I’m sat on my bike at the top of a steep hill near where I live. I’ve ridden up here countless times but, for the first time ever, I haven’t even broken a sweat. It’s a hill that I usually dread; one that I often stop half-way up to catch my breath. But not today. I’m on an electric bike but, as cyclists behind me are still slowly struggling to get up, I can’t help but feel my accomplishment is much less rewarding when I haven’t worked my arse off to get to the top.
I enjoy the mental benefits cycling gives me, but I also love that my hobby is a physical exercise. On the top this hill, I feel guilty and as if I haven’t done exercise at all. But I didn’t completely hate it - in fact, gliding easily uphill is both wonderful and calming at the same time.
When I tell friends that I’m about to trialling an e-bike, I get the same reply from pretty much everyone: “Isn’t that just cheating?” For someone who is able-bodied and cycles for fitness purposes, I’m also struggling to see the point of using them.
An electric bike is a motor-assisted ride. It’s basically a combination of a normal bike with a battery and motor, aimed to take some of the effort out of pedalling. The bikes give you a bit of assistance, maxing out at 15mph.
To try to gauge opinions on it, I talk to the cycling community on Twitter and realised quickly that e-bikes are vital for so many cyclists. “I do over 35 miles for work and couldn’t do it without my e-bike,” one person tells me. Another says she has many health issues and couldn’t cycle without one. “I have no guilt at all, they changed my life,” she reveals. Another woman, who has arthritis in both knees, tells me without an e-bike, she would’ve given up cycling years ago - “My only regret is not buying one sooner,” she says.
It’s obvious there’s a need for e-bikes - especially for those who aren’t able to cycle freely on a conventional bike - but how would it benefit me?
The Volt Infinity LS arrives on a Saturday morning. She’s beautiful - a similar style to my own shopper bike (minus the basket), with a white and blue colour scheme. The VOLT’s battery claims to last 70 miles and has three different assistance modes. Shimano provides the power in the form of ‘Shimano Steps’ - the Japanese company’s first motor and e-bike system.
What I first notice when lifting the bike out of my flat into the road is the weight. It was heavy. I’m used to heavy bikes as my own isn’t the easiest to lift, but this put a sweat on before I’ve even started moving. Perhaps worse for me, I have stairs in and out my flat that I have to navigate a bike in and out of, so I can imagine for those who roll their bike straight into the garage, it’d be a lot easier.
The logistics of the bike are easy to wrap my head around. There’s an “on” button on the Shimano system; a button near the left handlebar giving you the option to have electric assistance “off”, “eco”, “normal” or “high”; and a button on the right allowing you to navigate through the system’s data: time, average speed, max speed, distance. The bike has a lock built in, a metal bar that you could push through the back wheel to stop it from moving round.
Naturally the first thing I want to do when trying an e-bike is to immediately crank the power up to the highest it can go. I jolt forward and for a few seconds lose control of the bike. Far from scary, it’s actually quite the thrill - so I do it again. Once I get moving with the assisted pedalling, I’m reminded of when I was a child and my dad would push me up a hill on my bike - imagine that feeling but instead feeling as if you’re being towed from the front: that’s an electric bike.
I go for six-mile ride with the bike that day, playing around by changing from no assistance, to normal, eco and high to see how it changed. There’s no denying that satisfying boost of energy you get when the assistance is turned up, giving the muscles in your thighs the chance to relax. I get carried away, using the assistance on completely flat surfaces, which ended up just making me feel sheepish. I feel I’m cheating, but it’s hard to resist when your legs are getting tired.
The next ride is a four-mile route to meet friends, I decide to only put the assistance on when I need it, i.e. on that huge whopper of a hill I mentioned. I ride the bike without it the whole way. Cyclists overtake me and feel silently judged by the fact that I’m on an e-bike. I feel the urge to shout as they ride past, “I’m not using the assistance”. I doubt they even care to be honest.
I realise the true benefits of an e-bike when I use it to get me to a destination when I’m in a rush. Rather than a leisurely cycle, my bike is the quickest way to get there. I put assistance on when I need and make it without breaking a huge sweat - instead of shame, I feel pride. At some points when I put the bike on “high”, the bike would speed off quickly and then level out. I later learn this is because EU and UK laws limit both the power of the motors (up to 250W) and the speed the system, so it can assist you to up to 15.5 mph and when you go over that speed, the system shuts off. On the way home later that evening (at 11.30pm on a school night when I really just want to be in bed already), I manage to beat the tiredness from hills and get home safe and sound, quickly and easily. Dreamy.
In summary, there’s no doubt that there is absolutely a place in the world for these bikes. They make longer or harder journeys more accessible to more people. They entice people who wouldn’t otherwise get on a bike. And I can see that if I were to cycle a hard route to and from work each day, an e-bike would be very handy. But perhaps the price, as with all e-bikes, would put me off. The VOLT bike I try retails at £2,599, which is the same price as a decent second hand car. But then again, living in London I pay nearly £2,000 in transport every year to and from work and don’t have a pretty bike to show for it.
Maybe I could be won over after all.
What do you think about e-bikes? Do you have one? Have you tried one? I’d love to hear from you, email email@example.com.