabled Brian to push the tempo. ‘You don’t notice the weight at all, nowadays,’ he says.

For a breakdown of the different types of electric bike and what you should look for when buying, see our guide here.

That might be in part down to his bike of choice, the super-light Ribble Hybrid AL e which, aside from some additional weight where the rear hub motor sits, is astonishingly easy to pick up for an e-bike.

Indeed, it’s not far off in weight from some of the early race bikes Brian rode in his younger days. The ebikemotion hub motor that drives your tailwind represents a stunningly light 3.5kg of the bike’s overall weight.

Fancy learning more about the Ribble Hybrid AL e, check it out here.

Power couples

Keeping up with the peloton, and thus maintaining both exercise and regular socialising with other cyclists, is one motivating factor for those among us with legitimate claims to any former athleticism. But there are many other reasons for choosing electric bikes, including levelling the playing field within a single household.

Bike shops across the UK that were early converts to the electric bike movement frequently report that e-bikes are sold in pairs, often because couples who may or may not have cycled before are drawn in by the appeal of aligning ability.

For them, the draw is not so much exercise but exploration where previously physical barriers might have made a journey by bike less appealing.

For Kelly and Kit Sambridge, cycling has been a summer pastime for many years, but with available time scarce and energy levels largely spent by the time the working week is complete, the electric bike had huge appeal.

‘We both love days out on our bikes when the weather’s nice, especially when there’s a round of refreshments at the end of a cycle,’ says Kelly. ‘For Kit, the appeal of a beer at the end of a cycle has prompted more cycling and running to offset the effects of post-ride calorie replenishment. He’s now running 10km regularly, but we enjoy cycling as a couple much more.

‘Naturally, you do slow down over time – especially with dodgy knees – though we both remain active either side of work. We’ve both come to assisted cycling curious about how it can help us keep the mileage up rather than call it a day when the first wave of tiredness hits.’

The Sambridges soon identified benefits that would re-engage them with cycling and keep them rolling as the years tick on. (You’ll note that they are not by any means an old couple and indeed retain their youthful good looks.

Pandemic restrictions obliged us to photograph fresher legs than we had intended cycling up the sunlit hills of Hertfordshire.)

And though true first-timers, the Sambridges take to our demo e-bikes like ducks to water. ‘It’s just like riding a bike,” Kelly says with a smile. Meanwhile, Kit has found the power button on the top tube and, with light input on the pedals, coasts past Kelly in delight.

‘I could get used to this – that feels much lighter on my knees,’ says Kelly, once she has caught up using a steady cadence along the riverside gravel paths connecting Hertfordshire to London.

‘Though the path gets loose at times, the Ribble bike’s 700 x 35c tyres are making light work of a little off-tarmac adventure when paired with a rear hub motor that delivers 40Nm of torque. Considering the bike tips the scales at just 14.5kg for a medium-sized frame, the power to weight ratio is seriously impressive.

Pedal for pleasure

Within the first ten minutes of their ride a range of emotion is evident. Kelly and Kit have quickly understood the difference between this experience and the cycling they are used to. We soon see the famous ‘e-bike smile’, paired with some laughter. Then there is a thoughtful silence.

‘This could actually be quite useful,’ says Kit. ‘It’s certainly more accessible than running! Those first few kilometres felt much different to our trips on pedal power alone. I feel warmed up and ready to carry on, rather than exhausted having exerted energy getting up to speed alongside Kelly.’

An hour into their ride, with the riverside paths left behind in favour of a jaunt up some sun-baked countryside inclines, we catch up with them again to ask how far they think they’ve ridden.

After some quick estimates of the unfamiliar route and with landmarks just visible on the horizon, the Sambridges guess at eight miles. They’re out by 5.3 miles, according to ride data logged on the Komoot Cycling App loaded on to their devices at the start of the ride.

In little under 55 minutes, Kelly and Kit have covered more than 13 miles side by side on country paths, all the while chatting and feeling entirely comfortable in the saddle. Their average speed is a shade under 15mph, held fairly constant for the duration of the cycle, even as they approached the summit on which we now stand.

‘That’s the furthest we’ve ridden in a few years,’ remarks Kit. ‘I’ll be honest and say a beer would be lovely, but I could carry on for a little while longer too. The motor was so quiet I had actually forgotten it was there for most of that ride.’

‘My legs do still feel like they’ve had a spin though, so there’s definitely a sense that I’ve had a workout,’ adds Kelly. ‘I’ve not felt the usual level of pain in my knees, so I’m quite impressed. A bike like this could easily be in our future. We were asked a handful of times on our ride about the bikes – people didn’t know they were e-bikes on first glance.’

Working together

As the bikes are handed back, we realise that Kelly’s battery level remains high – she has been on the lower level of assistance for the entirety of the ride. It could have been even easier going. But these are rave reviews nonetheless and the sense that an e-bike could be the gateway to a broader range of outdoor enjoyment for the pair is clear.

As the evening sun disappears on the horizon and we reflect on the joy cycling has brought to people during the coronavirus pandemic, Kit has one final thought to share.

‘I have lots of staff working for our business that had been arriving by public transport and we have been looking at alternative ways to mobilise them, particularly those more at risk as they return to work.

‘We had the Cycle to Work scheme on our radar, and this has opened my eyes as to how we could solve the problem facing our business. Traffic is returning to the roads too, so mobilising staff on e-bikes could save us some time in the mornings and improve the health of our team.’

What is the Cycle to Work scheme?

With the cap on the Cycle to Work scheme now lifted by the Government, Kit’s assessment becomes all the more viable. Retailing at £1,899, or £1,999 for the Fully Loaded Edition, Ribble’s Hybrid AL e is now very much accessible with vouchers attached to the main schemes.

Time to take the plunge

For Mike Jackson, who works with Scotland’s largest retail chain Alpine Bikes, the Sambridges’ experience is reminiscent of his own customers’ feedback on the transformative effect and accessibility of an e-bike. He says his customers often ride away with his and hers bikes.

‘People often desire to relive their youth, whether that’s to explore a vinyl record collection of old or to feel the wind breeze past on a bicycle,’ Mike says. ‘We very often see a customer that has a 20-year or more lapse in cycling enter the store having heard about the electric bike.

‘Very often the kids have moved out and they have freedom and time on their hands; it’s very natural to want to revisit the things you enjoyed in earlier life, particularly as a couple.

‘Once we set a customer off on a demo it very quickly becomes apparent that the boundaries of cycling evaporate. It may change who they can ride with in confidence, as well as where they can explore.’

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the current circumstances, Mike also reports a rise in pairs of bikes bought for staycations, often with money that was reserved for overseas travel but is now diverted to domestic adventures.

‘The folding electric bike sells immensely well with those taking caravan trips,’ he says. ‘Where the stronger of the pair buys a bike for their partner, it is very often closely followed by a secondary sale once the fitter of the two is left gasping in the wake of their partner’s assisted ride. It’s a real leveller for age, fitness and enthusiasm.’

Whether you’re a former racer looking to emulate the heroics of youth or a couple enjoying the ability to take on mileage that once seemed a stretch, one thing is certain – the electric bike will reinvigorate your ride.